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!

Incoming Insects

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for migrants (of the insect type) in our garden and around Malvern, so I thought I’d collate what we’ve been seeing.

First up an insect that is really only a migrant by name – the Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta). A beautiful dragonfly that used to be fairly uncommon in the UK – hence the name Migrant, but is now well established. This particular one was buzzing for insect prey on some rough ground at Chris’ workplace.

We’ve been blessed with at least one Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) in the garden most days for the last month or so, but apparently we are not alone. Every few years the country gets a “Painted Lady Summer” when they come over in huge numbers from abroad – and this is one of those summers. Some people have reported seeing them in their hundreds (a friend of mine in Edinburgh got driven inside by having so many of them on her patio it freaked her out!). Sadly we’ve not had that many, probably because we’re the wrong side of the country, so the most we managed to count on the buddleia was 5 at one time. But that’s a record for us, so we’re happy to see them even in low numbers.

We tend to be more lucky with the moths. First a very small migrant moth, but one which some years can come over in huge numbers. The Diamond-back Moth (Plutella xylostella) is only a few mm long, but somehow manages to survive the journey over from the continent and into our Malvern garden. Most years we only get 1 or 2 at a time; the most we’ve ever had in the moth trap in one night is 20, but they can apparently arrive in their thousands. Not the greatest photo of this one below, but you can at least make out the joined up diamond pattern on its back.

A larger macro moth – the Silver Y (Autographa gamma) is another one we see regularly in low numbers. They have a characteristic Y shaped mark on the wings (although admittedly it is upside down) and are often active during the day. The first one I ever saw, was nectaring on some lavender during the day – I thought initially it was a Hummingbird Hawkmoth from the way it moved, but  know better now!

We have seen genuine Hummingbird Hawkmoths this summer, but I’ve not managed to get any photos – they’re just too fast and I’m just too slow most of the time. But here’s one we did manage to catch a couple of years ago.

 

Undoubtedly though the highlight of my moth-ing career so far, and probably the best catch I’ll ever get, was one from a fortnight ago. I’d been enviously enjoying photos of Bedstraw Hawk-moths (Hyles gallii) on various social media for a couple of weeks, but never dreamt I’d be lucky enough to catch one in our garden. But at the beginning of August I got up to empty the trap and nearly fainted at the sight of a Bedstraw Hawk-moth sitting there. I was so nervous opening the trap in case it flew off – no-one would ever believe me unless I could get a photo of it! Fortunately it was a docile beauty that didn’t object too much to being potted up and photographed.

I posted some photos on Facebook and a few fellow moth enthusiasts came round to see it before I released it unharmed. When I put it out on some Rose Bay Willow-Herb, it vibrated its wings for a few seconds to warm up:

Then it shot off like a rocket. We have a large buddleia bush nearby and it circled that a few times. I watched in horror as 3 sparrows flew out from the bush trying to catch it, but thankfully the moth was quicker than the birds and it got away. Don’t think I could have lived with myself if I’d seen it get eaten by the sparrows!

I am told this was only the 5th record of a Bedstraw for Worcestershire and probably the first record for Malvern. I doubt I’ll ever see another one and unless a Death’s Head Hawkmoth lands in the garden, I doubt I’ll ever have a more exciting moth find. But each weekend from now on I will open the moth trap in hope because you just never know what is going to be in there!

 

 

 

The Large Heath – Butterfly No. 46!

We headed off again on Saturday in search of our next butterfly species – the Large Heath. Whixall Moss is a peat bog on the English/Welsh border and the only place anywhere near us where we might see this increasingly rare butterfly. The bog has the beautiful Llangollen canal running along one side of it. We had to stop and wait for the bridge over the canal to be hand-winched back down as a narrow boat passed through.

We’d seen reports a mere 4 days before of sightings of upwards of 30 Large Heaths at Whixall Moss, so we’d set off with high hopes of nailing this one easily. These hopes were slightly dampened almost as soon as we left the carpark when we met an exhausted looking lady (carrying her even more exhausted little dog) who’d been searching in the scorching heat for 5 hours and not seen a single one. Undeterred (while slightly deterred to be honest) we carried on, following the walk described in the Butterflies of the West Midlands book.

We’d been walking for about an hour and a half and it was starting to look as if we’d draw a blank, although we had seen lots of other lovely wildlife. But then finally, just as we were about to head back, I spotted a butterfly dancing about the path. Initially I wasn’t sure what it was as it didn’t look like I’d expected. Turns out the Large Heath would struggle to pass the trade description law – it is actually really small! It was a raggedy little specimen and it insisted on hiding behind bits of grass, but at least we’d found one. It proved to be the only one we saw that day, but after a 2 hour drive and an hour and a half walk, we were grateful just to have found one. So here it is – our one and only Large Heath.

It looks a bit like a Meadow Brown but smaller and with spots like a Ringlet.

Whixall Moss is also well known for its population of White-faced dragonflies. Despite taking lots of dragonfly photos, none of them turned out to be white-faced. But we did get a new one for us – the Black Darter. Here is a male (top) and female (bottom).

There were blue and red damselflies everywhere and love seemed to be in the air for many of them, including this mating pair of Azure ones.

Aside from the whirring of insect wings in the air, there was the chirping of grasshoppers in the undergrowth. This one hopped obligingly onto the path in front of me.

The final insect of the day was a day flying moth and a new one for me – the Common Heath. As the Large Heath wasn’t particularly large, so the Common Heath didn’t seem to be particularly common, but I did manage to chase one down to get a photo.

As we’d walked along the path, something had scared up a pair of ground nesting birds. They took to the air for a few minutes until the danger had passed. We didn’t know what they were at first, but working on our usual principle of snapping anything that moves, we took some photos. Turned out they were lapwings.

A bit further on and we found more of them – this time looking a bit more relaxed, nesting by a pooled area. Lapwings have suffered major declines in the UK in recent years, so it’s always nice to go somewhere that has them.

So it was a long hot day at Whixall Moss, but the success of seeing the Large Heath and the bonus of the lapwings, made it all worthwhile. Butterfly species no. 46 ticked off the list – only another dozen or so to go!

Moth Breakfast & Butterfly Brunch

Yesterday we had the perfect start to a Sunday – a Moth Breakfast, followed by a brunchtime stroll for butterflies. Thankfully the Moth Breakfast was not as insectivorous as it sounds – we simply looked at moths while actually eating bacon butties!  The event was organised by the West Midlands Branch of Butterfly Conservation and took place as one of our favourite places – Monkwood. The moth traps had been put out the night before and all we had to do was turn up to see what had been caught. The great thing about an event like this is that we got to see moth species that we just don’t get in our garden. So amongst many others we saw woodland moths such as – Blotched Emerald, Large Emerald, Peach Blossom and Rosy Footman – all species that I have been dying to see for ages. So here they are:

Blotched Emerald.

Large Emerald.

Peach Blossom

Rosy Footman

Another bonus of going to this kind of event, is getting to meet a load of like minded people. It’s not often I get the chance to discuss with enthusiasm the differences between a blotched and a large emerald, or a Fan Foot versus a Small Fan Foot. I’m more used to amused tolerance rather than eager enthusiasm when waxing lyrical about the beauty of moths! So it was lovely to chat to some new people.

After we’d had our fill of moths (and bacon butties) we headed off for a mid morning walk around the wood. Monkwood is run by Butterfly Conservation and as such is brimming with butterflies. The very first time we went to Monkwood we were amazed to see White Admirals flitting around as we got out of the car. This time it was Purple Hairstreaks – there were at least 3 or 4 (and possibly many more) fluttering around the tops of the trees around the carpark. Sadly none came down low enough to get a decent photo, so this was the best distant shot I managed.

The White Admirals though were much more obliging and appeared along the path almost as soon as we left the carpark. The uppersides of their wings might not be as showy as their Red Admiral cousins, but the undersides more than make up for it. They are fast flying butterflies, but thankfully a few settled long enough to get some pics.

We also saw our first Meadow Browns and Ringlets – common enough butterflies, but still always nice to see your first ones for the year.

A couple of Silver Washed Fritillaries bombed passed us but didn’t hang around long enough to get their photos taken. Same story with a Comma and a White of some description which didn’t even slow down enough for me to tell if it was Large or Green-Veined.

By far the most common butterfly we saw was the Large Skipper. As always I love these cheery little orange butterflies, not least because they pose so nicely for photos.

Butterfly highlight of the morning though has to be the Wood White. We have seen Wood Whites once before (at Haugh Wood in Herefordshire), but it was nice to see these delightful little butterflies again. Their renewed presence in Monkwood is a relatively new thing and is all down to the hard work that Butterfly Conservation have put in. We were at the tail-end of the Wood White season, so there were only a couple around, but there had apparently been plenty of them earlier in the month. A good news story!

The Wood Whites are such ethereal little butterflies. This last photo in particular reminds me of how I imagined fairies to be when I was little – long before I’d even heard of Wood Whites.

Monkwood has plenty of other insect life to offer too. There are a few small ponds, so dragonflies and damselflies were abundant in those areas. We are used to seeing the red and various blue damselflies, but this Emerald one was a new one for us I think.

We saw quite a few beetles, including several of this splendid Black & Yellow Longhorn Beetle.

Chris managed to find our first Speckled Bush Cricket of the year,

whilst I got a male Scorpion Fly showing off his strange scorpion-like rear end and his even stranger proboscis.

Final interest for the day was this pair of mating Dock Bugs, who for some reason had chosen a spot of bird poo for the site of their nuptials, all watched it seems by a curious fly.

So many thanks to Butterfly Conservation West Midlands for getting us out of bed on a Sunday for a most enjoyable morning.

 

 

 

Isle of Wight – Part 2 Thwarted By Fog

Our first full day on the Isle of Wight coincided with the first day of 30 Days Wild – the Wildlife Trusts’ annual event to get people to engage with nature.  Perfect day then to go looking for our next two species of butterfly – the Glanville Fritillary and the Adonis Blue. Unfortunately the weather had other ideas and a thick blanket of fog seemed to have covered most of the island. No self respecting butterfly was going to fly in that, so our chances of seeing them were virtually nil. We did make a short half-hearted attempt and had a bit of a wander around the chalky slopes on the southern coast. Fortunately we like all sorts of invertebrates besides butterflies and many of these are fog tolerant.

Snails of course don’t mind a bit of damp weather and we found two new (to us) species in the hedgerows. This beautifully coiled one is a Kentish Snail (Monacha cantiana).

This tiny pointy snail is in fact called a Pointed Snail (Cochlicella sp.). It was only about a centimetre long, but still managed to have at least 8 whorls on its shell.

The other group of invertebrates that braved the fog in reasonable numbers were moth caterpillars. We saw several species, but these two were particularly striking. We’ve never seen them before either in caterpillar form, nor as adult moths. The top one is the caterpillar of the Lackey Moth and the bottom one of a Dingy Flat-Body Moth (thank you to the good people of iSpot for identifying the second one for me).

The other notable invertebrate was a cricket – there were large numbers of these Dark Bush Crickets (Pholidoptera griseoaptera) in the undergrowth. We only saw immature stages such as this nymph.

After an hour of enjoyable but butterfly-less searching, we went to Plan B. Isle of Wight is also known for its thriving population of Red Squirrels. Thankfully the grey squirrels haven’t made it across the water yet, so for the time being the reds have free rein over the island. So we headed inland to Borthwood Copse, a small woodland managed to support the red squirrels. The first interesting animal we spotted when we got to the wood, was another insect. This female Scarce Chaser dragonfly (Libellula fulva) is, as its name suggests, fairly scarce, so it was a really nice find. With its yellow veining and dark tips to the wings, it was clearly different to any dragonfly we’d seen before.

The wood was full of birds, all singing their hearts out (or all shouting warnings that we were intruding possibly). We could hear, if not see, lots of species, but the only one we really managed to photograph was this male Great Spotted Woodpecker.

After a lot of dizzying staring up into trees, we eventually spotted our first red squirrel. I think we had both fondly imagined that the squirrels would come down and somehow just sit waiting to be photographed. Needless to say, they did no such thing and remained steadfastly high up in the branches. Over the course of the next hour we spotted a few (or possibly the same one taunting us over and over) and although they were a delight to watch, they never came close enough for any really good photos. But we did eventually get some recognisable red squirrel photos, so here are our best efforts. We watched this one for a while carrying a bundle of nesting material, jumping from branch to branch.

We followed it by eye until it disappeared with its bundle of nesting material into what looked like a denser patch of leaves. It stayed in there for ages, so we wondered whether this might have been a nest or drey? You can just about make out the denser patch in the photo below.

When it eventually emerged it no longer had the nesting material, but decided to sit nearby watching us below. I know the next picture is really dark, but you can see the squirrel staring directly at us.

 

We had a few more sightings after this. In some they were again carrying nesting material, although we lost track of them in the branches so couldn’t see if they took them back to the same place.

The final photo I know is really rubbish, but I just love the way it looks like he’s just dangling there, when obviously we just caught him mid-jump.

So Plan B worked out pretty well in the end. The fog may have stopped us seeing butterflies that day (don’t worry we got there in the end – see next blog post), but there was plenty of other wildlife to enjoy. That’s one of the things about wildlife watching I love, you are never really disappointed, as there is almost always something amazing to see if you look.

 

 

 

 

Table Manners

Our garden furniture doesn’t seem to have had much use this summer; we normally try and eat outside quite a lot, but the weather just hasn’t been tempting enough. Of course in true Too Lazy style, the garden table is still sitting out on the grass, where we left it a couple of months ago. Various things get dumped on it, including the occasional hedgehog feeding bowl, which fills up every time it rains. The sparrows had taken to using this as an impromptu bird bath, cramming themselves into the small dish with barely room to flap a wing.

Today though I looked out to see that one of the unfortunate sparrows was suffering an altogether different experience on our table – he had become lunch for our local sparrowhawk. My first thought was guilt that I’d encouraged the sparrows, only for this one to become today’s special on the sparrowhawk menu. My second thought was can I get the camera in time? And for once I did. Not the finest set of photos; there was nothing I could do about the bits of grass and weeds obscuring the view, I just had to snap away getting as close as I could before the sparrowhawk spotted me. Thankfully the window cleaner had been literally an hour before, so I could at least see out of the patio door; the photos would have been a lot blurrier otherwise.

The black tripod visible behind the table had the trail camera set up on it. Needless to say, the trailcam was pointing in the opposite direction and missed all the action!

I headed out into the garden a bit later, not really expecting much after the excitement of the sparrowhawk. It may not have been quite so dramatic, but I was chuffed to find a Common Darter resting on the table – in almost the same spot the sparrow had met his unfortunate end. I never find it very easy to get all of a dragonfly in focus, so having failed a bit on the full body angle, I tried focussing on its head and the amazing compound eyes.

The sparrows don’t actually need to be using the tiny terracotta bowl as a bird bath. Having seen them all squashed in there, I had bought them a more spacious bird bath and put it right next to the table. They don’t seem that keen on it and are a bit wary of the slippery sides. I’ve yet to see one bathing in it, although they did have a tentative paddle a few weeks ago.

Our robin however has taken to the new bathing facilities quite happily, maybe because he doesn’t get jostled for space by the sparrows.

While I was gathering together these clips and photos of goings on around the table, I remembered that last year I’d videoed a wasp eating chicken on the table – not a chicken with an appetite for wasps, but a wasp tucking into some cooked chicken that we’d left out. I’d never got round to adding this to the blog before, so here are a few clips now:

So our garden table may not have seen much of me and Chris this year, but it’s still getting plenty of use from an assortment of winged wildlife!

Grafton Wood

Lovely day yesterday out and about at Grafton Wood, one of our favourite butterfly hunting spots. Forecast was for sunny spells in the morning so we headed over, hopeful of a good day’s butterfly spotting. The sunny spells were slow to materialise and for the first hour we hardly saw a butterfly. Nor did we see anyone else, it was as if everyone else knew the butterflies were having a day off! Eventually though the butterflies started to appear – a slightly dopey Common Blue was the first to pose for us.

After the initial dozy one, more blues arrived plus Green-Veined Whites and our first Painted Lady of the year.  All in all we tallied up 11 species – not bad after such an unpromising start.

The one butterfly we’d particularly hoped to see though, the Brown Hairstreak, eluded us. They are notoriously tricky to find and we’ve only ever seen one, right here at Grafton Wood in 2015. So it was no great surprise not to find one yesterday. We did however meet  a very helpful gentleman who gave us some top tips for spotting them and showed us some new areas of the wood to look for them in future.  So butterfly-wise we were very happy.

But Grafton Wood is buzzing with more than just butterflies, there are plenty of other insects to enjoy. We kept seeing beautiful big hornets – either Grafton has lots of them or we were being stalked by the same one everywhere we went.

There were lots of small moths flying about in the grass, but the mothy highlight was spotting a group of Buff Tip moth caterpillars that had almost stripped a young tree bare.

We also saw a few shieldbugs, including this nice specimen of a Forest Bug (Pentatoma rufipes).

In the sunnier periods we could hear crickets chirruping in the grass. We saw several of these particularly large ones, which turned out to be a new species for us  – the Long-winged Conehead (Conocephalus discolour).

Grafton is also a great place to go for dragonflies and damselflies. Darters (like this female Common Darter (thanks to Neil for ID)) were reasonably common all over the wood.

We also saw several of the much larger Southern Hawker dragonflies, particularly around the small pond. They seemed to be inexhaustible though and never once did we see one land. Both of us spent ages trying to get a photo of one in flight over the pond; this blurry shot was the best we managed.

Damselflies were also common around the pond – again another new species for us – the White-legged Damselfly (Platycnemis pennipes), which has, as the name suggests, white legs! (although to be honest the legs look more like pale blue to me)

I found one individual sitting on a flower, seemingly staring straight at me. It stayed so long and I spent so long trying to get the perfect photo, it ended up feeling like we were having a bit of a staring contest – if we were then he won!

One insect we’d been trying to get a photo of all summer, was a scorpion fly.  These are seriously weird looking insects, with a long beak like structure on the head and a scorpion style tail on the males. We’d seen lots of them at Trench Wood a few months ago, but then only the females which don’t have the scorpion bit. Grafton Wood however was buzzing with males. It still wasn’t easy to get a photo of the tail as the wings kept getting in the way, but here are our best efforts.

Final surprise of the day was a cheeky little deer face, peeking at us over the wheat field as we walked back to the car.

Grafton Wood has never disappointed us and this weekend was no exception.