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A local diary


Spring 2013

May 27th 2013. A Bank Holiday, as well as another SIG outing. We met at the local nature reserve on Berrow Dunes in sunshine, in spite of a rather poor forecast. It was extremely windy, but the dunes dulled this and it was really pleasant working our way through the scrub and wild flowers in search of our insect and spider prey. There is no doubt the season is later than last year. Flowers that ought to have been blooming, were still in the bud-break stage, but we still had an interesting time. One striking event, was the sound of a Cuckoo throughout the morning. This was the first I have heard this year and, nowadays, is an increasingly rare event. Francis and Toddy, two spider specialists, together with Bill, were hopeful of seeing some interesting species which are dependent on the dune habitat and were able to show us one most attractive wolf-spider, Arctosa perita (Latreille), which is  perfectly camouflaged in the soft sand and a fine tribute to their powers of observation. Nigel was looking particularly for varieties of hoverflies and had some success, while my specialism, bees, proved poor for solitary species but there were plenty of bumblebees, particularly in great sheets of Ground ivy. Bumblebee species included Bombus lapidarius, B. lucorum, B. hortorum, B. pascuorum, B. jonellus and B. pratorum. The majority were particularly small, apparently starved, workers. However, I did watch a mining bee hard at work collecting pollen at a newly-opened May tree, while Nigel and I tried to photograph some rapidly-moving Nomada cuckoo bees, but they were too quick for us.

Bill, who is particularly interested in beetles, found a goodly number but needs to report on identification later. He also found both male and female Andrena barbilabris visiting their invisible nests in the sand and took some splendi pictures of them both. I spent some while photographing a strange-looking smal beetle, Oedemera lurida, a species new to me.

After lunch, the overhead gloom and wind took over and by mid-afternoon the search for insects was increasingly hopeless, but at least we had made it this year after the frustration of two previous years when visits had been completely rained-off.

May 25th 2013. The 'flats' logs really came to life today. The warmth found considerable activity by midday and it was perfect to sit down in comfort by the logs, camera on a monopod, focussed on the area of most activity. The majority of insects were Osmia bicornis, nearly all males, but with the occasional female. The males rarely stopped searching each and every potential nest-hole, hoping to catch a female as she emerged.  One mason wasp, Ancistrocerus nigricornis, turned up and a few cuckoo wasps searched each nest-hole with great diligence. As far as I could see, they were all Chrysis mediata - the mid-sized of the three species usually found in our 'flats', wonderfully patterned in metallic reds, golds and blues. The logs had one other very active set of inhabitants enjoying the hot sun, the little jumping spiders, Salticus scenicus.

For the last few nights a young Badger has been visiting us, outside the kitchen window just as the evenin shades into darkness. It snuffles around under the bird feeders picking up the scraps and seeds that inevitably fall down, then wanders around close by to see if anything else has been dropped. It stays for a quarter of an hour or so, then trots back up the hill into the orchard. Tonight it was joined by another young one, while a rather scruffy Fox also appeared for a brief period. We have had a couple of badger tracks running north and south throughout the garden as long as we have been here, but it is the first time we have seen any - a delightful experience.

May 22nd 2013. Today I heard a sound I thought had vanished for good from Tealham Moor. It was a foul afternoon, spitting cold rain and with a really strong, whistling wind. High up above I heard the unmistakable sound of a Snipe drumming. It must be twenty years or more since I  last heard this on the moor, though before that it had been a common sound in spring. Skylarks also seem to be making a comeback, after years of empty skies. Yesterday, I heard several singing over Tadham Moor.  A day or so ago,  Romey told methat she had seen a Snipe fly over Jack's Drove, while  I caught a similar sight of a Redshank as it flew low over the road - another sadly-vanished bird in recent years. Is this an indication we have gone through one of nature's periodic fluctuations rather than a permanent series of losses?. It is so easy to imagine creatures have vanished, with our short-term observations, whereas wildlife operates over much longer timescales. A decade is nothing in face of the various influences which can temporarily affect wildlife populations.

May 17th 2013. Our SIG field group met at Brean Down this morning. This is a large dome of rock and grassland north of Burnham-on-Sea and south of Weston-super-Mare, reached along a narrow road through a variety of seaside attractions, with a great many people enjoying the sunshine. The National Trust car-park started filling up quickly, but it was surprising how the people were quickly absorbed in the landscape and the top proved remarkably empty and quiet. At home it had been a virtually windless day, but here it was a very different story. When we reached the top, it proved to be swept with the sort of wind which swirls into every apparently-sheltered spot. Insect life was difficult to spot, but everyome enjoyed the day out in the very fresh air. I was particularly glad to spot some very small mining bees which I had not seen for some years. Andrena barbilabris specialises in that peculiarly powder-soft sand found in places like this. They dig their nests in loose sand, leaving no trace of their presence on flying off. When they fly off the sand closes up and, to our eyes at least, show no trace of a hole - yet the bees home straight into their nest-site without any hesitation; amazing. The males and females differ strongly from each other in shape and colour.

It is a very good time to visit Brean. The top has sheets of Bluebells and there are masses of Cowslips still at their peak, as well as White rock roses and other wild flowers. I did not see it, but Nigel told of a patch of Alexanders that attracted many small bees and hoverflfiles, so some life still remained out in the open. All in all, a great day out for naturalists and families, with a fine welcome from the friendly National Trust representative. I am delighted to put in Toddy's wife's fine picture of some of the flowers we saw and am grateful for allowing me to use it. It well illustrates the richness of the flora on this windswept headland.

May 15th 2013.Another sunny interlude, though sadly few inects took advantage of it. There was some activity at the logs, mostly males, but there was one female Osmia bicornis among them - the first I have seen this year. They are readily disinguished by their much shorter antennae and short 'horns' each side of their mouths.

May 7th 2013. A grass snake turned up in our garden today. My wife spotted a movement stirring the edge of the pond and then its head appeared looking straight at her. We sat and watched for some while as it searched among the stalks of the plants, before disappearing into the mud at the bottom. Eventually, its whole body was seen; much thinner than I would have expected from its reasonable length. Possibly it was in need of a proper meal and was searching the pond for frogs and newts. For the last ten years we have seen no grass snakes in the garden, after frequent sightings before that. But the last year or so has brought the odd sighting - another example of how not to judge rarity or otherwise over too short a period.

This day I spotted the first Large red damselfly of my year so far - very late. Indeed I had yet to see a single dragonfly of any sort, though they must be ,as was shown by the presence of Hobbys more than a week ago.

May 4th 2013. Another fine day and the 'flats' have gone really mad at last. Four hymenopteran species have been seen so far. The great majority are Osmia bicolor, as you would expect, but there has also been one digger wasp searching the holes, an Ectemnius continuus. Ancistrocerus nigricornis was also seen searching, but only stayed a few minutes. Finally, I was amazed to see a jewel wasp, caught in a spider web but recovering to explore a couple of logs. What was surprising, was that that it was the rare Chrysura radians, not one of a couple of commoner species which regularly frequent the log at this time of year. C. radians is certainly present here, but normally it emerges a month after the others. The colours of the jewel wasps have to be seen to be believed, brilliant metallic reds, blues, greens and gold, but you have to look carefully, for they are small and slender. If you do want to watch them, drilled logs are the place. They are not seen very often outside on plants.

I forgot to mention that yesterday I heard distant calling, high in the sky, and watched more than a dozen large birds fly across and out of sight. A few minutes later they returned, to circle in a thermal overhead and I realised belatedly that they were Common cranes - the first I had seen round here. No camera, sadly. These marvellous birds have been raised in Slimbridge from foreign-donated eggs, then transferred to holding pens on Sedgemoor, south of the Poldens, before release into the wild. This has been going on for several years, but the birds remained close to their original release field. Now, however, they are becoming more adventurous and some have returned to Slimbridge, where they are now said to be breeding. Local hopes are that they will eventually settle in all over the Moors.

May 2nd 2013. Yet another fine, warm day and, although activity did not start up until late moring, it showed plenty in the afternoon and, in particular, in the early evening when these two pictures were taken. They show one of my favourite insects, the mining bee Anthophora plumipes and shows how difficult it is to imagine these two are both from the same species. Both have one very distinctive characteristic, an extremely rapid, jerky flight punctuated by brief periods in the hover. Their wings make a high-pitched hum and the insects are very small, possibly even smaller this year. The female is rounded like a bumblebee and almost entirely black. The male is more streamlined and, as you can see, mainly yellowy-beige. The males emerge earlier than the females and rarely stop in their frantic search for a mate, buzzing from flower to flower in rapid succession. Their preferred flower, at least in my garden, is the Pulmonaria, or Lungwort.

The flats have suddenly become active - at last. Several Osmia bicornis appeared at early midday and started their search for mates, dashing between holes in the logs. A surprise though was that one of them was a female. These usually come out a week or so after the males. At least there is some activity. The evening bumblebees all appeared to be Bombus hortorum.

May 1st 2013. Another bright sunny day, warm and not too windy. I was fortunate enough to spend the morning with Nigel Milbourne on his favourite patch, Blagdon Lake. It looked quite marvellous, with the pale green dusting of new leaves on the trees picked out against the white blossoms of  Blackthorn and Gean, while the lake itself was richest blue, dotted with the black and white shapes of Tufted duck. There were many insects around, but not the profusion that the weather should have brought. Insect days are often like that; perfect weather with nothing, or a brief break of sunshine bringing a glut. The understorey of the smaller copses was notable for numbers of very small bees circling and looping, in spite of few flowers in sight. A much closer look at these revealed they were all Andrena haemorrhoa males - but much smaller than usual. I think this must be a sign of poor conditions when feeding and emerging. Among these were a number of Cuckoo bees, Nomada species. One particularly small example, shown below, was so covered in pollen and debris as to make identification a bit chancey but I am almost certain it was Nomada flavoguttata, an early, smaller species. Nomada are interesting insects, as many closely resemble wasps but are in fact bees. They are cuckoos on other solitary bees and appear early in spring searching the ground for nests to predate. Many are very attractive. and fun to photograph. In this case the pollen covering  obscures the vital features, though it does show dark anennae which narrows the species considerably - many have pinky-orange antennae.

April 29th. Had a brief spell in the hide at Catcott Lows, now looking over damp grassland rather than the extensive waters of winter, though a deep-water channel still  remains on which a female Mallard and a couple of Little Egrets were feeding. A few minutes before I left, a couple of Hobbys dashed towards the hide and over it, so close you felt you could touch them - very exciting. These were the first for me this year. Usually there are forty or fifty of these beautiful little falcons flying over nearby reserves at this time of year. Back home, another Osmia bicornis male made an appearance at the logs, so something is starting to happen at last.

April 27th 2013. After hearing about he numbers of bee-flies that have been seen on warm days down at the lake, it was good to at last see one feeding on the primroses and lungwort flowers in the garden.

April 26th 2013. A superb sunny day but cold wind, so insects reluctant to emerge until late in the day. However, at last there was a first emergence from the 'flats'. A male Osmia bicornis was hanging around one of the holes in a log - no doubt hoping to find an emerging female.

April 24th 2013. SIG met again today, at Blagdon Lake, where one of our members, Nigel Milbourne, is a voluntary warden, walks its perimeter almost every day and keeps up a marvellous website on its birds amd wildlife, Blagdon lake birds; so we were in good hands. Sadly though, the fine weather had given up on us and very little was flying. Nigel told us that the previous day every flower has its complement of bee-flies, hoverflies and solitary bees. The lake is actually a reservoir, purely artificial, but you would never know that from most of its surrounds. It is a really beautiful spot, with wild flower meadows, lovely bays and inlets, woods and copses. Out of the wind, where well sheltered, there were bees and hoverflies. Those bees on the dandelions turned out to all be Andrena haemorrhoa, a common but very attractive mining bee, with rich red-brown thoracic hairs. 

We were particularly pleased to find two phases of a strange-looking flightless beetle which appears to be flourishing round the lake. Meloe violaaceus is one of a number of species of oil-beetles, which have an unusual natural history of their own. The larvae of these, called triungulins, climb up into flowers and wait for a passing bee to land. They then attach temselves to the hairs of furry species and get a free ride to the bees' nest, where they feed on the bees food and sometimes their eggs. The adults and larvae are both wingless and therefore depend entirely on this method of transportation. Many Celandine flowers at some locations were alive with the triungulins. We also found numbers of the adult beetles in three different lakeside locations, so they are certainly flourishing here. They vary enormously in size, from 30mm to half that size. Females have different shaped antennae to males. The former have more or less straight antennae while the males have a distinct wiggle halfway up, making sexing easy. 

A final new find was a small metellic green beetle in the moss on top of a tree stump, in one of the copses on the edge of the lake. One of the Oedemeridae, which I had never seen before, but well worth the spotting.

April 21st 2013. After another swing back to a cold, foul day with swirling winds and grey skies, we woke to a fine day which kept up warm right through to the evening. I saw and photographed only the second hoverfly I had spotted in the garden this year. I really felt that they had all died out and we were not going to see them this year - crazy thought but the weather has had that effect over the past few weeks.

April 19th 2013. After yesterday's grey overcast with a freezing wind, it was wonderful to wake to sunshine which carried on throughout the day. Although there was little insect activity until late in the afternoon, two female Anthophora plumipes mining bees were spotted hovering and then landing beside one of the largest holes in a log. It indicates possible compression of events, as normally the females come out a week or so after the males. As the sun lost its power, I sat in front of a bed of Pulmonaria flowers and watched Bombus hortorum and B. pratorum queens feeding, together with a single Bombus hypnorum. I always used to think that B. terrestris was the first of the bumblees in the year, but B. hypnorum appears to be as early, if not earlier.

April 16th 2013. At last! It was really warm and comfortable today, sunny and with a much lighter wind than we have been suffering for so long. Both yesterday and today we have seen a Brimstone butterfly in the garden. It is going to take longer than two sunny days to bring insects out in numbers, but there has been a start at last. The first mining bee, a male Anthophora plumipes, appeared at the Pulmonaria flowers, buzzing quickly from one to another - weeks later than last year.

Perhaps as notable was the arrival of a fine male Bombus hortorum which flew in through the open front door. I would have expected that a queen would have been the first to be noted.

April 3rd 2013. Is Spring on the way? Yes, if you take the clear blue skies; no, if temperature is the measure - at least when taking the windchill into account. At the time of writing, no hoverflies or bumblebees are seen in the garden and the grass is barely growing. However, one clear sign of Spring was a party of three buzzards playing over the house, their presence brought me out of the house, through their marvellous mewing calls.

April 1st. A date which was part of a heatwave last year. This time the word 'Spring' is like an April Fool joke, for the day was freezing cold and completely overcast, as miserable as it might be. Yet it had its highlights. After breakafast I had a close-up view of a bird we had never seen in our garden over the many years we have lived here - until a couple of days ago. Jays are normally the shyest of birds, yet this one paid no attention to me as it picked up spilt food under the bird table. I had forgotten how beautiful and exotic they are.

Later, I had a an hour or so in the hide at Catcott Lows, in the face of a fierce and cutting east wind, but this too turned out far better than I had hoped. I would not have gone if I had not been showing my sister around on her visit from London, but it was well worth while. The water levels on the reserve had dropped considerably, leaving patches of water and much mud and, clearly, the great majority of the ducks had left, though there were Teal, Wigeon, Shoveler and even the odd Pintail drake still hidden among the rushes. No, the real excitement came via the heron family. The place was alive with Little egrets, all extremely skittish, chasing each other in twos and threes. One would jump into flight and others would follow, all landing again almost immediately, then the whole process was repeated, time after time. The birds had their breeding plumes well grown and this was obviously part of their courtship, being accompnnied by harsh calls and much agression. Normally, they should be in their woodland heronries but he weather is frustrating this, as it is with the Grey herons. We counted at least 24 Little egrets and there may well have been others in the rushy clumps.

A bit later in the afternoon, first one, and then a second Great white egret, flew in and gradually made their way towards us to give some really good views, culminating in the two of them flying off together. One had the almost orange winter bill, while the other had the darker patches of its breeding state. We had some interesting comparisons between Grey herons and these birds as they walked past each other, the Great white appearing the larger of the two. At one point we had the usual erruption of ducks, which turned out to be caused by a harrier flying high overhead. I took a very distant picture, not worth reproducing, but this showed two birds. One was a definite brown Hen harrier while the other was almost certainly a female Marsh harrier. They were not flying together, but passing in opposite directions. All-in-all a good afternoon, in spite of the chill factor, whch was quite severe.

March 20th 2013. SIG again met the Bicknollerf bumblebee group today but, once again, there was no possibility of seeing bumblebees - the weather was cold and heavily overcast, very unpleasant with a strong wind. Instead, we made our way up to the top of the Quantocks and Robin Upright's common, parking close to Dead Woman's ditch. Various fungi and lichens were found but litle else living with one pleasing exception. A patch of moss surrounding a small oak tree revealed a ground beetle with wonderful violet tints on the body. Fortunately we had a bettle specialist with us and some keys. Bill Urwin determined this was Carabus problematicus, new to me. My previous encounters with violet-tinged beetles had been with Carabus violaceus.

March 18th 2013. I decided to take a look at Westhay Moor this afternoon and settled into the Lake hide with hopes of seeing ducks and other waterbirds, as it was a bright sunny day. Sadly, this was not to be. It looked as though the ducks had largely abandoned this water, probably moving on in their migration to nesting areas. This winter has been a bit of a disaster for bird-watching with either the weather or uncut vegetation making the usual hordes virtually invisible, at least as far as I have been concerned. However a pair of Great-crested grebes eventually appeared and strutted their stuff nearby. It was not the splendid full-blown courtship ceremony but there was a lot of harsh calling from the male, shown in the picture below.

March 15th 2013. The sun did come out, even if briefly, and I was again sitting in the hide at Catcott Lows. The water sparkled and there were still ducks around, though fewer as they drift off on migration. Among my favourites are Shoveler, particularly active courting at this time of year. I notice that, given a chance, the females tend to keep together, as if for mutual support. When full courtship is uner way, these groups are split up with one of two females being persued by up to a dozen drakes. Teal were also present in numbers, often difficult to see, they are so small. The colouring of the drake is amazing, while the green wing bar on the duck is an wonderful sight when it is flashed. They seem such cheerful little ducks, whistling their conversation in small groups, dabbling among the shallows.

March 14th 2013. A really wonderful, sunny, warm day - such a change, though it is not likely to last beyond today. A really loud hum indicated that, at last, a bumblebee was somewhere nearby. A large Bombus terrestris male was dodging in and out under those saviours of early bees, Pulmonaria flowers, which have been out for nearly a month and must be looking for their pollinators to visit them. It is surprising to find a male at virtually the same time as the first of the queens.

March 9th 2013. I went down to Catcott Lows after walking Maddie. There definitely are not the numbers of duck around that were a few days ago and it was very peacefully with little movement apparent. Most of the ducks, mainly Wigeon and Teal, with a few Shoveler, were fast asleep but a few of the tiny Teal were dabbling in the shallows. But the real excitement of the day was the sight of a Spoonbill feeding on the reserve. It seems this is one of four that has been seen over the past few days and, even more interesting, is that one of the birds is one of four seen at much the same time last year, at this same place.

I mentioned that I had not seen any bumblebees so far his year. I was surprised when I did see one to find it was a queen Bombus hypnorum, not B. terrestris which is the usual early species. Even stranger, I found this bee crawling across my study floor. She recovered quickly enough when taken outside and put on a plant; an unusual way to see your first bumblebee of the year.

 March 7th 2013. Recently, people have been reporting an extreme rarity, a Pied-billed grebe, Podylimbus podiceps, at Ham Wall NNR, so I thought I would have a look and perhaps a photo, but no luck. However, I did see a beautiful flight of Mute swans which made up for this. The reserve was lightly overcast but comparatively sheltered, though there were few birds to be seen. March 6th 2013. This was the first outing for the Somerset Invertebrate Group (SIG) for the year and was also part of our efforts to help a newly-formed group of people interested in bumblebees and their conservation. They are part of a growing number of people concerned at reductions in numbers of vital pollinators in our country. Bicknoller Bumblebee Conservation Group was formed in early winter last year and has already produced its first newsletter containing plans for the coming year.

Sadly, SIG was represented only by me, because so many were away at this time and, equally sadly, there were few bumblebees to be seen because of the cold, damp weather. The date had been fixed earlier bearing in mind the wonderful spell of hot weather at this time last year. We spent the day walking round this attractive village set in the beautiful Quantock hills, visiting some lovely gardens and moving on to a local wildlife reserve on Common land and discussing where the most good could be done. None of the current members are experts but are learning fast, as well as being amply enthusiastic. The local contact is Richard Hill, e-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

March 2nd 2013. I circled the moor on my way to walk the dog and became aware that, at last, there were signs of Spring. Not, I hasten to add, because of the temperature, which was icy and the sky overcast, but because of the birds I saw. Perhaps the best reminder of the season came from the Grey herons  that live in a nearby wood and which are among the earlliest of nesters. I saw a number of these, but they were far too busy concentrating on their fishing to fly off, as is their wont at other times of year. I stopped the car just opposite one fine adult bird and it just stayed-put, giving me a wonderful opportunity to admire that subtle colouring. The bird remained quite undisturbed when I re-started the engine and drove on.

On one lightly flooded field there were four herons, all hunting most succesfully. I have not been past the wood where they nest, but suspect they will be settled in the tree tops; while the hunters are males feeding those females.

Similar behaviour, though for different reasons, is shown by the buzzards that have appeared on the moors. They are easy to approach, often sitting on roadside gate-posts and watching the car approach but not appearing to see it as a threat. Normally they are off as soon as seen. This happens every year at this time and I wonder if these are first-year birds not yet aware of the ways of the world? At anyrate, it is a great opportunity for the photographer.

As far as I can see, there are no visible insects in the garden other than midges, though my wife told me she had just seen her first bumblebee of the year - a queen Bombus terrestris. This is much later than so-called 'normal' years, whatever they may be these days? Pulmonaria flowers have been out for a couple of weeks yet so far there is no sign of the mining bee, Anthophora plumipes, whose appearance normally coincides with these pink and blue flowers.

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