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A local diary


Summer 2013

August 28th 2013. Another wonderful balmy day with little or no wind, so Romey and I decided to go off and visit Greylake reserve on old Sedgemoor, near where the Duke of Monmouth lost the battle of Sedgemoor back in the seventeenth century. This large RSPB reserve has been constructed from what used to be potato fields and has become an amazing success, particularly during the winter, when thousands of wildfowl and many accompanying birds of prey visit.

We thought that perhaps we were visiting too soon and this proved to be so, but it was very peaceful sitting in the hide looking out over the moor. The only birds we did see were a couple of buzzards, one sitting digesting on a dead tree, while the other dropped down in front of the hide and started the rather undignified process of searching for worms or insects. The bird hops along in he most unlikely manner - definitely not like the 'lord of the air' we so often admire circling high overhead.

August 26th 2013. A hot, languid day which bought out a number of bees, wasps and hoverflies onto the newly-opened Flabane, Pulicaria dysenterica, which is always a great attraction at this time of the year on the edge of the orchard. Among them is one of my favourites, the slender and colourful male Lasioglossum calceatum, a second generation during the season.

The 'flats' have been a great disappointment this year, with remarkably little activity after the early season mason bees. However this morning, I spotted one or two very small black digger wasps and a lone cuckoo wasp - often called a jewel wasp by reason of its amazing metallic colours. It was fascinating watching it probing various holes until it finally went in to search for potentil prey on which to lay its egg. Often these holes are very small and the wasp has to squeeze itself in with only the greates difficulty.

August 23rd 2013. Maskell's Wood, a Somerset Wildlife Trust reserve on the Mendips, was the location for another of our SIG field meetings today. At first, it was overcast and windy but it cleared to another warm and intermittently sunny day. Sadly, because of an unexpected event, we were not able to visit all the reserve, particularly the old strawberry fields which we remember fondly from previous visits. However we all had a very good time, ending only an hour after lunch when the rain started to come in - a not unknown feature of upland Mendip.

The wood itself was not the most important feature of our searches, but its edges certainly were, as they so often are. Toddy, our spider specialist, spent much time in the wood, looking at the leaf-litter, which he pronounced excellent; while the rest of us spent much of our time along the track edges (a part of the Mendip Way) and in the open edges of the wood. Grasshoppers are at their adult peak at this time of year and we were particularly pleased to find the unusual Rufous grasshopper all along one part of the path, much further spread out than previous years.

I was particularly delighted to find another group of insects which also have their peak adult population at this time of year. Tenthredo spp. of sawflies are black and pale yellow in colour, looking very like solitary wasps, but they do not have the wasp-waists of the latter. Instead, they have no real waist, with parallel sided abdomen and thorax. Nevertheless they are really good mimics of the wasps and must avoid attacks from many predators as a result. The pictures show the very real differnces between these two species when seen from the side. From above, they look remarkably similar. The much smaller Arge pagana is one of several confusingly similar small sawflies found in many locations.

Like several recent years, there has been a distinct lack of solitary wasps, so we were pleased to spot one species of digger wasp on the trackside plants. Ectemnius continuus is among the easiest to identify at a glance, with the distinctive arrangement of the yellow markings on the abdomen.

We were glad to see numbers of hoverflies on the various umbels, some of which were interesting as they are not so often seen. These included Ferdinandea cuprea, Leucozona glaucia (shown below), Myathropa florea, Cheilosia proxima and Eristalis intricarius.

From what I could gather, everyone had an enjoyable and productive day out. Frequently, August is  the time to see numbers of hoverflies and sawflies - and so it proved.

August 21st 2013. There has been a notable revival in the fortunes of bumblebees recently. Perhaps the most unusual were several sightings of Bombus hypnorum, which is usually an ealy bumblebee which usually disappears after mid-July. Clearly this strange season has suited it well, with records showing it the earliest bee in the garden also.

While several of the common bumbles have been seen, the major benefitter from our very warm days has been Bombus pascuorum. These are all over the place, feeding from early in the day right through to the late hours. As mentioned earlier, this bumblebee is extremely variable in colouring, varying from an anonymous beige to brilliantly-coloured males, and all of these have been represented recently, to our great pleasure.

August 12th 2013. There has been a singular dearth of leafcutter bees around here and, most notably, in and around our 'flats' this year. I was delighted to find a goodly number of them visiting a very tall yellow daisy-like plant in the garden today, clearly coinciding with the opening of these flowers. There is no sign of them elsewhere and they have not appeared on the log 'flats' either. Most years we have more than one species and sometimes several, but these are all Megachile ligneseca, one of the larger ones. Even so, they vary in size this year, as do other insects, from small to at least 50% more. I enjoy watching them at their pollen-gathering. They are so elegant and tidy, in spite of working so hard as they gather the pollen in the hairs beneath the abdomen.

August 8th 2013. Our little group, SIG, met once more at Bicknoller on the Quantocks by invitation from the local bumblebee conservation group. The earlier part of the morning was a bit overcast, but soon cleared to a beautiful afternoon – real shirt-sleeve order.

The morning was spent in a couple of gardens offering very mixed habitat, with more insects than at first seemed apparent. Like gardeners, we are used to ‘You should have been here yesterday’, but the bees did slowly emerge as the sun strengthened. We thought we had found a couple of unusual species of bumblebee but subsequent study showed each was an unusual stage of fading and age which hid the true identification. Nevertheless we managed to see most of the commoner varieties during the morning and all of them during the afternoon. A number of hoverflies were seen, including the brightly-coloured Myathropa florea and a fine specimen of Xylota segnis. Syritta pipiens was everywhere, and included the very pregnant female shown below.

We became quite excited at one point, thinking we had discovered a faded specimen of either a Bombus humilis or B. muscorum - rare or unknown in this county. Later examination by Tony Taylor revealed that it was in fact an unusual colour-phase of the common Bombus pascuorum. As the picture below shows (probably of the same insect), there are no apparent signs of black hairs on either the abdomen or sides of the thorax, which are known characteristics of B. pascuorum. It shows how difficult is the identification of males of these insects out in the field. In circumstances like this, there is no substitute for using a proper key/

The afternoon was spent at Woolston Common, close to the village, and proved much more rewarding than first sight would have it. It is an open, unfenced area alongside the steam railway track running from Bishops Lydeard to Minehead. Every so often we would see one of these splendid locos hauling considerable numbers of coaches full of holiday visitors having a great time out. The trains run very slowly, so there is plenty of time to see the very beautiful countryside it crosses.

No animals graze the common nowadays, so periodic cutting is the regime. It had recently been cut and at first glance looked bereft of everything until we realized that a wide strip had been left uncut. This proved excellent with Lotus flowers and a great many Hardheads growing among sparse, comparatively low grasses. I am sure a botanist would find many more interesting plant species but these gave us the habitat we hoped we might find. It turned out to be a much-favoured haunt for Bombus lapidarius, the well-known bumblebee whose female is black with a red tail. Most of the bees were males and I was astonished to find the variation in colour and shade. Some of the oldest had almost white bands while the most vivid were truly brilliant. It really was an object lesson in showing how identification of bumblebees often proves so difficult.

The common is surrounded by ditches and small trees and one area of these edges proved to be a minor goldmine for numbers and variety of insects. A great swathe of Rosebay willowherb was bathed in sunshine and relatively protected from the breeze. The bumblebees were hard at work here and eventually all seven common varieties were identified. My particular favourites were male Bombus lucorum, present in some numbers. They are quite unlike the conventional-looking females with their white-tipped black and yellow tails and single-banded thorax. They glow with colour, appearing almost all yellow from a distance.

I was specially delighted by my final find, a leafcutter bee collecting pollen on a fleabane. The reason for this is that so far only one specimen of this family has visited my 'flats' this year. These most attractive, neat bees collect their pollen on scopa beneath their abdomen, rather than on their back legs, like so many other bees. This has the problem of sometimes obscuring important identification points in the field and as a result I am not absolutely certain of the ID of this specimen, though fairly confident it is correct.

 August 4th 2013. Crossing the moor this morning, a glimpse of something flying ahead of us prompted me to stop and look around. Right above us, a Hobby soared momentarily, before dashing across the sky in its usual high-speed flight. A moment to be savoured. Hobbys are common in the spring, with over fifty to be seen at a time over the water at Shapwick Heath, but only the odd one remains in summer – such elegant birds, like super-sized swifts.

August 3rd 2013. My sister was visiting from London, so I took her off to visit Greylake reserve in the morning and Ham Wall NNR in the afternoon. Contrary to earlier weather forecasts, it turned out a beautiful sunny day, with a very strong but almost tropically warm wind. Greylake was interesting, although largely empty of bird life, because they were replacing much of the board walk with fine stone paths. It seems the previous boards were not that durable, whereas this should last many years. Moorland peat has a habit of swallowing roads and paths. Let us hope this to be more fortunate.

Ham Wall was more lively in its wildlife, though we missed the prize bird of the year. A pair of Little bitterns, Isobrychus minutus, have bred close to the main track - indeed there were five birds present at one time. We spent our time at the first set of simple hides which look out over a broad spread of water with thick reed beds surrounding it. In spring, this is the perfect spot to watch out for Bitterns flying off to feed their families. This time, the highlight was watching a family of young Dabchicks (Little grebes) diving and playing, coming gradually closer to our shelter. Eventually one little one gave a splendid display of 'skittering' along the waves. Mallard, with Gadwall, were the only ducks but they were flying in and out for much of th afternoon. It was all so peaceful, rounded off with a couple of Hobbys hawking over the reed beds.

My first sight of  a Migrant hawker  this year was along the main track here it was hawking along the herbage that fringed it. This was more or less to time but prior to the last few days there have been few of the larger dragonflies around, apart from Brown hawkers, Aeshna grandis, which have become much more frequent in recent years. Many years ago, when we started our regular outings, this dragonfly was a rarity, at the very edge of its range. Now it is one of the commoner species.

August 1st 2013. A new gallery was inaugrated on the site today. Birds in Flight had the first 40 pictures installed under the heading 'Birds of Prey'. This will be followed by a section on 'Waterbirds', another particular interest of mine.

In the afternoon, I had a phone call from Bill Urwin asking if he could come over to show me a bee that had been found in the Shapwick Heath area. It did indeed turn out to be a very much alive specimen of the bumblebee Bombus sylvarum, a considerable rarity, though our area was one where it was, relatively speaking, common a few years ago. This was good news, as last year only one record was received. The picture illustrates one of the main recognition points, a band of black hairs between the wing roots, as well as the greeny-beige colouring of the bands. It is just possible to see the orange colour of the tip of the tail. In the field, an important point is the very high-pitched hum made by the wings.

July 29th 2013. Today was another of our SIG outings. We met at the strange hunch-backed bridge at the northern end of the Somerset village of Long Load. Where did that name come from? Our visit arose as a result of Pete Akers writing to me at this time last year. He sent me a strange bumblebee found near the banks of the Yeo near the village and asked me to confirm his identification of the rare and beautiful Bombus sylvarum. This was indeed was what it was. Sadly, this time, there was no sign of these bees. Pete had warned us to expect this as he found on an earlier reconnaisence trip. After a wander along the banks of the Yeo, where nothing appeared to be in flower, we decided to make our way on to Ham Hill, which was only a few miles on and known as a site of considerable natural history interest.

Ham Hill has an amazing setting, rising above Stoke sub Hamdon, open to the public and even with a pub of its own. It is a Country Park and a Local Nature Reserve. It is also a geological Site of Special Scientific Interest,  a Scheduled Ancient Monument,  an Iron Age hill fort and a Roman site. Naturalists know it as a place where anything might be found during a visit. It has been much-studied and long lists of its birds, mammals, insects and plants are available. Two quarries still operate at the top, from which is extracted the famous honey-coloured Ham stone used for so many old buildings in the area. From our point of view, the attraction is sandy paths wandering through areas of rough scrub and on to more open areas with swathes of wild flowers. There are 390 acres to wander round, so it is a good day out for even the most active. Many people visit but it is surprising how soon you lose sight of them and the place is all yours.

I was specially pleased to see a hoverfly which is said to be common but rarely appears in front of me round home, Myathropa florea. Its colouring is particularly attractive in its normal habitats, appearing much more striking than the picture in Subbs and Falk, altough that is an accurate picture of its markings. The many golden hairs reflect the light differently in varying situations.

Someone spotted another interesting and colourful hoverfly, Chrysotoxum bicinctum, which is less common but is always much admired.

I was particularly pleased to see a couple of plume moths close to each other. They always seem such frail creatures, as if a beath of air would blow them away. The bown moth is shown below while the other was the White plume moth, Pterophorus pentadactya, looking like a ghost.

 July 27th 2013. As I write, it has been raining all day, solidly but seemingly without menace of local flooding, or so we hope. The wet will change the brown grasses and herbs to bright green in an amazingly short time The parched ground smells faintly of burning as the waters soak into the ground - a strangely comforting and familiar touch.

The afternoon has been spent putting in the final batch of Cheilosia flight pictures, this time of C. scutatus, the other species common in our garden at this time. This has all taken its time, with my attempts to get down to understanding the feel and jizz of these tricky species. It was finally resolved with the much-appreciated help of David Levy, one half of the famous Levy family who are so knowledgable about British hoverflies and have produced scholarly books on the Hoverflies of Somerset and Dorset.

July 24th 2013. Sadly, there are signs that our splendid period of virtually unbroken sunshine and temperatures of up to 30 degrees is coming to an end. But even before that the recent cornucopia of small Cheilosia hoverflies had passed its peak as the current crop of garden flowers has been burned up by the heat, finishing flowering extra early. My first batch of flight pictures has been added to the gallery, over a dozen, mainly Cheilosia albimanus. More will follow shortly.

July 17th 2013. Another SIG informal field meeting took place today at Worley Hill on the Poldens, by kind permission of the warden, Shane Potts, who looks after it on behalf of the owners, Millfield School. He is an old friend who has joined us on several previous occasions and is a passionate guardian of the wildlife on this fabulous site. As we all explore in our own way I can only report on my own findings and those of anyone who discussed the day over sandwiches at lunch. 

Robert and Martin spotted what they took to be a dead moth, photographed it and then, to their astonishment, it suddenly came to life and flew off. This was a rarity, a Six-belted clearwing, which none of us had seen before. The same pair also found some Striped-wing grasshopers on their way back to their car. My day was extremely enjoyable but I found nothing of note and certainly nothing even remotely unusual. Fortunately, I enjoy photographing the commonplace just as much as rarities - often they are particularly beautiful. Butterflies as a whole have been in short supply this year but a good few were flying here, including the fresh specimen shown below.

There were a great many hoverflies present, most of that commonest of common variety, Episyrphus balteatus. It was noticable how small many of these were. Is this a feature of poor feeding in the larval stages, as is often noticd in bumblebees? I spent quite some time in the day trying to capture these colourful insects in flight.

Bumblebees were present but not in any numbers. They included Bombus terrestris, B. pascuorum and B. lapidarius looking splendidly colourful in the bright, very hot sun. I saw one 7-spot ladybird which had been caught in a spider web. The much smaller spider did its best to subdue the ladybird but eventually gave up wherupon the ladybird burst free and flew off. Over lunch, we were talking abou the apparently huge change in ladybird numbers over the last decade or so. Earlier events such as this would bring numbers of several species without fail. I have slides of many species from those times but in recent times I am lucky if I can see one in any period. I don't know whether this is just a local effect or found all over the country.

Worley Hill is a most beautiful spot which has been transformed from an original conifer plantation to a wonderfully mixed habitat with open woodland to steep slopes of a most curous nature, looking like sandy cliffs but actually eroded soils and stones with herbal clumps where the soil allows stability. The work that has gone into it has been staggering and illustrates how an unfavourable situation may be transformed with clever, sympathetic planning. We try to visit most years and always find our rewards.

Driving back over Tealham Moor, the temperature was 31 degrees, dropping to 30 degrees in our garden, and it is promised for many days more. It is definately having an effect on the plants now. Flowers stay in full bloom for a much shorter period and look as if they have been burned out.

July 14th 2013. Another boiling day, 29 degrees, and I was delighted to see a mining bee which had not been seen in the garden since 1997. Colletes daviesanus used to be common, seen on many of our garden plants at that time but then, inexplicably, disappeared. I shall keep and eye out for it but so far have only seen the one. Still it was busy collecting pollen which is a good sign. I was also delighted to see the first male Leafcutter bee searching the holes in the flats. It is good to see the seasons repeating in this manner. The extreme heat - by our standards - does seem to have an effect of the hymenopteran inhabitants of those flats. There is a definite eriod at the hottest part of the day where they stop flying, something not seen in a normal year.

July 12th 2013. How very un-British! We have been basking for more than a week in perfect day-long sunshine. The temperature has been 28 degrees in the shade for day after day at mid-afternoon in the garden, while a nearby spot showed 31. Although this is hastening the demise of some of our flowers, shrivelled prematurely, there has been plenty of insect activity. The bumblebees have nearly all been Bombus hortorum or B. hypnorum, while the majority of hoverflies are Platycheirus, mostly P.albimanus or P. scutatus. One of the most noticable insects is the brilliant metallic green Thick-kneed beetle, although it is rather small and difficult to spot.

I have spent hours, though mostly towards the cooler evening, sitting in a chair beside a particular flower-bed containing the last of the Aconite flowers. This proved particularly profitable for hoverfly flight pictures which, in due course, will feed their way into the gallery.It is a simple technique really, though depending, as always, on anticipation and quick reaction. The camera is mounted on a monopod and aimed at a particular flower, with the auto-focus aligned on the edge of a petal, then pressing the shutter when insect and petal are lined up. Hoverflies are creatures of habit; they emerge from a flower at fairly well-defined intervals, often hovering briefly beside it. Practice improves the chances of success, while patience is an imprtant part of the equation.

July 6th 2013. I was amazed and delighted to spot and photograph a most unexpected hoverfly this afternoon in the garden. I had heard that the rare Rhingia rostrata had been expanding its range from nearby Gloustershire to parts of Somerset such as Blagdon lake, but it was said to be a woodland species. Our garden could hardly be described in that manner. But there it was, similar to its commoner relatve, Rhingia campestris, but quite different in detail, with shorter beak and virtually plain abdomen, largely free of markings. Just one of this species was seen on a deep red Knautia flower. It seems our changing climate has its pluses as well as its minuses.

July 3rd 2013. Another welcome glorious sunny day, if rather windy. The garden though is well sheltered behind mature trees and the climate was clearly suiting the bumblebees hat were everywhere on the various flowers and which were in full bloom. Bombus hypnorum chose a clump of tall pale daisies and a nearby patch of dark red Knautia flowers. It was as if they had had a mass expulsion from the nest. It is particularly interesting, because there has been little sign of them in the garden up to now. I had noticed a couple of workers flying into the end of the study where old barge boards were part-hidden by the 'flats' logs. It is possible this where the nest is, though activity is not obvious. In their natural state these are tree-nesting bumblebees so this would tie in with that habit. 

Interestingly, a clump of deep blue Aconites attracted only Bombus hortorum, again mostly males. Their long tongues are specially suitable for these deep flowers.

June 21st 2013. This is the longest day - the mid-point of our summer. It is difficult to hear this and not let out a hollow laugh, yet it truly does seem as if summer is now with us, with balmy day and evenings. Last night it was light until well past 10-30. Yet, pause to think back and the realisation is that summer only really started days ago, when temperatures finally rose and stabilised at last. For all those perhaps unkind thoughts, today was again splendid, though with a strong wind blowing the verges . The profusion of flowers and sounds of insect life continue and build in intensity and the afternoon walk with the dog at the bottom of Jack's Drove proved highly fruitful. Larger Soldier flies were well represented and I was delighted to finally settle that there was a large colony, if that is the right word, of the unusual hoverfly, Helophilus hybridus, as well as its much commoner look-alike Helophilus pendulus.  In the field the distinction between the two species has worried me in the past but now it has become quite clear. My pictures perhaps illustrate this. The main features are the amount of pale yellow on the back tibiae and the extent of the dark middle bar on the abdomen and whether it reaches the edges. I suspect one or two previous identifications may be revised as a result of this.

June 18th 2013. At last the countryside has burst into life, giving us the spring we seemed to have missed, with real warmth in the air, flowers bursting out and the sound of insects everywhere. The garden is filled with small worker bumblebees, the majority Bombus pratorum, while a walk on the moor showed a similar picture. I have never before seen such a display of Flags (yellow iris) along the edges of the ditches, even spreading in among the grasses of the fields beyond.

Bombus lucorum workers were disappearing into the intricacies of the yellow flowers, while two or three species of soldier flies were basking on the open petals. Four-spotted chasers were patrolling up and down the rhynes, with numerous damselflies darted in and out of the herbage. What a welcome change from the dearth of insect life up to now.

 June 17th 2013. I have now completed revising and posting the up-to-date gall-insect gallery. This covers many of the oak-gall causers, their inquilines and most of their parasitoids, together with the causer, inquiline and the majority of the parasitoids of the Rose bedeguar (Diplolepis rosae) gall.

I have been keeping an eye on our local heronry since early spring and must report that the year seems to have had its effect on its successes. It has been difficult to spot Grey herons and Little egrets, who are normally readily spotted in the highest branches of the wood. Earlier there were signs of activity, particularly with the egrets, but this died down as the weather became worse. I drive past the wood regularly but can only give some impressions from this; however, this appears to be born out by the lack of herons feeding by the roadside ditches and rhynes. Usually, in late spring they are everywhere but, sadly, this flush of birds has not appeared this year, though individuals are seen at times. The picture of the heronry shows some of the birds in 2010.

June 13th 2013. The most notable recent event for me has been uploading a great many more pictures into the insects in flight gallery. This is quite a lengthy process and ought to have been done as the events occur, but the spirit is weak. However, more are due to folllow over the next few days and I should catch up on the backlog. People may look at these and feel that the differences between some are so small that they do not seem worth including, but I beg to differ. So few pictures are seen of insects in flight that it seems important to me to show as much of the process as possible - to add to the sum of our knowledge. In spite of taking so many of these, it still seems to me to be the most exciting form of photography I have tried.  So many of the results show what has not been seen clearly before. I never forget though, how all this is really due to the latest examples of the digital camera and their near-miraculous results in grain-free sharpness and superb, natural colours.

June 5th 2013. We, SIG, met at Berrow Dunes reserve again  on a simply beautiful morning with a cloudless blue sky. A full turnout meant that we had a good selection of knowledge at our disposal, including specialists in flies, beetles, hymnoptera and spiders. Lists of what has been found will be prepared in the next few days and eventually will go to SERC (Somerset Environmental Record Centre) as well as the appropriate national societies. What we do is far from a proper entomological survey but I do believe we add to the knowledge of places we visit. Some of our people do collect, using nets, and provide a degree of scientific coverage with accurate identification of some tricky species, but others observe and photograph the insects where they can. This confines the efforts to larger, more obvious creatures but still provides useful additions to information on each site. There are mixed views about the value of photographs for accurate identification but the digital camera brings with it the capacity to take many pictures of an insect from different angles. Numbers of species are able to be identified from these, which has been especially helped by the growing number of well illustrated books on many of the groups. A good example of this was a comment about one of my galleries, querying some identifications "This shows the problems of identifying from photographs". In fact, a check of the pictures showed that the identification was correct, but somehw the captions had been mixedup - sorting this out put them correctly back into the system.

Berrow Dunes is owned by the local council and is a largish system of sand dunes from the car park to the great expanse of sand which runs from Burnham to Brean Down. It is very well used by local people, who walk their dogs along the many paths, as well as by naturalists who enjoy a habitat so different to the inland parts of Somerset. The flowers, insects and general ambiance seem more exotic to those of us who are used to the moors and green fields of the rest of the county. The dunes are covered with vegetation now, much of it tangled herbage with splashes of bright colour such as the deep blue of the carpets of Ground ivy. I was particularly intererested to see a plant entirely new to me, Hounds tongue, Cynoglossum officinale, with little pink petals peering through blue. These were very attractive to bumblebees. I had been photographing one of the carder bees, typically beige or brown in colour, when it occurred to me that these looked very different to the more usual Bombus pascuorum. After examining pictures taken from many angles, I am certain they were Bombus humilis, which in recent years have only been found in Ham Hill in this county. The critical factor is the lack of black hairs on the abdomen. I shall check with others but it seems an important discovery.

I am very used to seeing Wasp-beetles at home but was particularly pleased to get this shot of the moment of take-off, with the wing cases raised up out of the way.

June 2nd 2013. I spent an hour or so sitting by our drilled logs on the south-facing wall of my study, watching the various inhabitants searching the holes (males) or bringing in loads of pollen (females). There was loads of activity and for the first time there were numbers of little black digger wasps - a sure sign of hot summer weather. Many are too quick to identify but I spotted Crossocerus distinguendus exploring various holes. Later I managed to catch a couple of unidentified Crossocerus in flight, as they flew from hole to hole, always exciting to see.

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