Sunday, 7 August 2016

Flying Ant Day...

Friday the 5th of August was our 'Flying Ant Day' in East Cheshire. With temperatures in the early/mid 20s (C) and calm and humid conditions in the afternoon, the garden came alive with ants first swarming in between the paving slabs and in the lawn before ultimately flying off in every direction.

The ants typically found in UK gardens are the small black 'Lasius niger' species. They spend the majority of their time in their underground nests with one queen and many thousand worker ants comprising the colony. Each year in summertime winged ants made up of young queens and males also develop within the colony and when the environmental conditions are just right, they will leave the nest to take to the air for their first and only time - their so-called 'nuptial flight'. 

The first sign of anything unusual was the swarming of ants coming from between the flagstones. A closer look revealed that among them were hundreds if not thousands of winged ants emerging, the young queens the more obvious being considerably larger than their male suitors. The young queens leave first closely followed by the males (whose only purpose is to mate before dying an untimely and unpleasant death!). They will mate on the wing and then the newly mated queens will search for a suitable place to set up a new nest and colony and will ultimately lose their wings. 

The odds are phenomenally stacked against any one of these individual queens successfully setting up a new colony so rather than resenting these insects as creating a [tabloid headline style] 'annoying invasion', better instead I thought marvel at what really is quite a spectacular and peculiarly synchronised annual phenomenon. The whole episode in our garden was over within about an hour, but was pretty special while it lasted

Young queens emerging from between paving slabs

Young queen being tended by worker (showing the considerable size difference)

The flying ants (this a young queen) were clambering all over low-growing plants before take-off

The video is shaky but at least shows the differences in size between the largest flying ants - the young queens, the considerably smaller flying males, and smallest of all the workers.


Monday, 18 July 2016

Pink and green elephants

In a period of time that seems to be dominated by nothing but bad news, I’ll break with the trend and post some good news, albeit on a very small local and personal scale.... The successful emergence and release of an Elephant Hawkmoth in our care for 9 months. 

In summary;

29/08/2015 Caterpillar found munching through a garden Fuchsia, nearly fully grown.
01/09/2015 Caterpillar stops eating and settles to pupate, pupa moved to garage to overwinter a couple of days later.

Sept 2015 through to May 2016 ------Looooooooong wait----- (regular checks and occasional misting with water to stop pupa drying out)

01/05/2015 Cold snap finally lifts, pupa brought back into warmth of the house
15/05/2015 Pupa still very much alive - twitches when covering of leaves removed
29/05/2016 Moth emerges from chrysalis
30/05/2016 Moth released 

Elephant hawkmoth caterpillar

In an earlier blog post I’d written about an elephant hawkmoth caterpillar that we found on our garden fuchsia and relocated to a ‘butterfly cage’ stocked with another of this caterpillar’s favourites - Rosebay Willowherb. This was back in August 2015. (The butterfly cage was something bought by my son at a school fete many years ago and I'd always kept, just in case....) Unlike some of the other members of the hawkmoth family, they do not pupate in the soil, instead they use the leaf litter – another good reason (as if one was needed) to not overly tidy a garden in autumn. It wasn’t many days before the caterpillar newly in our care stopped eating and motored around looking for a suitable place to pupate before finally weaving together with silk a loose covering of leaves... and pupating. The pupae was duly left undisturbed and put into the garage (the coolest sheltered place we have) for the winter with just an occasional light misting of water to stop it from drying out. 

A sudden twitch - still very much alive in there!
Come the spring and warmer weather in early May the pupae was brought back into the warmth of the house for the adult moth to hopefully emerge. A weekend away had been planned and after a few weeks in the warmth the moth still hadn’t hatched. At this point, I was starting to wonder if everything was ok in there - the adult moths are on the wing between May and July, May was already nearing its end. Carefully pulling back the leaves which were covering the pupae I was pleased to see the previously hidden, perfectly formed pupae. It didn’t take long to realise it was still alive – the disturbance caused the pupae to twitch... I thought I was imagining things, but sure enough the abdomen would suddenly twitch to the side in response to the disturbance and presumably perceived threat. No doubt showing my ignorance here but I wrongly thought that a solid-looking pupae like this would be pretty immobile! The weekend we’d booked away arrived and with still no sign of the moth emerging it was transported to my parents’ to be babysat for the weekend – having looked after the pupae for 9 months and counting I thought it would be just my luck if it emerged while we were away, I really didn’t want to come back to a dead moth. I’d read that in the days just before hatching the pupae takes on a slight pinkish hue... and I was sure I could see some pink there....

Butterfly rearing 'cage'
We went away and so a text duly came - “Moth has hatched, instructions please!”. A call with instructions followed and it’s no exaggeration to say that after all this time I was keen to get back to see the newly emerged moth we’d looked after for the past 9 months.  Luckily for me, it takes several hours for them to be ready to fly following emergence. It’s important that they have space to let their wings properly unfurl and stretch out as they are pumped full of body fluids and to dry out - a selection of sticks had been put into the butterfly cage for this purpose but in the event the moth just climbed up the side of the cage and stayed put there instead. 

By the time we got back the wings were fully outstretched and the beautiful colours were apparent, the elephant hawkmoth being one of our most vibrantly coloured of moths in the UK with olive green with pink markings above and solid magenta below – perfect to camouflage itself amongst the caterpillar’s foodplants of willowherbs and fuchsias. I had hoped I’d be able to get lots of macro photos of the processes of emergence and the stage of drying out and pumping out the wings but in the circumstances that wasn’t to be... but we were very happy at having had a successful rearing and emergence of this striking insect.

Adult Elephant hawkmoth

The release came after dark, when we were satisfied that the Blackbird family (which were busy feeding a nest of chicks in one of our hedges) had gone to bed, and we couldn’t see any of the pipistrelle bats that sometimes hunt in and around our garden. (Maybe a hawkmoth would be too big for them, but I didn’t want to take any chances!) After a little gentle persuasion the moth started his/her wings buzzing, warming up the flight muscles for several seconds before finally taking its slow and steady maiden flight like a tiny helicopter before disappearing into the moonlit darkness.

The empty chrysalis

Finally a quick reminder that in the UK the Big Butterfly count has started and continues until August 7th. Just spend 15 minutes on a warm sunny day in your garden, a park, or anywhere you might see some butterflies and submit any sightings to Big Butterfly count. The weather so far this year hasn't done them many favours but hopefully sightings will pick up over the remainder of summer.

Holly Blue in the garden (taken in spring)

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Baby rabbit photo diary...

For just over a week now we have had a young rabbit visiting the garden every day. I can only assume that this is the same individual having never seen one in the garden previously. Whilst not everyone might welcome rabbits in their garden due to their unfortunate habit of eating flowers, fruits and vegetables in addition to their more regular diet of grasses and meadow plants, it's been impossible not to fall for this lone youngster. Rabbit kits are undeniably cute, this one would fit into your hand. The rabbit has been in our garden for considerable periods of time every day (I mostly work from home so can keep half an eye on comings and goings) so whereas I initially thought the visits would be brief and short-lived, we are now left wondering where the rest of her family is, where she has come from and where she is sheltering. I can't help but wonder if she is lost, or if something happened to her mother and/or burrow.  (A hedgehog shelter we already had from last summer (sadly we haven't seen or heard any sign of hedgehogs this year) has been moved and stuffed with hay as a makeshift bolthole.) The following from the Mammal Society website made me speculate whether this youngster may have been from a nearby 'stop' as opposed to a well established warren (the nearest one I'm aware of being several streets away);

"Social groups vary from a single pair to up to 30 rabbits using the same warren. Within large groups there is a distinct social hierarchy. The most dominant males, known as bucks, have priority of access to females, known as does. The most dominant does have access to the best nest sites. Bucks and does seldom fight with each other. Competition between does for nest sites can lead to serious injuries and death. Lower ranking rabbits may be forced to breed in single entrance breeding "stops" away from the main burrows where they and their young are more vulnerable to predators."

Rabbits originate in the Western Mediterranean countries of Spain and Portugal and were introduced to the UK by the Normans in the 12th century to provide a source of meat and fur. Numbers gradually rose to the extent that they were considered a serous pest of agriculture though the introduction of the devastating disease myxomatosis (I wrote a little on this in a previous post) led to a dramatic decline in their numbers (estimated to be between 90-95%). Rabbits are of course a prey species, and are an important food source to wild predators such as foxes, weasels, stoats, buzzards and owls. They are also killed by dogs and cats and it is these latter two that would pose the most danger in a semi-urban area like ours with several neighbours owning dogs and the customary couple of cats roaming the neighbourhood.  Sadly the odds are stacked against her, wild rabbits rarely live more than 3 years and according to the Mammal society website - "Over 90% die in the first year of life, and most of these in the first three months", so we'll enjoy her little visits for as long as they last. 

As a prey species rabbits are of course generally very wary but if we are already outside (and keep fairly still and quiet) this youngster has wandered around happily making the most of a lawn that is nearly as much clover as it is grass...

Checking if it's safe to come out

Keeping clean

Clover is lovely...
Flowers are quite nice too...

So is super-big-giant-grass (pampas)

All this eating is quite tiring...

Very tiring...

But still need to keep alert...

The 'leaping bunny' shots need some work...

Garden babies

After a break from the blog for a few weeks I now find myself with lots of catching up to do... So I'll make start with some of the new lives that have been visiting the garden. The first of the avian youngsters to appear were the Starlings, having grown up somewhere in the soffits of our neighbours' house, these bold and cheeky youngsters have been happily eating the mealworms we put out every day. That and a little bit of playing with some pulled-up weeds that hadn't been cleared away...

Juvenile Starling

Young Starling playing
Fledgling starlings have been closely followed by young Robins and Dunnocks. Juvenile Robins are obvious enough from their speckled appearance and lack of orange chest, but young Dunnocks could be easily missed - they are quite similar to adults but more 'streaky' in plumage. A brood of noisy and boisterous Magpies have made appearances as have young House Sparrows.

Young Robin
Young Dunnock bathing


The occupants of a Blackbird nest around the back of one of our hedges are now making an appearance with 3 youngsters visiting the garden. Their Dad has been remarkably attentive and it was very sweet watching the youngsters stood amongst mealworms, whilst still begging for their Dad to feed them to them, which he dutifully did. Things have progressed quickly from a few days ago and they now feed themselves! 

With this abundance of naive youngsters about, and no doubt with chicks of his own to feed, a male Sparrowhawk has been making a regular appearance. The adult male Blackbird has been the one to sound the alarm and send all the birds undercover whilst he has - perhaps foolhardily - vented his fury at times from only a couple of metres away, as well as hot-tailed him out of the garden. Woodpigeons have been busy nest-building so perhaps we will soon see the young squabs in the garden...

Young Blackbird
Causing panic in the garden - a Sparrowhawk

More for the nest... a Woodpigeon

Last but certainly not least for the garden babies, we think we've solved the mystery of where some of our strawberries have been going....

Postscript; the morning after posting and a young Woodpigeon has appeared in the garden. This youngster is a little smaller than his/her parents but the most obvious difference is the lack of white 'collar'.

Young Woodpigeon

Post-postscript; Perhaps a few extra facts would be useful too... As a very general rule for small passerines (songbirds) eggs take around 2 weeks to hatch, and the youngsters a further 2 weeks (give or take) to fledge. Many of these small birds can have 2 or even 3 broods in any given breeding season, though the Tit family are an exception tending to only have 1 very large brood of chicks and only rarely a second. For many waders, birds of prey and owls, the timeframe is very roughly 4 weeks to hatch and 4 weeks to fledge, given the time limitations resulting from longer incubation and chick rearing periods, they tend to only have one brood per breeding season. 

Below is a little bit more detail on some typical numbers of broods and chicks as well as timings for hatching and fledging for some familiar birds, taken from the BTO's nest monitoring guide;

Species Number of
Blackbird 2-3 3-4 13-14 14
Blue Tit 1 8-10  14 16-22
Chaffinch 1 4-5 11-13 14
Collared Dove 2-3 2 14-16 18
Dunnock 2 4-5 11-12 12
Goldfinch 2 4-5 12-13 14-15
Great Tit 1 6-9 14 19
Greenfinch 2 4-5 13 13-16
House Sparrow 2-3 4-5 12 14-15
Jackdaw 1 4-5 21-22 22-28
Magpie 1 4-6 21-22 22-28
Robin 2 4-5 13-14 13-14
Sparrowhawk 1 4-5 35 24-28
Starling 1  4-5 12 21
Tawny Owl 1 2-3 28-30 32-37
Woodpigeon 2-3 2 17 29-35
Wren 2 5-6 16 17

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Formby point

An hour's drive from my local patch towards the coast lies the town of Formby in Merseyside. The pine forests and dunes to the west of the town at Formby Point are designated as a 'Site of Special Scientific Interest' (SSSI) because of their importance to wildlife, the area is managed by the National Trust. The main reason for visiting was primarily because this is the closest place to me (so far as I am aware), where you are able to see Red squirrels, these small and endearing mammals having disappeared from Cheshire some 25 years ago.

Since the introduction of Grey squirrels (or more correctly Eastern Gray squirrels) to the UK from their native North America, populations of our native Red squirrel have plummeted. This has been due to a combination of factors - the larger greys can eat large quantities of tree seeds, even before they have fully ripened, giving them a competitive advantage and reducing the availability of food for reds. They also have a more omnivorous diet which can include the eggs and young of birds in spring, and they have been known to raid the winter food caches of reds if they find them. Greys can also harbour and easily spread a pox virus to their smaller cousins which reds have little or no immunity to, and which often proves fatal to them. It is estimated that within 15 years of greys arriving in an area inhabited by reds, the latter will disappear. 

As reviled as greys often are, I am mindful that they are only here because of deliberate releases in the Victorian era. Once seen as fashionable additions to country estates, the first releases of Grey squirrels in the UK are attributed to the Henbury Park estate in Cheshire in 1876. (Another dubious distinction for Cheshire!) Similar such releases continued in estates around the country for more than 50 years following. The greys can also hardly be blamed for the wholesale destruction of much of the mature and pine forest habitats to which the reds are best suited.
For sake of comparison I put together a table from information on the two species from the Mammal Society;

Grey squirrel relaxing on my old garden fence

Armed with some shop-bought hazelnuts (which I'd been advised to bring along to tempt the squirrels), on a hastily arranged day off work to make the most of an entire day of sunshine, it was a fairly early start in order to arrive at Formby soon after the car park opened and while the squirrels, being diurnal, were [I hoped] still busy foraging on the ground after their night's fast.

Much of the time there I spent on the short and pleasant circular 'squirrel walk' in the pine forest. Low wooden fencing keeps people to the paths and there are also squirrel feeders in the conifers which are topped up during the day. I haven't seen a Red squirrel in a few years, and have never before seen them this close - keeping still and quiet they would be just a few feet away at times. In a real case of cuteness overload - it was impossible to resist taking lots of photos of these beautiful animals.... 

I used to have a squirrel 'teddy' just like this!
Burying nuts for leaner times

And just for a bit of fun... an animated gif from a 'burst' of images, photo-bombing in the background is one of several ubiquitous Woodpigeons.

Later in the day it got much busier making spotting the squirrels more tricky as they retreated back into the tree canopy to avoid the noise and particularly, I suspect, the dogs. At this time of year I was informed they are also likely to have young kits in their dreys to attend to so getting there early certainly paid off.

The site is also important for Sand lizards which are one of the UK's rarest reptiles. They enjoy basking on the sand dunes preferring to keep close to Marram grass or other vegetation to which they can run for cover. Perhaps early afternoon was too late in the day when I was wandering the dunes in search of these pretty lizards - a local jogger confirmed I was in the right spot for them - but they were nowhere to be seen. No tracks, nor even the sound of tell-tale scurrying when - as is so often the case - they spot you before you spot them. 

So with no luck finding the lizards I instead made the most of what was an exceptionally beautiful clear and calm day, taking in the scenery which, with the cloudless blue sky, felt less like the UK, and more like somewhere in the Mediterranean.