30 Days Wild – Day 3

Today I was lucky to spot a family of Great Spotted Woodpeckers that visited my garden. There were two adult birds, the parents, and also one young one, presumably recently-fledged. It surprised me that there was only the single young bird as Great Spotted Woodpeckers usually lay 4-6 eggs. I assume that either there wasn’t enough food available for all the young birds or the others had been predated just after they had fledged.

The first bird I saw was feeding on the ground, unusual for Great Spotted Woodpeckers. Great Spotted Woodpeckers mainly prefer to feed in trees unlike the Green Woodpecker which predominantly feeds on prey such as ants on the ground. It is possible that this adult was looking for the same sort of food as a Green Woodpecker would however, in order to meet the demand of its chick.

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I could see that this individual was a male, due to the red patch on the nape (the back of the head). Only adult males have this patch, it is absent in females, and is instead replaced with the same creamy-white colour as the woodpecker’s underparts. And furthermore you can easily tell a juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker by the completely red crown. Overall I think that Great Spotted Woodpeckers look very smart regardless of their age or sex. They’re one of my favourite garden birds and I look forward to seeing how this family gets on.

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30 Days Wild – Day 2

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In my garden, we have a couple of large ‘wild areas’ where we don’t do any management and just see what grows there. One is in clear light and unshaded all day, and has therefore developed into a nice mini-meadow with Common Spotted Orchids, Field Horsetail, Meadow Buttercups,Common Ragwort, Common Fleabane, Bristly Ox-tongue, thistle, Red Campion, Common Knapweed and other meadow plants and wildflowers.

On the other hand, the other is under a canopy of Oak and Birch trees and therefore does not get much light. Not many species grow here, just a bed of nearly foot-high grass. However, this grass has become home to a number of froghopper species. And at this time of year I start to see what is colloquially known as ‘cuckoo-spit’ appear on the grass stems.

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Cuckoo-spit on a grass stem

Cuckoo-spit is a white frothy liquid that is secreted by the nymphs of the froghoppers that I see in my wild area. As these nymphs secrete this spit-like liquid they have earned the name ‘spittle-bugs’. And the ‘spit’ provides a number of benefits to the developing froghopper as well:

  • It keeps it out of sight from predators/parasites
  • It has a vile taste to deter predators
  • It keeps the insect moist, without it the insect could dry up
  • It keeps the insect warm in cold conditions and cool in warm conditions.

I noticed that in some of the spit I could see small brown things inside, which I couldn’t see in other cuckoo-spit:

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In order to see what this was inside the cuckoo-spit, I very gently eased it out without damaging it too much. What I found was a froghopper nymph (spittle-bug), which is exactly what I had expected to find:

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Froghopper nymph from the cuckoo-spit

However, there was also something else within the spit. It looked to me to be the old and out-grown skin of the froghopper nymph. The nymph was clearly too large for this skin so it had pushed its way out of it, causing it to be visible from the outside. A new skin will now harden and provide some extra protection within the cuckoo-spit. Having photographed the nymph and old skin from which it emerged, I delicately returned the nymph to its spit home and I watched it burrow back inside and become hidden from the world around it.

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Froghopper nymph with its skin

30 Days Wild – Day 1

This year, for the second time, I will be taking part in 30 Days Wild, a campaign by the Wildlife Trusts to get as many people as possible doing something wild every day for 30 days in June. Last year was a great success – 1.8 million random acts of wildness were carried out!

Day 1

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This morning I went through our garden moth trap, which I haven’t been able to put out for quite a while. It was excellent to see the increase in moths as the year has progressed.  Despite good numbers of some beautiful moth species such as the Orange Footman and Scorched Wing moths, the highlight for me was probably the Cockchafer beetles that we caught.

Cockchafers are large, clumsy and widespread beetles found in woodlands and often in gardens, especially with Oak trees. They can most commonly be found during May and early June, and one of the easiest ways to find them is when they’re attracted to light. They don’t move very quickly and are quite happily handled, making them a favourite among wildlife enthusiasts due to their seemingly playful nature.

A few weeks ago I was fortunate to get a new camera, a bridge camera this time, and as I’ve not had it very long I am eager to try out all the functions. This morning I decided to try and film some stuff on it, and I was lucky to capture a Cockchafer taking off from our garden fence. And, using a simple slo-mo app on my phone I was able to slow down the take-off to 25% speed. You can view the video here:

Invasion!

There is a very long list of species that are non-native to the UK, many (if not most) are harmful to our native wildlife. I am regularly finding non-native species in my garden as well as further afield, Grey Squirrels are one such example. They were introduced to the UK nearly a century and a half ago from North America and since then they have severely affected our native species, through the severe population decline in Red Squirrels to the predation of young birds and eggs.

You might remember that last year I found several individuals of the slug Ambigolimax nyctelius. It was the first record of this non-native species in Surrey and had most likely come from the nearby garden centre. Well, a few weeks ago I found a small black slimy flatworm under one of the logs in my garden, which upon closer inspection appeared to have two pale lines running down its body. I used this character to identify it, which wasn’t as tricky as I thought it might be. There are 14 species of terrestrial flatworms in the UK, however many are really distinctive, coloured bright yellow or with distinctive head shapes.

Looking through the species in this very helpful PDF, I could see only two species that looked similar to mine: Kontikia ventrolineata and Australopacifica coxii. I originally thought it might be Australopacifica coxii however when I looked closer I could see that on my specimen the two lines were grey and not blue as is more commonly found in that species. So I concluded that my flatworm was most likely to be Kontikia ventrolineata, however as I have never identified any flatworms before I sent a couple of photos to the leading expert on flatworms, Hugh Jones. To my delight he replied and said that there was no doubt that it was indeed Kontikia ventrolineata. He also sent two distribution maps, one before my record had been added and one with my record on the map. I am very pleased to say that this is the first time Kontikia ventrolineata has been recorded in Surrey!

Ever since I found that first Kontikia ventrolineata I have been seeing more and more under logs and stumps in my garden. This isn’t very good news, as this species is believed to prey on our native small snails and possibly slugs. Therefore the flatworms will be in competition with the thrushes and the hedgehogs, reducing the amount of food for them. They might be insignificant at the moment but if the numbers keep on increasing like they have already, then they will be a major blow for the hedgehog population especially.

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Only a week after I found the first Kontikia ventrolineata I found another alien species! This time it was found in our new beetle trap which is baited with bananas. It is tub shaped with a hole in the bottom through which the beetles enter and stay until I check it a few days later. The trap was full of many different types of fruit flies and several wasps but only one beetle, which would have been disappointing if it wasn’t an interesting species.

The beetle was tiny, but identification was aided by the interesting shape and the markings. After a lot of research I was able to narrow it down to a family, Nitidulidae, and from there I eventually reached species level and identified it as Carpophilus hemipterus, also known as the Dried Fruit Beetle. Its favourite food is overripe fruit, which explains its presence in the trap. Although it is native to Asia, it has spread all around the globe on exported fruit and now inhabits all continents apart from Antarctica! map

However, looking at the NBN Gateway map for this species (above) it doesn’t appear very common but seems widespread, at least in England. The NBN Gateway doesn’t always show all of the records of a species on the map, so I don’t know if this might be the first record for this species in Surrey outside of London, however it certainly isn’t common!

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Carpophilus hemipterus. Not the best photo: the beetle was really tiny!

1 Garden, 24 Hours, 184 species!

…and counting! Last Sunday, the 5th, I took part in the Garden Bioblitz for the first time. The aim of a bioblitz is to record every species you find in an area within a period of time. For the Garden Bioblitz, you record every species you find in your garden during a 24 hour period.

To begin my Garden Bioblitz I looked through the moth trap from the previous night. There was a very wide range of species, including 23 that were new to me. The highlights were:

  • Great Oak Beauty – annual in Domewood, but Nationally Scarce B (NB).
  • Cacao Moth – usually found indoors in stores of products such as nuts, almonds, tobacco and cacao. I’ll be checking my muesli from now on…
  • Scorched Wing – a beautiful moth which is also classed as Local. There were 8 in the trap.
  • Peach Blossom – a great moth with a great name although quite common.
  • Cypress Carpet – quite an uncommon moth, which arrived in Britain through its host plant, cypress. There are lots of Lawson Cypress trees in the garden which probably explains its occurrence here.
  • Diamond-back Moth – for some reason, I rarely see immigrant moths. The Diamond-back Moth is only the third immigrant moth I’ve recorded. I recorded it for the first time during the last weekend of May, but there were 29 in the trap!

I also caught a very interesting beetle that had a very pungent smell. I thought it was a sexton beetle and I was right. However, I wasn’t too sure which species it was. It was all black and luckily there are only two all-black species in the British Isles: Necrodes littoralis (the Shore Sexton Beetle) and Nicrophorus humator (the Black Sexton Beetle). It turned out to be the Shore Sexton Beetle due to the antennal clubs not being brushes as in the Black Sexton Beetle. Thanks to Chris Brooks on iSpot for the identification. Sexton beetles are interesting because they feed on dead animals. If the dead animal is small then they will bury it to keep other scavengers from taking it. They do this by excavating the soil under the body so that the dead animal sinks into the ground. The adults lay eggs nearby and when the larvae hatch they crawl to the dead animal to feed and even be fed by the adult. Even though this beetle was caught in the moth trap there isn’t necessarily a dead animal nearby as they can fly quite long distances in order to find their food.

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After I had finished looking through the moth trap, I walked around the garden listing all the wild plants. Before I added the plants I already had a list of almost 70 and there was still lots to identify! Other non-moth highlights included a Canada Goose flock flying over and the first Grey Heron I have seen fly over the garden in more than a year. After I finished off the plants I had breakfast, meaning that I had a list of 130 before breakfast. Things were going well!

It wasn’t just plants that I added to my list on the walk around the garden. It was quite early but there were still some insects on the wing, including Rose Sawflies, Speckled Wood butterflies, Large White butterflies and various bees. I was even lucky to see the young fox that has been hanging around the garden for the past few weeks. It is not that shy, here is the photo I took when I first spotted it:

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After breakfast I looked under the logs and stumps in my garden. As always, they were brimming with slugs, beetles, woodlice and other creatures. The most common ground beetle was Agonum emarginatum, a species usually associated with damp habitats near freshwater. This makes sense as most of the stumps were near our tiny pond. The list of slug species was quite good too: Budapest Slug, Leopard Slug, Yellow Slug, Dusky Slug, Greenhouse Slug and Ambigolimax nyctelius, the species I found new to Surrey last year. When I first found it I had to send it off to Wales to get the genitalia looked at, but this confirmed the scientist’s suspicions that there were slight morphological differences between Ambigolimax nyctelius and the Greenhouse Slug. In my experience, Ambigolimax nyctelius is more boldly marked than the Greenhouse Slug.

Finally, the highlight of my bioblitz was finding an amazing fly species that I have been looking for in my garden since Tony Davis told me that it was likely to appear here. It’s not rare or scarce, but it is impressive. It is a species of hoverfly that mimics bees. It has many different forms that each mimic different bee species. It’s called the Narcissus Bulb Fly or the Greater Bulb Fly and it’s eggs are laid in bulbs of various species such as garden daffodils. I found a mating pair on a Bulbous Buttercup, perhaps the plant that the eggs were about to be laid in? The male seemed to be an Early Bumblebee mimic:

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However, I’m not sure which species the female was impersonating:

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It seemed to be all black except for the last 4 or 5 abdominal segments, which were off-white.

So, I’m currently on 184 species and hope to identify a few more for my bioblitz list.

 

Some interesting Blackbird behaviour

There has been some drama happening with our Blackbirds this year. Before exactly a month ago, we had a regular pair of Blackbirds that inhabited our garden and regularly visited the space under our feeders. We could tell this pair from the other Blackbirds as both were ringed earlier in the year. They had built a nest in the middle of March, which had 3 eggs in by the time I left on holiday to South Africa. When I returned the eggs should have been at the nestling stage, but the nest was empty.

On the 1st of May I noticed 4 male Blackbirds chasing each other around the garden pursued by a female. They disappeared out of view until a few hours later I spotted a male singing in the tallest Oak that I can see from my bedroom window, which leans over into our garden from our neighbour’s. It wasn’t ringed.

A few days later something I wasn’t expecting appeared below our feeders. A juvenile Blackbird. There was still no sign of the original pair, so this one must have been brought in by the currently dominant pair. But why only one? I think that as this is still quite early in the year, the parents might not have been able to find enough food for all 3 or 4 of their chicks, especially considering the strange weather we have been having. I will keep watching the Blackbirds to see if the ringed pair re-appear.

From what I have researched about Blackbird territories, I think that my garden must be quite a good habitat for them. The RSPB say that they are solitary birds, but “Small feeding and roosting aggregation sometimes form at good sites”. We have around six Blackbirds in our garden throughout the year and more in the winter when migrants from the mainland come in. There currently seem to be 3 pairs and therefore 3 territories in our garden, one in the front garden, one in the front half of our back garden and one at the back of our back garden. The size of these territories seems quite small for Blackbirds, so there must be good concentration of food. Inevitably, there have been squabbles from time to time.

I will continue to watch these Blackbirds. Who knows what interesting behaviour I could see next or will I locate the ringed pair?

 

 

 

 

The spider on my wheelbarrow

When I was five or six, I used to play with a small green and yellow wheelbarrow, ‘helping’ my dad transport sticks to the compost heap. It has been sitting outside the garage on a bit of patio since then, contributing nothing except a few algae species that have accumulated at the bottom. However, on Sunday, I had a big surprise.

On Sunday I went out for a complete circuit of my garden and my first stop was the dry bit of patio where the wheelbarrow was. Except for the Tree Bumblebee nest in the wall and the Procumbent Pearlwort growing out of a crack, there wasn’t much else. That was until I bent down to look at a small spider running across the patio – Salticus scenicus. Not a new species for me nor anything rare but the first for me in the garden this year.

Turning around to get up I noticed another spider, even smaller, running intermittently along the yellow handle of the wheelbarrow. I got up and moved into a better position to see the spider and it paused, allowing me to get a few quick photos. I was doubting the fact that it could be identified so I didn’t try until that evening, when I put it on iSpot. Soon enough, to my surprise, I had an identification!

Steve Gregory, one of the invertebrate experts on iSpot had added an identification to my observation: Bianor aurocinctus. He wasn’t certain as it was quite a rare species, he said, although he added in the comments section that he didn’t think there were any similar species. Looking on the NBN Gateway I think he is right that it is quite rare. The Gateway doesn’t hold all the records but the Bianor aurocinctus records on it at the moment are mostly along the River Thames with a few scattered records in central England and east Wales.

The most striking and distinctive feature of this spider are its swollen, hairy front legs. I’m not too certain about the purpose of these legs, but I am assuming that they are used in attracting a mate. They are definitely useful in identification though! Despite being so rare, this spider doesn’t show much of a habitat preference. All it needs is a dry area, so our patio is perfect. However, it is more often found on short vegetation, which there is none of on our patio, in sand and chalk quarries. Sites such as Portland Bill are perfect for it. It has only been recorded in 38 hectads (10km x 10km squares) since 1992 and is Na (Nationally scarce A).

I’m excited to find out what other rare species are hiding in the unlikely corners of my garden over the coming summer…

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