30 Days Wild – Day 15 – Forest Visitors

I had most of the day off today and everything I have for the blog today comes under the  heading of……

What’s in My Meadow Today?

At first there did not seem to be much in the garden today, then I saw a dragonfly, at first I could not get to the right angle to see it through the grass, so I was not sure what is was. Eventually I could see it was a keeled skimmer, a species characteristic of the small boggy streams of the New Forest. When they first emerge dragonflies move away from water to feed up and mature. Once they are ready to mate they will return, where males will hold temporary territories and try to attract visiting females.

keeled skimmer

immature keeled skimmer

I have seen this species in the garden before in previous years,but this was my first this year.

Looking around a bit more I saw a blue butterfly, looking very fresh I thought it was unlikely to be a common blue, as these have been out for some time now and sure enough it was a silver-studded blue.

silver-studded blue

silver-studded blue (male)

These wander from the heaths of the New Forest, and occasionally we see several in the garden, but this was my first this year. The Forest is probably the best area in the whole country for these butterflies which are heathland specialists, their caterpillars feeding on heathers. Where they occur is not as simple as where their foodplant is though, the heather has to be quite short and they also need the right species of ant to be present. The larvae actually live in the nests of black ants during the day, only coming out at night to feed, apparently being protected by the ants. The adults when they hatch out of the pupa continue to get protection form ants as their wings harden, droplets left on the body as they hatch seem to attract the ants. Remarkable and very beautiful little butterflies and a joy to have visit the meadow.

I have included several references to wild carrot previously in this blog, one of the  reasons I have it in the meadow is that it is an attractive nectar source, especially for hoverflies. looking a the largest plant in the meadow I noticed a hoverfly feeding with others hovering above it. The feeding fly was a female and the others were males engaged in a competitive hovering, hoping to impress her with their skills and so their fitness as a partner.

hovering contest 3

hovering contest

They are one of the dronefly species, Eristalis nemorum (Thanks Russ). Although the picture was taken at over 1/1000 sec the wings of the hovering males are still a blur.

My back garden meadow may not be large but if I look closely there is a lot going on in it.

Advertisements

30 Days Wild – Day 9 – A Migrant Arrival

Another day spent largely in the garden doing various odd jobs. Just being outside means you cannot avoid wildlife, it was not particularly sunny, but warm enough to bring out lots of bees. I have some purple toadflax in the border and it is a great favourite as a nectar source for wool carder bee.

wool carder bee

wool carder bee (male)

This is the only species of this genus, Anthidium, in the UK, they are very distinctive and quite common in gardens. They get their name because the females make the nest cells by collecting fibres from woolly leaved plants such as lamb’s ear.

I grow a lot of plants because they are good nectar sources for insects and one of the best is Cephalaria gigantea a type of giant pale yellow scabious that can get up to 2m tall. Today these flowers scored with a painted lady, judging by the battered wings a migrant, probably hatched in the Mediterranean area somewhere.

painted lady

painted lady

They will breed here with the larvae feeding on thistles and emerging as adults in early autumn, these will then make a return migration southwards. This southward autumn movement had been speculated about, but unlike red admirals which can be seen heading south in late summer, painted ladies just seemed to disappear. It turns out they do head south, but mostly at high altitude, which is why we don’t see them.

Heading back inside I found a robberfly on the back door of the conservatory, I liberated it but managed to get one picture just before it flew off.

robberfly

Dioctria baumhaueri, A robberfly

They are predators, catching other flies and even small wasps in flight. They have large eyes to spot their prey and typically sit on exposed open perches, waiting to dart out and catch any suitable passing insect.

At this time of year conservatories can catch huge numbers insects, they act very like interception traps, especially with the doors open. I always leave several high windows open to give them the maximum chance of escape, ideally open rooflights if you have them.

What’s in My Meadow Today?

Perhaps unsurprisingly meadow buttercup, which really is the typical buttercup found in meadows. It has much taller flower stems than the more familiar creeping buttercup and more finely divided leaves.

meadow buttercup

meadow buttercup

I found I had one plant in my first year of managing the lawn as a meadow, but a single cut a year seems to really favour it and now there are a good few plants. In the picture you can see the brilliant yellow flowers and the extra shiny area towards the centre which acts as a mini solar reflector and increases the temperature of the flower’s centre. On the right you can see a seed head, a mass of seeds each with a tiny hook.

Back at Blashford Lakes tomorrow, I suspect I will be cutting path edges for at least part of the day, I hope it is not too warm.

30 Days Wild – Day 5 – Saved by the Garden

My Wild Day really wasn’t today as I was wrestling with bandages and First Aid acronyms for the whole day until getting home this evening. On days like this having a wildlife garden allows me to get my infusion of the wild, luckily the sun came out this evening and brought out a few insects.

However I have got ahead of myself, I did get a little bit of wildlife in before I went out this morning, thanks to the moth trap. The night was quite warm and the moth catch included a good range of species, the pick being a figure of eighty, although in this picture it looks more like a figure of zero eight.

figure eighty

figure of eighty

Of course if it was pinned in a box as a specimen, as the moth collectors would have done, it would have looked like “80” on this, the left wing and “08” on the right.

Apart from a few swift that flew over when we were doing our outdoor practical first aid I saw almost no other wildlife until I got home. There are lots of flowers out now, both in the meadow and in the border and the evening sun brought out a variety of insects in search of food. There were a good few hoverflies including several Eupeodes corollae, one of the commonest black and yellow species.

Eupeodes corollae male

Eupeodes corollae (male)

The males have rather square spots and the females comma shaped ones. In most hoverflies the males have much larger eyes that meet on the top of their heads, this gives them something close to all-round vision, no doubt helping them to find females.

I have several dame’s violet plants in the garden and they are popular with a lot of insects and attracted the evening’s only butterfly, a rather worn holly blue. Their larvae feed on holly as the name suggests, but also ivy and sometimes dogwood and have two broods each year.

holly blue nectaring on dame's violet

worn holly blue on dame’s violet

All the rest of the evening’s wildlife was in the meadow so………………..

What’s in My Meadow Today?

The meadow is flowering well now and in the mix there are a few ox-eye daisy, not really a typical hay meadow plant, but it can be common in places such as road verges if the mowing regime is not too severe.

ox-eye daisy and small beetle

ox-eye daisy with a small beetle

I am pretty sure the tiny beetle is a varied carpet beetle, they do not always live in houses subsisting on best Wilton.

I also spotted a tiny hoverfly resting on the end of a grass stem, it was Syritta pipiens.

Syritta pipiens

Syritta pipiens

Despite being very small it is distributed across virtually the entire northern temperate zone from Ireland to the far east and across North America, where it probably arrived as an accidental introduction.

Rather more striking was the single soldier-fly I saw, a common species but always nice to see, the broad centurion Chloromyia formosa.

Chloromyia formosa

broad centurion (male)

Again it is easy to see this is a male as almost the entire head is taken up with the eyes.

Dumping and Cutting, a Tale from the Roadside

There seems to be a lot going on at present. At Blashford we are resurfacing a lot of the paths, the entrance track and a few other improvements will follow.

We have also been putting out the tern rafts, so far the gulls have been taking most of the space but hopefully the terns will get their act together soon.

Out on Ibsley Water the lapwing have not been doing well, with most nests failing at the eggs stage, I suspect fox or badger, as the birds nesting on the islands seem unaffected.

I was at Fishlake briefly today and saw my first hairy dragonfly of the year, it was beautifully perched, but I did not have a camera with me!

Meanwhile back at Blashford we received an overnight donation of two large tractor tyres, several car tyres and the remains of a trailer. Not the kind of donation we want as it will cost a fair bit to dispose of. Fly tipping in the countryside is an increasing problem as the cost legitimate disposal increases.

Another increasing roadside problem is the decline in the the diversity of flora found on verges. I remember a series called “Wayside and Woodland” books, I always took the implication of the title was that much of the wildlife featured was to be found on waysides, that is path and road verges. The reason is the accumulation of nutrients, in fact this is probably one of the greatest threats to wildlife diversity in almost all habitats. It is no accident that habitats that are very poor in freely available nutrients are rich in species, they have to fight it out for resources and tiny differences in adaptations mean that one species will win over if even a very small change in the environment happens. Thus a thin chalk soil can produce an incredibly rich sward with huge species diversity. Where nutrients are easy to come by a few very vigorous specie swill overwhelm the competition and species diversity is low and growth vigorous.

Road verges suffer the twin threats of car exhausts, which are rich in nitrogen a key nutrient for vigorous plant growth. This growth then gets cut, often many times a year and the cutting left as a “mulch” further aiding the building up of nutrients. Cutting once  later in the year and removing the cuttings would reduce the nutrients, reduce the vigour of the growth and promote plant diversity. In fact Plantlife have just produced an excellent guide to managing road verges The Good Verge Guide

The Highways Agency also produced quiet good guidelines for highways managers, but these do not seem to have been widely taken up by the people that set the contracts for the work. A case in point is a very fine round about close to my home, this morning I admired the good show of ox-eye daisy and could make out the soon to be flowering stems of corky-fruited water dropwort as I waited at the traffic lights. On my way home tonight I see it has been mown and the cuttings left as a deep green mulch, it is large round about and easy to see across so there is little need for cutting for safety reasons. Slowly but surely this fine area of herb-rich, semi-natural grassland is being destroyed by the state, an act of causal degradation of our biodiversity in the midst of an extinction crisis.

I will end with a couple more moths form yesterday, the catch was small but included perhaps the smartest pebble prominent I have ever seen.

pebble prominent

pebble prominent

There were also three very fresh poplar hawk.

poplar hawk 2

poplar hawk

Insects on the Up?

The progress of the season has been rather erratic this year, with spells of very warm or even hot weather interspersed with much colder days. Overall I think that we are still a little behind the average of recent years, but it is a very mixed picture.

Sunday was a fine, warm, sunny day with little wind, ideal for insects and I saw my first beautiful demoiselle, broad-bodied chaser, four-spotted chaser and emperor dragonfly of the year. The four-spotted chaser had emerged from the Centre pond, I think th efirst time I have proved that they have done so there, although I have seen individuals there a number of times. Numbers of large red, common blue, azure and blue-tailed damselfly are also continuing to build.

I am trying to look more closely at the bees on the reserve this year, Blashford has a lot of dry ground with sandy slopes, ideal for solitary bees. In fact “brownfield sites” such as Blashford are particularly good for bees as they often have variations in soil type, slopes and banks ideal for nesting.

Andrena bicolor

Andrena bicolor

Gwynne’s mining bee, Andrena bicolor is one of our commonest spring mining bees and also has a summer brood, it is a close relative of the much rarer grey -backed mining bee, Andrena vaga which was found on the reserve for the first time a couple of weeks ago. The rarer species is still around, but not in the same numbers as a fortnight ago, some of them are getting worn now and so look rather like the much commoner ashy mining bee Andrena cineraria.

ashy mining bee excavating

ashy mining bee Andrena cineraria excavating a nest tunnel.

For several years now there has been increasing evidence of an overall decline in total insect abundance, it is very hard to prove absolutely but accounts of declining moth trap catches and a general scarcity of many insects is attested by many. Older people will remember that when travelling any distance by car in the summer it was necessary to clean many squashed insects off the windscreen. Of course more aerodynamic cars may be a factor too. Whatever the reason it has become much harder to find many insect species in the average summer these days. It was pleasing to see a fair few hoverflies out yesterday including a number of Cheilosia species, a rather difficult genus of mainly black species, the identification of the images below maybe open to revision!

Cheilosia bergenstammi male

Cheilosia bergenstammi (male)

Cheilosia impressa

Cheilosia impressa (female)

Despite the warmer days the nights are still quiet cool and so the moth trap has remained quiet. The pick of the catch was a chocolate-tip moth, it is evidently quiet a good year for therm as this was the third we have caught recently.

chocolate-tip

chocolate-tip

The only grasshoppers and crickets about at present are a few tiny nymphs, but this is the time for finding adult groundhoppers, although the only one I saw was a common groundhopper, but at least it posed for a picture.

common groundhopper

common groundhopper

It would be good to think that we are turning a corner in the insect decline, unfortunately I doubt it, I suspect the wider environment is continuing to become less insect friendly. Although some of this is down to the use of very effective insecticides and industrial mono-culture farming, it is also our overall failure to leave any space for them, even where it would be easy to do so.

A wet and wild week

 

After a super busy summer term the holidays are here and we’re just as busy with our usual monthly events and our Wild Days Out programme of children’s holiday activities.

Our Young Naturalists met last Sunday for a beginners photography session led by local photographer Clifton Beard. Cliff was a brilliant tutor, keeping things simple and remembering the group would be taking photos with a variety of equipment from smart phones to point and shoot to digital SLRs.

Group in classroom resized

Cliff set us little tasks throughout the session, encouraging us to think more before merrily snapping away and ran through the importance of light, composition and moment. We looked for certain colours, lines, edges and lots more and tried focusing on macro subjects before having a mini photo competition with our best images of the day.

As we didn’t stray far from the building, it was really interesting to see what everyone managed to find close by. Cliff’s parting advice was that the best camera is the one you have on you, which really is true, if you don’t have it with you then you will miss the shot!

Thanks to Cliff for giving up his day to share his knowledge and expertise with the group and to Amy Hall and Corinne Bespolka from the Cameron Bespolka Trust for joining us too.

Wednesday was an entirely different affair, with a very wet and soggy Wild Day Out. Not to be deterred from our ‘Wildlife Safari’, we began the day dissecting some owl pellets, an activity the group thoroughly enjoyed. We had fun picking them apart with cocktail sticks and trying to decide which bits of small mammal we were looking at; a rib, or a shoulder blade, or a jaw bone or a skull. To tie in with this we also had lots of bones and other signs of wildlife to look at and hold.

After a short while we decided it was about time we braved the elements, pulled on our waterproofs and headed outside. Despite the rain, we soon spotted lots of cinnabar caterpillars on the ragwort on the lichen heath. As we looked closer we also disturbed a grasshopper and realised the wildlife was still all around us, just hunkering down low to avoid the wet weather. Probably a very sensible thing to be doing!

Our first sign of something ever so slightly bigger than our grasshopper was this pile of rabbit droppings:

Muddy ground is great for spotting tracks, however the first ones we noticed were not of the wildlife kind, or at least not the wildlife we were after:

IMG_0552

Vehicle tracks in the soft mud

We then headed towards the Dockens, taking the path towards the road crossing to Goosander hide and playing pooh sticks on the bridge over the river. Continuing along the path, we found a safe spot to get into the river then explored upstream, occasionally having to get back out again and walk along the bank when the pools became too deep. Whilst exploring the river we came across a number of deer tracks in the soft mud.

We were now quite wet, although some were wetter than others, and Isabelle and Millie had to empty their wellies after our river wanderings.

We picked blackberries on our way to Goosander hide, looking forward to a dry spot for lunch. We were stopped in our tracks by a scattering of feathers, trying to decide what had happened, who had been eaten (we decided a duck after studying the feathers) and by whom (we thought fox). A little further along the path we found the kill site, spotting a hollow off to the side of the path which contained the remains of two different birds. One of the skeletons was complete and as it was a bit on the large size for a duck we thought it could be a goose. The other we weren’t so sure!

We lunched in Goosander Hide, watching the rain get heavier and the sand martins and swallow flitting low over the water. Despite the weather we saw herons, cormorant, black headed gull, mute swans, little grebe and great crested grebe. The highlight though was the kingfisher, who didn’t seem put off by the rain or the bunch of 7-12 year olds picnicking in the hide and flew across in front of us a number of times, pausing for a while on one of the branches in the water.

We headed back to the Education Centre, dried off and warmed up with the help of a hot chocolate, happy in the knowledge that even in the pouring rain there were still plenty of signs of life and the wildlife itself to entertain us!

Thursday’s Wild Day Out was somewhat drier, a nice change to Wednesday! We were in search of dragons so headed to the pond to see what we could catch and keeping our fingers crossed the sun would put in an appearance and bring dragonflies hawking above the surface of the water.

By the time we had eaten, the weather had brightened up considerably and we headed over to the meadow, munching blackberries along the way. It was too wet to meadow sweep but we still embarked on a still hunt, finding a quiet spot in the meadow to just sit and look and watch the meadow world go by. We then had a go at stealthily catching some of the creatures we had been watching using bug pots. Slightly harder than using a sweep net, it certainly made us look closer.

We also managed to spot five wasp spiders in the meadow, making sure we left them safely in their webs:

wasp-spider

After discovering the miniature world of the meadow we headed to the Woodland Hide in search of birds then went on to Ivy South Hide, spotting a grass snake on the edge of Ivy Silt Pond.

We then returned to the Education Centre the long way (there were lots more blackberries to pick the long way back), seeing how many small children it takes to hug a rather large oak tree (I can’t remember the answer, but it was a fair few!) and playing pooh sticks on the bridge over the river.

Tree hugging

Tree hugging, with I think seven 5-8 year olds!

Pooh sticks

Pooh sticks on the Dockens Water, and looking for fish!

It’s been a rather wet and wild week!

We still have some spaces left on our upcoming Wild Days Out this summer, if you know of someone who might like to join us please visit the website for details and to book.

From Lakes to Lake

Last Sunday I spent the day at Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust’s new reserve at Fishlake Meadows on the edge of Romsey. The reserve is so new that we don’t yet have a reserves officer in post, but it is good to have some presence on site, so for the day I got to swap Blashford Lakes for Fishlake.

The site is around 60ha of abandoned farmland that has flooded to produce a mosaic of open water, reedbed and fen, wonderful habitat for a wide range of species. At present views across the site are limited by rapidly colonising willow and bramble, but tantalising glimpses can be had across the area from the old barge canal that runs north from the town.

The day was much finer than had been forecast and instead of dodging showers I got to enjoy a huge range of insects enjoying the flowery fen vegetation. One species that I was very pleased to see was the yellow loosestrife bee. This species is dependent upon the yellow loosestrife, not for nectar or even for pollen, but for its oil. Why would a bee need oil? That is the really clever part of the story, the bees collect the oil from the flowers on special hairs on their legs and use it to waterproof their nest chambers. This allows them to make their nests in areas that are prone to flooding, so they can nest close to the flower rich fen rather than having to nest elsewhere and waste energy flying in.

yellow loostrife bee

Yellow loosestrife bee, nectaring on creeping thistle.

The huge number of flowers attract lots of different bees and I saw many species, although identifying them is a bit of a challenge. I think this one is a patchwork leafcutter bee, but I could be wrong, also nectaring on a thistle, this time a spear thistle.

patchwork leafcutter bee female

Patchwork leafcutter bee

I also saw lot of wasps, these are even more of a challenge to identify and I have not even tried with this one.

parasitic wasp

parasitic wasp

There was an osprey on site when I was there but I managed very skilfully to miss it entirely.

Sunny Day

As is usual on a sunny day in August the reserve was very quiet yesterday, the birds having finished nesting and most of the migrants have yet to get moving. The human visitor too mostly go elsewhere when the summer sun comes out. However the sun does bring out the insects and there was a fair showing of dragonflies and butterflies, although tempered by the fact that numbers seem to be well down this summer across the board.

The moth trap catch was quite good, but much lower than I would have hoped, but with a warm week ahead we could be in for bumper catches by next Sunday morning when I have a moth event. To whet the appetite here are a couple of pictures of regulars from the trap.

black arches

black arches, male

brown china-mark

brown china-mark

Out on the reserve there were insects about but numbers are still rather disappointing, I did see a painted lady though, a species that has not been common this year. On the edge of the lichen heath I was looking for bee wolves when I spotted what, at first I thought was a large ant, but in fact was a true-bug nymph that was trying to look like an ant.

bug nymph

Alydus calcaratus nymph.

If anything they look even more convincing from the side.

bug nymph 2

Alydus calcaratus nymph

You can see the rostrum, that is the piercing feeding tube under the head that gives it away as a true bug, rather than the jaws that an ant would have.

One group of insects that do seem to be abundant are the grasshoppers. One species that still seems to be increasing is the lesser marsh grasshopper, a previously coastal species that has spread inland.

lesser marsh grasshopper

lesser marsh grasshopper

Although there were few birds of note around, there were significant numbers of some species. On Ibsley Water I counted 271 tufted duck and 355 greylag geese, the goose flock included what looked like an emperor goose accompanied by a barnacle goose and  a single hybrid off-spring.

A Trip to Kitts

A quick bit of catch-up. On Thursday we did not do a volunteer task, but instead went up to Kitts Grave, the part of the Martin Down National Nature Reserve that belongs to the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. The site is managed as part of the wider reserve by Natural England, but we do a couple of tasks there each winter and it is always good to go an see how the habitat is developing. We have been helping with scrub clearance there to reinstate chalk grassland patches and rides within the scrub. It seems to be working well and the area is fabulous for a wide range of insects. Unfortunately Thursday was mostly dull but luckily warm enough for some insects to be about. Very obvious, as they sat around on the foliage in full view, were several scarlet tiger moth.

scarlet tiger

scarlet tiger moth

The mix of scrub and grassland is very good for ringlet and they don’t mind flying even in very overcast conditions.

ringlet

ringlet

As the grassland area grows we will no doubt be seeing more and more marbled white, the dull conditions meant they were basking with their wings wide open, something they rarely do in sunshine.

marbled white on creeping thistle

marble white on creeping thistle

Meadow marvels

We’ve spent a lot of time in the meadow over the last few weeks, weather permitting! Occasionally we have had to resort to ‘look, but don’t touch’ as the showers have left the grass too damp for sweep netting, but this habitat has certainly come alive with a great range of insects, spiders and bugs.

Today we headed there with our Wildlife Tots, after a crafty caterpillar and butterfly making session in the classroom and a quick look in the light trap. We also had a look at the Lime hawk-moth caterpillars we have been rearing in a tank in the centre, they have certainly grown on their diet of silver birch leaves (more accessible than the lime trees we have on the reserve!) and look even more impressive!

Lime hawk moth caterpillar

Lime hawk-moth caterpillar

On our way to the meadow we were distracted on the lichen heath, finding flowers for our card and pipe cleaner butterflies to nectar on, and discovered these cinnabar moth caterpillars. Once we had our eye in, we found lots of black and yellow caterpillars munching their way through the ragwort:

Cinnabar caterpillar

Cinnabar moth caterpillar

On entering the meadow, we embarked on a still hunt, no mean feat for a group of toddlers! We found a quiet spot on the path so as not to trample the long grass and sat quietly, looking intently at the miniature world going on around us:

still hunt

We’re going on a still hunt…

After being brilliant still hunters, spotting butterflies, damselflies, bumblebees, grasshoppers and beetles, we had a go at catching many of the creatures using a sweep net.

Thanks too to Wendy for sending us this lovely photo of Wildlife Tot Sam with his very impressive sunflower, planted during our March into Spring session back in, yes you’ve guessed it, March! It’s so tall!!

Sam and his sunflower

Sam with his amazingly tall sunflower!!

Carrying on with the meadow theme, this was also the focus of our last Young Naturalists session at the end of June. We were fortunate to have more sun than today, with the butterflies in particular quite happy to let us get close enough for photos.

little skipper

Small skipper butterfly

Common blue butterfly

Common blue butterfly

Meadow brown

Meadow brown butterfly

cricket

Cricket, with super long antennae, longer than the length of its body

Grasshopper by Talia Felstead

Grasshopper, with its antennae shorter than its body

Robber fly

Robber fly

Fairy-ring longhorn beetle

Fairy-ring longhorn beetle, I think!

common blue damselfly

Common blue damselfly

Identifying our catch 2

Identifying our meadow creatures

The moth trap as usual revealed a good selection of moths ready for the group to identify, whilst we also spotted Mullein moth and Orange tip butterfly caterpillars:

Although the meadow was a fitting spot to visit as we met right at the end of National Insect Week, it wasn’t all about the insects and we still found time to visit Ivy South hide in search of a basking grass snake…

Grass snake by Talia Felstead

Grass snake by Talia Felstead

…and spotted this toad whilst carrying out Plantlife’s Bee Scene survey, in search of wildflowers good for bumblebees:

Toad by Talia Felstead

Toad by Talia Felstead

Luckily our wanderings found plenty of wildflowers good for bumblebees, a relief perhaps as we were looking on a nature reserve, but still a worthwhile activity for the group to do, encouraging them to brush up on their plant identification. Of the fifteen Bee Scene flowers we had to look for, we found dandelion, white clover, hedge woundwort, foxglove, bramble, red campion, red clover and thistle throughout the day, luckily spotting a few bumblebees too!

Buff tailed bumble bee by Talia Felstead

Buff tailed bumble bee by Talia Felstead

More details about the survey can be found on Plantlife’s website – all you need is a local green space, which doesn’t have to be a nature reserve, it could be your garden, a park, footpath or school grounds. Happy wildflower hunting!

Red campion by Talia Felstead

Red campion by Talia Felstead