Flightless but Fabulous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Norfolk Dragonflies

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

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

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

demoiselle drakes

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

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

common blue damselfly male drakes

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

red eyed damselfly male

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

red eyed damselfly female drakes

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

red eyed mating

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

female blue tailed

female blue tailed damsel - rufescens obsoleta

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

Black tailed skimmer immature male drakes

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

black tailed skimmer male 2 hickling

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

Black tail skimmer emerging 1

Black tail skimmer emerging 2

Black Tail Skimmer emerging 3

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

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

Dragonfly 1 emerging 3

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

Hairy dragonfly Hickling

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

Four spotted chaser Hickling

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

scarce chaser strumpshaw

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

Norfolk hawker horsey

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

Norfolk hawkers mating hickling

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

Butterfly No. 53!

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

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

milk parsley

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

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

swallowtail

swallowtail (5)

swallowtail (4)

swallowtail (3)

swallowtail (2)

swallowtail (1)

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

swallowtail on grass

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

swallowtail in flight

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

Another Bee Blog

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

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

Red mason cocoons in house

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

red mason cocoons

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

empty cocoons

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

red mason

Red mason peeping out

red mason in blossom

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

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

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

almost full

full mason bee house

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

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

ruby tailed wasp

Knapp Time

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

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

bluebells

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

wild garlic 2

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

butterbur

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

peacock on bluebell

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

Orange tip (3)

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

chaffinch

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

female blackcap

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

Mallard (1)

Mallard (2)

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

grey wagtail (6)

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

Dipper (1)

Dipper (2)

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

reflections

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.

Big Garden Birdwatch 2021

Another year, another lockdown; or more cheerily – another year, another Big Garden Birdwatch! The perfect thing to do for an hour when you can’t leave home.

Saturday it pretty much poured with rain all day, so today seemed like a better birding day. It was still bloomin’ cold sitting there though for an hour and my derrière was pretty numb by the time I finished.  Still it was worth it to record a very respectable 34 individuals of 12 species.

Top of the abundance was, as usual, the house sparrow. I  counted at least 12 in one go, although I’m sure we actually have more than that. Joint second were the blackbirds and jackdaws – 4 of each. I can’t tell the difference between male and female jackdaws, but for the blackbirds there was one female and at least 3 males.

Most of the rest arrived in pairs – goldfinches, great tits, collared doves, wood pigeons, starlings and magpies, although I only seemed to manage to get photos of them one at a time.

And then there was a singleton blue tit, dunnock and robin. The robin was the most sociable of the whole bunch. He even landed on the camouflage netting right by my head – too close to even get a photo. As if sensing that he might be missing his photo op, he then obligingly hopped down to some stems in front of me and posed so I could get his good side. Of course there was still a twig in the way – isn’t there always?

The (almost) highlight of the whole hour came near the end when I think a sparrowhawk zoomed across the garden after a small bird. Unfortunately it all happened so fast that I couldn’t be sure that’s what I saw and I almost got tangled in the camouflage netting in my haste to stand up and get a better look. So although I’m about 80% certain it was a sparrowhawk, I wasn’t sure enough to include it in my birdwatch results. So close!

A bit disappointed that our wren didn’t put in an appearance, nor the long-tailed tits. And really disappointed that our male blackcap was a no-show too. He’s been pretty much resident outside our patio doors for the last 3 weeks, but today of course he chose to have the morning off. Just to prove it, here he is from a few weeks ago.

Submitting my data took a few goes as the RSPB website seemed to be struggling. Hopefully that’s a good sign and means lots of people have been doing the count.

Success in the end though and nice to know I’d contributed in a small way to another bit of citizen science. Talking of which, tonight happens to be my next slug collection night for the Slug Count project. It’s all go!

2020 – The Year of the Pond

Well there are probably lots of ways to describe 2020, but most of those aren’t repeatable on what tries to be an upbeat blog. So I will gloss over the obvious and instead try and focus on the many good things that happened in the last year.

First and foremost was that we finally managed to put in a new pond. The timing for this couldn’t have been better – the pond went in during February and of course in March we went into lockdown. Having the pond to sit by and watch develop through those long months was a real sanity-saver. It was amazing how quickly the wildlife moved in and as it matures I’m sure it will only get better.

A real highlight and sense of achievement came at the end of May when George, the Eyed Hawkmoth I’d reared from an egg, finally emerged. I’d been nurturing him for 10 months since I’d found the egg in the moth trap and so I felt like a proud mum when he emerged and flew off into the night. Hopefully there will be sons and daughters of George in flight this summer too.

Another moth related achievement was the creation of our Moon Garden – an area planted specifically to attract moths. And it worked. 39 new moth species were recorded, bringing the running total for the garden to 405. Best of all it attracted a Dark Crimson Underwing – believed to be the first record for this species for the whole of the West Midlands.

2020 turned out to be a good year for butterflies too. Between lockdowns, we managed to add 2 more species (Silver-spotted Skipper and Black Hairstreak) in our mission to see all the British butterflies. We also noted 2 new species for the garden (Silver-washed Fritillary & Brown Argus), although this was more by luck than good management.

The new bee hotels provided lots of interest and again we added 2 species to our garden count (Willughby’s Leafcutter and a Sharp-tailed Bee). Being able to watch both Red Mason & Leafcutter bees build their nests in the tubes was really fascinating.

Despite lockdowns, we still managed to take part in various citizen science projects – including Big Butterfly Count & Garden Moth Scheme. A new project this year is the Slugs Count project.  This is a monthly survey of the garden for slugs and it’s been great (trying) to get to grips with a whole new group.

As I do every year, I’d made various wildlife resolutions at the start of 2020. Of course back in January none of us had any idea of how the year was going to turn out! Not surprisingly the Covid imposed restrictions had an impact on some of my resolutions, but at least this year I’ve got a really good excuse for not completing them all! So here were last year’s targets:

  • New pond – well at least we smashed this one. Many thanks to Gwyndaf the Cycling Gardener who was the one who did all the hard work digging, while we sat back and reaped the rewards.
  • Create a Moon Garden. I think we pretty much nailed this one too. The Moon garden was a big success both aesthetically and for the moths.
  • See 2 more species of British Butterfly. For a while it seemed touch and go whether we would achieve this one. Our planned trip to Norfolk to see the Swallowtails was of course cancelled, but in the end we did manage 2 other species (always good to have a plan B). So we’ve now seen 52 of the 58 species.
  • Visit 5 new nature reserves. I think we only managed 2 new ones (Glapthorne Meadows and Aston Rowant NR), but then many of the nature reserves were closed to the public during the lockdowns, so I figure we have an excuse.
  • Go rockpooling. Had hoped to do this one in Norfolk, but of course that went out the window. Not much scope for rockpooling in Worcestershire, so this one will have to get bumped to next year.
  • Go and see some wild Ospreys. Again we were thwarted by Covid. I had hoped to go up to see the Dyfi Ospreys, but for a large part of the year we’ve not been allowed into Wales!
  • The moth tattoo! I genuinely thought this would be the year I’d get a moth tattoo – I’ve even decided it should be of George the Eyed Hawkmoth. But of course tattoo parlours were one of the first things to get closed down – so that’s my excuse at least.

So to New Year’s Resolutions for 2021. Covid may continue to thwart our efforts, but we can at least hope to enjoy as much wildlife as possible.

  • Try and video a dragonfly emerging from the pond. We had lots of dragonfly/damselfly egg laying activity in the new pond last year, so hopefully I can catch some of them emerging in the summer.
  • Expand the moon garden – it’s been great so far, but I’m hoping to double the area.
  • See 2 more species of British Butterfly. We’ve now seen 52 of the 58 species, but we’re having to go further and further afield to see the remaining ones. Fingers crossed we can see the Swallowtail in Norfolk at least this year.
  • Visit 5 new nature reserves.
  • Rockpooling. Again fingers crossed we make it to Norfolk for this.
  • Go and see some wild Ospreys – if we’re allowed back in Wales!
  • The moth tattoo!

If 2020 has taught me anything it is that I am very grateful to have a wildlife filled garden and that I am lucky it brings me so much pleasure. It must be awful for those who didn’t get the chance to enjoy wildlife this year, but then I think it would be awful in any year not find joy in the nature that is all around us if we take the time to look.