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Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Alternative Signs of Spring 3

Stoke Woods over the weekend, and a traditional spring woodland floral scene, bluebells, wood anemone, violets, wild garlic fading, first dog's mercury and yellow archangel appearing.

But instead of a sign of spring - what about a smell of spring?
Bluebell haze all around in my brain

Stood on a particular path in a sweet spot, with the prevailing westerly wind pushing up the slope towards us, we were bathed in the sweet fragrance from the bluebell carpet, in glorious smell-o-vision. No wonder it attracts bees and butterflies from afar.

Bluebell woods are distinctive to the UK, and there are a few questions about that. Is it because there are no wild boar (or at least not widespread .. .yet?!). There have been some studies and assessments of this point (link here and here). There is also hybridisation with the introduced garden Spanish bluebell to look out for: to tell them apart, the garden one is chunkier and grows in a more upright, sprawling habit, whereas the native one is more slender and delicate, generally with the flowers all in a row and leaning one way. Some field guides say that the native bluebell has blue pollen, whereas this is white in the garden variety, but a stamen with all its pollen discharged will also be white. The native bluebell has a much stronger scent, as we found out today. 

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Things which really work 2 . 1

Yesterday Red mason bee males emerged from the stick case in the garden. Success!

(note the pale facial hairs and long antennae)

These will visit flowers for nectar and also investigate places like wall cavities and post holes, any potential nest sites from where the females may emerge over the next couple of weeks. This is all about mating opportunities: the males are competitive and will aerially try to jostle each other out of the way. The females mate only once; the males then have few and briefest chances to pass on their genes to the next generation. They wear themselves out in this pursuit and might be expected to live 3-4 weeks. During this time they will pounce on any male bee rival suitors, or female bee potential mates, or any insect which looks a bit like either!
First emergence nibbling a way out. It reminds me a bit of Clint Eastwood Escaping from Alcatraz

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Saturday Newt Fever

Great crested newts have always been rare in the south west: uncommon in Devon and believed absent from Cornwall; this may be to do with acidic soil conditions. But otherwise the UK hosts an important and sizeable proportion of the European population, which has declined massively in the last 100 years. 

Let the survey begin
Formerly there were perhaps around a dozen known sites for Devon, a few with current populations, some old historical records of uncertain status, occasional tantalising reports of possible new sites, anecdotes and rumours, and some informed guesswork as to potential new locations; the efforts of Devon Reptile & Amphibian Group have been instrumental in following these up. 

Hence the importance of regular monitoring, such as at a site just outside Exeter. Among several naturalistic ponds, the small shallow rectangular ornamental pond is perhaps not the one which immediately suggested promising Crestie habitat. But this was one of the best sites I've visited for viewing Great crested newts and their mating behaviour: the shallow central open area served as a watery dancefloor, under our disco torch light*.

You can tell by the way I move: tail flash 
As a wild night out, it did not disappoint. There were over 30 adults at this newty nightclub, males in best full-crested finery displaying to females, or engaged in dance-offs against other males. The male approaches the female for a sniff, then arches his back, supported on just his forelegs, called the 'cat buckle' stance. Then he beats his tail, leaning forward to waft pheromones towards her, sometimes rocking back and forth and lashing his tail. Similar, but more vigorous, versions of these moves are directed towards competing males, with occasional synchronised writhing S-shaped swimming and swishing white tail flashes. For recourse to the chill out zone, with their stripy jazz hands (jazz feet?) the newts would kick up a cloud of silt to hide within.
Jazz feet, kicking up a silt storm
It was difficult to tell whether this impressed the female newts or not, around the pond edges. Some were clearly gravid, bulging with eggs nearly ready to be laid. We also found a few of the characteristic large circular cream eggs within the folded over leaves of pond vegetation, and numerous much smaller smooth and palmate newts; the whole UK set.
Party dress: belly patterns are unique to individuals

We got home just as weekend revellers were making their way to the pubs and clubs of Exeter....

For some more info about Great crested newts,
Freshwater Habitats Trust 

* Please note a special licence is needed to search for Great crested newts, which includes using a torch and handling. Monitoring at this site is carried out by licensed surveyors.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Alternative Signs of Spring 1 & 2

Traditionally there are the wild daffodils at Dunsford, ramsons and bluebells starting to send up leaves at Stoke Woods, and the first sand martins arriving in Exeter to look out for.

But what about some other quirkier seasonal indicators?

Alternative Sign of Spring no. 1 

Hairy-footed flower bee Anthophora plumipes males 

circling the garden on a sunny day, visiting a range of flowers, but especially lungwort. As solitary bees go, this one is relatively identifiable, brown with light facial hair, and long hair tufts on its middle pair of legs. There are several flying around, seemingly patrolling the same areas as if staking out territories, waiting for the emergence of the females (which are completely black with yellow pollen brushes on the hind legs).
Spotting which regular places they stop to bask, the same particular stone, leaf, slat on the picnic table, is fascinating. Some of the garden insects seem interested in yellow objects at the moment - or at least flies and bees are landing regularly on a large yellow coloured garden sack, and also on the yellow parts of variegated leaves of shrubs. Is this because the paler areas are more reflective for basking, or because the colour is being confused for flowers? 

Alternative Sign of Spring no. 2

Green shieldbugs turn green Palomena prasina

... as opposed to being brown, its colour through the winter as an overwintering adult. One of our commonest and most widespread shieldbugs (look for the 'broad shoulders', the widened pronotum / upper section of the thorax, and the reddy segments towards the end of the antennae), the green coloration returns as it feeds on plant matter available again in the spring. This one found its way into the hall last week.