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Monday, 14 December 2015

'Toe and 'tails

Winter on the pavements and hard surfaces of the Xmas high street can seem an inhospitable place.

But there may still be some incidental wildlife interest. Walking past Boots, have a look up at the isolated street tree in its metal bench / cage to see a burgeoning clump of mistletoe growing out near the upper branches. It has survived here for at least the last two years; by Sunday it had produced at least one pale white berry.

From this spot, at dusk onwards can be seen and heard another especially urban wildlife spectacle: the mass roosting of pied wagtails among the street tree canopies. Flocks gather in the limes and planes at both the Sidwell / Paris St and Fore St / South St ends of Exeter high street. The chattering chorus, echoed and amplified by the surrounding tall buildings, in that slightly otherworldly pellucid rosy light of a winter sunset, offers an atmospheric moment among the evening rush hour clamour. 

UPDATE
Local ecologist Howard Colmer took this footage of the Exeter pied wagtail roost in mid-January 2016, viewable at https://vimeo.com/152186471. Thanks to Howard for sending the link 
(c) Howard Colmer https://www.facebook.com/colmerecology/ see 18 Jan posting.

Pied wagtails are insectivorous and so far as we are aware, these ones forage during the day around the horse paddocks by the Alphin Brook on the south western edge of the city. Built-up areas act as heat islands at night and the few extra degrees of warmth are thought to be why the wagtails gather together in the city centre. Maybe a few winter insects could be around too. For some more information about urban pied wagtails and to hear a recording of their call, click here and here. The phenomenon has been known since at least 1969, from a paper in Bird Study journal. Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey's Birds Britannica describes possibly the longest continuously active pied wagtail city roost, in Dublin, originating 1929.

The pied wagtails wouldn't be interested in the mistletoe berry outside Boots, but some interesting behaviour might be witnessed among birds which are. Just about any berry-bearing rowan and holly could have a thrush perched on top, doggedly (birdily?) defending this resource from other thrushes, blackbirds, and robins. The stand-offs are absorbing to watch.

The subject was studied in depth by Barbara and David Snow in their book Birds and Berries, illustrated by the late John Busby. Notably, each of our native berrying evergreens, yew, ivy, holly and mistletoe, have long fruiting seasons through the winter months, when little else is available, with mistletoe berries sometimes persisting to the following June. Mistletoe is obviously associated with the mistle thrush, though robins and blackcaps will readily take the berries, if they get a chance. The fruits, being quite small, are apparently adapted to cater for a wider range of generalist birds, of different bill sizes. The single seed is wiped off into nooks and crannies on the host tree bark as birds devour the sticky berries (in contrast blue tits may later feed on the seeds deposited in this way). This is said to account for the aggregating of mistletoe clumps on the same individual host trees. Alternatively, mistletoe seeds dispersed by mistle thrushes are defaecated out more randomly as the bird moves from perch to perch: hence any individual mistletoe plants high in the upper canopy of trees were probably put there by a perching, pooping thrush.

In the UK is the one single native mistletoe species Viscum album, at the northerly extent of its range; it becomes rare as one goes further north (when I was working in Derbyshire there were only 8-9 known locations in the county). It is particularly associated with apple and lime trees, also occasionally poplars, ash and hawthorn. In Exeter it is very evident in the limes alongside Hoopern Valley, by Belvidere Road and Prince of Wales Rd, near the University. In Riverside Valley Park, one can see it silhouetted against the poplar trees by St James leat.

Riverside Valley Park: one prepared earlier, probably thrush-pooped on a poplar

Jonathan Briggs has been studying the ecology of mistletoe over many years. His 'Mistletoe matters' webage, and some other links, are below.
Mistletoe Matters www.mistletoe.org.uk/mmatters/
Mistletoe Directory UK www.mistletoe.org.uk/
Kew Gardens www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/viscum-album-mistletoe

Finally I turn to Mrs Grieve's celebrated A Modern Herbal for the cultural background: mistletoe's uncanny unseasonal greenness was carried round by druids' young attendants to announce the New Year. In Scandinavian myth, Baldur the god of peace was slain with a mistletoe arrow; the other gods and goddesses appealed for him to be restored to life, after which the plant became a symbol of love instead of hatred, and everyone passing beneath it should receive a kiss.

See you outside Boots.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Mouse-ember


November, and so ends the 2015 dormouse survey season. It's been a season of two halves at my Exeter sites: respectable numbers at one site, between 1 - 9 dormice per survey visit, presence of nestlings and juveniles (hence successful breeding), and good weights up to 33g in the run-up to hibernation.
Great balls of fur. Photo (c) J. Atkinson
And at my other Exeter site this year - nothing.

Soon after, towards the end of the month was an opportunity to share such observations at the annual Devon dormouse meeting, this year in South Brent. November was then decidedly mouse-themed, a different sort of Mo-vember.

This was our ninth meeting, where over 55 dormouse workers, variously researchers, consultants, project officers, woodland managers, and nestbox scheme monitors, and attendees joining us from Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset, met to talk mouse. Topics included university research into hibernation nests, current dormouse survey and land management projects in the Avon Valley (South Hams) and Blackdown Hills AONB, observations and long term trends in the south west from over 21 years of the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme, and a summary of latest published literature and guidance on dormouse conservation and planning. A few other sites, from Dartmoor, Exmoor and Cornwall, reported low numbers of dormice in 2015, though there won't be a complete picture until all the year's results have been collected and analysed.
Sir Peter Scott sketched while HG spoke, for early wildlife TV
In the afternoon was a chance to visit a very special location in dormouse history. Tom Maddock led a talk and walk around Moorgate, about 2 miles from South Brent at the edge of Dartmoor. Moorgate is the house and land owned by the Hurrell family: the late HG Hurrell was an influential local naturalist, jointly setting up Devon Wildlife Trust, donating DWT's first nature reserve (Lady’s Wood), and carrying out many of the first studies into British mammals. He and his late daughter Elaine undertook pioneering studies into dormouse ecology, making the significant discovery that dormice nibbled open hazelnuts in a characteristic way, and so developing a dormouse survey technique used ever since (for the Great Nut Hunts). They were also involved in the earliest days of wildlife TV broadcasting, on one occasion Sir Peter Scott sketching a dormouse while HG commented to camera; at the time no one knew if wildlife TV would catch on or not. 
 

Tom has been carrying out the dormouse box checks at Moorgate for many years and knew the Hurrell family well. Washed by the gentle Dartmoor rain, we kept a close look out for dormouse-nibbled hazelnuts in the leaf litter, and for an original dormouse box from the 1960s, what could be the oldest surviving dormouse nestbox in the country....

Dormouse nestboxology with Tom

With thanks to Jackie Gage (Devon Wildlife Trust).

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Peregrine news

Last week, a fledged peregrine from St Michael's, near St David's Hill was found dead in Yorkshire, riddled with shotgun pellets.

Some coverage at
BBC news
Western Morning News
Express & Echo
Pic: (c) Nick Dixon

Unfortunately this is not the first time (some links to coverage from May 2014 below)
Express and Echo
Western Morning News 

and from 2012...
Western Morning News

Monday, 2 November 2015

Standing up for spiders

October 31

Halloween, and the slightly saddening, but probably inevitable, reinforcing of fears and prejudices about creepy crawlies.

If an arachnophobe, best scroll away now. This morning there appeared a fantastic sheet web, seemingly the product of one night's work, stretched like a diaphanous trampoline between a spider plant, appropriately enough, and an indoor fern. In the middle, upside down, was a spider; except not a spider: on closer examination a left behind exuvium, after a moult.


 Any other species sharing my flat gets identified - that's the deal. So, off to the microscope.

These days I find spiders just too fascinating to be scary. The discarded exoskeleton was perfectly detailed, with markings, spines, even the trichobothria, vibration-sensing outward protruding hairs, visible in a single row along the lower legs. The carapace was neatly split in two, flipped up like the lid of a snuff box, allowing the spider to emerge in its new and larger suit of armour.

The absence of 'boxing glove' palps meant this was a female. The old skin also preserved the sculpture of the eight eyes, and the jointed outer spinnerets, which made it possible to identify to Family Agalenidae, that is, the tube web spiders, which includes Tegeneria, the house spider. Although we think of 'the house spider', this is a group of 5 or so closely related species, including Tegeneria domestica and the less homely sounding Tegenaria gigantea.

This was as far as I could get, but a suitable addition to the guest list. Of other spiders which have made the trip to the microscope, Steatoda grossa is common - one sometimes lives behind my kettle plug - and once S. bipunctata, and the velvety-looking Gnaphosid mouse spider Scotophaeus blackwalli. Most beautiful, and what has become my favourite, was the 'X', or 'window sill' spider, Zygiella x-notata, with its silver-chased abdomen.

More info at http://wiki.britishspiders.org.uk/index.php5?title=Tegenaria_spp.

Zygiella x-notata http://wiki.britishspiders.org.uk/index.php5?title=Zygiella_spp
http://srs.britishspiders.org.uk/portal.php/p/Summary/s/Zygiella%20x-notata

Monday, 26 October 2015

The Joy of Exe

Sunday 11 October 2015

A slightly murky Sunday, fitting for an elucidation and verbal preview of the Exeter flood relief works in Riverside Valley Park, with thanks to officers from the Environment Agency and Exeter Growth Point, who have been advising on wildlife measures for the scheme, and who kindly led our walk.

Tons of earth have and will be moved during phase 1, and there has been very conspicuous clearance of trees and scrub. If it looks like a building site, it's because it is. At a cost of £30 million, running from upstream of Station Rd in Exwick to downstream of the Bridge Rd A379 swing bridge, and from 2015-2019, this is a big project. Most of the funding has been provided by central government, and calculated to be much less expensive, risky, and damaging than another 1960s level flood inundating the Quay, St Thomas and Marsh Barton. While this was being explained, we could hear, and then glimpse, a skylark singing high overhead.

Future days - looking ahead towards and back from Trews Weir footbridge, comparing with aerial photo

The original 1970s channels were straight-sided and in places hard-engineered to be purely functional, funnelling water as speedily as possible out to the Exe Estuary; the new scheme plans for future function and maintenance to be more sympathetic to biodiversity. Some siltation, and taller growth of wetland vegetation, will be allowed for. Near the quay, the 'cormorant wall' with the main river has been lowered so that the flood channel will routinely receive water more often. This open water area below the Trews Weir footbridge is a regular spot for waders and other water birds. A new fish ladder has been constructed in the corner for high flow situations when fish could get drawn into this side channel. Sure enough, cormorants, in their 'wings out to dry' posture, were stood along the wall, alongside black-headed and black-backed gulls. Below them grey and pied wagtail investigated the flood channel.

Fish ladder, to left, ascending the lowered 'cormorant wall'

The former grassed area to the south of the footbridge has now been dug out, deepened to increase water storage capacity. The two steep and straight drainage ditches have been replaced by a more naturalistic, gentler sloping and meandering channel, while the surrounding banks, between the cyclepath on one side and the allotments on the other, are to become wetland wildflower meadows, part re-seeded, part naturally regenerating. Not waiting for any of that, a fox has already contributed some of its own bankside digging.

Fox & sons new residence

For some 5-6 consecutive years, we ran summer pond - or rather, ditch - dipping here to coincide with Exeter Cycle Sundays. Over that time we recorded sticklebacks, dragonfly larvae, water scorpions, water fleas, palmate newts, water stick insect, eels, water fleas, flatworms, pond snails, among other freshwater species. The new scheme is to include paths, and a boardwalk which can double up as a dipping platform (look out for a pond dipping event in 2019). Taking in the scene, a wedge - Google tells me - of swans, overflew us, whirring by in formation.

Views from a bridge, looking towards (earlier and sunnier in the year), and back from, the footbridge by Bromhams field

Viewing from the Bromhams field footbridge, I can remember when all this used to be trees. The change looks drastic, though with more light reaching the open banks, there should be greater growth and flowering of shrubs and herbaceous plants. Some of which, such as invading Himalyan balsam, will be controlled as part of aftercare maintenance. In strategic locations, such as on Bromhams field itself, lines of trees are to retained, with standing and fallen dead wood left in situ to rot down in their own time. While we were on the bridge, there was the piping of a kingfisher, then a flash of azure. We watched the kingfisher at the water's new edge for a few minutes. A magpie emerged from the row of poplars, followed by a sparrowhawk pair, with their characteristic flap-flap-flap glide.

Works so far have been necessarily destructive, and the restored areas will need 3-4 years to become established. But even from the current bank re-profiling and initial vegetation growth, one can imagine perhaps how it might eventually look: a wetland wildflower meadow, with open water ponds and flushes, dotted with wading birds. This is just Phase 1, with much more to follow. Land next to Station Rd in Exwick is to be set aside as a further flood storage area and nature reserve, while additional sand martin nesting sites are to be excavated into the existing tall concrete sidings there; new orchard planting is to take place next to the allotments by the canal at Trews Weir; and a further grazing marsh area is to be set aside at Countess Wear near Bridge Rd. This is because the city borne sections of the River Exe cannot be considered in isolation: upstream, the Rivers Creedy, Culm and Clyst feed the Exe at a crucial confluence, all the way up to Exmoor, where a mire restoration project will have the beneficial effect of absorbing, and releasing more slowly, high rainfall in head waters.

Let there be leat: plan of St James leat, and the real thing

We finished at the 'pooh sticks bridge' over St James leat, near the weir by Duckes Meadow. Twittering through the foliage was an autumn flock of mixed blue, coal, and great tits, long-tailed tits and goldfinches. A nuthatch was calling from somewhere, followed by a great spotted woodpecker's dipping flight breaking from cover. A moorhen clucked in the channel below. There may be future opportunities to get involved in wildlife surveys, and practical events to enhance the stream and bankside habitats; watch this green space.


Many thanks to Mary-rose and Simon for kindly leading the walk.

Some more info about the scheme is at
Environment Agency / gov.uk webpage link 
Exe Catchment Flood Management Plan 2012 pdf 


Following on will be the Exeter Green Circle walks on 18 Oct and 1st Nov.
Also look out for George's popular Quay and Belle Isle Park bird walk in February 2016.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Pentatomids and pavements

On central Exeter pavements recently, for example on Queen St, I've crossed paths with a small green shieldbug ambling along, the Birch shieldbug Elasmostethus interstinctus.

Like many of the 32 UK species, these over-winter as adults. Also seen this month has been the larger Green shieldbug Palomena prasina, except in winter this turns brown. The coloration will green up next spring, as the shieldbugs start to feed on their host trees once again.

Birch shieldbug 8-11mm, looks a bit like a smaller version of the 13-15mm Hawthorn shieldbug, except the 'shoulders' on the pronotum are not so pointed and are duller red; the rear of the Hawthorn shieldbug's wing membrane is also more extensively red, whereas this is more translucently clear in the Birch shieldbug. 
 
These two species are commonly found in urban areas, in parks and gardens, sometimes seen on ivy blossom. Maybe they were in town shopping around for late nectar or winter accommodation.

Some more information is at:
http://www.britishbugs.org.uk/heteroptera/Acanthosomatidae/e_intersinctus.html
http://www.britishbugs.org.uk/heteroptera/Pentatomidae/palomena_prasina.html


Monday, 5 October 2015

Ivy League

Ivy is starting to come into flower. Unseasonably late flowering (and hence a source of berries later on in winter), it is ever so useful for wildlife, and for an autumn small-scale mini-wildlife spectacle.

Some flower morphologies are designed for particular pollinators; in ivy the nectaries are fully exposed and open to all generalist nectar and pollen feeders. A 2013 scientific paper suggested ivy is so important it should be considered a keystone species. Some 70 moth species, 20 bugs and 12 beetles are associated with ivy, according to the BRC food plant database (Hedera helix www.brc.ac.uk/dbif/hostsresults.aspx?hostid=2563), and this doesn't include Holly blue butterflies, and the many hoverflies, bees and wasps that visit.
Red admirals on 29 Sept 2015 ignoring Buddleia
One bee especially to look out for is the Ivy bee Colletes hederae, first recorded in Dorset in 2001, and only recognised as a separate species in 1993. It forages almost solely at ivy, so is late flying; in more sense than one, our latest solitary bee. First Devon records date from 2008 and all county records so far have been from coastal locations. This year, Ivy bee emergence started in earnest around the last week of September 2015. Hence a short train ride to Exmouth, to see what could be seen.... 
Foraging Ivy bees
Burrowing Ivy bee

This properly golden yellow and black stripey bee was conspicuous in large numbers on flowering ivy near the beach, and zooming at ankle height around areas with loose sandy soil, where they dig their burrows. One question is why they aren't found away from coastal areas in Devon (perhaps due to availability of nesting sites?) - any inland records for the county would be of great interest. Records can be submitted to DBRC and to the BWARS Ivy bee mapping scheme.

On the walk back to Exmouth station, a few Ivy bees could be seen on hedgerow ivy, but in much smaller numbers. They were joined by numerous butterflies and hoverflies, all mostly ignoring the Michaelmas daisies nearby. To emphasise the point about the range of species supported by ivy, popping up among the foliage were also some flowerheads of Ivy broomrape Orobanche hederae.
 

Monday, 28 September 2015

Testing the Water 27 Sept 2015

A sunny September Sunday, and a chance for visitors to Riverside Valley Park to give thoughts and suggestions for the future of two of the valley parks in Exeter and the new flood relief works. For information about 'Testing the Water' see https://twitter.com/hashtag/TestingTheWater?src=hash.

(To find out more, there is to be a guided walk 'The Joy of Exe', looking at the River Exe flood works and their wildlife enhancements in a couple of weekend's time on  Sunday 11 October).
 
Activities yesterday included planting seed bombs, carrying out bug hunts, and, chiming with another of those putative 'things which really work' (we hope), a bug hotel, designed and built mostly by industrious youngsters throughout the morning and afternoon. 4 old pallets, 10m+ of old piping, a small roof's worth of old broken tiles and slates, air bricks, branches, hessian rags and a forest of old tree guards were recycled as insect and bug homes, furnished with bamboo canes, grass and soil, and topped off with a turf green roof.
A premier inn for bugs. Pic (c) Testing the Water twitter

Bug of the day would be Great green bush-cricket Tettigonia viridissima, the largest bush-cricket we have and quite rare, a Devon Biodiversity Action Plan target species. In the UK it has a southern distribution, including the south west, where the Devon coast provides a national hotspot. It might be an unusual find in the middle of Exeter, though there has been a previous record from the edge of Exwick. Both male and female were found on the day during John Walters' bug hunts.

Great & green. Pic (c) Testing the Water twitter

The loud call can seem to come from everywhere, said to sound like a machine gun, or a shrill computer printer, or a sewing machine. Yesterday it was putting up a good contest, or possibly might have been interacting with, the generator. Perhaps someone who has drunk a very strong coffee, sewing together a very long trouser leg.

More on GGBCs:
Tom Williams has recorded the call at Dawlish Warren
www.pterodaktyl.co.uk/2009/08/11/great-green-bush-crickets/

GGBC info at:
www.devon.gov.uk/dbap-insect-cricket.pdf
www.devonwildlifetrust.org/species/Cricket'2C+Great+green+bush+cricket/
www.orthoptera.org.uk/species/account.aspx?ID=10

Testing the Water poster

Life after concrete 1-3: streetwise ferns

Some more examples of urban plant survivors around Exeter (see 18 June below). Let me know if you see any other good candidates.

1. Poundland* polypody, with gull, Sidwell street
(* other pound shops are available).

There must be a nest up there on the flat roof. I waited a while for the gull to walk into view.

2. Parliament St polypody, on the 'narrowest street in Britain'.
 

3. Tudor house polypody (Tudor St, near Renslade House), more at home as an epiphyte on the ancient wooden timbers, maybe.


Monday, 14 September 2015

Night of the Wear bats

Wednesday 9 Sept 2015

South of the city centre alongside Riverside Valley Park is the old paper mill at Countess Wear.
Mill buildings have probably been present here since Mediaeval times. Originally for grinding corn, the mill  was thought to switch to paper manufacturing in 1638, making paper from linen rags. In C18 and C19, high quality paper was made there for newpaper and banknotes. The present building is the result of reconstruction after a fire in 1816. The mill at its height employed some 200 people around the 1850s, closing in 1885.

Since Grade II listed, the roof and wall tops were restored in 2008 to protect the remaining structure.... And as part of that project, a large bat loft was installed, along with three woodcrete bat boxes in the unroofed section. As well as these bat bespoke features, there are many nooks, crannies and cavities around the old walls and surrounding woodland, all ideal for roosting bats.
Inside the Mill for 2013 check - the bat loft is the large structure in the rafters
That's in theory anyway, but would anyone be at home? To find out requires a long ladder, a head for heights, a torch, and a bat licence. We last checked the site on 23 Sept 2013: a Brown long-eared bat was in the special loft, and a white-tummied Natterer's bat was roosting in a cavity in the wall, the tips of its pointy ears characteristically folded over at rest. Bat detecting later on recorded many pipistrelles and occasional fleeting horseshoe bats flying by.

This time there was a scatter of bat droppings in the bat loft, sign of some use. In the unroofed section were a number of holes in the brickwork also with bat droppings, and in the Natterer's cavity from 2013, a Daubenton's bat. There was also evidence that the woodcrete bat boxes had been adopted - by a Soprano pipistrelle.

It's now more widely known that only fairly recently in the 1990s was the pipistrelle bat discovered to be two separate species, based in part on their echo location calls: common or 'bandit' pipistrelles at 45 kHz, and 'soprano' pipestrelles higher at 55 kHz. This is straightforward with a bat detector, but seriously much less so in the hand: they look very similar indeed.

A diagnostic feature is that a particular wing vein in the soprano pip has a simple 'Y' shape, whereas this is more branched and complicated in the common pipistrelle. Also, males, like the one we found, have gingery fur around their male bits. This was one of this year's young, with pale translucent ends to finger bones where these join but are not yet fully calcified. At 4.5g, it had a little fattening up to do for hibernation, but with a forearm of 30.5mm was adult size. For the time of year, it was also in fine breeding condition; let's just say one could tell.
Paper Mill pip, 9 Sept 2015

Safely returned to the batbox, next on to the woodland to check the bat boxes there. The woodland seems old and well established, but this was once an intensively industrialised mill area extending over 2 hectares, with riverside berths for the import of linen  from Holland, troughs for fermenting rags, and coal stores from when the mill converted to using steam power and woodpulp. The remains of brick structures are still dotted about the hazel coppice stools and mature trees that have grown up since.
Greg checking bat boxes, from 2013 check
This is where we stopped for the evening. We'll return to take an inventory of the boxes and make some box repairs. A remote bat detector with a month's battery power was also left in the bat loft to record any batty visitors. There are likely to be further bat surveys and bat projects at the site in the future; anyone interested can find out more by joining Exeter City Bats, link below.
Many thanks to Jo and Ruth for bat-licensed supervision and Chris from Exeter City Council.

Info about Exeter City Bats and the Exeter Big Bat Survey 2014-15
https://www.facebook.com/Exeter-City-Bats-223297294481957/timeline/ 
http://bigexeterbatsurvey.edublogs.org/ 

Info about UK bats, including Soprano and common pipistrelle, Daubenton's, Natterer's & horseshoe bats
www.bats.org.uk/pages/uk_bats.html

Info about Countess Wear Mill
www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/en-481015-countess-weir-paper-mill-devon#.VfWBqM6sN3U


Friday, 11 September 2015

Stoke Woods strangeness

A Bank Holiday visit to the woods, under the overcast sky. It wasn't raining (yet), but there was a soft and steady pattering sound emanating from the tree canopy overhead. Venturing closer, this was revealed to be a regular green rain of many fragments of knopper galls, tumbling down from above. Knopper galls are misshapen acorns, stimulated to modified growth by a tiny gall wasp. I'm guessing these were being nibbled open for the wasp grubs inside (by squirrels? I couldn't hear any nuthatch hammering noises).

For more info about knopper galls, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andricus_quercuscalicis

At home, a hitchiker emerged from my backpack: a strange invertebrate, flattened like a flea and with flea-like clicking, jerking jumps, but, at 1cm ish long, far too big and with far too many legs; a sort of flea-woodlouse.

No hints in any of the books. Some quick Googling of 'terrestrial amphipod' suggested it was a 'Woodhopper' or 'Lawn shrimp' Arcitalitrus dorrieni, an introduced species from Australia, now widespread in the south west among leaf litter and damp detritus in woods and gardens:  
http://www.bmig.org.uk/species/arcitalitrus-dorrieni

Monday, 7 September 2015

Mincinglake re-match

After wash out on 5 July, an impromptu re-visit.

Mincinglake Valley Park, looking south towards the Exe Estuary

There was lots of hogweed and patches of fleabane, tansy, knapweed, ragwort, all worth checking out for insects. I have to say, watch your footing for dog pooh and pooh bags.

While watching where feet were going, this Mining bee was spotted at the path edge (Halictus rubicundus?)
 



Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Pollinators in the park events


Mincinglake Valley Park 5 July 2015

Rain stopped play, via a forceful shower in the hour before the event was due to start, and for half an hour afterwards. When this eventually subsided, it was one of those days when the sunshine surged strongly through the dispersing clouds, making the tarmac steam.

There was a post-shower fresh stillness, then a kind of natural reawakening. First up was a strident blackcap, the song magnified and reflecting off the wet surfaces (just as Bernie Krause describes in his book The Great Animal Orchestra); then some bumblebees droned into view, foraging among bramble flowers; finally a pair of mating ringlet butterflies, bombarded by competing males, in a sunlit spot.
A mini-nature fix to be enjoyed that day, after all.




Duryard, Belvidere Meadows, 2 Aug 2015

Much more sympathetic in terms of weather and mini-beast activity was the Duryard follow up event. The idea was to show some of the agents of the 2/3 of pollination services we rely upon, but which are not honey bees.

Belvidere Meadows, looking NW towards Exe Valley
Honey bees are important pollinators and receive a lot of attention. But by numbers and diversity, hoverflies are estimated to be the largest and busiest pollinator group by far [1], and there are numerous others: other flies, bumblebees, solitary bees, butterflies and moths, beetles, wasps.

At the start of the walk, peeking into a convolvulus flower along the boundary hedge to the site, we found a tiny flower beetle, well-dusted with pollen. From another convolvulus flower emerged a red-tailed bumblebee. Making our way to the pasture area itself, several other plant-pollinator associations were on show. Very conspicuous were other bees: common carder bumblebee monopolising red bartsia, other red-tailed bumblebees, plus an individual of their cuckoo bumblebee Bombus rupestris, on black knapweed, and a ball of  mating small metallic green solitary bees (probably Lasioglossum morio) on creeping thistle. Marbled whites, skippers, holly blue, ringlets, gatekeepers, meadow browns, and burnet moths flitted through the scene at grasstop height. Checking hogweed and other platformed flower heads revealed the common red beetle Rhagonycha fulva, and Oedemera nobilis the 'thick kneed beetle', or the 'fat-thighed beetle', though be sure to note only the males have fat thighs. 

Further down the slope, at the boggier and wooded edges we found a wasp beetle Strangalia maculata, a tree wasp Dolichovespula sylvestris (check the dots on the thorax and face), and, on its favoured angelica, Eristalis pertinax hoverflies. Towards the end of the walk, a Silver-washed fritillary butterfly patrolled the woodland hedge margins, and our final pollinator was a Coronet moth Craniophora ligustri, pretending to be lichen or bird dropping.  A range of representative insect pollinator types, in the course of our brief survey-stroll.
Coronet moth - bit ragged


[1] This taken from various sources. A useful summary is http://gardenchampions.leeds.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/19885_UoL_Pollinator-Story.pdf but this link doesn't seem to be available any more. For some more info, try this University of Reading paper, http://centaur.reading.ac.uk/25072/2/Insect_pollination_in_UK_agriculture_Final.pdf, a Bristol & Cardiff Universities study http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/282/1805/20142934, and the Urban Pollinators blog http://urbanpollinators.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/identification-of-common-garden.html. In case it comes up on QI sometime, pollination vectors were once categorised into different groups, each with a different technical name: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pollination_syndrome 

Monday, 3 August 2015

A happy fly, in summer's play...

(from DWT press release)

A fly thought to have been extinct for almost 150 years has been found alive and well and living in Exeter, at DWT's Old Sludge Beds nature reserve on the southern edge of the city.

The last known and only other record of the Rhaphium pectinatum fly was on 19 July 1868, when the renowned Victorian entomologist George Verrall caught a male and female in Richmond, Surrey. 

The re-discovery was made by Devon naturalist Rob Wolton. “I took a recent trip to Devon Wildlife Trust’s Old Sludge Beds nature reserve on the outskirts of Exeter specifically to look for flies. I examined my catch that evening to find it included a fly that was presumed extinct in Britain, not having been seen for 147 years. Definitely one to add to the list of Devon specialities.”
photo: Rob Wolton

The metallic green fly is in the Family Dolichopodidae, known colloquially as 'long-legged flies'. Most members of the family live in tropical areas of the world. 

“Nothing is known about its biology, but it seems that it may like brackish conditions like those found at the Old Sludge Beds, and may even be associated with the extensive tidal reed beds nearby at the head of the Exe estuary,” said Rob.

The Old Sludge Beds have been a DWT reserve since 1979 and adjoin DWT's Exe Reed Beds reserve.

On a recent visit there I saw this handsome bug, Deraeocoris ruber. Is it feeding on the ladybird pupa?


Things which really work 2

14 years in the making....

First fashioned from a modified birdbox in 2001, adding canes of old Japanese knotweed and bamboo, not finished until some 14 years later this May, then put up on a wall at the rear of the garden (SW facing). After which Red mason bee Osmia bicornis started moving in after about a day.



Following advice and the findings of the BUGS project in Sheffield (www.bugs.group.shef.ac.uk/BUGS1/sources/bugs-reprint2.pdf), a mixture of cane sizes with different diameters were used. A key factor seems to be to place in full sunshine, so fixed on a south facing wall or fence. Through the months, various other species have taken up residence. The plugs of mud, capping the end of the brood chambers, are the work of Osmia bicornis, and the plugs of chewed-up vegetation are from Osmia leaiana or Blue mason bee Osmia caerulescens.

A shop-bought one has been lying around the garden so I put that up too; this took slightly longer to be found and colonised, but both have been successful.
For a lovely 15 min video about some garden solitary bees, check out https://vimeo.com/129712987

Monday, 29 June 2015

Things which really work 1

Improvised birdbaths, from old small plastic tubs, have proven immensely popular with the sparrows, blackbirds and the odd passing squirrel.

The sparrows regularly drink or dunk. If the blackbird gets there first, it sits in the tub shaking its wings, fluffing up its feathers, and splashing about. Presumably this is a way of getting rid of parasites.

Hence make sure to clean and re-fill regularly....