Showbiz Slugs

Last November I joined 59 other volunteers in a project monitoring the slugs in our gardens. Our Slug Count Survey was being run by the lovely Imogen as part of her PhD with the RHS and Newcastle University. Once every 4 weeks we had to go out into our gardens and collect all the slugs we could find in half an hour. We’d then attempt to identify them, before posting them off to Imogen for “proper” identifications.

This year has flown passed for any number of reasons, but I still can’t believe my year of slug counting is already up. It took a bit of explaining to my neighbours as to why I went out each month with a head torch in the dark to wander round the garden with a bucket of carrot shavings (food for the slugs) for half an hour, not to mention explaining to the lovely lady in the post office why I was posting slugs! I actually found it really interesting to go out in the garden after dark and just look at what was around. I was used to going out to check on the moth trap, or feed the hedgehogs, but tended to be focussed on those activities. Searching for slugs, I noticed for the first time all the caterpillars that were out and active, the worms on the grass that vanished as they felt my footsteps approach and the spiders and woodlice and all manner of other species going about their business at night. The garden at night becomes a whole other world.

In total over the 13 counts, I sent off an amazing 1145 slugs! You’d think that might have reduced the population in my garden, but they are still very abundant. Going out the night after a count there seemed to be just as many slugs roaming the garden as before, with no sign of diminishing populations.

And the slugs themselves were clearly doing their bit to increase numbers.  Through September there were several nights when I saw pairs of large Arion slugs trailing each other round the grass. There is clearly a season for it, as I saw multiple pairs for a couple of weeks, but none before or since.

Whatever romancing was involved, it was clearly successful and I can presumably expect more Arion slugs next year.

As well as getting to see a bit of slug romance, I was really chuffed to film one of the Arion slugs getting its wriggle on. This squirming action in the video below is a characteristic feature of a couple of Arion species when disturbed.

The total number of species recorded has yet to be finalised (some are apparently getting sent for DNA analysis!), but is probably around 14. There were at least 4 species of short-keeled slugs, including this Ambigolimax sp.

There were at least 7 species of round-backed slugs including the familiar large Arion species. Finally there were 3 species of the long-keeled slugs. The one below is the Crimean Keeled Slug (Tandonia cristata) which has a network of dark lines criss-crossing the body.

My most unusual find was a Worm Slug (Boettgerilla pallens), another long-keeled slug, which as the name suggests looks like a worm! I only found 1 in all the surveys.

Finding the worm slug was good, but the best was yet to come. Our survey leader appeared on BBC’s Gardener’s World in July to try and convince the (possibly sceptical) viewing public of the delights of slugs. As part of the feature there was footage of several specimens. I was beyond excited when she told me that one of my actual slugs had been filmed for the show. Here’s a still from iPlayer showing my very own slug TV star (a Netted Field Slug, Deroceras reticulatum).

Not only did my slug feature, but it was described as being one of the biggest pest species, doing the most damage to plants. I don’t know why, but I felt ridiculously pleased that I’d got effectively the bad boy of the slug world!

So all in all this slug project has been fascinating. I love doing these citizen science projects. You usually learn something new, or see something new and either way you get the pleasure of enjoying some aspect of nature whilst contributing hopefully useful data to scientists. This particular project has given me a whole new appreciation for slugs, a group I’d previously given little thought to. I know they are not popular with gardeners and they can be a worry for those with hedgehogs in their gardens (slugs can carry parasites such as fluke and lungworm which can pass to the hedgehogs). But everything has its place and slugs have just as much right to be in a garden as everything else.

 

Flightless but Fabulous

This week I finally got to see a moth I’ve been wanting to see for a very long time – a female Vapourer. We often see Vapourer caterpillars in the garden and sometimes the male adult moths, but the female is something else. The female Vapourer has the, perhaps unenviable, trait of being flightless! Her life as a caterpillar proceeds the same as the male, but when she pupates, instead of emerging with beautiful wings, she appears as short dumpy lump who can hardly move (perhaps this is why I empathise with her!). A female Vapourer’s lot is not a glamorous one.

Back at the beginning of July I spotted this large Vapourer caterpillar on the garage wall. They are spectacular looking caterpillars with tufts protruding here, there and everywhere. 

This caterpillar very purposefully headed up the garage wall until it reached the overhang at the top – and there it settled. I saw it there an hour or so later and at first thought it had been snared by a spider’s web, but it was in fact pupating.

The caterpillars spin themselves a fairly thin whispy cocoon and can emerge as an adult within 2 weeks. The good people on a local Facebook group suggested this could be a female, so I checked the cocoon every day for weeks hoping to catch it emerge. Sadly just as the time should have been up, it looked like the garden sparrows or blue tits had pecked her out of her cocoon. We often see them pecking at small spiders and insects on the walls and it seemed this was her fate.

Fortunately that same week, I spotted another 2 caterpillars – also on the garden wall, but this time choosing a slightly safer place to pupate – beneath the garage windowsills. Tucked away there, they were less visible to the birds and perhaps stood a better chance. These ones also had the advantage (for me) of being much lower down the wall, so I could watch them more closely. The caterpillars (at this stage I didn’t know whether I’d got males or females) use some of their hairs and tufts to “decorate”  the cocoon. Since these hairs are irritants, this may serve to provide additional protection to the developing moth inside. You can see various hairs and tufts on the picture below, photographed under the windowsill.

On Sunday, exactly 14 days after I’d seen her crawl under the windowsill, a female Vapourer emerged. When they emerge the females emit pheromones to attract the males. Since the females can’t really move, the males have to come to them and the pheromones draw them in very quickly. So quickly in fact that I missed this stage of the process. I’d checked the cocoons at about 8am – no sign of any activity. I was out for the morning and by the time I checked again at noon, the female was in full egg-laying mode. The males had been and gone. Disappointing as that was, it was still fantastic to see the female laying eggs. Here are a selection of photos taken somewhat awkwardly beneath the windowsill.

On the photo below you can see what I think are the vestigial remains of wings – looking like fluffy ears, either side of her head.

Her body is really a furry sac, stuffed fill of eggs. She has legs at the front to hold on to the cocoon.

The eggs are laid directly onto the cocoon. They looked wet and a sort of olive colour as they emerged but soon turned white with a darker centre spot.

I did try to video the process, not easy as the light wasn’t great underneath the windowsill. She works determinedly laying egg after egg, all neatly arranged on the remains of the cocoon.

In all she laid 401 eggs – I read online that they can lay between 200 and 400, so she excelled herself!

I suppose I should show a photo of a male Vapourer, although their contribution to the whole process is fleeting to say the least. He is, it has to be said, a very attractive moth, with large feathery antennae for detecting the females’ pheromones.

Sadly once the female finishes laying her eggs, she dies. Her body by then has shrunk and shrivelled once it is empty of eggs. I found this one the next day lying on the ground beneath the windowsill, her eggs still safely sitting on the cocoon. I actually felt quite sad to see her like that, but her work was done and with 401 eggs she had hopefully ensured her genes would live on. Her adult life may have been brief, but she packed a lot into it. Flightless she may have been, but to me a fabulous moth. 

 

Norfolk Dragonflies

It seems a bit like a lifetime ago already, but in June we had a fantastic holiday in Norfolk. Although the species we were most keen to see was the Swallowtail butterfly, we made the most of the opportunity to see as much other wildlife as we could. One of the groups that we saw in abundance was the Odonata – the dragonflies and damselflies. In total we saw 9 species, 6 of which were new to us. I’ve been very lucky to have help identifying them all from a very friendly and helpful group on Facebook called UK Dragonflies & Damselflies.

We lucked out with our holiday let – a lovely house in Wroxham on the banks of the River Bure. Our holiday garden ran right down to the river with its own inlet for mooring boats (with our complete lack of boating skills we weren’t brave enough to have our own boat!). The area was positively alive with dragonflies and damselflies, so we could just sit and enjoy them without having to go anywhere. We saw 5 species in the garden alone.

One we had seen before, but which is still a delight every time we see it, is the Banded Demoiselle.

demoiselle drakes

They’ve got a lovely way of flicking their wings open and shut when they are resting.

We’d also seen Common Blue Damselflies before, although they’re not a species we get in the garden at home, so it was nice to just chill and watch them.

common blue damselfly male drakes

Red-eyed Damselflies were new for us and were probably the most abundant species at our holiday let. The males, as the name suggests, have vivid red eyes, with a blue body and blue tip to the tail.

red eyed damselfly male

The females don’t have the eye colour and are also more of a greeny body colour

red eyed damselfly female drakes

The red-eyed damselflies were mating all over the place, but their favourite romantic rendezvous were the water lilies. They were literally queuing up for a turn on the lily flowers. If you look closely you can see that some pairs are actually submerged, seemingly undeterred in their eagerness!

red eyed mating

There was also a 3rd species of damselfly in the garden – the Blue-tailed Damselfly. The males have a light blue spot near the end of the abdomen, but somehow I didn’t manage to get a photo of a male. The females are more interesting though in that they have at least 5 different colour forms. There seemed to be at least 2 of these forms flitting around the garden – the top one below is the more typical colour and below that is the rather grandly named “rufescens obsoleta” form.

female blue tailed

female blue tailed damsel - rufescens obsoleta

There were quite a few of the larger dragonflies about the garden, but the only one we managed to photograph was the Black-tailed Skimmer. This immature male rested nicely on the bushes to get his photo taken.

Black tailed skimmer immature male drakes

The males start of the golden colour as above, but when mature they turn blue, with a blackened tip to the abdomen – like this one we saw at Hickling Broad.

black tailed skimmer male 2 hickling

Having the river on our doorstep meant that when we got up in the mornings, we were lucky enough on a couple of occasions to spot dragonflies emerging from their larval stage. This first one is another Black-tailed Skimmer – a male (thanks again to the FB dragonfly people for identifying this). We missed the initial breaking out of the exuvia, but got this sequence of photos.

Black tail skimmer emerging 1

Black tail skimmer emerging 2

Black Tail Skimmer emerging 3

We also managed to catch on video the moment he opened his wings for the very first time – quite a privilege to see!

We did catch another dragonfly actually bursting free. It never ceases to amaze me how they expand into such huge insects out of such relatively small larvae.

Dragonfly 1 emerging 3

Our adventures out and about in Norfolk took us to various nature reserves with more dragonfly delights. At Hickling Broad we glimpsed this Hairy Dragonfly. Not a great photo but another new one for us.

Hairy dragonfly Hickling

Also at Hickling Broad we saw this gorgeous Four-spotted Chaser – so named for the spots on his wings.

Four spotted chaser Hickling

At Strumpshaw Fen we were graced by the presence of a Scarce Chaser. They are as the name suggests “scarce” and in fact are classified as “near threatened”, so it was a lucky spot.

scarce chaser strumpshaw

Star of the show though was the Norfolk Hawker. We saw them at Hickling Broad, Horsey Mere and Strumpshaw Fen. The Scarce Chaser may have been scarce, but the Norfolk Hawker is actually considered to be endangered and one of the rarest dragonflies in the UK. They are stunning dragonflies with green eyes, brown bodies and a yellow triangular mark at the top of the abdomen.

Norfolk hawker horsey

We even caught this pair of Norfolks doing the best to ensure that they became just that little bit less rare!

Norfolk hawkers mating hickling

So that’s 9 species of dragon/damselfly seen in a week without really even trying! A few years ago we started on a quest to see all the British species of butterfly and only have 5 to go on those. I think we may just have found the next group to focus on – and Norfolk has given us a great start already.

Butterfly No. 53!

Thanks to Covid, butterfly no. 53 has been the longest in planning of all the butterflies we’ve seen so far. We had originally planned to go on holiday for a week in Norfolk last June and had booked the accommodation way back in 2019. But of course that all got postponed and then our original booking got cancelled as they sold the property, so we had to find an alternative. Fortunately we managed to book a fantastic house in the middle of the Norfolk Broads and finally got the chance to go in search of the Swallowtail butterflies.

The Swallowtail is the UK’s largest butterfly and an absolute stunner. It looks far too exotic to be found here, so it’s one we’ve wanted to see for a long time. Swallowtails can pretty much only be found in the UK in the Norfolk Broads, where their caterpillars’ food plant – milk parsley grows. We visited Hickling Broad on what turned out to be World Swallowtail Day (purely by chance had we booked our holiday to coincide with this) and went on a short guided boat tour. Our guide very kindly pointed out some of the milk parsley – a fairly non-descript, carrot-top like plant, which we would never have noticed otherwise.

milk parsley

We glimpsed a few swallowtails from the boat, but most of our sightings were on foot – staking out the reed beds and waiting. We were not alone – half a dozen other keen swallowtail watchers were also risking the baking mid-day heat to get a glimpse and hopefully a photo or two.

Photographing moving butterflies in reed beds is not an easy task. As with so many other wildlife photos we try to take, there is always a blade of grass or in this case a reed in the way. So we never got what I’d call a perfect shot, but we did at least get some recognisable ones. So amongst the hundreds of reedy photos we took, here are some of the best:

swallowtail

swallowtail (5)

swallowtail (4)

swallowtail (3)

swallowtail (2)

swallowtail (1)

They may not be award-winning snaps, but you can at least see the “tails” which give them their name. As we started to head back around the reserve, a couple of butterflies chose to fly up and perch on tall blades above the general reed bed. Unfortunately we were the wrong side really, but still got stunning views of the underside of the butterfly.

swallowtail on grass

Chris even managed to get a shot of one in flight – if photographing them in the reed beds was difficult, capturing them in flight was virtually impossible, so he did well to get even this fuzzy shot.

swallowtail in flight

Our trip to Hickling Broads was on the first full day of our holiday, so to see the Swallowtails then was great as it meant we could relax for the rest of the week and any further sightings were a bonus. It would have been nice to get some slightly better photos, but just seeing them was a delight. If it hadn’t been for the baking heat, we could happily have just sat for hours watching them glide about. Proof if ever any was needed that you don’t have to go abroad to see stunning wildlife.

Another Bee Blog

I’ve not managed to blog much lately, but rather than it being for lack of things to blog about, there’s almost been too much. There’s a lot going on in the garden at this time of year and I get distracted far too easily! Bees, moths, dragonflies, tadpoles – I spend so much time watching them all, I don’t quite get round to writing about them. But it’s a nice problem to have and much better than having an empty garden devoid of wildlife!

Anyway I’ve finally managed to collate some photos of this year’s red mason bees. I blogged about these bees last year (Bee ‘n’ Bees | Too Lazy To Weed) so this kind of follows on with their story. Last year I’d bought a super-duper new bee hotel with viewing windows. At the end of last summer I was left with a number of the tubes in the hotel filled with red mason bee cocoons, all neatly separated by their little mud walls.

Red mason cocoons in house

In February this year I removed the cocoons to allow me to clean out the chambers for reuse. The cocoons were safely stored in a special storage container, before being put out in the release chamber of the bee hotel, ready for them to emerge when conditions were right for them. It was fascinating to see these perfect little bundles, knowing they contained the next generation of red mason bees.

red mason cocoons

The bees started emerging in April, leaving behind their empty cocoons.

empty cocoons

The males tend to emerge first and hang around waiting for the females. Their emergence coincides with the apple blossom, which is always alive with bees of all kinds, including the red masons.

red mason

Red mason peeping out

red mason in blossom

When the females start to appear, the males go crazy buzzing round the hotels trying to be the first to mate. On some sunny days it was a real frenzy around the hotels.

The mating pairs often drop to the ground to “continue their business”, so we have to be very careful where we tread when walking passed the hotels.

Once mated the females start filling up the bee hotels with the next generation. Each egg is provisioned with fresh, bright yellow pollen and sealed in its little mud chamber.

almost full

full mason bee house

The female carries the pollen in a “pollen brush” consisting of hairs on the underside of her abdomen. She then uses her legs to scrape the pollen off the brush and deposit it in the new cell.

There are still a few females about, but the bee hotels are almost full and it’s coming to the end of their season. At the moment there are plenty of developing bee embryos, so the garden should be buzzing with red mason bees again next spring. One slight cloud (albeit a very pretty cloud) on the bee horizon is the presence of ruby-tailed wasps. These wasps parasitize the bee nests, laying their own eggs in there when they get the chance. There have been quite a few of these gorgeous looking wasps around this year, but hopefully the bees have laid enough eggs to spare a few for the wasps.

ruby tailed wasp

Out & About – Blackhouse Wood & Crews Hill

Yesterday was a lovely sunny Sunday, so we thought we’d try and have a walk around the little nature reserve we’d failed to get to a few weeks ago – Blackhouse Wood and Crews Hill. Apparently yesterday was National Dawn Chorus Day, so a walk in the woods seemed like a nice idea to hear some bird song. With the Too Lazy ethos we were of course too late to really get the dawn chorus – the birds were doing more of a brunch chorus, by the time we got there, but it was lovely all the same.

Crews Hill signBlackhouse Wood and Crews Hill (which is also wooded) are both owned by Worcestershire Wildlife Trust and are joined to form one long thin area of semi-natural ancient woodland. The shape of the wood meant that for once, we were reasonably confident that we couldn’t possibly get lost!

The path ran pretty much straight through the wood, although it did undulate quite a bit thanks to old quarrying efforts years ago. We may not have quite been up in time for the dawn chorus, but for the first hour or so we didn’t see a soul. A lovely peaceful place to visit.

Crews woodland trail

There were a lot of squirrels (all grey of course round here) scampering through the trees and lots of rustling of mice in the undergrowth.

Squirrel

The wood was full of bird song, although spotting the birds themselves wasn’t that easy. To start with there seemed to be loads of different birds singing, but they almost always turned out to be Blue Tits. I’d no idea Blue Tits had such a variety of songs!

Blue tits

Eventually of course we did manage to differentiate some other bird species. Chris has one of those apps that will identify bird songs for you and it picked up a song thrush although we didn’t actually see it. One of the few songs we can both recognise is the chiffchaff and they were also obliging enough to pose for photos, although this one didn’t look too happy about it.

Chiff chaff

Blackbirds, robins, goldfinches and of course woodpigeons could also be heard singing their socks off. The surprising highlight of the vocals though was an owl calling – neither of us have ever heard one calling in broad daylight like that. Sadly we didn’t see the owl, but we were really lucky to get a good view of a buzzard.

Buzzard

There were quite a few butterflies flitting about in the more open sunny patches; most as usual too quick to photograph apart from this Holly Blue and Speckled Wood.

CJL_1662

Speckled Wood

Invertebrate highlight for me was spotting this tiny longhorn moth. As it fluttered down to land, it was its enormous antennae that caught my eye. The antennae are way longer than the moth’s body (hence the name) and it looks like it must take an extraordinary effort to keep them out of the way when flying.

Longhorn moth

We spent a very enjoyable couple of hours pottering around the wood; it’s nice to find another little gem of a reserve virtually on our doorstep.

Knapp Time

Lovely weather at the weekend, so we set out with great intentions of visiting a new (to us) nature reserve. Our chosen spot was a small wood not far away – unfortunately this wood only has a tiny car park and others clearly had the same idea. With nowhere to park, we headed back to our perennial favourite – the Knapp and Papermill Nature Reserve. We didn’t manage to get there last year so it was a very welcome “Plan B”.

In the wooded areas we were treated to our first banks of bluebells for the year, looking fabulous in the dappled light.

bluebells

The smell of garlic was heavy in the air in places, with banks of Wild Garlic just coming into flower.

wild garlic 2

Lesser celandines, wood anemones and primroses completed the spring flower array. A plant we don’t see so often was the Butterbur. I always think the Butterbur flowerheads look slightly alien. The leaves in the summer grow huge and were apparently used to wrap butter before the invention of fridges!

butterbur

We’d hoped for some spring butterflies to complement the spring flowers and we weren’t disappointed – 6 species at least – Peacocks, Small Tortoiseshells, Commas, Holly Blues, Brimstones and Orange-Tips.

peacock on bluebell

The Orange-Tips really signal spring to me. We only saw males – hard to miss with their bright orange tipped wings. They were particularly prevalent around the cuckooflowers, a favourite food for their caterpillars.

Orange tip (3)

Apart from the odd bee, it was pretty much butterflies and birds that caught our attention on this visit. The birds were obvious from the start, with this female chaffinch making the most of the bird food the ranger puts out at the entrance to the reserve.

chaffinch

There were buzzards overhead and what I thought was some weird loud bird in the woods, until we decided it was actually a deer calling! Slightly more recognisable were the calls of blue tits and chiffchaffs, although we never actually saw the latter. We saw a pair of blackcaps, but only the female posed for a photo.

female blackcap

There’s a small river running through the reserve and a male mallard was busy snuffling about with his head under water looking for food.

Mallard (1)

Mallard (2)

Further upstream a Grey Wagtail was bobbing about around the weir. The weir seems to be a favourite spot for them to catch insects washed down the slope and we see wagtails here on most visits. This one was reflected beautifully in the still water above the weir.

grey wagtail (6)

Star of the show though has to be this Dipper – Britain’s only aquatic songbird (a beloved fact of many a Springwatch episode!). I have to admit that only Chris saw the dipper as I had been too lazy to walk down the steep steps (or more precisely couldn’t face walking back up said steps!) to that part of the river. So he got the twitcher’s tick without me.

Dipper (1)

Dipper (2)

We usually focus on the wildlife or wild plants we see, but sometimes something a bit more abstract catches the eye. The wagtails weren’t the only things reflecting in the water – we both loved the reflection of this log in the still water behind the weir. A quiet, peaceful image to finish on.

reflections

Out and About – Hollybed Farm Meadows

HollybedA sunny, if cold, Easter weekend and we took advantage of the lockdown easing to get out and about for the first time this year. So we headed out to find a small nature reserve that we’d not been to before – Hollybed Farm Meadows. We drove past hordes of people heading for the Malvern Hills, but fortunately Hollybed Meadows were virtually deserted and it felt like we had the reserve to ourselves. The meadows may not be at their best until the summer probably, but now we know how to get there, we will definitely go back later in the year.

The hedgerows were full of blossom; I think this is Blackthorn although I wouldn’t argue if someone says it’s Hawthorn. It was lovely whatever it was.

blackthorn

There were plenty of early spring bees enjoying the blossom, plus one of our favourites – the Dark-edged Bee-fly.

beefly 2

Besides the blossom in the hedgerows, the margins of the field were scattered with a variety of spring flowers (there may have been flowers all over the fields, but we were sticking to the footpaths around the edges).  We (tentatively) identified Wood Anemones, Violets (violet and white ones), Cowslips, Celandine and Dead-nettles.

wood anemone

Violets

cowslips

celandine

dead nettle

The floral highlight was probably spotting the first bluebells of the year, reminding us to go out later this month and see the carpets of bluebells on the Malverns.

bluebell

At the far side of the meadows, we went down a bank and were rewarded with the sounds of Chiffchaffs and woodpeckers. We also got lucky with sightings of our first Speckled Woods and Orange Tip butterflies of the year.

Orange Tip

Across a small stream we could see a field full of what we assumed to be wild daffodils. I don’t think it was part of the reserve, so we didn’t venture in, but it felt like a field full of spring!

field of daffodils

An orchard area was being grazed by the cutest, but scruffiest goats ever.

young goatGoat

As we headed back we were treated to a lovely sunny view of the Malvern Hills. We see the hills every day from our garden, but it was really nice to see them from a different perspective. All in all a very pleasant couple of hours and a taste of freedom!

Malvern hills