Friday, 29 August 2014

Smooth Newt in the garden

A gently lifted flint boulder in the garden this evening revealed this sandy brown Smooth Newt. Mostly likely a female or immature male, she remained relatively still during exposure to our peering gaze.
Smooth newt Lissotriton vulgaris; formerly Triturus vulgaris
Outside of the breeding season they are nocturnal, taking refuge under stones, in burrows or compost heaps, emerging to feed on slugs and snails. They will soon be looking for hibernation sites, before emerging again in February and March to return to ponds for breeding.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Sexing a hoverfly

As mentioned in the previous post, differentiating between sexes of insects can often be tricky but in the case of hoverflies and the Marmalade Hoverfly Episyrphus balteatus in particular, it is relatively straightforward, especially with two similar photographs to refer to. 
In males the area covered by their compound eyes is significantly larger, with the left and right 'eyes' meeting at the central dorsal line. The scientific term for this eye arrangement is holoptic and is typical of several male members of the diptera (true fly) family.
Females eye clusters are smaller and don't meet; instead an obvious separation is clear.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

The time of the hoverflies

On the still hot days of late June and early July, the hoverflies cover the flowerbeds, hanging from invisible threads before settling on flower landing pads to feed. This seems to be their time in the garden, just as the bee fly seemed to dominate the scene back in April.
A female Episyrphus balteatus Marmalade Hoverfly



These were Marmalade Hoverflies (flower flies in the US), common across the palearctic of Europe, Asia and Northern Africa. Though it mimics solitary wasps it is harmless, one of very few species that crush flower pollen to feed.
Sexing a hover fly is straight forward. Males have 'larger' holoptic eyes, meaning that they meet along the dorsal length of their head. Females don't, as can be seen clearly in the top photo.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Setting up an outdoor aquarium

This spring an outdoor aquarium has provided quite literally hours of entertainment as we have been able to watch the development and metamorphosis of pond-life right in front of our noses.
The experiment began with the purchase of a tank. Almost anything will do. In the end I bought a small starter tank from a local pet shop, though now I'm on the look out for something larger and I'm sure second-hand or home-made will be fine.
Filling the tank was the next task, so armed with a lidded bucket I headed for a local pond back in March and came home with a good quantity of rather cloudy water, the pond having been disturbed by recent heavy rain.
Over the ensuing days the water gradually settled out to leave a good centimetre of sediment in the base. The water was also full of life. Tiny water fleas, fly larvae and other microscopic ameoba started to become apparent, suspended in the water or roaming the sediment at the base. We dropped in some stones, an apple tree branch and a bit of weed to provide some oxygenation and left it alone. In retrospect this was an important stage as it allowed populations of the lower life-forms to establish and provided a base for later introductions.
Stage two was the collection of specimens so we made a return to the same pond at the end of April. The pond was teeming with tiny wriggling black tadpoles and one swoop of the net brought a hundred or more into the bucket. We came home with twenty or so, as well as a caddice fly larvae, complete with its portable home - the jewel in our pond-dipping crown and a greater waterboatmen who has previously appeared on this blog.
Carefully released into the tank, the newly arrived creatures quickly appeared at home, the tadpoles feeding on the algae that was forming on the glass or the leaves of the pondweed that was now starting to sprout roots.
And so our stage was set. The tank sat on a chair on the patio, partly in shade. A stool quickly found a permanent home in front of it and after a day in the office the aquarium was the first port of call when returning home, to see what had developed during that day. The Caddice fly larvae marched regularly around the tank, initially apparently hanging on for dear life until it's floating equilibrium became reset after it's brief time in the air whilst leaving the pond. The tadpoles continued to munch on algae, sucker mouths like lampreys rasping repeatedly at the glass, the first vestiges of back legs slowly appearing across the population.


No further maintenance has been needed, bar topping up with harvested rainwater after a few warm days had reduced the water levels. A fine pond weed did require some removal in the latter stages of tadpole development, but more on that in a later post. That aside, the tank had become a fascinating, life-sustaining environment over these past few weeks and is an experiment I look forward to repeating.



Water flea

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Tawnies in the treetops

An adult Tawny Owl Strix aluco perches on a telegraph pole. 
Over the last few nights we have been visited by a family group of Tawny Owls, made up of three fledged owlets and at least one adult. They have taken to perching in our tall garden Ash tree or call in the trees that line the lane whilst the parent bird goes off to hunt in the fields around us.

Last night I recorded the sound of the owlets calling. One can only imagine that the adults travel some distance if silence is a pre-requisite for a successful hunt. 

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The breast is yet to come

This fledgling robin, like many of the young birds in the garden, is more tolerant of human curiosity than its adult counterparts. Perched less than two feet away in the apple tree it posed for some time before hopping off into the branches.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Hawkmoth on the Honeysuckle

Hummingbird Hawkmoth Macroglossum stellatarum 
This Hawkmoth is the closest thing we get to a hummingbird in the UK. When we have seen them in the past it has usually been later in the summer, feeding on phlox nectar on still evenings in the garden.


Their delicate proboscis extends further than their body length to reach down into long flower flutes and our huge honeysuckle provides plenty at this time of year. They are strong flyers, so their summer distribution to extreme northern latitudes is not uncommon, though a sighting this early in the season suggests an insect of more local origin as we sit at the upper edge of their year round range.
Blue - possible summer distribution  Green - all year  Yellow - winter

Monday, 16 June 2014

Feline Mullein

The markings on the head of a Mullein Moth caterpillar seem to have a feline quality to them. I found this one on the leaf of a buddlea - a common host shrub. It spends the longest part of its life cycle in an underground pupal stage before emerging as the specimen below.


Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Grey wagtails at the Ford

Male Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea
A pair of grey wagtails annually take up residence at Barwick Ford and this year has been no exception. In previous seasons, nests have been attempted unsuccessfully on the footbridge, but this year the nest location is well hidden and away from the bridge. Last week the parents were  making the most of the glut of mayfly rising from the Rib. Thousands rise each year and fill surrounding lanes in the evening sunlight with their yo-yo motion. Research so far suggests the particular mayfly populating the Rib on this stretch is Ephemera Danica, though Vulgaris remains a possibility - I'll update when I have a definitive ID.

Ephemera Danica (I think!)


The Grey Wagtail female heads off to the nest

A Mandarin Duck - a resident at the Ford this year -surveys the scene



Monday, 9 June 2014

A D-Day Dakota travels home


Magical things sometimes happen when you are painting.
I spent a blissful couple of hours late yesterday afternoon, sat in the long grass by the riverside, painting a watercolour of the view down the Rib Valley.
The time had been special.
Out of time in fact.
A scene largely unchanged in decades, eye and ear unsullied by the signals of the 21st Century.
Fully relaxed with the sun on my back I had enjoyed the spectacle of a family group of four herons rising in unison from the river, a pure white little egret fishing in the shadows below me oblivious to my presence and the dabbling of a group of mallards grazing gently downstream as I struggled to capture the scene with wash and pigment. The river tinkled a soporific tune, accompanied by the song of chaffinch and goldfinch that bounced from tree to freshly leaved tree.
photo: RAF BBMF
As the sun sank further towards the horizon the unmistakeable throb of a propeller engine broke through the birdsong and grew in intensity. Far in the distance a speck of black drew slowly closer, it's path heading straight toward me. Navigating by eye and map she was heading north up the valley, looking for her next way-mark.
Surveyed through binoculars I could identify it as a Dakota with RAF roundel clearly visible, a favourite of childhood modelling alongside the Spitfire and Lancaster bomber.

This one was special though.
Bedecked in invasion stripes - two black lines on the fuselage and each wing on a white ground to aid identification in chaotic skies above the Normandy landings - Dakota ZA947 of the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight was flying home to RAF Conningsby in Lincolnshire, returning like so many heroes from the 70th anniversary of D-Day Memorial in Normandy, where so many more heroes were left behind for ever  all those years ago.
A poignant moment on a poignant weekend.
I paused to remember them.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Weevil - Liophloeus tesselatus

This weevil was wandering mechanically at the top of the garden as we supped tea the other afternoon, identified with a bit of research as Liophloeus tesselatus. Their heavily defensive exoskeleton and slow pace mark them out as plant eaters and some of the species are seen as pests to agriculture and gardeners.
A Google Image search brings up far better images but I remain impressed at the pictures you can get with today's smart phones, which are more than adequate for identification purposes.

Greater Water boatman - Notonecta glauca


This is a tadpole's eye view of a greater water boatman that has its home in our outdoor aquarium. Notonecta glauca is one of several UK species of Greater Water Boatman and a tadpole would do well to be wary - these 'backswimmers' as they are known in the US, are carnivorous and will happily prey on tadpoles, small fish or other aquatic insects.
Visually similar, lesser water boatmen are not closely related and characteristically swim 'the right way up'.
The aquarium has been a fascinating experiment through this spring and I will post more on its creation and the pond-life that now populate it in coming weeks.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

In the company of foxes

A walk up the lane turned into a special moment last Friday evening when we encountered four young fox cubs playing at the edge of woodland in the early evening sun whilst their parents were away hunting.

They chased in the grass and bounded through the developing crop, oblivious or perhaps tolerant of our gaze from 60 yards away for a captivating half an hour before melting away into the woodland shadows. 
I looked up the collective noun for foxes later. Neither skulk nor leash seem appropriate to describe these bundles of youthful energy though perhaps they more accurately attest to a historic response to the intelligent parents that provide the meat to fuel them.





Monday, 19 May 2014

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Cardinal Beetle

Cardinal Beetle Pyrochroa serraticornis
This stunner of a beetle was wandering our yard the other day and despite its size, you couldn't miss it. Cardinal Beetle is the common name for three british beetles. The most common is this one, pyrochroa serraticornis, distinct from the others in having a red head. It is around 20mm long and is found throughout the UK, typically from May to July. It predates other insects. 
Pyrochroa coccinea is larger but less common and has a black head whilst the Scarce Cardinal beetle Schizotus pectinicornis is only found in a few sites in Wales and Scotland and is smaller and rounder, again with black head.