30 Days Wild – Day 14 – Garden Safari

I spent almost all of the day in the garden, working in bursts until I got too hot, then just sitting back and watching. There was a lot to see, twice groups of crossbill flew over, these birds breed very early in the year and then the families set out to look for ripening cones from which to prize the seeds. In some years, when the breeding season has been good but the cone crop is poor, birds will fly very long distances, hundreds or even thousands of miles. These are known as irruptions and are characteristic of species that exploit locally abundant, but unreliable food sources.

The main interest was the insects though, the pond continues to draw in dragonflies and this fine male broad-bodied chaser spent most of the day nearby.

broad-bodied chaser

broad-bodied chaser (male)

Whilst looking in the flower border at something else this recently emerged emperor dragonfly was spotted, not by me, although I was looking at something about 15cm away!

emperor

Emperor

As it was so close I got a few closer shots of the head and eyes. They have almost all-round vision with thousands of tiny facets to the eyes, which also have different coloured zones.

emperor head

emperor head

It was not just dragonflies though, there were meadow browns in the mini-meadow and a red admiral on privet flowers, a small white attempting to lay eggs on the cabbages was less welcome though. The wild carrot is now coming into bloom and attracts quite a few species, including a second garden record of the mottled bee-fly, first seen a few days ago.

heath beefly

mottled bee-fly

Beetle included a Welsh chafer on a pink bistort flowerhead.

Welsh chafer

Welsh chafer

Lots of bees mostly evaded my camera, but I did get this male leaf-cutter bee resting on the side of the bee hotel, I confess I totally failed to identify this and had to be put onto the right course, I still find bees difficult!

Hoplitis claviventris 4x3

leaf-cutter bee (male)

However prize of the day goes to an especially brilliant bug. I was working near the house when I was called to see “A red and black shieldbug” an exciting prospect as there is a recently colonising species spreading at present. However I was in the middle of  a task so had to wait a couple of minutes before going over, luckily the bug was still there and it was an ornate shieldbug.

ornate shieldbug

ornate shieldbug

A species which is slowly colonising the south coast, something to look out for on plants of the cabbage family, this one was on rocket in our salad patch. Unlike some other species people ask us to look out for this one is pretty much unmistakable and really stands out, although it does come in various colour forms, so they don’t all look like this one.

 

 

30 Days Wild – Day 2

I was at home on Day 2, another bright, hot, sunny day spent largely in the garden. I rebuilt my moth trap a while ago and have not been happy that it has been catching as well as it was. The new design just did not seem to be retaining the moths, so I decided to reconstruct it all over again.

So this was the last catch with the old trap, not many moths but a couple of nice ones, a very fresh lime hawk moth is always good to see.

lime hawk

lime hawk moth

There was also a very smart buff-tip, this species recently won an online pole to find the Nation’s Favourite Moth, so I will court popularity with a picture.

buff-tip

buff-tip

I also caught my first four-dotted footman of the year, this is a very common moth on the heathland nearby and no doubt had wandered from there.

four-dotted footman

four-dotted footman

As I was in the garden I was able to enjoy the mini meadow we made when we moved in six years ago, it is now well established with species we introduced now seeding themselves.

mini meadow

mini meadow

It is approximately 4m x 5m including a small pond. At present ox-eye daisy is the most obvious species but but there are lots of other species, a personal favourite of mine is the corky-fruited water dropwort.

corky-fruited water-dropwort

corky-fruited water dropwort

So many flowers do attract insects, although I saw no butterflies at all! Well I did see two species, but both as larvae, large white and brimstone.

The insect highlight of the day was a new species for the garden and only my second ever sighting, it was the very striking mottled bee-fly Thyridanthrax fenestratus, a heathland species.

Thyridanthrax fenestratus 4x3

Mottled bee-fly Thyridanthrax fenestratus

A Smaller World, but Limitless

Everyone’s world seems to have got smaller, we cannot travel around as we were used to doing, favourite places are denied to us. We have our homes and with luck a view of some sort, many will have a garden and how many of us will be appreciating this anew, not a chore to look after but haven. Then there is the daily walk, it may only be a mile or two but I’ll bet, like me, you will be seeing with new eyes what has been there all along, but previously overlooked.

It reminds me of childhood, in those days my world was the garden and a distance from home I could easily walk or later cycle. If you have a car you don’t really get to know your local area as you drive through it, only on foot do you see the details and appreciate the lay of the land.

What you soon begin to see is that this smaller world is still full of more things than you could know in a lifetime, the more detail you see the more there is to find. Lots of birdwatchers, confined to home have been scanning the skies and suddenly seeing bird flying over that they never imagined. I suspect Hampshire will see as many osprey reported this spring as in any year, despite almost nobody getting out to the “Hotspots” for this species. A remarkable feature has been the realisation that there are common scoter migrating overland night after night, if you go and stand in your garden you have a fair chance of hearing some flying over, eventually. I would add I would avoid standing in my garden, which has been a stubbornly scoter-free area! Who would have thought that you could get a sea duck on your garden bird list even if you live an hour or more drive from the sea.

A garden will have wildlife, you may need to look for it a bit but it will be there. The other day I noticed several tiny moths flying in the sunshine around my front door, they were a micro most called Esperia sulphurella, they were often landing on the wall of the house, so I went to get my camera. Just as I was lining up my shot, having got as close as I could I saw that several other pairs of eyes had also spotted the same target.

zebra spider with E sulphurella

zebra spider with Esperia sulphurella

I later realised that several of these zebra jumping spiders were patrolling the wall and more than one had caught the same prey as they warmed on the brickwork.

The sunshine has had lots of insects warming themselves on suitable surfaces, I have some large Echiums growing the garden and they seem especially popular with sunning solitary bees and ladybirds, such as this 7-spot ladybird.

7-spot ladybird

7-spot ladybird on Echium leaf.

The sun has meant that I have had the camera out, trying to get shots of some of the trickier species, the hoverers and the darters of this world, where a sharp picture is as much about luck as technique. I have been trying to get a flight shot of a bee-fly for ages, it requires a very fast shutter speed, actually faster than I can manage with my camera, and if I open the aperture the depth of field gets very small, still it can produce a result of sorts from time to time.

dark-bordered bee-fly

dark-bordered bee-fly, Bombylius major

I wonder if, when we are let out into the wider world again, we will see it with new eyes, perhaps seeing the myriad little pictures that go to make up the big picture, and appreciating all of it the more.

30 Days Wild – Day 12 – Here be Bees

Another mostly dull day, although dry, conditions that may seem not so good for finding insects, which is true, but if you find them they are much less active and so easier to see well.

hoverfly

hoverfly, Platycheirus albimanus (I think)

On such days insects will often be found sitting in the open in the hope that the sun will come out and enable them to warm up enough to become active. Predatory species, if they can get active can then easily catch prey that has not warmed up so much. Robberflies are one such predator and several species are on the wing now.

robberfly

robberfly

Many insects will vibrate their wing muscles to increase their core temperature, bees have an added advantage of being furry which will help to reduce heat loss.

solitary bee

solitary bee

The cooler weather did encourage me to do some control of the bramble regrowth in the grassland in the former Hanson plant entrance, this area gets very hot in the sun, which should make it good for insects. The soil, if it can be called that is very poor, an advantage for establishing a non-grassy sward, but here it is so poor, that in places almost nothing will grow. This is in contrast to the bank of deeper soil just to the south where there are probably too many nutrients.

Hanson bank

Grassy bank on former Hanson entrance

Despite having only been seeded three years ago and on soil spread from the old concrete block plant site it already has some quiet surprising species.

old roadway

bee orchid on line of old tarmac roadway

I assume the bee orchids must have been already in the soil, surely three years is too short a time for them to have grown from seed? There were only  a few but one was one of the variants, I think “Belgarum”.

bee orchid flowert variant

bee orchid variant

Bittern not Stung

I am fairly sure that the bittern that spent a good part of the winter showing off by Ivy North Hide left on the night of Sunday 17th March, conditions were perfect and there were no records in the next couple of days. However a couple of brief sightings in since suggested I was wrong. This evening I saw a bittern from the hide, but it was not the bird that wintered there, being somewhat duller and, I think, smaller. This may be the second bid seen during the winter but which was chased off by the regular one, now able to hunt in peace, or perhaps a migrant.

The sun was warm today, although the wind was a little chilly. In shelter there were lot of insects about, I saw peacock, brimstone and small tortoiseshell and probably thousands of solitary bees. I was able to identify a few species, the commonest was yellow-legged mining bee then the grey-backed mining bee, nationally a very rare species, but abundant locally at Blashford Lakes. The only other I certainly identified was red-girdled mining bee. It was pleasing to see lots of female grey-backed miners as I had been seeing what I was convinced were males for several days, but they are very similar to the males of a commoner species, the females are much more distinctive. My first female was sunning itself on the new screen I was building beside Goosander Hide.

grey-backed mining bee blog2

female grey-backed mining bee catching some rays

I later went to see if there were any around the sandy bank we dug for bees a couple of seasons ago and there were, loads and loads of them!

grey-backed mining bee blog1

grey-backed mining bee female checking out a likely site to dig a nest hole.

The sound of the masses of bees was amazing, there really was a “Buzz in the air”, although solitary bees can sting they do not often do so and the vast majority of the bees around the bank were males, which have no sting, so it is possible to enjoy the experience with little risk.

I had the first report of sand martin at the nesting bank today, hopefully we will have a good few nesting pairs again this year.

Elsewhere reports of a glossy ibis at Fishlake Meadows was impressive as was that of a white stork very close by at Squabb Wood, Romsey

The White Stuff

A Red Letter Day for Fishlake Meadows today, we finally have some cattle on site! We had hoped they would be on much earlier and next year I am sure we will. They will be grazing in Ashley Meadow for the next few weeks, hopefully helping us to maintain the rich fen habitat.

English White cattle on Ashley Meadow

British White cattle on Ashley Meadow

As we were unable to graze the meadow earlier in the year we did take a hay cut from about half of the field.

Ashley Meadow

Ashley Meadow showing the boundary between the cut and uncut areas

The intention is to maintain a mix of tall and slightly shorter herbage with very few trees and shrubs. Such habitats are very rich in plants and as a result invertebrates. Mowing certainly can deliver this, but the act of mowing is rather dramatic, eliminating large areas of habitat at a stroke, by contrast grazing achieves a similar result but at a more gradual pace. Gazing animals will also favour some areas and species over others so the variability in height, what is known as the “structure” of the grassland will be greater.

When I was in Ashley Meadow preparing for the arrival of the cattle today I saw a good range of species including several very smart small copper.

small copper

small copper

There was a very interesting article in a recent issue of British Wildlife magazine which highlighted the effects of different grassland management regimes on spider populations and species. I have not managed to identify the one below yet, but I saw it lurking on a flower waiting for an unwary insect to be lured in.

spider

crab spider on fleabane flower

When looking at grassland management there are many considerations, should it be mown or grazed,or both, most hayfields are cut for the hay crop and then grazed later in the season. Traditional hay meadows were cut around or just after mid-summer and this favoured plants that set seed by this time like yellow rattle or which spread vegetatively. Modern grass cropping by silage making produces a much larger grass crop but the grassland is more or less a mono-culture, the land may be green but it is certainly not pleasant as far as most wildlife is concerned.

Once the cutting regime is settled there is grazing to consider, but not all animals graze in the same way, sheep and horses cut the grass short using their teeth, cattle rip the grass in tufts using their tongue to gather each bunch. The resulting grassland will look very different and be home to very different wildlife. Timing of grazing will also make a big difference, mid-late summer grazing tends to produce the most diverse flora, but this will vary with location and ground type.

Lastly different breed of animals will graze in different ways, our cattle at Fishlake are British Whites, a traditional bred that will eat grass but also likes to mix in some rougher sedge and other herbage as well as some tree leaves and twigs, ideal for a site such as Fishlake Meadows.

It was not only a white themed day at Fishlake, as I locked up at Blashford Lakes the view from Tern hide was filled with birds, in particular 13 brilliant white little egret and 2 great white egret.

herons egrets and cormorants

egrets, herons and cormorants

Ibsley Water has been attracting huge numbers of fish eating birds recently, with up to 300 cormorant, over 100 grey heron and the egrets, although I have failed to see them there have also been 2 cattle egret seen.

Ivy Lake has also produced a few notable records int he last few days, yesterday a bittern was photographed flying past Ivy South hide, far and away our earliest reserve record, but with the British population doing much better these days perhaps something we will get used to as young birds disperse. There have also been a few notable ducks, yesterday a juvenile garganey and today 4 wigeon , 3 pintail and a few shoveler as well as good numbers of gadwall and a dozen or so teal.

Taking Stock

Things have been relatively quiet at Blashford recently, although also very busy! Quiet in that we are in a time when the breeding season is more or less over and the migration season has hardly started.

Overall the bird nesting season was a mixed story. Resident birds mostly started late, the snow in March set them back. The migrants were mostly late arriving, with some in lower numbers than usual. It seemed that migrants that come from the SE were much as usual but those that take the West African route were down. Having arrived most small birds relished the warm weather with lots of insects to feed their young and seem to have done well. Resident species have had a more mixed time, single brooded species such as blue tits have done well, multi-brooded worm feeders like blackbird and song thrush have had a harder time.

Overall it has been a bumper season for insects, in the main they all do well in a hot summer a hot summer, although those that use shallow wetlands are probably finding things difficult.

six-spot burnet

six-spot burnet moth

As the breeding season ends we are starting to see some migration, swift are leaving as are the young of the first brood of sand martin and adult cuckoo have all gone. The first waders are coming back from the north, green sand piper and a number of common sandpiper have been seen on the reserve.

Yesterday a party of 7 black-tailed godwit flew south over Ibsley Water, they were in full breeding plumage and showed no sign of moult, so I would guess they were newly arrived from Iceland. If conditions are good they will make the flight in one go, arriving at a favoured moult site such as one of the harbours on the south coast. Once they get here wing moult starts almost straight away.

Further signs of approaching autumn are rather larger, at Fishlake Meadows 2 osprey have recently been seen perched up in the dead trees, one carries a blue ring, apparently ringed as a nestling in Scotland.

The prolonged hot weather is taking a toll, a lot of trees are losing their leaves in an attempt to reduce water loss, some will lose branches and as the ground dries one or two are falling. Perhaps surprisingly it is often trees growing on usually damp sites that are suffering the most. Easily accessible water in typical times mean they have not developed such large or deep root systems and are more vulnerable in drought conditions.

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.

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.