Still going wild

On Sunday we had another of our fortnightly Young Naturalist catch ups, and it was great to hear what the group have been getting up to. Will had been down to the Lymington and Keyhaven Marshes and shared some photos from his walk, including one of an avocet with chick.

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Thomas and Alex had been for a walk at Iping Common, a Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve, and had seen Silver-studded blue butterflies, a glow worm larva, a bloody-nosed beetle and a pill millipede.

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Harry talked to us about the bug hotel in his garden which he built six years ago and is very popular with the spiders and Poppy had also sent me a photo during the week of the female broad-bordered yellow underwing moth which had emerged from a pupa she had found in the garden. Last time we met online she had shown everyone the pupa wriggling and we had guessed at Large yellow underwing, so weren’t far off!

Sadly Saturday night was so windy we didn’t have a huge number of moths to look at, despite Bob running both light traps, but we did have a dozen or so to study under the digital microscope. The group are getting quite good at identifying a few we either catch more regularly or stand out, such as the Spectacle moth or Buff-tip. The most exciting was this lovey Purple thorn, which was very obliging and posed for some time for photos:

Purple thorn (2)

Purple thorn

Nigel had put together another quiz for the group, this time on butterflies, dragonflies, other insects and some spiders they are likely to see whilst out and about and we talked through a presentation on bees, the main reason for all the bee photos I’ve been taking recently!

The group have requested reptiles and amphibians as themes for the next couple of sessions and we will run another in a fortnights time. Grass snake photos will certainly be easy, I spotted one curled up in the vegetation by the Education Centre pond Sunday afternoon:

Grass snake (4)

Grass snake

When I arrived at Blashford yesterday a rather substantial branch had come down by the entrance so I decided to walk the closer footpaths to check everything else was as it should be.

I popped into Ivy South Hide to have a look at the tern rafts and could make out quite a few Common tern chicks, although they were difficult to count especially when an adult came back with food and they all dashed around. Closer to the hide there was a pair of Black-headed gull chicks on one of the life-ring rafts and I watched the smaller one bobbing around in the water before it climbed back on to the raft:

Black-headed gull chicks (2)

Black-headed gull chick

Walking back up the Dockens path I saw another grass snake, this time a young one, basking on the large fallen tree close to the mushroom sculpture. I managed a quick photo before it disappeared over the back of the trunk:

Grass snake (3)

Grass snake

Further along the path I spotted another plant I have not noticed before, identified by Bob today as Tutsan. Tutsan is a deciduous flowering shrub in the Hypericum or St John’s Wort family, and native to western and southern Europe. Its leaves were apparently gathered and burned to ward off evil spirits on the eve of St. John’s Day and it has also been used to treat wounds and inflammation. The name Tutsan comes from the French words “tout” (all) and “sain” (healthy), a reference to the plant’s healing capabilities.

Tutsan

Tutsan

From the river dipping bridge I decided to head over to Tern Hide to have a look at Ibsley Water and see if there were any Ringlets in the area of rough grass between the pedestrian gate and car park height barrier. There were a couple flying about and I also saw my first Gatekeeper of the year, although it did not settle for a photo.

Ringlet (2)

Ringlet

Whilst photographing the Ringlet I noticed a hoverfly, Volucella pellucens, on the bramble flowers. Also called the Pellucid fly or Large Pied-hoverfly, it is one of the largest flies in Britain and has a striking ivory-white band across its middle and large dark spots on its wings. The adults favour bramble flowers and umbellifers whilst the larvae live in the nests of social wasps and bumblebees, eating waste products and bee larvae.

Volucella pellucens

Volucella pellucens

On reaching Tern Hide a movement caught my eye and I noticed a large wasps nest under the roof and to the right of the right hand door. I spent some time watching them flying in and out. Bob did head over there yesterday too to take a look and shared a photo, but here’s another:

Wasps and wasp nest

Wasps and wasp nest

Although we’re not going over there as regularly as we would have done under normal circumstances, I’m surprised neither of us had noticed it sooner given the size!

Yesterday afternoon we had a brief power outage whilst our supply was switched back from a generator to the mains, and as the sun was shining I took the opportunity to linger by the planters outside the Centre, chat to the few visitors that were passing and see which insects were visiting the flowers. Although we’ve shared a few Green-eyed flower bee photos before, they are so smart I couldn’t resist taking a few more photos of them when they either rested on the planter edge or paused for long enough on the vervain.

I also spotted an Alder beetle on the lavender, a bee enjoying the astrantia, a Large white butterfly on the verbena and a mint moth.

The mini meadow by the Welcome Hut is also still really good for insects, with Thick-legged flower beetles, hoverflies and Small skippers enjoying the remaining ox-eye daisies, yarrow and ragged robin. The hoverfly could I think be a male Long hoverfly,  Sphaerophoria scripta, with its narrow body noticeably longer than its wings. The female of this species is broader.

Today has been decidedly soggier, but I did watch a butterfly fly past in the rain and there are plenty of soggy looking damselflies trying to find shelter on the plant stems:

Our Young Naturalists group is kindly funded by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

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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

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 21

Another day in the garden, I would have gone out into the Forest, but it was obviously packed, so contented myself with insect hunting on my own small patch. As ever I started with the moths in the garden trap, which included a new species for me, although it was not the most spectacular moth you will ever see. It was a brown scallop and if the name sounds underwhelming it at least is not overselling.

brown scallop 4x3

brown scallop

It is not an abundant species anywhere but it does occur regularly in Hampshire, although almost entirely on the chalk and seemingly not in the New Forest area. The food plant is buckthorn, but even then it is not found everywhere this plant grows. A little more impressive was a shark, the moth not an actual shark (which would have been well beyond impressive!). This is a moth I see in most years and has caterpillars that eat sow-thistle and hawkweed species.

shark

shark

Back in April I caught a female emperor moth, which laid some eggs. The eggs hatched and are now almost fully grown caterpillars, having fed on willow, they will actually eat all kinds of things. but I had willow easily to hand. The emperor moth is one of the species in which the female produces an especially far carrying pheromone. When she is newly emerged she just sits near the cocoon and waits for the males, which fly by day, to find her. After mating the female will then fly of at dusk before laying her eggs, so moth traps tend to catch females, as a general rule for most species many more males are caught than females as they fly around far more at night in search of a mate. The caterpillars are very smart and quite variable.

emperors

emperor moth caterpillars

The emperor is our only representative of the family Saturniidae, the family that includes the silk moths and the largest moths in the world, such as the atlas moth and lunar moths.

Although the day was mostly sunny and warm there were rather few butterflies in the garden, but these few did include another silver-studded blue, this time a male and a very fresh one too.

silver-studded blue male 4x3

silver-studded blue (male)

The blue was very bright and colourful, but was outdone by a wasp I found on the wild carrot, it was a cuckoo wasp, that is to say a nest parasite of another species of wasp. they are generally difficult to identify, but I am informed this one is likely to be Chrysis viridula.

cuckoo bee 4x3

Chrysis viridula

30 Days Wild – Day 7

At home today and started with a short walk out onto the heath before breakfast and found several silver-studded blue taking advantage of the early sunshine. They seem to use two strategies to warm themselves. The first is to sit with wings closed turned an dangled to offer the greatest area facing towards the sun.

silver-studded blue male on cross-leaved heath

silver-studded blue male on cross-leaved heath

The other is to turn, head-down and three quarters open their wings to form a “dish” turned toward the sun.

silver-studded blue m 4x3

basking silver-studded blue (male)

I spent a short time in the garden before I had to go out and in a few minutes saw four species of butterflies, as many as I saw in nearly two hours of butterfly survey last week! These were a fly through red admiral, probably a migrant, but could have been locally reared from an earlier arrival. Then the first two meadow brown of the year in our mini-meadow.

meadow brown 4x3

meadow brown

Next I spotted a female silver-studded blue, not a typical garden butterfly, but this is the fifth year we have seen them here, in fact it was soon apparent there were two.

silver-studded blue f 4x3

silver-studded blue (female)

Then the excitement really kicked in, when a green hairstreak as found on an Allium, a completely new species for the garden and not a butterfly I see anywhere very often.

green hairstreak 4x3

green hairstreak

All in all a very splendid butterfly day! I can’t wait to see what Day 8 brings, actually I start every day with the hope of seeing something exciting and I am often not disappointed.

30 Days Wild – Day 8

A morning walk at Fishlake Meadows with a Wildlife Trust group got the day off to a good start, although rather windy and eventually curtailed by rain. We were looking at insects and flowers in Ashley Meadow, a part of the reserve that is not normally open to visitors. It has lush wet meadow and fen vegetation including a good population of southern marsh orchid.

Ashley Meadow flowers

Meadow vegetation with southern marsh orchids

Insects were rather few, but we did find larvae of the fleabane tortoise beetle, a few snail-killing flies and hoverflies, before the rain put an end to things. The canal was a little higher after the rain but the yellow water lily were keeping their heads above water well enough.

yellow lilies in Barge Canal

yellow water lily in the Barge Canal

Back at home by lunchtime today as the walk was a morning only event, th esun came out and a quick check soon found the silver-studded blue just about a metre from where I left it yesterday.

silver-studded blue

silver-studded blue

Something hopped onto the grass close by, a grasshopper nymph, the first I have seen in the garden this year, although it is already well grown, so I must have just missed it until now.

field grasshopper nymph

grasshopper nymph, I think of field grasshopper.

As it was World Oceans Day I thought I should go down to the sea, so made a quick trip to Lepe. A steady passage of common tern carrying fish suggests that breeding to the west is going well, so far, I just hope the storm has not flooded out too many nests.

Lepe

The Solent at Lepe

Even though it is June the last twenty-four hours have been decidedly wild, in not such a good way, with unseasonable wind and a fair bit of rain.

A different sort of wild tomorrow as it is the Wood Fair at Roydon Woods and I will be there doing some mini-beats walks and generally enjoying this fabulous site and of course all the exhibits and stalls.

30 Days Wild – Day 7 – Blue out of the Grey

Not perhaps the best day to be wild, but after a long dry spell much of our wildlife will be welcoming the rain. Birds like song thrush and blackbird need worms to rear their young. The snails will welcome some rain as it will deflect the thrush from eating them and enable them to get out and eat my vegetable plants!

However it did not rain all day and in a brief sunny interlude I found a blue butterfly in my mini-meadow and not just any blue, but a male silver-studded blue.

silver-studded blue 4x3

silver-studded blue (male)

To record an odd individual might not seem a great surprise, but I have seen them every year and sometimes several individuals of both sexes. This is a heathland species, renowned for having colonies that are very localised. In fact research has shown that most travel no more than 50m from where they hatch and many only up to 20m. Their flight is quite weak and usually low to the ground, in short they don’t get out much!

When I see them in the garden they are in the mini-meadow, a tiny grassland about 4m x 5m, otherwise the garden has a small lawn and flower borders with a small vegetable patch, no heath at all. What is more I live in the midst of ordinary suburban gardens, across two roads there is the New Forest, but even then it is short turf and conifer plantation. The nearest silver-studded blue colony is relatively close at 750m away, but it seems that this is something like 15 times as far as even an fairly intrepid silver-studded blue would go in a lifetime. To cover this distance would also involve not crossing open heath, but a large conifer plantation, two roads with hedges and a further line of trees. Even stranger the butterflies I see are, like today’s, not well travelled, worn, veterans but freshly emerged and pristine.

Silver-studded blue have remarkable lifestyles, their association with ants is only matched by the large blue. The newly hatched larvae are taken into the nests of one of two species of black ant and only venture out at night to feed on a variety of plants, but on heaths, usually heather or gorse seedlings. The caterpillars secrete a sweet substance beloved by ants, in fact it seems they suffer when it is not removed by ants.

The mystery of why I see them regularly in my garden remains, maybe they do breed in my meadow, but if so they are feeding on bird’s foot trefoil, something the heathland variety does not usually do, although they do so in limestone areas such as on the Great Ormes Head. It would also need there to be the right ants present, something I cannot confirm and it would be in a very atypical habitat, so seems very unlikely.

silver-studded blue closed

Settling before the next rain shower.

If anyone can shed any light on this mystery I would be delighted to hear, I am at a loss to explain why they appear so often so far from their nearest colony.

30 Days Wild – Day 29 – One More Time Out with the Blues

Just two days to go before another 30 Days are over. I spent part of Day 29 in my garden mostly looking at the meadow.

What’s in My Meadow Today?

There continue to be a good few small skipper and today also one large skipper, although in the heat it was so active that, try as I might, I could not get a picture of it. The hot weather suits most insects very well, allowing them to be more active for longer periods of the day. This may well mean that many species will be around for a shorter period than we are used to as they will have managed to fulfil their destiny and breed successfully in less time than usual. So I anticipate that lots of butterflies will be recorded in high numbers but for a short season if this weather continues.

Many people will know the common chafer beetle, sometimes called a “May bug” which flies mainly in May, but the smaller summer chafer is less well known, although still common. It seems to be having a good season as I am seeing more than I can remember this year. I got a picture of one on top of a wild carrot flower head.

summer chafer catching evening sun

summer chafer catching evening sun

I have featured a number of species of bee in this blog but honey-bee does not often get  a look in. The honey-bee Apis mellifera also known as the western honey-bee is our familiar bee species for most people. Its population in the UK is probably dependent upon domestic, artificial hive based colonies and it is speculated that it arrived here with humans at some time in the distant past. That said the honey-bees in more northern areas are darker and better able to maintain colonies in cooler conditions and it has been suggested these are native populations, they certainly seem to be genetically distinct from the more familiar paler bees found in southern England. Although most honey-bees do live in colonies in man made hives wild colonies are not unusual and there was a colony in a large Turkey oak at Blashford Lakes for several years, although it now seems to have been abandoned.

honey bee on field scabious

honey-bee on field scabious

Although I did get out to take a look in the meadow most of the day was taken up with domestic activities. So as the evening was fine I took the chance to go out onto the nearby Forest to see the silver-studded blue once more. There were many groups roosting in the heather, often ten or more together and probably 80 or more roosting in no more than about 0.3ha.

silver-studded blue female

roosting silver-studded blue (female)

roosting silver-studded blue

roosting silver-studded blue

Just one more post to go in the “30 Days”.

30 Days Wild – Day 22 – True Love

It seems we are having a very odd year, after a winter with some wintry weather we now have a summer with summery weather. I was late into Blashford as I had to attend a meeting off-site in the morning,  the moth catch was somewhat reduced after a rather cool night but did include a very fresh true lover’s knot. The name derives from the complex pattern, the name “true lover’s knot” has been associated with many actual knots, perhaps most often with one comprising two circular but interlocking knots that can move but not be pulled apart.

true lover's knot

true lover’s knot

The moth is common and although a heathland species feeding on heathers, will wander widely so is often caught well away from this habitat, they probably also feed on heathers in gardens.

I spent much of the afternoon mowing paths, a rather thankless task, as soon as I cut the strip beside the path the taller vegetation behind tends to fall, resulting in a path that is barely more passable than before.

Locking up at the end of the day I came across a pair of spiders, looking somewhat “loved-up”. I don’t think this species is one where the male is at great risk, but it probably still pays to go carefully when your partner is much larger and a fierce predator with a mean set of fangs! (or perhaps long-jaws).

pair of spiders

A pair of spiders – possibly the long-jawed orb weaver

Mating in spiders is achieved by the male passing a sperm packet, using his modified pedipalps and I think this maybe what is happening in this picture.

It was still very sunny and warm when I arrived home and took a look in the garden.

What’s in My Meadow Today?

The grass is really drying out now and flowering of many plants is accelerating. The knapweed is well out now, having gone from nothing to loads of flowers in just two or three days.

knapweed 2

common knapweed

Common knapweed is actually rather infrequent in true meadows, at least in southern England  as they would get cut before it goes to seed, it is more frequent in rough pasture or roadsides that are not excessively cut. It is a very good nectar source for lots of insects and so a couple of plants are a must for me.

It was a very fine evening and I realised I had not yet gone to look for the roosting silver-studded blue on the heath over the road form my house. These butterflies form small colonies usually on damp heathland and will roost in groups, typically on a slight slope that gets the last rays of the sun each evening. They make great subjects for photography, although the low light levels by this time of the day are always an issue.

silver-studded blue 5

roosting silver-studded blue (female)

silver-studded blue 2

roosting silver-studded blue (male)

The low light can offer the option of taking either with the light, as the top picture, or against, as in the lower.

Although the site is officially “wet heath” it is now bone dry and lots of the plants that should be surrounded by spongy bog are high and dry, which makes them much easier to photograph without getting wet knees. There were several bog asphodel plants in flower.

bog asphodel

bog asphodel

With the sun having set we were heading back when a cotton grass head standing out pure white in the gloom caught our eyes, in a typical year walking to a cotton grass plant could mean being up to your knees in a bog.

cotton grass

cotton grass seed head after sunset

Going out on the heath on a fine summer’s evening is magical and certainly something everyone should do if they can, ideally carry on well after sunset and go and listen for nightjar, woodcock and snipe, what could be better! Britain is home to a large part of the European lowland heath, valley mire and a lot of it’s upland counterpart too come to that, so it is a very British experience.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 15 – Forest Visitors

I had most of the day off today and everything I have for the blog today comes under the  heading of……

What’s in My Meadow Today?

At first there did not seem to be much in the garden today, then I saw a dragonfly, at first I could not get to the right angle to see it through the grass, so I was not sure what is was. Eventually I could see it was a keeled skimmer, a species characteristic of the small boggy streams of the New Forest. When they first emerge dragonflies move away from water to feed up and mature. Once they are ready to mate they will return, where males will hold temporary territories and try to attract visiting females.

keeled skimmer

immature keeled skimmer

I have seen this species in the garden before in previous years,but this was my first this year.

Looking around a bit more I saw a blue butterfly, looking very fresh I thought it was unlikely to be a common blue, as these have been out for some time now and sure enough it was a silver-studded blue.

silver-studded blue

silver-studded blue (male)

These wander from the heaths of the New Forest, and occasionally we see several in the garden, but this was my first this year. The Forest is probably the best area in the whole country for these butterflies which are heathland specialists, their caterpillars feeding on heathers. Where they occur is not as simple as where their foodplant is though, the heather has to be quite short and they also need the right species of ant to be present. The larvae actually live in the nests of black ants during the day, only coming out at night to feed, apparently being protected by the ants. The adults when they hatch out of the pupa continue to get protection form ants as their wings harden, droplets left on the body as they hatch seem to attract the ants. Remarkable and very beautiful little butterflies and a joy to have visit the meadow.

I have included several references to wild carrot previously in this blog, one of the  reasons I have it in the meadow is that it is an attractive nectar source, especially for hoverflies. looking a the largest plant in the meadow I noticed a hoverfly feeding with others hovering above it. The feeding fly was a female and the others were males engaged in a competitive hovering, hoping to impress her with their skills and so their fitness as a partner.

hovering contest 3

hovering contest

They are one of the dronefly species, Eristalis nemorum (Thanks Russ). Although the picture was taken at over 1/1000 sec the wings of the hovering males are still a blur.

My back garden meadow may not be large but if I look closely there is a lot going on in it.