Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 5, 2020

Is it a wasp, is it a moth….?

Lunar Hornet Moth 6 (scaled)

The superb Lunar Hornet Moth (Sesia bembeciformis).

It was Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892) who, while exploring the Amazon with Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), first began to realise the startling similarities between certain species of butterfly.  He discovered that a number of species of non-poisonous butterflies very closely resembled other completely unrelated, but poisonous (by dint of incorporating toxins from foodplants consumed as caterpillars) species.  He reasoned that over the course of evolution (which of course his travelling companion Wallace was destined to make great strides towards providing a provable theory for) the harmless species had come to incorporate the warning colours of their toxic lookalikes in order to benefit from the reduced predation that that conferred.  Many instances of this so called Batesian mimicry have since been identified, perhaps most easily observed through mimics of stinging insects.  There are many species of hoverfly, for instance, that resemble bumblebees, honeybees and wasp, and even a few beetles that do likewise.  Oh, and the odd moth too.

I’ve had a good year for clearwing moths, in as much as I have seen two.  Most years it would be zero.  There are perhaps fifteen species of clearwing at large in the UK, some of which a rare, none of which are common.  They are all wasp mimics.  A few years ago I was lucky enough to encounter a fabulous Lunar Hornet Moth, an impressive beast and and more than a half-decent Hornet lookalike.  It was my first clearwing.

This year it was two of the much smaller, but still beautiful species that I happened upon.  The Red-belted Clearwing was nectaring on bramble blossom in a friend’s suburban garden, that I noticed while idly scanning the blooms for bees.  Luckily I had a camera to hand.  The lovely Six-belted Clearwing was new to my eyes, an entirely unexpected discovery while browsing among Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus – the larval foodplant) on the off-chance of some of the scarcer bumblebees I knew to be in the area.

It’s amazing what you can find when you’re not really looking for it.

Red-belted Clearwing - Chalkwell 2

A Red-belted Clearwing (Synanthedon myopaeformis) in an Essex garden.

Six-belted Clearwing

Six-belted Clearwing (Bembecia ichneumoniformis), Hadleigh Country Park, Essex.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 4, 2020

A Welcome Return

Argynnis paphia

Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia)

With so many losses and seemingly ever-steepening declines taking place in the natural world, it is with no small degree of pleasure to report a definite gain, at least in my local area, but hopefully elsewhere also.  It concerns no less than one of our most impressive of butterflies, the Silver-washed Fritillary, a large species that requires  little more than the simple combination of richly orange-brown wings, marked with black lines and spots in striking contrast, to turn the head.  On settling, the partly eponymous silver-green sheen on the underside serves only to enhance their beauty.

They have returned to several of my local, south-east Essex woods, something which appears to be taken place further afield around the county as a whole.  Their absence had stretched across several decades.  In one, well-recorded wood, (Belfairs Nature Reserve) very few observations were taken after the 1950s, extending only into the 1970s.  The insect I had the pleasure of encountering last summer in the Essex Wildlife Trust’s Pound Wood nature reserve was very probably also the first seen there, it could be guessed, since the early part of the 20th century.  So too the butterfly that prompted me to write this post, which I photographed yesterday in West Wood (Thundersley).

The larval food-plants of the Silver-washed Fritillary are dog-violets (Viola sp.).  Interestingly the butterflies don’t lay their eggs directly onto the plants, but are known instead to do so about a metre up the trunk of tree with violets growing about the base.  Certain Viola species are common enough, widely distributed plants.  May the butterfly’s resurgence continue.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 1, 2020

An Essex Wood

White Admiral - Pound Wood 2

A White Admiral (Limenitis camilla) at Pound Wood, Essex.

I have contributed an article to another site, extolling the virtues of a place particularly close to my heart, Pound Wood – a fine area of ancient woodland, brimming with wild things.  Click here to check it out.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 25, 2020

Some soldier beetles

Isn’t there a saying about someone with an inordinate fondness for beetles?  When it comes to the natural world I think I may have an inordinate fondness for more or less everything.  This post is nevertheless, the turn of some of those hard-cased, so very diverse band of insects.

Most in the UK are familiar with the Common Red Soldier Beetle (Rhagonycha fulva), whose black tipped, reddish colouration has been said to recall the military uniforms of old, hence (if this is true) the name.  They are an abundant summer insect, often smothering the white umbels of hogweed and the like in search of pollen.  They are however, just one of 40 or so British species of soldier beetles (the Cantharidae), a few of which I have met with recently……

Cantharis nigricans - Pound Wood

Cantharis nigricans (Pound Wood, Essex) is a hunter of small insects among the low vegetation and perhaps also on the rich pickings attracted to umbellifer flowers.  Note the greyish hue to the elytra (wing-cases) and the black on the hind legs (a bit difficult to see here) extending above the ‘knee’.

Cantharis rufa - Pound Wood

Cantharis rufa. Another species found in Pound Wood yesterday and one of several orange-brown species. Note the black band above the ‘knees’.

Cantharis fusca - Hadleigh Countyr Park

Cantharis fusca is quite a large species, usually well over a centimetre long. This one was photographed a few weeks back at Hadleigh Country Park. Note how the black mark on the thorax joins with the black of the head (the black mark on the similar and common C. rustica is in the centre of the thorax, surrounded by red).

 

Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 12, 2020

A thin hold of a different kind

Gaucium flavum

The intense hue of Yellow Horned-poppy (Glaucium flavum).

Every once in a while nature might remind us of the tenacity that can see it maintain even the most slender of toeholds, sometimes firmly against the face of human doings.  Southend seafront has long been a place for the entertainment of people, since its Victorian heyday when hordes would visit for a taste of the medicinal sea air, right up to the present day with day-trippers from East London travelling across by train for the open space and presumably the same maritime atmosphere so sought after by those in the past.  The coastal habitats that would once have abutted the seashore are long, long gone.  But not quite.

East of the main seafront, with its eateries and amusement arcades, where the footfall may be more discerning and the ‘entertainments’ are few, is to be found a fragment, a surprising relic of a natural community long past.  For maybe a kilometre along the top of beach and up against the seawall is to be found a strip – in places maybe 6 or 7 metres wide, but mostly rather narrower – of vegetation to recall a glimpse of those bygone times.  It is that sparse community of plants, incorporating some of those so highly specialised as to tolerate the water and nutrient scarce beach habitat.  And there are others that one might imagine would begin to stabilise the wind-shifting sand to create the succession of habitats inland, perhaps taking in banks of low dunes and flower-studded grassland behind them.  This is all conjecture, of course, but it makes for a fine place for the mind to wander.

So here, with their own thin hold on life, are to be found Yellow Horned-poppy (Glaucium flavum) and Sea-holly (Eryngium maritmum), two of those specialists able to eke out a life amid the the shingle and sand.  The latter, given its spiny-leaved, globe-flowered appearance, is an attractive but rather unlikely member of the Apiacae, a family to which such umbel-bloomed plants as Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) and Hogweed (Hercleum sphonylium) belong.  Behind them a sparse stand of grasses spreads itself thinly around the Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), dandelion-flowered Cat’s-ear (Hypochaeris radicata), rosettes of Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and others that have found their niches and scatter the stony sand with chlorophyl and colour.  And where there are flowers there are insects; I saw at least three species of bumblebee foraging among the sprinkle of blooms.

We can still find much better examples of such pioneering coastal habitat elsewhere, but for what it represents this little remnant is something far greater than its physical parts.

Eryngium maritimum

The prickly beauty of Sea-holly (Eryngium maritimum).

Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 2, 2020

A Thin Hold

The men and women – who hundreds of years ago were eating and drinking and setting their hearts on things – still retain a thin hold on life through the joy of us who hear and sing their songs

Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

______________________

If you have a story, a poem, or the seeds of a book drifting around somewhere in the outer reaches of your mind, grab hold of it, write it down and make sure someone reads it.

If you have music inside you, play it for even the smallest audience.

If you have an image in your head, draw it, paint it, photograph it, or whatever else might give it form and make sure someone sees it.

If you have anything to say that could make one person’s day a better one, see that it doesn’t stay unsaid.

Dusk over Hickling Broad

Dusk over Hickling Broad, Norfolk.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | May 29, 2020

Green Hairstreak

Callophrys rubi

A Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi) angles itself to sun for maximum basking beneifit.

The Green Hairstreak is perhaps one of the understated little beauties among the British butterfly fauna.  They are unmistakeable.  No other of our butterflies are bright green in colour.  They may be small, but they are so very distinctive.

Although generally widespread and locally common in some parts of the UK, they have always been something of a  scarcity within my home county of Essex.  They are a spring butterfly of open, sunny habitats and it is a keen eye I keep open for that very hairsteak-like, flickering flight (a product, I think, of the sharply contrasting green underside and brown upperside of their wings) and smiling face that I greet them with as flutter low to the ground about gleaming yellow Bird’s-foot Trefoil (one of a number of larval foodplants).

The hairsteaks – so-named for the lined or dotted markings on the underside of the wings – are members of the Lycaenidae family of butterflies, along with the ‘coppers’ and the ‘blues’.  Many species of the latter are well-known for their interactions with ants, which may go to considerable and unlikely lengths to tend the caterpillars in return for a sweet secretion produced by the larvae using special glands.  This is a connection also shared with the Green Hairsteak, but it is as a chrysalis that they employ such tempting sweetness so as to afford themselves of the other insect’s protection.

And here is a lesson in one the greatest dichotomies of nature – its beauty and its brutality.  Green Hairstreak caterpillars are cannibalistic, almost throughout their development.  This is perhaps an idea that could be philosophically difficult to reconcile, that such unsavoury means (to our sensibilities) can help result in adult insects that we so readily associate with the beauty and light of the spring and summer months.  It clearly works for the butterflies, or else it would not have become a trait that has persisted and probably for sound evolutionary reasons, through producing strong and competitive adults to best distribute their genes to the next generation.

While some might regard such musings on the life cycle of the Green Hairstreak as open to debate, the simple beauty of these little butterflies cannot be denied.

 

 

 

 

Posted by: Ross Gardner | May 14, 2020

Johnny on the spot

I am a firm believer that when it comes to finding and seeing sought after things whilst out and about in the wild places that you can make your own luck.  I am also however,  a firm believer that there are also those times when you need to be, as the saying goes, in the right place at the right time.  All the better still if you’ve got a camera handy.

Yesterday was a decidedly cool one for May, with intermittent sunshine and a chilly north wind.  Not the best conditions for an encounter with an especially sun-loving species of an especially sun-loving group of animals.  But as luck would have it, whilst actually searching for some tiny moth wings that had disappeared into the vegetation, my eyes fell on this beauty……

Brachytrom pratense

Hairy Dragonfly (Brachytron pratense) – male.

The Hairy Dragonfly is often the first of the dragonflies to be seen in the year, on the wing from the end of April in favourable years.  It is always the first of the ‘hawkers’ to be seen, this being the collective name given to most of our largest and most impressive of dragonflies.  At around 6cm long these are one of the smallest.

They have expanded their UK range over recent years, but this is still nevertheless an uncommon dragonfly, found chiefly in the southern parts of England, scattered in Wales and very few locations in Scotland.  They are always a treat.  In my part of Southeast Essex I am blessed with a couple of good sites for this species and I have noticed a few times in the past that they are a quite dispersive species.  This one had pitched up some distance away from the low lying marshland, threaded with weedy ditches of which they are so fond, resting up in brambles on the edge of a meadow by an ancient wood.

Amongst a sunshine fickle band, Hairy Dragonfly are particularly quick to down tools and settle in the vegetation when the clouds come over.  Who knows how long this one had been hunkered down for on a day of way less than optimum conditions.  This was the first time I had ever had the opportunity to point a lens at a male of the species and with the temperatue at around 10 or ll degrees celsius, it had no intention of taking flight.  I was able – to coin another phrase – fill my boots and at close quarters.

Brachytrom pratense - close up

Posted by: Ross Gardner | May 3, 2020

Bird Song

Sylvia atricapilla

Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) – male.

The sound of bird song in a spring wood is like drinking a glass of cold water on a hot day, or watching stream-water dance around rocks in its path.

We have been been looking after a dog for the last few months.  This is not a normal state of affairs for us and this is the first time we have ever been anything remotely resembling dog-owners.  We will miss him a great deal when he goes home.  We are lucky enough to have a decent stretch of woodland very close to where we live.  A fair chunk of this I am often inclined to avoid in favour of quieter parts, as it tends to be busy with dog walkers (and, during normal circumstances, with golfers – the wood also encompasses a golf course), but having had a dog to walk I have been seeing a lot more of it, something which has been especially the case during these times of Covid lockdown.

It has revealed a great pleasure to me.  We tend to walk a similar ‘beat’ when exercising the pooch.  Because of this we have watched the spring unfold before our eyes.   We have watched the same place, often along the same paths, its trees and its inhabitants, alter with the building season.  Not quite a fixed-point camera, but more of a fixed-point mind’s eye.  First the faint tinges of green as the leaf buds of the hawthorn and the abundant hornbeam swell and begin to open.  Then the burgeoning flood of that freshest of fresh green spreading through the understorey and surging upwards into the crowns of the oaks, truly obliterating the austere tones of the winter past.  And the bird song.  Initially the rising volume of the woodland residents lifted by the change of season.  Later the growing variety of sound, as summer migrants arrive to add theirs to the chorus.

I love the soundscape of the woods (or anywhere for that matter).  I have grown familiar to its component parts over the years and become almost subconsciously attuned to it, even when not really listening to it.  Hearing it in the course of our now regular visits made me ponder the ownership of the wood.  Not human ownership, but that of the birds, a real ownership that will ultimately outlast ours.  Discerning between the facets of bird song enables one to conceptualise how a place may be divided up between those that make it their home.  Visit somewhere regularly enough and one might even begin to determine the birds as individuals.

This wood, for example, is full of Blackcap, one of the warblers and birds of dense woodland and scrub.  They are a most loquacious bird, with a rich, very varied and quite beautiful warbling song.  On our route I have come to know several.  Let’s start with the ‘Brook Blackcap’ and the ‘Fairway Blackcap’ who often welcome us on the start of our morning walk.  Then there’s the ‘Compound Blackcap’ that sings from the edge of the council yard, and bit further round the ‘Honeysuckle Blackcap’ that I first heard singing from the tresses of a particular luxuriant growth of said plant.  And there’s the ‘Tree Trunks Blackcap’ that sings from his thicket next to where a couple of felled oaks lay; he’s a bold one this one, often easily seen from a more exposed perched that the others.  Then what of the other birds in the wood?  There’s a Song Thrush that vies for the same bit of airspace as the Brook Blackcap.  We often hear a Blackbird on the way to the tree trunks and sometimes the percussive hammering of a Great Spotted Woodpecker just after.  All the while the wood ripples to the liquid notes of Robin, rattles with the manic trilling of Wren and chimes with the ringing calls of Great Tit.

I think the main moral of this particular story is how we are reminded of the limitations of our own particular sensory experiencing of the world.  The singing and territoriality of birds is just one way that we can be made aware that a wood is far more than a place we might like to walk around.  A reminder that ours is not the only agenda and certainly not the most important one.

Erithacus rubecula

A wood wouldn’t be a wood without a Robin in it.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | April 27, 2020

Cutie, or not cutie, that is the question.

It is probably safe to suggest that ‘cute’ (and sorry for the terrible punning in the title) is not an adjective easily afforded to insects.  One might however, get away with it in the case of this little thing……

Dark Bush-cricket (1st instar) (scaled)

It is a Dark Bush-cricket (Pholidoptera griseoaptera) nymph.  I photographed it yesterday and given that it measured half a centimetre or so, it was not too long – I would imagine – from the egg.  That egg would have been laid some time before the previous autumn.  The female brandishes a long, sabre-shaped ovipositor which she uses to insert her eggs into the crevices in bark or directly into suffiently receptive soft wood.

Much of any perceived cuteness perhaps stems from the ‘incomplete metamorphosis’ undertaken by the Orthoptera (grasshoppers and crickets).  In common with the likes of dragonflies, true bugs and others, they do not pupate as such insects as butterflies, bees or flies do.  They will therefore not undergo that profound change of form associated with the so-called ‘complete metamorphosis’, from larva, via pupa to adult.  Thus, the bush-cricket that hatches from the egg essentially emerges as a miniature version of the adult it will become.  This is less obvious with a dragonfly, given that it must develop from an aquatic nymph into a terrestrial adult, demanding certain fundamental life-style changes, but the process is nevertheless the same.  The incomplete metamorhosis takes place over a series of moults, or instars, as the insect matures.  The above little creature can expect to grow through half a dozen instars (the number perhaps being more or less depending on species), but not until July, if it manages to keep out of trouble, will it have grown into something like this, perhaps a couple of centimetres long and active predator of small invertabrates as well as a devourer of plants……

Pholidoptera griseoaptera

Dark Bush-cricket (Pholidoptera griseoaptera) – male.

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