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A local diary


Spring 2012

May 29th 2012. The second of our two Bioblitz meetings was held at Shapwick Heath NNR today. It is a very large area and, judging by the number of cars, many people were joining in. We parked at the western edge of the reserve and spent our morning there, in the fields near Canada Farm. This proved less than successful, in that there were few insects around. The reason was obvious - there were few flowers and without flowers there are no insects. The area was heavily colonised with Bog myrtle, which smelt marvellous but yielded little, though there were numerous damselflies haunting the ditch edges.

The afternoon was much better, as we went eastwards through the Sweet Track route (the site of a 3000 year old trackway through the ancient wetlands) to the Decoy Hide. Early bramble flowers were starting to appear and I saw my first Bombus hypnorum worker of the season. A few hoverflies and the odd bumblebee were also found. At the hide, we heard a Cuckoo calling and three Hobbys were chasing the many dragonflies - mostly Four-spot chasers. One of these seen perching on a stem was found to have only three wings. Was this an earlier encounter with a Hobby? The day was very hot and humid and should have been expected to yield more. We felt that any subsequent such Bioblitz would be better held in early June, when the insects should follow the new flowers.MT_ignore

May 24th 2012. I have had the most dreadful attacks of hay fever recently, coinciding with masses of what was thought  to be Oil-seed rape, which has been spreading all along the edges of our many ditches down on the moors. Certainly, it had all the effects known from those who live by farms with masses of rape crops, but I found out theat in fact it is a close relative, Wild turnip, or the much nicer name, Ploughman's cabbage - very beautiful in its masses, but even our dog is affected by the pollen. This plague, if that is the term, has happened over the last few years only. Is it the effect of our strange spring weather or is it more permanent?MT_ignoreMay 22nd 2012. The Somerset Invertebrates Group (SIG), which has a number of informal field meetings throughout the Spring and Summer, were invited to join in the Bioblitz at Ham Wall NNR today. Although it was a beautiful, hot, sunny day, it turned out to be a less than perfect choice - too early in the year, as there were few flowers around in this particular reserve. Nevertheless, it proved interesting and it was enjoyable being out in the fresh air. We did see a Bittern flying briefly across some open water and a Great-crested grebe was fishing in front of a blind. The insects were the real disappointment though. We saw a number of damselflies, including the less frequently found Variable blue, but no larger dragonflies. The most interesting habitat turned out to be Yellow flag-iris, which had three different reed beetles as well as Tropidia scita, one of our more colourful hoverflies. The most exciting event came when it was announced officially that Great white egrets, Egretta alba, were nesting on Shapwick Heath NNR - said to be the first in the country.MT_ignoreMay 20th 2012. Back at Blagdon Lake again, this time for a meeting of the Bristol Moth Group who were searching for day-flying moths. Sadly, the weather remained stubbornly overcast and rather cold, so we had little luck. Round lunchtime we decided to call it a day, though we had found one or two mining bees in some of the few hardy flowers. On the walk back to the cars, we were astonished to see a solitary Glow-worm larva crawling across the path.


May 16th 2012. After a rather cold, damp morning, the sun came out and I spent an hour or so at the hide at Catcott Lows. I was treated to a wonderful display by a couple of Little egrets feeding just on the edge of the water, very close to the hide. In full breeding plumage, with long plumes on the head and feathery edges to the tail, they are truly handsome birds.


May 13th 2012. I spent the day with Nigel Milbourne at Blagdon Lake, lying just off the edge of Mendip, and was fortunate enough to see and photograph a real local celebrity - a Squacco heron - which must have blown in from the Mediterranean. It was far smaller than I had expected and looked very like a Barn owl in flight, with its white wings. I think it highly unlikely I will ever see another of these birds here again, a real privilege.MT_ignore Quite early in the day I spotted a hoverfly I had not seen before. Nigel told me it was really common on the low-lying meadows on the edge of the north shore. Chrysotoxum cautum is one of the always pretty Chrysotoxum genus, with a distinctive yellow face. MT_ignore

May 9th 2012. After days of unremitting rain and showers, I did manage to capture pictures of one or two bees, amongst them this Bombus lucorum worker collecting pollen. The picture illustrates just how difficult identification of bees can be - and particularly bumblebees. It shows how pollen can cover many points and distort the ideas of colours given in books and keys. The other main factor to be borne in mind is the effect of aging, where coloured bands are worn away or fade to a quite anonymous shade. These are factors which so often make bumblebee identification tricky.MT_ignore

May 1st 2012. I have been surprised not to have seen any damselfies in the garden to date. However, today, in a gap between showers, a male Large red damselfly did appear at last, glowing red against the green stems.


April 30th 2012. I have never seen this apparently common hoverfly before, though clearly it is  of a very distinctive shape and colour. I had been out for some while on this blustery day and found it sheltering in a quiet part of the garden, together with some Platycheirus clypeatus which I had photograped many times before. The pale scutellum and long protruding face looked unfamiliar, so I sent the picture off to an expert who told me it was Platycheirus manicatus (Meigen 1822), a grassland specialist.


April 28th 2012. Today I attended a splendid, and very worthy, meeting down in South Somerset. 'Keeping Somerset Orchards Live' lives up to its name by seeking volunteers to carry out surveys of the state of local orchards and of the birds and bees found within their bounds. Talks were given to an extremely interested group, on bird and bee recognition and how to carry out the orchard surveys. These were followed by a group visit to a number of orchards in the area. For further information on the project contact Ann Langdon on This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . It is surely important that help is given to preserving and extending the life of such important parts of local countryside and history.

April 27th 2012. I have just heard a surprising piece of news from Nick Owens, who is writing a book on bumblebees which includes, among other things, information on how many species are found in each county. After contacting the many specialists who record this information, he informed me that Somerset apparently has the highest number at this time (excluding species which have become extinct or are no longer found here). In recent years we have recorded the following species: Bombus hortorum, B. lapidarius, B. lucorum, B. B. pascuorum, B. pratorum, B. terrestris - widespread; B. humilis, B. jonellus, B. monticola, B. muscorum, B. ruderarius, B. ruderatus, B. soroeensis, B. sylvarum - local or rare; B. barbutellus, B. bohemicus, B. campestris, B. rupestris, B. sylvestris, B. vestalis - cuckoo bumblebees. Somehow I feel it is unlikely that we will add to this tally.

April 22nd 2012. Just back from a week in the Brecon Beacons, which included a visit to The Red Kite Feeding Centre at Llanddeusant. The weather cleared just enough to enable us to appreciate the sight and excitement of so many birds at one time and one place. The first impression came before we reached the farm, with dozens of birds wheeling high over head and others streaming in from all directions. Then the farmer put down his meat in front of the hide and the birds dived and wheeled and fell on it, never quite landing but picking up with great precision. The real shock was to realise just how big these birds are and amazement that they never hit each other in the general excitement. I am not good at counting birds, but I suspect there must have been over a hundred in the air at once. What a fantastic experience! (I know this site is  ostensibly about insects, but recent events must surely include all notable wildlife events). Back in the garden, there were no traces of the previously abundant bumblebees and other insects - just sodden ground.mt_ignoreApril 13th 2012. Showers and periods of freezing cold skies alternated in typical April fashon. Once again, the bluebells were receiving a great deal of attention. This time it was the first of the local honey-bees - a welcome sight in view of all the scares about their future.MT_ignoreApril 12th 2012. After a grey start, a truly lovely day ensued and the insect storm continued. I was particularly interested to see a female mason bee, Osmia rufa, nectaring on both bluebells and grape hyacinths. This was unusual both for using these flowers but because I have only seen males at the flats so far. The picture shows the unique feature of this species, a pair of distinct horns on the face. These are used to smooth out the mud from which they fashion the nest cells. Clearly no pollen has been obtained, as it would show up easily under the abdomen, where this family has its pollen brush.mt_ignoreApril 10th 2012. Real April weather today, with showers alternating with brilliant sunshine and the leaves spotted with water droplets. While yesterday was nore active, there are numbers of bumblebees, hoverflies and solitary bees around. The most striking are the fast-moving mining bees, Anthophora plumipes, real harbindgers of spring. It is always strange to realise that the males and females are the same species. The pictures below show the largely black female and sandy male. mt_ignoremt_ignore

April 7th 2012. The recent spell of wildly variable weather must have a very difficult effect on our insects. What happens to those that emerged in the warm sunshine and then were faced with a day or so of frosts? One day the garden buzzes with life, hoverflies, bumblebees, early solitary bees and butterflies; the next and nothing moves. Are they there? Have they been killed by the overcast and frost? What effect will it have over the next month or so? Early hoverflies spotted in the garden included Rhingia campestris, readily recognised by its distinctive beak, and various Eristalis spp. which often hang in a sunbeam and scrutinise you with great intensity.mt_ignoreApril 2nd 2012. The late afternoon was really warm and the garden was humming with insect life, particularly bees and bumblebees; the first really prolific time for this year. We had Anthophora plumipes males whizzing from plant to plant, rarely stopping for more than a fraction of a second, while the first females of the year were also spotted. The presence  of this species is always clear with the high-pitched whine of the wings. Bombus terrestris m, B. hortorum m and q, while B. pascuorum m were joined by an altogether brighter bumblebee which looked very similar. Close examination revealed that this was the rare B. muscorum (Linnaeus 1758). We have had this species in the garden before but it seems extremely early for a queen, let alone a male.


Finally, but so very welcome, several bee-flies, the commoner Bombylius major, were darting from flower to flower, feeding on the move without slowing or stopping their wing-beats. They can look very strange with their long proboscises permanently displayed. It is only in the past few years we have seen these. Many years ago we saw the much less usual Bombylius discolor here, but they seem to have disappeared.mt_ignore

March 28th 2012. After several days of really hot, still weather, the garden is really coming to life. The first bee-fly, Bombylius major, was seen nectaring on a Primrose and both Bombus terrestris and Bombus hortorum queens were busy on the Pulmonaria flowers. At the flats, the first Osmia rufa males were seen exploring log holes and cavities, while a number of Ancistrocerus nigricornis mason wasps were searching for nest holes – earlier than ever seen before.


March 26th 2012. The hot, unseasonal weather has at last produced what I have been expecting for some while. A male Anthophora plumipes was spotted buzzing round the Pulmonarias. This sandy-coloured mining bee appears well before the females who are quite unlike him in appearance. She is almost all black, but both are distinguished by very rapid flight and a high-pitched hum from the wings, which is quite distinctive. They are amongst the earliest bees in many gardens and fun to watch as they are so energetic and active


March 23rd & 24th 2012. I have just returned from spending a couple of days with friends in Gower – in perfect weather. Among the highlights were a couple of visits to Oxwich sand-dunes where, much to our delight, we found the local rarity, Colletes cunicularius (Linnaeus 1761). This larger mining bee is only to be found there and in one other site in north-west England, in a similar coastal sand-dune system. The first bees were just starting to dig their nests on the edge of a small slope, while the males circled and twisted above, non-stop. The attraction for them appears to be the catkins of the Creeping sallow, Salix repens, which appear at the same time as the bees and provide the essential pollen for stocking the nests.


March 17th 2012. The past week has been dominated by an event in the bird world.  Four Spoonbills, large white birds from the Continent, arrived at Catcott Lows and stayed for a number of days, to many peoples' joy. They have recently bred in East Anglia, so we are hoping that our large reed beds might attract them  to stay,  as we hope the recent numbers of visiting Great white egrets may also increase.







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