From pond to meadow

At the beginning of June we re-started our Wildlife Tots sessions, discovering the weedy depths of the Blashford Pond. 

Our morning session started with a rescue, with Isabelle fishing this Emperor dragonfly out of the pond. It was quite happy to be handled, or relieved to be rescued, so we were all able to take a really good look.

I then relocated it to a safer spot, where it could finish drying off. It was still there when we met the afternoon group, so they were able to take a look at it too before it flew off. 

Emperor dragonfly

Emperor dragonfly

Newly emerged adult dragonflies are known as tenerals. They are weaker in flight and paler in colour. As the body and wings harden off they begin hunting for food, spending about a week feeding away from water and gradually acquiring their adult colouration. They are then ready to return to the pond to mate. 

It was a good day to look for dragonflies, we found lots of exuvia on the vegetation around the edge of the pond and found another newly emerged Emperor dragonfly along with a newly emerged Broad-bodied chaser.

Dragonfly exuvia

Dragonfly exuvia

Emperor dragonfly (4)

Emperor dragonfly

Broad bodied chaser

Broad-bodied chaser

From the pond itself we caught dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, newts and a caseless caddisfly nymph, amongst others: 

It was also nice to see the other insects enjoying the vegetation around the edge of the pond, like this honeybee, large red damselfly and figwort sawfly:

Honeybee

Honeybee

 

Large red damselfly

Large red damselfly

Figwort sawfly

Figwort sawfly

At the end of the day I was lucky enough to spot another dragonfly emerge, this time it was a Black-tailed skimmer:

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So it was a very good day for dragonflies!

At the beginning of July we headed to the meadow. On the edge of the lichen heath we spotted this small tortoiseshell butterfly:

Small tortoiseshell

Small tortoiseshell

As we went in to the meadow we disturbed this grass snake, and we watched it slither up the hill to the birch trees at the top.  

Grass snake

Grass snake

We then sat quietly and did a still hunt, looking closely at the miniature world of the meadow around us before using sweep nets to catch grasshoppers, spiders, beetles, true bugs and more.

Meadow sweeping

Meadow sweeping

We also saw a solitary bee, small skipper butterfly, ruby-tailed wasp and marmalade hoverfly:

Solitary bee

Solitary bee

Small skipper

Small skipper

Ruby-tailed wasp

Ruby-tailed wasp

Marmalade hoverfly

Marmalade hoverfly

My highlight from the meadow though was this solitary wasp, the Bee-wolf. The females prey on honeybees, paralysing them with a sting and carrying them back to their sandy burrow. Up to six paralysed honeybees are placed in each chamber within the burrow, then a single egg is laid and the chamber is sealed with sand. After hatching, the larva feed on the honeybees before spinning a cocoon to hibernate in through the winter and emerging the following spring.

Bee wolf

Bee-wolf

Bee wolf

Bee wolf

Our Wildlife Tots group offers fun outdoor play and wildlife discovery activities for pre-school aged children and their parents or carers once a month, usually (but not always!) on the first Monday. After a break in August, we will be meeting again in September, and details will be available on the events page of our website soon. 

Small copper

Small copper

Of moths and other insects, and a bit more besides…

I’ve fallen behind with my Young Naturalists updates, but since meeting at the reserve for the first time in April, enjoying the bird song and river dipping, we’ve been out onsite enjoying all the reserve has to offer, looking for reptiles, improving our moth identification, pond dipping and enjoying the insect life in the meadow. We’ve also been campfire cooking and improving the biodiversity of one part of the reserve by spreading wildflower seed. 

At the end of May we went for a walk on the northern part of the reserve, in the hope of finding some reptiles. We saw chiff chaff, blackcap and reed bunting and enjoyed listening to the reed warblers and Cetti’s warblers calling in the reed bed. 

We headed off into the reedbed to check some of the reptile refugia or felts used by the volunteers when they survey the reptiles. Our first sighting however wasn’t of a reptile, instead we found this caterpillar of the Oak eggar moth on top of one of the felts:

oak eggar caterpillar

Oak eggar caterpillar

The hairy caterpillars feed on bramble, blackthorn, willow, hawthorn, hazel and other woody plants.

Under another refugia we were lucky enough to see our first reptiles, finding two adders. The first disappeared quickly into the vegetation, but the second stayed long enough for some of the group to get a good look and take some photos:

adder Daisy Meadowcroft

Adder by Daisy Meadowcroft

Adder by Daisy Meadowcroft

Adder by Daisy Meadowcroft

After leaving the reed bed we saw speckled woods enjoying the sunshine and watched the sand martins flying over Goosander Hide. We also saw a female adder basking on the bank by the hide.

After lunch we decided to pond dip, catching a very smart male smooth newt:

smooth newt

Smooth newt

We also caught an impressive Emperor dragonfly nymph, which given the number of exuvia around the edge of the pond was a bit of a surprise, there were still more lurking in there!

Emperor dragonfly nymph

Emperor dragonfly nymph

Dragonfly exuvia

Dragonfly exuvia

Dragonfly exuvia 2

Dragonfly exuvia

The larva’s final moult takes place out of the water. As the adult dragonfly emerges from its larval skin, the cast skin or exuvia is left behind. It’s always fun to carefully look for evidence of their metamorphosis amongst the vegetation (and man made structures!) in the pond margins and the group had a good hunt, photographing their finds.

In June I had planned to spend the session focusing on insects, but with the weather so changeable we ended up adding in some campfire cooking as well. We began by looking through the moth trap where the highlight was this Poplar hawk-moth:

Poplar hawk moth

Poplar hawk-moth

Alex with a Poplar hawk moth

Alex with the Poplar hawk-moth

We also had a Buff tip, with its amazing camouflage, a very smart Muslin moth and a Burnished brass:

Buff tip

Buff tip, doing its best broken silver birch twig impression

Muslin moth

Muslin moth

Burnished brass

Burnished brass

Rummaging through the moth trap didn’t take very long, and with the sun briefly making an appearance we hot footed it to the meadow before the showers came.

Meadow sweeping

Meadow sweeping

In the meadow we saw a small skipper butterfly, grasshoppers, a speckled bush cricket, a green leaf weevil and a green-eyed flower bee enjoying the selfheal.

We also saw a number of Thick-legged flower beetles, also known as swollen-thighed beetles and false oil beetles. They are often seen on the flowers of ox-eye daisies and other open-structured flowers and only the males have swollen thighs:

Thick legged flower beetle

Male Thick-legged flower beetle on Ox-eye Daisy

Female Thick-legged flower beetle

Female Thick-legged flower beetle on Perforate St John’s-wort

The meadow and the lichen heath are both covered in Perforate St John’s-wort at the moment, it is having a really good year. Traditionally it was used as a remedy for all kinds of ailments, including wounds and burns, and is still popular today for the treatment of mild depression. Research and opinions however differ on how effective the latter is.

It can be identified by its bright yellow star shaped flowers and the tiny ‘holes’ in its leaves. The holes are in fact colourless glands that apparently give off a foxy smell. If you hold a leaf up to the sun, the tiny holes are easy to see, but they’re definitely more obvious on a sunny day!

Perforate St John's Wort

Tiny ‘holes’ in the leaves of Perforate St John’s-wort on a sunnier day

After a short while in the meadow, we headed back to the Centre collecting nettle tops on the way to make some nettle soup. We also picked some mint and lemon balm from around the pond to make tea. After gathering the kit and our lunches, we headed to the campfire area.

Alex decided to toast his sandwich and after eating we boiled some water for the tea and made our soup. Both had mixed reactions, although to be fair some teas did contain nettle, mint and lemon balm and we possibly gave the wrong person the nettles to wash… so our soup did contain a number of less welcome additions!

July’s session was also influenced by the weather. I had planned to do the Big Butterfly Count with the group last Sunday, something we have participated in with them for the last few years. The UK wide survey is running until the 8th August, so there’s still time to take part if you would like to, you just need 15 minutes and a sunny spot…

Thankfully, moth trapping has improved over the past few weeks, with more species and numbers of moths coming to the traps, and we were able to spend the morning having a good look through and identifying most of what we found.

Daisy made a list of those we were able to identify (we lost a few on opening the traps and some of the micro moths did stump us) and we managed to record 70 moths of 39 species in the first trap and 63 moths of 28 species in the second trap. Both traps were close to the Centre, with one positioned out the front towards the mini meadow by the Welcome Hut and the other positioned out the back of the building.

Our grand total from the Saturday night was 133 moths of 52 species. Here are some of the highlights:

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The Large emerald in particular proved popular:

Large emerald 2

Large emerald

Rosie photographing the large emerald

Rosie photographing the large emerald

After lunch, we went back to the meadow to see if the Bird’s-foot trefoil had gone to seed. If it had, we were going to collect some to add to the other seed we had from Bob to sow, but unfortunately it wasn’t quite ready. We did see a Common blue butterfly resting on a seed head:

Common blue

Common blue

We then went looking for wasp spiders on the lichen heath, managing to find two in amongst the soft rush. Their colours mimic the common wasp, keeping them safe from predators.

Wasp spider

Wasp spider

Wasp spiders build large orb webs in grassland and heathland. Their webs are quite distinctive, with a wide white zig-zag running down the middle known as a stabilimentum.

After some impromptu boat making by Kimberley and Harry, we stopped off at the river to see whether or not their boats would sail:

We then began our seed sowing, adding Bluebell seed in amongst the hazels to the side of the path between the bridge over the Dockens Water and the road crossing to Tern Hide. We swept away the leaf litter and put the seed thinly on the soil surface, before brushing the leaves back over to cover them.

We then crossed over the road towards Tern Hide and went through the gate to the part of the site currently still closed to visitors. This was once a concrete plant, and when the plant was demolished we began restoring the area, including the old main entrance roadway. Although it has taken time, this spot is now well colonised by lots of plants and our addition of some extra seed will hopefully help improve it even more. 

We added Wild carrot to the driveway, scattering it thinly onto patches of bare ground, Devils-bit scabious up on the bank as it prefers a deeper soil and Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon on the same bank, poking each seed individually into the ground using a pencil (we also saved some of these for the mini meadow by the Welcome Hut). Finally we also added Yellow rattle seed and some assorted hawkbits and crow garlic.

Fingers crossed some of them come up!

Thank you to the Cameron Bespolka Trust for funding our purchase of tools and equipment for the group.  

Green-eyed flower bee

Green-eyed flower bee on Inula hookeri by the Education Centre

 

30 Days Wild – Day 23

A day off so went out for a couple of short walks. The first was on the coast at an ex industrial site now long since colonised by nature and lots of it. There were meadow brown, marbled white and my fist small skipper of the year flying over a flowery grassland interspersed with belts of magnificent scrub. I failed to get any pictures of the butterflies but did manage this which is probably a heath sand wasp.

heath sand wasp

Later in the day I went out on the Forest walking round Shatterford area. Lots of stonechat, singing woodlark, one of my favourites, melodic and melancholy, and what may be my last cuckoo of the year. Coming back to the car as the sun was going down the cotton grass was looking very fine indeed.

cotton grass

Although it can get very busy at times the New Forest is a magnificent area, it is not so much that it gets too many visitors, that is a hard judgement to make, but it gets too many who perhaps don’t see it for the wonder it is. There are lots of competing claims of the Forest resources and everyone feels entitled to “Their share”. However I think this is to look at things the wrong way, the Forest is not something to portion out and consume, we should not be using it up. Everyone who uses the Forest has an impact upon it, we all need recognise this and try to make it as small as possible, ideally so small it cannot be noticed, access with responsibility. Obviously the same goes for all our countryside and in fact everywhere we share, but somehow these issues become more obvious in a National Park setting.

Tigers, kittens and emperors

Emptying the moth trap this morning revealed a beautiful garden tiger moth, which was definitely a treat to see. When disturbed they display their orange hind wings with blue-black spots, the bright colours acting as a reminder to predators that they are unpalatable.

Garden tiger

Garden tiger moth

Garden tiger 2

Garden tiger moth

The larvae of the garden tiger moth are large, black and covered in long, dense, black and ginger hairs, giving them their name the ‘woolly bear’. They feed on stinging nettles, dock leaves and a variety of garden plants. They can be seen from August until the following June and are often seen moving rapidly across bare ground when fully grown so are a good caterpillar to keep an eye out for, although it is best to leave them to it if you do see one as the hairs can irritate.

When the sun is shining the pond is still a brilliant to spot to look for dragonflies, with common darters often resting up on a chosen spot and both brown hawkers and emperor dragonflies hawking overhead or egg laying:

Common darter

Common darter resting on a picnic bench

Emperor dragonfly

Male emperor dragonfly pausing briefly on vegetation

There are still plenty of damselflies around and I managed to photograph this pair of common blue damselflies mating. The male is blue and the female is a more camouflaged olive green colour:

Common blue damselflies

Common blue damselflies mating

The male dragonflies and damselflies have two pairs of hooks at the tip of the abdomen which they use to grasp either the neck (in damselflies) or head (in dragonflies) of the female. Pairs can often be seen flying together in tandem and shortly after capturing a female they will mate and form the ‘wheel position’ seen in the image above. Some species remain coupled for several hours amongst vegetation whilst others, like the chaser dragonflies, couple briefly for just a few seconds. Following mating the female is ready to lay eggs.

There are also still plenty of butterflies on the wing, including this common blue which was outside the front of the centre earlier today.

Common blue

Common blue

On Sunday we held another of our online Young Naturalist catch ups where we expanded on the last session delivered by Owain from Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and discussed all six native reptiles. We were treated to some fantastic photos by Kimberley, taken on her phone, of a very friendly male sand lizard she had encountered whilst walking her dog at Dewlands Common in Verwood.

I used to visit Dewlands Common regularly when employed by East Dorset District Council so it is great to know they are still present on the site.

Will also shared some photos he had taken, including a lovely photo of a wool carder bee on lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina). We had been hoping the lamb’s ear in one of the planters outside the Education Centre would attract wool carder bees as they will scrape hairs from the leaves to line and seal the brood cells in their nests, but sadly there has been no sign of any.

Will also shared a photo of a small skipper butterfly which was taken up on the Laverstock Downs, a gatekeeper which he had photographed at Horatio’s Garden at Salisbury Hospital, and an abandoned robin’s nest in his bird box at home – the robin’s had for some reason moved elsewhere.

We also looked at the moths in the light trap, where the highlight was this very fresh looking Sallow kitten:

Sallow kitten

Sallow kitten

Finally regular visitor and volunteer Phil shared this photo with us of the Osprey which visited on the 16th July. It was only here on that day, but did spend quite some time sat on the perch out on Ibsley Water and Phil was able to get a photo from a distance. I was on leave that week so completely missed it!

Osprey by Phil West

Osprey by Phil West

Our Young Naturalists are kindly supported by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

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The native and the more exotic…

This morning I was getting ready for our online Young Naturalists session when I spotted a Large skipper by the pond, the first one I’ve seen this year. It stayed there for some time although I couldn’t see it later on in the day, despite a bit of looking.

They have a pretty faint chequered pattern on the wings, so are easy to tell apart from the similar Small and Essex skippers which fly at the same time.

Large skipper

Large skipper

We have just had our Centre wifi improved enabling us to teach online whilst outside, which is great for our fortnightly Young Naturalists sessions and, although too late for this term, will also allow us to offer virtual sessions to schools as things slowly return to some kind of normal in the autumn.

I tested it out today, running our fortnightly session from the shelter behind the Centre, emptying the moth trap with the group (sadly there weren’t many moths) and showing them the evidence of leaf-cutter bees in the bug hotel.

outdoor classroom

All set up for today’s virtual Young Naturalists session

Whilst outside I also spotted a male blackbird sunbathing on the top of the bug hotel, and managed to take a couple of distant photos:

Blackbird

Blackbird 2

I then watched it bathing in the pond, but wasn’t quite in the right place to get a photo.

For our Young Naturalists session today we were joined by Owain Masters, Public Engagement and Education Officer for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust’s Snakes in the Heather project. The project aims to raise public awareness of the conservation needs of our native reptiles andFinal heathland heritage, helping to promote a better understanding that will safeguard their future. In particular it focuses on the conservation of the smooth snake, Britain’s rarest reptile.

Although not present on the reserve, we are lucky to have them locally on the sandy heaths of Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey.

Owain shared his passion for snakes with the group, talked about the three species native to the UK and tested the group with a fun quiz, ‘snake or fake’, to see what information they had picked up whilst he had been talking. He had been due to join us onsite for a session so it was great he could join us online and hopefully we will be able to reschedule his site visit at some point in the future.

Given our session had a reptile theme, the group’s show and tell was also distinctly reptilian, with Thomas and Harry sharing photos of their pet geckos. Slightly more exotic than our native snakes! Apologies to Alex’s mum… a second gecko may now be on the cards…

The group also shared a few native reptile encounters, with Harry, Thomas and Alex talking about their adder encounters, Cameron and Torey sharing a photo their dad had taken of a grass snake outside the front of Ivy South Hide and Will sharing a photo of a common lizard:

Will also talked about seeing osprey at Fishlake Meadows and watching a collared dove from his bedroom window that was nesting in his garden. He had also seen a large white butterfly, red admiral, scarlet tiger moth and female stag beetle.

Finally, Cameron shared some really lovely landscape photos from a walk around Whitsbury, near Fordingbridge:

Next time we will be chatting a bit more about reptiles and looking at all six species naive to the UK and have our usual rummage through the light trap. It will be interesting to see what wildlife they have all encountered between now and then.

After the session was over I had another look by the pond for the large skipper but had to content myself with this lovely skipper instead, I think a small skipper rather than an Essex skipper.

Small skipper

Small skipper

Finally, towards the end of the day a very kind visitor pointed out a crab spider that was lurking in amongst the buddleia flowers by the pond. After a bit of searching, I think its a goldenrod or flower crab spider. Its pale colouring and purple stripes did help it blend in really well with the flowers, I have no idea how they spotted it!

Goldenrod or flower crab spider Misumena vatia

Goldenrod or flower crab spider, Misumena vatia

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

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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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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

All the small things

I spent some time in the meadow last Thursday and again yesterday, it feels as though it is going over more quickly than usual this year because it has been so dry so it was nice to take a closer look and see which insects are on the wing.

Last week I found a male and female bee-wolf, a solitary wasp that digs a nest in a sandy spot and hunts honey bees. The males gather together to form a lek, where each male defends a small territory and uses pheromones to attract a female. The females work a lot harder, digging a nesting burrow which can be up to one metre long and may have as many as 34 side burrows that end in brood chambers. Once excavation on the burrow has begun, the female will prey on honeybee workers, paralysing them with a sting and bringing them back to the burrow. Up to six paralysed bees can be placed into one chamber then a single egg is laid on one of the bees and chamber is sealed up with sand. After hatching, the larvae feed on the honeybees before spinning a cocoon to hibernate in throughout the winter, emerging in the spring.

I also found a number of different solitary bees enjoying the ox-eye daisies. I’ve been trying to learn a few more bees this year, but the solitary ones are quite hard. They were fun to photograph though!

I also spotted a ladybird larva, a female thick-legged flower beetle (the males have the thick back legs) and a pair of fairy-ring longhorn beetles.

The highlight yesterday was this small skipper, the only butterfly I saw in the meadow when I visited:

When I was there yesterday I had two great views of a fox cub, both sightings took me by surprise so there is no photo, but it first walked up the slope outside the meadow then a bit later came through the ox-eye daisies in the middle before disappearing through the fence. I’m assuming it was the same cub, but I suppose it could have been two different ones.

In the woodland there are lots of scorpion flies on the nettles and I also spotted a speckled bush cricket nymph. The dock are being devoured by the larvae of the green dock beetle, who have completely stripped the leaves from many. If you look closely you can see the larvae along with the occasional shiny green beetle.

I also had my first sightings of grass snake yesterday, although my first was actually this dead one on the path near the meadow, I’m assuming it was predated by a bird:

dead grass snake

Dead grass snake

Having a dead grass snake as my first for this year, I decided to go down towards Ivy South hide and see if I could spot a live one in the dead hedge and was rewarded with two:

There were two there again this morning.

Going back to the reserve’s insect life, the planters outside the front of the centre are still continuing to attract large numbers of bees, hoverflies, horseflies, shield bugs and damselflies and this morning I had glimpses of a dark bush cricket and a ruby tailed wasp. Sadly no photos of either, I will have to keep looking every time I walk past…

The moth trap numbers have decreased again with the drop in temperature, but last week there was a very smart eyed hawk-moth in the trap and yesterday there was a spectacle moth:

You can guess how the spectacle moth gets his name…

Yesterday I noticed a jay spending quite a bit of time on the ground outside the back of the Centre and I watched it for some time sunning itself, stretching its wings, shaking and preening. It could have been dust bathing, but the picnic bench was in the way to see properly. After a while I managed to get a few photos:

It was joined by a great spotted woodpecker, who spent some time hopping around on the ground, possibly looking for ants, before flying up to a tree.

The woodpecker was sat calling from the bench a short while ago, so it must be a favoured spot.

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!

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”.