Here comes the weekend, I get to see the insects

Winter is beginning to settle into the bones now, don’t you think? I’ve had needed to layer up and dig out the thick socks! In the garden, I have been doing some tidying and sorting – pruning of fruit bushes and the hedge. Rather than putting into the green waste bin or straight into the compost, I have made a nice heap of all the cuttings, in the vain hope that I’ll get a hedgehog in there.

Whilst gardening, I was joined by that trusty gardener’s companion, the ever-lovely Robin (Erithacus rubecula). Additionally, I came across a Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris) in the shed, and some Candlesnuff fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon) by the pond. The latter is a new addition to the garden list, and is quite a distinctive and beautiful fungus species, so do look out for it!

The discoveries continued at the weekend when I attended a course run by the local Wildlife Trust (BCN) – Indoor Invertebrate Techniques, which looked at the different methods for identifying species under microscopes (usually look at their “bits”), for pinning and preserving them. It was highly interesting, though I wish there had been a bit more practical stuff – such as doing some pinning. We did get to dissect a beetle though – taking off its abdomen in order to find its genitalia. Gross, but fascinating.

At Wimpole, they have moved the gorgeous White Park cattle into a field so they are no longer about to keep me company when I am at the Garden Gate ticket office. However, the ornithological gang were about as usual, and of course, I had to take a few photos of them! I counted 11 species on one of the days, which is rather decent for one small spot, plus there were a few species that I know are around there but I didn’t see on that particular day!

At the end of the fortnight, I was headed up to Shropshire as I was treating myself to a weekend away. On a course about dissecting moths to look at their genitals! Busman’s holiday anyone? It was a fascinating weekend, run by Dave Grundy for the Field Studies Council as part of their Tomorrow’s Biodiversity project (and thus very kindly, and heavily subsidised by the project). The first day was given over to demonstrating and attempting the different stages. We were given moths from Dave’s collection of “moths to ID”. I was dissecting a pug moth that had originally been collected in 2002! It turned out to be a male Grey Pug (Eupithecia subfuscata), and although my final slide is a little messy and the bits were all separated and not quite in the right positions, I was rather happy with myself!

The second day was given over to some discussions on the taxonomy of Lepidoptera, including the latest numbering system, followed by more practice in dissecting. On this day, I was doing two moths at the same time – a Copper Underwing sp. and a Common Rustic sp. Upon genital dissection and identification, I was able to say that they were a male Svensson’s Copper Underwing (Amphipyra berbera) and a female Lesser Common Rustic (Mesapamea didyma).

A New Dawn

Well, I am all settled in here in Cambridge, and I have started a new job too! However, I shall come onto that momentarily, as I had some interesting wildlife sightings beforehand.

Before the live wildlife sightings, I took a train ride down to big old London town for a meeting at the Natural History Museum. A wonderful meeting, and in addition, I got a quick tour of Angela Marmont Centre – a resource for naturalists! When we went to look at the specimens, naturally I requested to see the Lepidoptera. How superb it was! I spent much of it just going “oh wow … oh look at that one … oh that’s gorgeous”!

Following this, my parents came to see where I am now living and we went for a lovely autumn wander in the nearby woods and fields. Toby had a wonderful time – lots of new smells to investigate! And then we enjoyed a scrumptious Victoria Sponge that I had made as a belated birthday cake for my mum. I suppose I ought to be modest, but it really was scrumptious.

I’m trying to learn how to garden as best I can. I am not naturally green-fingered but I am giving it a go nonetheless. The pond had been completely covered with grass, so I have been clearing that. I haven’t done all of it yet, I wasn’t sure if I should, but I have done a good proportion of it. And managed to spot a little frog (Rana temporaria) whilst doing so! A couple of days later I was pruning the hedge (which is attempting to take over the garden) and found the summer form of the Hawthorn Shieldbug (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale, the first generation in spring looks different). Matt and I are collating the garden list, I wonder what else will turn up? Domestic cat has – on numerous occasions!

A Saturday morning dawned bright and mostly clear of clouds, and we took ourselves to RSPB’s Fen Drayton Lakes where autumn had definitely taken hold. However, I did spot a couple of bramble flowers! At the end of October! Very odd, or perhaps not? I’m not sure. From what I remember, we saw almost 50 different bird species in just a couple of hours – including my first Bittern (Botaurus stellaris)! Strangely Matt spotted it from the car park within a minute of getting out the car! Other highlights included Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus), Devil’s Coach Horse Beetle (Staphylinus olens) and Ruby Tiger Moth caterpillar (Phragmatobia fuliginosa). For the latter, I risked life and limb to protect it from cyclists zooming past, before managing to safely relocate it off the path!

And so, suspense over – news of my new job! *drum roll* I am now working in the Visitor Welcome and Membership Team at National Trust’s Wimpole Estate. It’s a beautiful location and the team are absolutely lovely! Do flick through the photos below!

So long and thanks for all the proverbial fish, Part One

Having been visited by my parents, packed up my belongings in Dorset, finished my job, had a mad couple of days getting my car fixed, and finally moved house, I have finally got to the end of a very hectic couple of weeks. Despite being so busy, I have still managed to get out and about to see some wildlife!

w/c 5th October 2015

A great start to week at the Chesil Beach Centre. Despite getting confused by Sophie’s directions to the Starry Smooth-Hound shark (Mustelus asterias) as I thought she meant the other bridge, I had a lovely wander looking at crabs and picking up litter. I also spotted my first Brent Geese (Branta bernicla) of the autumn, though they were pretending to be interior design (flying ducks anyone?).

I swapped locations and spent a few days at Lorton Meadows, managing to spot two Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus) from the office! They can often be seen grazing in the play / picnic / pond area. Whilst a bit cautious, they spent a fair bit of time there before disappearing into other fields.

A new experience for me when our wildlife camera person came to check that the Barn Owl (Tyto alba) box and camera were still in good condition (they are), and I got to go up into the loft. Ignoring the anxious voice inside me muttering about heights, I went up and looked at the box for the first time – in which we found seven Small Tortoiseshell butterflies (Aglais urticae) hibernating!

As the name suggests, at the end of the week came the weekend! Sadly it was my last full weekend in Dorset but I made the most of it! My parents came down to see me and amongst visiting awesome places, we also went out to local restaurants and watched a sunset over the Fleet. Our first location of awesomeness was RSPB Arne Nature Reserve in the Purbeck area of Dorset. I have been meaning to visit for ages and despite a touch of chill in the day, it was fantastic – dragonflies, birds, fungi, deer and more!

The weekend wasn’t over yet though! Oh no, we also went to watch Motor X on Weymouth Beach followed by a visit to Portland Castle! Naturally, I was most interested in seeing what wildlife was about, but I did enjoy reading about the castle’s history, using their interpretation and playing (well, winning) a game of Nine Men’s Morris with my dad. The game is basically a big version of Noughts and Crosses, and was good fun to play. I am tempted to make my own set!

Crossing the bridge to see the rest of the gardens, I found a ladybird wandering around on a bush. The proceeded to find another 100+ ladybirds – some in larvae form, some as pupae and some as adults. I found three different species, but also a couple of different versions of some species. For example, the Ten-Spot Ladybird (Adalia 10-punctata) has a few possible colour variations. Flick through the photos below for the identifications, or you can look at my Twitter thread on them.

The larvae look like they are quite evil, don’t you think?

I couldn’t let my parents without taking them to Lorton of course! Neither had been before, so a late evening walk across the meadows was perfect. As well as pointing out the birds, we ate blackberries and I showed them oak galls. In the pond area I found an Elephant Hawk-Moth caterpillar (Deilephila elpenor), which was rather small so presumably one of the earlier instars (stages of being a larva). It looks like it is plotting world domination!

And the aforementioned sunset, such beauty to finish off my penultimate week in Dorset.

 

Raindrops on noses. And blackberries.

A busy week, as ever! Trying to recover from Birdfair, to get stuff done both at work and outside. At Lorton, I had a woodland wander as I took some children searching for beetles. Typically, we also found some other cool stuff to be fascinated by: a tiny delicate mushroom in the middle of the path, a few different types of harvestman and LOTs of slugs, snails and worms!

  • ID Tip: Both spiders (Araneae) and harvestmen (Opiliones) are arachnids (Arachnidae). To tell whether you’re looking at a spider or a harvestmen, the trick is to look at the body. A spider has distinct body parts – i.e. you can see easily that is has a thorax and an abdomen. Whereas in a harvestman, the thorax and the abdomen are fused together and it looks like it has just one body part. 

Later in the week, I went on a meadow meander to find a Wasp Spider (Argiope bruennichi). Sadly, the one that I’ve photographed a lot recently was no longer in place. I think maybe the cows wandered through and trashed its web. However, I still managed to find one, and even saw her spinning a grasshopper (I know it is a female as the male Wasp Spider is brown and smaller)! No photos or videos of that sadly as she was too quick for me! But I did get a photo of her beginning to munch on it. The meadow meander turned into a general nature walk (the best kind of walk!), as we examined grasshoppers and crickets, pried open a hatched oak gall (to unexpectedly find an earwig nymph inside!) and I found a new species for me, the Red-legged Shieldbug (Pentatoma rufipes). [PSL: my 12th Hemiptera species]

Also on the walk, I came across this interesting Hymenoptera in a patch of clover. I think I’ve decided it is an ant species (Formicidae), but that is as far as I’ve got!

  • ID Tip: Hymenoptera are the group of insects that include bees, wasps, ants, sawflies and related insects. I knew it was a Hymenoptera because (a) it has two pairs of wings ruling out flies (not easily seen in these photos I’ll admit) and (b) it has long antennae which again ruling out flies which have much shorted antennae. I knew it wasn’t a sawfly (Symphyta)) as they do not have a distinct waist, but the one in the photograph does. After this, I am not sure of the exact ways to tell them apart, but my instinct was saying ant (Formicidae). 

Saturday evening saw a mad dash down to Lodmoor, to scout out the area behind the tip. Why you might ask? Well, a Long-tailed Blue butterfly (Lampides boeticus, apparently also known as the Peablue which is a lovely name!) had been seen there! The weather was atrocious for butterflies, and a not great for me either I might add – I got soaked! However, I still had a hopeful look around. I saw plenty of wildlife (including a couple of butterflies when the weather had a break from pouring water down on Weymouth) – but no Long-tailed Blue! Oh botheration! I consoled myself with blackberries (covered in raindrops as previously mentioned) and taking photos of the other wildlife, including SIX Wasp Spiders, a very obliging Common Blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus) and a rather wet male Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) trying to shelter from the rain.

Back at Lorton for Sunday, a rather grey and damp day, though no downpours. I had a bird-themed weekend running which meant one of my favourite activities – owl pellet analysis! I.e. lets take apart some solidified owl vomit to look at the bones of small mammals. Sounds grim, but it one of the best things to do I think. You end up finding some fantastic things and learning a lot about anatomy at the same time.

  • ID Tip: When dissecting owl pellets, one of the key bones to look out for is the skull (and lower jaws). By looking at the size, and the teeth, it is possible to identify small mammals down to species level.
    • E.g. A skull with no gap between the molars and incisors will belong to an insectivore. If the teeth are all white, it is a European Mole (Talpa europaea). If the teeth have red tips to them (yes, you read that right, red-tipped teeth) it is one of the shrew species (Soricidae). You then look at the end tooth and the number of cusps (bumps) on it, which then tells you which species it is. 
    • Hm, maybe I will write a whole blog post on owl pellet dissection and small mammal bone identification? Interested in reading such a post? Let me know! 

The end of my (working) week had a thrilling conclusion when a visitor asked me about a caterpillar they had seen. My interest was piqued, I do so love Lepidoptera and their caterpillars. I went out, armed with a caterpillars book and my camera. Turns out I didn’t need the former as I knew straight away what species it was. I have seen plenty of photos of this species on Facebook and Twitter, but never seen one as a caterpillar in the wild myself. Until today! The wonderful and beautiful Elephant Hawk-Moth (Deilephila elpenor), pink and green as an adult (PINK and GREEN!!), brown, smooth and seemingly with many eyes as a caterpillar (the eyes are to scare off predators!). Look how awesome it is!!

Heading back to the centre (my mid-afternoon snack was waiting for me after, mm chocolate cake), I yelled out “Caterpillar alert!” as I almost stepped on another caterpillar. Slightly smaller, and with many more hairs, I could tell what this one was straight away as well, the Fox Moth (Macrothylacia rubi) caterpillar!

Fox Moth (Macrothylacia rubi) caterpillar

In other news:

  • I wondered whether to write a post about the badger cull, and its extension into Dorset. But I don’t need to, because the Wildlife Trusts have written a superb news piece which covers everything (and a bit more) that I would’ve said. Please do read it, and speak to your local MP / Westminster / everyone about why the badger cull should not occur.
  • Dorset Wildlife Trust was awarded TWO bronze medals for our float at the Weymouth Carnival! Well done to Vicky who was our co-ordinator!
  • I only have a month and a half left in Dorset! Which is rather scary as there is still so many places I want to visit and things I want to do!
  • I’m recalculating my Pan-species List, as I’ve managed to get myself all confused – the online version and my notebook have different numbers. D’oh!
  • I’m doing rather well on my 2015 Wildlife Resolutions, but have got a fair bit of work ahead of me to ensure that I tick them all off!

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent Dorset Wildlife Trust’s positions, strategies or opinions (or any other organisation or individuals for that matter).

Nature is full of drama

What a week of drama! So much wildlife has been seen and there have been stories worthy of a TV soap opera! And oh yes, there was that general election thing as well. I’ve written about that too.

In terms of the caterpillars, they are all still alive and munching their way through large quantities of leaves. I did get quite worried about the Garden Tiger Moth caterpillars at one point as they were not moving much, or eating much. And then I found what looked like half a caterpillar! But I still had three … turns out it was the skin of one! Evidently they outgrow them and shed them. It wasn’t long before the other two went through this as well. Just after they shed it, their hairdos look particularly fresh! They are called Fluffy 1, 2 and 3, whilst the green caterpillar has been nicknamed Jade (as suggested by Jennifer Hunt).

At Lorton, we have had a couple of school groups in looking for minibeasts – pond dipping, using sweep nets in the meadow and searching under logs in the wood. An interesting beetle, caught by a little girl, caught my eye and I took it back to the centre. My line manager identified it as one of the soldier beetles, and with a bit of further investigation I do believe it is Cantharis fusca which is Nationally Scarce species. [ID was confirmed by NHM Coleoptera, I said previously that it was a Red Data Book species, but it was downgraded in 2013]. In the woods, one group found a caterpillar, so I promptly potted it up (with some leaves of course). This one is called Fusspot as he/she seems quite fussy about food.

We had a bit of a work jolly on Thursday. As part of being a volunteer at the Chesil / Lorton centres, training is provided. In this case, training took the form of a trip over to Durlston Country Park and National Nature Reserve where we had a lovely wander in the sunshine (surprisingly pleasant weather considering the wind we’d had the rest of the week!). We found yet another caterpillar – now potted up and named (Arnold – suggested by Chris Calow), as well as plenty of flowers and even my first Wall butterfly of the year!

After our wander, we were given a guided walk by one of the rangers, during which we saw some more fantastic wildlife!

Back at Lorton for the weekend, and I was anxious during Sunday morning – the eggs had been unattended all morning, with just the quickest visit from the male Kestrel. Later on, he sat on them for a good long time, though as I type at 8pm, he is absent again from the webcam. My fears were confirmed when someone found some wings and feathers in the meadow near where their box is … Kestrel wings, and according to Sean Foote, they look to belong to a female!

To cheer myself up after this tragedy, I spent an hour or so sitting by the pond after work (busman’s holiday!) looking at the insects and listening to the birds. As you can see, it is a lovely spot to relax at. I watched a damselfly nymph crawl across a lilypad, attempt to climb a vertical leaf a couple of times, before it fell into the water. I saw a bright red beetle lurking in the shade of a post, and a spider waiting for its next prey item to appear. A fellow naturalist appeared and we discussed wildlife, before he spotted a damselfly on a nearby bush – my first of the year! Just after, I spotted a dragonfly exhuvia attached to a plant near the pond – a different shape to the one I found last week, thus a different species presumably!

Time enough for life, to unfold all the precious things

Before I crack on with my most recent wildlife adventures, I would like to quickly refer back to my blog post when I went to Stanner Rocks. First, to show two extra photos – taken by the local ecologist, Andy Shaw, I went to the reserve with. One shows myself, hunched over some plants to take photographs. The other shows a Peregrine Falcon, which had been at the reserve mere moments before I arrived (typical!).

Second, despite the praise that I heaped on Stanner Rocks, I managed to miss out some very vital information. Obviously, you’ve already read how it’s a nationally important site for plants. What I forgot to include there, is that it is the only UK site for a number of plants – the Radnor Lily (Gagea bohemica, pictured below beginning to bud) and the Perennial Knawel (Scleranthus perennis ssp perennis) for example. In addition, a number of other rare plants are there – Upright Clover (Trigolium strictum), Sticky Catchfly (Silene viscaria), Spiked Speedwell (Veronica spicata), Rock Stonecrop (Sedum fosterianum), Pale St John’s-wort (Hypericum montanum), Upright Chickweed (Moenchia erecta), and that’s without even mentioning the lower plants! There are rare mosses (apple moss sp, Bartramia stricta), liverworts (Black Crystalwort, Riccia nigrella) and lichens (Elm Sap-weep Lichen, Bacidia incompta) there too!

So if you end up in the area and fancy visiting somewhere amazing, Stanner Rocks is a good bet. But remember, my note from last time:

NOTE: Should you wish to visit Stanner Rocks, there is very limited access due to the sensitivity of the plants and that the landscape can be quite hazardous. Contact National Resources Wales should you wish to visit!

Now onto animals again. Finding myself unemployed when my contract at Radnorshire Wildlife Trust came to an end, I was feeling a little bit down. However, I realised that this is actually a blessing in disguise (as long as the unemployment doesn’t stretch for too long). First, being unemployed means job interviews, and being in the conservation sector, this means job interviews in fantastic locations – you’ve already seen my visits to Charmouth  and Lulworth Cove, and later in this blog post you’ll see another brilliant location. Second, being unemployed gives me some time to focus on wildlife a bit more – whether it is reading some fantastic books, or discovering wildlife in my local park (see later in this post).

So the year has been passing us by, and as I write, we’re already nearing the end of February! I was beginning to get a little frustrated – I’d not yet caught any moths! But all this was to change upon my return to London. Feeling hopeful, but resigned to reality, I set out my trap in the suburban garden. Lo and behold, the next morning revealed two moths! A Satellite (Eupsilia transversa) and a Hebrew Character (Orthosia gothica), so as you can imagine I was utterly thrilled! Whilst I’ve not caught anything since, I am still riding on the joy that I’ve finally caught my first moths for 2015.

Being back in London doesn’t mean I’m only in London. Fortunately for me, my parents have a little flat down in Kent, and I wasn’t back from Wales long before we headed down there. An extra bonus is my parents’ ownership of a small motorboat, and soon we were out on the river. I even had a go at steering! But only when the river was straight and there were no other boats about – I’m not a confident person on boats.

Whilst this trip was lovely, I found myself getting very frustrated as there was litter everywhere! The storms / floods of 2013-14 had washed a lot of debris into the river, and it’s still there! Upon returning to the flat, I bought myself some marigolds (Fair Trade rubber!) with which to do litter picking – you may remember that picking up more litter is one of my 2015 wildlife resolutions. Another resolution is to see a kingfisher, and I was feeling hopeful on this trip as my parents often see one on the river. Alas, it was not to be.

During this week, I had the good fortune to be invited to WWT Slimbridge in Gloucestershire for a job interview. Whilst I didn’t get the job, it was a really fantastic day and I had the opportunity to play around with the settings of my camera (another wildlife resolution). I didn’t get any lifer bird ticks (i.e. birds I’ve not seen before), because apparently you can’t count the cranes / smews at Slimbridge for some reason. However, I did get a number of year ticks. In addition, I managed to see a male Reed Bunting in winter plumage – having only seen one in summer plumage previously. Well done to my dad for spotting it – I was busy attempting to get a half-decent photo of the Water Rail.

Naturally, there weren’t just birds at WWT Slimbridge. I’ve not yet worked out what the fungus is, a task for me to undertake. I knew the flower straight away – Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), which is another name for Sloe. The flower is very similar to that of Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), but the leaves of the two plants are different and the leaves of the Hawthorn come out before its flowers (vica versa for Blackthorn). I just had to include a photo of the otters at Slimbridge – they’re such beautiful creatures.

And on the way back from Slimbridge, I was invited to pop in and see Sally-Ann Spence, aka Minibeast Mayhem. I do believe that she is one of the loveliest and most inspirational people I have had the good fortune to meet, and I look forward to our future chats about bugs, the environment and life in general.

This brings me to my walk in the park. And what a walk it was! It was only going to be a standard lunchtime dog walk, and I took my camera along just in case – you never know what you might see after all! I made the decision to do a bit of digging around, and ending up stripping some bark from a fallen branch – resulting in lots of invertebrates (many are still being identified!). Not long after, I came across a good variety of fungi as well. What I found particularly interesting whilst there, is that nobody asked me what I was looking at! I wonder how many people walk past these fantastic species / habitats and don’t take a closer look at them?

 

My dog was very patient with me, bless him. When he was younger, if we stood still for too long he would get bored and start barking at us. But this time, he just found himself a stick to chew on whilst I was busy looking at and photographing the wildlife. He can be quite helpful sometimes – you may remember that I found some Crystal Brain Fungus (Myxarium nucleatum) back in December at my local park, which was on a stick he wanted to play with.