Sri Lanka 2017 Part 2: Kandy & Nuwara Eliya

Kandy is a major Sri Lankan city, known for its tea and also the Temple of the Tooth, one of the most sacred locations for Buddhists. Located in the intermediate zone, between the dry zone and the wet zone, the climate is akin to that of a rainforest. We were staying just outside of the city, at the Tree of Life hotel. All around us was rainforest.

We could tell that the area was going to be great for birdlife on the first afternoon of our stay there. Just walking a little distance from my room, I encountered a bird wave, or more formally a mixed-species foraging flock, that was moving through the hotel gardens. Bird waves often occur during the heat of the day when the flocks result in a higher feeding efficiency. Another reason for these flocks is the increase in the number of pairs of eyes, which makes spotting predators easier.

Usually flocks form around a particular species that initiates it, the so called ‘nuclear species’ and these are usually the centre of the flock and keep its form. Often these are babblers as their obvious vocalisations probably draw in birds from the surrounding area. However, in this flock there did not seem to be a ‘nuclear species’ but more or less equal numbers of each participating species.

As we had just left the dry zone and this was our first stay in the intermediate or wet zones, the birdlife was markedly different. Within the feeding flock we came across our first Jerdon’s Leafbirds, Golden-fronted Leafbirds, Sri Lanka Woodpigeons and Great Tits of the trip. The latter may not sound very exciting however it was distinctly paler than the Great Tits we get back in the UK,  and is treated by a lot of authorities as a separate species, the Cinereous Tit (Parus cinereus).

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Sri Lanka Woodpigeon

The highlight of my stay in Kandy was the session we spent in the hotel gardens during the evening, past nightfall. The hotel gardens are one of the best places to see the Giant Flying Squirrels, a species I was not expecting to see before going on this trip. Giant Flying Squirrels are mainly nocturnal animals, which have to travel from where they spend the day to where they feed at night. For the squirrels here this means crossing a road. However, they don’t do so on foot.

As it got darker, we waited on the road and scanned the canopy with our torches. Despite the tour group being unlucky last year, it wasn’t long until we spotted the eyeshine from the first flying squirrel. We watched it run along the branch right to the edge where it waited and assessed the situation. Soon it simply jumped into the air, splayed open its legs and glided into the trees on the other side of the road. Wow!

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Nuwara Eliya, the coolest town in Sri Lanka, was our next stop on our Sri Lankan tour. The town has a climate very similar to the UK’s, which made it popular with British pioneers looking for a taste of the country they came from. This has influenced several aspects of the town, especially the architecture. This town was very different to every other town we visited or passed through on our journey.

Sitting at quite an altitude, overlooked by Pidurutalagala, the highest mountain in Sri Lanka, its surroundings host lots of special birdlife including some species found solely in the Sri Lankan high hills. During our stay in the town, the first site we visited was Hakgala Botanical Gardens. The gardens were surprisingly good for wildlife, considering that it’s a very popular place for schoolchildren to play in at that time of day, once classes had finished. One of the highlights was the ‘Bear Monkeys’ – a speciality of the area.

Bear Monkeys are a subspecies of the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey, a Sri Lankan endemic. This subspecies was given the name ‘Bear Monkey’ due to their long shaggy coat which keeps them warm in this chilly climate.

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The following day we were out very early for our trip to Horton Plains, the main reason we were staying at Nuwara Eliya. Upon arrival at the national park, the only one in Sri Lanka where you can walk freely and don’t have to stay in a vehicle, we split into two groups. I chose the slower paced group as I thought that it would give me a greater chance of seeing more birds, and I was right!

I had two main targets for this walk, the Sri Lanka Bush Warbler and the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. I hadn’t very high hopes for the Whistling Thrush as its a very elusive species that usually only shows itself in the open at dusk or dawn, and by the time we had arrived at the park it was a bit too late in the day.

However, we did have luck with the other target, as not long after we set off I heard a short, clear call coming from the dry, scrubby montane forest. A small brown bird hopped into my view, only metres away, and began hopping around on a bank right next to the path. It was highly mobile and in deep cover, but it was a great sighting, especially after another Sri Lanka Bush Warbler joined it.

At one point along the walk, I stopped by a stream and waited a little while to see what turned up. This is the favourite habitat of the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, which nests in stream banks and patrols the streams to look for food. Although I predictably had no luck with the thrush, I did sense a movement behind me. I looked around to see, on a log barely a few feet away, a small dark squirrel hopping along. There are several species of squirrel in Sri Lanka, ranging in size from the Grizzled Giant Squirrel, about the size of a monkey, to this, the Dusky Striped Squirrel. An uncommon species, Horton Plains is one of the best places to see it.

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Now that we had explored the mid- and high-hills, we then headed back down into the lowlands. Next stop: Yala NP.

A few other photo-highlights from our stay in the hills:

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Sri Lanka 2017 Part 1: Sigiriya

A few weeks ago I was embarking on a trip I had been looking forward to for quite a while. I was heading on a fortnight-long Naturetrek tour around Sri Lanka with a focus on the nation’s fantastic mammals and vast array of endemic birds. After an afternoon and a morning of familiarising myself with the birdlife around the Airport Hotel gardens, the tour formally began and we were setting off on the long drive from Colombo to Sigiriya.

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A White-breasted Waterhen with a chick, seen at the pond in the hotel gardens.

During our stay in Sigiriya we were based at Hotel Sigiriya, near Sigiriya Rock. On two of the three days we resided here we would do an early morning bird walk in the area around the hotel, including a lotus-filled lake next to the rock itself. It was here where most of the birds were, including Grey-headed Fish-eagle, Black-headed Cuckooshrike and Jungle Prinia.

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Jungle Prinia

However, I think that the highlight of this area was this beautiful bird:

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Sri Lanka Junglefowl

The reason that the photo isn’t excellent is because there was poor light in the strip of waste-ground between the tiny local market and the dry scrub next to it – a favoured site of the Sri Lanka Junglefowl.

Sri Lanka Junglefowl is the national bird of Sri Lanka and as the name suggests, it is an endemic. This means that its global distribution is limited to Sri Lanka. It is one of four species of Junglefowl and one, the Red Junglefowl which is very similar in appearance, is likely to be the ancestor of domestic chickens.

On the second day of the tour, we visited the nearby Minneriya NP. This park is famous for its large gatherings of wildlife and especially elephants. These elephants come from all around to drink at the huge tank at the centre of the park, however they sometimes have a little trouble getting there.

We were taken around the park in Jeeps, and I was surprised at the number of vehicles within the park at one time. Although it was great to see all the elephants congregating in such large numbers (often up to 300), it was hard not to notice that the elephants were getting a little hindered by all the vehicles that would suddenly rush to where the elephants were leaving the forest to go and drink. Although they must be used to the numbers of vehicles, a couple of times their route to the tank was blocked by Jeeps. Once, an elephant got quite aggravated and rammed into a Jeep, damaging the vehicle and pushing it many metres away. I personally think that limiting the number of Jeeps entering the park per day might be a good idea, perhaps by making pre-booking compulsory, however I understand that the logistics behind this must be complicated.

Otherwise, the birding was excellent especially around the quieter sections of the tank. Huge numbers of Painted Storks, Spot-billed Pelicans and Spoonbills congregated around the edge, with a Lesser Adjutant mixed-in and loads of Black-winged Stilts a bit more spread-out. Other waders were also present with species including Kentish Plover and the bizarre-looking Great Thick-knee. Meanwhile, on the open grasslands of the park it was enjoyable to watch and listen to the display flight of Oriental Skylarks, and to see the Paddyfield Pipits attending to their nests.

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A small group of Painted Storks. There was a huge group just behind these ones!

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The Paddyfield Pipits would often allow close approach in the Jeeps

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We came across a number of Indian Peacocks and Peahens in the park, the first of the trip.

The following day, after a morning of birding around the hotel, we had lunch at a great local restaurant on the banks of a small river. Immediately after our arrival, the chefs threw some fish onto the bank of the river, although it wasn’t clear what they were for. However, we soon found out when a huge Water Monitor, which must have been at least 5 feet long, lumbered out of the water and swallowed the fish. It wasn’t long before others arrived, however the first monitor was the largest and fiercely protected its lunch. The smaller monitors got a few scraps but the largest one wouldn’t budge. It even tried to whip the chef with its very powerful tail every time it was given more fish, which was incredibly dangerous!

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Our next stop on our tour around Sri Lanka was Kandy, nearer to the hills and within the wet zone. There would be quite a change in landscape and wildlife! I’ll end this post with a slideshow of some of the highlights of our stay in Sigiriya.

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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

 

Amphibian lifer!

As many of you will know, I’ve been working hard on my pan-species list recently. It’s a list of all the species I’ve seen in the UK and I’ve just broken the 2200 species mark. With an ambition to get to 3000 by mid-August 2018, 13.5 months away, I need to use every opportunity I can get to boost my total! Mostly these days my lifers are invertebrates with some plants, mainly beetles and bugs. Very rarely do I get a vertebrate lifer and I certainly wasn’t expecting to get an amphibian lifer any time soon! However, last weekend I visited Warnham LNR, a fantastic little wildlife site right on the edge of the large town of Crawley.

I have visited this beautiful local reserve only once before, yet then I had no idea about the population of a rare British vertebrate that inhabits the small ponds and the main lake of the reserve. Of course the reserve always holds plenty of wildlife and therefore my first visit was excellent, yet my recent visit was made all the more special by this exciting creature.

With a distinctive call that has earned this species its alternative name of laughing frog, the Marsh Frog Pelophylax ridibundus has been a main attraction at the reserve this spring/early summer although I only found out about it not long ago. With my amphibian & reptile total relatively low on my pan-species list, a new addition in either group was greatly needed and wanted and therefore I was eager to visit and hopefully catch a glimpse of this generally shy species if I was lucky.

My expectations were that I would possibly hear the plop of a frog jumping into the water unseen, or catch a swift movement of a frog fleeing out of the corner of my eye. However, these expectations were soon proven very wrong. It is a non-native species only introduced into the UK in 1935 in Walland Marsh, Kent and has since spread to areas in East Sussex and London. The population at Warnham LNR must be one of the only places where this species is found in West Sussex. The purpose of its introduction was to occupy an ecological niche as it is more aquatic in nature than the native Common Frog and more frequently breeds in ditches and dykes. Many of the places Marsh Frogs inhabit aren’t busy, such as the East Sussex levels, which I suppose has lead to its tendency to leap into the water at the slightest human disturbance. But the Warnham Marsh Frogs behaved in a way completely opposite and, probably due to the large numbers of visitors, were not too afraid of humans at all! Throughout the visit I must have seen at least 10 of varying colours, patterns and sizes. Not a bad looking species whatsoever!

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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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BTO Birdcamp 2017 – Part 3

It was just after 8pm on the Saturday evening, it was a crisp evening on Thetford Forest and the attendees of BTO Bird Camp 2017 were in a group on a ride through an area of young Scots Pine trees. We were with Greg Conway, who is working on tracking technologies for investigating the private life of one of our least-seen species, the Nightjar. It was very interesting to hear of his research, and tonight we were there to try and help with it.

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The Nightjar habitat at Thetford Forest

Right on cue, at 21:18, the first Nightjar was heard churring. The song of the Nightjar is a peculiar sound, quite unlike most other bird songs. As well as the male’s churring song the Nightjar produces another peculiar sound which is a loud, sharp cracking sound. This is not a vocal sound however. It is produced by the Nightjar’s body, and the sound was long attributed to the tips of the wings meeting each other in flight. However it is hard to believe that this is true as Nightjars, and other birds that make this sound such as Short-eared Owls, have very soft feathers that seem incapable of making such a sound in that way. One theory that seems plausible is that the quick downward motion of the wings creates the sound in the same way a whiplash would.

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This photo was about as good as it got with the light levels not exactly going hand-in-hand with bird photography!

The first Nightjar was seen shortly after, at about 9.30pm, sitting right on top of a pine tree. We were able to watch it churring in plain view for quite a while, before it flew away producing some ‘wing-clapping’ sounds. I was incredibly pleased with this sighting as it was the first time I had ever heard a Nightjar, despite living only about 20 minutes away from one of the best sites in Sussex, Ashdown Forest. Nightjars are well distributed across most of England, Wales and southern Scotland on heathland, moorland and similar habitats. So if you have what you think is a suitable location for these birds nearby and you live within the Nightjar’s distribution I would highly recommend an evening walk there!

It wasn’t long before two Nightjars were giving close, although often invisible, fly-bys of the group. Occasionally however they would come into view, and when they did they were incredibly close above our heads. It was a memorable experience and I don’t think it would be easy to get much better.

Well, I was about to get proved wrong as a car came driving up the track towards us from the direction of where several mist-nets had been erected. Mist-nets are very fine, thin nets; so-called as they are not easy to see. They catch birds easily and safely, without harming the birds in any way. I knew that the arrival of this car meant one of two things: either the ringers had given up trying to catch anything or a Nightjar had been successfully caught. To have gone from not seeing a Nightjar to seeing one in the hand in the space of a few hours was an excellent thought, so I was overjoyed when a white bag emerged from the car, containing a Nightjar.

The Nightjar was quicky ringed, biometrics were speedily measured and all other details were transcribed into the book of data. Following this was a chance to admire the bird for a short while as well as one to take photographs. It was amazing to be able to see an otherwise mysterious bird up close and in detail like this, and surely something I’ll never forget.

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Nightjar in the hand

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Nightjars are long-winged and long-tailed. This makes them much lighter than they look!

Although most of us didn’t get to sleep until midnight, that didn’t mean we were able to have a lie-in the next morning. We left the camp again a little after 6am, on our way to the Suffolk coast near Felixstowe and more specifically Landguard Bird Observatory.

I have only visited one bird observatory before and that was Portland Bird Observatory, in Dorset, last August. It was an eye-opening experience to see first-hand what work goes on at an observatory instead of just reading about the sightings on the internet. I loved my visit to Portland Bird Observatory, therefore I was eager to visit another one.

Although it was still early morning when we arrived at Landguard the sun was already beating down and most of the wildlife was awake and active. We passed a large patch of Green Alkanet flowers on our way to the observatory building, just outside Landguard fort, which provided a vital feeding stop for 3 or more migrant Painted Ladies which had crossed over from Europe in the warm weather during the previous week. These were my first Painted Ladies of the year.

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After pausing for a while to watch and photograph these strong insects (many fly all the way from Africa and still look pristine!) we continued on to the observatory building where we had a look at the observatory moth trap. It was really interesting to see how the lepidopterous fauna can change with habitat and geographical position. The species of moths were much different to what I usually find in my garden moth trap, so there were a number of lifers.

As in most moth traps there were lots of little brown jobs although also a fair few very interesting ones too – my favourite were the Small Elephant Hawk-moth and the Cream-spot Tiger.

The Small Elephant Hawk-moth is related to the much more common Elephant Hawk-moth although smaller and more brightly coloured. It is usually found in chalky and grassland habitats, where its foodplant (bedstraws) can be found. The Cream-spot Tiger is just as beautiful and impressive, with even more colour hidden behind its dark forewings with large cream-coloured spots. It has orange hindwings and a bright scarlet abdomen, which are revealed suddenly when the moth is startled to scare away a potential predator.

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Small Elephant Hawk & Cream-spot Tiger

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Cream-spot Tiger

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Small Elephant Hawk & Cream-spot Tiger showing its stunning hindwings!

Following the moth trap we went on a walk around the Landguard LNR. The LNR is a nice coastal reserve, with breeding Ringed Plovers probably the star attraction. Most pairs had chicks, in differing stages of development with some still quite young although others well developed. It was also great to learn about the shingle habitat and the plants that grow there.

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Ringed Plover parent

After leaving the observatory the plan was to go to a piece of beautiful Suffolk heathland where we might be in for a chance to see another very elusive species, the Dartford Warbler. The Dartford Warbler is a species mostly southern in its British distribution, therefore it would be a lifer for many of the young birders who had come from Northern England or Scotland.

Upon arrival at this heath we were immediately greeted by the luscious song of a Woodlark, coming from right above our heads. This was a big surprise as Woodlarks are not common in Suffolk and therefore a very good species to see. It was excellent to watch performing its song flight, with the song of Yellowhammers also in the background. I wasn’t able to get a good photo of the Woodlark (it just turned out as a dot in the sky) however a Yellowhammer singing on a bush behind us was more than happy to pose for photographs.

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Singing Yellowhammer

We walked down a track through the centre of the heath and there we waited to try and get a glimpse of our target species. Although there were loads of other birds, a hunting female Kestrel, several Stonechats including a recently fledged youngster and a flyover Yellow Wagtail (my first of the year) we ended up waiting quite a long time without any luck. That was until David Walsh, a bird guide who was helping out, came running along the road where the vans were parked exclaiming that he had seen a Dartford Warbler on the other side of the heath. We all quickly made our way towards where the bird had been seen and scanned the area to see if we could re-find the bird.

After a few minutes of searching, someone eventually spotted the bird and tried to get everyone else onto it. I struggled at first as it was quite distant and exactly matched the colour of the heather, however when it flew it was easily seen. Luckily, I think everyone managed to catch a glimpse of the bird. Looking back at some photos it appeared to have a few green caterpillars held in its beak; the Dartford Warbler was feeding young in a nest!

After a very enjoyable break for lunch at a nearby pub we were on to our last site of the weekend, RSPB Hollesley Marshes. We soon set out to walk through the reserve towards the sea wall. A Marsh Harrier drifted over the wetland in the distance while Swallows hawked for insects over the water’s surface. The track-verge was bursting with umbellifers and insects sipping the nectar, and damselflies danced on the leaves of Horse Chestnuts. It was clear that this reserve was one that was full of life.

As we walked towards the sea wall, we  passed a smaller marsh on our right. Here we could see Shelducks, and Avocet and a single Common Gull. From the sea wall we could see back over the marsh and out to the choppy water of the Alde River and the North Sea. Several Common Terns flew up and down the river and Herring and Black-headed Gulls battled the strong winds to keep in the air. Plenty of Avocets could be seen on the marsh, as well as a single Teal which was a surprise.

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Avocet with food

Finally, we stopped off at a hide that overlooked the larger marsh. From here we were treated to a close-up view of a Swallow on the wires just metres away and some close sightings of Linnets too. Avocets gave good views once again – a good end to our visit to this RSPB reserve and to the Bird Camp as a whole.

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