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

30 Days Wild – Day 4

I started the day by emptying the moth trap at work and then at Blashford, between them there were three species of hawk-moth, privet, pine and eyed. The still conditions meant that there were  a few more micro moths than on some recent nights. A number were Tortrix moths.

Tortrix

Grey Tortrix species

There are several grey Tortrix moths a number of which cannot be identified with certainty without rather closer inspection than can be done in a photograph.

another Tortrix

Another grey Tortrix moth

Luckily some are rather easier, such as this one Apotomis turbidana.

Apotomis turbidana

Apotomis turbidana

Blashford has a lot of nectar sources for insects at the moment, one of the best in hemlock water dropwort.

hemlock water dropwort

hemlock water dropwort

In the shadier wooded areas there are stands of foxglove, not as accessible as the dropwort for many smaller insects, but still great for bumble bees.

foxglove

foxgloves

Back at home I was pleased to see the first wild carrot now in flower, like a lot of the Umbellifers it is a great nectar source for lots of smaller insects.

wild carrot

wild carrot

As the carrot is starting to flower the yellow rattle is coming to and end, with just a few still flowering.

yellow rattle

yellow rattle

I was going to feature my emperor moth caterpillars this evening, but then I came across a very fine mullein moth caterpillar eating figwort.

mullein moth caterpillar

mullein moth caterpillar

I also saw that one of the brimstone caterpillars on my alder buckthorn is now very well grown, hopefully they will get to pupate this year, last year they all got eaten just before they changed.

brimstone caterpillar

brimstone caterpillar

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.

30 Days Wild – Day 2

Back working at Blashford Lakes today, this morning with the first Sunday of the month volunteers. Only a small turnout today but we spent the time working around the new dipping pond, covering up the exposed liner and generally trying to make it look more like a “real” pond. As we were working I noticed some of the plants that had grown up on the exposed soil thrown up when the pond was dug and amongst the plants were several of common fumitory.

fumitory

common fumitory

This is a species that was once an abundant “weed” of cultivation, typical of the margins of arable fields. Some thirty years ago it was noticed that the distribution of turtle dove and fumitory were very similar in Devon, this gave rise to the idea that perhaps the doves needed the plant. However it turned out that it was more that they both needed the same habitat, it was a correlation, both depended upon there being a bit of space left for them between the intensive arable.

The hemlock water-dropwort growing beside the old pond is now in full flower and is usually a really good nectar source for lots of insects, so far this year I have not seen nearly as many as I would expect. However today there were at least a few hoverflies to be seen on the flowers.

Eristalis horticola 4x3Eristalis horticola

Myathropa florea

Myathropa florea

The warm night resulted in much the best moth catch of the year so far, with 34 species including a privet hawk-moth, poplar hawk-moth, pale tussock, Brussels Lace and this alder moth.

alder moth

alder moth

Almost immaculate, apart form a slightly rubbed thorax.

As I went to lock up the Tern hide looking out over Ibsley Water I saw a tern in the distance that did not “look right” and no wonder, it was a little tern, in fact there were two of them. Typically very much coastal terns in the UK, so it is always a treat to see them inland, or increasingly anywhere these days, as they are one of our most threatened seabirds.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 18 – On the Road

I ran the moth trap at home overnight, the catch was modest and as follows: barred red 1, heart and dart 8, heart and club 3, Chrysoteuchia culmella 1, Crambus pascuella 1, buff-tip 1, elephant hawk-moth 1, marbled/tawny marbled minor 1, privet hawk-moth 1, willow beauty 1. The two with only Latin names are micro-moths or a type collectively known as “Grass moths” as they are often found in grasslands an sit head -down on grass stems. The “Marbled minor” is lumped with with tawny marbled minor as they cannot reliably be separated by just looking at them.

After this slightly wild start to the day I was off on the road, heading north. As a result wildlife was in relatively short supply but these days heading north from here will inevitably mean seeing red kite. The re-establishment of red kite has been one of the most remarkable changes of fortune of any of our wildlife. I remember seeing them in mid-Wales as a young birder in the 1960’s when they were very rare indeed, perhaps under 20 pairs in all when I saw them and not doing very well. Mid-Wales is relatively unproductive land and the weather can be poor in the mountains, even in summer and  in those days there were still numbers of active egg-collectors around as well.

Establishing a population in the more productive lowland farmland around Oxford quite quickly showed that this is a species that could do very well in UK conditions when it was allowed to live in more promising habitat. The UK is evidently very good habitat for red kite and their ability to spread and thrive across most of the country has been quiet extraordinary. During my birding lifetime they have gone from supper rarity to an everyday bird  for millions of people across the country, proving that not all conservation stories are one of gloom, doom and extinction.

30 Days Wild – Day 17 – Knights In…

Moth of the day at Blashford was (and yes, you have probably already guessed it) a white satin.

white satin

white satin moth (male)

This is not a rare species, although not common and one I don’t see very often at all. On the face of it Blashford should be a good site as the larvae eat willow, poplar and aspen, all of which we have in some quantity.

Other moths today that I had not recorded so far this year were the delicate.

delicate

delicate

This is typically a migrant species, although it may be able to over-winter in some years. The other”new one” was a clouded brindle, a species that is pretty well camouflaged on the mossy bark, unlike the white satin.

clouded brindle

clouded brindle

After a morning cutting paths and bramble regrowth I had a look around near the Centre at lunchtime and found a batch of small cinnabar caterpillars tucking into the flower heads of a ragwort plant.

cinnabar caterpillars

young cinnabar moth caterpillars

Nearby I found a wasp beetle, this is one of the longhorn beetles with larvae that tunnel into wood.

wasp beetle

wasp beetle

It has similar black and yellow warning colouration to the cinnabar caterpillars, although I am not sure if it is actually poisonous like the caterpillars or just exploiting the fact that many birds will avoid any black and yellow insect as potentially unwise prey.

Although the reserve was pretty quiet today there are a few things to report. I saw my first fledged little ringed plover of the year, two juveniles on the Long Spit on Ibsley Water. There were also a number of flying black-headed gull juveniles too. Near Goosander hide a family of five small coot chicks were just below the sand martin wall. As the drizzle set in during the afternoon the numbers of swift and martin grew until there were at least 250 swift and several hundred martins. There was a report of 3 black-tailed godwit and I saw a redshank.  However the really big news, might actually be from last Friday, written in the Tern hide logbook was a report of a pratincole, with “collared?” written after it. Collared is the most likely, although even that is a very rare bird. Unfortunately the observer did not leave a name or any further details other than that it was on the Long Spit and flew away, not sure when it was seen, by whom or which way it went. If anyone can shed any light on this potentially very interesting record I would be delighted to know.

I returned home in persistent drizzle and took a quick look in the moth trap which I had not managed to do this morning. Three species of hawk-moth, elephant, pine and privet, matched the range,if not species, at Blashford but otherwise there was not much.

Which leaves….

What’s in My Meadow Today?

The yellow-rattle which I featured in flower at the start of the 30 Days, is now going to seed, as the stems dry the seeds will start to rattle in the swollen calyx when shaken.

yellow rattle seedpods

yellow-rattle with developing seed.

30 days Wild – Day 10 –

I had the best moth catches of the year so far both at home, where the pick was a privet hawk-moth and at Blashford where honours were shared between a small elephant hawk-moth and a scarce merveille du jour.

scarce merveille du jour

scarce merveille du jour

The day was warm, although not always sunny, but it was warm enough for damselflies and dragonflies to be flying. The small blue damselflies so far have mostly been azure, but the numbers of common blue seem to be increasing and both can get very abundant at Blashford in good years.

common blue damselfly

common blue damselfly (male)

I had some mowing to do in the morning in an area where we are trying to establish a grassland and prevent the encroachment of bramble, we are getting there, but it takes time. Cutting at this time or year hits the bramble hard and although it does have an impact upon annual species perennials survive perfectly well and will benefit in the long run. I only cut a small part of the area at any one time, which also helps to minimise the impact. In one of the better areas which I was not cutting I found a single bee orchid.

bee orchid

bee orchid

The management of open areas does not just involve cutting, we also graze some areas and on the lichen heath we have been experimenting with stripping off the top few centimetres of vegetation. This gets us back to the mineral, sandy gravel to see if we can combat the increase in nutrients which is slowly turning it into dry acid grassland. Looking at one of the plots today I think we may have had some success as it was well colonised by one of the areas rarer plant species , slender bird’s-foot-trefoil,  a species that does not seem to like competition.

slender bird's-foot-trefoil

slender bird’s-foot-trefoil

Once again today I saw a painted lady, this one flying vigorously northwards, so no picture, I did get one of the other migrant butterfly I saw, a red admiral. It was perched on nettle, the foodplant so this one might have had more of a mind to breed than migrate.

red admiral

red admiral on nettle

The nearest thing to bird highlight on the reserve today was a bar-headed goose, as their native range is other side of the Himalayas I think we can be sure it is an escapee or the descendant of escapees.

I got home, with time to take a quick look in the meadow…………

What’s in My Meadow Today?

I mentioned meadow buttercup yesterday and today I spotted a small yellow and black hoverfly on one of the flowers. It is a common and distinctive species and one that is probably found in gardens all over the country.

Sphaerophoria scripta

Sphaerophoria scripta  (male) on meadow buttercup

My other find was a couple of ants on a flower of common vetch, they seemed to be feeding, at the base of the flower, possibly they had made a hole to get at the nectar flow without entering the flower, as bumblebees will do to runner bean flowers, effectively taking the nectar without doing the job of pollination.

common vetch and ant

common vetch and ant

30 Days Wild – Day 2 – Hawks and Dragons

Once again a day off at home trying to work in the garden, but the sun was a bit much so productivity was rather low!

However the day started with a look through the moth trap, most of the moths would have been attracted before midnight when it was warmer, but as the minimum was 14 degrees some will have been active throughout. The pick of the catch were a couple of hawk-moths.

lime hawkmoth

lime hawk-moth

Lime hawk caterpillars eat the leaves of lime trees, but also birch. Many hawk-moths are named after the larval foodplant, or at least one of them. The privet hawk-moth caterpillars eat privet, but also lilac and ash, it is our largest resident hawk-moth.

privet hawkmoth

privet hawk-moth

Other moths caught were buff-tip, heart and dart, treble lines, flame shoulder, light brocade and fox moth.

The sun brought a few butterflies out, I saw a male common blue and a female brimstone in the garden during the early afternoon.

brimstone female on storksbill

female brimstone nectaring on storksbill

The sun also encouraged a fair few hoverflies to feed on flowers in the borders.

dronefly on fox and cubs

Dronefly Eristalis horticola on fox and cubs

Eventually I gave up on the garden and went out for a walk in the New Forest, luckily I live close enough not to need to drive there. The recent wet weather has filled a lot of the small ponds and each one seemed to have a broad-bodied chaser or two.

broad-bodied chaser male

broad-bodied chaser male

There were also good numbers of emperor and four-spotted chaser too.

The New Forest is one of the largest areas of semi-natural open space in Southern England, although a “Forest” it has a lot of wide open treeless areas. This is because a forest in this context is a place where deer were hunted rather than, as we tend to think today, a place dominated by trees. To pick up on the theme of Jo’s post of the other day and also highlight a particular problem within the Forest, I did see a couple of invasive alien species on my short walk. Both were attractive escapes from cultivation and wetland species.

invasive iris

Iris laevigata growing in a New Forest mire

In the background of this shot is another invasive, the white water-lily.

white water-lily

white water-lily

Finally………..

What’s in My Meadow Today?

Although it is perhaps not really a meadow plant I do have a few wild carrot plants in the meadow, like all umbellifers they are very attractive to insects, so I allow them in. The flowers are only just opening and actually look rather interesting just before the flowers open with the head enclosed caged.

wild carrot

wild carrot flower head just about to open.

Two days gone, just another 28 to go!

30 Days Wild- Day 3: A New Moth

I run a moth trap in my garden and have recorded hundreds of species, despite this new ones still turn up, as one did last night. The catch when I looked in the trap this morning included a female fox moth, privet hawk-moth, buff-tip, white ermine, treble lines, light brocade, light emerald and a few others. However it is often the small ones that the most interesting, even if they are often the hardest to identify. The new species, which I think I have identified correctly  was a micro-moth called Cydia conicolana, one of the Tortrix moths. Like many of the micro-moths it is beautifully marked when looked at closely, something that digital photography makes much easier.

Cydia conicolana

Cydia conicolana

It feeds on pines as a caterpillar and I do have a large number in a plantation a few hundred metres from my garden, so I would guess this is where it had come from.

The sunny weather is bringing out more hoverflies and other insects, today I saw several species for the first time this year, I only got a picture of one of them though, the metallic green soldierfly, Chloromyia formosa, also known as the broad centurion.

Chloromyia formosa

Chloromyia formosa

Calling, Calling

Bird News: Ibsley Watercommon sandpiper 1, yellow-legged gull 1. Ivy Lakemute swan 21, common tern c15 flying juveniles.

As it was Sunday and the start of another month there was a volunteer task this morning, typically the Sunday tasks draw many fewer volunteers than those on a Thursday, so I was pleasantly surprised when seven people turned up. We set about tidying up the entrance areas either side of the road, improving visibility, cleaning the signs and generally sprucing things up a bit. I set about some fo the brambles with the hedge trimmer, unfortunately in the process I dropped my mobile phone. There was a time when I would not have had one even if I had been given it, let along thought it indispensible, however times change. We spent a while looking for it, phoning it and listening without success. After putting the tools away I decide  to have one last try, I called it as I retraced my steps, still no luck, then I spotted it lying on the grass verge. It is not a stylish phone, in fact it is old and battered, but I would not have wanted to have to replace it.

In the afternoon I was leading an “Insect Bioblitz”, basically a bug hunt. We started by looking through the moth trap, which was actually quite disappointing for the number and range of moths but was saved a very splendid privet hawk-moth. We then headed off into the meadow and fortunately the sun came out. We saw several butterflies, including marbled white, meadow brown, red admiral and small skipper. There were three species of grasshoppers now adult: meadow grasshopper, mottled grasshopper and field grasshopper, we also saw nymphs of speckled bush-cricket and long-winged conehead. On the way back to the Centre I caught a little micro moth, like a lot of them it had an almost metallic sheen, it was a common species, although you need to magnify it to  really appreciate it. The species is Argyresthia brockeella, the larvae eat birch and alder, both of which ar every common at Blashford.

Argyresthia brockeella

As I went about the Centre to lock up I came across a green lacewing on one of the windows of the building, the black of the window allowed the veins in the wings to show up really well and I got a picture I was rather pleased with.

lacewing, possibly Chrysopa carnea

I also spotted a zebra jumping spider with a caddisfly, I think one of the longhorn sedges on the sign board just outside the Centre, there were some depth of field problems getting a picture, especially with the “long horns”.

jumping spider with caddisfly

Locking up the hides I was pleased to see that there are about fifteen common tern chicks now flying around the rafts on Ivy Lake. There were also 21 mute swans, the most I have ever seen on this lake, the reason for this is that until this year the occupying pair were so vigorous in defense of the water that other swans rarely stayed more than a few minutes. The new pair, although they try just don’t have the same power to drive away intruders.

At the Tern hide I saw a common sandpiper and a second summer yellow-legged gull, the season is certainly turning now and we will start to see more and more birds heading back southwards over the next month. Our cuckoos have already departed, I have not heard one singing for about a fortnight and only expect to see juveniles now.