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.

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.

Bee ‘n’ Bees

We have always tried to make our garden as bee friendly as possible – we garden organically, there are plenty of weeds providing nectar through most of the year and we put up bee hotels. We’ve had these regular bee hotels dotted around the garden for a few years and they’ve proved very popular with a few species, but most noticably the Red Mason Bees (Osmia bicornis). Every spring they are buzzing with bee activity and every spring I try and photograph/video them with mixed results. The Red Mason Bees have an ingenious system whereby the females lay female eggs at the back of the tubes first, followed by eggs destined to be males at the front. Because they are at the front the males emerge first and will initially feed a bit then they head back to the nest or bee hotel to wait for the virgin females to emerge.

The airways can get a bit congested as many males, desperate for their chance to mate with the females, jostle for position. Here’s a short video of a bunch of males doing just that – buzzing around, ever hopeful.

 

Red Mason bees are medium sized, solitary (despite the crowds around the bee hotel) bees with as the name suggest bright red hairs on their bodies. As they get older the hairs can fade or get worn away and they lose their bright red colour; the one in the photo below is probably fairly recently emerged.

The males can get so excited at the prospect of the new females, that they will pounce on virtually anything roughly bee sized that appears, including each other. I found the trio in this next video on the path beneath a bee hotel. The female is the one on the bottom with two makes stacked on top of her. One of them is going to be very disappointed!

 

The mason bit of their name comes from their use of mud to form individual nest chambers for the larvae to develop in. Each tube in a bee hotel may contain several muddy chambers and the end of the tube is sealed off with damp mud, which then hardens to form a solid plug. Here she’s just deposited a fresh blob of mud which she works into position with her feet.

The Red Mason bees aren’t the only spring species to use the bee hotels, we also saw some Blue Mason bees (Osmia caerulescens). These were smaller than their red cousins and so tended to use the smaller tubes. I think this is a male which has more of a metallic green body with pale brown hairs.

Beneath one set of bee hotels is our bench set on slabs, which in turn are set (somewhat unevenly it has to be said) on sand. While videoing the mason bees, we realised that there were also bees burrowing into the sand beneath us (I will blame them for any unevenness of the slabs). I’m not sure whether they are also mason bees, or something different, they didn’t stay still long enough to get a decent photo. But they were certainly busy bees.

 

So I’ve always been very happy with our bee hotels and then I saw this, the absolute Ritz of bee hotels.

The inner section can be removed for storage and cleaning and the side panels can be removed to reveal a Perspex panel so that you can view the bees working away. So of course we had to get one! I waited patiently until the end of March then up it went on the fence wall ready for bee season. I got very excited when I spotted the first bee in one of the chambers.

Unfortunately the bees didn’t seem quite so excited by my deluxe offering and most seemed to stick with the old bee hotels. This may be because the old hotels with last year’s bee chambers in would have smelled of bees and so attracted the new generation back. In the end though I did get a few bees using the new box, although annoyingly most seemed to go for the tubes either above or below the viewing chamber. I did manage to get this video of one female stock-piling the pollen for her egg. She starts by rearranging the pollen that’s already in there and then turns around and uses her legs to brush the pollen off her body and add it to the pile.

 

Once there’s enough pollen in there, she will lay an egg in it and then seal that chamber and start work on the next.  By the end of the red mason bee season, I had several tubes full of developing larvae.

The eggs hatch into larvae and feed on the pollen that the mother bee has provided for them.

Once the larvae have eaten all the food they will spin a silk cocoon and pupate, turning into adult bees. They then stay in the cocoons like this through the winter, until the warmer spring days tell them it is time to emerge. Hopefully I will be able to get photos of these cocoons when the time comes. For the time being, the inner section of this deluxe bee hotel has been removed (complete with developing larvae) and is being safely (I hope) stored in the garage away from parasites. A new inner section has been put out which will hopefully attract the next season’s bees – the Leaf-cutter bees. Watch this space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Video of ones nesting in sand – yes

 

 

Video of red mason in tube yes

photos of tubes – yes

photos of grubs – yes

video of trio – yes

video of males buzzing round old box – yes

 

Red Mason Bees

The fabulous weather over the Easter weekend brought the blossom out in full force on our apple tree and with it a flurry of bees all around the garden. The tree is of the Discovery variety so produces early blossom for early apples and the bees certainly seemed to appreciate it.

I have two bee hotel boxes on the garage wall just a few feet away from the apple tree. These were used last year by both red mason bees and some leaf-cutter ones. So far this year it has mainly been the red mason bees buzzing around it. Initially all I could see were several red masons flying up to the holes, checking them out and rapidly flying away again. They were not only really quick, but the bee hotel is quite high up on the wall which meant I had to wobble about on a chair to try and get a photo – all of which goes to excuse this blurry shot!

I couldn’t understand at first why they kept coming and going, without actually going into any of the tubes. They would repeatedly check out the same tube. A quick google revealed that they were probably males, who emerge first. The females emerge a bit later having been laid further back in the tubes and the males were hovering around waiting for a fresh female to emerge. Having failed to get a decent still photo, I tried to get a video of them using the GoPro on a stick (more wobbling about) with mixed success:

The females must have started to emerge a few days ago. The males clearly don’t hang about or spend a long time “wooing” the females, as I found this happy couple immediately below the bee hotels. It looked as if the male had grabbed the female immediately as she emerged and the pair had dropped to the ground.

A bit of grovelling on the ground and I managed to get a video of the loved up pair.

The males are a good bit smaller than the females and he does look a bit like he’s hanging on for dear life. She also doesn’t look that impressed and seems more bothered by washing her antennae!

With the apple blossom so close to the bee boxes, it provides plenty of pollen for the bees right on their doorstep.


The red masons obviously aren’t the only ones making the most of the blossom while it lasts.  I’ve counted at least 8 species on the tree in the last week, but here are just three – a Nomada bee, an Ashy Mining Bee and a Red-tailed Bumblebee.

We already have the two bee hotels on the side of the garage, one on the front of the house and one old one just lying in the garden. The spring sunshine seemed the perfect opportunity to get the old one back up and add a new one to the bees’ property portfolio. The neighbours had replaced the fence between us last year and it catches the sun for a lot of the day, so it is the perfect place for more bee hotels. So the old one went up along with this new beauty. There may be more to follow as the fence looks very bare and basically – why not?


I’ve not managed to get photos yet of any bees using the new one, but within hours there were a couple of red mason bees checking it out.

Bees of course were finding places to nest long before we started thinking of providing bee hotels. This, I think, is the entrance to a ground nesting bee’s nest – possibly one of the Andrena species. There are a few of these little holes dotted around our so-called lawn.


Every garden must have space for at least one bee hotel/bug house. Even if you don’t really have a garden you could put one on an outside wall. So why not give a home for nature and put up a bee hotel?

 

Spring & Surprises at the Lottie

Spring has well and truly sprung down on the allotment, bringing with it some old favourites, a new generation and a big surprise.

Being fair-weather gardeners we’ve not done much down the lottie over the winter, but when we have been down a pair of robins tend to follow our every move – always on the look out for a freshly unearthed worm.

I’ve been going down more frequently for the last couple of weeks to check on the pond – it’s frog spawn season! So I was very pleased when on 2nd March I spotted for the first clump of spawn in the pond. It could only have been laid a day or two before, making it about 10 days earlier than last year.

So out with the camera and the GoPro to record the start of a new amphibian generation.

 

By the 9th of March 3 more clumps of spawn had been laid – you can see the difference in size of the embryos and jelly in the photo and video below.

The GoPro did catch a blurry image if what I assume is a pair of frogs in a passionate embrace underwater. Having said that the smaller one does look a bit toad-ish to me, but there’s been no sign of any toad spawn in the pond so far. I read somewhere that 80% of toads return to the pool they were born in to breed, so it may take some years before we get any toad spawn.

In the hope of getting some froggy action on camera, I left one of the trail cameras running on the allotment for a few days. I ended up with a lot of videos of cats walking by, but eventually got this one – a stand off between a cat and a floating frog. Thankfully the frog has enough sense to dive when the cat makes its move.

I did have hopes of getting a fox on camera as I know we have them on the allotment. But what I did get next was a huge surprise – a badger drinking from the pond!

We’d no idea we had badgers down there, so this was a real bonus. It looks like another pair of frogs get spooked by the badger and also dive for cover. Needless to say the camera has been left down there in the hope of getting more footage – but so far nothing but more cats.

Hopefully in the coming weeks I can get footage of the frog spawn developing into tadpoles. Fingers crossed the newts return soon too and maybe even a toad or two. All this does show the  benefit of putting in a pond – this one only went in 2 years ago when we first got the allotment. We’d expected frogs and newts would use it and maybe birds would drink from it, but never dreamed that we’d get a badger. I guess “Build it and they will come”!

 

A Day-Flying Moth Hunt

We’ve had some glorious weather here in Malvern this week; it really felt as if spring or perhaps even summer had arrived early it was so warm. Not only was the warm weather tempting softies like me outside, it was also apparently tempting some of the early day-flying moths to get out and about too. I’d seen reports of a particularly attractive moth – the Orange Underwing – being seen locally at Gullet Quarry, so this seemed the perfect excuse for a walk.

The not-too-attractively named Gullet Quarry is much prettier than its name suggests. With the sun shining and clear blue skies, the rocks were reflecting nicely in the water. Sadly due to some terrible accidents at the quarry, it is now fenced off and you can no longer get down to the water’s edge, so I had to view most of it from a distance.

I could just about make out a flash of yellow on the far side of the quarry – a Grey Wagtail flitting up and down catching insects. I tried zooming in on him (not very effectively) and only realised there was a pair of ducks sitting next to him when I downloaded the photos later! The wagtail is just about visible as a yellow smudge on the rock to the right of the ducks.

As I arrived it seemed like looking for a moth around the quarry was a bit of a needle in a haystack type mission, so I was amazed when one flew right passed me almost immediately. I set off in pursuit (incurring unfortunate contact between my boot and a large sheep deposit as I wasn’t looking where I was treading!) and tracked him to a high up twig.

He then sped off again and settled amongst the grass. Despite repeated attempts I couldn’t get a clear shot of him without a blade of grass in the way. But at least his lovely orange underwings are clearly visible. Mission accomplished.

Since it was such lovely weather I spent another lovely half hour pottering around enjoying the first signs of spring. A male Brimstone butterfly shot passed me, as usual way too fast to get a photo. Catkins were dangling all around and the gorse bushes were in full flower.

I wasn’t the only one watching the wildlife. High up on the rocks above the quarry, several crows were looking down, presumably on the look out for the next meal.

All in all it was a lovely short walk in the early spring sunshine,  whetting my appetite for the summer to come!

 

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.

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 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!

 

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!