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Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Wonderful Ivy

Gorse Shield Bug

It is very late October and the weather was pretty poor yesterday.

So, i wondered whether to carry my heavy camera on my daily dog walk.  I once missed a picture of a Fritillary butterfly because I decided to leave it at home, so I rarely leave it behind.

Small Tortoiseshell
Well I was pleasantly surprised when I checked a stand of Gorse in the hedgerow.  There was a group of three late summer coloured Gorse Shield Bugs.

And on the same piece of Gorse, was a Dock Bug.

Around the corner I came across a Small Tortoiseshell then heard the "pitchoo" call and saw a Marsh Tit.  A bit too quick for a photograph, but not a bad couple of sightings for late October I thought.
Painted Lady
Ivy Bee

Further on I was looking forward to inspecting some stands of Ivy.  Most are in flower with a few developing the red-black fruits so attractive the members of the Thrush family.  The stands are in a south facing hedgerow and had been in full sun for most of the morning.

Red Admiral
It was well worth carrying my camera  for the butterflies and bees.  There were a couple of Ivy bees and a two Buff-tailed Bumble Bees.  But I was really pleased to see butterflies - four Red Admiral, two Comma and a Painted Lady.  All thanks to the late flowering wonderful Ivy with its tiny yellow flowers that is depended upon by insects late in the year.

I don't dare leave my camera behind now.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Indian Summer

Giant Puffball - £2 coin for size

Dock Shieldbugs
According to my researches, an Indian Summer, which is an American expression, is used to describe a period of unseasonably good weather coming at the end of Fall, or as we would say autumn.
This last week has been a most welcome period of really warms, settled weather following a very mediocre period that should have been summer.  A real Indian Summer.

Small Copper
Yesterday was warm and dry with a cooling easterly breeze just the right weather for a good walk. We decided to walk out to our cliffs then north along the South West Coast path to the Bush Inn for lunch before returning home.

We were rewarded by a surprising number of species.  We started with a group of Giant Puffballs near to Stanbury cliff followed by a growing number of butterflies on the wing – eight different species in all at the end of September. 

Other invertebrates were about too, innumerable Silver Y moths, a Common Darter and two species of Shieldbug, Dock and Gorse.

Flocks of Linnets were seen, a large group of Herring Gulls, a couple of Kestrels and Oystercatchers too.  Masses of white butterflies were seen many too distant for specific identification and there was a definite migratory movement of Red Admirals heading south.

Red Admiral feeding on Ivy
One memorable sight was of eleven Red Admirals seen feasting on the newly opened tiny flowers of Ivy.  This is a good reminder to keep your Ivy until after these flowers have formed the hard bright black berries.  The flowers are magnets for flying  invertebrates of all sorts and the berries are a staple in the diet of Blackbirds and Thrushes.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Riverfly - Riverflow

Torridge in flood - note the line of
vegetation showing the submerged bank

Today was our last attempt at the August Riverfly survey.  A friend and I volunteer to survey 8 species of invertebrates in the River Torridge near Bradford Mill.  This takes place once a month between April and September.  We usually plan to survey mid-month so as to allow us an alternative date, if the weather is too bad, later in the month.

Last week the it rained heavily all of the day we had planned to survey so we postponed until our alternative on the 26th August.  I drove across the Tamar to get to the site and noted flooded fields either side of the border on the Holsworthy road which did not bode well.

Surveying on the lower river bank
Nonetheless, Barrie and I set out to our survey site which is half an hour walk from where we park the car at Bradford Church. It was wet and heavy going towards the last field where the river flows.  Going through the final wet and muddy gateway we could see what is usually a strip of Juncus in a damp hollow had become a deep tributary to the Torridge. This was too deep to pass, so we walked parallel with it to where it flowed into the main river.

What a deep raging torrent! We could see the tips of Himalayan Balsam that group on top of the river bank just breaking the flood. Our survey site was under 2 meters of fast flowing turbid water carrying large branches along with the flood.

Small Copper 
Discretion took over, a couple of pictures and we trudged back home. No chance of the waters subsiding before the end of the month meant a nil return for August. It will be interested to see how quickly the invertebrates re-colonise the river after this flood event.

The silver lining to this cloud was an early return home to find my wife excited by a new species of butterfly in the garden.  A beautifully marked Small Copper adds to our species total making it 11 for our garden this year.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

My Beautiful Butterfly Square

Painted Lady
Gorse Shieldbug Instar
I managed to fit in my WCBS survey of the year between all the gales and rain. It has to be less than Beaufort 5, no more than 60% cloud and above 14C to stand any chance of seeing butterflies. My square is always a bit difficult. With it being on the Atlantic Coast as any slight breeze blows in from Labrador!

Nonetheless, today conditions matched the minimum and I was rewarded by a Peacock as my first sighting in my BTO BBS square near Stowe Barton the former home of Sir Richard Greville of the Armada.

I did try to record nothing but butterflies, but could not fail to notice the hovering Kestrel only yards away and the charm of 19 Goldfinches chattering and fluttering over the square. One section was particularly barren of butterflies; the NE wind on the cliff top was quite bracing but as I threaded my way through the occasional gorse bushes, I could not help but look for Gorse Shield Bugs.
Small Copper

And what a sight, a few adults were there, but there were 10s of early instars showing a thriving population on almost every bush of Gorse – Ulex europaeus. None found on Western Gorse Ulex gallii even though U. europaeus is lost most of its flowers and U. gallii is beginning to flower.

All in all a most successful survey albeit mainly of Meadow Brown and Gatekeepers, but also Peacock, Painted Lady and Small Copper in my beautiful bird and butterfly square.  

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Orchids and Tortoises

Bee Orchid
Southern Marsh Orchid

Every year we count Bee Orchids Ophrys apifera in an unimproved meadow in Bude.  The field is mowed once a year but despite becoming overgrown with rank grasses, it continues to be quite species rich and diverse.

We counted over 30 Bee Orchids and there were also over 80 Southern Marsh Orchids as well as Yellow Rattle, Vetches, Fleabane, Bird’s-foot Trefoil and many other flowering plants.

5-spot Burnet moth
I was supposed to be concentrating on Orchids but could not fail to notice the Sedge Warbler singing for the whole time of the survey.

Walking head down with notebook, pencil and camera in hand I also recorded all the invertebrates that I kept seeing.  This included butterflies and moths – Common Blue, Meadow Brown, 6-spot Burnet and Silver Y Moths.  The Burnet was particularly well represented with adult, larva (caterpillar) and many cocoons on the stems of long grasses.

Fleabane Tortoise Beetle
The best sighting was of something totally new to me; a strange orange and black-spotted beetle that looked like a tiny armoured vehicle.  Within half and hour of posting the image on an insect group in Facebook, I had an identification.  It was something that until then I was unaware of as there are no pictures in my insect book – the aptly named Fleabane Tortoise Beetle Cassida murraea

Friday, 22 May 2015

Hare Walk

Sand Martins at their nests
Sand Martin nest colony
On 21st May, Bude Marsh and Valleys enjoyed their annual walk around Whalesborough. 

Seven people started from the Weir and walked via the Hare Walk to Widemouth Bay before heading north along the South West Coastal Footpath then headed west via Whalesborough Farm to the starting point.

It is an easy walk mainly on agricultural land although some has been planted with mixed woodland, and the beautiful north Cornish coast.

It was a very warm day tempered by an onshore breeze nearer the coast. Many birds were proclaiming their territories and the spring flowers were abundant and varied.

Southern Marsh Orchid
We were especially pleased to see many groups of Southern Marsh Orchids along the developing but damp mixed woodland.  Another eye-catching plant was the Dog Rose on the cliffs being attacked by a bright yellow smut.  The gorse continues to be spectacular.

The highlight of the birds we saw must go to the flock of 50 or so Sand Martins busily entering and exiting their burrows on the low sandy cliffs behind the Beach House on Widemouth Bay.

Bloody-nosed Beetle larva
Insects were plentiful too.  I was particularly pleased to look for and show Gorse Shieldbugs as well as a Hawthorn Shieldbug and the larva of a Bloody-nosed Beetle.  Butterflies were present, but not plentiful; we saw one or two each of Green-veined White, Orange Tip, Peacock and Speckled Wood.

An excellent walk with a total of 66 species recorded and submitted to ORKS ( database comprising 28 birds, 24 plants, 12 insects a millipede and a reptile.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Spring surprise

Wall butterfly sunning

We took advantage of the forecast of good weather on this May Day Bank Holiday to walk our Cornish cliffs from Stanbury to Sharpnose Point. And what a good decision it was. The range of spring species was both surprising and rewarding.

Sea Campion, Thrift,
Kidney Vetch and Gorse,
Our first reward was to see our first Wall butterflies of the year, followed by mass flowering of Early Purple Orchids, always a confirmation that spring has really arrived. Swallows were planing over the cliff tops with the song of Whitethroats close at hand – again the first of the year and an abundance of coastal spring flowers – Thrift, Kidney Vetch, Sea Campion, Violets and Bird's foot Trefoil.

Stonechats, Linnets and Skylarks were about and I found our first local Gorse Shield Bugs on the abundantly flowering Gorse. Another first of the year was a Small Copper and Spring Squill.

Gorse Shield Bugs in spring colous

The sighting of the morning must go to a mammal though.

We are used to our Long-haired Jack Russell bitch pouncing on grass verges as she images she has found some creature. So, we let her snuffle and root about in the springy cliff-top grass unconcernedly. Until, that is, she flushed out a fox cub. No bigger than a kitten, it fell over its own feet before disappearing into a well used run that vanished into a mass of bramble and gorse.
Spring Squill and
 attendant invertebrates

A pity it was quicker than me and my camera, so no picture this time.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Morwenstow Guided Walks

On Wednesday 1st April, a friend and I walked a 3 mile circular route from Morwenstow Church via wooded valleys, agricultural pasture and the Atlantic cliffs.  We are planning to offer this as a guided walk this year.
Parish church of
St Morwenna and St John
Hawker's Hut

The two and a half hour long, fairly strenuous route takes in spectacular cliffs, Cornish wet woodland habitat with views of the Atlantic ancient manor houses and of course the Reverend Stephen Hawker.

The start of the walk follows a "church path" over stone stiles that connect the Norman and Saxon church with the 14th Century Rectory Farm, the Bush Inn - reputedly 13th Century, Tonacombe Grade I listed early 16th Century and Grade II* listed late 16th Century Stanbury Manor.  It takes in the Hawker's Hut constructed from the timbers of the Alonzo in the 1840s and incidentally Landmark Trust's smallest property with his Vicarage and the Church.
Sharpnose Point
Most of the walk is on level ground with a couple of exceptions.  The Tidna valley near its head and mouth descends almost 100m in height and climbs it again!  But the views are spectacular.  The mile stretch of South West Coast Path gives a view from Trevose Head in the south to Lundy to the North - a panorama of            80km of view in good visibility.
Wood Sorrell
The wooded valleys are full of birds and butterflies in season with floral gems - on this visit a Slime Mould and Wood Sorrell, masses of Saxifrage, Primroses, Celandine and promise of Ramsons. 
Slime Mould - Lycogala sp.
The guided walkers are in for a treat which will be well earned although a shorter totally flat route to the cliffs, Hawker's Hut and Church will be offered for those less capable of such a strenuous walk.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Freshwater Pearl Mussels

Initial training on the Torridge
 The Freshwater Pearl Mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera ) is in severe decline, under both habitat and exploitation threats despite being heavily protected! There are still large (1000s) numbers in Scotland and Yorkshire but here in the only other area of the UK with any populations the numbers are much less (100s). Those that are know about are literally clinging on in the Torridge and its tributaries.

Last Wednesday (11th March) I undertook a day's training hosted by North Devon Nature Improvement Area/Biosphere staff to learn how to survey for potential breeding sites. We ten volunteers, from a variety of backgrounds, met with five experts representing the Environment Agency, Devon Wildlife Trust and North Devon Biosphere, on a secluded stretch of the River Torridge.

Old, dead Freshwater Pearl Mussel
During the morning we were shown how to record along a stretch river noting various parameters – Habitat type – which describes the state of the river channel; Bankside features and Special feature points. This last covers things like the presence of macrophyte beds, river width, water quality, extraction, exposed bedrock, bars and evidence of key species – Kingfisher, Otter and Dipper, and of course Mussels themselves all of which was done from the bank accompanied by our tutors.

This was followed by us practising what we had learned in groups of 2 or 3. We retraced the same stretch of water making our own observations on the recording sheet. This stretch does have an existing colony of Freshwater Pearl Mussels so we were recording parameters that were relevant to the species' existence. We all met up and compared, and where necessary, amended our surveys.

After lunch, each group was allocated a new stretch of river to survey in earnest. We did hear a Dipper and saw Kingfishers as well as tracks and spraints of Otter. Most excitingly, two keen-eyed surveyors found old, dead Mussels from the strand line on a couple of the river bars. They are surprisingly large.

We now await the call to spread out further along the river and begin using our new survey skills for real.

Individual teams surveying
Freshwater Pearl Mussels live for around 100 years and breed, in suitable habitats at 12-20 years of age. The population in the UK is described as moribund with no proven breeding having taken place in the last 40 years. Time is running out so we are helping to prove that the survey methods can correctly describe and identify the essential features of Mussel beds so that measure to prevent silt accumulation, overshading, flooding or damage which can prevent recruitment or breeding or kill them can be developed. A 3-year project officer post is expected to move this vital work forward before it is too late.

As well as helping in this critical work it was an opportunity to walk along and enjoy a beautiful stretch of one of Devon's enigmatic rivers.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Garden Moths

Moth Trap
On Friday (6th March) I took another step outside of my comfort zone.

A couple of years ago when I decided to look at moths seriously, I researched and dismissed the Garden Moths Scheme ( deciding to collect moths as and when the mood took me. GMS asked for a commitment to trap moths every Friday night for the period between March and November. The minimum effort is to trap for 27 of the 36 weeks. Not every moth is required to be recorded, GMS provide a spreadsheet of the 200 or so most common moths for the the South West region.

The idea is to reduce the variables to a minimum – moth species, day (irrespective of weather), moth trap and location – to provide a good statistical basis to account for why, where and when moths are present.

Moth Trap in the dark
In 2012 when I started with moths, this was all too daunting. So, I plodded along putting out my moth trap on warm, cloudy, moonless nights and have managed to record over 100 species in my small rural garden. I rely heavily on my County Moth Recorder to determine tricky, new, out of season, or very worn specimens. (Determine = expert confirms or suggest the correct species)

After a couple of years the County Recorder referred me to GMS and now is does seem less daunting. I don't expect to see all the moths on the South West list but I am more confident in my ability to identify at least some of them and I now have two experts to help with determinations!

Common Flat-Body
Agonopterix heracliana
I have recently converted my Skinner 40W actinic trap into a more rain friendly type of moth trap – a twin 20W Compact flourescent. This means it will cope better with adverse weather conditions that regularly trapping on a Friday night entails. One of the major tenets of GMS is to establish distribution and flight times irrespective of weather conditions so I am pleased to add my location to the database and continue my mothing learning curve.

And, the result of my first session – a single moth which is not on the GMS common 200 list -Agonopterix heracliana!

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Looking under Logs

In April 2011, we had a large ash tree felled that was undermining our patio and coincidentally providing a toilet pedestal for the winter flock of Starlings.
Candle-snuff Fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon)

A couple of professional arboriculturists duly arrived with rigging, hard hats and chain saws and methodically took the tree down from the top to the bottom.  We enjoyed many open log fires with the resulting timber, but half a meter wide trunk was left in large rounds for me to dispose of.

Well, I tried splitting them, but with no luck and a jarred arm.  
So thinking, laterally, I dispersed them around the garden as ornamental features on the grass near the hedges and fences.

Eyelash Fungus (Scutellaria scutellata)
Four years on, we have a thriving saprophytic  community on and under each of them.  These range from fungi to invertebrates and the occasional vertebrate temporary resident.

The fungi range from the common Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) on top of the logs, Candle-snuff Fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon) on the sides and a real treat, Eyelash fungus (Scutellaria scutellata) undeneath one of them. 

Austalian Flatworm (Australoplana samgiomea)
The invertebrates have found a really attractive safe and warm refuge under these logs.  I turn them up every week or so just to see what has sheltered there.  There are the ubiquitous slugs and a thriving colony of Woodhoppers (Arcitalitrus dorrieni) which is beginning to colonise Cornwall. Another coloniser is the Australian Flatworm (Australoplana sanguinea) which appears every year under the same log.  Millipedes, centipedes and wood lice all make their homes under the logs too.

Common Frog (Rana temporaria)
Vertebrates are less common but obviously preying on the above and I have recorded Common Frog (Rana temporania) and a Palmate Newt (Lissotriton helveticus).

I just have to be careful that my chicken does not get there before me as she particularly likes small slugs but is very catholic in her tastes and would scoff the lot if I let her.

Logs are well worth placing in your garden as refugia for all sorts of interesting creatures.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Sternus vulgaris


I really like Starlings.  
They are unbelievably colourful – in the right light -reflecting all the colours of the rainbow like oil does; 
they are cheerful – always singing – any bird's song will do and it doesn't even have to be birdsong; 
gregarious – form the small flocks in your garden to the millions in a murmuration.  

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Late Pruning

Acrobatic female Bullfinch
We are always late with pruning our ancient Buddleia. We do promise ourselves that we will do it before Christmas so that the buds can develop early. Last year, though we had an excuse to leave it later – in late winter/early spring we cut it back drastically and removed lots of dead wood and overlapping branches. So we complacently ignored our promise to prune in early winter and left it with all the new shoots and dead flower heads.