Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Female of the Species !

I have been watching a pair of Blackbirds, the female in particular, that has been busy nest building above my garden pond in an old dead tree, covered in ivy.
This is probably a second brood, as the season is moving on. I'd like to think that this is the same pair of Blackbirds that visit the garden each day, Blackbirds have nested in previous years, albeit at different places around the garden, so it could be.

I first noticed her perched on my neighbours shed with a few flimsy grass strands, and then plunging head first disappearing into the ivy, the actual nest cannot be seen, but for the last three days, from early morning until dusk, like a flying haystack she has toiled at building her nest.

I have read that this can take up to a few weeks to build, but she seems to know what she's doing and has now moved on to moss, leaves and debris from the waterfall. maybe the lining of the nest.

At the end of the day, she can be seen at one of the bird baths or on the waterfall, bathing.

And what of the male, he has spent most of his time perched on the fence, as she flies out, he quickly follows, he has taken no part in any nest building activities, he is quite attentive though, I have watched him chase another male Blackbird away from the garden, The local Magpie is not tolerated anywhere near the garden,the male can be very vocal when carrying out these guard duties, the alarm call is sounded whenever our old cat moves down the garden path.

At the end of the day  he can usally be heard singing from his favoured song perch at the end of the garden.

Its gone very quite now, after only four days of nest building, I think she may have moved to the next stage of preparing to lay the eggs, she still appears at the end of the day, for a drink and bathe, the male is still very vocal when a perceived threat appears.

I must admit to responding to these alarm calls, checking to see what the threat is, even to the point of chasing away persistent Magpie that's lingering to long in the garden.

I look forward to seeing the birds taking food into the unseen nest site, indicating a successful conclusion,

 I believe the male gets more involved in this stage of feeding the young, we shall see later.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

The Duke

Its that time of year again when I make the annual pilgrimage to Denge Woods near Canterbury, it's the only place I know where you have half a chance of seeing the lovely little Butterfly, the Duke of Burgundy, and if it doesn't show, there's always the wild orchids.

My first attempt to search for this butterfly was back in May 2014, only one specimen was found, the significance of which will become clear later.

Last year 2015 none seen at all, that's not to say that they were not there , just that I could not find them.

This year was different in many ways, I now know exactly how to find the 'Bonsai Bank', my first attempt  back in 2014 found me hopelessly lost in the wilderness of Denge. My first circuit of the area in question, the Bonsai Bank, did not bode too well and I thought it was going to be a no show again.

As I walked along the bottom of the bank I came across a small Wood Ant nest, probably about eighteen inches across, relatively small, but it was the first one I have come across so I spent a few minutes watching the Ant activity.
 These Ant nests are suppose to be an indication of a healthy woodland, the southern wood ant (Formica rufa) or horse ant is found mostly in the south of England, there are several other variety of wood Ants,  hopefully this is the right identification

 I must admit to not giving these little creatures much attention in the past, but these looked interesting. I kept my distance, as I was sure in the back of my mind, that they can fire off jets of 'formic acid' to defend their nest when necessary, not a problem with one individual but a whole nest, better safe than sorry.

Southern Wood Ant nest
Wood Ant - "Organised chaos"
Southern Wood Ant
As I turned away from the nest site, a small Butterfly flew up in front of me and landed on the grass a few feet away, and there it was the Duke of Burgundy, no bigger than the Common Blue Butterfly, and quite tolerant to approach for a change.

Duke of Burgundy

This was the first of several individuals seen as I moved along the lower reaches of the bank, I did not realise at the time but my arrival at the Bonsai bank was timed for the optimum chance of seeing this Butterfly, the males are most active in the mornings when the sun is shining, while the females spend more of their time crawling around in the grass and vegetation.

As I  made my way up towards the upper reaches of the Bank, and moved along the trail passing many Lady Orchids and Early Purple Orchids, several other observers had arrived and were lying prone in the grass with cameras pointing in several directions, a closer look revealed Duke of Burgundy Butterflies everywhere, the most I have ever seen, I have read that this Butterfly lives in small colonies but there must have been at least ten, probably more as they were difficult to count.

You'll notice that there seems to be a lot  Primrose's where the Butterflies were seen. the females lay there eggs on these and the caterpillar uses them as a food source.

I could not believe my luck, so many Butterflies, and all allowing a reasonably close approach, I overhead one of the other observers complaining that they all seemed to be males, and I must admit that, if there was a female there, I would not have been able to tell the difference, unless it was blatantly obvious.

Some research later revealed that its not blatantly obvious, there are subtle differences, but the most obvious is the number of legs strangely, the males have four legs, which can be seen in most of the photographs, the female of the species has six, the front two being quite small. And this is where the significance of my 2014 photograph comes into play, curiosity caused me to recheck the photograph of the butterfly seen .

Female Duke Of Burgundy
You can clearly see the two shorter front legs of the female, as I recollect, the individual seen at the time was clambering around the grass, as opposed to the males seen today who were much more flighty.

Female Duke of Burgundy

A Look at the upper side of the wings does not reveal to me any obvious differences.

upper view of female Duke of burgundy

A successful day with good views of the target species, a few other Butterflies were seen , Green Veined White, Orange Tip, Brimstone, and Red Admiral.

As for the orchids, there were good numbers of Lady Orchids and Early Purple, but it appears to early for the Greater Butterfly, and Common Spotted. the only other Orchid seen was the common Twayblade.

Lady Orchid
Early Purple Orchid
Common Twayblade

Excellent day which probably requires another visit to look at the Orchids still to come. this is also a good site to see the Green Tiger Beetle, another little creature that has eluded me.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Crab Spider (misumena vatia) !

It's been awhile since last we met, July 2014 to be exact,
 so a pleasant surprise when our paths crossed once again.

This little spider reminiscent of a miniature crab,is the only one of its type living in our country, which makes it that much more special when you do find one.

That phrase "common in the south" comes back to haunt me, this being the only second sighting I have ever made,

Maybe it's their ability to change colour that's fooling me, they rely heavily on this camouflage manoeuvre, not only to deceive their prey, which they pounce on from their ambush position, but also to hide from would be predators like birds and the like.

It appears that the best time to look for this little spider is between May and June, but they have been recorded up to August. so my two sightings come into that bracket quite nicely, first being seen in July 2014, the second in May 2016.

 They do not spin webs, they lie in ambush on or under a flower head.

It's the mature females that have this ability to change colour, usally white to yellow or the reverse, white to yellow can take up to twenty five days, yellow to white  up to six days, so it's not an instant process like an Octopus or Chameleon.
 The males are much smaller and usually brown in colour.

The front four legs of the Crab spider are longer, giving it a crab like appearance, it also uses these to grab its prey allowing it to bite and inject its poison and disable its prey. it can also move sideways again like a crab.

 My second sighting above, which again looks like a female in its yellow colouration sitting on some Blackthorn blossom, certainly not camouflaged, because it caught my attention as I walked past, maybe its just moved from a yellow flower head.

This was my first sighting back in 2014, a white coloured female on a spike of Vipers bugloss, strangely not well  camouflaged, but what caught my attention at the time, was the small moth fluttering in its death throes on the flower head with the spider sitting next to it, I did not have my camera with me at the time, but it was still there the next day allowing a few photographs. 

Female Crab Spider Misumena Vatia 

As spiders go, a strikingly good looking specimen, must keep my eyes open.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Tawny Mining-Bee Revisited !

 Another new Bee sighting for the garden and the Pear tree, and another chance to get a good look at the Tawny Mining Bee.

Female Tawny Mining-Bee  (Andrena fulva) 

 Once again its the female of the species seen, I am still yet to find or identify the male Tawny Mining Bee with any certainty, checking every possible candidate for the large jaws and white tuft of hair on the lower jaw. Its getting near the end of their flight season which spans from April to early June so the window of opportunity is rapidly closing for this year.

This Bee often described as common and widespread, has certainly  not been the case for me, in fact this is the first year that I have actually seen them, three females, one at Ightham Mote, one at Ashenbank Woods and now this one in the garden.

This individual which crash landed on the patio in front of me, was probably just passing through,
 it appeared to be heavily laden with pollen, no evidence of the so called "little volcanoes" in the lawn which indicate a bee burrow.

These Tawny Mining Bees are reputed not to sting, even so, I gingerly removed it to a place of safety, where it remained for several minutes, allowing a few photographs from various angles to be taken.

As suddenly as it appeared, it took off at speed and disappeared, another brief but interesting encounter with this very attractive looking Bee.

Friday, 13 May 2016

White Cliffs of Dover !

 A gentle stroll along the cliffs at South Foreland on a bright sunny day is certainly exhilarating, especially as you stand near the white cliffs edge, looking across the channel to the coast of France, clearly visible with the naked eye, the sheer height of the cliffs from sea level makes for an interesting walk with plenty to see.

The walk starts just above the busy port of Dover with its constant stream of channel ferries coming and going, this is a view across Langdon Hole towards the port.

Langdon Hole
A view of Dover Castle 

There's a small herd of Exmoor Ponies used to help conservation work, they keep the grass short, prevent the growth of scrub which in turn encourages the growth of chalk grassland plants.
This encourages insects and butterflies which you might expect to see here.

 Like this little beauty, I first thought this was a Grayling but on closer inspection a Wall Brown Butterfly, the small ringlets on the underwing are diagnostic and confirm the identification.

Its quite scarce and the first one I have come across, at least two or three seen on the wing, with just one opportunity to snap a quick photograph, a closed wing shot, even so a beautiful looking Butterfly, and one that is a priority species for conservation due to continued loss of habitat and drop in population.

Wall Brown. Lasiommata megera

As you follow the trail along the cliff tops, there's a few old wartime relics to see, in particular the Fan Bay Deep Shelter.
 The National Trust have removed all the infill ( approx 100 tonnes of chalk) restoring the tunnels to how they looked during the second world war, used to accommodate the coastal battery personnel.

The opportunity to wear a hard hat with a head lamp could not be resisted, forty five minutes exploring the tunnels, complete with fossils, wartime graffiti, was well worth a look.
Wife complete with  Hard  hat

There are two Sound mirrors built into the cliffs, again exposed by National trust after they were covered up to remove visible traces of the war effort, strange thing to do.

Back in the open air you can continue the walk down to the South Foreland lighthouse which is full of victorian engineering, and the opportunity for refreshments.

South Foreland Lighthouse
The walk back to the car park revealed a distant view of a couple of Ravens that have taken up residence here, I am sure that I have read somewhere that these were the first breeding pair in Kent.


The highlight for me was the first sighting of the Wall Brown Butterfly, 
you never know what might turn up for you.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Hollybush Wood !

A  recent visit to a country house and estate at Standen in West Sussex, an estate looked after by the National Trust, gave my wife and I the opportunity to wander through Hollybush Wood, as part of our visit.

What I didn't realise at the time, is the fact that this small area of wood is a unique habitat, an ancient "Ghyll woodland" and a relic of Holmwood one of Sussex's ancient forests.

'Ghyll' is a term I have not come across before, the actual word originates from Old Norse, gil.
probably a name more familiar in the north of the country.

It's basically a term given to native woodlands found on steep sided valleys or ravines, usually around the upper reaches of rivers where springs or streams first form.

The steep sided nature of Ghyll’s also ensures that many Ghyll woodlands have remained untouched and undisturbed by human activity.

They are reported to have their own microclimate, rich in moisture loving plants and very attractive to wildlife.

This particular wood has an attractive boardwalk which leads you down into the valley and through the woodland. The woodland floor on the upper reaches of the valley, like many woods at the moment were cloaked in Bluebells, but on closer inspection there was a another wild flower growing amongst the bluebells, the Early Purple Orchid, and in good numbers, this is one of the earliest flowering Orchids, flowering between April and June, a pleasant surprise I was not expecting.

Early Purple Orchid

Orange Tip and Brimstone Butterflies were seen all around the woodland.

I managed to find a few examples last year at Denge Woods in Kent, but nowhere near as prolific as this site. I wished that I had taken more time to study the woodland, another visit may be on the cards for later this year.