Monday, 27 April 2015

Macro photography in the garden

One of the many things I love about macro photography is that there are so many wonderful insects to be found quite literally right at home just in the garden. The following photos are all images I’ve taken in the last couple of weeks when I’ve had a few spare moments and the sun has been shining. Macro photography in the garden also of course has the additional bonus of avoiding the attentions of concerned passers-by (or their curious dogs!) wondering why on earth you’re scrabbling around in the undergrowth or lying on the ground!!! (I have warned our neighbour not to be concerned should he spot me lying face down in the grass!)

Another bonus of being in the comfort of my own garden, I’ve been able to while away some time messing around trying to capture photographs of insects in flight. I was quite pleased with some of the results I got from taking (many!) images of honeybees visiting a clump of grape hyacinth flowers by varying the camera settings as well as swapping between auto and manual focus (I think the latter works better for flying insects!). 

Honeybee visiting grape hyacinth flowers
Also catching my attention have been the many hoverflies guarding their respective territories – a fun if sometimes frustrating challenge to quickly get them in focus as they hover in front of you, only to have them zoom away the moment you press the shutter! The ones I have been particularly trying to capture are the species Eristalis pertinax, distinctive by their yellow front and middle legs, they are also one of the earliest of the hoverflies to emerge in the spring, with the males characteristically defending their ‘patch’. These are the ones which will often hover at head height giving you the once over (or at least so it seems!). It can be a little disconcerting when they do this but they are entirely harmless.

Hoverfly hovering.... Eristalis pertinax

Several other types of hoverfly have also been visiting the garden, the couple below having been found just enjoying the sun on different garden plants. (I've tried my best with IDs but as ever, please let me know if they're incorrect....)

Similar but different - Syrphus torvus (left) and Epistrophe eligans, both female

Speckled Wood butterfly
As spring progresses more types of insects have been emerging by the day. Just in the last week we have had three new species of butterfly visiting the garden; Orange-tip, Holly Blue and Speckled Wood. The Orange-tip and Holly Blue  butterflies will have spent the winter in their chrysalis form, emerging as adults when conditions are favourable. Speckled Wood butterflies can spend the winter as either a chrysalis or caterpillar. 

It has been great to see these spring butterflies, in what will be their first broods of the season, though the only one which stopped long enough for me to take a photo was a Speckled Wood (fortunately these butterflies don't seem to be particularly camera-shy!).

Lily beetle

Another beautiful find, though really not a 'gardener's friend' was a lily beetle (the adults, but also their larvae especially love to munch their way through lilies, causing a lot of damage). 

This one wasn't on a lily so I wasn't concerned about any plants, until it did a purple poo.... (Yes I ended up with a photo of that too though it wasn't actually intentional!) Then the penny dropped that s/he had been busily eating my husband's new Snake's head fritillary flowers.

(Apparently fritillary flowers are the next best thing to lilies where these pretty little beetles are concerned -the beetle was safely relocated elsewhere!)


Harlequin ladybird

Also found on the Snake's head fritillaries was a Harlequin ladybird - the 'villain of the piece' where ladybirds in the UK are concerned. This pretty but invasive species arrived here in 2004 and out-competes our native ladybirds having a wider food and habitat range as well as a longer reproductive period.

Harlequin ladybirds have quite an unfussy diet - whereas they feed most commonly on aphids, when these are scarce they will also eat other ladybird eggs, larvae and pupae, as well as butterfly and moth eggs and caterpillars. 

There is lots more information about Harlequin ladybirds such as how to recognise them (their patterns are very varied), their spread and current distribution and also how to submit sightings of them on the Harlequin Ladybird survey website.

Of the bumblebees there was one unfortunate individual, a white-tailed bumblebee queen, that I noticed motoring across the garden lawn on foot. When I looked more closely it became clear that she couldn't actually fly, with the wings on the right side of her body being completely immobile (in the photos you can see the smaller wing at a strange angle). She was managing surprisingly well, determinedly heading towards a patch of flowers, then climbing the stalks to reach the flowers, though I couldn't help but feel a little saddened that by whatever means her fate had been sealed. 

Queen White-tailed bumblebee with damaged wings

Numerous types of solitary bees have been visiting flowers in the garden - they tend to be quite small and often skittish in their flight so can easily be mistaken for flies - it's worth having a closer look to see if it's a tiny bee that you're looking at. Trying to identify what type they are though is a different matter entirely...  

Solitary bee - Osmia sp?

A slightly surprising find considering the garden isn’t particularly close to any bodies of water and I'm not aware of neighbours with ponds nearby was a small Mayfly, only 2cms long including the ‘tails’.  I’m not sure which type this is, though with many types of mayfly in the UK, several of which need microscopic examination to differentiate, it is often very difficult to know for certain. (I’d be interested to hear from anyone who knows the ID of this one.)  


Friday, 17 April 2015

Sutton at Easter

Duclair duck
Black Muscovy duck
Heading over to Sutton reservoir again in beautiful sunny weather in Easter week, I was initially greeted (as is usual here) by the resident selection of feral ducks. Mostly these are clearly varieties of domestic Mallard, being quite different in plumage, but also considerably larger than regular wild Mallards. One that had joined the mix which I haven’t noticed before was a different type of duck altogether – a black Muscovy duck. Not being at all familiar with domestic duck breeds it’s an interesting challenge to try and work out what they are (do let me know if I’m incorrect on their IDs!), but I photographed what I think are a group of three Campbells, one Duclair (of two present), and then the black Muscovy, possibly female as she seemed quite small for this kind of duck. 

An interesting website I came across a while ago while trying to work out whether ducks I'd seen were domestic varieties of Mallard, hybrids, or some other unusual colour variation such as leucism (or something else entirely!) can be found here. The unfortunate term previously coined of 'manky mallard' isn't meant unkindly here, and the site has lots of great examples of the weird and wonderful variations of Mallard that may be spotted when out and about nature watching (though judging by some of the comments, perhaps some of the IDs suggested on the website may be up for debate!!!).  

A trio of trouble - boisterous Campbell ducks!

A different kind of challenge was that of trying to photograph some of the bumblebees. The reservoir is surrounded by Willow trees, and the catkins were proving as popular a draw as ever for various bees, butterflies and other insects. Getting in amongst them, I attempted to photograph some of the bees in flight, queen White-tailed and Tree bumblebees being the ones I spotted here on this occasion. 

Tree bumblebee
White-tailed bumblebee

Barren strawberry flowers
Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies also fluttered among the branches laden with catkins, and also visited the flowers of Lesser Celandine, now carpeting the sunny banks as well as covering the ground in some of the more shaded pockets of woodland. 

Pink Purslane flowers
Other wildflowers in bloom included those of Barren Strawberry, so called because despite looking very similar to wild strawberry plants, they don't bear strawberries (sadly!), Wood Anemone, and Pink Purslane. This latter flower is native to western North America and also Siberia but having been introduced to the UK in the 1700s is now widespread here. 

Wonderful to see were clumps of pale yellow Wild Primrose (I've yet to see the pink variety that can also occur in the wild), one of our earliest spring flowers, it's name deriving from the Latin prima rosa meaning 'first rose', although it isn't a member of the rose family.

Wild Primrose flowers

Something I haven’t seen for many years which I spotted next to the path was a type of puffball fungus, about 6cms across. I resisted the temptation to give it a good squeeze to release the spores in a cloud of brown smokiness, something I remember doing as a kid whenever I found one! Perhaps next time I shall do, just for old times’ sake!

Unknown ID - a kind of puffball fungus

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Easter butterflies and other insects

With some beautiful weather over the Easter holidays, it has been wonderful to see the local environment transforming, with ever more wildflowers blooming such as wild primrose, wood anemone and forget-me-not to name a few, trees gradually coming into leaf, and accordingly insects emerging from their long winter slumbers. Having taken a few days off work over the Easter holidays and with the good fortune of some wonderful weather coinciding, this and the next few posts will be a catch up on several visits made to local spots where I enjoy watching wildlife in the past week (in between also trying to repaint a garden summerhouse!), starting with the Quinta arboretum and also the Quinta wildlife trust reserve in Swettenham which is accessed from it.

I headed over to the arboretum on Easter Sunday and Monday with the hope that the fine warm weather would bring out the butterflies. I certainly wasn’t disappointed, and in these visits saw a 'full house' of the UK butterflies that overwinter as adults. A beautifully brightly coloured male Brimstone I only saw in flight – they are strong fliers and I couldn’t follow him to wherever he might have landed. Commas, Small Tortoiseshells and Peacocks were present, not in huge numbers, but wonderful to see again. Also, enjoying the flowers of a Pieris was a Red Admiral. These butterflies are generally considered to be migrants to our shores, with large numbers arriving from central Europe in May and June, however there is increasing evidence that some are managing to survive hibernation through our milder winters - it may be that being here in early April means that this was one of them.     

Red Admiral on Pieris flowers
Comma butterfly

Willow catkins are magnets to insects at this time of year, so I spent a while watching and photographing the visitors at a couple of willow trees where the catkins were full of pollen, and also many branches were low enough to get close to some of their insect visitors. This was where I saw Comma and Peacock butterflies, also enjoying the catkins were a selection of flies including prettily coloured greenbottles and various hoverflies. 
On a previous recent visit to the arboretum, of the bumblebees, I had just seen Tree and Buff-tailed, this time in addition there were Early and White-tailed bumblebees. Lots of tiny solitary bees of different Andrena species were also making the most of this pollen bounty.

High rise living - Grove snail 10 feet up!
Solitary bee (Andrena haemorrhoa?)
Looking a little out of place at nearly 10 feet up a tree was a snail (a Grove snail I think - Cepaea nemoralis). Also enjoying the catkins was a Peacock butterfly - this one was visiting the uppermost catkins, but would also periodically fly down to ground level to bask in the sun where I was able to take a few more photos from within a foot or so. Unsurprisingly, sudden movements will make a butterfly take flight, but with care to avoid this and importantly to avoid casting a shadow over them it is possible to get quite close without frightening them away. This individual's wings were a little tatty around the edges, but for a butterfly that has come out of hibernation I thought looked in pretty good condition. I also checked on the chrysalis of what I think is a Large White butterfly that I'd spotted a few weeks ago, and it was still there looking entirely unchanged - it can't be much longer now until the adult butterfly emerges!

Peacock butterfly

Insects love to bask in the sun, and a smooth warm surface like a bench, post, tree trunk etc, is a great place to find interesting insects. Sharing a bench with a load of flies might not be everyone's idea of fun but armed with a macro lens on the camera I was kept amused for a [worrying?] length of time. Before getting a macro lens, I hadn't paid much attention to hoverflies, but many of them are really quite beautiful, and in some cases (like Rhingia species) interestingly shaped. I'm still very much a novice when it comes to attempts at identifying hoverflies, but for anyone interested in learning more, an excellent book on the subject is 'Britain's Hoverflies, an introduction to the hoverflies of Britain' by Stuart Ball and Roger Morris. Reports can also be submitted to the Hoverfly Recording scheme which is administered by the authors.

Male hoverfly - Syrphus torvus
One interesting feature of hoverflies is that the males and females of most species can be told about by the spacing of their eyes - the males' eyes meet at the top of their heads, whereas the eyes of females are spaced apart. You can see this in the photos below I took of a male and female Eristalis pertinax whilst sharing a bench with them!

Eristalis pertinax hoverflies, male left, female right

Checking back at the Pieris again on my way out, I found a tiny ladybird I didn't recognise, about 3-4 mm long. From looking at the UK ladybird survey website, I think this is another colour variation of a 10-spot ladybird, quite different from the 10-spot seen previously which had a ground colour of orange and more clearly defined black spots - these colour variations all adding to the fun of trying to identify these tiny creatures I find on my forays into their micro worlds!

10-spot Ladybird

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Garden birds in spring

Earlier this week spring seemed to have largely taken a break with unusually strong winds and unseasonably cool temperatures. Itching to get out with the camera again, but being a bit fed up of doing so in bad weather I instead made the most of an hour I had to spare just watching the birdlife in the garden early on Thursday morning (when the sun was finally shining!). Nothing out of the ordinary, the birds we have visiting the garden are just what you might expect in a typical UK small/medium garden in the suburbs, but still a real pleasure to just sit and observe and listen to the behaviour and antics of our familiar garden birds. 

Male Blackbird (helping with moss removal!)
The garden is a hive of bird activity and song at the moment, the Blackbirds generally being the earliest to rise (as well as the latest to roost), singing at first light, or even a little before - I know if I wake and hear Blackbirds that there are probably a couple of hours until the alarm will go off! We have at least 4 Blackbirds which I presume to be regular visitors to the garden as they are very tame. They will happily follow us around the garden and feed within a few feet, quite different to the Blackbirds in our old garden which spending most of their time in the adjacent woodland were far more wary of people. Other regulars include Robins, Blue, Coal and Great Tits, Dunnocks and Wrens, and occasional Pied Wagtails, Jackdaws, Crows and Black-Headed gulls.

We are fortunate to have a garden with hedges on all sides and consequently see and hear lots of hedge loving birds such as House Sparrows and Starlings, both of which are now red-listed species of conservation concern due to their serious population declines - not something that would have been predicted only 30 or so years ago. According to the RSPB website, House Sparrow numbers in the UK are estimated to have declined by 71 per cent between 1977 and 2008, and since the mid 1970s, Starling numbers have fallen by 66 per cent. 

A nest box we put up for Sparrows has so far been ignored in favour of nesting somewhere behind the lead flashing up near the chimney where I've watched a pair busily taking feathers to line their nest. I had kept to one side a downy Woodpigeon feather (I'd intended to perhaps try using for a rainy day macro photo) but thought I'd see if it attracted any attention from these busy sparrows. I let the feather float to the ground and watched as quite literally within seconds (and yes too fast for me to focus the camera!) a plucky Male Sparrow spotted this valuable resource and took it for his nest.  

Male Starling
Some of my favourite birds - Starlings, have been busy gathering materials for their nests also. I watched as a female pulled small twigs from a tree that overhangs our garden, meanwhile a male sang, that fantastically jumbled song of whistles, squeaks and chatterings. In the breeding season the males and females can be told apart by the colours of their beaks - easily memorable as the females have a pinkish colour to their lower mandible, males a bluish grey.  

Heavily cropped photos, to show the blue and pink respectively on male and female Starlings' beaks

Male Greenfinch
Another song we often hear is that of a Greenfinch, they are quite capable of lovely twitterings though the sound that carries, and that they often seem to abbreviate their song to is quite a harsh 'wheezing' sound. A little to my disappointment, they don't seem to be tempted to visit our bird feeders (or at least not insofar as I've seen), but it is wonderful to see and hear them from the garden. Males have taken to singing from favoured high branches of Leylandii and Birch close by. The males are distinguishable from the females by their brighter green and yellow colouration. If you have a good enough view of a Greenfinch's tail - in a male the yellow will span the width of each tail feather, the females have much less yellow in their tails and overall.   

Woodpigeons have had thoughts of courtship and breeding on their minds for the past several weeks, and it was interesting to watch a male trying to impress a female with his elaborate bowing and tail fanning... persisting as the female continued to turn her back walk away in the opposite direction!

A precarious perch - one of several Woodpigeon visitors