Sunday, 18 June 2017

An Invertebrate Interlude

It's the best time of the year for seeing invertebrates and I've certainly been seeing a lot lately. When you start to look closely at nettles and flowers like cow parsley you start to find yourself in a magical miniature world. I'm declaring today's blog post an invertebrate special.

Let's start with the lepidoptera- the butterflies and moths. I've several of these lovely bright cinnabar moths lately.

Yesterday I was stunned to see a huge elephant hawk moth flutter past but sadly I wasn't able to get a photo of the magnificent animals. Another magnificent moth was this considerably smaller one, a common tubic

Most moths are considerably more understated than those, like this nettle-tap moth

These small moths get their name from their fondness for nettles and I saw lots of these around a large stretch of nettles recently. Another under-stated moth is this brown silver-line

This species likes bracken and you can probably just about make out that there is a piece of bracken right in front of it. I saw this moth up in the New Forest but a more spectacular Forest sighting was this silver studded blue

This is yet another species that is in decline in the UK as it's habitat is heathland. I'm always grateful that I can easily visit the New Forest and the heathlands in Dorset as otherwise I wouldn't have a chance to see species like this.

Moving on, take a look at this flower I took a photo of. 

In a quick glance this looks simply like a honey bee on a flower. But look more closely and you can see that this honey bee has fallen victim to a waiting crab spider (Misumena vatia). These spider lay in wait for prey and can capture surprisingly large items. What's really cool about these spiders though is that they can change colour by secreting a pigment into the outer cell layer of their bodies. In the US they generally live on goldenrod flowers and are bright yellow! 

Here's a sizeable insect, an ichneumon wasp (Achaius oratorius)

These are one of those species of wasps with an unpleasant life cycle. The female finds a host insect to lay an egg on or inside. When they hatch the larval ichneumon feeds on the host, killing it when it is ready to pupate. That's nature for you!

Here's a rather impressive fly, an Empis livida dance fly

These flies can be found in hedgerows and are nectar feeders, hence the long proboscis. That suggests they are probably pollinators so as unattractive as species like this are they are still really important. 

Finally, here's a damselfly which I don't think I've featured on this blog before, a large red damselfly

These bright damselflies are the first damsels to emerge in the UK and are found around still and slow moving water sources. There is actually another species, the small red, which is very similar but that is rarer, though the New Forest is something of a stronghold. 

Well that's all for today but I hoped you liked this trip into the world of invertebrates. If you are walking near a hedgerow at this time of year look closely at the leaves and flowers and you never quite know what strange things you will find!

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Birds and Bees

We're reaching the peak time of the year for wildlife so I've got quite a backlog of things to share with you.

First up, I spotted these harlequin ladybirds on a leaf near the River Itchen.

These are of course an invasive species which predate on our native ladybirds. What's interesting in this photo is the fact these two ladybirds look completely different but are actually exactly the same species. This one of the most variable species in the world and in my experience they are even highly varied in local populations, as above. 

Sometimes I spot something out of the corner of my eye and then have to try and work out where it went. One of these recent moments was on the edge of a field where I eventually managed to spot this cinnabar moth in the grass. 

This was likely a newly emerged moth. In the UK cinnabar caterpillars generally live on ragwort, a poisonous plant which is often removed from fields so that horses don't eat it. The bright colours on the moth serve as a warning to predators, as red often does in the natural world, as thanks to their diet these moths are unpalatable. 

Another lepidoptera sighting recently was this meadow brown.

As the name suggests, the larvae of this butterfly feed on grasses. I think this is probably a female because it has a very bright orange section- the male's have reduced orange areas. You can see two very small "eyes" on the underside of this butterfly- these are actually variable with between zero and six on each wing. 

I've also been enjoying watching bees going about their business at the moment. We are fortunate locally to have a sizeable population of honey bees. How many of these are wild and not from hives is impossible to know but either way, it means lots of pollination is going on.

There's plenty of other species of bees around too. 

This is a tree bumblebee. The amazing thing about this bee is that it was first found in the UK in only 2001 but is now widespread throughout England and Wales. Older ID book don't even list this species. They like to nest above ground and often inhabit bird boxes. 

The other most common species I've been seeing are buff-tailed bumblebees

There are several species of bee which look very similar with a white tail. However, this species has a subtle buff line separating the tail from the abdomen. You can download the Great British Bee Count App for a great ID guide and to help Friends of the Earth survey bees. 

At first glance there are plenty of other species which look like bees but actually aren't. These are usually hoverflies such as this one which I think is Volucela pellucens

This appearance is a clever disguise to make predators think it has a defensive sting like bees and wasps. It's not the only way this species is devious too- it lays its eggs in wasp nests where the larvae then feed on young wasps and dead adults. Despite the nests being well-guarded the wasps don't notice these hoverflies, perhaps because they can't distinguish them from wasps. 

Time for some birds now! Last week I visited Lymington-Keyhaven Nature Reserve. It's relatively quiet there at the moment now that all the winter migrants have gone but there were plenty of common terns around. 

Nicknamed 'sea swallows' due to their long tails, these are graceful fliers which can hover over water before plunging down to catch a fish. They come to the UK to breed and their eggs will have been hatching over the last few weeks. There's a fairly sizeable colony at Blashford Lakes right now. 

Another magnificent bird I saw at the reserve was this buzzard

Buzzards, like most birds of prey, look best when they are in the air doing what they do best. 

I haven't shared an update on the Bournemouth peregrine falcons for a few weeks now. The chicks were ringed on the 16th May where it was discovered there were two males and one female, the same as in 2016. I think the three chicks have now left the nest but here are a few shots from the last few weeks showing that they now look like adult birds. The birds become very active towards the end of their time in the nest which is why you can't see all three of them in all of these shots.

I'm pleased to be able to share another local peregrine falcon nest with you. We're a bit spoilt locally with the peregrines in Bournemouth College Clock Tower, Salisbury Cathedral (as being shown on this year's Springwatch) and for the first time there are now peregrines nesting on a water tower in New Milton. And there's a camera thanks to Bournemouth Water. 

Here's the three young being fed by a parent on the 7th June:

And here they are today in front of the nest, a little obscured by sunlight. 

You can watch this camera here, but you have to log in first- the username is water and the password is wat3r. There's more information on Bournemouth Water's website here.

That's all for today, thanks for reading as always.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Garden Bioblitz 2017

At the weekend it was this year's garden bioblitz. A bioblitz is when you survey an area and identify all the species in it- for gardens, that means anything that wasn't introduced by humans.

The easiest thing to look for are the birds. We get a decent range of birds in the garden but the species seen varies on a day to day basis. Over the 24 hours of the survey I spotted six different species in the garden. The loudest and most obvious birds, as usual, were starlings.

This is a starling that was not happy with my presence in the garden. You can see how it is able to make such a loud screech by having the ability to open it's mouth widely. This aggressive screeching is probably the most common sound you hear from starling but they make a variety of noises and are talented mimics which can copy the sounds of around twenty different species of birds. They've been known to be able to mimic human speech too, like parrots- you can find lots of videos online of starlings doing just that (like this one).

Another of the bird species I saw was a goldfinch

Goldfinches seem to go through periods where they are almost constantly in the garden feeding on the nyjer seeds and other where we hardly ever see them. It's likely at the moment they have young so are busily gathering food for them. They usually nest in areas with scattered trees and shrubs which makes gardens an ideal habitat for them. The nests are likely to be high up in a hedge or evergreen tree and are constructed from mostly grasses and moss interwoven with wool and hair. 

The other birds seen as part of the bioblitz where blackbirds, house sparrows, robins and a feral pigeon/ stock dove. The most interesting part of doing a bioblitz is looking closely in all the nooks and crannies of the garden where you find a large range of invertebrates. I found less species this year, likely because the weather had been warmer and sunnier and most invertebrates prefer damp, cooler places. They are likely still present in the garden but are harder to find. 

It's hard to have a pond in a small garden but we do have a barrel filled with water which birds drink out of. It doesn't really look like an ideal habitat. 

But in the last few week I noticed that the surface of the water was home to water boatmen (Notonecta glauca) (also known as backswimmers). 

I ingeniously used a clear tupperware box placed on a piece of plain paper to get this really clear look at a couple of them. They are actually flying creatures which is no doubt how they found our barrel. They have a really interesting way of staying submerged underwater. Instead of using oxygen dissolved in the water like most aquatic insects, they have an extra oxygen supply from haemoglobin in their abdomen. This comes in the form of bubbles of air which provide buoyancy and change size as they respire.

I lifted all the plant pots and found lots of invertebrates. One was crawling with worms. 

Worms are quite tricky to identify as they all look fairly similar to each other. I suspect though that these are probably common earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris). They mostly feed on plant material but have been observed feeding on everything from dead insects of faeces. 

You can also see there are lots of woodlice there too. In some areas of the garden there were over a hundred woodlice in similar spaces. 

This once is the most common UK species, common rough woodlouse (Porcellio scaber). I also found in small numbers common pill, common shiny and rosy woodlice. Woodlice are actually crustaceans like crabs and lobsters with a similar hard exoskeleton. They shed these as they grow but do so in two halves. Young woodlice are kept in a "marsupium" in the underside of the mother's body. The mother then appears to 'give birth' to tiny woodlice. 

My other find under the flower pots was a single centipede (probably a common centipede). 

Centipedes are fearsome predators which sprint at prey very quickly, pounce on it and inject it with venom. Despite the name centipedes never have one hundred legs as they always have an odd number of pairs. It's hard to be certain but I think this one has 23 pairs of legs.

Whilst looking in the various nook and crannies I found a few spiders. This first one is a fairly common lace web weaver (probably Amaurobius similis). 

Another one, which was harder to photograph as it wouldn't keep still, a jumping spider probably Salticus scenicus.

These spiders don't build webs but instead pounce on their prey (hence the name). They tend to eat smaller spiders and similar insects but have been observed taking on prey three times their own length. They also perform a mating dance- the males wave their front legs and moving their abdomens up and down. 

All in all I identified 31 different species of birds, invertebrates and plants. It's incredible to see just how many species you can find in a small garden. Bear in mind too that this was only done on one day- if I did this more regularly the number would be considerably greater. Doing a bioblitz is a lot of fun and a really rewarding environment. 

Saturday, 3 June 2017

New Forest Nature

This week I headed up into the New Forest and had a particularly good day spotting wildlife. I was only about a mile from the edge of my hometown of Ringwood but hardly saw any other humans.
I headed to the edge of Kingston Great Common Nature Reserve, not far South from Smuggler’s Haunt car park. Almost immediately after crossing the road I felt surrounded by heathland birds. There were plenty of stonechats perching on the top of gorse bushes.
The name comes from their call, supposedly like the sound of two stones being hit together, though I’m not convinced they sound anything like that. This is a male as they have darker heads and a brighter breast.
Another bird which seemed to be numerous in the area were meadow pipits.
These pipits look quite like thrushes but are much smaller. I witnessed several pipits performing their spring display flight where they flutter in midair for a few seconds before diving down. It’s a fairly common bird which you might even see in suburban parks but numbers are declining so it’s on the “amber” list of conservation concern.
The other bird species I saw was the elusive dartford warbler. I came very close to getting a good shot this time but alas, it was not to be…
Let’s move on swiftly. Though the area is mostly covered in heather and gorse with the occasional small tree, there are some interesting plants to be found. This is one of the areas of the New Forest which is very boggy, providing an important habitat for many species.  One is cottongrass, a plant that I imagine was very easy to name.
It’s technically not a grass at all though and is a member of the sedge family. They were once used to stuff pillows and mattresses, for making candle wicks and even for dressing wounds in the First World War. They grow successfully in boggy areas and spread their seeds using wind dispersal.
Another more unusual plant in this area is the sundew.
These are insectivorous plants. They grow in nutrient poor soil and obtain the nutrients they need when insects become stuck to the sticky hairs. The leaves curl over the insects where the dew drops act as digestive juices to dissolve the insect’s body so the liquid can be absorbed by the plant.
Speaking of insects, there were plenty of those in the area too. One particularly striking species which seemed abundant in the area was the green tiger beetle (Cicindela campestris).
These are actually fearsome predators that are agile flyers with large mandibles. They like bare patches of ground as these warm up quickly in the sun and this warmth means they can be faster and therefore hunt more efficiently.
There were a few dragonflies around the Forest during my visit and one I saw more closely was this female keeled skimmer (Orthetrum coerulescens).
It made sense to see this here as this species breeds in peat bogs.
I saw plenty of moths fluttering amongst the heather and eventually managed to photograph one- this is a common heath moth (Ematurga atomaria).


These are common moths whose caterpillars feed on heather. They are day flying moths which usually have one brood a year, though it is not uncommon for them to have a second brood down here in the south.
All in all, it was a really great day in the New Forest. That’s all for today but I’ve got plenty waiting to be shared with you so there will be another post on Wednesday- see you then!

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Action on the Avon

It’s been the hottest week of the year so far with temperatures hitting as high as 25° C. The warmer weather has caused plenty of invertebrates to emerge. Yesterday I was pleased to see thousands of common blue damselflies.
It’s still early in the year for dragonflies but I did spot this young female black tailed skimmer.
I really like the fine detail you can see on it’s wings in this photo. This species are common across Europe and Asia but were first recorded in the UK in 1934.
I’ve also seen a few other common insects like a red soldier beetle and a harlequin ladybird.
Today I walked along part of the River Avon and found a particularly rich section for wildlife on one stretch. I was first alerted to it by seeing this black-headed gull perched on the bridge.
This gull was diving into the river, obviously looking for food. What was particularly interesting to see was that large fish in the river were not happy with this behaviour and were actively trying to attack the gull when it was in the water. Fortunately the light allowed me to get some really clear photos of the fish, which are chub.
I don’t know much about fish and finding information about them is hard as most of the information is from an angling perspective. It seems likely that these chub were sat here feeding on small creatures floating their way. The gull was likely looking for the same prey but the chub probably saw it as a threat.
On the same stretch a little egret was hunting, presumably looking for the same prey too.
There were also some mallards pulling at vegetation and there was something of a confrontation when the egret got too close to one of them.
On a different stretch of the Avon this moorhen was feeding.
Moorhens tend to be quite flighty so seeing one feed is not always easy, especially in a place which can often be quite busy. They are omnivores, eating everything from snails to insects, small fish and berries.
A few more birds to finish I think. Here’s a photo of a greylag goose. There’s not much to say about it other than it looks magnificent here.
Finally, here’s a jay feeding at Blashford Lakes Woodland Hide. They are truly beautiful birds.
That’s all for today, I’m off to enjoy this glorious weather some more!

Saturday, 20 May 2017

A Gaggle of Goslings

I had a rare week off from blogging last week. I try to find different things to talk about each week and sometimes it just so happens that I’ve been unlucky and don’t have much wildlife to share with you. Fortunately though I’ve collected enough to be back today.
I’ve been enjoying keeping an eye on the small field that serves as the nursery area for the local canada geese. As each clutch of goslings hatch they are walked to the nursery field by their parents and all the goslings mix together.
Last week I counted 45 goslings at one time which seems like even more than usual! By grouping together like a few adults can keep many goslings safe from predators.
I came across a brood of mallard ducklings today sheltering on the shore of the fishing lake.
Given their size and location I think there’s a likelihood this is the same brood I spotted a few weeks ago when they are very young. There were fifteen ducklings then and were only four today- it’s entirely possible that the missing eleven ducklings were all predated. It shows how hard it is to raise young in the wild and why it’s worth having so many young if over a quarter of them are lost.
This week the first starling fledglings started to arrive in the garden. They are fun to watch as they stagger around, not quite in full control of their limbs yet, and beg their parents for food.
I haven’t seen much of the Avon roe deer over the last month or so. I suspect that with the arrival of Spring they have more options for places to eat. I did spot several individuals yesterday though they can be difficult to see in the long grass.
As you can imagine, when this buck had it’s head down and was eating you could barely see it at all. It’s around this time of year that roe deer start to give birth to their young so I shall be looking out for that, though I suspect the fawns will be almost invisible in this sort of foliage.
Apologies to arachnophobes but here’s a magnificent spider I found this week:
This is a nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis). Like many spiders this species has interesting mating behaviour. Males approach potential females with a gift, a fly or other insect wrapped up ready to eat. When the female bites on the gift the male starts to mate with her. To make sure the job gets done he keeps one leg on the gift in case the female tries to escape with it or attack him. If this does happen the male will pretend to be dead (it’s called ‘thanatosis’) and will be dragged along by the leg touching the gift. When the female stops the male carries on mating.
Here’s another invertebrate I spotted recently:
I’m not entirely confident on the ID of this one. It certainly looks like a grasshopper or cricket with that leg structure, possible a roesel’s bush cricket. It’s early in the year and this looks really small so I would hypothesise that it’s a nymph. Females are green so this is a male (assuming I’ve managed to identify the right species).
I was disturbed to see in the news recently that Theresa May and other members of the conservative party want to repeal the ban on fox hunting. When polled, 89% of the British public said they agreed with the ban. May has often stressed how she follows the public’s wishes, seeking out a Brexit deal, so it seems hypocritical for her to go against the public on this. Besides, with Brexit and the issues with healthcare and education funding fox hunting doesn’t feel like it ought to be something the government is even thinking about at present.