Luring an Emperor

Having missed most of last week’s sunny spell, (due to the considerable inconvenience of having to work for a living!) we headed out on Sunday to Hartlebury Common. Almost exactly 2 years ago we’d gone to Hartlebury in search of the Emperor Moth – with zero success that time. But this time we had a secret weapon – a pheromone lure!

Male emperor moths fly during the day looking for females. The females fly at night, but during the day they sit in the undergrowth wafting irresistible pheromones out to the males. The males pick up the scent with their feathered antennae and home in on the object of their desire. You can now buy pheromone lures that will fool the poor males into thinking you are a desirable female. This does feel a  bit like cheating and a bit mean to deceive the males this way. But since it was probably the only way we were going to see this beautiful moth, I’m afraid we went for it – although making sure we didn’t leave the pheromone lure out for too long to disrupt their normal behaviour.

So we wandered about for a bit before selecting what seemed a suitable spot to put the lure down. We’d barely got set up when the first male came hurtling over the gorse. It shot over the lure and landed on a gorse bush nearby, where he then stayed. They are big moths, so you’d think they’d be easy to spot, but it was surprisingly difficult even when we knew roughly where he’d landed. When we did find him, he was hanging on a twig with his underside towards us – so here’s one of our first photos.

They are really quite furry/hairy moths with very impressive big eye spots on the wings. The males’ antennae are very large and feathery to pick up the female pheromones. Not easy to focus on, but here’s my best effort.

Almost immediately a second male came bombing in towards the lure. This one however refused to settle. It seemed (not surprisingly) confused by the lure and flew around excitedly looking for a female. This blurry image is him circling the lure.

While he hovered around the lure looking for the female, I hovered around him trying to get a decent photo. As he didn’t settle, the best I managed of him was this flying shot. Not great, but at least you can see the lovely yellow underwings and all four peacock-like eyespots.

This second male eventually gave up and disappeared back into the gorse. The original male though eventually shifted position, so that we could now see his other side. So we finally got the classic Emperor moth shots we were looking for.

Having got the photos we wanted, we packed up to leave the males in peace to pursue genuine females. The moths weren’t the only animals with love on their minds though – these bloody-nosed beetles were clearly feeling spring in the air.

Hartlebury Common is very busy with birds. Last year we’d seen a small bird that was new to us and had identified it as either a Chiffchaff or a Willow Warbler. They are only distinguishable by their song and since we didn’t know to pay attention to this until it was too late, we couldn’t identify the bird. But this year we were definitely hearing Chiffchaffs all around us, so I’m reasonably confident that this one is a Chiffchaff (and probably the previous one was too).

The most obvious animals on the common were these cows with their resplendent horns. No idea of the breed, but they were pretty impressive. They appeared to be free to roam, so were presumably used to maintain the status quo of the vegetation.

So all in all we were very happy with our latest trip to Hartlebury. The pheromone lure worked a treat and the moths were every bit as stunning as we’d hoped. I’ve also bought the pheromone for the currant clearwing moth. These moths won’t come to regular moth traps, but like the emperors, the males are attracted to pheromones. So I’m hoping in the summer to try this out around our currant bushes on the allotment. Fingers crossed.

It’s a Frog’s Life

I’ve been virtually staking out our allotment pond since the middle of February, hoping for frog spawn.  As it turns out, it was probably a good job we didn’t get any spawn that early, as the heavy snow at the beginning of March would probably have wiped it all out. But in mid-March there were squeals of excitement down the lottie, when we spotted the first magical clusters. We had frog spawn! We’d put in the pond too late for spawn last year, but we did get several frogs and newts using it throughout the summer. So it was great that the frogs at least deemed it suitable for spawning in. No sign of any toad or newt spawn yet, but I live in hope. As I’d just got a waterproof GoPro camera a month or so ago, the arrival of the frog spawn seemed the perfect opportunity to test it out. So here’s my very first underwater video, taken on the first day we spotted the frog spawn – 11th March.

Frog Spawn

Since then I’ve been down the lottie regularly to check on progress. We can’t be sure exactly which day the frog spawn was laid, but I would guess it was only a day or two before we saw it. At first there was only one clump, but two days later there were three. So I’ve been trying to keep a video/photo diary of the development. I’m still getting the hang of the settings on the GoPro and also on getting things in focus, so apologies if the images are sometimes a bit blurry. So first up here are the eggs on Day 2 – pretty much perfectly round dots in their jelly bubbles.

No real changes were visible to the naked eye for the first week or so, but by day 11 they were starting to change shape. No longer perfectly round, the eggs were more like fat commas.

Two days later and the comma shaped were definitely elongating, with the suggestion of a tail.

By day 15 there were definitely mini tadpoles inside the jelly blobs. No sign of movement yet, but heads and tails were clearly visible.

Day 18 (28th March) and the tadpoles had started to hatch. Some were still in their protective jelly, but quite a few were clearly visible stuck to the outside of the eggs. These were all on the first clump of spawn we’d seen, the tadpoles in the other two clumps were not surprisingly a few days behind, having been laid later.

Day 20 and most of the first clump had hatched. They were starting to move a bit more now and had got a bit bigger so that gills were just about visible on some of them. They were still feeding off the jelly of the spawn.

Day 20

 

Day 24 (3rd April) and some of the slightly larger tadpoles were starting to move away from the jelly clump. Some of the tadpoles on the other two clumps of spawn were now starting to hatch too.

Day 29 and they were free swimming – the pond was alive with wriggling tadpoles. They were grazing on the algae growing on the sides of the pond and on the rocks.

I felt ridiculously proud of them that they had managed to make it this far, despite the rubbish weather spring has thrown at them! But they’re not out of the woods yet – as the next video shows there are still dangers lurking in the pond!

Day 29 8th April

 

Newts will eat tadpoles, so the chances are that not all of these will survive, but hopefully there are enough of them that some at least will make it. The newts have to survive too. With a bit of luck maybe we’ll get some newts laying eggs too – the newt in the video appeared to have a bit of a frilly ridge so is perhaps in breeding condition.

So that’s the progress so far in the first month of our tadpoles lives. Hopefully enough of them will survive that I’ll be able to do an update in a month or two’s time, as the tadpoles develop into baby frogs. Fingers crossed!

 

Spring Is In The Air (and in the Pond)

It is now a couple of weeks since the official start of spring, but it’s felt like it’s been a bit slow actually happening. But having looked at some of the animals we’ve seen in the last few weeks, maybe spring is slowly, tentatively, making itself known after all.

So first up, one of my all time favourites and the first bee of the year – the Hairy Footed Flower Bee. As is so often the case with these, I heard it before I saw it – a male buzzing energetically around the primroses. No sign of any females yet, I think they emerge slightly later.

March also sees the start of the annual Garden Moth Scheme. It’s been a particularly cold and wet start so I’ve not had a huge variety, but numbers are slowly picking up. Here’s a nice trio of the Orthosia genus – a Common Quaker, Clouded Drab & Twin-spotted Quaker.

The moths may be trickling in, but the butterflies have been very slow – not seen a single one in the garden yet this year. But we went for a walk in nearby Priory Gardens a week or so ago and spotted quite a few. A bright yellow Brimstone (way too fast to get a photo), several Commas and at least half a dozen Small Tortoiseshells – all basking in the sunshine.

One thing I’ve been particularly looking forward to is the arrival of frog spawn in our allotment pond. We put the pond in too late last year to get spawn laid, but this year we were good to go and the frogs didn’t disappoint. Here’s a quick video using the new GoPro camera. More froggy updates to follow in the next blog post as the tadpoles develop.

Frog Spawn

 

We didn’t see any frog spawn in the ponds at Priory Gardens, but there was plenty of bird activity. A couple of moorhens and lots of ducks, including this splendid looking mallard. There’s something about watching ducks on a pond in the sunshine that is not only really relaxing, but feels very spring-like to me.

The previous blog post was all about the peregrines up on the hill, but they weren’t the only birds we saw that day. This male bullfinch looked to be enjoying the spring sunshine sitting on a wild cherry tree (cherry blossom buds being one of their favourite foods apparently).

We also spotted jackdaws that had found some crevices in the rock face to nest in. The hole didn’t look that big, but they were taking quite sizeable twigs in there, so perhaps it opened out inside.

I don’t know if this dunnock was sensing spring or just feeling a bit odd, but it was behaving very strangely. It spent about 10 minutes sitting on top of the hedgehog house (not a safe spot since the neighbour’s cat often sits there), fluffing up its feathers repeatedly and shuffling about. It looked almost as if it was incubating eggs but there was no nest there (I did check it hadn’t laid anything). It stretched its neck out a few times and gaped its beak as well. I know dunnocks have some weird mating habits, but there didn’t seem to be another dunnock around for it to impress with the behaviour. Whatever it was doing it got fed up eventually and flew off into the bushes quite normally. If anyone can shed any light on the behaviour, it would be very much appreciated.

The dunnock may have been behaving strangely, but it was perfectly obvious what this blue tit was up to – gathering nest material. I saw someone suggest recently that you could provide nesting material by tying two hanging basket frames together to form a rough ball and filling them with moss and the like. Apologies to whoever’s idea it was, as I can’t remember where I saw it to be able to credit them properly – but it was a great idea, thank you. We had some old hanging baskets kicking around the garage and the “lawn” is full of moss,  so this was an easy idea to achieve. And the blue tits seem to appreciate it as almost immediately they started taking great beakfuls of moss and flying off with it.

Once it had got a beak’s worth of moss it would then stop on a twig to rearrange the moss a bit more tidily (presumably so it could see where it was flying), before taking off.

Blue Tit gathering nesting material

If only these blue tits had taken the moss back to the lovely nesting box with camera in that we’ve now had up for 2 years in exactly the spot where they used to nest! But no, they must be nesting elsewhere and all we’ve got on the nestcam is a spider’s web! Still at least we know they are nesting somewhere and that we’ve helped a little bit.

And finally spring must surely be on its way because our hedgehog is back! Whether it is Fat Sam from last year emerged from hibernation or a completely different hog, I have no idea. But it looks big and healthy and has a good appetite.

First hedgehog of 2018

None of these signs of spring maybe big newsworthy events,  but sometimes it’s spotting the small things in life that gives the most pleasure. And we’re certainly very happy that spring is finally on its way to Malvern.

 

Tropical Escape

The weather prospects at the beginning of the bank holiday weekend were pretty dismal and we’d also been missing our spring butterfly fix, so came up with a cunning plan to solve both these problems – a trip to the Stratford Butterfly Farm.  I know it’s not our usual native wildlife preference (and it feels a bit like cheating), but needs must, given the grey skies we woke up to on Saturday. I’ve also always had a soft spot for these butterfly farms. The sight of hundreds of stunning butterflies floating (or in some cases zooming) around the greenhouse always lifts the spirits. We got to Stratford pretty much as the doors opened in an attempt to beat the crowds – successful for a full 5 minutes before everyone else with the same idea arrived.

Near the entrance was a table covered with fruit which had attracted lots of these large Owl butterflies. I’d taken the GoPro with me, so managed a short video clip of them.

Butterflies on fruit

As always we took literally hundreds of photos, so it’s taken me a couple of days to whittle them down and also to try and identify them. You’d think great big beautiful butterflies would be easy to identify, but apparently not. I still have a folder full of unknowns. The butterflies came from three continents – Africa, Asia and America. Here in no particular order (other than a vague grouping by continent) are some of the stunning butterflies we saw.

I’ve only managed to identify three of the Asian species – first the Clipper:

then the Lime Swallowtail:

and finally the Tree Nymph.

The only African one that I’ve managed to tentatively identify is this delightfully named – Flying Handkerchief or Mocker Swallowtail.

For some reason I had more luck identifying the American ones. The Owl butterflies were reasonably easy to get to genus (Caligo) given the large “eyes” on the underwings. They were particularly keen on the fruit and gathered wherever the staff had provided it.

The Zebra Longwings pretty much did what it says on the tin – zebra stripes on longwings!

Another longwing – the Sara Longwing (I can but dream of getting a butterfly named after me – the Lazy Shortwing perhaps?)

And another one – the Mexican Longwing:

Another Mexican one – the Blue Wave:

This large butterfly – the Queen Page, is one of the Swallowtail family I presume.

These huge White Morpho butterflies were perhaps one of my favourites. Massive butterflies that flapped lackadaisically around, seeming to prefer being near the pool in the middle, although it might just be their preferred plants were there.

We only managed a sideways shot of this snazzily striped Orange Tiger, but its upperside is a gorgeous orange with dark stripes:

One of the more common but no less stunning butterflies there was the Malachite:

I wondered whether this Flame butterfly was newly emerged as it looked a bit crumpled still?

Arguably the most famous butterfly species is the Monarch. Renowned for its incredible migrations of thousands of miles and huge aggregations – we were happy just to snap one.

One species I was particularly keen to see was the Glass Wing, I’ve always loved these transparent butterflies. Turns out though they’re not that easy to photograph as the camera tends to try and focus through the wings. With hindsight of course I should have switched to manual focus instead of my usual auto!

For me the most stunning butterflies are the big blue ones like this Blue Morpho – absolutely gorgeous.

I’ve included one final butterfly, although I haven’t managed to identify it. The colours on the upper wings are pretty enough, but I absolutely loved the underside of the wings (below). If anyone can identify it for me, it would be very much appreciated.

It’s always good to catch a bit of the behaviour as well as just aesthetic shots, so it was nice to spot this pair of mating butterflies.

The farm has a cabinet with chrysalises, so the public can watch the butterflies emerge. These shiny gold ones were just exquisite, although not easy to photograph through the glass.

The greenhouse is also home to two species of bird – both carefully selected not to be insectivorous.  The quail had the most adorable baby chicks running around after them – smaller than many of the butterflies.

And these pretty little zebra finches were happy to share the food bowl with the butterflies.

And finally one of the iguanas that live in the greenhouse. We learnt from a previously very close call not to stand directly underneath these and particularly not to gawp up at them with your mouth open!

So all in all, the perfect antidote to a wet and dreary Saturday morning. Roll on spring though so we can see some of our own native butterflies on the wing.

 

 

 

Easter Peregrines

We woke up this morning to a surprise – the sun was actually shining! We hadn’t been expecting to do much wildlife watching today, but headed up the Malverns as quickly as we could, before the weather could change its mind. We’ve been wanting to head up the hill for a week or so now, since a fellow Malvern resident (Jude thank you so much) mentioned Peregrine Falcons, but the hills have tended to be shrouded in mist. Not ideal for bird watching, so we grabbed the chance today.

So we headed up to what we hoped was roughly the right area. A friendly dog-walker assured us that yes, he heard them almost every day, then paused and said “but not today”! Undeterred we carried on and almost immediately heard the distinctive calls. Chris then spotted this one circling above us.

We would have been perfectly happy with this outcome – one falcon seen and heard, but then it got even better. High up in a tree we saw it land and there were two! (You wait all your life to see one peregrine then two come along!) Not only two, but judging by their next activities they were clearly a male and a female. We were a long way away and really at the limit of our lenses, but Chris caught “the action” on camera.

It didn’t last very long then the male perched on a branch above her. The female looked a bit rumpled by all the activity.

Since we were such a long way away, we found another path and headed further up the hill. Chris left me puffing and panting in his wake as he sprinted (a bit of artistic licence there) up and found a better vantage point. The pair were still sitting in the same tree – I think the female is the one on the left and the male is on the right with his back to us – but happy to be corrected on this.

They stayed there for another 10 minutes or so, allowing Chris to get some half decent shots of the one facing us. You can really see the size of those talons!

So a lovely surprise on a Sunday morning – two gorgeous falcons almost on our doorstep. Now we know to look for them, I think this will be the first of many trips to see them. Fingers crossed, given today’s activities, that they build a nest and produce eggs in the near future.