Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Glebe Meadows & King's Wood, Houghton Conquest.

John O'Sullivan and I visited Glebe Meadows and King's Wood earlier today. Glebe Meadows consists of unimproved neutral grassland, and King's Wood is a semi-natural ancient woodland. Together they constitute one of Bedfordshire's SSSIs (Site of Special Scientific Interest).

The north-south ride through the centre of the wood includes a more open area, though the shrub layer has grown quite a bit since it was last managed some years ago. There were several flowering bramble patches here: ideal for hoverflies. We found two beauties....

This is Criorhina berberina, and this kind of ancient woodland is its typical habitat. Criorhina species are generally scarce...so the fact that we found 3 or 4 flying about in the same area was quite exciting. It's a shame that the photo doesn't do it justice because it's a pretty stunning creature!

This one isn't particularly rare....but it's special because it's Volucella inflata (See June 25th, Woburn post from several days ago). At last!! Thanks for catching it and presenting it to me, John.

Hoverfly Species List:

Cheilosia illustrata; Chrysotoxum bicinctum; Criorhina berberina; Episyrphus balteatus; Eristalinus sepulchralis; Eristalis nemorum; Eristalis pertinax; Eristalis tenax; Eupeodes corollae; Helophilus hybridus; Helophilus pendulus; Melangyna comp/lab; Melanostoma scalare; Myathropa florea; Platycheirus albimanus; Platycheirus angustatus; Scaeva pyrastri; Sphaerophoria scripta; Syritta pipiens; Syrphus ribesii; Volucella inflata; Volucella pellucens; Xylota segnis; Xylota sylvarum. (24 species)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Ampthill Park - Gala Day.

The rain held off today which made for a very successful Gala Day for this marvellous community. Hundreds of people were wandering around the stalls, visiting the concessions, and watching the events in the Grand Ring...

...but I wonder if anyone noticed the marvellous display of plants on the steep south-facing sandy bank at the north end of the cricket pitch. This has the best display of plants in the whole Park.

Unfortunately, many just see it as a bit of a mess that needs tidying up, and I always fear arriving one day to find the wild plants gone and a boring grass monoculture in its place.

I can't believe that I've not noticed this plant before. It's the magnificent Weld, and there were a number of stately specimens on the bank. It's my 289th plant species for the Park!

You can't see it from this photo but, with it being early evening, the flowers are facing west. They would have been facing east first thing this morning before following the sun on its course through the day!

And this is Hare's-foot Clover, which is another special plant in my eyes. This is the only place in the Park where it's found...and it's found here in abundance. It's not the best photo, but I wanted to include the sole Cinnabar Moth that was flying about amongst the crowds!

Years ago, Hare's-foot Clover was a common plant in our fields, but it's become a lot less common with the onslaught of modern herbicides and the like. I just hope that the Council and Cricket Club keep this marvellous slice of habitat and give it a chance to continue to flourish here!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Ampthill Park.

Here are some of my favourite moths from last night's moth-trapping session at Ampthill Park. A good crowd turned up, though it had thinned out somewhat by the time we packed up in the early hours. At one point we reckoned that there were a few hundred moths around the main light which was quite a sight. I'll include a list of all the species when it's been published (LIST NOW AT BOTTOM OF POST). One different species that I haven't got a photo of is a Grasshopper Warbler that was reeling in the northern grasslands as we were setting up. It's the first time this year that I've heard this fascinating bird.

This is the Drinker. I'm surprised there's not a pub sign with one of these on...it gets its name from the supposed craving of the caterpillar for dew drops! Hmmm - maybe the Dew Drop Inn in Ampthill ought to have a picture of one of these on the wall!

This is a beautiful moth - the Bordered White. We were running a second trap under some Scots Pine trees, so its presence wasn't a surprise because the larvae feed on the species.

There were several of these Buff Arches moths flying around - I can't wait to get one in my garden trap....

And I wouldn't mind one of these, either: the Peach Blossom. It's not a great photo but I wanted to include it to illustrate the beautiful moths flying around at night that most of us are just not aware of...

...and this one, found late on, has absolutely stunning iridescent colours. It's the Burnished Brass. Wow, who wants to come to the next local moth-trapping session?


14 Ghost Moth 1
17 Common Swift 2
464 Diamond-back Moth 3
937 Agapeta hamana 2
966 Cochylis atricapitana 3
1032 Aleimma loeflingiana 1
1033 Green Oak Tortrix 1
1175 Epiblema uddmanniana 1
1212 Rhyacionia pinivorana 1
1293 Chrysoteuchia culmella many!
1301 Crambus lathoniellus 2
1302 Crambus perlella 2
1334 Scoparia Ambigualis 1
1392 Udea olivalis 2
1458 Thistle Ermine 2
1509 Stenoptilia pterodactyla 1
1640 The Drinker 1
1648 Pebble Hook-tip 1
1652 Peach Blossom 3
1653 Buff Arches 10
1669 Common Emerald 1
1708 Single-dotted Wave 1
1713 Riband Wave 3
1726 Large Twin-spot Carpet 1
1738 Common Carpet 5
1758 Barred Straw 5
1768 Grey Pine Carpet 1
1840 Shaded Pug 1
1862 Double-striped Pug 1
1893 Tawny-barred Angle 1
1902 Brown Silver-line 2
1931 Peppered Moth 3
1941 Mottled Beauty 4
1950 Brindled White-spot 1
1954 Bordered White 3
1955 Common White Wave 1
1958 Clouded Silver 2
1961 Light Emerald 4
1962 Barred Red 4
1979 Lime Hawk-moth 1
1991 Elephant Hawk-moth 2
2009 Maple Prominent 1
2011 Pale Prominent 1
2047 Scarce Footman 3
2050 Common Footman 1
2088 Heart & Club 1
2089 Heart & Dart 4
2098 The Flame 10
2102 Flame Shoulder 5
2107 Large Yellow Underwing 2
2120 Ingrailed Clay 1
2123 Small Square-spot 5
2128 Double Square-spot 2
2160 Bright-line Brown-eye 2
2193 The Clay 1
2198 Smoky Wainscot 2
2199 Common Wainscot 1
2205 Shoulder-striped Wainscot 10
2250 Dark Brocade 1
2278 Poplar Grey 2
2281 Alder Moth 1
2283 Dark Dagger 1
2284 Grey Dagger 1
2302 Brown Rustic 3
2305 Small Angle-shades 3
2306 Angle Shades 1
2314 Dingy Shears 1
2321 Dark Arches 5
2322 Light Arches 2
2330 Dusky Brocade 1
2331 Small Clouded Brindle 1
2337 Marbled Minor 3
2339 Tawny Marbled Minor 1
2340 Middle-barred Minor 20
2381 The Uncertain 2
2384 Vine's Rustic 2
2387 Mottled Rustic 1
2410 Marbled White Spot 8
2434 Burnished Brass 1
2441 Silver Y 1
2443 Plain Golden Y 1
2474 Straw Dot 5
2477 The Snout 2
2489 Fan-foot 2

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Woburn Estate south: field margin

Following a tip-off from ace Beds Hoverfly Recorder, John O'Sullivan, I zipped over to this location at lunchtime hoping for a beastie called Volucella inflata which has become a bit of a bogey species for me: they're around...but not when I am! I did, however, come across two other members of the genus (below). Volucella hoverflies don't do boring....

Volucella pellucens. The female of this species won't even knock on the door of the wasps' nest where she chooses to lay her eggs, but walks straight in. Darned impolite, I say!

Volucella bombylans. This beauty will use wasps' nests but, as you can see from its colours, it's a pretty impressive bumblebee mimic, so you'll as likely find the growing larvae in a bumblebee nest. Sometimes the intruding female is fingered by the bees who will sting her but, in such a scenario, she will immediately lay her eggs by reflex action.

What is it about me and horseflies? They scare me, but they fascinate me, too. I'm hoping someone can give me an id for this male. I thought it was the Band-eyed Brown Horsefly (Tabanus bromius), but the pattern at the top of the eyes seems to suggest that it might be the Plain-eyed Brown Horsefly (Tabanus miki).

I hot-footed it back to the car when several Notch-horned Clegs (Haemotopota pluvialis) turned up and tried to land on me to have their way with me...ugh! Other invertebrates included good numbers of the longhorn beetle, Rutpela maculata, and a stunningly-liveried Red Admiral butterfly.

Buckinghamshire Chilterns II

After the intensity of the first few days of the week, I really valued the opportunity to spend the greater part of today with members of the Bedfordshire Natural History Society as we visited various sites in the Chilterns, primarily to view some members of the incredible orchid family. After the deep disappointment of our first visit of the day to see the Red Helleborines (see report below), we enjoyed a marvellous time in the sunshine, exploring the treasures of this wonderful landscape.

Violet Helleborine is not particularly uncommon, but this form - var. rosea - which contains no chlorophyll, is quite rare.

After lunch we entered the Pulpit Hill/Grangelands Reserve. This Red Kite flew right over our heads.

Our Musk Orchids in Bedfordshire are the most northerly population in the UK, but we haven't seen any flower-heads for the last couple of years. You have to get your eye in to spot them and there were just two here. Is that a tiny fly in the photo? The books says that the insects who get to pollinate these minute flowers have to be tiny themselves (up to 1 mm long!).

At Aston Clinton Rag Pits were were taken aback by the thousands of Fragrant Orchids, even though they were past their best now. Pyramidal Orchids were dotted about - 3 can be seen in the photo above. Other plants here included White Helleborine, Common Twayblade, and Broad-leaved Helleborine.

We'd just been saying how surprised we had been not to have seen a Bee Orchid all day when we came across this beauty!

It was getting late, now, so we moved on to one last Reserve.

This is the first Fly Orchid that I have seen. It's right at the end of its flowering season and this was the only flowering spike, so I was very fortunate. What an incredible plant it is - it even secretes sex pheromones to attract a particular species of male Digger Wasp to pollinate it....amazing!

Our full list of orchids for the day comprised:

Common Spotted Orchid; Fragrant Orchid; Pyramidal Orchid; Bee Orchid; Greater Butterfly Orchid; Musk Orchid; Common Twayblade; Fly Orchid; Violet Helleborine; Red Helleborine; White Helleborine; Broad-leaved Helleborine; Narrow-lipped Helleborine.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Buckinghamshire Chilterns.

This is Red Helleborine (Cephalanthera rubra). It's found at only 3 sites in the UK, including this site in the Chiltern Hills. Understandably, it is classified as critically endangered. This is one of just 5 flowering plants found here. The Volunteer Warden, Roger Newman, has spent hours studying these plants: visiting the secret site where it is found right through the year; diligently studying all he can about the species; visiting Kew Gardens to learn the delicate techniques of pollinating the plant artificially; trying all manner of things to stop slugs, rabbits and other pests from consuming the plants; patiently watching the flowering heads for hour after hour to try to discover what invertebrates might be adapted to pollinate the plant naturally; liasing with enthusiasts engaged in the same work at the other two sites in Gloucestershire & Hampshire where this special plant is found. In short, it has been a real labour of love.

Today I witnessed first-hand the dismay on Roger's face and heard him question whether it was all worth it. I was looking on as he entered the enclosure and witnessed the scene of devastation before him. Notice the broken stalk to the right of the flowering head in the photo.

When he last visited this site 2 days ago the 5 plants were looking good, though the flowers themselves were paler and their numbers down on previous years. This morning this solitary flowering head was the last one.....3 of the others had been snapped off, the 4th and best of the blooms was bent over and broken.

What creature had caused this? The fact that the wire cages and anti-slug copper rings had been removed and placed in a pile made it pretty clear. Some person, for some reason - probably someone wanting a photo of this rare plant - had entered the enclosure, removed the safeguards and then, somehow, absolutely vandalised the plants before leaving.

It beggars belief. How could someone do this? All of us who were there felt angry and empathised with Roger's frustration.

Tomorrow, I've got no doubt that Roger will pick himself up, make his way back to the site and spend the first of many more hours doing whatever he can to ensure the survival of these special plants. Roger, don't let them beat you. Keep going with the marvellous work you're doing. You are making a difference and I take my hat off to you!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hothorpe Hall, Leicestershire.

This was the amazing view out of my window at Hothorpe Hall at 5.30am this morning.

The 'We Belong' racial awareness course has been really intense with sessions morning, noon & night! I really valued a few hours gazing over an adjoining field late last night watching a Badger, Brown Hare, a number of Rabbits....and a black cat! I was also attacked by a Notch-horned Cleg (Haematopota pluvialis) by the stream during a coffee-time walk. Fortunately I noticed it and managed to swat it away before it bit me!

I need a day to chill out...and I've got a special treat planned tomorrow. Watch this space!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Ampthill Park.

I managed to catch one of those horseflies from yesterday first thing this morning. I love the eye patterns in the Tabanidae family. I'm off to Leicestershire for 2 days of racial awareness training in a few minutes, so I'll have to identify it when I get back.

Update: Thursday 25th June - having examined it under the stereo-microscope I'm still not 100% sure. I'm plumping for the Bright Horsefly (Hybomitra distinguenda)...but I need to find a horsefly expert somewhere to confirm it for me!

Several young robins had just left the nest.

A pair of bullfinches were seeing off an intruder in their territory. I managed to grab this shot of one of the males.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A507 - Millbrook Crossroads

Carole and I cycled to Marston Vale Country Park this afternoon. There were several kinds of poppy flowering along the roadside verge between the pet shop and the Millbrook Crossroads, including this fascinating specimen!

Ampthill Park

I went for a walk over Ampthill Park before the service this morning.

When I saw several of these hovering over the bracken in the south-east corner of the Park, I thought that they were a new species of hoverfly at first, but I quickly realised that they were male horseflies. Realising that they were males (which don't bite), I felt quite safe, until it struck me that they were waiting in a likely spot for passing females (the ones that do bite...painfully!). Males will often engage in this activity very early in the morning, so it's not observed that often. I reckon that they are a species called the Bright Horsefly (Hybomitra distinguenda), but I need to see one in the hand to confirm that, so I'm planning to return with the net early one morning later this week...watch this space!

This is the Marsh Snipefly (Rhagio tringarius). The state of the left wing makes me wonder whether it's had a close escape from a bird of some kind. The Flushes just to the north of where this individual was attract a number of invertebrates that thrive in this kind of habitat.

There are lots of these around at the moment: the Nettle Tap Moth (Anthophila fabriciana). Nettles are the larval foodplant, but it's found on various types of foliage at this time of year. Tap a bed of nettles with a stick and you'll see where it gets its name from!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Chandos Road, Ampthill.

A nice Privet Hawk-moth in the trap this morning was my 4th Hawk-moth species of the year.

I couldn't resist this photo-opportunity!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Ampthill Park.

First thing this morning I undertook my monthly bird survey over Ampthill Park. The highlight was a red kite making its way westwards along the Greensand Ridge, much to the consternation of a couple of local jackdaws. I was also chuffed to find a pair of buzzards with a young one trying out its wings, the first proof of breeding I've seen in this immediate area. Other birds with fledglings included robin, dunnock, song thrush, mistle thrush, moorhen, blue tit, great tit, long-tailed tit, blackcap, wren and carrion crow, the latter with a hapless frog hanging from its mouth!

There were a number of chimney sweeper moths around, looking like they'd dipped the tips of their wings into a paint pot! There's plenty of pignut around, which will suit the larvae, who enjoy consuming its flowers and seeds.

And here's the dramatically-suited Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet. There must have been 20 or so fluttering around at the northern end of the Flushes, and they were quite a sight.

This is the remains of one of the distinctive cocoons from which the Burnets emerge.

The yellow of Tormentil and white of Heath Bedstraw makes for a dramatic contrast all over the grasslands to the north of the Park.

And, finally, a Large Skipper butterfly. The prominent dark 'sex brand' marks on the wings show that this is a male. Thomas & Lewington describe how they tend to patrol their patch from about 10am until noon, with slow extended flights, hovering just above the ground, or weaving around grass clumps, scanning each for the presence of a female. In the afternoons, active flying is replaced by a siesta in the sunshine. Sounds like a good idea to me!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Ampthill Fields - north of St Andrews Church.

The lack of posts this past week says something about just how busy I've been. An opportunity for a walk early this afternoon was seized like a drowning man gasping for air!

This tree makes for a very dramatic image.

And here's a close-up of the hole at the top of the trunk. Can you spot the Green Woodpecker? The way in which they play hide-and-seek with passers' by never ceases to amuse me!

I love the variety of flowering grasses that start to appear at this time of year. It's so easy to pass by without noticing them. Here's Meadow Barley...

Yorkshire Fog...


and Meadow Foxtail.

Several yellowhammers were singing. This male seems bemused by the antics of the chaffinch!

There are a lot of Early Bumblebees (Bombus pratorum) around at the moment. The orange-red tail is a bit of a give-away.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Chandos Road, Ampthill

Imagine my excitement looking into the moth-trap this morning after a cold and wet night to find a new species amongst the paltry sum of 4 individual moths - my first ever Peppered Moth (Biston betularia)! It's the large white speckled specimen in the photo to the right of the Dark Arches.

OK, so it's common....but this was the first time I'd come across a moth in the flesh that I'd studied on the page for years! You, too, probably remember examining photos of light moths and dark moths in your biology textbooks, dramatically illustrating so-called natural selection. The moth in my photo is the form typica which was common hundreds of years ago, its speckled colouration helping it to blend in with crustose lichens on the trees where it spends its days resting and, thus, out of sight of hungry birds searching for a tasty morsel! But, as the Industrial Revolution progressed and trees became covered in soot and the like, these moths were easily spotted and consumed with relish. And so the typica form declined but, conversely, the dark carbonaria form flourished.

These days morpha typica far outnumbers morpha carbonaria once more, a sign that, in the midst of our fears regarding the environment, things really can change. And so it was with a sense of hope that I released Biston betularia f. typica back into the garden this evening.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Cooper's Hill Nature Reserve, Ampthill

One of the things I enjoy doing most is opening the eyes and ears of young people to the natural world around them. That's why I've so enjoyed taking part in Alameda School's Activity Week today, taking one Year 7 class after another - 4 in total - on walks around Cooper's Hill Nature Reserve. The focus was 'ornithology', and we spent time listening to various birds that were calling and singing: robin, wren, chaffinch, blackbird, goldcrest, carrion crow, rook, jackdaw, willow warbler, garden warbler, wood pigeon, great spotted woodpecker and the like. But we looked out for other animals, too:

Although one girl ran off horrified, the sight of a dead pygmy shrew resulted in a lot of excitement...

But nothing like as much as the live common toad that I found under a rotting stump...

And, not wanting to be outdone, a common frog obliged, too!

Several of the children told me that they found the walk "awesome"...and a young lad who'd been on the walk earlier told his friend as he set off, "It's great!" So some, at least, seemed to genuinely enjoy it, which is what it's all about!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Lodge, Sandy

Some animals have a real 'wow' factor and the crepuscular nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus) falls into that category. I remember standing on Wavendon Heath some years ago in the half-light of dusk, listening to the strange churring call and, later, watching the bird fluttering around me as it hunted for moths & beetles.

It is only rarely seen in Bedfordshire nowadays, and the bird above was photographed by Robin Edwards at The Lodge earlier today, where it remained immobile on the log awaiting its nighttime witching hour. You can just imagine the excitement that it's caused there where some 200 people saw it today. But not me, unfortunately, as I was too busy to get up there to see it, but Robin has kindly allowed me to share his photo here.

Such a strange bird has been the origin of various myths, the most famous described by Cocker & Mabey, in their Birds Britannica, where they write, 'The more ancient slur is still enshrined in the scientific name Caprimulgus, from the Latin capra 'she-goat' and mulgeo, 'I milk'....From classical times it was believed that the birds entered the goat stalls and sucked the nanny's udders, which could eventually cause them to wither and the animals themselves to go blind.'

So, if you see any blind goats around, now you'll know why!

Firs Lower School, Ampthill

Following a cold night with little cloud, I was fearing the worst when I arrived at The Firs Lower School this morning to look at the moth-trap. My fears were confirmed with only 3 species in the trap: 10 Heart & Darts, 1 Shuttle-shaped Dart (the moth at the top of the photo), and a Green Carpet. The children who were passing through the Quadrangle found them interesting, but I was disappointed. I'm hoping to return on a warm night in a few week's time and put the trap out on the grass alongside Cooper's Hill....I think the difference will be quite dramatic!

Then, just as I was packing the moth-trap into the car....I noticed this little beauty clinging to the sides - a male Pale Tussock. How did I miss it earlier? I'm sure that I looked at all of the sides of the trap. Shame, 'cos the children would have loved it!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Cooper's Hill wildlife walk preparation

"It could only be Stephen!"

It sounds like the story's going round, so I may as well share it here.

Being in Bedford late yesterday morning, I decided to pop along to Putnoe Surgery where Carole works to see if she was free for lunch. She was so, after buying some sandwiches at the local Co-op, we sat in the little garden at the back enjoying the sunshine. Donna, one of the other nurses, joined us. During the conversation that followed I shared that I wanted to find a frog to use as a live illustration for a class of Alameda Middle School pupils during a nature walk over Cooper's Hill this morning. Donna, who lives down the road from the surgery, told me that she was happy to donate one of the 7 frogs inhabiting her little back garden pond. She gave me the number for her key-safe and - going well beyond the call of duty - directions to find a plastic food container in her kitchen in which to put it!

After a bit of searching, I managed to find a frog and popped it into the container with some water. On the way home I stopped off at Bedford South Hospital for a visit and, the day being so warm, slid the container under the car to keep the frog as cool as possible. It was cutting the visit short, pleading compassion for the frog, that has led to this story doing the rounds.

When I got home I popped the frog into the fridge for a little while to make sure that it would be in good health...unfortunately, Mark opened the door a little while later when looking for some chicken slices and salad to make a sandwich...which then meant that Carole found out, too, when she got home from work!

I can't see what the fuss is about. Dad used to be a keen fisherman when I was a boy and there were always tins of maggots in the fridge!

Anyway, I think the pupils appreciated seeing my frog this morning. I've got the moth trap running at The Firs Lower School this evening and I'll be showing the children whatever turns up in the morning...I built it up a bit during an assembly on Tuesday, so I hope there's something to show for it.

By the way, it's recommended that moths caught in a moth-trap are kept in the fridge during the day and released again in the evening....but I've already been warned never to do that in no uncertain terms!!

[photo from http://www.neath-porttalbot.gov.uk]