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

 

 

Spring Has Sprung

It was the Spring Equinox at the weekend – 20th March according to Google or 21st March according to my Dad whose birthday it was yesterday and he always said he was born on the first day of spring! Whichever day it was, the garden seems to be responding and there are signs of life everywhere after the long winter (and lockdown). 

Spring was ushered in a bit early back in February with the appearance of a new moth for the garden – the Spring Usher; an attractive moth and one that I’d been hoping to see for some years.

Spring Usher 1

Other insects have started to appear too. The garden has been graced with visits from both a Comma and a Brimstone butterfly – sadly both too fast and fleeting to get a decent photo of, but joys to see nonetheless. Pond skaters have popped up on the pond again. They were the first insects to move into the new pond last year so it’s nice to see them back again.

The first bees have emerged too. My perennial favourites the Hairy Footed Flower Bees are back buzzing round the garden. I’ve only seen males so far, but I think they do tend to appear before the females.

Hairy footed flower bee

I’ve not seen any active Red Mason Bees yet, but they can’t be far off. I collected the cocoons from some of the tubes in the bee houses last year and they are now safely back out waiting for them to hatch. Again I think the males may hatch first.

red mason cocoons

Another favourite – the Dark-edged Beefly appeared just at the weekend. I don’t know why, but I’ve always found them to be cheery little insects and for me they really signal that spring is on its way.

beefly

The spring flowers are out in force now – good news for the bees hopefully. We’ve got lots of self-seeded primroses all over the place and the occasion violet too.

primroses

Violet

A surprise this year was to find that we have a Hazel tree. The little sapling has just appeared amongst the bushes – we can only guess that perhaps the squirrel buried a nut and then forgot about it. Having never known anything about catkins, I discovered that the trailing flowers I was familiar with were just the males and that there were much smaller red flowers that were the females. I had to go back out and search over our tiny tree, but sure enough there were female flowers too – you learn something new every day! The red female flowers are tiny in comparison and barely noticeable. 

Hazel male catkins (1)

 

Hazel female flower

The pond has been attracting a fair amount of non-insect life too. The birds as always using it for drinking and bathing – I was particularly pleased that our resident wren got caught on camera even if it was for just a second.

A couple of our hedgehogs have emerged early from hibernation and have been seen drinking from the pond most nights. It’s always a relief to know they have survived the winter.

But the BIG news is that we have frog spawn! The first spawn appeared on 20th February, followed by another clump the next day, then 2 more clumps three weeks later. Here’s the first beautiful batch. Frog spawn day 1

I’ll do a full froggy post soon, as I’ve taken too many photos and videos to include in this one. So despite what Google and my Dad said, for me spring began on 20th February with the glistening sight of our first frog spawn.

Happy Birthday Pond

Our pond is one year old! It’s been quite a year (in more ways than one!) but the pond has been a huge success for the wildlife and for us in terms of a calming presence in an otherwise stressful year. So in a year the pond has gone from this:

to this:

It’s looking pretty well bedded in now, although there are still a few bare spots where the lining is showing that I need to sort.

The wildlife has been abundant. We’ve had frogs and newts – the newts in particular doing really well with possibly hundreds of baby newts hatched.

There’s been plenty of insect activity with beetles, pond skaters and dragonflies quickly moving in.  9 species of dragonfly/damselfly have found their way to the pond already, which is amazing.

As well as the insects we had perhaps anticipated or hoped for, there were others more surprising like moths – this Meadow Longhorn spotted on the marginal plants.

The birds have been making good use of the pond for bathing and hedgehogs, squirrels and the neighbours’ cats have all been seen drinking from it.

The only slight disappointment with the pond last year was that we didn’t get any frog spawn; but the pond was so new at spawning time it was perhaps not surprising. Will we get any this year? Well nothing yet, but it’s looking promising. This pair of frogs in an amplexus embrace have been seen for several nights – so fingers crossed.

So Happy Birthday to our pond. May the coming year bring you (and us) lots more wildlife encounters.

Miscellaneous Delights

Despite being stuck at home like many people, for much of this year, I don’t seem to have blogged as much as I would have liked. It certainly wasn’t for lack of interest in the garden – having spent an inordinate amount of time sitting out, there was plenty to see. Perhaps there was too much, or perhaps I just couldn’t face being cooped up inside to write. Whatever the reason, I’ve ended up with a lot of interesting (to me at least) snippets, that never saw the light of day. So here’s a miscellany of wildlife moments from the garden this year – they all cheered me up and they deserve their moment!

Most of this will be insects, but there are a trio of mammals making the cut.  Hedgehogs of course featured regularly in the garden. Freda our 3-legged hedgehog from the previous year not only made it through the winter, but produced at least one hoglet. Here she is looking like many mums – slightly harassed by her offspring.

 

Bats (most likely Common Pipistrelles) have always used our garden as a hunting ground in the summer months. A weed-filled garden tends also to be an insect-filled garden, so there are plenty of moths and other food for them. It may be wishful thinking on my part, but the bats do seem to be coming more frequently now we have the new pond. The pond is surely generating extra insect activity, which hopefully means more bats. I’ve tried with very limited success to film them – this was the best of a shoddy selection of shaky videos. I reckon there are at least 3 bats visible towards the end of the clip.

Third mammal is this mouse at the bird feeder, for no other reason than it was so cute.

So on to the insects. I was really chuffed to spot a Dotted Bee-fly again this year, amongst all the regular bee-flies. Both species seemed to favour warm stones around the pond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hoverflies were abundant in the garden and as usual I failed completely to get to grips with identifying them all. There were lots of different shapes and colours though, including some of the delightful bee mimic ones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One I did manage to identify though was the Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) – one of the biggest British species. They really were huge compared to the other hoverflies.

A new species to me and in fact a new group was this Potter Wasp – so called because some species construct little mud pots for nests.

Continuing on the waspy theme, here’s one of the gorgeous ruby-tailed wasp species. I tend to have mixed feelings towards these – they are of course stunningly beautiful, but they do parasitize mason bee nests and I feel very protective of my little mason bees. But live and let live and it’s nice to have diversity in the garden.

The wasps aren’t the only parasitic insects in the garden. I discovered this new addition to our garden bee fauna this year – a Sharp-tailed bee Coelioxys sp.  These ones make use of leaf-cutter bee nests.

Talking of leafcutter bees, I had meant to do a whole blog post on them. I’ve got a lot of photos and a lot of videos – so many in fact I think it became too daunting to sort through. So a full leafcutter post will have to wait until next year. In the meantime here’s a snippet.

 

We’ve had a few interesting beetles this year too. This one I spotted on the garage wall, while out checking the moth trap one night. For a split second I thought I’d got a Stag Beetle, then reality set in and I realised it was a Lesser Stag Beetle. Still a first for the garden, so very pleased to add it to our list.

The pond of course attracted lots of water beetles. This huge Great Diving Beetle misjudged his landing though and ended up in the hedgehog’s water bowl.

Also misjudging his landing was this Dung Beetle (Onthophagus coenobita) which ended up on a bit of frogbit in the pond.

Moths I’ve covered fairly extensively in other blog posts, but possibly my favourite odd moment this year was watching a male Black Arches moth flare it’s genitalia at me! It was perched on the edge of a pot and while I tried to photograph it, it started this weird behaviour. Don’t know whether it was trying to warn me off, or perhaps entice me (should I be flattered?), but it was certainly very odd. I sent the video clip to some moth experts and they weren’t sure why it was doing it either.

So that’s it really – a quick round-up of some of the wonderful wildlife I was lucky enough to see in our garden, but didn’t manage to blog about before. I feel very lucky to have had a garden to enjoy in 2020; it really has made things a lot easier to deal with when you’re surrounded by so much wildlife.

I’ll do a summary of everything else we’ve seen this year in the next blog post, with hopes and dreams for next year too. Happy New Year everyone. xx

 

 

 

Moon Garden

One of the things on my New Year’s Resolution list, way back before 2020 went crazy, was to create a Moon Garden. I’d got the idea originally from one of Butterfly Conservation’s e-newsletters; amongst the tips for things to do to encourage wildlife was to make a Moon Garden. This is specifically planted to encourage night time wildlife, in particular moths. Most of the plants are white/cream or pale yellow, so they almost glow in the moonlight. Many of them are also more fragrant at night and so should attract plenty of moths. Although at the beginning of 2020 we had already recorded 367 species of moth in the garden, there was always more to hope for!

A patch of garden had been roughly cleared in late autumn, so just needed digging over and any remaining weeds removed.  Here’s the obligatory “before” photo of the soon-to-be Moon Garden area.

Using the list from Butterfly Conservation’s website I ordered some of the plants as ready grown specimens and, to cut down costs a bit, some of the plants as seeds. One of the plants I was particularly keen to grow was the Tobacco Plant (Nicotiana alata) – known to attract the Convolvulus Hawk-moth, a large migrant moth. These grow quite large and tall and have long tubular flowers perfect for the moth’s long proboscis.

Other pale flowers included white alyssums and lavenders, evening primroses, night-scented stocks and phlox, hebe, jasmine and honeysuckle. There were a few, such as white campion, that I simply couldn’t get this year – thanks to covid closures of local garden centres and online sources being swamped with orders. But all in all I was very lucky to get a nice mix of flowers for the moon garden.

A final addition to the garden was Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina)- grown not only for the silvery-ness but also the hairiness of its foliage. This had two-fold appeal – the plant is not only attractive to moths, but the hairs on the leaves are collected by Wool Carder Bees. I’ve only ever seen one Wool Carder Bee in the garden, so had hoped to attract more. Sadly if they did come they did so while my back was turned. But the Lamb’s Ears have grown well, so hopefully next year I can split the plants to get greater coverage.

So this is what I ended up with – or at least this is the stage mid-summer before the Nicotiana and evening primroses took over. For some reason I forgot to take a photo later on before they all died off again! This part of the garden really did smell lovely in the evenings, with the mix of the honeysuckle and other night scented flowers.

So I’d built it, but would they come? Well I may not have got a Convolvulus Hawk-moth yet, but plenty of other species have been more obliging. We started the year on 367 moth species recorded for the garden and to date we now have 405 – an increase of 38.  Of course I can’t prove that all these 38 are a direct result of planting the moon garden, but I’m sure some of them at least must be. And since the garden looks and smells lovely anyway, it’s certainly a win-win thing to do.

Although I was primarily expecting to see the moths in the moon garden at night, it was nice to find the occasional one resting there during the day – like this Garden Carpet on the evening primroses. A slightly more impressive find though was this Poplar Hawk-moth roosting during the day on the Nicotiana.

At night the evening primrose flowers were particularly well used by Silver Y moths.

I run my moth trap most weeks close to where the moon garden now is. It may be co-incidence but some species certainly seemed to increase in numbers this year compared to previous years. The Elephant Hawk-moths for instance were arriving in veritable herds compared to the usual singletons.

The new species were a mix of macro and micro moths. Some I’d been longing to see for ages like this Peach Blossom.

But others were completely new to me. Here are a few favourites – Triple Barred Argent (Argyresthia trifasciata for the purists – a stunning golden striped micro), Lesser Spotted Pinion and Least Black Arches.

The undoubted highlight has to be the moment I discovered a Dark Crimson Underwing in the trap. I nearly put it down as being one of the regular Red Underwings (in my defence, it did after all appear to have red underwings) which I have occasionally found in the garden before. But it looked a bit different, so I double-checked with those much wiser than me and was thrilled to find it was a Dark Crimson instead. Not only did this turn out to be a new species for Worcestershire, it is probably new for the whole of the West Midlands region – result!

So all in all I’ve been very pleased with the results from my moon garden experiment. So much so in fact that I intend to extend it next year and hopefully double the area. Some of the perennials may take years to grow to their full potential, so hopefully it will get better as time goes on. Again it may be coincidence but we noticed more bat activity over the garden this year (hope they didn’t snaffle my longed-for convolvulous hawk-moth, although I suspect it would be too big!), which is great too. Perhaps next year I might plant an area specifically for caterpillar food plants too – it’s all got to be beneficial after all.

Our local branch of Butterfly Conservation had asked earlier this year for moth related articles for the magazine. I was delighted that they included an article on our Malvern Moon Garden. It was Butterfly Conservation’s article that inspired me to plant it in the first place, so it would be lovely if our garden could then inspire someone else to have a go and encourage more moths into their own garden.

I’m not normally one given to poetic quotes, but there’s a line from William Blake – “The Moon, like a flower in heaven’s high bower, with silent delight, sits and smiles on the night” which makes me think of our moon garden – a silent delight giving both me and hopefully the moths great pleasure.

 

 

 

 

Damsels & Dragons – Part 2

As promised, here’s part 2 of Damsels and Dragons. Since part 1 was all about damselflies, it will come as no surprise that part 2 is all about the dragonflies we’ve seen in the new pond so far.

The first species appeared in the middle of May – a Broad-bodied Chaser. It was a female with a lovely golden and, as the name suggests, broad body (well abdomen). We’ve not seen any males, but the female (or possibly more than one female) has been back several times and has clearly found a male somewhere as she’s been laying eggs. Each egg is laid incredibly quickly as she dabs her abdomen in the water.

As she was our first proper dragonfly in the pond, we went a bit overboard on the photos, but I’ve whittled them down to just a few here.

I like in the photo below that you can see how her wings beating is causing ripples in the water with the downward pressure.

One of the things I like about dragonflies is the way the like to find a perch from which to survey their pond. So I figured our pond would benefit from a dragonfly perch – or stick shoved into the ground at a jaunty angle. So I was really chuffed when our first chaser gave it her seal of approval and perched right on it.

The next dragonfly to turn up has only been seen once so far (perhaps it found our pond lacking somehow or perhaps it didn’t find a mate?) It was a Four-spotted Chaser, a species I don’t think we’ve seen before anywhere, let alone in our own garden. It may have found the pond lacking but it did pose nicely on “my” perch,

It also posed beautifully on a bee garden ornament a friend had kindly given me for Christmas. I’d stuck the bee on a stick by the pond, but hadn’t actually expected the dragonflies to take me up on it – but it clearly makes another good perch.

It didn’t hang around for very long, so I didn’t get my usual hundreds of photos, but I quite like this one where it looks like it’s falling off the borage – not that a dragonfly would ever do anything as inelegant as fall off something.

I got excited when the next dragonfly arrived, thinking we’d got another new species. It had a broad abdomen and was laying eggs, but it didn’t look like any female Broad-bodied chaser I’d ever seen before. Turns out this was exactly what it was, just a more mature specimen. Apparently older females change colour and start to look more like the males. This one had quite a bit of blue on her tail, so she must have been an old gal!

I thought as I starting typing this post that this next one was the final (although I was still hoping for more) species of dragonfly to find our pond – the Common Darter.

The Common Darter can look very similar to the Ruddy Darter, but if you look at their legs very closely, you can see that the Common Darter has a dirty yellow stripe down each leg. The Ruddy darters on the other hand have all black legs. There are probably other ways of telling them apart, but this seems to be the most reliable – if you can get a decent photo of a leg!

 

Here’s a couple more photos of it, just because it posed so nicely on the perch (yes I was still smug that they were using “my” perch even a month later).

So I’d thought that would be it for this post, but before I could upload it, a dream came true and a female Emperor dragonfly graced our pond. Not only graced it, but laid eggs in it!

 

She’s been back a couple of times since, so plenty of photo opportunities, although getting a decent shot of her in flight has proved nigh on impossible.

She didn’t sit on my perch but I can forgive her for that for being just so big and beautiful! So all being well we should have emperor dragonfly larvae in the pond for the coming year – perhaps not good news for some of the other pond inhabitants as the dragonfly larvae are huge and voracious predators.

So that’s our dragonfly/damselfly round up so far – 6 species to date. Of course it would be nice to get a few more; I would love to see one of the Demoiselle species, but I think they prefer running water. Maybe we need to install a stream next?

Damsels & Dragons – Part 1

Our new pond only went in just over 5 months ago, but it’s been truly amazing what has already found its way here. One of the groups of animals we’d really hoped to attract was the Odonata – the dragonflies and damselflies. Of course we didn’t expect to get them for a few months, they don’t start emerging until the warmer weather comes, so all we could do was watch and wait. One good thing about the lockdown – it gives you plenty of time to watch and wait by a pond.

Right on time though at the end of April our first species arrived – the Large Red Damselfly. I’d spotted one down at the allotments, so was keeping an especially beady eye out and the next day one found its way to our pond.

Within a few days I was even more excited to find we had a pair of mating Large Red Damselflies. The male is the upper one of the pair. He has a pair of hooks at the end of his abdomen which he uses to hold onto the female around her neck. He holds onto her while she lays the eggs to prevent other males getting a look in!

Their larvae take two years to develop, so all being well, we should have our own “home-grown” red damselflies emerging from the pond in 2022.

I was barely getting over the excitement of the first damselfly’s appearance when the next one turned up – a stunning blue, or as it turned out Azure Damselfly. Since then we’ve seen them a few times, both males and females, but have never spotted a mating pair. Hopefully they have perhaps just been more discrete than the red damselflies and we will be lucky enough to have some emerge next year – they have just a one year life cycle compared to the 2 year for the reds.

The next two photos are of female Azures, below which are 2 males. The females have a bluey green tint, while the males are a much more vivid blue – azure I suppose!

As the pond was new and dragonflies and damselflies take at least a year to develop, we hadn’t expected to get any newly emerging ones. What we hadn’t banked on was getting damselfly larvae arriving with plants we’d ordered. This is the only explanation I can think of, for finding a newly emerged damselfly still pumping up its body on a reed.

The exuvia that the new adult had crawled out of was still clinging to the bottom of the reed, like some weird little alien.

The damselfly was very pale; it can apparently take a few days for them to develop their mature colouration, so we can’t be sure what species this is, but it’s probably one of the blue tailed ones. To start with the abdomen was shorter than the wings, but as we watched, it pumped itself up until eventually the abdomen was clearly much longer than the wings. You can see this in the sequence of photos below.

While its rear end was busy getting bigger, it had a quick wash and brush up round the head using its front legs.

Despite us both sitting there watching, we somehow managed to miss the moment of take-off. But a few minutes later we spotted this one just a foot away on a plant by the pond – probably/possibly the same individual having a rest after all the exertions of emerging. It has darkened up, but still lacks the blue colouration.

So that’s a round up of our damsels – very pleased to have such success with the pond in only the first few months. I’ll do a second blog post for our dragons next – the damsels have been great, but the dragons really are stunning!

Back Down to Daneway

As we were still technically on our holiday that never happened/staycation at the weekend, we decided to head out again for another butterfly day. Not a new species this time, but back down to Daneway Banks in Gloucestershire to see the Large Blues that we had only seen once before.

As we entered the reserve, the air was positively buzzing with the sound of grasshoppers. I think they were Meadow Grasshoppers and they were everywhere, pinging away from us as we walked across the grass.

The commonest butterflies by far were the Marbled Whites and Meadow Browns.

The Marbled Whites in particular were very fresh looking and quite stunning in the sunshine.

We even managed to find a mating pair; the female is the one at the top with the browner looking markings on the underwings.

It was a bit cloudy when we first arrived, so the Large Blues weren’t flying much, but as the sun started to come out we spotted a couple. On our previous visit we had only managed to get photos of a mating pair of Large Blues – most unusual for that to be our only shots, but it meant they had their wings closed. So this time we were keen to get one with its wings open. Fortunately the first one was fairly relaxed and let us take a few photos.

A very helpful reserve warden then pointed us in the direction of a “hot spot” for them, further into the reserve. This coincided with the sun really coming out, which made them much flightier. So although we probably saw about 10 more, we couldn’t get as close again to get better photos.

The final individual we saw was another raggedy one, who was perhaps to worn out to be bothered flying off, so allowed us a photo of the underside of what was left of his wings.

We’d seen a few skippers about during the day, but they are so fast it is often hard to tell which species until we can download the photos. Turns out these ones were Small Skippers, our first of the year.

The final butterfly species appeared just as we were leaving the reserve – a Small Heath, again the first of these we’d seen this year.

Once again I failed to get decent shots of a couple of birds. This woodpecker sat on a fence post for ages as I crept closer trying to get a photo, then of course just as I was getting within reasonable focal distance he flew off.

Most unusually a swallow landed on the ground only a few metres away from me. I was so surprised that I didn’t react quick enough to get a photo of it on the ground, only this blurry one as it took off again. I’d always thought they stayed on the wing almost permanently apart from egg time, but clearly this one had other ideas.

As we were about to leave the same helpful warden suggested that we might want to nip across the road on our way back to the car and have a quick look in Siccaridge Wood. It is an ancient coppiced woodland and there was apparently a Greater Butterfly-Orchid just 30 yards in. Never having heard of this, let alone seen one, it seemed worth a small detour. Sure enough, exactly as described was the tallest British orchid we’ve ever seen; it must have been at least 50cm tall. With hindsight I should have got Chris to take a photo of me next to it for scale (I stand a majestic 1.5m tall).

I can’t say the flowers looked particularly butterfly like to us, but it was certainly an impressive plant.

On our previous trip to Daneway we had finished up at the very nice Daneway Inn, but sadly of course that wasn’t possible this time. Daneway Banks is a fantastic site and a real success story for the Large Blue butterfly, which had gone extinct in the UK before the heroic efforts to bring it back. The perfect way to round off our non-holiday.