Monday, 13 July 2015

The week that was hot... Swettenham Meadows

‘Swettenham meadows’, a Cheshire Wildlife Trust reserve in the village of Swettenham, is another local spot I sometimes visit for macro photography, just down the road from the Quinta arboretum and reserve I have mentioned in previous blog posts. It is known for its variety of invertebrate life, in particular its butterflies, my photos below were from visits on the 29th June and 1st July. 

Crossing the stile from the road and into the first meadow, the sound I was first struck by was that of grasshoppers. Their 'song' is produced by stridulation - 'pegs' along the inside of the hind legs are rubbed against the adjacent forewing, producing their characteristic sound. As with birds, grasshopper songs are generally performed by the males and species can be told apart by the different sounding songs they make. A pretty green and salmon pink individual I found sat on a colourful (and well chewed!) leaf, I think this is a Common Green grasshopper though as ever, please correct the ID if I’ve got that wrong.

Common Green grasshopper
Stumbling about amongst the grasses were Garden Chafers, fairly similar in look to  Cockchafers (or May bugs), though considerably smaller at just under 1cm long. They are another insect with a rather slow and clumsy gait - I watched this individual as s/he clambered around amongst grass seed heads losing and then regaining a footing.

Hanging on... a Garden Chafer beetle
Common? Spotted-orchid
The meadows also have an interesting mix of wildflowers, as well as many more common species there were several perhaps less familiar species such as beautiful Ragged robin, Yarrow, the distinctive purple and yellow flowers of Woody nightshade (of the same family, though quite different in appearance to Deadly nightshade), also wild orchids which I think are probably Common spotted-orchids. 

Woody Nightshade flowers

Odonata (the order of carnivorous insects which includes dragonflies and damselflies) were represented by a single male Banded Demoiselle (though a little far away for me to be able to photograph this beautiful insect unfortunately), and the stunning female Southern Hawker which I mentioned in my last post.

The meadows lived up to their reputation for being a good place to spot butterflies, the ones seen included Ringlet, Common Blue, Small Copper, Gatekeeper and Meadow Brown as well as Brimstone and some White butterflies (I didn't see the latter closely enough to be sure of which). The Ringlets in particular I was pleased to see - they have a wide distribution though their populations seem to be quite localised. These butterflies have one generation of adults typically seen on the wing in July and early August. Common Blues and the tiny Small Copper butterflies have at least two broods of adults each year, appearing in pulses from spring through to autumn.

As I write the weather has taken a distinct turn for the worse, so it is back to playing the waiting game for the summer sun to return and then searching out our beautiful invertebrate life will continue...
Female Common Blue on Bramble
Small Copper and friend

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Here be dragons (and damsels)...

As someone who really enjoys the challenges of macro photography, one of the things I most look forward to in spring, as well as looking out for the first butterflies, is the emergence of the first dragonflies and damselflies. Seeing others' photo streams on the Flickr photo-sharing website, I get an idea of what insects are emerging, starting with the finds of macro enthusiasts in the South and knowing that the timing of insects emerging [hopefully at least!] won't be too far behind here in Cheshire.  

Damselfly exuvia
My first encounter with damselflies this year was just after visiting Shakerley Mere in mid-May. I had been hoping I would find damselflies at the mere but hadn't this time, and therefore made a quick visit to the neighbouring Boundary water park which I'd been informed should be a good place for spotting dragonflies and damselflies. Still perhaps a little early in the year for many dragons, I hoped that I might at least see a few damselflies. 

Around much of the lake the banks were quite steep. I approached the water's edge at a spot I thought might be promising for damselflies with a barely controlled slide. Just as I’d feared whilst performing this ungainly manoeuver, something that looked distinctively like a damselfly could be seen fluttering away into the distance to somewhere it considered less hazardous! A little disappointed, I looked around for any other signs of life that had been more tolerant of my abrupt arrival. Not quite what I was really after, but an interesting find nonetheless was a damselfly exuvia, the final exoskeleton of the larvae, which is left behind often on reeds or grasses when the larvae emerges from the water which has been its home for many months, to shed this exoskeleton and emerge in its fully developed adult form. After a little further hunting (and better coordination), patience was rewarded by my first proper sighting of a damselfly of the year, what I think is a young Common blue damselfly. The colours on this individual haven't yet fully developed, and the shiny glossy wings show that it is quite newly emerged.

Teneral Common Blue damselfly

Next stop on my hunt for dragons and damsels a few days later was Danes' Moss near Macclesfield, a Cheshire Wildlife Trust reserve. Red-tailed damselflies are one of the first to emerge here in the spring and it was wonderful to see one of these beautiful insects resting on birch leaves. Again, the glossy wings showed that this was quite a newly emerged insect. 

Teneral Large Red damselfly

Some of the earlier dragonflies could be seen too, I could see they were chasers, though without them stopping I struggled to make out what type they were. Something caught my eye though which I thought was probably just a fallen leaf, but as I got closer, I was delighted to see firstly that this was a big insect, and then that it was a female broad-bodied chaser. I couldn't believe my luck that she was just resting on heather and let me approach very closely to photograph her. 

Female Broad-bodied chaser
She started to warm up her wing muscles which lead to blurry wing shots, so I switched the camera to video mode (though forgot to switch off the vibration reduction which adds its own soundtrack to video!), and captured a few seconds of this before she flew away.

Having seen the White-faced darters at Chartley in May, I was keen to see if I could find some at another site where they have been reintroduced (from donor larvae  from Chartley), this was at Delamere forest, a large Forestry Commission site with a network of large pools and lakes where I went in early June. Finding the darters turned out to be more of a needle in haystack task than I'd anticipated, and this time it was not to be, so the photo below is another image of the individual I was able to photograph at Chartley. 
Female White-faced darter (taken at Chartley Moss, the species is now establishing a population at Delamere)

However what was wonderful to see instead were four-spotted chaser dragonflies hawking for prey over a drainage ditch leading to the main lake. Dragonflies can be particularly difficult insects to photograph, however if you get lucky enough to spot one at rest and manage not to spook them, they will remain stationary and can be approached very closely. If they are busy hunting their small insect prey they may not seem to stop at all, or when they do, it is more often than not out of reach of the person with the camera!!!  

One I prepared earlier.... A female four-spotted chaser, taken last summer

Azure damselfly with tiny fly prey
Damselfly with exuvia

Delamere forest was seemingly full of damselflies making the most of the sunny weather, with Large reds being the most prevalent, but also lots of blues - Common, Blue-tailed and Azure being amongst the ones I spotted.

An Azure damselfly I photographed was still eating its tiny fly prey, whereas I did wait around to try and take a photo of him without a mouthful of fly, the moment he finished eating he promptly disappeared! Another find was a damselfly so newly emerged it was still clinging to the same reed just below its exuvia the species being completely unidentifiable  (to me at least) at this stage.

Socialising with a Large Red!
One Large Red in particular was very friendly (or perhaps that should that be territorial!) and landed on my arm, then again on my hand where I was able to take a few photos of him/her. Others found more suitable perches, especially on the abundant bracken.

A much more suitable perch; Large Red damselfly on bracken

Of course there are always those wonderful moments when beautiful insects appear in the comfort of the garden. Thursday of last week when I was just about to rush out after work to one of my regular macro haunts, I spotted this beautiful blue tailed damselfly in the front garden just next to my car. Of course the trip was then abandoned in favour of photographing this beautiful female who was particularly pretty in lilac and blue.

Colour coordinating with the geraniums, a beautiful female Blue-tailed damselfly

Another view of the female Blue-tailed damselfly above

Last stop for this blog post at least, was a visit over to Swettenham Meadows, another reserve owned by the Cheshire Wildlife Trust. This was in the past week when it has been incredibly hot here, and to mark the hot humid weather, biting Cleg flies have been out in force too! I will catch up on some of the other wonderful insects I found in the meadows in another post, however for the purposes of this one, a wonderful find there was a female Southern hawker dragonfly. I watched as she flew quickly back and forth 'hawking' in search of food, and after a few minutes she came to land in amongst the long grass and wildflowers a few metres away from where I was stood. Trying not to lose sight of her, whilst also trying to negotiate up a bank of thistles, brambles and nettles, as well as swat away Cleg flies whilst not scaring her away was easier said than done... However, I did get there in the end, and was rewarded with lovely close views of this impressive and beautiful dragonfly, one of our fastest flyers, as well as one of the largest at 70mm long, hanging on Ragged robin wildflowers.

Southern Hawker dragonfly