Orchid on the Hill

The Early Spider-orchids Ophrys sphegodes at Castle Hill NNR have one of the best views of the South Downs as well as Brighton to their south-west. On the northern edge of Woodingdean, a chalk grassland slope supports this nationally scarce species, which has only a scattered distribution along the South Coast from Dorset to Kent.

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This orchid is named after its appearance, with its flowers apparently resembling the abdomen of orb-weaver spiders. However, its flower shape has evolved so that it resembles bees, which come to try and mate with the flower, known as pseudo-copulation. This is also the case in the perhaps more appropriately named Bee Orchid for example. To complement the shape of the flower, these orchids also release the scent of female bees which further entices the male bees to unknowingly pollinate the plants.

However this technique may show to be detrimental towards the success of the species in the face of climate change. Despite the strength and accuracy of the scents wafted by the flower, they cannot compete with actual female bees. Therefore, the plants most likely to pollinate and reproduce successfully are those which blossom after the male bee has emerged although before the females. Although sadly warmer spring temperatures are pushing the phenology (life cycles) of these two species out of sync.

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It is also interesting to observe the variation in the exquisite patterns shown on different individual flowers, such as these:

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Travelling to find these orchids (a new plant for me) was a perfect break from revision. Despite their rarity, there are several reliable sites such as Durlston Country Park and Dancing Ledge in Dorset, Samphire Hoe in Kent and of course where I visited today, Castle Hill NNR in East Sussex. I would definitely recommend looking for them before they stop flowering in early June!

 

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Mid-March Moth Madness

After a snowy delay, last weekend it seemed like spring had finally sprung and temperatures rose into double figures. Looking at the forecast for this weekend and into next week however, it looks like the wintry weather will return once again which is very odd for this time of year. I’m usually a fan of a bit of snow, but only at the appropriate times of year. So I decided to write this blog post to try and keep my spring feeling going for as long as possible, before the snow showers begin to move in from the east again.

Saturday night was the first time I have put my moth trap out this year. In previous years I have been a little more keen, with very little reward and sometimes even null counts at this early stage in spring, so I decided to hold it off until now. And with the Beast from the East only about a week gone, my hopes were not particularly high. Although I was in for a surprise.

Most of the time, I just leave my trap out for the whole night and check it in the morning. However, on the off-chance of something notable (or anything at all!) being in there, I decided to look down from my bedroom window just an hour or so after switching on the light. To my surprise I saw what seemed to be an Oak Beauty already within the trap, so I rushed down to check if there was much else about.

To my immense surprise, there were at least 20 moths flying around the trap and on the nearby house wall. Most were March Moths as well as several more Oak Beauties, along with a couple of Tortricodes alternella and a Common Quaker. Already we had recorded around twice as many moths as I usually get in an early-spring night!

I was more than keen to check the trap the following morning. Unsurprisingly, there were moths everywhere, with the final tally being 55! I would be happy with that in May or September, let alone the first half of March! I will run through a few of the stand out highlights:

Small Brindled Beauty

This was the rarest moth that I caught last night, and the second time I’ve caught this species, the previous occasion being early March last year. It is most common in southern England, becoming rarer further north although classified as ‘local’ – found in less than 300 sites nationally. The females of this species are one of many winter and spring species that are apterous – lacking wings. The females of many of these apterous species seem completely unlike most moths to me, although I’m yet to find one myself.

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Small Brindled Beauty

Dotted Border

This species is unique among the early spring moths as it is one of the few Geometrid moths out at this time of year. In my experience it is usually the Noctuids (such as the Clouded Drabs, Hebrew Characters and the Quaker species) that are the most commonly trapped, although the most abundant species caught during this night were the 18 Oak Beauties which is a slightly unusual Geometrid species. The Geometrids can be distinguished by the way they hold their wings; most Geometrids hold their wings out to the side whereas most Noctuids fold their wings over their abdomen.

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Dotted Border

This species can usually be identified by the row of dots running along the bottom of the wing which you can see in the photo above. However, it is a variable species throughout its distribution and there are forms which are very dark making the row of dots (the dotted border) very hard to see.

Clouded Drab

This species is quite common especially where its foodplant Oak is plentiful although, despite its name, it is can be really nicely patterned. It is another species that is really variable, with many colour forms. We caught three, one of them in particularly was particularly good-looking, with its pattern enhanced by the flash on my camera.

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Clouded Drab

Hopefully the upcoming cold snap will be the last of the winter, and spring will be allowed to continue unabated. I look forward to moth trapping further once it warms up again, hopefully we’ll continue with some good numbers!

Final Tally

  • Common Quaker 3
  • March Moth 9
  • Oak Beauty 18
  • Hebrew Character 4
  • Tortricodes alternella 2
  • Small Brindled Beauty 1
  • Dotted Border 5
  • Clouded Drab 3
  • Small Quaker 8
  • Chestnut 1
  • Brindled Pug 1

 

Eastbourne Strikes Twice

This morning, after struggling through incredibly thick mud, I reached a huddle of birders all looking at a small Robin-sized bird with a faint blue crescent on its breast feeding on the edge of a large reedbed. It was a male Bluethroat, a fantastic record for the time of year and for Sussex.

The bird was first seen last Sunday at West Rise Marsh in Eastbourne and identified from photos on Tuesday. Luckily it stayed around and has since allowed many Sussex and national birders to see it although it has been elusive. Unusually for me, it was not as elusive when I went to see it as I immediately had it in my binocular view after arriving. Much better than standing around for hours in the biting wind which some birders have had to do over the past week!

It appears to be a White-spotted Bluethroat, one of two subspecies of Bluethroat that have been recorded in the UK. It seems to be the less frequent subspecies, with the Red-spotted Bluethroat being the other that sometimes reaches our shores. Due to the difference in latitude of the two subspecies’ breeding ground, they typically arrive at different times of year. The White-spotted is most commonly found in late March and April whereas the Red-spotted is more likely to be found in May. Although White-spotted is the earlier arriver, it is more likely that this bird has been wintering in the UK, rather than having overshot its breeding grounds on its spring migration.

Occasions of Bluethroats wintering in the UK are occasionally recorded, for example last year a bird was found in February in Lincolnshire which remained until the end of March. Presumably it then attempted to migrate to where it thinks its breeding grounds are. It will be interesting to see if this Eastbourne bird stays much longer and whether it tries to set up a territory here or flies elsewhere to breed.

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Fantastically, this is not the first Sussex rarity that Eastbourne has had to offer this winter. Black Guillemots, although they breed on remote islands in the north of England, are even rarer in Sussex than Bluethroats, so for one to turn up in Eastbourne’s Sovereign Harbour was quite special. It has been present since late November, although I waited until the New Year before going along to see it. It’s a wonderfully confiding bird in a great setting!

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Pan-species Listing: Top 15 New Species of 2017

2017 has been another fantastic year for me with regards to pan-species listing. I am pleased that I am continuing to add species even throughout the quieter months and although I am sure to slow down sooner or later as the number of species I can add is not infinite, I am still yet to break my steady stride. I have managed to delve into groups I haven’t tackled before such as lacewings and springtails. In this blog post I will list my favourite species added to my Pan-species List in 2017, out of about 700 added this year. If I have written a separate blog post about that particular species, the species name is hyperlinked to that post.

15. Marsh Frog

Adding new non-bird vertebrates is not easy, and so it was great to see several Marsh Frogs on a mid-June day at the nearby Warnham Local Nature Reserve. Although they’re non-native, they come in many different shades of bright green and so are much more attractive than the Common frogs!

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A couple of Marsh Frogs on the edge of a pool in the summer sunshine

14. Purple Toothwort

Plants are more regular pan-species listing additions for me, and although I’m still getting to grips with their huge diversity I have found that attending some Sussex Botanical Recording Society meetings throughout the year has been really helpful. This plant however was found in March, one of my earliest plant additions of the year, at Wakehurst Place. It’s one of several really fascinating plant species in the UK which lack chlorophyll to photosynthesise and therefore gain their nutrients directly from other nearby plants!

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A patch of the bizarre leaf-less Purple Toothwort, one of many found at Wakehurst Place

13. Waxwing

The winter of 2016/17 was one of the much hoped-for Waxwing ‘invasion’ years, and therefore it would be rude not to see some! The first flock I saw comprised over 30 birds, which is an amazing number for so far south in the UK. It was at a typical setting, an industrial estate! Waxwings often prefer these habitats because of the wealth of berry-producing bushes that grow there. I also saw a couple more later in the year, feeding in a Davidia (Paper Handkerchief) tree at Wakehurst Place, the fruits of which are large and kiwi-like. Very weird food for Waxwings!

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A Waxwing at Wakehurst Place, among the Davidia fruits.

12. Vestal

I have been moth-trapping in my garden for a few years, yet save for many Diamond-back Moths I hadn’t caught any migrants in my trap. Autumn presented a window of favourable air-flow from southern Europe and North Africa, which seemed likely to bring decent numbers of migrant moths to our shores. I put my trap out with anticipation on a couple of occasions that week, and on the second I caught exactly what I had been hoping for: 3 Vestals!

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One of the Vestals on the wall by the moth trap. They’re not the most attractive of moths but I was really pleased to see them!

11. Stemonitopsis typhina

I have very few slime-moulds on my list like this one, partly because they’re so tricky to identify. However this species, which I came across during a Sussex Fungus Group outing, was a great excuse to research their fascinating life cycle.

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10. Wryneck

In September, I was really lucky to be able to venture up to Spurn Bird Observatory in Yorkshire for the annual Migration Festival. Spurn is undoubtedly one of the major sites for rare birds in England and even quite early on in the vagrant season I managed to see brilliant birds such as Long-billed Dowitcher, Barred Warbler, Long-tailed Skua, Short-eared Owl, Caspian Gull, Roseate Tern, Black Tern, Little Stint, Little Gull, and one of my highlights, a Wryneck. This bird showed beautifully well, feeding on the cliff edge near the Sandy Beaches caravan site. It was so great to watch that I visited the bird three times over the weekend to take in the marvellously intricate plumage.

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Wryneck, taking a break from feeding on ants on the cliffside vegetation.

9. Cut-grass

This rather unassuming rare species of wetland grass has a deadly secret! Its blades are exactly that, as sharp as a knife. I didn’t want to test the sharpness on the Sussex Botanical Recording Society outing to Amberley Wildbrooks on which we saw it, however the blades are apparently able to slice through human skin thanks to the minute stiff hairs along the edges!

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Cut-grass: blades of steel

8. Devil’s Fingers

I’m sure that many people who are lucky to come across a Devil’s Fingers fungus by accident will not be certain that this intriguing organism is natural at all. It bears resemblance to an octopus that had been stuck into the ground upside down, with only its red tentacles emerging from the soil. Furthermore, the tentacles seem to have begun to decompose, with a foul-smelling covering of dark brown goo attracting flies that disperse the fungus’ spores.

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The Devil’s Fingers fungus that we came across on a Sussex Botanical Recording Society meeting at Chailey Common.

7. Green-winged Orchid

Orchids are surprisingly one of the groups that I haven’t seen many of. During the course of the year I added a few species, no rarities unless you count the Greater Tongue-orchids of dubious origin at Wakehurst Place. The Green-winged Orchid was my first orchid species of the year, at Danehill Churchyard. It was great to see the orchids with the nice church in the background, yet I think that the lawn where they were growing was scheduled for mowing. I didn’t have a chance to revisit to check if they were left alone or not, however hopefully they did have the opportunity to flower a little longer.

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A dark-purple Green-winged Orchid in front of Danehill Church. There were also light pink varieties present.

6. Beewolf

One of the highlights of my summer holiday was a two-day course led by Steven Falk on solitary bee identification at the fantastic Rye Harbour Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve. Of course, although we identified huge numbers of solitary bees, it wasn’t all about them on the weekend. We also came across a large wasp known as the Bee Wolf, which is the invertebrate equivalent of the wild canine. Females will catch adult Honey Bees and bring them back to their nest hole, where they will place the bees in a chamber. It’s within this chamber that the young Beewolf develops. At Rye Harbour, we were lucky to watch Beewolves excavating their nest holes and bringing Honey Bees into the chambers.

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5. Queen-of-Spain Fritillary

Birds are the group of organisms most likely to be associated with the word ‘vagrant’. However, during the summer a fortunate lepidopterist found no less than three Queen-of-Spain Fritillaries on his transect near Peacehaven, a species that is unable to breed in the UK as they can’t survive the cold winters. They are therefore very rare summer visitors at best. I am very grateful to the farmer Colin Appleton for allowing lots of keen naturalists onto his land to watch these three regal butterflies ‘lekking’ around a bonfire. Although they apparently travel in groups, explaining why three arrived at once, they are very territorial and the bonfire was the central spot for their territorial disputes, like a boxing ring.

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One of the Queen-of-Spain Fritillaries basking in the sun near the bonfire.

4. Moon Carrot

This wonderfully named plant is not very distinctive, looking very similar to more common umbelliferous plants such as hogweed, yet it’s rare nationally. To make up for its likeness to the other members of its family, it has chosen a spectacular site at which to grow. What seems to be the only modern site for this species in Sussex is the cliffs at Seaford, near the Cuckmere. Some individual plants grow right on the cliff-edge, and look marvellous with the Seven Sisters cliffs in the background. They’ve even made the cover of the new Flora of Sussex!

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The Moon Carrot is so-called as it apparently glows in the moonlight!

3. Wood Warbler

I loved listening to a male Wood Warbler sing its heart out at an undisclosed site in Sussex this year, although it was quite a sad experience. This was the first Wood Warbler on territory for 3 years in Sussex, a county where it once used to be a regular breeder. The energy the warbler put into its song was incredible, for weeks it would sing as loud as it could non-stop while hopping tirelessly from tree to tree. Yet due to the species’ rare status in Sussex these days, there was never a female to respond.

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A brief pause from what must be absolutely exhausting for the Wood Warbler

2. Lesser Glow-worm

Of all the species included in this top-15 blog post, this one is my most recent find. In fact it was just before Christmas that I found a beetle larva beneath a log at Hedgecourt NR. I sent it to Max Barclay, the beetle curator at NHM London asking what it could be as I was stuck. I had only managed to find one possibility, Phosphaenus hemipterus or the Lesser Glow-worm, however I doubted it was that as it is the rarest of all the glow-worms found in the UK. As far as I know there is only one known modern-day colony in the whole of the country, at a site in Hampshire. To my surprise Max kindly replied saying that he did think it was indeed a Lesser Glow-worm, and he had even received confirmation from another expert on glow-worms! Now we’re just waiting to hear back from some specialists in the Czech Republic before we can be 100% certain, yet it certainly seems highly likely I’ve found quite a rarity!

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Despite a thorough search of around 20 logs a few days later, I was unable to find another larva.

1. Wart-biter

At number one, the Wart-biter must be one of my favourite finds from this year. It’s a massive, elusive bush-cricket that’s hard to find at only 5 known modern-day sites in the UK. I visited one of those sites, Mount Caburn on the South Downs, with the Amateur Entomologists’ Society in August specifically to look for this species. The easiest way to find them is to listen for the stridulation (singing), however they only stridulate on warm, calm days and there was a heavy band of rain moving in. I decided to use the highly sophisticated technique of walking around and hoping to chance upon one and it worked! A female jumped from my feet as I was walking, to land in a perfect position for all of the attendees of the field meeting to get an excellent view.

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The Wart-biter gets its name from the old Swedish method of getting rid of warts: allowing this cricket to bite them off!

There concludes my top-15 pan-species listing additions of 2017. It was very hard to condense all the brilliant finds into just my 15 favourites, this blog post could easily be 10,000 words long.

 

 

Flower of the Illyrians

Yesterday, 2nd September, was the final field meeting of the year for the Sussex Botanical Recording Society at Chailey Common. Chailey Common is a good example of where conservation grazing has been put into place, in order to keep dominant vegetation to a level that won’t swamp more precious flora. Sheep, ponies and cattle are rotated around the commons in order to control plants such as birch, gorse and bramble that will degrade the quality of the heathland habitat if they get out of control.

It was great to see how this conservation grazing was working. It allows smaller and more fragile wildflowers to grow as well as others that may have been at risk from habitat loss. We recorded a good number of scarce and interesting plants, including Heath Milkwort, Scented Agrimony and Lesser Skullcap.

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Scented Agrimony, with subtly notched petals distinctive of this species.

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A flower of Heath Milkwort, so-called as farmers thought that allowing their cattle to feed on this plant would increase milk yields.

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The minuscule flower of Lesser Skullcap.

However there was one stand-out highlight, and that was a small patch of Marsh Gentians. Gentians are often a favourite of photographers as they have a photogenic beauty. I am not a photographer, but I did try my best with the following shots.

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The Marsh Gentian is quite a locally distributed plant, growing on wet heathlands rather than marshes. It does benefit from grazing, which is perhaps why some of its main strongholds are places like the New Forest and Ashdown Forest.

It is one of a number of Gentian species in the UK, in the genus Gentiana, including Autumn Gentian and Field Gentian. On a global scale it is cosmopolitan, with around 400 species; and some species are known to have been used in herbal medicines for quite a variety of ailments. These range from cancer to malaria to parasitic worms, however studies have been conducted that don’t prove that it has any benefits beyond a placebo effect! Despite this, the genus name Gentiana is in honour of the Illyrian king Gentius, who supposedly discovered the plant’s tonic qualities. What it is definitely known to be good for however, is as a dye, especially the Marsh Gentian.

 

Marsh Gentian is my 500th British plant and although summer is now over and most flowering plants are past their peak, there are still late summer and autumn species in bloom. Some of these I hope to see over the next few weeks!

 

 

 

Royalty visits Peacehaven

Across the country there are loads of lepidopterists who walk transects across pieces of land to record all the butterflies present at these locations. We have them to thank for a wealth of data on the distribution and statuses of the UK’s butterfly fauna but also for a number of interesting sightings. An example of the latter was an incredible sighting of no less than 3 male Queen of Spain Fritillaries lekking around a bonfire on a farm on the edge of Peacehaven, near Piddinghoe!

These exotic butterflies were first seen on the Saturday (26 August) by Dave Harris on his transect. It’s private land, however I am incredibly grateful to the farmer Colin Appleton for allowing access, as I was able to visit the site yesterday (29th).

Upon arrival at the location we could immediately tell that this was the place! There were quite a few naturalists spread out across the narrow meadow, searching for the fritillaries. It was about 2.15pm and they had not been seen since 12.45 – which was worrying – however there were still many other nice butterflies to look at while we searched.

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Clouded Yellow – also a migrant butterfly however significantly more common!

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Small Copper

Eventually, 30 minutes after arrival (not too bad considering we could have been waiting for a lot longer!), the keen eyes of Amy Robjohns spotted one fly in and land on the ground. It proceeded to sun itself for the next minute or so before moving to a separate patch of dry earth for a little while longer. Just the one – and it appeared to be much more elusive than on previous days. I would be surprised if any are seen again after today’s forecast bad weather.

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The fritillary sunning itself

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The only photo I got that shows the large white spots on the underside of the wings, characteristic of this species.

It may seem odd that 3 were seen at this same site together, for such a rare migrant. However, they are known to travel in groups, like some birds. However, once they had arrived at the farm, they turned hostile against each other, and used the aforementioned bonfire as a lekking site. Here they would fight against each other, and even drive away innocent butterflies of other species such as the Clouded Yellows and the Common Blues. A lek is used to attract the attention of females and for the females to choose a mate. No females have been seen (yet), however they are more elusive, so perhaps we could be seeing another generation of these exotic butterflies sometime soon.

The Wild Wolves of Sussex

Last weekend, 1-2 July, I was fortunate enough to be attending a two-day bee workshop led by pollinator expert Steven Falk at the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve near Rye in East Sussex. Throughout the weekend we were blessed by an incredible diversity of solitary and social bee species alike, with around 50 species of the Apoidea being found during the weekend.

However, one species that caught my eye wasn’t in fact a bee. Covering the sandy paths at some points were a multitude of wolves, excavating burrows and looking for their next meal. They prowled along the tracks and up the sandy slopes, concentrating their efforts on the path-side bramble bushes. This is where their prey is most often found feeding, unaware of the wolves sneaking up behind them until they latch on with a relentless bear-hug.

Of course, the wolves I’m talking about aren’t the canids that roam remote areas of Eurasia and North America. Just as fierce, however slightly smaller, are Bee Wolves, Philanthus triangulum. Bee Wolves are the largest solitary wasp in Britain and they need to be in order to tackle their favoured prey: honey bees.

Bee Wolves used to be not only the largest but also the rarest solitary wasp in Britain. However, since a couple of decades ago, their population has been on the increase and they’ve spread to a number of new sites. Their numbers are not as large now as they were a few years ago, however there are still more about than there were 25 years ago. It’s great that these fascinating insects are more widespread now as they’re incredible to watch.

They weren’t too scared of humans at all, in fact we were able to watch with such proximity that on a couple of occasions one actually landed on Chris Glanfield’s phone while he was trying to take a photo!

Being solitary wasps, they each dig their own long burrow. These burrows contain many small chambers, as many as 30, each containing several bees. In each chamber an egg is laid, and when it hatches the larva feeds upon the bees inside the chamber before emerging as an adult Bee Wolf. The bees are not dead but paralyzed as it helps them to keep fresh and juicy for the developing larva.

We were lucky to be able to watch several wasps excavating and entering their burrows as well as carrying their prey around. This was the first time I had ever seen a bee wolf and I’m hoping I get another opportunity to watch them before too long!

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An adult Bee Wolf on the path

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a Bee Wolf outside a burrow it has only just started to excavate

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A Bee Wolf proudly outside an unfinished burrow I watched her excavate in only about 10 minutes!

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Adult Bee Wolf

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Bee Wolf