30 Days Wild – Day 23

A day off to receive a delivery and get work done on my car, so spent at or within walking distance of home. I had planned to do some gardening, but it was too hot to do anything very strenuous, so most of the time was spent insect watching. The mini-meadow is still looking great with field scabious and knapweed now taking over as key nectar sources.

knapweed

knapweed

There are lots more “bit-part players” as well like the lady’s bedstraw, which are not very showy but add variety and support other species.

lady's bedstraw

lady’s bedstraw

The most obvious flowering plant now is the wild carrot, it attracts lots of species with an easy to land on flower head and a bit of easy food for a wide range of species.

lacewing

lacewing on wild carrot

With so many insects around at present it is unsurprising that there are predators, I came across my first robberfly in the garden this year.

robberfly

Tolmerus cingulatus

I had thought that I would not get free to do very much, but as it happened all my ties were dealt with by lunchtime, so I went onto the Heath for a short time in the early afternoon. It was very hot, this is usually a place I go at dusk, so It was great to see it int he heat of the day. The area is a conifer plantation that has been partly cleared and the rest thinned. I really wants to be heath and everywhere there is enough light getting to the ground is now covered in heather. I was amazed by the huge numbers of sliver-studded blue everywhere, in areas only cleared last year and even under the thinner areas of pines. Although it is often said they spread only very slowly, perhaps just a few tens of metres per year, where they get a new opportunity they can evidently spread much faster than that. There were also lots of wasps of many species, none of which I could identify and fabulous bog flora such as bog asphodel and sundews.

bog asphodel

bog asphodel

oblong-leaved sundew

oblong-leaved sundew

The heat made photographing insects difficult as they were so active, but at least the longhorn beetles were a bit easier.

yellow-and-black longhorn

yellow-and-black longhorn, seemingly being attacked by an ant.

30 Days Wild – Day 17 – Up on the Down

I had a day off and the weather was okay so I headed out for a visit to Broughton Down, a real gem of a reserve, a steep chalk down with a surprising variety of habitat, even the grazed down varies in character as you move around the site. I started at the furthest end of the reserve where the turf is short and covered in an abundance of fragrant orchids.

orchid bank

orchid bank

These come in various shades from quite dark to almost white.fragrant orchid

Although the fragrant orchids were the most abundant there were patches of common spotted orchid, especially in the shade or where the soil was probably a bit deeper or less dry.common spotted orchid

There are other species on site but the only other orchid I was were a few pyramidal.

pyramidal orchid

pyramidal orchid

The other thing that immediately struck me was the super abundance of dark green fritillary, there must have been hundreds, they far outstripped all other species present and I have never seen so many anywhere before.

dark green fritillary

dark green fritillary

Downland is not just about orchids, there are lots of other plants to enjoy, such as greater knapweed, fairy flax, thyme and squinacywort.

sqinancywort

squinancywort

The grassland has a good few anthills and the difference in the flora on these is very obvious, they tend to have thyme and often speedwell too, no doubt they benefit from the deeper soil and good drainage.

anthill

anthill

Thyme is a great nectar source an dis visited by lots of bees and a real favourite for a lot of butterflies too. It can be a good plant to grow if you have a very sunny dry area in the garden and of course it is a culinary herb.

thyme

thyme

The grassland on an unimproved down is the richest in terms of species that you can find anywhere in the UK and I could fill several blogs with flowers from this one visit. Even the plantains, usually a rather drab group of plants, look better on downland.

hoary plantain

hoary plantain

The tall white stems of common valerian stand out well above the generally short vegetation.

common valerian

common valerian

One of the shortest of all the plants is milkwort, common on downland, but also found in lots of other short grasslands, there are several species and forms found in different habitats.

milkwort

milkwort

All these flowers feed lots of insects, including lots of butterflies apart from the fritillaries, one of the other common species was marbled white.

marbled white

marbled white

A question I am sometime asked is what is the difference between butterflies and moths and the answer is that there is no clear answer! Butterflies fly in the daytime, but so do some moths. Although we recognise the general shape of a butterfly, there are moths with the same overall appearance. In fact what we conventionally call butterflies are actually just six of the families of Lepidoptera that we have chose to call butterflies, the rest we call moths.

I did see a few day-flying moths as well as butterflies, the best was a six-belted clearwing a moth that looks like a wasp.

six-belted clearwing

six-belted clearwing

Lots of insects can feed lots of insect predators, some of them also insects, like this robberfly, a chalk downland species in S. England, but with an odd distribution nationally and elsewhere in quite different habitats.

Leptarthrus brevirostris 4x3

Leptarthrus brevirostris with prey

On the way home we stopped to look at a field of poppies and looking at the hedgerow I spotted several tiny soldierflies walking about on the hazel leaves. I decided to try and get some pictures, not easy as they were very small and constantly on the move, but here are my best efforts.

Pachygaster atra

Pachygaster atra

Pachygaster leachii

Pachygaster leachii

Both are common species, but very easily overlooked!

 

 

 

30 Days Wild – Day 12 – Here be Bees

Another mostly dull day, although dry, conditions that may seem not so good for finding insects, which is true, but if you find them they are much less active and so easier to see well.

hoverfly

hoverfly, Platycheirus albimanus (I think)

On such days insects will often be found sitting in the open in the hope that the sun will come out and enable them to warm up enough to become active. Predatory species, if they can get active can then easily catch prey that has not warmed up so much. Robberflies are one such predator and several species are on the wing now.

robberfly

robberfly

Many insects will vibrate their wing muscles to increase their core temperature, bees have an added advantage of being furry which will help to reduce heat loss.

solitary bee

solitary bee

The cooler weather did encourage me to do some control of the bramble regrowth in the grassland in the former Hanson plant entrance, this area gets very hot in the sun, which should make it good for insects. The soil, if it can be called that is very poor, an advantage for establishing a non-grassy sward, but here it is so poor, that in places almost nothing will grow. This is in contrast to the bank of deeper soil just to the south where there are probably too many nutrients.

Hanson bank

Grassy bank on former Hanson entrance

Despite having only been seeded three years ago and on soil spread from the old concrete block plant site it already has some quiet surprising species.

old roadway

bee orchid on line of old tarmac roadway

I assume the bee orchids must have been already in the soil, surely three years is too short a time for them to have grown from seed? There were only  a few but one was one of the variants, I think “Belgarum”.

bee orchid flowert variant

bee orchid variant

30 Days Wild – Day 9 – A Migrant Arrival

Another day spent largely in the garden doing various odd jobs. Just being outside means you cannot avoid wildlife, it was not particularly sunny, but warm enough to bring out lots of bees. I have some purple toadflax in the border and it is a great favourite as a nectar source for wool carder bee.

wool carder bee

wool carder bee (male)

This is the only species of this genus, Anthidium, in the UK, they are very distinctive and quite common in gardens. They get their name because the females make the nest cells by collecting fibres from woolly leaved plants such as lamb’s ear.

I grow a lot of plants because they are good nectar sources for insects and one of the best is Cephalaria gigantea a type of giant pale yellow scabious that can get up to 2m tall. Today these flowers scored with a painted lady, judging by the battered wings a migrant, probably hatched in the Mediterranean area somewhere.

painted lady

painted lady

They will breed here with the larvae feeding on thistles and emerging as adults in early autumn, these will then make a return migration southwards. This southward autumn movement had been speculated about, but unlike red admirals which can be seen heading south in late summer, painted ladies just seemed to disappear. It turns out they do head south, but mostly at high altitude, which is why we don’t see them.

Heading back inside I found a robberfly on the back door of the conservatory, I liberated it but managed to get one picture just before it flew off.

robberfly

Dioctria baumhaueri, A robberfly

They are predators, catching other flies and even small wasps in flight. They have large eyes to spot their prey and typically sit on exposed open perches, waiting to dart out and catch any suitable passing insect.

At this time of year conservatories can catch huge numbers insects, they act very like interception traps, especially with the doors open. I always leave several high windows open to give them the maximum chance of escape, ideally open rooflights if you have them.

What’s in My Meadow Today?

Perhaps unsurprisingly meadow buttercup, which really is the typical buttercup found in meadows. It has much taller flower stems than the more familiar creeping buttercup and more finely divided leaves.

meadow buttercup

meadow buttercup

I found I had one plant in my first year of managing the lawn as a meadow, but a single cut a year seems to really favour it and now there are a good few plants. In the picture you can see the brilliant yellow flowers and the extra shiny area towards the centre which acts as a mini solar reflector and increases the temperature of the flower’s centre. On the right you can see a seed head, a mass of seeds each with a tiny hook.

Back at Blashford Lakes tomorrow, I suspect I will be cutting path edges for at least part of the day, I hope it is not too warm.

30 Days Wild – Day 24: Wild in the Garden

Gardens are also habitats, domesticated but at the same time with potential to be wild. They are very diverse and cover a large area when totalled together, but they are also dynamic, styles of gardening change over time and with changes of ownership. So however good for wildlife they might become they are individually precarious places for wildlife. An example of this is the change that happened to the garden of my former home, after twenty years something of a wildlife haven with breeding grass snake and slow worm, the new owners filled the pond, laid the whole to grass and fenced it to allow their dogs to roam safely. This is not to say that having a wildlife garden for twenty years was a waste of time. Lots of species will have benefited and most will have spread out to new homes and they will mostly have been species that are good at moving around to have got to my garden in the first place.

The more people that can find space for wildlife in their gardens the more “stepping stone” patches that wildlife can use to move about, potentially connecting populations and reducing local extinctions.

garden meadow

Lady’s bedstraw now flowering in our back garden mini-meadow

Such little patches of grassland will not make a huge difference on their own but when added to other nearby patches in other gardens, on road verges and playing field edges might add up to enough to support populations  of many insects such as this robberfly.

Dioctria baumhaueri

Dioctria baumhaueri with prey

Robberflies are predators, so if the habitat can support a predator it must also be supporting populations of its prey, the presence of predators is a positive sign.

It has been for sometime a mantra of conservationists that  we need a countryside that has habitats that are “Bigger, Better and more Joined-up”. Larger areas will support more species and be more resilient to species loss. It is useful if the patches actually join, so are contiguous, but if not then as close as possible with stepping stones or, better still, corridors between them. Contiguity, or if you prefer continuity of area is important as is continuity in time. Very short-lived bits of habitat will hold fewer species than ancient sites with very little change. Some specialists thrive on change and to do well need bare, new sites, rapidly being ousted by other species once things settle down, but even these species need a continuous supply of new sites, so continuity is still vital to their survival. Looking at habitat in this way, seeking the continuities can allow you to spot where the valuable sites are, even in the absence of wildlife records. It might also suggest what are the key habitats on which to concentrate management for the most positive outcomes.

The Archers

The moth trapping has picked up a bit now and there have ben on or two new species in the trap, yesterday we caught two very fresh Archer’s dart, not a species I see very often at all.

archer's dart

Archer’s dart

Going away for a couple of weeks makes the changes on the reserve really noticeable, the lake levels have dropped a bit, all the nesting terns have left and there are lots of adult crickets and grasshoppers calling away. As the years advance I am pleased I can still (just) hear  Roesel’s bush cricket and long-winged conehead.

long-winged conehead

long-winged conehead female

After a day bramble cutting it was pleasant to walk round the hides at locking up time. Highlights were 43 gadwall on Ivy Lake and a sun bathing Neoitamus cyanurus,  a species of robberfly, on the wooden screen at the Woodland hide.

Neoitamus cyanurus male

Neoitamus cyanurus (male)

This is quite a common species in woodland and is identified by its bright orange legs.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 3

On day three and still in Pembrokeshire with its famous beaches and rocky coastline, a day by the beach was called for and no day at the beach is complete without a bit of rock-pooling. Along with a spectacular variety of seaweeds we found anemones, lots of molluscs and lots of prawns, I think this one is a common prawn.

prawn

common prawn

Lots of the sandy beaches in West Wales are backed by dune systems, these are wonderfully rich habitats and behind Freshwater West beach is one with a wet pool known as a “slack”, in addition the stabilised sand now has a rich flora including early marsh orchid and southern marsh orchid.

marsh orchid

Southern marsh orchid growing in a flower-rich dune slack.

I also came across a robber-fly that was new to me and it turns out is a specialist occupier of grassy areas in fixed dunes, favouring slightly worn areas along paths, which was exactly where I pictured this one.

robberfly

Fan-bristled robberfly (Dysmachus trigonus)