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.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 8 – An Early Start

I was out early doing a farmland bird survey up on the Hampshire chalk, it was calm, which is good for surveying. The low cloud got lower and lower as I was surveying and just as I was finishing it started to rain. I like surveying in a very different area from my usual haunts as it means I see species I don’t normally encounter. Visiting chalk farmland meant that yellowhammer was frequent, a bird I very rarely see these days. My previous visit had also produced corn bunting and grey partridge, missing today, although I did add red kite this time.

At this time of year an early survey means that I can get home in time for breakfast, which I did today. I was having a day off, so most of the rest of my wildlife for the day was seen in the garden.

I started with the moth trap, the pick of the day was a very fresh beautiful yellow underwing. These tiny moths regularly fly by day as well as at night and so often fly from the trap as it is opened, luckily for me this one stayed put for a picture.

beautiful yellow underwing 2

beautiful yellow underwing

It does have yellow underwings, but they are covered by the upper-wings, however the upper-wings are beautifully marked.

The spring solitary bees have mostly finished now but the summer ones are just starting, one of these is, if I have identified it correctly, Willughby’s leafcutter bee. These bees collect pollen on brushes of hairs underneath their abdomen rather than on their legs as many species do. It is on the orange hawkweed often known as fox-and-cubs here.

Willughby's leafcutter bee

Willughby’s leafcutter bee

During the day I saw single green-veined white, red admiral and painted lady butterflies the latter two indicating migrant arrivals.

I came across a couple of new species for the garden today, a mullein moth caterpillar that I spotted from indoors when I was washing my hands after being in the garden and, rather less welcome, a forest fly which chased my around.

mullein moth caterpillar

mullein moth caterpillar

As the name suggests mullein moth caterpillars usually feed on mullein, however they sometimes eat other related plants such as figwort, which is what it is eating in my garden. It is another species with bad tasting larvae, which is why they can afford to perch in the open and be brightly coloured. Despite running a moth trap I have never caught the adult moth in the garden, but this is one moth species that very rarely comes to light.

The forest fly is a biting species that mostly feeds on ponies and deer, it is one of the flat-flies, which scuttle over their hosts and are very resistant to being swatted.

forest fly

forest fly

What’s in My Meadow Today?

For the first time thus year I have bird’s-foot-trefoil flowering in the meadow this year, for some reason it has taken some time to get established, but hopefully is now in place to stay.

bird's-foot-trefoil

bird’s-foot-trefoil

A feature of the meadow from the first year has been a large population of lesser stitchwort, focus down through the grass stems and there are masses of tiny white star-like flowers.

lesser stitchwort

lesser stitchwort

Finally I also found a further new species for the garden in the meadow, it was a small species of chafer beetle, if I am correct it is Welsh chafer Hoplia philanthus , despite the name it is not confined to Wales having a rather scattered distribution across the southern half of the UK.

Welsh chafer maybe

Welsh chafer beetle (I think)

  

30 Days Wild – Day 8: Flowers in the Rain

Thursday is volunteer day at Blashford and it is well known that it does not rain when the Thursday volunteers are working, but today something went wrong and we got wet! We were continuing with our project to create a diverse new grassland along what used to be the entrance to the old concrete plant, we have spread seed and cleared brambles. Now we are going back to continue with cutting back the bramble regrowth and discourage nettles and some of the denser stands of creeping thistle.

A lot of the seed we spread has germinated but is has a lot that was already there lying dormant in the seedbank. This includes some with famously long-lived seed like poppies.

poppy

poppy

Poppies used to be a common “weed” of agricultural crops but these days are effectively controlled in most by herbicides. Another such agricultural weed was field pansy, which has also appeared.

field pansy
field pansy flower

Several species of thistles have grown up too, alongside the creeping and spear thistle there are a few musk thistle, not yet flowering, but the symmetry of their flower buds appealed to me.

Musk thistle bud

Musk thistle in bud

We also have a good showing of mullein plants with both dark mullein and great mullein, a few with mullein moth caterpillar on them. Both species have tall spires of yellow flowers, however the individual flowers are very attractive on their own.

dark mullein flower

dark mullein flower

I have high hopes for this area, it has many of the attributes you need for a herb rich grassland, a mostly poor, thin soil and a sunny aspect, if we can establish a tight sward it could become a real asset for to the reserve, good for plants, insects and close to the path and so easy to see.

My last shot of the day is also of a flower but in this case it is what was sitting upon it that was the main attraction. The flower is an ox-eye daisy and on it is a male red-eyed damselfly, I find this a difficult species to get a picture of, as they usually spend their time sitting on floating pond weed well out in the water, so one away from water was too good to miss.

red-eyed damselfly on ox-eye daisy

red-eyed damselfly on ox-eye daisy

This is what we should now call the large red-eyed damselfly, rather than the smaller newcomer to these shores, the small red-eyed damselfly, which tends to fly later in the season.

Although I did get wet, it was not cold and being out in a bit of weather from time to time has its own appeal, albeit in moderation. Let’s hope for a bit better tomorrow.

Mellow Yellow Day

It rained quite heavily overnight but was clearing as I arrived and I had a hope that it would, as we expect, clear in time for the volunteers work party. In fact it did and fifteen, more or less willing volunteers set off to start the annual task of controlling ragwort. On a site like Blashford on dry soils with a long history of disturbance total control will be impossible, the seed bank must be enormous and will last for tens if not hundreds of years. Despite this we do try to control growth along the boundaries where there is seen to be a problem with spread onto grazing land. Today we started on the western side of Ellingham Lake, the conditions were fine to start with but then deteriorated and suddenly the plants growing under the trees became the target of special effort. There was a short discussion about calling it a day, but Blashford volunteers are made of stern stuff and we carried on and then the rain stopped and we completed the whole length.

ragwort pulling in the rain

We walked back past Ellingham Inlet Pound, the very short vegetation around the eastern end has a lichen heath character, but includes some species not out on the main area of heath near Ivy Lake including one that was very striking in today’s dull light, the brilliant yellow biting stonecrop.

biting stonecrop

The rain returned for quite a bit off the afternoon and kept going right until the visiting school group left, when the sun came out! In the brief warm spell I noticed several tree bumblebee workers feeding at the flowers of the dark mullein near the Centre. The picture also highlights the amazing colour of the flowers.

tree bumblebee on dark mullein

The tree bumblebee is a recent colonist from the Continent and is now spreading rapidly northwards, last year we had a nest near the Centre in a bird box. On the same mullein plants there were also a few caterpillars of mullein moth, at this stage they seem to be eating the flowers rather than the leaves.

mullein moth caterpillar and honey bee

I had another good look at the common tern rafts again today and am now more or less certain that there are twenty-one pairs nesting now, sixteen with chicks and a further five late nesters on eggs. A good few of the chicks would be flying within a week, so it looks like it should be another good nesting season for them.