28 Jun 2016

Rain, Rain Go Away!

Many, many years ago when I was young I remember reading a cartoon strip where one of the characters always had a black rain cloud over his head even when all the other characters were in the sun. Unfortunately I am now old enough to have forgotten the character's name. However, I feel like that character after the last couple of weeks when, although the weather has not been at its best, it has been particularly wet on Joy of Wildlife Days. See last week's blog "How many entomologists can you fit under a Horse chestnut tree?" and read on ....

Rhos Fiddle - Wednesday 22nd June

Nine of us made the lengthy trip to the Shropshire Wildlife Reserve at Rhos Fiddle in the south west corner of the county. The skies were leaden but it was dry.

I have visited this site a couple of times before but never managed to get more than 50 yards or so from the entrance due to time constraints, so today was the day to explore the whole site!

After a cursory look around the area where the cars were parked we entered the site. Within 10 minutes there was a flurry of rain that sent some of us scurrying back to the cars to don the waterproofs we had foolishly left behind.

Of course when we returned to the site the others were either dots on the landscape or had disappeared over the horizon.

We swept and beat and vacuumed and managed a small but diverse group of finds. The highland cattle which graze the site along with some sheep kept a respectful distance.

We ascended the first rise to be faced with a second. Having scaled the second rise the site opened out in front of us, and to one side, and the other. It is a much larger site than I expected.

Our next target was a clump of gorse that I mistakenly thought was the site of the Rhos Fiddle Pools. I felt that was a good place to base ourselves for our explorations.

It was not the site of the pools instead it appeared to be where the local sheep went to die as we found several sheep carcasses in the area. 

One of the group who is never one to miss an opportunity to find some interesting flies inspected one of them and "liberated" a sexton beetle, Nicrophorus humator.

As this spot was dry underfoot whereas most of the rest of the site was very wet what better place for lunch?

Lunch was more of less complete when we had another flurry of rain which gave the opportunity for a couple of the group to demonstrate another essential piece of entomological equipment - the umbrella.

Others ignored the rain and went in search of more specimens

We found a Hieroglyphic ladybird, a heathland specialist.

Time to move on, but where? We decided to try to get to the far side. "It's not bad underfoot" was a comment I heard from someone. 

Well it was not too bad ... if you were wearing wellingtons but those in walking boots found the water deeper than their boots, so we abandoned this quest and returned to the outcrop of gorse ... and the sheep.

When we had all gathered we were shown a rarity that had been found whilst some of us were floundering in the boggy conditions. A hoverfly. (Do not be fooled by the sun in the photograph - this was not taken on site.)

This was identified as Microdon myrmicae. This is a very localised species found on wet heaths and poor wet grasslands. Its larvae inhabit ant nests where they may feed on the ant eggs and larvae.

I looked behind me the hills in the distance were no longer visible as a veil of rain was fast approaching. We retreated back to the cars. Unfortunately we were not quick enough and the rain won the race and we got soaked.

As compensation we stopped in Clun on the way back for tea and cake. 

The sun came out, it was a glorious late afternoon!!!

My thanks to Nigel Jones for letting me use his photograph of M. mymicae.

Dothill LNR - Friday 24th June

I am far more attentive of the weather forecast than I used to be. This day was "fine until lunchtime then rain in the afternoon". So, with luck we would get three or four hours on site.

Four of us met in pleasant weather for our third expedition to Dothill.

We made our way to the meadow by Tee Lake which had developed very nicely since our last visit and provided a lovely floral display with plenty of orchid spikes punctuating the collection. You had to be careful where you put your feet. But at least it was the right reason.

There was plenty of to look at and identify including this Forest bug nymph.

As good as this area was Dothill is a very large site so it was necessary to move on. We marched to the next area but decided to make use of the nearby bench as a spot for lunch.

This was the same bench where on our first visit we had had "bad" experiences due to the local dogs, but on this occasion only three dogs passed and they were well behaved, as were their guardians.

Whilst lunching we noted a series of small holes in the dry bare ground in front of the seat. (Sorry no photographs.) There were a number of small bees/wasps exploring them. Sometimes they just "looked", sometimes they investigated more closely, sometimes they went in to come out again fairly quickly. When we looked more closely some of the holes had faces peering out. We suspected that these were bee/wasp nests and the bees/wasps flying around may have been trying to parasitise the nest. We may, of course, have been completely wrong. However it provided the lunchtime entertainment. Thank you.

The second area we looked at is a large expanse of rank grassland with some wet patches. You had to be equally careful where to put your feet here, but for the wrong reason. Again the area was rich in insect life. 

By now the sun had disappeared and the rain clouds were gathering so we decided to call it a day before it started raining.

Unfortunately we did not get our timing right and again we got soaked. 

The Joys of Wildlife!

20 Jun 2016

How many entomologists can you fit under a horse chestnut tree?

Preston Montford FSC Field Centre - Wednesday 15th June

Nine of us assembled in the car park at Preston Montford on a day of changeable weather. At the time of assembling it was dry. 

Preston Montford is an old country house that has extensive grounds of diverse character. In 1957 it became a Field Centre for the Field Studies Council. For some of us it was the main site of our activities under the Invertebrate Challenge and bio.fell projects and the neighbouring FSC offices now hosts the Tomorrow's Biodiversity project. More information about the centre can be found here and Tomorrow's Biodiversity here. The head of the centre had kindly given us permission to explore the grounds and do what we enjoy doing.

We were joined at the start by two members of the FSC staff, one a member of the Tomorrow's Biodiversity project and the other a recent recruit who was getting a feel for the activities of the her new employer. They were only able to accompany us for an hour or so and what an hour they chose.

After much preparation and chatting and only minimal searching in the car park we moved off towards an enclosed grassland with a mature lime and horse chestnut side by side. No sooner had we got there when the heavens opened.

"Only a passing shower" was the hope.

Initially we milled around sheltering under the two mature trees, which proved to be excellent umbrellas. Then we did a bit of leaf litter sifting.

It continued raining so I "bravely" ventured from the dry under the tree and did some vacuuming of the vegetation around the trees to put in the tray to look for things of interest.

It continued to rain. I looked at the sky hoping to see a glimpse of blue, but it was just various shades of grey.

Then the rain eased off and those who had sheltered under the lime emerged and milled around the horse chestnut and found a 22-spot ladybird with a white pronotum (normally yellow).

It started raining again, so we all huddled under the horse chestnut and waited.

Excitement. A slug was found on the main trunk.

This was identified as Arion ater as it writhed when it was stroked; the only slug, apparently, that does this. When I say writhe, first you have to be patient to see it and second it is a very slow process. Slugs are not known for their speed of action.

The rain stopped and our FSC colleagues departed. We emerged from the tree and made our way to the series of pools that form part of the sewage system at the centre.

The rain had left the vegetation sodden so sweeping with a net was not really an option as it resulted in a very wet net with very wet, bedraggled insects caught in it. Using a beating tray was a better option but only slightly as there was so much water about that the tray soon became a miniature swimming pool. The best option was to use our eyes, ears and cameras.

A pair of mating fold-wing craneflies Ptychopera contaminata were noted:

Nearby a Bloodvein moth was resting:

And on a leaf was this larva in its curious but wonderful construction. I have seen a photograph of a similar case before but cannot remember what creature makes it.

We moved on around the pools.

The SUN came out. We lunched.

By the third of the main pools there is an old high brick wall where the vegetation has been allowed to grow. A splendid bee hotel is sited at one end. This area provided a lot of interest as the sun and wall combined to provide a warm humid atmosphere.

A "jewel" wasp Trychrysis cyanea was found on the wall.

The hoverfly Anasimyia lineata was on the vegetation.

And another hoverfly Xanthogramma pedissequum s.l. was nearby.

Identifying the last hoverfly used to be easy but a similar species has now been found in Britain so it now needs a detailed examination to separate the two.

Then a pair of Early bumble bees (Bombus pratorum) were seen mating.

Apparently mating bumble bees are not seen very often so we were privileged to witness it here. The bees completely ignored the crowd that surrounded them and just carried on and on. Bumble bee mating is not a quick process. They eventually separated and went their own ways.

Unfortunately the rain started again and it was heavy. This time there were no large trees to shelter under so, after a few minutes, we decided to call it a day and head home.

My thanks to David Williams for allowing me to use some of his excellent photographs in this report.

14 Jun 2016

Three for the price of one

Devil's Dingle - Wednesday 8th June

Eleven of us gathered at the gate of what used to be known as E.on's ash disposal site at Devil's Dingle, a little perplexed that it was displaying the name "Uniper". A little research has revealed that Uniper is a spin-off company (whatever that means) of E.on.

Once again E.on/Uniper had given us permission to visit this excellent site but we were warned that work was being planned for the site and it turned out that a considerable area had sprouted plastic amphibian fencing. 

As always when we go to Devil's Dingle the bank at the side of the lane just past the entrance proved to be of great interest. 

An early find was a Bishop's Mitre.

This is an easily recognised bug and its shape really is reminiscent of a bishop's mitre.

Then the star find was made (sorry not photographed) - a BAP priority species, the long-horned bee Eucera longicornis. This bee had been recorded in Shropshire in the past but had been feared to be lost to the county when it was found at this site in 2013. Our bee colleagues will be delighted to know it is still here. More information about the bee can be found on the BWARS website here.

We were then treated to finds of beetles with the creation of the next generation of their kind uppermost on there minds.

Green tiger beetles:

Tortoise beetles Cassida vibex:

We moved on following the lane up to the level of the pools.

It was not possible to avoid the "newt" fencing as there was so much of it and, in places, it crossed the path but we took great care when we had to hurdle it.

On the broom in the above picture, having a sunbathe, was a Gorse shieldbug.

We made our way along the eastern edge of the pool and noticed a long-horned beetle Agapanthia villosoviridescens - a name length that matches its "horns" or antennae.

We lunched at a spot where a few foot or so diameter metal pipes had been left lying around. These provided an excellent and sun-warmed seat. Whilst we were lunching one of the group showed us the wasp Crabro peltarius.

You may have noticed that its front legs are shaped like a shield. What are they for you may wonder? Apparently when the male mates with the female it places these shields over her eyes like a blindfold. It not just humans that have strange habits.

Whilst lunching a rather large and attractive staphylinid beetle was netted.

As yet it has not been identified. I would be grateful if anyone reading this who recognises it can let me know the species. We placed it in a spy pot to try to take better photographs to aid identification but it chewed its way through the viewing film and was never seen again.

We moved on and made our way to the edge of the western pool. Here we watched a Black-tailed skimmer patrolling the edge of the pool whist an Emperor dragonfly was patrolling its patch a little further away.

Slowly we dragged ourselves away from the pool and onto the track that runs back to where the cars were parked. And there, in slightly hazy glory, were the cooling towers. I could not resist.

We made our way back to the cars and home thankful for yet another excellent day on an excellent site. Let us hope that it long remains so.

St. John the Evangelist, Dudley - Friday 10th June

The journey looked straightforward on a map. Down the rabbit-run from Sutton Maddocks, turn left towards Himley, then straight on to Dudley where with a few wiggles I would arrive at the church.

It was straightforward until I came to a roundabout where I misinterpreted straight on as slightly right. It was downhill from there. After much meandering I found myself leaving Dudley, but at least I was able to locate where I was on the map. So with renewed optimism I re-entered Dudley knowing exactly where I should go. Then I came to a dreaded "ROAD CLOSED" sign with no diversion shown. So I headed on into the unknown. After a while I gave up. And to my shame threw myself on the mercy of some locals. Thankfully they were able to tell me the directions. And what excellent directions they were. I arrived only 30 minutes late.

I was unaccompanied for this trip so it should have been a case of "Me and my shadow" but the sun let me down. For most of the time even my shadow was elsewhere.

Unfortunately heavy overnight rain had left the vegetation of the churchyard very wet. This restricted what I could do to observation, which anyone who has been on any of these trips will tell you, is not my strong point, and beating.

I did what I could for a couple of hours before calling it a day and returned home.

The return journey went without a hitch!

Llwynderw - Sunday, 12th June

It was raining cats and dogs when three of us set off for mid-Wales to visit the farm of an Invertebrate Challenge colleague near Llanidloes in Powys. The farm was close to the source of the River Severn on Plymlimon. It seemed to me that the source was in the sky above my house.

Anyway buoyed by the weather forecast for Llanidloes - "heavy rain until 9am, clearing until 12 noon then unbroken sunshine" we set off for a date with the Traveller's Rest in the village where, we were promised, we would get a breakfast fit for a king.

It rained all the way to Newtown. Then it stopped!!!

Unfortunately the stoppage was short lived. It hammered down as we neared Llanidloes. But it had eased off by the time we parked opposite the Traveller's Rest.

Three full breakfasts and a further downpour later we travelled on to the farm.

We were met at the farm by two others who had decided to stay in bed and set off later and one other who happened to be staying in his caravan in Llanidloes. A further three of the expected group had decided not to travel due to the conditions.

By now the rain had given way to intermittent drizzle and slightly brighter periods. It stayed that way for the rest of our time at the farm. 

Tea and coffee was offered and accepted before our Invertebrate Challenge Colleague lead us on the tour of the wilder areas of the cattle farm.

As we went through the garden a large cranefly was netted - Tipula maxima (sorry no photograph). More information and some pictures of this magnificent cranefly can be found on the internet - for example, the excellent Nature Spot site here.

After passing through the garden we descended a grassy path through woodland before crossing a stream. From the stream it was a steady ascent with the wet area around the stream on one side and fields on the other.

At one point there was a small pool at the side of the path where we found plenty of aquatic insects whilst at its edge a Brown china mark moth was at rest.

We continued upwards and came to a section where there had been, sometime in the distant past, a land-slip which had exposed the soil and provided a "bee" bank. We could see the holes for their nests but the inclement weather kept them out of sight. 

The weather, though, did not dampen the ardour of a couple of green tiger beetles. However the sight of a camera put them right off and they went their separate ways.

On the other side of the path the ferns were host to a host of Garden chafers. Two representatives can be seen in the following photograph.

We descended to a pool where Azure damsel flies were emerging and as the sun made a brief appearance settled down for lunch.

One of the group noticed a butterfly on a fern frond. It was a Small pearl bordered fritillary. This is a butterfly I have heard a lot about and even done "conservation" work to encourage but had rarely seen. So it was a treat to observe one here. And the butterfly, knowing its significance, posed for many photographs.

We made our way back slowly through some woodland to the farmhouse stopping here and there to see what we could find. Towards the end we came across a patch of willowherb that was populated abundantly with a small insect with patterned wings.

There are two in the photograph! This is the psyllid Craspedolepta nebulosa.

More tea and coffee flowed when we got back to the farmhouse before we took our leave with lots of thanks to our hosts for their hospitality and guidance.

Thank you also to David Williams for providing most of the photographs for this visit.

By the way the unbroken sunshine did arrive but about 30 minutes after we had left.

5 Jun 2016

What a lot of Water violets

Benthall Hall NT, Wednesday 1st June

Is it June already? Where has all the time gone? Recently I heard of a study that "proved" that time went quicker as you got older. I may be mis-remembering the fine details (another symptom of age) but the basis of the study was to get people of different ages to count seconds. Older persons consistently counted quicker. QED. Time goes quicker as you get older. Or did I hear that on 1st April - I cannot recall!

Anyway to show support for most of our home nations's forthcoming participation in the European Championships (sorry Scotland) we assembled a football XI in the car park of Benthall Hall NT on what turned out to be a very pleasant day. 

When we were all ready we ignored the car park vegetation and set off into the grounds of Hall.

There was very little about as we wandered through rough grassland and a small group of trees which contained one rather splendid oak that must be approaching the "veteran" stage if it is not there already.

An early spot was the hoverfly Helophilus pendulus.

Eventually we came to a large very well vegetated pool where we found swathes of a tall flower growing in the water. It was everywhere you looked. I had no idea what it was. Fortunately someone must have seen my quizzical expression as they told me it was Water violet. 
"But it looks nothing like a violet". 
"It's not a violet". 
"Why call it a violet?". 

It is a member of the Primrose family and is, so I have now found out, the county flower of Huntingdonshire.

We had progressed at different rates as we pursued our particular interests and were very spread out, so making sure we were still XI was quite tricky. At one stage I could only find nine.


I searched here, I searched there, but not quite everywhere when I found a pole stuck in the ground with a net draped on it. A sign? sure enough, a little further on, I found the missing pair inspecting the flowers.

Time for lunch.

Refreshed we meandered on following the edge of the pool. The invertebrates had now realised that we may have emerged from winter and was out and about and thinking of love. The long-horned moth Nemophora deergella, whose males boast the longest antennae in British moths, was dancing about the bushes trying to attract mates whilst a pair of soldier beetles and green dock beetles got on with the business of creating the next generation.

We found a couple of large caterpillars low down in the vegetation. I believe the one in the photograth is the larva of The Drinker moth.

As we rounded the end of the elongate pool the grassland gave way to a large orchid-strewn wildflower meadow. That brought most of the group to a halt as they tried to separate the Southern marsh orchid from the Common spotted and the hybrids of the two.

Some of us crossed the meadow and explored the willow scrubbed grassland on the other side. In another splendid, but much younger, oak we found the mirid bug with one of the longest names in miridom - Dryophilocoris flavoquadrimaculatus

Time was marching on so we started back towards the Hall. On the horizon we saw the power station chimney standing proud. How much longer will this and the cooling towers be a feature of our landscape?

Having returned to the car park and divested ourselves of kit and bags we had one more duty to perform - to sample the Hall's cafe.

I can report that the scones were excellent.