23 Aug 2015

Was it 7 or was it 18?

The Beeches and Lodge Field, Wednesday 5th August 

Roadworks caused a late change of meeting point. Members of The Friends of The Beeches very kindly allowed us to park on their drive and garden whilst one member volunteered to man the “official” parking spot in case they were not aware of the change. Many thanks to them for easing our arrangements.

Seven of us gathered in the rearranged “car park”. After the usual preparations we were about to enter The Beeches when our volunteer turned up with three others – a child with grandparents on childminding duties. So what do you do? You give the child a net and he starts running around catching things and bringing the contents back for identification.

For a while we were like Victorian collectors as the child, grandparents and then others who drifted in after we had started brought us insects and spiders. In amongst these offerings was a Bishop’s Mitre shield bug. A really nice way to start the day.

Inevitably such a large group broke into smaller groups pursuing their particular interests. For example, the botanists went out to graze the plains. 

Some went to investigate the trees and others went to the pool. The rest milled around the Great Spider Hunter who had set up camp and seemed to be attracting several interested folk with his identification skills and tales of derring-do in the mysterious world of arachnids.

I believe that at its height the number in the group reached 18 (eighteen) but I was not too sure as they never seemed to be in the same place at once and kept moving around. So I may have counted some twice, but there again I may have missed some!

The Beeches is an area of grassland with a small wooded area and pool. It is looked after by The Friends of The Beeches who have saved the land from the threat of development and produced a wonderful flower-rich meadow. When we visited the grassland was dominated by knapweed but other flowers are also abundant. 

And the knapweed was teeming with Red-tailed bumble bees. Although it was all too much for this male which was resting on the path and took no notice of our close scrutiny.

One of our botanists and recorder brought me a tray with about a dozen Dock bugs. There were no adults but every stage of juvenile development was there. The route between egg and adult for the dock bug involves 5 stages (instars) over the period of a few weeks. Each stage brings an increase in size and development towards the adult. Unfortunately I did not take advantage of this bonanza to photograph each stage but I did photograph an early instar later in the day.

We decided to lunch in Lodge Field so we uprooted ourselves from The Beeches, gave our thanks to the remaining members of the friends and seven of us made the short transfer to Lodge Field. On the way we caught a glimpse of the Ironbridge Power Station cooling towers. I can never resist photographing them.

As we were lunching we were met by a member of the Lodge Field Friends (ah! that makes 19 overall) who gave us some information about the site. Lodge Field in its current state is more mature than The Beeches and is not as overtly flower rich. There is a stream that runs through part of the site, but this had dried up for our visit.

After lunch we did our usual thing and worked our way around the site. Green shield bug instars were found frequently.

As was the Common Flower Bug which usually only gets a mention when it decides that one’s hand or arm is a plant and sticks its rostrum into the flesh. (They are predatory but they normally take on something they can handle.)

As always time caught up with us so we made our way back, slowly, to The Beeches and the cars. Three of the group forged ahead and by the time the rest of us caught them up they were resting on a bench overlooking the gorge.

It was very tempting to approach them humming the tune to “Last of the Summer Wine” but we were resistant to temptation.

As it happened the Great Shiledbug Finder had found a harvestman and the Great Spider Hunter was trying to identify it. That is not quite true; he had identified it but was doubting it as it had not been recorded in Shropshire before. He later confirmed that this last record of the day was, as he identified, Opilio canestrinii, a new species for the county. What a great way to end the day.

My thanks to the Friends of The Beeches and Lodge Field for the arrangements, making us welcome and working hard to maintain these sites so that we can come along and enjoy them. Thanks also to the couple who allowed us to park in their drive and on their lawn.

Keith Fowler

20 Aug 2015

“Where’s my wellies?”

Aston Locks Nature Reserves, Wednesday 29th July

One advantage of cold weather in high summer is that those insects that are foolish enough to venture out into the open are sluggish, making them easier to identify or, if necessary, capture. A few early hoverfly finds came about this way as Dasysyrphus albostriatus, Platychaeirus albimanus and the Marmalade Fly (Episyrphus balteatus) were recorded as we set off from the car park.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Ten of us gathered in the car park opposite the Queen’s Head pub under threatening skies. It was not t-shirt and shorts weather! Many layers of clothing were the order of the day, as were good, stout, waterproof boots or wellingtons. Ah! Who forgot their wellingtons? I will not embarrass him by naming names, but he had to spend his day in “crocs” avoiding wet areas of grassland and puddles.

For once the car park held little of interest so we set off for the site.

We were soon met by a huge yellow monster coming towards us on the towpath. 

Fortunately the monster was friendly and waited for us to pass.

Somehow I got left behind and by the time I caught up most of the group were staring intently across the canal towards an area from where a tremendous screeching was originating. “Sedge warblers” was their explanation. We stood and watched the area for a while as birds made fleeting appearances to accompany their calls. This would make a good photograph, I thought. But by the time I took it most had lost interest. Anyway here it is.

Sorry, were you expecting a photograph of the birds?

We were then met by a man in a high-visibility jacket and a hard hat. The canal had sprung a leak and they were repairing it. He was worried, quite rightly, that his driver of the yellow monster would not see us walking along and cause an incident. He would have preferred to close the tow-path but the Canal Trust had decided to keep it open. We promised not to dawdle on the tow path and be aware of the dangers posed by the yellow monster.

So for once in a while we may have exceeded the speed limit as we made for the first of the two reserves at Aston Locks.

I had the “throw-line” (or “brick” as it has been christened) ready to go as we negotiated the narrow lock gate to get onto the first reserve. Fortunately (or unfortunately if you are of a sporting mind) all negotiated the crossing safely and the brick was stowed away for possible use later.

Then we came across this sign 

“Dewatered”?. Is it a word in general usage? Apparently it is. A check of my dictionary informs me that “dewater”, a verb, is to “drain (a waterlogged or flooded area)” and to “remove water from (sediment or waste materials)”. So now we know. Here it indicated that the canal which was none of waterlogged, flooded, sediment or waste materials had had its water level reduced as a result of the leak further down.

We started to look for things of interest. As I have already mentioned it was cold so not much was flying about but if you spent time looking then you could find things hanging on to the vegetation. 

And of course, the flora was there whatever the temperature on the day.

We spent a while almost glued to the spot then started to venture further afield. It started raining, it stopped, it started again and continued. This meant that beating and sweeping, our main tools other than looking, were out of the question as the equipment became waterlogged (continually needing to be “dewatered”) which meant that anything we caught became in turn waterlogged which was harmful to the insects. (Note: most of what we find is let go or escapes.)

Still we were able to look and the group as a whole is very good at that so animals  and flowers were observed and records made.

For example a Gatekeeper on Thistle:

Perennial sow-thistle and Horsetails:

And a Green-veined white:

The rain stopped, the sun came out and it was quite pleasant in the warmth. Lunch was taken.

Refreshed we moved on to the second reserve which is situated between the second and third locks of Aston Locks. Somebody had very kindly laid a wooden carpet down for us along the tow path to stop us getting dirty boots.

Access to the site was again across a lock, but this time there was a small bridge, so the brick was not primed for action.

This site is in two sections the first major part is rough wet grassland and the second is a series of pools and streams. We started in the grassland. We did not make it to the pools as time ran out.

In sheltered spots it was now quite pleasant and this encouraged flies out into the open and we managed sightings of hoverflies in addition to the common Episyrphus balteatus and Eristalis species.

Amongst those identified were Syritta pipiens:

- Photograph: Susan Loose

And the rarely seen Volucella inflata

- Photograph: Susan Loose

This hoverfly, at a quick glance, could easily be mistaken for a Volucella pellucens. It differs in that the band of the abdomen is not as white as V. pellucens and the scutellum and side of the thorax are brown (black in pellucens). So, next time you see a potential pellucens check it more closely as it may be inflata.

On our way back we once again met the yellow monster:

It remembered us, greeted us warmly and told us that they were shoring up the banks of the canal with steel piles and laying the wooden road as they needed to bring in heavy equipment to fix the leak in the canal (which had caused it to be “dewatered”). The precautions were necessary to protect the rare plants found in the area. (I just hope that none of the rare plants were on the towpath.)

My thanks to the Canal Trust for allowing us to do what we like doing and to Keir Group’s employees. 

for their courtesy when we got in their way.

Keith Fowler

15 Aug 2015

Don’t Panic!

Bury Ditches – Wednesday 22nd July

Normally I have breakfasted before 7am so collecting the Great Spider Hunter at 9am on my way to Bury Ditches should not be a problem. Early breakfast also explains my tendency to eat lunch whilst the rest of the group have morning coffee. However on this day, after a troublesome night, I woke up at 8.11am. 

Don’t panic – plenty of time! I remembered that when I worked I use to get up at 6am and be at work by 7am so plenty of time.

I did not gulp down my breakfast or skimp on the morning ablutions and left the house at 8.50am giving me 10 minutes for the 20 minute drive if I was to get there on time. Don’t panic.

Then I remembered it was bin collection day so the road was bound to be blocked somewhere along the route by a refuse collection vehicle. And it was. But I did not panic as there was a small gap between the stationary lorry and the parked cars. I squeezed through thankful that the traffic coming in the other direction realised I was a little tardy and therefore needed priority for the gap.

Next a huge queue of traffic at the traffic lights. I did not need to panic as they turned green just as I started to slow down to join the queue. And the traffic lights understood I was a little tardy and did not change back to red until the whole queue had got through.

Plain sailing now and without panicking I collected my charge at 9.10am-ish. 

“Come and look at the moths” was the greeting as I apologised for being late. So, still not panicking I did – there was Swallow-tailed, an emerald and a few others.

We loaded up the car and set off.

As I was tootling along quite happily my passenger shouts “OWL!”. Concentrating on keeping the car on the road there is little opportunity to look around. “Above the car”. So I stopped in the middle of the Much Wenlock to Craven Arms road to look. Nothing to be seen – or was that something moving in the big tree over the hedge?

A van raced by and I imagined what the driver was thinking about this car stationery in the road, and it was not polite.

Then we saw the owl again gliding away from us, but we were unable to determine the species. 

We carried on our merry way until we got stuck behind a car doing 40mph whatever the speed limit. 

Thankfully it turned off in Church Stretton.

And now there was no need to panic as the chances of getting to meet point on time were nil.

After turning up the rather narrow road from Clunton towards Bury Ditches we were given another treat as we saw a Red Kite meandering around lazily over a field close to the road.

So we got to the meet point just after 10am, without one panic.

As always we looked around the car park and one beat of an oak tree yielded several bugs, so I knew it was going to be a busy day.

Which way to go? A suggestion was made to start at the hill fort so we left the car park taking a path that rose steadily towards the summit of the hill and the fort. We stopped lots of time to look at plants, search for insects and discuss the entomological and other topics of the day. And it started raining. How dare it? It’s a Wednesday. it does not rain on a Wednesday. 

It was not heavy rain, more a sea fret. Still waterproofs were donned.

Some of us deviated from the path to see lichen strewn trees.

Although some lichen develop in polluted air they are usually associated with sites where the air is clean.

We eventually made it to the summit. Only to find that one of the group had forged ahead and declared a coffee break.

The hillfort dates from about 500BC and is recognised as one of the best examples in the country. 

The site is huge and the ramparts are impressive.

Unfortunately it was a little breezy but we were able to find a sheltered spot for lunch. After that we explored the inner reaches of the fort which is dominated by grassland. We found a Small Skipper hanging on to a thistle.

As we descended the far side of the fort we discovered that it was more sheltered and there were many more insects taking advantage of the calmer, warmer conditions. Some had creating the next generation on their mind. A pair of the conopid fly Sicus ferrugineus:

And a pair of the picture-wing fly Terellia tussilaginis:

The tall flower heads of the angelica were proving a magnet for hoverflies, bees and wasps:

Time was marching on, which is not what we were doing! We found ourselves at the halfway point of the walk I had hoped to achieve. Drastic action was required otherwise we would be very late for dinner. Maps were consulted, a committee meeting held and a decision reached to abandon the “planned” walk and take the direct(ish) path back to the cars.

It was a bit of “Staffordshire” march back but we still managed to find things of interest and take in the views that tantalisingly kept making appearances between breaks in the trees.

On the way home in the car we were treated to a view of not one, but two Red Kites.

Excellent, what better way to spend a day?

Keith Fowler