Sunday, 25 June 2017

Midsummer Wildlife

I'll begin today with a pretty poor photo. This bird simply wouldn't keep still for long enough for me to get a clear shot of it. 

I'm sharing this with though because it's quite an exciting bird: a spotted flycatcher. These birds are summer visitors to the UK and are in decline. Fortunately for me the New Forest is one of the best places to see these birds. They are fairly drab looking but it's their fly-catching which is great to watch. They fly from a high perch, dash out to catch a fly and then return to the same spot. That's exactly what this individual was doing at this moment. 

On the same New Forest visit I was delighted to stumble across this enormous fungus.

It's by far the largest fungus I've ever seen and is a puffball, probably even a mosaic puffball. It's a magnificent specimen. 

Via the Brownsea Island Lagoon webcam, I was able to observe an even more unusual bird this week, an elegant tern. 

This species breeds on the the Pacific coast on America yet occasionally terns up (pun intended) here in the UK. This one was around the lagoon all day and eventually roosted there. I think terns are magnificent birds anyway but this species with it's incredible spiky crown is really something. Thanks to the webcam I could watch it from the comfort of the sofa too!

Over the last few weeks I've seen a lot of house sparrows fledglings in the garden, always squawking and flapping their wings for food. Usually the parents are quick to oblige.

I've noticed that there have been egyptian geese on the fishing lake regularly over the last week or so, likely taking shelter from the high temperatures. 

As the name suggests, these species are not native to the UK. They were introduced as ornamental birds but as often happens some escaped and are now living wild. The main population in the UK is in Norfolk but we have a growing population here in Ringwood thanks to the various former gravel pits which are now lakes. 

One final bird today is the Avon grey heron which I have often shared here. This though is perhaps the best photo of it yet. 

There's still been plenty of interesting invertebrates around. Here's a particularly fine example of a dock bug and below that a relative, forest bug

I got some great views of some of my local butterflies yesterday, like meadow browns and commas

I was really excited to stumble across a less familiar species too, a large skipper

This butterfly likes long grass so it made sense to find it on my favourite insect path. The path is narrow at the best of times and not used very much but in summer it becomes really overgrown and the insects take over. Every time I venture down it I come across something new. 

Speaking of which, I also spotted an unusual moth species along the path yesterday, white speck

Also a grass feeder, this moth is more commonly found in Southern Europe but it's a migrant and has likely flown North to the UK thanks to the recent warm weather. 

I've shown you a few cinnabar moths over recent weeks so I knew it was only a matter of time before I found some of the species' distinctive caterpillars. 

These caterpillars hatch in huge numbers on ragwort plants. Ragwort is poisonous and is often removed from fields so that horses don't eat it. It's vitally important to cinnabars though and actually the caterpillars can be used to control the plant. The caterpillars end up becoming poisonous thanks to eating the plant but some species do predate them like some ants and cuckoos. 

Speaking of cuckoos, I regularly look at the BTO's Cuckoo tracking scheme. The organisation has tagged and is tracking cuckoos as they migrate to and from Africa. Of particular interest to me is Selborne, a cuckoo who was tagged in and returns to the New Forest. He arrived back in the New Forest on Easter Sunday and spent less than two months here- he's now heading back South and is near Bilbao! 

One final invertebrate to end, and it's the wonderfully named swollen-thighed beetle on a field scabious flower. 

That's it for now so I shall see you in July!

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.