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all pictures © robin williams

 

August 2021: wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

August 28th 2021. Overcast and wintery weather persists, but there is a need to get out and see if there is anything moving out on the moors. On the journey to Catcott, via Tealham moor, I spotted a Grey heron hunched up over a damp ditch. I managed to stop the car without disturbing its concentration and managed a few pictures of it facing the ditch. Apparently, nothing was doing, so it moved on down a few paces. It was a fine adult, with the most colourful of plumage. It was doubly pleasing, as few herons have been seen fishing during the day. Is this because of too much disturbance, or are their numbers much reduced? They most certainly were not spotted earlier flying into nests in the wood on Tadham moor, which lends credence to this, as with everything nowadays.

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

Eventually, I reached Catcott Lows to find it eerily empty of wildlife. I enjoyed just sitting there, so peaceful, but ended with a couple of pleasing pictures. The cattle moved around periodically and a Cattle egret flew past. while a Great white egret favoured me by dropping in for a spell of fishing.

Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis

Great white egret Egretta alba

August 26th 2021. It was a perfect summer day - too much so to stay at home. I took my latest camera over to Loxley Wood, though rather towards the latter end of the afternoon. Indeed, it was too late for the majority of insects, as I had feared. But I had a really good session with a wasp on blackberries, sufficient to test the camera and find a slight hesitation in close-focussing. I need to test the same lens against a similar body now, to see where the fault lies. However, I also tested some different camera settings aimed at increasing sharpness even further. Instead of f14 and ISO 320, I used f11 at ISO 100 (all with the internal flash and flash magnifier). Initial impressions are that it is even more effective than I had hoped. Depth of field is still sufficiently good using the 150mm macro lens, while sharpness is amazing.

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum

What particularly interested me about the following pictures is the confusion that can arise from the concentration on one character in a key. Clearly, this wasp has the notch in its eye with the skin inside this filled with yellow, quoted in one key as a special character for a completely different wasp. It really threw me. This led on to other characters, until it all became clear at last. This was a process taking over an hour of intense work.  Another point of confusion was the red-coloured patches on the face. They are always described as yellow; there is no mention of a variant. Yet this is the commonest of wasps. These blackberries Rubus spp. were a tremendous attractant to sweet-toothed creatures, including humans. There were few of them at that stage and, presumably, they were at their maximum sweetness. Greenbottles Lucilia caesar were all over them, but no other flies.

Vespa vulgaris & Luciia caesar on blackberry

Common wasp Vespa vulgaris m

Common wasp Vespa vulgaris m

Common wasp Vespa vulgaris m

Common wasp Vespa vulgaris m

Common wasp Vespa vulgaris m

When you look at the pictures, it may be helpful to understand they are JPEGs reduced from 500 to around 50 pixels, yet still giving astonishing apparent sharpness. Another miracle of modern technology we accept as normal!

August 25th 2021. Romey was looking out of the kitchen window at a couple of young Grey squirrels chasing each other wildly up and down trees and round the grass when a bird swooped down and carried off one of them. The squirrel was more or less the same size as the bird, which must have been a female Sparrowhawk from her description. It must have been a heavy burden but the hawk shrugged it off and vanished into the orchard above. Poor little survivor, left without its constant companion.

August 24th 2021. The invertebrate group met this morning on a rather unfavourable day at Sand Bay, near Weston super Mare. Those who made it were John M, Margarethe E, Fiona D. and myself. It was mostly overcast, with a really strong wind that rendered photography all but impossible, though a few interesting shots were taken in the end. Two in particular were taken at the very last moment before descending the steps down to the car. Both were tiny black insects 5 or 6mm long on a few battered umbels still in flower, one a wasp and the other a  fly. The wasp, Lindenius panzeri, is a totally new species to me. For some reason I had never thought of where I might come across them, just imagining them elsewhere, beyond my ken. These were tiny black insects on a stand of Achillea milefolium straining in the wind. The pictures show two versions. Other, very poor pictures actually displayed the characters better. The typical female, 5-7mm, is black, with a tuft of bright gold hairs at the end of the abdomen, and two white marks like a broken collar across the abdomen. The male, 4-6mm,  may be found without the pronotal marks, but retaining other characters. The legs on both are heavily marked with gold, including the tarsi. It is tiny but quite broad, relative to other small digger wasps. They nest in the ground and prey on several small Diptera.

digger wasp Lindenius panzeri

digger wasp Lindenius panzeri m

digger wasp Lindenius panzeri f

digger wasp Lindenius panzeri f

The other tiny black insect, with similar appearance and marking to the wasp, was a tiny black fly. My research indicates a shore fly, Ephydridae. It is possible that it is a common species, Psilopa nitidula. The most striking feature, well shown in the first picture, is what appears to be a second but dwarf pair of wings. I assume this is a strange evolution of the more normal clubbed halteres, which help balance the insect in flight? The leg markings are very similar to the wasp, with gold, adding to the confusion on the umbel.  

shore fly Psilopa nitidula? f

shore fly Psilopa nitidula? m

Apart from them, I have images of a harvestman I was unable to identify and a squash bug on some unripe berries. For all the lack of insects, we had a good time, enjoying the seascape from the top, and eating our sandwiches in a slightly-sheltered spot, together with the associated chat. Good to see the bay again, even if not at its finest. 

harvestman Opiliones

squash bug Verlusia rhombia

August 21st 2021. I spent a happy hour gazing down the eyepiece of the camera this morning during a fortunate break in the weather. I was not feeling particularly well at the time, but was better for it afterwards. The excuse was the arrival of a replacement camera for my much-used and much-loved old Nikon D300 which I have owned for many years but which is no longer useable on the latest generation of lens. Now, all the bodies are completely interchangeable, either D7500 or D7200. During this spell, I set the latest, used, body to the same settings as the others; Finding a couple which I wanted to test out as possible improvements for all. It was a tiring session because of the sheer concentration on my 'prey'. But others might judge it as seeming lazy.  

August 20th 2021. I have just finished reading the most extraordinary book, Rebirding, by Benedict Macdonald. In some ways, the title may put people off, if their main interest is not in birds. He takes birds as a theme but the arguments apply as much to all wildlife. While the book talks about other parts of the world, the findings in it apply strictly to the UK, talking in great detail about the long-term destruction both of our wildlife and our rural population. It points out that, contrary to popular belief, we have all the room that is needed to turn this round - only six percent of our countryside is actually built upon. He points out that large areas of the country are farmed unproductively, with a deal of poverty that could be transformed by wilding large areas and profiting from tourism, as happens in many parts of Europe. It seems we are too tidy overall. If sizeable areas of land were to be left to the care of large, primitive cattle wandering freely, with suitable natural predators to cull deer, the land would soon revert to a previous existence, cost a great deal less to maintain, and prove a real asset for the country, as well as large landowners, as has been demonstrated in recent years in Kent, where a thousand acres have had this treatment, with great success for all. He goes on to select some parts of the country with the potential to benefit both people and wildlife, then how to do it. It is a dream we ought to think about, the book needs to be read and considered carefully both by government and people in general. It might be the key to altering large swathes of our countryside, and the prosperity of its inhabitants, for the better. My explanation sounds inadequate when I look at it again, but this only says that the book itself needs to be read for you to consider your own conclusions. The choices for the future may then appear less bleak, more attainable.

August 19th 2021. A day spent at home enjoying our own wildlife. The first of these was a rather lovely pale buzzard sitting on the railing above the house. I had not expected this when we decided to put the rail up but hope more birds will use it like this in the future.

 Common buzzard Buteo buteo

The next event was the arrival of a woodpecker who spent a great deal of time feeding on our extensive ant population. The rough lawn looks bleak and free from life, but years ago we found that it was a seething mass of ants nests beneath the surface. This fine male bird clearly found everything he needed this day also. It was delightful watching him twisting and turning, banging hard down on the surface, and periodically glancing up into the sky to search for possible danger.

Green woodpecker Picus viridis m

Green woodpecker Picus viridis m

Green woodpecker Picus viridis m

Green woodpecker Picus viridis m

Green woodpecker Picus viridis m

Before supper, I sat down on the terrace for a breather and noticed numbers of Sand martins and juvenile Swallows above us (I refuse to call them Barn swallows, the old English names are for the birds we have always known, why change these to please some specialists and confuse the ordinary watcher? Nobody gains from this. The species is defined by its scientific name, not the English name, which is purely local. 'Twitcher by the Swamp', in 'British Wildlife', makes this point most forcefully this month). It is so good to see these birds out in force, they have been missing in our very local skies for several years now. Many years ago, Swallows bred in the garage for a year or two but have not been seen since. The blue sky, with a few white clouds, was perfect for sitting back and enjoying this spectacle.

 

House martin Delichon urbica

Swallow Hirundo rustica juvenile

August 14th 2021. A spell of sunshine in rotten weather enabled me to obtain a few pictures of one of my favourite little black digger wasps, characterised by its black body, with white hairs highlighting it, generally arriving later in the year than Crossocerus

digger wasp Pemphredon lugubris

digger wasp Pemphredon lugubris

digger wasp Pemphredon lugubris

digger wasp Pemphredon lugubris 

August 11th 2021. I looked into the hide at Catcott Lows this morning for a short visit. It was good to talk to several friends there who I had not seen since Coronavirus started. The country is slowly, reluctantly easing its way out of shut-down, some of us not yet feeling comfortable with the freedom of seeing and being near others, so it was good to talk to friends again. I was fascinated by a tiny drone that Alan and Andrew operate on behalf of the RSPB. The pair survey reserves and countryside for the society, saving large amounts of time. It is fitted with a Hassleblad camera, capable of outstanding results. What an amazing world we now inhabit! At first there did not seem to be much to see. Across the other side of the pool, a few Lapwings (Vanellus vanellus) were part-hidden in the edge shallows but that was all. All of a sudden, a large number of Cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis) surged up from the far edge and flew towards us. I was told well over 200 had been seen in recent times, with a good few juveniles. In recent weeks, few were seen on Tealham and Tadham Moors. Is this where they have all been hiding? They circled a couple of times, quite close to the hide, then flew off and out of sight. 

Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis

On returning home, a flash of colour caught my eye close by the house, a large hoverfly more often seen in towns. 

hoverfly Volucella zonaria

hoverfly Volucella zonaria

 August 8th 2021. A mixed bag of shots this morning started by almost treading on a tiny toad. These animals used to be common when we had a wood-pile outside the back door but have not seen one for years. When we finally dismantled the wood-pile we found it sandwiched numbers of toads in its various layers - a perfect residence for them, with reasonably constant temperature and moisture content. Aside from that, one large adult lived alongside the back door for a long while. 

Common toad Bufo bufo young

leafcutter bee Megachile willughbiella f

leafcutter bee Megachile willughbiella f

August 6th 2021. Another active morning on the logs, with both leafcutter bees and little black digger wasps hard at work. It presented some marvellous opportunities for the photographer, taken in patches of sunshine in between showers. The picture immediately below indicates one of the problems of leafcutter bee identification, the colour of the pollen brush. Is this a natural colour, or are the brushes stained by this particular pollen? I believe that Megachile willughbiella is variable. Some indeed are orange and white, others are this dark brown colouring which has been commented upon earlier. How obvious is the extensive nature of the pale pair of fringes around the sides of the thorax.

leafcutter bee Megachile willughbiella f

leafcutter bee Megachile willughbiella

leafcutter bee Megachile willughbiella f

This picture illustrates, almost cartoons, the heavy, lengthy abdomen of the species. Identification of this insect takes this into account as well as its rather anonymous effect; a bit of this, a bit of that.

leafcutter bee Megachile ligniseca f

It has been a relatively good year for this cuckoo bee, so patient, so persistent once it reaches the nest area. It appears that the cells of the host must be in exactly the right state. So often she starts to enter, freezes and flies back out. The sharp back end is like a knife and is used to cut through the fibres of the cell wall before laying her egg. Such a dapper creature.

cuckoo bee Coelioxys elongata f

The tiny black wasp is notable for its comparatively large head, often appearing obviously so when blown up a little on the computer. The various pale or white components confirm the identification. The male is only between 4 and 5.5mm in length, the female a little larger. 

  

digger wasp Crossocerus annulipes f

digger wasp Crossocerus annulipes f

digger wasp Crossocerus annulipes f

August 3rd 2021. I spent far too much time before lunch, well over an hour, covering the time of most activity, midday; sitting hunched over a camera, gazing at activities on the logs and bamboos. Earlier in the year, it seemed that it would be a bad year for our nest sites, starting badly with practically no Osmia bicornis emergences. But this past week or so has brought a flood of leafcutters, a riot of bees bringing in cut leaves and much pollen on the brushes beneath their abdomens. This latter often completely obscures the original brush colour.

Leafcutter bee Megachile willughbiella

Leafcutter bee Megachile willughbiella f 

At last, little black digger wasps are starting to appear in greater numbers, always searching, searching. Their actual size does not do justice to the insect as seen. The ones below are around 7mm long. It sounds quite large by macro standards, but they are really slender when compared to, say, a megachilid 10 or 11 mm long; for these latter are really wide. I think the best description in the field is similar to that of Cheilosia hoverflies - skinny, thread-like. This species is one of the larger ones.

digger wasp Crossocerus megacephalus f

digger wasp Crossocerus megacephalus f

digger wasp Crossocerus megacephalus f

digger wasp Crossocerus megacephalus f

Another superficially similar species is shown below. This black Crossocerus is a little smaller than the previous one, but otherwise even blacker throughout. This particular individual drew my attention when I noticed her vibrating, with her tail head firmly inserted into a nest-hole. I can only assume she was laying into a near-finished cell. It must be a hard process, going on for quite a while, the insect working really strenuously. Another explanation might be that it was finishing off the top of a cell set just below the surface, perhaps both together? 

digger wasp Crossocerus cetratus f

digger wasp Crossocerus annulipes f

August 1st 2021. I opened the trail camera after a week or so with it sitting beside the garden trail. A couple of thousand pictures were rapidly reduced to just over a hundred (each exposure occurs in bursts of four to capture the animal as close to the centre of the image as possible, as well as a great many blurred as a result of the creature running, particularly at night). Two sets of pictures caught the eye particularly, delicate daylight images of a young doe and  night-time pictures of a young buck.  

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus f

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus f

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus m

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus m

More insects followed during the afternoon. A break in the weather allowed a short period on the slope above the house, on the edge of an empty pond where we have a huge plant of Giant daisy Inula magnifica. If ever a plant lives up to its name, it is this one, well over six feet high with large yellow flowers. The first picture is typical of a leafcutter settling down to pack the pollen basket with the product. It will be noted that the brush is brown with black at the very tip. Is this a natural colour - not normally mentioned in keys - or are they susceptible to staining from certain pollens? Pollens vary considerably by plant species, white, purple, red, gold, dark.  

leafcutter bee Megachile willughbiella f

leafcutter bee Megachile willughbiella f

Prominent on some of the flowers were a number of cuckoo bumblebees. Indeed there were no straightforward bumblebees to be seen while I was watching. Bombus barbutellus is not one of the commoner cuckoos. I am always delighted to come across them in the garden. The Large daisy seems to be particularly attractive to them, especially in bright sunlight.

cuckoo bumblebee Bombus bohemicus m

cuckoo bumblebee Bombus bohemicus m