Monday, 21 August 2017

An August Assortment

I always try and theme my blog posts but every now and then I just end having a random hodge-podge of things I've seen recently. Today is one of those times.

Let's start with some birds. I was delighted to spot some swallow chicks calling for food on reeds on the shore of the Avon recently.

Given the time of year it's possible that these chicks are from a second brood- swallows tend to have two broods a year. The young stay with their parents for about a week after leaving the nest which means these chicks hatched around a month ago. Sometimes birds from the first brood will assist in feeding birds from the second brood- these young chicks may have been fed by their older siblings as well as their parents. 

I spotted on our local buzzards recently. 

A few weeks ago I talked about how buzzards like to perch on dead trees where there are no leaves to obscure their view. This guy was having none of it and sat happily amongst the leaves! 

Before sitting on the tree this individual spent a long time circling the skies on the thermals. I've tried to capture buzzards in the air many times but it really works- this time I at least got a passable photo. 

On the path near the buzzard I saw loads of these forest bugs sat on top of the fence posts. 

I've seen several similar shield bugs over the summer but this species is the largest and has a dash of colour to it as well. This bug mainly feeds on the sap of oak trees but will also feed on other trees and will even eat caterpillars and insects. 

Which is bad news for this fellow who I found crawling down another of the fence posts. It turned out this one was easier to video than photograph. 

I'm not sure on the species of this- it's likely to be a geometrid, i.e. a member of the geometer moth family but it's too difficult to tell beyond that. I love the way taps the tiny fly as it crawls along here. 

It wasn't the only caterpillar I spotted recently as I saw this magnificent specimen sat on a bench: 

This is a buff-tip moth caterpillar. The moth itself looks really like a bit of branch but the caterpillar is much more visible. The caterpillars feed on a range of deciduous trees and can even defoliate entire branches. They overwinter as pupae in the ground. 

I've also seen a few adult moths lately. This is not a great photo but thanks to the distinguishing feature it's clearly a silver Y moth

You can see a silver letter 'y' on the wing of this moth, making it perhaps the easiest moth to identify from this angle. Whilst virtually all the moths I have been able to identify were seen during the day, I did spot this one attracted to the light of our conservatory one evening. 

This is the dusky pearl moth (Udea prunalis). As you'd expect this is a nocturnal species and one that is only seen over the summer months, between June and August. It likes hedgerows so is probably attracted to the overgrown hedge in next door's garden. 

A few fungi to finish I think. First here is an Amnita though I'm not sure of the exact species. 

What I am sure of is that this would make you very ill if you tried to eat it. Next we have the Blackening Waxcap (Hygrocybe conica)

This species turns black with age, hence the name. There's debate on how edible this one is- some say you can eat but there have been at least one report of poisoning from eating this species in the past. Suffice to say I won't be trying it anytime soon. 

Finally, here's a scarlet brittlegill (or potentially a similar species). 

Again there are reports this is edible but eating something that is bright red is never a sensible idea. There's a reasons why the russulaceae are sometimes also known as 'sickeners'! 

Monday, 14 August 2017

Fabulous Flies

Today is a fly special! OK, so technically only a few of these species is a member of the true fly order (diptera) but every single one has the word 'fly' in it's common name.

First up is a butterfly, a beautiful small tortoiseshell on some buddleia.

This is the 20th species of butterfly I've seen this year, all of them within 20 miles of home. Unfortunately the number of tortoiseshells has dramatically decreased over the last few years. The popular theory for this is due to the increase of the parasitic fly Sturmia bella. The fly lays its eggs on the foodplant of the butterfly larvae. The larvae accidentally eat the fly eggs and the fly grub feeds on the inside of it's host, eventually killing it when the larvae is full-grown or even pupating. 

I've seen lots of dragonflies lately but most are impossible to photograph as they fly so quickly. There are several that I managed to capture though- this first one is a common darter

This individual is an immature male- adult males are red. Indeed the lack of red on this individual suggests it might be teneral, meaning it has just shed its exoskeleton. The exoskeletons are necessarily hard and inelastic so in order to grow the dragonfly has to shed its exoskeleton. 

Another dragonfly I saw recently was this Southern Hawker

This too is an immature male. Male Southern Hawkers are often seen patrolling the edge of a pond or river where they fight away rival males. This is an inquisitive species and if you see one it may fly quite close to investigate you. 

Onto the dragonflies smaller relatives now, the damselflies. A recent damselfly sighting was of this red-eyed damselfly

This is a female and you can separate it from the small red-eyed damselfly by the length of the stripes- this species has shorter ones. 

I was amazed to see that this common blue damselfly was still able to fly with the obvious injury to it's tail.

This may well have happened when it was newly emerged as that point they are very vulnerable to strong rain and wind, and of course attacks by predators. 

Onto the proper diptera now! This is perhaps one of the country's most unpopular insects, a cranefly. They are also often known as daddy longlegs and they are plenty of other local names from them too. 

Cranefly is the common name of members of the 'tipulidae' family of which there are over 15,000 species. Most adult craneflies only have a lifespan of 10-15 days but often even that is not needed. Female crane flies usually contain mature eggs as they emerge from their pupae and are able to mate immediately if a male is around. The males spend their time flying and walking around looking for females to mate with. 

Here's an odd looking species of fly, Coremacera marginata:

This species is also known as the Sieve-Winged Snailkiller. Whilst the adults visit flowers, the larvae feed on snails, hence the name. Unfortunately, like most flies, there is very little information about the life cycle of this creature available. Flies are really fascinating insects yet are largely ignored or despised by most people.

Finally for today, this is a hornet mimic hoverfly (Volucella zonaria).

This is the largest species of hoverfly in Britain and does look fairly similar to hornets, though this species of course has no sting. I've seen many of these around this summer- hornets are usually seen in the Autumn. This was a rare species when it was first identified in the 1940s but it is now common in Southern Britain and is spreading North. The individual above is a male as the eyes touch- females have eyes which are more separate. 

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Walter's Return

I was pleased to spot this bird today when I was visiting Blashford Lakes.

This is a great white egret, specifically Walter White. This individual has been coming to Blashford every winter for fourteen years now. He was ringed as a chick in France and so we know he is fourteen years and three months old. This means he is by far the oldest known great white egret in the UK. When he first arrived he was one of only about three of the species to visit the UK. Now they are considerably more common and even breed here. 

Walter's arrival is a sign that the new winter migrants are starting to arrive. On the River Avon I spotted this goosander happily feeding away. 

Goosanders do breed in the UK but not here on the South coast- we only see migrants over the winter. I think this individual is probably a juvenile as it hasn't developed the sticky-up feathers on the back of the head. 

Another juvenile bird I have seen recently is this tiny robin

This was a very young bird- it still has very downy feathers and didn't try to flee when I came close. It did know to go into the undergrowth though but it wasn't very mobile. I suspect it had only left the nest that morning or the night before. 

Here's a buzzard I saw recently:

Buzzards like to roost on dead trees and telephone poles as opposed to trees surrounded by leaves which obscure their view to the ground. Most buzzard prey is on the ground so they need a clear view to see movement in the grass. I think that the rangers at Avon Heath, where I saw this buzzard, have intentionally carved these trees so they make good buzzard perches. 

When walking along a quiet footpath last week I came across a wasp nest that had been dug out of the ground. 

The fact the nest was fairly intact and there were still a large number of wasps around suggests this was newly dug up, probably the night before I found it. I looked into what animal might be responsible for digging up this nest and it was almost certainly a badger. I was delighted to find this out as I've never had any evidence of badgers in the area before.

The reason badgers do this is to eat the wasp larvae. They dig through the top of the nest to get to the grubs and this avoids the worst of the stings from the guard wasps. It's also thought their thick fur helps to protect them from the stings too. Apparently badgers have been seen to ignore a wasps nest over several weeks and then go and dig it out on one particular night. It's thought that they do this to try to maximise the number and size of wasp grubs inside. 

I was pleased this week to get another clear view of the roe deer doe and her two fawns. 

It's only been two weeks since I last saw this family but the fawns have grown considerably in this time. They are now much closer in size to their mother and the white spots on them are gradually disappearing. They certainly appearing to be developing well which means they have a strong chance to making it through their first winter. 

That's all for today but I'll be back with a post focusing on insects at the weekend. By the way, you can now follow this blog by e-mail. If you enter your e-mail address in the box at the side of the page (→ ) every new blog post will go straight into your inbox! See you soon.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Spot the Gall

Today I'm discussing the weird subject of galls. Galls looks like fruit or blight on a plant and are caused by the larvae of various species of wasp. The larvae release chemicals which cause the plant to produce odd looking appendages which the wasp larvae can then live in.

Galls occur on many different plants but are mostly commonly found on oak trees. Indeed, our native oak is the host plant for over 30 different species of gall wasps. I've seen lots of oak galls over the last few weeks and thought I'd discuss a few- incidentally these three were all found on the same tree.

First is an oak apple gall which is caused by the Biorhiza pallida gall wasp

Now oak gall wasps tend to have complex life cycles. They usually have alternate generations that are sexual with males and females followed by asexual generations with only females. Males and females of this wasp emerge in the summer and the females lay eggs on the roots of the oak tree. The asexual generation then produce galls on the roots from which females emerge in late winter to lay eggs in buds on the twigs, eventually leading to the formation of these galls. (Told you it was complex!)

This next one is an oak artichoke gall caused by the Andricus fecundator wasp.

This wasp lays eggs in the buds at the tips of shoots- the bud itself becomes greatly enlarged at this time of year. The next generation of wasps in Spring cause small galls on male catkins. 

Finally, this is a knopper gall formed by the Andricus quercuscalicis wasp

This wasp only became established in the UK in the 1970s. It lays its eggs in the developing acorns, causing the acorns to deform in this strange looking way.

It's easy to imagine that galls cause problems for the oak tree but other than reducing the number of acorns they have little effect. The galls wasps need the trees as part of their life cycle so it would be no good for them if their actions caused harm to the tree. 

There are galls wasps that use all sorts of different species of plants too. One I've seen is the robin's pin cushion gall caused by the Diplolepis rosae wasp

These galls are found on roses, usually wild ones. The wasp lays eggs in the buds of developing leaves which hatch into small white maggots. The maggots then secrete a chemical which causes these abnormal growths. 

Although they look soft and mossy on the outside they actually have hard woody structures in the middle which contain a number of chambers where the grubs develop. The grubs pupate overwinter inside the galls. Like with oak galls, this has very little effect on the plant. 

As I've been discussing weird growths today I thought I would also share a few fungi I've found this week. 

In the woods at Avon Heath there were fungi everywhere. 

I've struggled to identify this one to the species but I'm fairly sure it's a brittlegill, genus Russula.

Then there's this oddity which might be a misshapen jelly ear fungus (but I'm not certain at all!). 

Finally, an easy identification, a parasol fungus

Well I hope you enjoyed that dip into some of the weirder things of British nature. It'll be back to normality on Wednesday!

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Moths and Mammals

You never know where you'll find wildlife. I was walking along a busy street when I spotted a moth on the brick wall I was passing.

This is a riband wave which is a common species in the UK though it is late in the year to be seeing it- it might well be a second brood. They are night flyers though so you don't usually see them as clearly as this. 

Another moth I spotted recently was this one, which wasn't keen on having it's photograph taken and kept trying to hide among the brambles. 

This one is a mother of pearl, the name coming from the rainbow-like lustre the wings produce under the right light. Moths are classed as either macro (big) or micro (small) and oddly this is a micro moth, despite being larger than many macro moths. The larvae feed on nettles which is likely why I saw several of these amongst the brambles. 

I visited Blashford Lakes this week and got really clear views of a family of black-headed gull chicks. 

You can see how well camouflaged they are against the gravel shore. Black-headed gulls are of course very common birds and seen inland over most of the UK but it hasn't always been so. 100 years ago they were fairly rare, especially inland, but now there this is a breeding population of over 100,000 pairs. It's likely this rise is due to how well they live alongside humans, as happy to eat human leftovers as they are to eat insects and plants. 

Another bird spot at Blashford was this one:

Whilst I can't be certain from this low quality image, this is probably a reed warbler. This tree is right on the edge of a large areas of reeds- this is a species that sticks to the habitat in it's name. Reed warblers are migrants, coming to the UK to breed in the summer and over-wintering in Sub-Saharan Africa. They are one of the main host birds for cuckoos. 

Only a few steps away from this warbler was this really striking insect.

This is a four-banded longhorn beetle (say what you see!). It's a fairly common species but the adults don't live for very long so it's not seen as often as the numbers would suggest. 

A rabbit had a good look at me as I approached in the same area too:

Another mammal sighting this week was of a roe deer buck. 

This individual has sizeable antlers for a roe deer so is clearly a well-developed adult. It was also seen in the same place as the doe and two fawns I saw last week so it's highly likely that this is the father. Roe deer are territorial but male and female territories do overlap- it's unlikely any other males have entered this area to breed with the female with this guy around.  

Finally for today, I was stood only about four metres from the bird table when a flock (or 'volery') of long-tailed tits arrived. 


I counted eight on the feeders at once and it's likely there were more in the area- long-tailed tit groups usually have about twenty birds in them. They are particularly social birds and often help each other in bringing up young if their own nests fail. A study suggested that as many as half of long-tailed tit nests had one or more helpers to feed the young. 

I shall be back for more at the weekend where amongst other things I'll be discussing the weird world of oak galls...