Saturday, May 22, 2010


Off to Israel for a week tomorrow....back next Saturday...then off to Yorkshire for a week!!

Wildlife reading will include:
At The Water's Edge - John Lister-Kaye
A Last Wild Place - Mike Tomkies
The Mole - Kenneth Mellanby

I've spent the last few days trying to add Mole to my Bedfordshire Mammal List for this year. Earlier this week in one small area of Ampthill Park I tamped down all of the molehills and returned 24 hours later to find 43 new molehills!! Within the next hour I came across four separate working Moles throwing up spoilheaps but, try as I might, didn't manage to see the moles themselves. The Mole bulldozes the soil along the tunnel with one of its spade-like front feet so, every time I opened up the tunnel where a Mole was working, a big plug of soil arrived and closed it off a few minutes later! Kenneth's book was published right back in 1971, but it's very readable...and I'm hoping that it will go some way towards helping me see a few of these fascinating creatures...

....Watch this space!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Chandos Road, Ampthill

Tired after last night’s bat survey, I was woken up by a surge of adrenaline when I looked into the moth trap this morning – after the first relatively warm night of the year – and saw a Poplar Hawkmoth…soon followed by a Small Elephant Hawkmoth and a Lime Hawkmoth….result!

The Spectacle – no prizes for guessing where it gets its name from!

And another one of my favourites: the Bird’s Wing – when at rest, it resembles a pair of bird’s wings!

And here’s one that I feel should be obvious, but isn’t. Is it a Large Nutmeg?

Update: Many thanks to Matt Burgess & Ian Woiwod for pointing me to Light Brocade, a new species for the garden.

Bedfordshire Wood

I was never keen on Noddy when I was a child - I much preferred The Wooden-tops or Trumpton. But I do remember Big-ears, Noddy's gnome friend who lived in Toadstool House, and I was reminded of him in the early hours of this morning when looking at this wonderful Brown Long-eared Bat that had just been netted - the first of this particular species that I've seen in the hand.

A group of us spent the night seeing what bats were around in a wood that hadn't been surveyed before...and it was pretty successful!

The evening started brilliantly for me when I was making my way on my own along the grass strip between the wood and a field of wheat at dusk. Suddenly, there was a rush of air past my right ear and the largest bat I have ever seen close-to flew around me a few feet off the ground, and then in front of my face again and away - a Serotine, the bat I had really set my heart on encountering this year!!! A Serotine was later reported in the same area by Henry.

We had a number of mist nets set up, and transects were also being walked by small teams. At 9.35pm a female Common Pipistrelle was caught in one of Bob's nets, and then another turned up in one of Chris' nets some distance away a few minutes later, the walkie-talkies crackling to life and passing on the news. Although this individual looked like a Common Pip, there was a question mark over whether the frequency of its calls just before it entered the net indicated that it might, in fact, have been a Soprano Pip. Analysis today should confirm that.

Next, Chris had a female Natterer's Bat soon after 10pm, followed by another female Common Pip in Bob's net.

At 11pm, Bob, Dave & I were seated under some trees when we picked up a Brown Long-eared Bat on the detectors. The strength of the signal - usually very quiet for this species - indicated that it must have been flying just a few feet above our heads. But it was an hour later, just after midnight, when the individual above was captured in Chris' net and gently released. It's a shame she didn't open her eyes for the camera as she was a very handsome beast!

All of the bats caught up to now had been females, so we were pleased to discover a male Common Pip in the neighbouring net immediately after we had released the Brown Long-eared!

It was just before 1am as I made my way back to the car, leaving Bob, Chris & Dave experimenting with the Autobat - a fascinating device that issues synthetically-made signals to lure any bats flying around to the nets. I look forward to hearing if they had any success!

You can view some video footage of the bats from this evening below:

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Heath & Reach area

On the penultimate day of May in 2006, Keith Balmer came across a Downy Emerald dragonfly at Sandhouse Lane Local Nature Reserve in Heath & Reach. The only previous Bedfordshire record had come from Heath and Reach in July 1951! Since then local dragonfly enthusiasts have made an annual pilgrimage to the area hoping for sightings during its relatively short flying period.

David, one of our Dragonfly Recorders, asked yesterday if anyone had seen them yet…which inspired me to visit a private lake in the area this morning. There I met up with Lol Carmen and we made our way to the water’s edge on the eastern shore. Having pursued a damselfly through the undergrowth, we were making our way back to the path when I suddenly noticed an empty dragonfly exuviae at the base of a clump of Soft Rush. I called to Lol that there was at least one large dragonfly species on the wing, when I suddenly noticed what was above it….

…an adult Downy Emerald! This photo was taken just after the dragonfly had opened its wings which had been closed together initially…my excuse for not seeing it straightaway! It was great to be able to confirm breeding here – soon after, the dragonfly flew into the top of a neighbouring Willow tree.

Encouraged, we made our way around the lake margin where I soon found an exuviae half-way up some emergent sedge – the Soft Rush where the first one dragonfly was seen was a good metre or more away from the lake shore!

After exploring the northern shore of the lake, we made our way back to the eastern edge, and Lol located another exuviae. As he bent down to examine it, I found another one just a metre or so away and went to pick it up….only to find it waving its legs at me!!

It had just emerged from the lake and was making its way up some Soft Rush to find a suitable location to emerge. The larvae will sometimes climb trees and emerge at the tips of twigs!

This was all happening just after midday, and we decided to stick around and watch what happened next...which didn't take long as the back of the exoskeleton split and the adult began to emerge...

Gradually, the adult squeezed himself amazing transformation….

How did he fit in there??


(The first and fifth photos are mine...the rest are Lol' can tell by the step up in quality!!)

Chandos Road, Ampthill (via Duck End Nature Reserve!)

I was excited this morning to find this moth – a Snout (for obvious reasons!) – perched in my home-made breeding tray! I had swept the larva/caterpillar from a Hawthorn tree at Duck End on 27th April and, encouraged by an e-mail from Andy & Melissa’s to the Bedfordshire Moth Group, decided to have a go at breeding it through in order to find out what it would turn in to. Having e-mailed my news to Melissa, I’ve discovered that this is the earliest ever Snout recorded from Bedfordshire…..there is a ‘but’ though, which I’ll come to…

A few days after incarcerating the larva in a tube, I had to go to Plymouth for our annual national Baptist gathering. The sprig of Hawthorn inside was already looking decidedly wilted and unfit for larval consumption so, at the last minute, I decided to pack it in my suitcase in order to give its occupant some TLC! But, having settled into the Premier Inn next to the Quay, I ended up wandering the local streets between seminars and gatherings desperately looking for a fresh sprig of Hawthorn! The only Hawthorn I could find was frustratingly out of reach hanging over the high wall of a private garden next to the Aquarium! On the Saturday, I even took a long detour back to the hotel following a seminar at the University – passing through a local park and alongside some old railway sidings – but still to no avail.

In desperation I enlisted the help of my Associate Pastor, making sure that no one was in sight, and our name badges out of sight, before hoisting him up the high wall to grab some fresh Hawthorn salad…only to find that the larva had given up waiting and gone and pupated!

And so to the ‘but’. I had to admit to Melissa that the larva and pupa had spent most of these past freezing weeks inside my study (I didn’t mention Room 79 at the Premier Inn!) and she cried ‘foul’! I should have kept it outside so, although it remains the earliest ever Snout recorded in Bedfordshire, it has to be noted that it had a bit of help. Porter, the caterpillar Bible, says that they spend 3 weeks in a pupal state, but mine was only 2 and a bit weeks, no doubt due to the controlled climate! But I still have the dubious distinction of having recorded the first Snout larva in Bedfordshire!

And there is one more thing…Melissa informs me that the foodplant is not Hawthorn, but Nettles….of which there were countless patches in Plymouth!!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

National Moth Night

Ever since 1999, one day a year has been set aside in the UK’s calendar as National Moth Night, an annual celebration of our moths and moth recording. This year it was last night and a focus on bats was also included, so a joint meeting of the Bedfordshire Moth Group and the Bedfordshire Bat Group took place in a local wood. Four moth traps and four mist nets were set up and we waited to see what would turn up.

Unfortunately, with little cloud cover, the temperature struggled to climb above 5 degrees C which obviously limited the amount of activity we were going to witness, but it was great to be out.

I spent a lot of the evening keeping an eye on one of the mist nets. Early on I had this little beauty fly past, netted it, and later presented it to an enthusiastic Melissa for identification. It turned out to be a Small White Wave, the 13th County record and only the second seen since 1986!

A few of these moths turned up – the Pale Tussock. Look at the feathery antennae on this male…forming a large area to pick up the female pheromones from hundreds of metres away if need be. It’s a big moth, but that’s not because of its diet since emerging from the cocoon, because the adults don’t feed – they leave that to the larvae who are particularly partial to various leaves including hops, being nicknamed hop dogs by hop pickers in the past!

Other species included Ochreous Pug (our 7th County record), and a number of Seraphim moths. But there was very little bat activity….until this beauty turned up:

As is often the way during these events, it’s actually the late bird that catches the worm! It was well after midnight and after most people had gone home that I found this female Natterer’s Bat hanging in the mist net that I had been keeping an eye on. I was thrilled to shine the torch and find this beauty hanging there. It’s fair to say, though, that the Bat wasn’t quite as thrilled as me, and made its familiar buzzing sound as it was being gently handled. Note the long ears with the pointed tragus inside, which is a key Natterer’s identification feature.

I found it interesting to see the commonest prey noted for this species during faecal analysis in Ireland and Scotland: dipteran flies (42.9-60.2%), caddisflies (12.7-16.1%), bees and wasps (0.0-10.7%), beetles (4.9-12.3%) and arachnids (6.8-18.1%). I had thought that moths would be well up there! It’s reckoned that most prey items are gleaned from foliage rather than caught in flight.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Stewartby Lake

I’ve only ever had brief views of Dingy Skipper so, on a morning of warm, sunny intervals, I headed for the southern shore of Stewartby Lake hoping for some more prolonged sightings…and I wasn’t disappointed:

This one was enjoying some high-energy hawthorn nectar! There’s plenty of Bird’s-foot Trefoil around for the larvae to feed on, too.

And these two were ensuring I will see more next year, which is encouraging because these delicate butterflies have been declining nationally.

I must have seen over 20 Dingy Skippers, but there were also a couple of Grizzled Skippers around. It’s not easy to get a good photo, because these delightful ADD-Skippers were pretty active and never settled for long.

At one point there seemed to be Green Hairstreaks everywhere I looked, either fluttering around or else sunbathing. Other butterflies included Orange-tip, Brimstone, Peacock and my first Small Heath of the year. I also saw my first large dragonfly of the year: a Four-spotted Chaser which paused a few metres in front of me before banking majestically over the top of the Hawthorn scrub.

Of course, I was on the lookout for Hoverflies, though I never seem to come across many in this habitat. This is one of my favourites, though: Dasysyrphus albostriatus. I had thought that the abdomen stripes differed in their angles from individual to individual….

But this Hoverfly demonstrates that each individual specimen can change the angle of those stripes!

It’s been a really good spring for Beeflies, though there are less around now. This is the only species that I’ve found in Bedfordshire: Bombylius major, with its chocolate brown marks on the leading edge of the wing. The larvae of Beeflies parasitize the grubs of various solitary bees. The female Beefly has a ‘sandtrap’ at the end of the abdomen – it coats the eggs with sand particles to make it easier for them to flick them towards the nestholes!

This is my first Soldier Beetle of the year. Think of the livery of the famous Coldstream Guards – I think that it’s the red wing-cases of one of the members that gives this family its name. This one has darker wing-cases, though. The red femora/thighs are pretty distinct and indicate that it’s Cantharis rustica. They’re said to appear in mid-May, so this one’s pretty much on-schedule!

Finally, a fossil. I’ve found a few of these Jurassic remnants in Bedfordshire over the years. They’re known as Devil’s Toenails, though I’m not sure whether people who came across them in the past really believed that the Satan has passed that way! It is a Gryphaea oyster.

The Natural History Museum website comments: ‘In Scotland, fossil Gryphaea shells are known as clach crubain , translated as 'crouching shell'. They were apparently used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to cure pain in the joints. Oakley made the interesting point that their contorted appearance is suggestive of painful joints, an example of sympathetic medicine.’

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Buff Wood, Cambridgeshire

It's just after 1am, and I'm going to hit the sack in a few minutes and dream of bats....

This evening I joined Bob, Jude & Henry at Buff Wood, several hundred metres inside the wilds of Cambridgeshire. Buff Wood is a private boulder-clay wood, managed by the Wildlife Trust, who advertise it as, 'A tranquil, sheltered ancient woodland with a spectacular array of spring flowers.' The photo above was taken about a year ago by 'Bogbumper'. Access is only permissable by permit, so we were very fortunate to be able to spend several hours undertaking a Bat survey.

After reconnoitering the woodland rides and noting plants such as Primrose, Oxlip and Herb Paris, we set up two mist nets some 120m or so apart, with Henry taking primary responsibility for 'Net 1' and Jude keeping an eye on 'Net 2', whilst Bob & I wandered between the two. The handy log pile 'seat' in the photo above just happened to be alongside Net 2, which was very useful! As dusk fell there was a chatter of activity on the bat detectors and it wasn't long before Henry's voice crackled over the intercom just after 9pm: "I've got one!" It was a Common Pipistrelle, a male. The Bat was gently and skillfully removed from the net before being released and launching itself into the darkness once more.

This was followed, soon after, by another Common Pipistrelle in Net 2, a female this time (it's not hard to tell the difference in bats!). Soon after 10pm, Bob shone the torch into the net to discover a larger bat, a male Natterer's Bat. I saw a number of these during the Hibernation Survey earlier in the year - and that was exciting enough - but nothing beats seeing them active and in the hand before flying away!

Soon after, another female Common Pip was found in Net 1, followed by a male in Net 2. This one took some untangling, but was obviously of a patient disposition, allowing Bob to gradually release him. He flew off into the darkness but, before we could catch our breath, we turned to find another female in the net, the smallest individual of the night.

5 Common Pipistrelles and a Natterer's Bat...not bad compensation for missing Man City's vital game against Spurs this evening! And the hoots of the Tawny Owls, the barking of the Muntjac, and the squealing of the Foxes just added to the wonderful atmosphere deep in the wood.