26 Jun 2014

Back to Basics by Keith Fowler

I realise that over the last few reports I have drifted away from reporting on what we find on our trips to reporting what happened. These are, after all, the “Joy of Invertebrate walks” so there ought to be something about invertebrates contained herein (even if what happened is often more entertaining). So back to basics. 

One problem I have is that we do not have any “target” species that this year that can form the focus of the report other than long-horn beetles, which are considerably harder to find than shieldbugs, apart from Grammoptera ruficornis which is frequently encountered on flowering hawthorn. Rather like shieldbugs they tend to find you but are considerably shyer. Apart from the aforementioned beetle the only time you may happen across them consistently is when Hogweed is in full flower and the weather is sunny (my observation not a recorded fact).

So here goes – back to basics.

Ah! But first I must issue a written apology to the person known as the “Great Stick Finder”. Some of you may remember that during our visit last year to Shawbury Heath he caught and found an Agapanthia villosoviridescens, a stunning long horn beetle with extremely long pale and dark banded antennae.

Unfortunately the specimen had been damaged and lacked its antennae and one of its front legs. Needless to say he received much abuse about his lack of skills. Protestations that he found it like that were ignored by all. He recently sent me this photograph to prove that his skills are top notch. Regrettably this is not a Shropshire record but one from Lakenheath. So, I apologise on behalf of the group for casting aspersions about his skills.

Reminder to self: Back to basics. (But I have mentioned and included pictures of two invertebrates.)

Wednesday 4th June
There were two trips this week. The first was a joint venture with Invertebrate Challenge to Rea Brook Valley Nature Reserve to continue to build the species database for this site. Due to a variety of excuses – attending a course; setting up pitfall traps in the Wyre Forest; decorating; working and so forth there were only two of us who joined three others from Invertebrate Challenge. As both of us are in fact students of Invertebrate Challenge it could be argued that none of our usual group joined the five from Invertebrate Challenge, but let’s leave it as the two joined the three.

We started from Sainsbury’s car park off Whitecroft Road and followed the path of the Rea Brook around the loop that enclosed the aptly named Reabrook estate. The weather was grey and threatening when we set off. We inspected the vegetation at the side of the path and found Nephrotoma quadrifaria, a black and yellow cranefly with distinctive markings on its wings. Note the kink in its abdomen – I would like to say it was like that before I netted it but I do not think it was - no doubt my skills will now be called into question.

We then found a pair of Woundwort shieldbugs busy making more Woundwort shieldbugs. They were quite content on top of a woundwort leaf whilst voyeuristic entomologists watched them but as soon as a camera appeared they disappeared into the gloom under the leaf. This is the best photograph I could get in the circumstances. 

It started raining. This was not a surprise. The weather forecast for the day was quite clear. “If it’s raining already it will continue, if it’s not it will start”. And start it did. We sought shelter under trees. 

Perhaps the forecast was wrong as it stopped and insects started moving and flying about. Nets swept, vegetation was beaten and records made. We moved on still following the course of the river, found a bench and had lunch.

As we were lunching we observed a large cloud that was darker than the rest. We studied its movement for some time. Would it miss us? 

It didn’t. We got very wet. But insects were still about. Although the rain curtailed our day we had a couple of late successes - a Bordered shieldbug beaten from a mixture of Cleavers and Ivy and a female Goosander with eight (we think) ducklings.

We returned to the cars with a spring in our step then headed home to dry out.

Friday 6th June
Our second outing was to Greenfields SWT Reserve in Whitchurch. Five of us met in the car park off “Chemistry”, a rather curious name for a road – does anyone know how this name came about? It was a glorious day. We were faced with a walk to the site. 

We set off with resolve – get to the site, get to the site ...! As we walked along the path through an area of long grass Vacuum man cracked “I could just give this grass a quick going over”. Our resolve weakened and we paused as the roar of the garden vac competed with a nearby petrol driven mower. Some of the group (not me) were rewarded with the sight of a Kingfisher as it flashed across our line of sight.

As we inspected the catch from the vacuum machine we were joined by a young boy, his mother and dog. After a brief conversation the young lad dashed off. We carried on. The boy returned several minutes later clutching a bug – his first record – a Common damsel bug Nabis rugosus. The boy, his mother and dog went their way we continued towards the reserve.

More distractions – nettles and trees at the side of the road. And it was a good decision to inspect them as we found the largest cranefly in the land – Tipula maxima

Still distracted by the nettles, trees and nearby long grass and still 100m (110 yards for us oldies) from the start of the reserve we met up again with the young boy, mother and dog who had completed the circuit we were undertaking but in the opposite direction. This time the lad was carrying (carefully) a huge caterpillar – a Drinker moth. This was his second record. Let us hope that we may have planted a seed of interest for his later years.

We made it, yes, we actually got there. We entered the reserve. After a brief flurry of looking, beating sweeping and vacuuming we had a coffee break. Well as many of you know I do not do coffee breaks I do early lunch. So I ate whist others stoically stuck to coffee (or other drink) and a mid-morning (at 11.45am?) snack.

The site is not large but we took nearly four hours to traverse its length of 400m (440yards) or so. It was a mixture of grassland, wetland, a small pool and hillside woodland bordered by a narrow stream (that was fenced off) where Water voles are reported to be present. (We did not see or hear any.)

An early success in the site was a Wasp beetle Clytus arietis – one of the target species group – which was happily enjoying the sun until we came along to disrupt its enjoyment. 

There was also the curious sight of a bug nymph (Leptopterna sp.) apparently attempting to eat a slug. You can just make out its rostrum which looks as though it is penetrating the skin of the host. Looking at it more closely and seeing a harvestman and a Staphylinid beetle also hitching a lift I suspect that all three were exploring what appears to be the slug’s old skin. (Do slugs cast off their skins as they grow?).

At the pool we saw three species of damsel flies (Common blue, Blue-tailed and Large red), hundreds of froglets hopping about, many still with tails, Sloe bug and the highlight of the day (for me as Bug man) the Red Data Book hopper Paraliburnia clypealis (sorry no photograph) a species normally found in the east of the country (so I will need to get the identification confirmed).

Oh yes, it rained, briefly.

From the pool the footpath took us through the woodland where we encountered the moth with the extremely long antennae Nemophora degeerella. You can just about make out the antennae in the photograph – but if you cannot they end in the top and bottom left-hand corners.

Another inhabitant of the wood was a 10-spot ladybird in its red-spot on black background form decempustulatus. I apologise to those present as hastily and incorrectly identifying it as a 14-spot. On checking the photograph it is clear that it is a 10-spot.

We were rewarded for our efforts with a seat at the top of the hill. We paused to take in the view and to reflect on how tiring walking about one mile (1.6km) could be! Our return journey took us along the canal towpath. More opportunity for delay and records. But it was not to be. The towpath verge was extremely and disappointingly well-manicured, not what the entomologist wants to see, so we were not distracted. 

Well not quite as out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw a blue tit disappear into a wall. I was not mistaken, it had nested in there. The wall was talking as from within came the begging calls of the chicks. A good end to the day.

20 Jun 2014

Missing pics

No idea what happened to the pics on Keith's Red Kite post but here they are - use imagination, wit and intelligence to fit them into context with the text. Ed.

19 Jun 2014

A “Red Kite” Day

In cricketing parlance our joint outing with Invertebrate Challenge to Mortimer Forest to hunt for the spurge bug Dicranocephalus medius and the Cow-wheat shieldbug Sehirus biguttatus was “abandoned without a ball being bowled”. Fortunately this decision was made the day before the event so unnecessary travel was avoided. And by a second stroke of “fortune” our next trip was to Ludlow’s Whitcliffe Common a couple of miles away.

The weather was fine but overcast when four of us made the journey to Ludlow to visit the aforementioned Whitcliffe Common, a Shropshire Wildlife Trust Reserve just across the River Teme from the centre of Ludlow.

As there were only four of us we all travelled in one car. The trip got off to an inauspicious start when two of the group had senior moments and thought we were leaving half an hour later than arranged. Thankfully we were not meeting anyone on site – (I apologise to anyone who did turn up at the meet point, waited then went home disgusted). It was a frustrating journey via Bridgnorth and all sorts of villages getting behind slow moving wagons and nervous drivers. As one of the back-seat drivers remarked – “I would never have come this way” – very helpful. I then missed our turning in Ludlow onto “Weeping Cross Lane”.

Then things looked up. Just after the missed turning was a car park which I went into to do a U-turn and spotted a drab brick building - unmistakeably a public toilet. So, being gentleman of a certain age, we took advantage. Thank you Ludlow. Emptied and refreshed we eventually arrived at the meeting point about 45 minutes late. No-one was waiting for us.

We parked in the lay-by next to the “view-point” and took in the view. As we all know the vegetation around a car park is irresistible to the invertebrate hunter. And, next to the lay-by was an extensive patch of tall vegetation just asking to be inspected - and - there were seats. Oh joy! What more could we want?

And we spent the next few hours never venturing more than a couple of hundred yards from the lay-by making liberal use of the seats for identifying what we had found, resting our bags and equipment, talking to the locals, taking in the view, eating lunch – I do not think that anyone had a nap, but I could be wrong.

It was during lunch that we saw, fairly high in the sky, a large bird with long wings. Clearly not a Buzzard as one helpfully drifted past as we were looking to allow a comparison. Binoculars were employed and the unmistakeable shape of a Red Kite observed.

It was with some reluctance that we left the comforts of Whitcliffe Common and made the short trip to Mortimer Forest. Again the car park proved irresistible. But we were on a mission, we had target species, so we tore ourselves away and headed up a road past the Forestry Commission offices then onto a wide ride.

“What are you doing?” was a reasonable question from the local FC warden. An explanation was proffered. “Groups need permission” was the response. There were only four of us, hardly likely to cause much disturbance, certainly no more than all the dogs that were being exercised there. “However, as you’re here”. Thank you Mr Warden.

Unfortunately we did not find either of our target species but we did manage to walk to the edge of the county before returning to the car. The trip home was much easier than the journey out as the roads were much quieter.

All in all a mixed day but really it was a “Red Kite” day.

14 Jun 2014

Joy of Invertebrates - The Hem report et al - by Keith Fowler

The best laid plans ...

Continuing the tale of ordinary folk in an ordinary place taking an interest in extraordinary things we returned, with the kind permission of Mark Eccleston, to The Hem in Telford. This is an area of ancient woodland that had been neglected for many years until Mark made the Council an offer they could not refuse and took over its management. Mark is into the second year of a planned coppicing cycle that is making the wood work and bringing life to the coppiced areas.

We visited the site last year and were very impressed with the set up and what we found but, we missed the best of the wild flowers. So, when making the plans for this year’s series of trips I decided to visit The Hem earlier to catch their display. When do bluebells flower? This was the question. My answer was mid-May (the botanists amongst you have my full permission to snigger and ridicule me), so I arranged with Mark to visit mid-May. 

Well as most of you will know “Spring” seems to be early this year. The result - we missed the bluebell display by about a fortnight. The best laid plans ... Never mind, Mark, consoled us with a photograph of the bluebells carpeting the site. However there were compensations, Woodruff was in flower in abundance as was Wood melick and Wood millet (hope I have identified these correctly).

Those of you who have worked on coppicing in the Dairy Pits on the Ercall know of the extraordinary lengths we had to go to in order to protect the coppiced trees from deer and their destructive browsing. Well, touch wood, no problems here as last year’s coppiced trunks show healthy growth. 

When we arrived on a glorious day, warm sun, little cloud and no wind, I was presented with a beautiful black, yellow and orange cranefly that had landed on Mark’s table. It was a Ctenophora pectinicornis. This is an ichneumon wasp mimic. Not rare, but one that makes you sit up and take notice. It is a species that requires large stands of rotting timber and is classed as an indicator of ancient woodland. Sorry I do not have a photograph of it. An excellent start. 

We collected and identified a steady stream of insects, dominated by craneflies and spiders, but with a good mix of other beasties. However one group noticeable by their absence – Shieldbugs – well, we are used to that.

To save embarrassment to the person involved I will not record the incident of the Lost Botanist and the Lost Hat. But, International Rescue saved the day.

I will, however, record our thanks to Mark for allowing us to intrude into his domain and the very warm welcome he gave us. In return here is a link to his website Picks and Sticks. We all look forward to our next visit.

Two days later we carried out a Wildlife Site survey at Bradley Coppice near Farley. This site is part of the Willey estate and the Shropshire Wildlife Trust arranged access for us. 

Unfortunately the weather was less kind – overcast with showers of rain. To be fair the rain stayed away for most of the time we were there, it was only as we were considering the site report that it became heavy and unpleasant.

Bradley Coppice is a long strip of woodland on the side of the north-west slope that borders the Buildwas Road around Farley. It is mainly Ash woodland but there is a large area of Larch on the flatter land to the north of the site. It also contains several small disused quarries.

It was in one of these quarries that we started our survey. A haven for ferns, craneflies and spiders.

We then moved into the Larch plantation before heading up the slope into the Ash woodland. Here we got two surprises.

The first came as we crossed a clearing made to accommodate overhead cables, we found ourselves at the top of a quarry. Fortunately we were paying attention to our surroundings.

The second elicited squeals of delight. As we worked our way around the quarry, there, in the middle of the narrow path, was a Greater butterfly orchid.

Uplifted we continued our merry way into the depths of the Ash woodland through swathes of Ramsons and across an attractive stream and had lunch.

As one of the group trotted off for a private moment we got our third surprise. A shout of “Herb paris” may us all follow to see this weird plant.

We continued for a little while after lunch before heading back to the cars and home.

This was a delightful site. Thank you to the Willey Estate for allowing access and the Shropshire Wildlife Trust for arranging the visit.

9 Jun 2014

Devil's Dingle et al - by Keith Fowler

“What a brilliant site”

Prelude: A return to Lea Quarry was our next outing. This trip was disrupted by two events. A couple of us were unavailable as we attended an Invertebrate Challenge event at the Rea Valley nature reserve and it rained. However a couple of intrepid explorers set out to empty the pitfall traps and do some vacuum sampling. It was the vacuum that sucked out a couple of “inconspicuous” ladybirds which turned out to be the third record in the county of Scymnus frontalis, a small black beetle with an elongate reddish spot on each of its wing cases.

Act I: The following week “Joy of Invertebrates” descended on Devil’s Dingle. This is the former ash tipping site for Ironbridge Power Station which has now been landscaped and allowed to return to nature. It is a site that the Wrekin Forest Volunteers have visited many times in the past to help with conservation work and to carry out moth trapping. On this occasion we visited to look for invertebrates and take in the general peaceful atmosphere that the site and the views it affords. 

The weather was on its best behaviour and even the cooling towers and chimney of the power station looked good in these conditions.

We were joined for the day by two celebrities – the County Hoverfly (and others) Recorder and the County Aculeates Recorder. The latter also brought three Invertebrate Challenge students. This site has gained some notoriety as being a hotbed of bee and wasp activity and, true to form, a rare species of bee (or it may have been a wasp) was found on the bank just inside the entrance whilst we assembled.

We drove up to and parked by the main pool. We then went our separate ways. The celebrities and their group off in search of their target species, the rest of us spent some time checking out the vegetation around where we had parked our cars (finding a Dock bug) then wandered along the path that borders the south side of the pool.

One speculative sweep of the grass turned up a 16-spot ladybird and whilst a couple of us were looking at this a Bishop’s mitre shieldbug clambered onto my net. Not a good idea. It was potted for a show and tell at lunchtime.

A Green hairstreak butterfly alighted on the Hawthorn blossom next to. Like lightning it was netted for the aforementioned show and tell. But this butterfly was made of sterner stuff. It managed a Houdini like escape from the net as I encouraged it to go into a sensibly sized pot. Oh well, at least I got to see it. We were compensated though by several sightings of Dingy skipper.

Lunch was taken and we were all taken by surprise when a lone Oystercatcher flew across the far bank of the western pool. After lunch we headed for the area at the top of the site where we had two more surprises.

A small isolated gorse bush was checked more in hope than expectation for Gorse shieldbug. And lo and behold one was found, then another, then another, then ..... and more arrived as we watched. It felt as though all the shieldbugs in Telford were heading to this one bush. Why? Mmmm... We then spotted a couple making more Gorse shieldbugs, so all was explained. Spring is in the air.

The next surprise was when a speculative sweep of some rushes in a ditch caught a Denticulate leatherbug. Although a few had been found previously in Shropshire including at this site last year we had not seen one before.

For the final part of the day we returned to the entrance where we found the celebrities and their followers searching the bank. So we joined in. Yet another rarity had been found – sorry to disappoint you but I cannot remember its name! To end a good day we had sight of a Forget-me-not shieldbug.

“What a brilliant site” declared the Great Stick Finder, “You could easily stay a week”. I agree, but we had to go home and the site secured. 

Thanks go to Mary Thornton of Eon for arranging and providing access to this brilliant site.

Act II: Two days later the Wrekin Forest Volunteers carried out their first Wildlife Site Survey of the year at Traps Coppice near Sheinton. As the result of courses, holidays and probably many other reasons only two of us were able to visit the site. But we were rewarded by a couple of treats in an excellent if rather strenuous day.

The site is deciduous woodland on a fairly steep west to north-west facing slope. The entrance was rather inauspicious but we duly noted the flora and pursued a few craneflies. We then had to make a decision: go north or south. We went north. The path took us through rather dreary woodland where the Beech had grown tall and wide casting shade on the ground. The only areas of interest were the margins. Then, through the trees, and UP the slope, we spotted some white flowers. We headed UP. 

We were greeted by a vast swathe of Ramsons in full flower. And flying all around were the Ramsons specialist hoverfly Portevinia maculata. I have never seen so many.

Unfortunately carrying on our northern tack we left the Ramsons behind and trudged through the Beech wilderness until with some relief we came upon the boundary.

We now headed south back to the welcoming whiteness of the Wild garlic. At some point we moved into Oak dominated woodland. There is, however, only so much whiteness one can take before one becomes immune to its charm. O for the sight of a buttercup or dandelion.

In search of insects I wandered off to do a bit of my own thing. I heard a squeal of delight. I rushed over... there were three Early purple orchids in flower. 

The day was looking up. We walked on, a few more orchids, then a few more, then a whole clump of them. In all nearly a hundred Early purple orchids. For someone who had only knowingly seen one before this was all too much so I had to sit down and have lunch.

It was then that I had that moment, that Eureka moment, about 10 yards away (9 metres if you are young) was something yellow. Yes, yes, it was a dandelion. O delight.

Refreshed and uplifted we travelled on. We came to an area where the land levels out and starts to slope to the east. We explored. Another squeal – Herb paris – not just an isolated plant or two but hundreds in several large patches. Herb paris is an odd plant as some flowers have four large leaves and some five – as can be seen in the photograph.

On cloud nine we carried on to the southern end of the site then made our way back to the start finding Sanicle, Wood mellick and other plants along the path finishing with a clump of the parasitic plant Toothwort.

We were met by the wood’s guardian as we were writing up the site visit report. He is keen to preserve if not improve the state of the coppice. One of his plans is to thin out the beech which would be of great benefit.

Another “brilliant” site.

Thank you to the owner, Buildwas Estate, for granting access and the Shropshire Wildlife Trust for making the arrangements for the visit.

Act III: Four years ago I photographed an insect on the trunk of the Scots pine at the summit of Little Hill, which is the pimple to the south of The Wrekin. It turned out to be the hoverfly species Callicera rufa that was known (at that time) only in Scotland as a specialist of Caledonian pine forest. A few days later, following the identification of this species, it was also found on Haughmond Hill.

Each year in May and June I go back to Little Hill to check if it is still there. I do not see it on each of these occasions as it has to be sunny and the males have to be out and about patrolling their territories to have a chance of spotting them. Unfortunately they are not insects that feed on the ground flora, which makes them easier to spot, but use the upper canopy to find their food. So the males have to be around and fighting off all-comers to have any chance of seeing them. 

On my last trip it was warm, the sun was shining, it was almost cloudless, and I was rewarded with the sight of between two and four of the flies, possibly more. So I can record that they have now been present on Little Hill for (at least) four years.

Yet another brilliant sight.

4 Jun 2014

Springtime on the Ercall by Margaret Mitchell - Wrekin Forest Volunteer

Twelve months ago the Wrekin Forest Volunteers installed 30 nest boxes donated by C J Wildlife, in the Ercall Wood.  The birds soon moved in.

On 25 April this year a pair Pied Flycatchers, the target species, were heard, and then seen in the wood, but there was no sign of them nesting.  Then on 15 May four pale blue eggs were discovered in one of the boxes and the adults were observed nearby.  To our delight they had taken up residence!

15 boxes are in use by Blue Tits and Great Tits at various stages of development, many with a bird sitting on eggs.  One Blue Tit clutch is well advanced with 9 chicks beginning to show their wing feathers.  Another nest has an amazing 15 eggs and a total of at least 109 eggs have been laid so far.

As well as the quarries, the lower slopes now have two sunny glades that the volunteers have cleared of alder trees and scrub.  These are beginning to regenerate with wild flowers and, despite the day being very windy, we were rewarded by sightings of peacock, green-veined white, large and small white and speckled wood butterflies.

The Ercall Wood is looking beautiful at the moment with swathes of bluebells, interspersed with greater stitchwort, nodding in the dappled sunshine beneath the tree canopy.  Many walkers, bird watchers and photographers use the wood, one ancient oak being a star subject for nature snaps.

On leaving we drove past the Forest Glen car park towards Little Wenlock and were thrilled to see three fallow deer gracefully crossing the road from Dairy Pit to the Wrekin woods.  A lovely end to a day spent in the Ercall Wood that is literally bursting with life.