Monday, 23 March 2015

Spring bugs emerging...

With work being busy at the moment I didn't have time to go very far for very long last week, though on the plus side, I was mostly working from home, so could at least enjoy a little of the beautiful spring weather we had during the week and also keep half an eye on what was going on in the garden in particular in the way of buglife.

One of several clumps of Narcissus in flower
It has been wonderful to see the garden suddenly come into colour in the last couple of weeks with lots of clumps of mini daffodils, as well as bright pink Camelias coming into flower. Having only been here a few months, this year we're still watching and waiting to find out what plants we already have in the garden (with many perennials only now starting to appear), and where we will have space to put some additional insect-friendly plants. A small pond is also planned - a good job for the Easter holidays! 

A lovely start to the week was the first 7-spot ladybird I've seen this year, wandering around on a Mahonia plant which has flowered throughout the winter and is still flowering now. 

7-spot Ladybird on Mahonia

Small Tortoiseshell on Viburnum
Several of our UK butterflies such as Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma and Peacock have spent the winter as adults, finding sheltered spots in which to hibernate. Recently with the weather gradually warming, they have started to emerge from hibernation. I was delighted to see my first butterfly of the year on Wednesday - a Small Tortoiseshell. We have a wonderful Viburnum in the garden which is proving to be a magnet for insects - as well as this butterfly it has been attracting lots of honey bees and also Drone fly hoverflies. It's a bit on the tall side though, so this photo was taken whilst [unsensibly] balancing on an upturned bucket - next time I'll put step ladders next to it - just in case.... On Friday, another sunny day, another (or perhaps the same) Small Tortoiseshell appeared again on these flowers, also a male Brimstone butterfly was seen flying over, he didn't stop and land as far as I saw, but with his vibrantly coloured yellow wings he was unmistakable. 

The Butterfly Conservation society in the UK runs a number of surveys as well as the  popular Big Buttterfly Count (this year taking place from 17th July to 9th August). One of these is a garden butterfly survey (which I've recorded these for) in which species seen in the garden are noted and in which months from spring through to autumn with earliest dates in each of the months if available also recorded. These records are then submitted to Butterfly Conservation at the end of the year. More information about this and Butterfly Conservation's other surveys can be found here

Buff-tailed Bumble bee queen on Mahonia
Bumblebees have also started to visit the garden. For certain we have seen Tree bumblebees, and the only individual I have managed to photograph (albeit not very well!) is this very large queen Buff-tailed bumblebee, who as well as enjoying these Mahonia flowers, was also zig-zagging close to the ground, looking for suitable nest sites. Unfortunately you can see around her 'shoulder' that she is carrying a few mites, though it is apparently possible to carefully rid bumblebees of these mites which I was reading about in an interesting article on UK safari

7-spot Ladybird
10-spot Ladybird
Having had a particularly long working day on Tuesday, Wednesday was a day to finish up early, so I drove over to the Quinta arboretum again in Swettenham. The varied evergreen trees must have been providing winter homes for hibernating 7-spot ladybirds  - several of which I spotted (forgive the pun!) on the move in their spiny homes. A much smaller ladybird only about 3-4 mm long, quite nicely camouflaged on an unfamiliar deciduous tree I later identified as a 10-spot ladybird.

Bumblebee queens were busy gathering pollen from catkins high up in a large willow tree, as far as I could see, and from their size, these were more of the early emerging Buff-tailed bumblebees.
Dinner is served... a predatory fly eating what I think was a midge

I watched as a fly (I don't know the ID), caught what looked like a tiny midge and returned to its flowery perch.  

Familiar woodland birds were singing, and Great-Spotted Woodpeckers, proclaiming their territory, were drumming in the tops of some particularly resonant trees. The sight and sound of Ring-necked Pheasants are commonplace in the arboretum, however a large selection of feathers indicated that one had met its demise, possibly predated by a fox.

Old leaves of a Downy Oak were speckled with old Spangle galls, the work of a cynipid wasp, I'm assuming Neuroterus quercusbaccarum, though as always correct me if that's wrong. The galls typically fall off the leaves before the leaves themselves fall in autumn, and the larvae continue to develop before emerging as adults the following spring. Having failed to fall, these galls will have dried up and the larvae failed to develop.

Spangle galls on Downy Oak
A selection of pheasant feathers

Friday was of course the day of the partial eclipse. With an appropriately timed coffee break, I ventured into the garden to see what I could see, and also with a vague hope of being able to photograph it. As it turned out we were very fortunate that there was a little light cloud cover - not enough to obscure the eclipse, but the clouds acted as a giant diffuser just enough that we could view it quite well. During the time the sun was largely blocked by the moon, it became noticeably cooler, maybe 2 or 3 degrees at a guess, and it seemed that the birds quietened with the darkening of the sky, a strange kind of twilight. One bird unphased by the eclipse was a male Sparrowhawk that shot across the garden right in front of my husband and a regular Robin (distinctive by a lack of feathers on his/her head) had a very close call indeed. 

Not wanting to damage either my eyes or my camera, using manual settings I took a few quick photos using a small aperture and a very high shutter speed and was really pleased to get some fairly clear images to remember it by - a giant sunny smile in the sky on what happened to also be International Happiness Day - a wonderful sight and an uplifting way to finish the working week. 

Partial eclipse 20th March 2015 (9.29am)

Monday, 9 March 2015

Desperately seeking spring...

Earlier in the week I was starting to wonder if spring was ever going to arrive... On Saturday, some 10 degrees warmer than it had been only a few days previously at a positively tropical 15/16C, I decided it was time to dust off the macro lens and go in search of early spring insects. Really it was still a little too windy for macro photography (the slightest puff of wind making it nearly impossible to achieve a focused image), but since the sun was shining (which sometimes I feel it only does when I'm inside working!), it was a good opportunity to go out and see if many insects had started to emerge.

Local canal (taken in the summertime)
One of my favourite spots for finding insects has been the local towpath. We live close to the Macclesfield canal network and wandering along the towpath offers a good opportunity to observe lots of bird and insect life. It's also a good place to find varied wildflowers as they come into flower through the seasons. The towpaths do suffer however from the pathways and right up the verges being mown back hard, and the hedges flailed equally severely, with little apparent regard to timing.

Despite the warm weather and sunshine, my initial impression was that insects unfortunately were still very thin on the ground, with only a small number of flies and gnats whizzing around. I was happy to instead enjoy the sounds of birdsong and to check what wildflowers were coming into bloom - not that long ago I was content to admire but be happily ignorant to what many (read most!) of our wildflower species were, however a few years ago, much as with birdsong, I decided I was unhappily ignorant, and have since made far more effort to try and learn to correctly identify more of our wildflowers. This has had the added bonus of in turn learning a lot more about which insects are attracted to which types of plants.
Gorse flowers

Lesser Celandine

Early spring wildflowers such as Lesser Celandine and Coltsfoot were coming into bloom. The few gorse plants along the walk looked straggly but were in flower. Ivy plants were still bearing some fruits, though coming to the end of their season now - their attractive berries are poisonous to humans, but enjoyed by many birds including Blackbirds and other thrushes. Tucked away amongst moss-covered fallen and cut wood were vibrantly coloured and aptly named Scarlet Elf Cups.

Scarlet Elf cup

A pair of Canada Geese kept a watchful eye as I walked past. Birdsong was wonderfully apparent with Robins, Wrens, Dunnocks and Chaffinches all in full song. Another song which I couldn't place initially turned out to be that of a Treecreeper, I watched as the tiny mouse-like bird circled a tree truck high up on the opposite side of the canal. Other birds heard included Magpies with their distinct 'machine-gun rattle' calls, and Jays with their fantastically indiscreet squawks and the wild 'mewing' of a Buzzard hunting overhead.

Ivy berries (poisonous to us but enjoyed by many birds)
It didn't seem that I was going to have much luck photographing insects after a couple of hours of wanderings along the towpath. Undeterred, and with the weather still warm and bright I headed over to Quinta arboretum in the village of Swettenham, thinking I may have more luck in a place where I knew there would be lots of early spring flowers in bloom. 

Butterfly chrysalis (Large White?)
By chance I noticed a speck of green which stood out on the beige/brown trunk of a Birch tree and not very well camouflaged against the bark. This object turned out to be a chrysalis of one of the white butterflies - possibly a Large White because of the Black and Yellow spots, but also its location several feet up on the trunk of a birch tree - as always though please let me know if I've got the ID wrong. Closely viewed you can clearly see the impression of the butterfly's wings in the chrysalis. 

All of our common white butterflies (such as Small, Large, Green-veined and Orange-tip) hibernate through the winter in their chrysalis stage. In this state they are particularly vulnerable to being predated - hopefully this one will avoid the attentions of predators for a few more weeks despite not being particularly well hidden or camouflaged!

Close by on one of the arboretum's many azaleas, I could hear the loud buzzing that could only mean one thing - a bumble bee! Sadly she was not one to hang about and I didn't manage to take her photo, or even have  chance to identify what type. Pleased to have at least seen a bumble bee, I started making my way back towards the car park. Just as I was approaching the exit I heard another loud buzzing near the ground amongst some Russian Snowdrops (Puschkinia) and I spotted my first honey bee of the year, and fortunately did manage to take a handful of photos of her. A lovely way to finish off the afternoon, and a good sign of all the great things soon to come in the long-awaited spring months... 

European Honey Bee (Apis Mellifera)