30 Days Wild – Day 14 – It’s Not Just Grass!

A day off catching up with domestic tasks, so wildlife watching was largely restricted to the garden. The mini-meadow is looking very fine at present, it may only be 5m by 4m, but it is packed with flowers and has  a very good structure. The term “structure” in relations to grasslands means the variation in height and the layering of the vegetation. A well structured grassland will have vegetation at every level. In mine the lowest level is occupied by lesser stitchwort, mouse-eared hawkweed, cowslip, bugle, bird’s-foot trefoil and white clover. Slightly higher is the yellow rattle, creeping buttercup, dandelion, ribwort plantain, red clover and bloody cranesbill.  Higher still are the ox-eye daisy, hawkbits, field scabious, perforated St John’s wort, meadow buttercup and corky-fruited water-dropwort. The top layer is mostly taken by knapweed. There are several different grass species and a number of other herbs dotted about. 

This structure allows insects to move about all through the area at every level and light can get through to the ground. This is the opposite of an intensive grassland where the objective is a dense even grass sward, these may be fields, but they are really high yield grass crops, with high biomass and low biodiversity. Traditional forage crops were hay, and repeated cropping tended to increase biodiversity and and reduce the biomass. It is easy to see why farmers seeking lots of forage would move to an intensive model, but the result has been a 97% loss of herb rich grasslands in the UK in a lifetime.

“Views over green fields” might be trumpeted by estate agents or implicit in the idea of the “Green Belt”, but green fields are ones that have lost their biodiversity. Similarly green lawns, verges and civic areas are ones that have had their diversity and wildlife stripped away. It is easy to see why agricultural grasslands have been “improved” to increase their productivity, these are businesses seeking to make a profit. Despite this most of the best remaining herb-rich grasslands are on farms and farmers are at the forefront of improving the situation.

So why are local authorities and corporate owners of mown grasslands so set on removing their variety has always been a mystery to me. Many years ago I worked at a Country Park and took to leaving the banks and other areas not walked on to be cut just once a year, mowing the rest as paths and patches around picnic tables. Pretty soon we had meadow brown, common blue and marbled white flying between the picnic places. However I soon got complaints, not from the site users, but from councillors and others who declared it “untidy”, I did not give up but as soon as I moved on they restored the old regime.

P1050731

My mini-meadow, it really is not difficult to have diverse wildlife friendly spaces rather than dewilded grass.

Some land uses demand regular mowing, but it should not be the default approach, we should expect habitats to be managed to maximise their environmental value. Wildlife lives everywhere, given the chance and should do so, we should expect land managers to be properly discharging their responsibility for the land they manage and to be looking to increase biodiversity, not mowing, or worse still, spraying it to oblivion.

meadow brown

Meadow brown in the meadow, hiding from the wind

Bombus lucorum

Bombus lucorum, the white-tailed bumblebee on ox-eye daisy

Advertisements

30 Days Wild – Day 9 – Fair Play

I was at Roydon’s Wood Fair for most of the day, so I was working, but it was a very enjoyable day and there were lots of people visiting. As usual there were lots of stalls with a general New Forest/Woodland craft theme, so anything from willow weaving to venison rolls via woodcarving and local honey and cider.

Setting up for th eWood Fair

Setting up at the Wood Fair

One of the activities I did was a guided walk, actually just a short stroll into one of the meadows beside the site. There were meadow brown and large skipper butterflies and a Mother Shipton moth, lots of common spotted orchid and, an all too brief flyover sighting of two hawfinch. 

Roydon is a remarkable site, a complex mix of unimproved, flower-rich, damp meadows, heathland and woodland. It also has the virtues we would seek in all conservation sites, large size and linkage to a wildlife-rich wider countryside in the New Forest.

Oak half alive

An oak tree, undoubtedly on its way out, but still wonderful wildlife habitat with deadwood and dense ivy cover.

I also did a session looking at the moth trap catches, despite the catches being rather low there were still crowd pleasers like privet hawk-moth, eyed hawk-moth and buff-tip. I also spotted a hobby flying over as we were looking at them.

It seemed that well over a thousand people came along to the event, in just about perfect weather, pleasantly warm, but not too hot, with a breeze but not too windy. Given the recent weather we have had and what is predicted for the coming week, this was a very good day to have chosen.

Busy in the Sunshine

Sorry for the lack of posts, we seem to have been very busy and by the end of the day exhaustion has taken over. It is the time of year when there is lots of growth to cut back, bramble regrowth to cut off and nettle to remove from potential grassland areas. Today I spent the morning removing ragwort from one of the areas due to be mowed later this month and the afternoon mowing bramble regrowth from a bank beside Ibsley Water where we are trying to establish grassland. Hot and heavy work, there are times when I think I am getting too old for it! Being out in the sun did mean I saw lots of butterflies, meadow brown and gatekeeper are probably the most abundant now.

gatekeeper

gatekeper

There are also a number of summer broods out, I saw peacock, small tortoiseshell, common blue, brown argus and small copper. Possibly a side effect of the hot weather is the number of common blue that are unusually small, some as small or smaller than brown argus. I think this happens because the food quality of the plant the caterpillar was on was not good enough or in sufficient quantity for it to grow to full size.

When I had lunch I took a look at the Centre pond and there were dozens of pairs of azure damselfly pairs, egg-laying in tandem. They do this so that the male can be sure that the eggs being laid are the ones that he has fertilised. Some dragonflies do the same and others will stay hovering close tot eh female whilst she lays.

azure damselfly pairs

azure damselfly pairs

I know that I was only doing “What’s in My Meadow Today” during 30 Days Wild, but I will end with a picture from there anyway. One thing that is very noticeable as the grass has gone brown and then yellow is that some plants remain green, field scabious is one of these, which is not just green but flowering well.

small skipper on field scabious

small skipper on field scabious

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!

Exploring the downs

On Sunday we too were up on Martin Down with our Young Naturalists group. The reserve is home to a fantastic variety of plants and animals associated with chalk downland and scrub habitats so makes a nice change to Blashford and the New Forest. Unlike Bob, we avoided the nice shady part of the reserve at Kitt’s Grave and instead opted for the more open part of the site, parking at the end of Sillens Lane. It was rather hot!

Group at Martin Down 2

Young Naturalists at Martin Down

We had last visited Martin Down with the group at the end of May last year, a trip many of them could remember, so we took a different route this time and were interested to see what flora and fauna we would spot that little bit later in the year.

Will got our list of species off to a good start, spotting Bullfinch and Yellowhammer whilst waiting for us to arrive – we didn’t see any more Bullfinch but there were certainly plenty of Yellowhammer to hear and see and we also heard Chiffchaff calling. We were also lucky enough to hear the purring of Turtle doves at a couple of different spots.

The insects also did not disappoint and we soon saw Cinnabar moth (and later Cinnabar caterpillar) along with Meadow brown, Marbled white, Small skipper, Brimstone, Gatekeeper, Small heath, Holly blue, Ringlet, Small white and Small tortoiseshell butterflies.

The butterfly that delighted the group the most and kept them on their toes was the Dark green fritillary. There were a number flying low over the grass, giving the best opportunity for a photo when they landed on knapweed or a thistle.

We also spotted a Brown hare in a neighbouring field, which obliged us with glimpses when it crossed the gap in between taller vegetation and a couple of Roe deer. Sadly both were too distant for a photo. There were also lots of beefly and bees on the flowers, along with a five-spot burnet moth, soldier beetles and thick legged flower beetles.

The group were also intrigued by the tent webs made by the caterpillars of the Small eggar moth and there were a number to spot. After emerging from the egg, the caterpillars immediately construct tents out of silk either at their hatching site or nearby on the same bush. They live and develop in these tents as colonies, repairing and expanding the structure as they develop: the layers of silk fibres form air pockets which insulate the nest and provide resting spaces for the caterpillars inside. The tent is essential to the caterpillar’s survival and they do not abandon the structure until they are ready to pupate.

Whilst a number of the Common spotted orchids were now past their best, there were still plenty of Pyramidal orchids in flower.

We heard the croak of a Raven a few times and had a great view of a Linnet which perched nearby whilst we were eating lunch. Other birds included Buzzard, Skylark, Corn bunting, Stonechat and Swift.

Once back at the Education Centre we had time to look through the moth trap before the session ended, something the group really enjoy doing.

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

30 Days Wild – Day 27 – On the Marsh

The majority of my day was spent at one of our occasional staff meetings, a chance to catch up with what other members of staff have been doing, learn about the projects and discuss future direction. Despite their undoubted value, it is often difficult to be sat indoors on a fine day, although on such a warm day being in the shade was not that unwelcome.

After the meeting I went down to as saltmarsh site beside Southampton Water to try to assist with a research project looking at the worrying rates of change along the eroding outer edged of the marshes. Large sections of The Solent coast has a margin of saltmarsh, this narrow strip of habitat has a whole suite of specialised species that live nowhere else. Unfortunately sea level rise and the lack of space for these habitats to migrate inland is meaning they are disappearing as they get squeezed out of existence.

The saltmarsh along Southampton Water is very diverse with lots of the characteristic species of these habitats. The outer edges have banks of shells known as cherniers which can smother the vegetation, if they kill leaving bare mud this can get more easily eroded although it can be recolonised by plants such as glasswort.

glasswort

glasswort colonising mud on the chernier edge

The lack of freshwater makes a saltmarsh somewhat similar to a very arid area and some of the adaptations are similar, for example fleshy and glaucous leaves.

sea purslane

sea purslane growing through the chernier bank

Inland from the shell banks the marshes are very flat, but still have variety in the form of creeks and subtle changes in elevation. These are enough to offer a variety of slightly different niches. In shorter areas sea-spurrey  can be common and its starry flowers are popular with the insects that also live out on the marshes.

sea spurrey

sea-spurrey flower

The higher areas of long-established marshes can have large areas of sea-lavender are very popular with insects and produce large swathes of colour.

sea lavender

sea-lavender in flower

Returning home I had time for a quick look at the meadow.

What’s in My Meadow Today?

There were several small skipper and a meadow brown or two in what is now a very dry meadow. Most of the grasses are brown or yellow, but the deeper rooted perennial herbs are still green and many in full flower. Wandering over the vegetation I found a 7-spot ladybird. This used to be our commonest larger ladybird, before the arrival of the harlequin ladybird from SE Asia, via the horticultural trade.

7 spot ladybird

7-spot ladybird

 

30 Days Wild – Day 23 – Skippers

Plans to go out came to nothing and various small tasks took over, still these were interspersed with looks around the garden, so all of today’s wildlife is back garden based.

The night was actually quiet cool and the moth catch was correspondingly modest but included one species new for the year, a burnished brass. There has been much discussion recently as to the possible existence of two species within what we have known as “burnished brass”. It seems likely that moths with the two brassy areas significantly joined to form an “H” shape are the “new” species being christened the cryptic burnished brass.

burnished brass

burnished brass

This one has got the two areas joined but not widely enough to be likely to be a candidate for the cryptic version.

What’s in My Meadow Today?

The day was warm, although not always sunny it was quiet warm enough for butterflies to be active the whole time. During the day in the meadow I saw several meadow brown, including egg-laying females, large skipper, small white and small skippers.

small skipper (male)

small skipper (male)

The ends of the antennae lack the black “full stop” of the Essex skipper and the dark line on the forewing, known as the “sex brand”, is longer and not as straight.

Large, small and Essex skippers, and come to that Lulworth and silver-spotted too, sit with their wings in this half open position, unless with wings fully closed.

small skipper (male) 2

small skipper (male)

Although they were perched for long periods on the wild carrot flowers they were not feeding, it appeared that they were using the flat, white surface of the flowers as a reflector.

Also visiting the wild carrot was a tiny bee, it is one of the yellow-face bees, these can usually be identified by the pattern of pale markings on the “face”, if I am correct this one is the white-jawed yellow-face bee Hylaeus confusus.

Hylaeus confusus crop

white-jawed yellow-face bee (female)

Having a range of flower types in the meadow attracts different species of bees and other insects, different species being adapted to feeding from different flowers. The leaf-cutter bees prefer larger flowers and especially like the trefoils.

bee on bird's-foot trefoil

leaf-cutter bee on bird’s-foot trefoil

The other day I featured Jack-go-to-bed-at -noon in flower, one of the alternative names for this plant is goat’s beard, now it has gone to seed it is easy to see why.

Jak-go-to-bed-at-noon seedhead

Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon seedhead

The seeds are quite large but the fluffy “parachute” they float on is very large and they can get carried considerable distances.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 29: A Grave Day

Luckily not as bad as it sounds, in fact actually a “Jolly”. Each year the volunteer team have a day out at Kitt’s Grave, it is part of the Martin Down National Nature Reserve but belongs to the Wildlife Trust. Although it is managed by Natural England we usually go up top do a couple of tasks each winter, although we did not make it last season. We have been assisting in the clearance of scrub to open up glades and ultimately restore areas of chalk grassland. As we have been doing this for some years it is interesting to see how the habitat has been developing, I am pleased to say that the answer is well so far.

Our visits are usually a great chance to see lots of butterflies, but as we left the car park this morning we were wondering if we would see any at all. Luckily we had a good start in other ways, with a turtle dove purring away in the thorns. Crossing the road to Kitt’s Grave we heard a lesser whitethroat and heard and saw yellowhammer and corn bunting. Then a surprise, a ringlet, then more and marbled white, small skipper, meadow brown, small heath and even dark green fritillary. Although it was overcast it was warm enough for insects to be active, but not so warm that they were too flighty, this allowed a great chance to get really good views as they basked in an attempt to get warm.

ringlet

basking ringlet

Some of the butterflies were warm enough to get on with life.

ringlets

ringlet pair mating

The marbled white were especially numerous and lots of the females were egg-laying.

marbled white

marbled white male basking

I noticed one small skipper below a pyramidal orchid flower spike, at first I thought it was sheltering, but it did not look right, then I realised that it was actually in the jaws of a crab spider, ambushed as it was trying to get warm, or maybe feeding. Luckily not all of them had fallen victim to predators.

small skipper

small skipper on scabious

We also saw silver-washed fritillary, but the most surprising butterfly seen was a purple hairstreak, picked up off the path, but which flew off before a picture could be taken. Although we never saw the sun we did see a common lizard, sitting out in the hope of catching a few rays. As we always do and despite unpromising conditions we had a great time and saw a lot of wildlife. Martin Down is a magical place to go and a reminder of what large parts of the southern chalk must once have been like.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 26: In the Woods

A day of meetings for me today, but at least one of them was in a woodland on a small reserve where we are looking at some works to rejuvenate a mire that is getting shaded out by willow, birch and pine. The area has a lot of fallow deer and although we saw only a couple of adults we found two fawns lying up in the bracken.

IMG_2064

fallow fawn

There were a few butterflies out including meadow brown and ringlet, but it was reptiles that stole the day. We saw a very large female grass snake and as we were leaving a fine male adder.

IMG_2067

adder

I had to wait until I got home to see my other highlight of the day, when I checked the moth trap it contained a small elephant hawk-moth, one of my favourite species.

IMG_2087

small elephant hawk-moth

 

30 Days Wild – Day 14: Getting Brown

A hot day and at this time of year one when you need to take care in the full sun. I was in the office for much of the morning, which was at least cooler. At lunchtime I went outside, hoping to see some hoverflies and soldierflies on the hemlock water-dropwort, but all I saw was bees. I think it was too hot for many insects, on these kind of days they often sit out the hottest part of the day in the shade and can be found clinging to the underside of leaves.

A number of people have commented on the lack of butterflies in recent days, it is true there are not a lot, but this is not that unusual at  this time of year. The spring species have mostly finished and the high summer species are just starting, the “gap” is often bridged by lots of white butterflies, but this year they have been quiet scarce. At Blashford the mid-summer butterflies are the browns and the meadow brown are just starting to appear in numbers now. They do not bask with wings open very much once the day has warmed, up so it was no surprise that they were all sitting with wings closed today.

meadow brown

meadow brown

Meadow brown has just one generation a year and they will fly from now until early September. Some species, like small tortoiseshell and comma have two generations, with the second over-wintering as an adult hidden away out of the worst of the frost. Another of the browns, the speckled wood has three overlapping generations so can be seen from late March to early November, it can also over-winter as ether a caterpillar or a pupa.

speckled wood

speckled wood

In other news, I saw the larger of the lapwing chicks today from tern hide and it must be getting close to fledging now, as is the one remaining oystercatcher chick. The three smaller lapwing chicks seem to have been reduced to two, but they at still growing well. Out on the rafts most of the common tern eggs have now hatched and generally they seem to be in broods of three, with lots of small fish being brought in, so they are growing fast. Today many of the chicks were using the shelters to get out of the strong sunshine, over-heating can be a real problem for small chicks, so shade is important.