30 Days Wild – Day 25

As usual my day started with a check through my garden moth trap, the moth highlight was a lobster moth, which was not in the trap but on the house wall. As usual it was a male, I have always hoped to get a female one day so I could obtain some eggs and rear their extraordinary caterpillars, which I have never seen.

lobster moth

lobster moth (male)

Not all the insects attracted are moths and the other highlight was a cream-streaked ladybird.

cream-streaked ladybird

cream-streaked ladybird

Mid-summer is typically a time when very little changes when it comes to the birds on the reserve, there are ever more youngsters around as the breeding season progresses, but generally until autumn passage gets going not much change in the species present. So I got a bit of a surprise when I went over to check to on the Tern Hide, as I approached I heard a Mediterranean gull calling, not too surprising as we get them quite regularly, although they did not breed this year, but then I could also hear a common gull. Common gull typically breed on moorland lakes and I have never seen one at Blashford in mid-summer, what was more this was an adult bird, a younger one would at least have been more likely.

common gull

common gull (adult)

One regular change at this time is the arrival of lot so geese to moult, the local geese are greylag, Canada and Egyptian. With so many in one place we do get occasional visitors, such as a Ross’s goose the other day, an escapee from somewhere, but without rings. This time I saw a single barnacle goose, another species that is establishing a feral population.

barnacle goose

barnacle goose

The native range of both barnacle and Ross’s geese is the far Arctic north, at least barnacle gees do winter in the UK, but the Ross’s wintering areas are the Pacific coast of N. America. I had wondered if these two would stay to moult with the local geese, when they moult they are flightless for a period, which is why they choose to do so on the largest body of water they can find and why Ibsley Water attracts so many, however both seem to have been one day wonders.

Another fine evening meant another walk out onto the heath from home. There are still lots of silver-studded blue around and they were roosting in the tops of the heather as the sun went down.

silver-studded blue

silver-studded blue

I also found a tiny and very well marked micro moth called Aristotelia ericinella, which appropriately enough has caterpillars which eat heather.

Aristotelia ericinella

Aristotelia ericinella

This summer has been very good for grasshoppers and on the heaths there are lots of field grasshopper and at the margins if there is more grass, or it is a little damper there will be meadow grasshopper too. I was a little surprised to find a woodland grasshopper out in the open heather though, as they usually utilise grassy rides within woodland.

woodland grasshopper

woodland grasshopper

It’s the little things…

Whilst Bob has been doing a brilliant job of blogging his 30 Days Wild antics, this week is also National Insect Week. Organised by the Royal Entomological Society, it encourages everyone to appreciate and learn more about the ‘little things that run the world’.

Insects are by far the most diverse and ecologically important group of animals on land and there are over 24,000 known species in the United Kingdom alone, with hundreds of species to be found in almost every garden and green space. With so many to study they are grouped into orders, for example the Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies), Hymenoptera (bees, ants and wasps), Orthoptera (grasshoppers and crickets) and Coleoptera (beetles) to name a few.

Insects have a huge role to play and without them our lives would be very different: they pollinate fruit, flowers and vegetables; they are food for amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals; and they feed on lots of living and dead things themselves, breaking down waste and helping to keep the balance of nature. You can find out more about National Insect Week on their website.

So here’s a very mini Blashford insect safari, using photos I’ve taken over the past few days, covering a very meagre 23 species and spanning five orders – I have quite a few more to track down!

The moth trap has revealed some spectacular moths over the past few days, including some very smart Privet and Elephant hawk-moths:

There was also another Scarce merveille du jour, with its lichen coloured forewings which provide it with brilliant camouflage:

Other species included a swallow-tailed moth, peppered moth, pebble prominent, lobster moth, large emerald, iron prominent, buff tip and barred straw:

The raised planters outside the front of the Centre are still a good place to look for insects, with plenty of bees, ladybirds, and butterflies making the most of the flowers:

There has also been a red admiral regularly resting on the fence posts and gravel outside the front of the Centre…

red admiral

Red admiral

…and I also found this Figwort sawfly on the mullein by the corner of the building:

sawfly

Figwort sawfly, Tenthredo scrophulariae

I’m not sure I’ve seen the sawfly before, or if I have I don’t think I’ve had the time to photograph and identify it, so it was nice to find a different species. Its striking yellow and black bands mimic a wasp and whilst the adults will sometimes nectar on flowers as this one was doing, they will often eat other insects. The larvae feed on either mullein or figwort.

Where we have not been using the grassy area by the side of the Centre for school lunches and Wild Days Out free play, the grass has been able to grow nice and tall and a few other plants have sprung up, particularly around the tunnel. One plant in particular seemed popular with the bees and volunteer Phil tested out his plant finder app on it for me on Tuesday as I had been trying to identify it without much success. It reminded me a bit of dead nettle.

Known as Black horehound (Ballota nigra), it grows along hedgerows, road side verges and on waste ground and belongs to the mint and dead nettle family, Lamiaceae. When the leaves are crushed it gives off a pungent rotten smell to deter herbivores (perhaps we need to relocate some into the planter by the Centre which has been targeted by the deer) which has given it the local name of ‘stinking Roger’ in some places. It also has a long tradition in herbal medicine and has been used to treat a range of issues from respiratory problems to travel sickness and depression to gout.

carder bee on black horehound

Carder bee on black horehound

There have been a number of emperor dragonflies hawking over the Centre and ponds and yesterday I spent some time sat by the pond watching a male fly overhead, occasionally dive bombing me. Every so often he would return to one particular iris to perch, either on or above the exuvia that was still clinging on, so I guess this could have been where he emerged:

emperor dragonfly

Emperor dragonfly

This damselfly was not quite as fortunate as I found it in the firm grasp of a zebra spider who was doing an excellent job of carrying it around the post to devour in peace:

zebra spider and damselfly

Zebra spider, Salticus scenicus, and damselfly

In venturing further from the Centre to check the reserve, I had a brief glimpse of a fritillary along the Dockens path and managed a quick photo. I think it’s a Silver-washed fritillary:

fritillary

Silver-washed fritillary

In studying all the mullein I came across in the hope of stumbling across a mullein moth caterpillar, I had to settle for this grasshopper instead, although it did pose very obligingly for a photo:

grasshopper

Grasshopper

Now is definitely a good time to find and watch insects, and you don’t need to venture far to track them down as even the smallest garden or green space can provide a home for this incredibly diverse group of animals. So if you get the chance head outside and see what you can find!

Moving away from the insects, I ventured into our woodland log circle area on Sunday and it has certainly enjoyed the lack of bug hunting children, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so green and grassy. On a number of logs I found the fruiting bodies of the slime mould Lycogala epidendrum, also known as wolf’s milk or groening’s slime. If the outer wall of the fruiting body is broken before maturity they excrete a pink paste.

slime mould

Slime mold, Lycogala epidendrum or wolf’s milk

Finally, although they have been disappearing very quickly with the warmer weather, the grass snakes by Ivy Silt Pond have been very obliging, with two often on the stretch of hedge immediately behind the temporary sign:

grass snakes 2

Grass snakes on the dead hedge by Ivy Silt Pond

Nest box news!

At our last Young Naturalists session we were lucky enough to join Brenda, who voluntarily monitors the nest boxes on the reserve, so we could see at close hand the processes and survey work involved as well as having a peek inside some of the boxes the group had made themselves. They thoroughly enjoyed it!

 

We were often watched closely:

Being watched

Being watched by a Blue tit

The following week Brenda returned for more nest box checks and was very pleased to report the following:

YN 1 – Poppy’s box – 10 Blue tits fledged and were being fed by parents in the trees close to the box

YN 3 – Geoff’s box – 10 Blue tits fledged

YN 4 – Ben’s box – 3 Great tits fledged

YN 9 – Will H’s box – 6 Great tits fledged

YN 10 – Megan C’s box –  9 Blue tits fledged

YN 11 – Thomas’ box – 9 Great tits fledged

Not all of the boxes the group made were used this year, but there is always next year! It was great to see how well their boxes did this year after a late start. The warm weather meant there has been plenty of food and although we have had a few days of rain the parent birds have managed to cope well and provided enough food for excellent numbers of chicks surviving, growing and fledging from the boxes. Brenda shared some photos with us of the ringing stages and box pictures:

 

The group made more boxes during April’s session which Brenda is looking forward to using next year, again to replace some of the older rotting boxes which are very wet and not so good for nesting. Brenda was keen to say a big thank you to the group for making the boxes and we would like to say a big thank you to Brenda for letting the group help out with the monitoring and surveying that day, I know it meant she was here quite a bit longer than she usually is as everyone, in particular Thomas and Lysander, were so keen.

After our nest box monitoring we had a look through the moth trap, which held a number of great moths including a Lobster moth, Pale tussock, Poplar hawk-moth, Fox moth, Buff-tip and May bug, which Ben took a particular liking to:

 

We did a few odd jobs, cleaning out the tank of tadpoles we were keeping in the Education Centre to show visiting school groups, watching the pond life below the water when we released the young froglets, and tidying up an old planter outside the front of the building.

Newt

Swimming newt

Our Young Naturalists group is kindly supported by the Cameron Bespolka Trust. Thank you to Roma and Geoff for your help during the session and of course to Brenda for letting us assist with the nest box monitoring.

30 Days Wild – Day 12 – The Power of a Flower

Tuesday at Blashford is volunteer day, or at least one of them, we also have a regular work party on a Thursday as well, today we were balsam pulling. The balsam in question is Himalayan balsam, a garden plant that escaped into the countryside and particularly likes growing along river and stream banks, “riparian habitats” as they are known. It is an extraordinary plant, growing to two or three metres tall in a matter of a few weeks,outgrowing all native plants that live in similar places. It also has explosive seed pods which can throw the seeds a metre or more when they pop. Being a non-native it has escaped its natural disease and insect controls and grows almost without check, which is why it has become a problem.

before

a disappointingly large stand of balsam

We have been removing this plant by pulling them up for many years now and have made good progress on the upper parts of the Dockens Water, where there are very few plants now. Clearly though, we failed to find quiet a few plants last year for there to be quite such a dense stand as this. Flooding carries the seed along and will also concentrate it where the seed gets deposited. We had a lot of plants to pull up, but we did pull them up and this is what it looked like a short while later.

after

after balsam pulling

What is very clear is that once the balsam is gone there is very little other vegetation, showing how it out competes other species.

Himalayan balsam has very nectar rich flowers, leading some to claim it is “Good for bees”, bees and other insects will take nectar from it, but I think the case for it being “good for bees” is very questionable. When it flowers it is very popular, but before this it shades out all the other flowering plants that would providing nectar, so across the season it probably provides no more than would be there anyway, it makes the habitat one of feast or famine cutting off food sources earlier in the season.

Flowers are immensely rich sources of food for lots of creatures, perhaps especially insects, but I have watch deer carefully picking off flowers and leaving the rest of the plant. The flower has the protein-rich pollen and the sugar-rich nectar, in short the stuff needed to make animals and keep them running. The flowers are not giving this largess, they are trying to get their pollen transferred to another flower to allow seed formation and make new plants. As the year progresses different flowers become the main attraction for lots of insects. Just now hemlock water dropwort is very attractive, but a new draw is appearing in the form of bramble flowers.

bramble flowers

bramble flowers

We easily notice the larger species such as butterflies, but look closer and you will see lots of tiny insects.

bramble flower with pollen beetles

A bramble flower with several small beetles

I think the beetles in the picture are pollen beetles, but I am not certain.

Closely related to brambles, the roses are at their peak now, the similarity in flower form between the bramble and this dog rose are clear even if the rose is the showier.

dog rose

dog rose

I was pleased to receive reports of four little ringed plover chicks seen today from Tern hide, the first proof of any hatching so far this year. It was also good to see the common tern arriving at the rafts on Ivy Lake carrying small fish to feed newly hatched chicks.

My moth trap highlight today was a lobster moth caught at home, not a species I see very often and I still have to find the extraordinary caterpillar which is the source of the moth’s name.

lobster moth

lobster moth

To refer back to my earlier comments about the food value of flowers, I noticed the mullein moth caterpillar in my garden has eaten most of the flowers off the figwort plant, it has eaten all the best bits first!

mullein moth on figwort

mullein moth on figwort

What’s in My Meadow Today?

I know it is not a plant that belongs in a meadow in southern England, but I like bloody crane’s-bill, so I have it in the meadow, where it grows and seeds quite well.

bloody cranesbill

bloody crane’s-bill flower

Something else that does not really belong are the anthills, this is not because ants are not native here, but you do not usually get anthills in meadows. This is because a meadow is really a field that is grown to produce a crop of grass, so the act of cutting the field would knock down the anthills before they became large. I cut the grass around the anthills taking care to leave them to get bigger year by year as I rather like them. This maybe because I spent many years working at Farlington Marshes where the masses of anthills are a significant feature of the reserve.

anthill

One of the anthills being extended by the ants.