Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 14, 2019

Ivy

The bane of many a gardener, ivy is, in its way, an extraordinary plant.  It is one that in the earlier stages of growth can be quite… well, not exactly fragile, but easy enough to rip from the ground, certainly when compared to the stubbornly-rooted bramble that quickly requires a spade for removal.  Yet its tenacity and perniciousness of growth are equals to its thorny counterpart.

As is often the case, the gardener’s bane may be the naturalist’s boon.  Even so, I would have to admit that for much of the year the humble Hedera helix goes mostly under the radar.  It is one of those plants that can seem to fill in the background without necessarliy drawing particular attention.  It is perhaps this very quality that when left to grow thick and dense can make it so attractive to small birds in search of an unobtrusive situation within which to build a nest.

For me however, late summer is when the ivy comes into its own.  Come September, when the days are still warm and filled with small life, but when those abundant provisions of nectar that we might associate with high summer are increasingly thin on the ground, a mass of flowering ivy bathed in sunlight can positively throng with activity.  Stand beside one and it will audibly buzz, so irresistable and sought after are its copious, if slightly inconspicuous blooms.  I have been finding myself lately lured to them, as much almost as their nectar thirsty patrons……

Syrphus ribesii 5 (scaled)

Syrphus ribesii is a common hoverfly whicg like many of the species is attracted to ivy flowers in late summer.

Chrysogaster sp. - Downs 2

Not all hoverflies are as boldly marked as the previous species, but this Chrysogaster sp. does have rather striking eyes.

Colletes hederae - Downs 2 (scaled)

The Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae) was described as new to science as recently as 1993 and hadn’t been observed on mainland Britain until 2001. Still known largely from southern England, it is however spreading northwards. It is the latest flying of the Colletes species of solitary bees.

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Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 1, 2019

River

River Dart boulders 2 (plus poem)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 25, 2019

Hop in, hop out

Now, I’m all for getting out and about and into the thick of our wild places.  It is, after all, the only true way to begin unravelling the real depths of the lives being lived in a place, even in the most seemingly impinged upon of circumstances.  Sometimes however, those same little treasures of the natural world can reveal themselves to you, often at the least expected of times and apparently, at least in the following instances, often involving Orthoptera – the grasshoppers and crickets.

Cue a walk back home after a long hike among the open, wildlife-rich landscape that persists in a swathe of many hundreds of hectares along the northern back of the Thames Estuary, somewhere that has thankfully resisted the ever-looming threat of development.  I encountered much, yet it was heading homeward along a busy stretch of the A13 that I would find one of the giants among UK invertebrates.  I had heard them on my walk, but had not been able to home in on the source of the penetrating, so-called ‘sewing machine’ song of the Great Green Bush-cricket (Tettigonia viridissima), such is its vertriloquism to the human ear.  It seemed slightly incongruous then, that I should track it down on a field edge beside the rumble of rush-hour traffic.  They are our largest Orthopteran and never fail to impress.

Great Green Bush-cricket 4 (scaled)

A beast amongst bush-crickets – the Great Green Bush-cricket (Tettigonia viridissima).

Then a couple of days later and a stroll along a suburban street brought two more chance encounters.  Firstly a biege blur of wings speeding past me at waist height showed themselves to belong to a Field Grasshopper (Chorthippus brunneus).  This is a common enough insect of dry, sunny grasslands, but nevertheless a pleasant surprise for all its unexpectedness.  But a few hundred metres further on I was to meet another, altogether scarcer insect.

Usually when one finds an emerald green insect hopping about on the ground it proves to be an Oak Bush-cricket (Meconema thalassium) that has somehow been disturbed from its more usual and more preferred leafy habitat.  This time though, it turned out to be a Southern Oak Bush-cricket (Meconema meridionale).  These are recent UK colonisers recorded for the first time in 2001 and which appear to be continuing a recent European expansion by finding themselves scattered across the south-east of England.  How a wingless bush-cricket gets across the English Channel does pose certain pertinent questions.  One theory is that they managed to hitch lifts on vehicles.  However they have managed it they are here and seemed to be enjoying it.  Fortunately I had my camera with me.

Southern Oak Bush-cricket (scaled)

Southern Oak Bush-cricket (Meconema meridionale)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 22, 2019

Swallows

SONY DSC

My attention has been drawn a few times, just recently, to the twittering overhead of bands of Swallows.  They seem to be, or so one might fancy, a meeting of family groups, with a mixture of full adults resplendent with their long, forked tail feathers and juvenile birds yet to grow these most distinctive, ‘swallow-esque’ appendages.

Come late summer and these gatherings seem to be made with a certain air of migratory intent.  The mind wanders and I find myself thinking about these young birds and the feat they are soon to undertake.  One must of course be cautious when attemping to superimpose our own reasoning onto the behaviour of other animals, but it is diffucult not consider the ‘knowledge’ of a journey of such magnitude as the swallows take on twice each year and the bearing that this may have on the birds in question.  And with the young birds having no direct experience of it, do they have any inkling at all of the enormity of the task ahead of them?  It is a task, after all, that may require them to make a 9500km (6000mile) journey in not too much more than a month. Is it just as well for them if they are unaware of it?  ‘Ignorance is bliss’, and all that.

‘Direct experience’ may not be required for them to know that something big is about to take place.  Benjamin Kidd (1858-1916) wrote of a Cuckoo he had reared from the egg and how when the time for migration was upon it the bird (which had never known another of its own kind) would for periods of time begin to quiver and fan its wings, behaviour which would eventually escalate until the bird “became lost in a kind of trance” and “locked in the passion of that sense by which the movement of flight was being stimulated.

It is all some food for thought for sure and does much to remind us of the natural wonder that is migration, something that still puzzles and challenges us to know more about it.

Swallow at nest (scaled)

A Swallow (Hirundo rustica) making use of an artificial nest site in Norfolk.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 14, 2019

Rain or Shine

Looking through the notes for my talk at the British Birdfair this weekend I reminded myself of something that seemed particularly pertinent.  It concerned a part of the book thinking about how our ‘Shifting Perspectives’ can enrich our experiences of the natural world.  By way of introduction I suggest that we might experience this in seeking out the beauty in a rain-soaked summer’s day, when indoors can seem the last place you would want to spend all your time.  Looking out, as I do, through the back window into a drenched garden beneath a dreary, cloud-heavy sky, it seems a challenge to be freshly met.

Some days the philosophical effort required may be greater than others, but beauty and surprise there can indeed be.  This I discovered anew not more than two days previously.  Another drab and rainy day that was also and in the evening, having been indoors for far too long, I poured myself an ale and sat on the back step to drink it.  I had a few snails for company, relishing, as I’m sure they were, the choice conditions of a still dripping garden.  Then a fluttering among the trails of unkempt wysteria crowding the outdoor light made me aware something close by other than my ponderously questing companions.  It turned out to be a rather fine moth by the name of the Lesser Swallow Prominent, which no doubt had been tempted into the garden by our equally rampant Silver Birch on which the female moth lays her eggs.

Beautiful and surprising in equal measure.

Lesser Swallow Prominent 2 (scaled and cropped)

Lesser Swallow Prominent (Phoesia gnoma)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 12, 2019

British Birdfair

A wee mention that I have been selected as one of the featured authors at the 2019 British Birdfair this coming weekend to talk about my book ‘The Greater World of Little Things’.  The event held at Rutland Water runs from Friday 16th to Sunday 18th.  I’m speaking on the Friday.  Click on the Birdfair logo for more information about the event and  on the book for more information about that.

birdfair logo

Front cover WLT

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 10, 2019

The Wren

Wren (is an inspector)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 24, 2019

Suffolk in Summer

So the blog limps, neglectfully along, exactly a month month since my last post!  I have, as previously lamented on more than one occasion, been terribly slack and somewhat distracted.  Distractions though, have lessened (I now possess a qualification in ‘Supporting Children and Young People with Autism’) so hopefully time at the keyboard can be turned to other things.

It just happens that I spent last weekend enjoying the delights of the northern reaches of Suffolk in the campervan, specifically the open and afforested country of West Stow Country Park and its surrounds, a dreamy stretch of the River Lark and the fascinating environs of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Lackford Lakes reserve.  Below, therefore, are a few images of some of the delights therein……

Pseudospinolia neglecta (pos) (scaled)

A jewel indeed. Sometimes called jewel wasps, the ruby-tailed wasps are a difficult lot to ID, but this one looks like it might be the scarce Pseudospinolia neglecta.

Stictoleptura rubra 2 (scaled)

Stictoleptura rubra – an uncommon species belonging to the impressive longhorn beetles.

River Lark - West Stow (scaled)

The dreamy River Lark on a hot summer’s day……

Pike (scaled)

…… the haunt of Pike (Esox lucius); even this youngster makes for a fierce predator of the weedy shadows.

Kingfisher - Lackford Lakes 5 (scaled)

Sometimes that ‘blue flash’ stops still out in the open. The old flooded gravel pits of Lackford Lakes has developed something of a reputation for seeing kingfisher (Alcedo atthis).

Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 24, 2019

Love is sweet

Heath Fritillary - Pound Wood 2 (scaled)

Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia)

Some things you notice by chance.  I was walking in one of my local woods the other week, ostensibly to count that rare little beauty, the Heath Fritillary, to help keep the warden informed of their doings.  The count took half an hour or so, but then followed another hour and half immersing myself in that half-hidden flood of life that can fill a June wood.  That buzz of life which at first seems to exisit just on the edge of your senses, but once you have tuned in reveals itself to fill every nook and cranny of the place; whether or not half-imagined, the effect is the same and no less a wonder.

As I was begining my reluctant and decidedly long-winded way through the wood to home, I noticed a large and very handsome Hornet fly in front of me.  She didn’t carry on her way through the trees and across the nearby clearing, but seemed especially preoccupied with an oak tree standing beside the path.  I look more closely and quickly realised what had drawn her attention.  It was a sap run, or more of a seepage, leaking from a would in the bark.

The sap of an oak tree is clearly irristiably sweet, for she was not the only visitor I would observe there, on that occasion and other visits later.  A Speckled Wood butterfly for one.  The adults usually sup on the aphid-produced honeydew coating the tops of trees, but are evidently not averse to a bit tree sap on the side.  Most other visitor were flies, like gleaming metalic greenbottles and another distinctly orange species.

Flies, I realise, are not everyone’s cup of tea, but one of their number was of particular interest, with perhaps enough of look about it to capture the gaze of any with eye for the wild things.  It was the robust-looking and attractive hoverfly, Volucella inflata.  The adults appear to have a marked liking for the sweet sap, but it also appears that the larvae actually develop there also.  Proof once again, if any were required, that wherever there is an opportunity there will be something willing to take it.

Volucella inflata (plus Lucilia) (Scaled)

The hoverfly Volucella inflata (plus greenbottle – Lucilia species)

Phaonia pallida 2 (scaled)

‘A distinctly orange fly’ – probably Phaonia pallida

Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 6, 2019

Beauty in miniature

June arrives in the woods with concerted hum – not necessarily audibly so – of life.  It is a hum that can indeed be heard, but is also one that can persists on the very edge of your senses – not quite heard, but you know it’s there nevertheless.

Such is the burgeoning of woodland plantlife, seeing some of those creatures that contribute theirs to the throng can be more of a difficulty than one might expect.  The trickle of birdsong and the twitterings of fledgling birds all too often come from deep, verdurous cover.  The life of a June wood can sometimes seem little more than so many flitterings and scurries among the undergowth and amid the canopy overhead.

But there is, of course,  the flicker of smaller lives and smaller wings that glimmer in and out of the sunshine.  If we shift our focus then that hum comes more firmly and more fully into our senses.  And what things might we then discover……

Alabonia geoffrella

At barely a single centimetre in length the micromoth Alabonia geoffrella can easily go unnoticed, but what a little beauty it is.

SONY DSC

So too the closely related and rather scarce Dasycera oliviella.

Degeer's Longhorn 6

And what about the gleaming hues of the stunning longhorn moth Nemophora degeerella ?

Micropterix calthella on buttercup

Smaller yet – perhaps less than half a centimetre long – are the golden flakes of Micropterix calthella. Look for them crowded on to buttercup flowers in the damper woodland clearings. Micropterix species are unique in being the only moths to have biting mouthparts with which they chew pollen.

SONY DSC

The otherwordly charms of a Speckled Bush-cricket (Leptophyes punctatissima) nymph; the miniscule embodiment of a summer in the making.

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