The native and the more exotic…

This morning I was getting ready for our online Young Naturalists session when I spotted a Large skipper by the pond, the first one I’ve seen this year. It stayed there for some time although I couldn’t see it later on in the day, despite a bit of looking.

They have a pretty faint chequered pattern on the wings, so are easy to tell apart from the similar Small and Essex skippers which fly at the same time.

Large skipper

Large skipper

We have just had our Centre wifi improved enabling us to teach online whilst outside, which is great for our fortnightly Young Naturalists sessions and, although too late for this term, will also allow us to offer virtual sessions to schools as things slowly return to some kind of normal in the autumn.

I tested it out today, running our fortnightly session from the shelter behind the Centre, emptying the moth trap with the group (sadly there weren’t many moths) and showing them the evidence of leaf-cutter bees in the bug hotel.

outdoor classroom

All set up for today’s virtual Young Naturalists session

Whilst outside I also spotted a male blackbird sunbathing on the top of the bug hotel, and managed to take a couple of distant photos:

Blackbird

Blackbird 2

I then watched it bathing in the pond, but wasn’t quite in the right place to get a photo.

For our Young Naturalists session today we were joined by Owain Masters, Public Engagement and Education Officer for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust’s Snakes in the Heather project. The project aims to raise public awareness of the conservation needs of our native reptiles andFinal heathland heritage, helping to promote a better understanding that will safeguard their future. In particular it focuses on the conservation of the smooth snake, Britain’s rarest reptile.

Although not present on the reserve, we are lucky to have them locally on the sandy heaths of Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey.

Owain shared his passion for snakes with the group, talked about the three species native to the UK and tested the group with a fun quiz, ‘snake or fake’, to see what information they had picked up whilst he had been talking. He had been due to join us onsite for a session so it was great he could join us online and hopefully we will be able to reschedule his site visit at some point in the future.

Given our session had a reptile theme, the group’s show and tell was also distinctly reptilian, with Thomas and Harry sharing photos of their pet geckos. Slightly more exotic than our native snakes! Apologies to Alex’s mum… a second gecko may now be on the cards…

The group also shared a few native reptile encounters, with Harry, Thomas and Alex talking about their adder encounters, Cameron and Torey sharing a photo their dad had taken of a grass snake outside the front of Ivy South Hide and Will sharing a photo of a common lizard:

Will also talked about seeing osprey at Fishlake Meadows and watching a collared dove from his bedroom window that was nesting in his garden. He had also seen a large white butterfly, red admiral, scarlet tiger moth and female stag beetle.

Finally, Cameron shared some really lovely landscape photos from a walk around Whitsbury, near Fordingbridge:

Next time we will be chatting a bit more about reptiles and looking at all six species naive to the UK and have our usual rummage through the light trap. It will be interesting to see what wildlife they have all encountered between now and then.

After the session was over I had another look by the pond for the large skipper but had to content myself with this lovely skipper instead, I think a small skipper rather than an Essex skipper.

Small skipper

Small skipper

Finally, towards the end of the day a very kind visitor pointed out a crab spider that was lurking in amongst the buddleia flowers by the pond. After a bit of searching, I think its a goldenrod or flower crab spider. Its pale colouring and purple stripes did help it blend in really well with the flowers, I have no idea how they spotted it!

Goldenrod or flower crab spider Misumena vatia

Goldenrod or flower crab spider, Misumena vatia

Our Young Naturalists group is kindly supported by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

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30 Days Wild – Day 3

After the sunniest and one of the driest springs on record today it finally rained! I felt obliged to have a little walk about in it, not to get soaking wet, but just to experience the feeling, the sound of the raindrops, the smell of the dampening vegetation and witness the toning down of the colours. I bet I was not the only person to have gone out to get the feel of rain today, we might complain about it but we miss it when it is away for too long.

ox-eye daisy with rain

ox-eye daisy clinging onto the rain

Many plants have water repellent leaves, which result in beads of water and others hold the drops with hairy leaves. The leaves of perforated St John’s-wort are obviously very good at this, holding large droplets.

water on perf St John's wort

Perforated St John’s-wort

As it rained, even if lightly, pretty much all day, I got few pictures at Blashford, but by evening it had stopped and the garden offered the chance of pictures of two species of butterflies, a brimstone,

brimstone

brimstone

and large white, one of a few on dame’s violet.

large white

large white

As you will have noticed both are the caterpillars of butterflies rather than the adults, it was not really the weather for adult butterflies.

A Couple of Days in the Garden

I made the most of the weekend sunshine and spent some time in my garden, now with a refurbished pond. Refurbished in that it now actually holds water, it had been reduced to an ephemeral pond at best, an interesting habitat, but perhaps not the most appealing in a garden. On Sunday I decided to use the last of the rainwater stored in the water butt to top up the pond, trusting in the forecast rain to replenish the store. I was almost instantly rewarded with the appearance of a female broad-bodied chaser dragonfly, perching near the pond and then dipping her abdomen into the water as she laid some eggs.

broad-bordered chaser 4x3

broad-bodied chaser (female)

A little later there were two, chasing each other around between bouts of egg-laying and resting up in the sun. I also saw large red damselfly and common blue damselfly in the garden, making three Odonata in the garden before the end of April.

It was a weekend for egg-laying insects I watched, but failed to photograph successfully, an orange-tip laying on the garlic mustard and a holly blue laying on alder buckthorn.

holly blue 4x3

holly blue female

I had not known that holly blue would lay on alder buckthorn, although I did know they used a good deal more species than just the traditional holly and ivy. Laying on my rather small alder buckthorn also puts the caterpillars in direct competition with the brimstone caterpillars when they hatch in a few days after being laid last week.

brimstone egg-laying

brimstone egg-laying

The early rush of butterflies was dominated by brimstone and peacock especially, with fewer comma and small tortoiseshell. Perhaps because of the very good weather these species seem to have declined rapidly an dare now being replaced by the whites  and the first of the arriving red admiral. Small white and green-veined white are residents and typically pick up in numbers during April.

IMG_9640-002

green-veined white (male)

Large white are resident in rather small numbers but bolstered by, sometimes very large, arrivals of migrants.

large white

large white (female)

There is a bit of a race on at the moment to see who can add the next new butterfly species to the UK list. One thing is pretty certain it is going to happen and probably not very long away, in fact it may well already be here. The species is the southern small white, it has expanded from southern Europe over recent years all the way to the channel coast, under 30 miles away. The difficulty is that it is quiet similar to our regular small white, so if you want to make a name for yourself look up the differences, keep your camera handy in the garden and plant candytuft. Why candytuft? Because it is the preferred caterpillar foodplant of the southern small white. It could be you, especially if you live on the south coast, the Isle of Wight has to be a likely location, if someone in Kent does not get in first!

I will end on a picture of the most dramatic plant in my garden, the giant viper’s bugloss Echium pininana which as it starts to flower becomes a tower of bees as the flowers shoot 3 to 4m or more into the air.

Echium 4x3

giant viper’s bugloss

I have, of course been recording the species I have seen in the garden and uploading the data to the many citizen science recording schemes, something we can all do for everything from butterflies to earthworms.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 30 – Things Ain’t Always What They Seem

Yet another hot day and another spent mostly at home, I am working tomorrow at Blashford when we have a volunteer task, although what we will do in this heat I am not sure just yet. The day started with a check thought the moth trap, it had caught 26 species including a few first for the year, these were buff footman, grey/dark dagger (another species pair that cannot be separated on sight alone), bird’s wing and a waved black.

waved black

waved black

The waved black is a relatively scarce and rather strange Noctuid moth, it looks like a Geometrid, sitting with wings flat and out to the sides. The larvae eat damp fungi and even lichens and slime moulds.

The hot sun meant the garden was full of insects throughout the day, generally we do not associate moths with hot sunny days but there is one group that only seem to fly in such conditions, the clearwings. The day was ideal for them and I managed to find one species new to the garden, the large red-belted clearwing.

large red-belted clearwing (male)

large red-belted clearwing (male)

Clearwings are very odd moths, they not only fly in bright sunshine, they don’t really look like moths with their largely scaleless wings and in flight they look more like wasps than moths. The larvae feed under the bark of coppiced birch and alder and pupate there also. At this stage I will confess that I did not just look for the moth, I used a pheromone lure. This is an artificially produced chemical that mimics that produced by the female moth to attract the males.

large red-belted clearwing coming to lure

large red-belted clearwing being lured in

To give an idea of the speed of flight the picture above was taken at 1/1250 sec. The moth flew in and circling the lure before landing.

large red-belted clearwing at lure

large red-belted clearwing at lure

After a couple of minutes the fact that there is no female present seems to sink in and they leave, I managed to attract at least three males in about 45 minutes. The lures are usually specific to certain species, I tried five different lures today and only this one attracted any moths. Without the use of lures I have seen only a handful of clearwings in forty years or so of looking for them, use a lure of the right sort on the right day and they just appear.

It was a good day for looking int he meadow so, for the last time….

What’s in My Meadow Today?

Butterflies were very much in evidence with, appropriately enough, meadow brown being one of the most abundant.

meadow brown

meadow brown on field scabious

Small white, large white and small skipper were also much in evidence and there were also a couple of large skipper, a species I have only very occasionally seen in the garden in previous years.

large skipper 2

large skipper on field scabious

Field scabious is a great nectar source for insects and a great plant for a back garden meadow, it has bright showy flowers and a very long flowering season too. The picture shows the incredibly long tongue of the large skipper really well too, their tongues are more feeding tubes really, they reach to the nectar source and suck up the energy rich sugars.

Another great nectar plant is knapweed and these were alive with bees today, including lots of green-eyed flower bee, a small dumpy species with a very high pitched “buzz” that never seems to sit still for a picture.

green-eyed flower bee

green-eyed flower bee on knapweed

Where there are bees there are their followers, one such is the Conopid fly, there are several species and they intercept bees in flight and lay an egg that hooks between the bees abdominal segments, eventually hatching into a parasitic larva, not a pleasant story but it is extraordinary. There are several common species and the one I found was Sicus ferrugineus.

Conopid

Sicus ferrugineus

Juts as there are moths that fly in the daytime and pretend to be wasps there are also flies that pretend to be bees and wasps, some more convincingly than others. Most of the hoverflies in the garden are the various dronefly species that are fairly general bee mimics, but I also spotted one that was definitely more of a wasp mimic.

Xanthogramma pedissequum

Xanthogramma pedissequum

So this is the end of the 30 Days for another year, although I try to get a bit of “Wild” everyday, I may not get around to blogging about it daily. Thanks for your comments and if you have a garden try a mini-meadow, they are great fun and pretty good for wildlife too. Whatever you do, try to have as many Wild Days as you can!

30 Days Wild – Day 14

Some days are wilder than others, even when you work on a nature reserve. Today was not one of the wildest, the morning was spent in a meeting, where wildlife was a topic rather than present and the afternoon was largely taken up with trimming paths with the help of our volunteers. During path trimming we saw a few common spotted orchid and broad-leaved helleborine, I looked for twayblade and southern marsh orchid, both of which I have seen in the same area before but without success.

It was warming up as we finished and on the way back to the Centre we saw a red admiral and a male large white. Butterflies are very few and far between at present, but soon the browns will be out and this should change.

As I went to lock up the sun was almost out and near the Woodland hide the orange-tip caterpillars were doing their best to look like the garlic mustard seedpods upon which they feed.

orange tip caterpillar

orange-tip caterpillar

When I first saw these I discounted them as orange-tip, because they were not green, forgetting that they look quite different in their first few instars.

On the way down to the Ivy South hide is found a tree bumblebee sunning itself on a bramble leaf. This is a species that ha sonly colonised this country in this century, but is already common throughout most of England. It is similar to the common carder bee but the white tail gives it away.

tree bumblebee

tree bumblebee

Finally caught up, I just have to keep going to the end of the month now!

Bank Holiday blues

Welcome, from a soggy Blashford Lakes Reserve. As is customary we have another damp and dismal Bank Holiday Monday (10mm of rain overnight and it hasn’t stopped raining all day), but there are a few folk here making the most of the situation.

Not terribly inspiring for bird watching and most self respecting insects are keeping well out of sight today, so I’ll just share a few pictures, taken last Friday, when covering the Butterfly Survey transect on the south of the Reserve.

Green-veined white butterflies were the most common on the transect and arguably THE most common butterfly in the U.K. with a wide geographic range (absent only from Orkney and Shetland) and having two or even three broods (in good years).  An innocuous butterfly, its caterpillars don’t damage cultivated cabbages, unlike their close cousins the large white  and small white, but lay their eggs on wild relatives of these plants. An active butterfly its quite difficult to identify from small white when in flight, I’m guessing that many ‘non-butterfliers’  probably wouldn’t even have heard of them – I know I hadn’t before taking more interest in these insects.

Most common butterfly - Green-veined White

Most common butterfly – Green-veined White

Green-veined white butterflies are very much a species of damp and marshy places near hedgerows and woodland edges, so the Reserve is ideal habitat for them – especially today.

Overall the number of butterflies to be seen has dropped off lately as the temperature falls  and sunshine has decreased with only 21 butterflies of four/five species ( including ‘unknown’ White) seen last Friday, although I believe the transect on the north side of the Reserve was more productive. The brightest and  most colourful was this Comma.

Comma - so named from the tiny white 'comma shaped' mark on the underside of the hind wing

Comma – so named from the tiny white ‘comma shaped’ mark on the underside of the hind wing

The common name of this butterfly, and even the scientific name Polygonia c-album, refer to this tiny mark (if my rusty knowledge of Latin is correct c-album = ‘ white c’), but it’s really quite inconspicuous unless you know to look for it.  I guess the naming dates back to the time when collectors could study these things at their leisure as it was  ‘O.K.’ to catch these beautiful insects and handle them, before killing and mounting them in collections

In greater profusion than all the butterflies were common blue damselflies which were just about everywhere, gently skimming over the tops of shrubbery and settling, usually briefly, before being disturbed by another damselfly. The males were most conspicuous, with their electric blue colouration,  whilst the females were difficult to pick out, especially if motionless as they stayed perched up.  I’ll admit that I find it easier to identify the species of a male damselfly, like ducks as opposed to drakes, the females are more drably marked.

Dragonflies and damselflies are spectacularly visual insects, the relative size of their eyes is a bit of a give-a-way, so I’m guessing that males can easily identify their prospective mating partners from a mixed assortment of, to us, similar looking females of other species.  As a safeguard to prevent cross breeding  I understand that the claspers (anal appendages) on a male can only latch on successfully to the neck of a female of the same species to create the mating position called the ‘heart’ or ‘cartwheel’ position.  Whilst so engaged they are easier to photograph as they seem somewhat ‘distracted’ and less likely to fly off suddenly – can’t think why!

pair of common blue damselflies

pair of common blue damselflies in cartwheel position

Dragonflies were also out and about, hopeless trying to photograph them whilst flying (the dragonflies – not me!) with my little camera, but when they hang-up briefly there’s a chance of a quick shot.   Missed the southern hawker, but this migrant hawker was more obliging.

Migrant hawker

Migrant hawker

Common darter are living up to their name, by a) being quite common (20 plus seen easily – don’t know how many we missed) and  b) perching up and ‘darting’ out before returning to the same perch, making them relatively easy to photograph.

Common darter

Common darter

The butterfly transect should notionally take about an hour and a half, but we managed to stretch it to two hours, having been ‘distracted’ by some quite delicious blackberries along the way. Whilst engaged in this activity a strange bug hopped onto my hand and demanded to have it’s picture taken.

Dock bug?

Dock bug?

Searching the literature – and online – I think its a dock bug (Coreus marginatus) , though not a fully grown one, as these appear to have a more definite darker patch on their abdomen.  One of the family ‘Leatherbugs’ of which there are eleven species in the U.K. and five in the new Forest (Paul D. Brock : A photographic guide to Insects of the New Forest) this is apparently the most common and easily found.

I’ll close with an update from the rain gauge – 22mm (nearly an inch in real terms)  and rising!!

 

Oranges and Lemons

After a three week break of duty, it made a pleasant change to be opening up the reserve and be greeted by a common sandpiper immediately outside the Tern Hide.  Ibsley Water bore  its usual compliment of waterfowl. Mute swans were much in evidence, not only as their physical presence, but from the large scale scattering of innumerable moulted white feathers floating across the lake.  Duck numbers are building up with representatives of several species including gadwall, tufted duck, wigeon,  mallard and shoveler. As usual at this time of year it can be quite difficult to sort many of them out as the usually distinctive drakes have moulted into a somewhat drab ‘eclipse’ plumage, similar to the females.  This is thought to be a survival mechanism, making them less conspicuous whilst they moult their flight feathers. Large numbers of lapwing are now making use of the shingle spit to the east of the tern hide and are accompanied by several (we counted fourteen) Egyptian geese.

Although we are still experiencing warm weather the numbers of insects have dropped dramatically since I was last here. A male Southern Hawker dragonfly was periodically patrolling the pond behind the Education Centre, but only a few large white butterflies and a red admiral were much in evidence.

The moth trap hasn’t been set out  much lately, but Jim kindly put it on for us last night.  Our reward was some seventeen species of moth, but the downside was  a fairly large number of wasps – sorry don’t know what species – plus a couple of LARGE hornets, which made emptying the trap somewhat challenging…

A rather sleepy hornet .

A rather sleepy hornet .

Other ‘interlopers’ were this rather nice shield bug,

Shieldbug

Shield bug

and a number of what , with their smooth outlines, look to me like water beetles

Water beetle?

Water beetle?

Not many of the moths were, to be frank, that dramatic or spectacular, although the rather ‘dead leaf’ looking angle shades is always good value

Angle shades

Angle shades

and also in among them this Frosted Orange

Frosted Orange

Frosted Orange

and a number of species with a distinct yellow (lemon?) hue, including this Canary-shouldered Thorn..

Canary-shouldered Thorn

Canary-shouldered Thorn

Phew!! What a scorcher. – now you know I’ve run out of ideas for titles!!!

In a somewhat ironic (or iconic) piece of fortune the first mini-beast of the day was a gatekeeper butterfly which buzzed me as I opened up the gate to the Tern Hide car-park.

Gatekeeper or Hedge brown - keeping an eye on our gate!!

Gatekeeper or Hedge brown – keeping an eye on our gate!!

Other butterflies are really making their presence felt – not before time, following the unusually cold ( do you remember that?) spring.  A red admiral has been floating around the Education Centre and without moving too far away it’s been possible to see both large white and small white, meadow brown, speckled wood, peacock, comma, brimstone and what was almost certainly a silver-washed fritillary scuttling through.  Many of them will have been looking for nectar sources, but the plants that always used to be cited as the ‘butterfly bush’ , buddleia , have yet to produce much in the way of flowers– possibly another effect of the cold spring.

A gentle stroll around the path between Ellingham Water and Dockens water, ostensibly to do a bit of trimming back of overhanging branches and invasive brambles, produced a few bonuses in terms of dragonflies and damselflies including a fine male emperor dragonfly, a couple of brown hawker and numerous common blue damselflies,and one beautiful demoiselle. Only a keeled skimmer stayed still long enough to have its picture taken and that was from some distance away.

Keeled skimmer

A more obvious pair of megafauna graced us with a fleeting glimpse, as a female roe deer and her fawn dashed across the lichen heath.

Along the path heading south towards the Iron Age hut there are a number of broad-leaved helleborine, which are only just starting to come into flower. Disappointingly a number of them have been decapitated, probably having been nibbled by deer.  There were, however, several intact specimens, which even before fully flowering have a delightfully sweeping architectural shape.

Broad-leaved Helleborine

Broad-leaved Helleborine

but only one that had started to bloom.

Broad-leaved helleborine

First flowering spike of broad-leaved helleborine

Helleborines are in the orchid family, a fascinating group of plants with more different members than any other family of vascular plants. Genetically they are rather complicated with more DNA than many more complex plants and animals including ourselves. As a group that is currently rapidly evolving many hybrids may be formed and for this reason may present  challenges to anyone wishing to identify the species. Given my track record on plant ID, I might be foolish, but I’m pretty sure these are broad-leaved helleborine…

As it’s the time of year for interesting insects I’ll finish, as usual, with a few moths.

Pinion

Pinion

Pale prominent

Pale prominent

Small scallop

Small scallop

The drunken, merry god of the woodlands.

It now really seems as though summer has arrived.  The rise in temperature and bright sunlight are encouraging a bit more insect activity, although not yet as much as I would have hoped. On the butterfly front I’ve recently seen red admiral, meadow brown, speckled wood, small white and large white.

Three out of the first four visitors today were asking about dragonflies on the reserve. Good numbers of damselflies including azure damselfly, common blue damselfly, blue-tailed damselfly, red-eyed damselfly and large red damselfly are out at the moment.  Emperor dragonfly and scarce chaser have been seen and a female broad-bodied chaser was seen hanging up on vegetation around the small pond behind the education centre.

Female Broad-bodied Chaser

Female Broad-bodied Chaser

I always think of dragonflies as being superb aeronauts with almost magical powers of flight to hover, dart and even fly backwards or upside- down, so it was a bit of a shock to find a golden-ringed dragonfly floating in the water in a ditch, looking as though it had met its end. Rescuing it was relatively easy and it crawled off of my finger onto a tree stump,where it slowly dried out before flying off.

Golden-ringed Dragonfly  - drying out after being rescued from a puddle in a ditch

Golden-ringed Dragonfly – drying out after being rescued from a puddle in a ditch

The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the poor weather last year is responsible for the dearth of butterflies and moths, this year.  Whether (weather?) this is the case or not, there has been a decline in the numbers of moths coming to the light trap.  Last night there were some 24 individual moths representing 16 different species, not a large catch for what is probably the peak time for moths. Among the catch were a  privet hawkmoth and an eyed hawkmoth.

Privet Hawkmoth  - Sphinx ligustri

Privet Hawkmoth – Sphinx ligustri

Probably the most eye-catching of the rest was this buff ermine

Buff Ermine  Spilosoma luteum

Buff Ermine  – Spilosoma luteum

A constant fascination, to me, is the way that all animals and plants have an instinctive, in-built knowledge or awareness of the passage of time and the changing of the seasons. Only by this mechanism are they able to co-ordinate the synchronisation of, say, all plants of the same species  coming into flower together.   As I was wandering around earlier, opening up the hides, I chanced upon a fine display of flowers on several groups of sedges – I think!! ( Some of you will know that  my botanical knowledge is somewhat selective and when it comes to ‘grass-like’ stuff rather suspect!) Well whatever they are their flowers, although only yellow-green are really quite delightful in close-up.

sedge flower(?)

sedge flower(?)

Much of the vegetation on the reserve is of the green variety, so it’s always nice to see a splash of colour. Today one of the more obvious plants ‘on parade’ were the flowers of red campion, with their characteristic swellings behind the petals, they are almost unmistakable.  But, having been caught out recently on plant names, I thought I’d check. It’s only when you bother to look up some of these things that you find that even some of our common plants have interesting connections in folk-lore and fascinating biology. The scientific name for red campion is Silene dioica. Silene comes from Silenus, in Greek mythology,  who is the ‘drunken, merry god of woodlands’. The second part of the name dioica, refers to ‘two houses’  and refers to the fact that each plant has flowers of only one sex so that two plants are needed for pollination and seed production.

Red Campion - Silene dioica - the drunken, merry god of the woodands

Red Campion – Silene dioica – the drunken, merry god (goddess?) of the woodlands