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June 2018  wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

June 28th 2018. Nigel, Chris and I met up at Waldegrave Pool on Mendip this morning for another invertebrate expedition. We spent a deal of time in the far inlet on the pool trying for dragonfly flight pictures. I only had my 150mm lens with me so was confined to rather distant pictures of the magnificent Emperor dragonflies as they patrolled up and down. They are reasonably predictable in their flight patterns, until another male comes along to introduce a series of wild swoops and changes of direction. I managed a few interesting shots but failed completely with the area's speciality, the Downy emerald Cordulia aenea.

Emperor dragonfly Anax imperator m

Emperor dragonfly Anax imperator m

They were totally unpredictable in the heat, as well as staying further out among the Water horsetails Equisetum flaviatile filling so much of the surface now. It was becoming seriously hot, so we decided to make our way into Stockhill woods opposite, for some shade. Before doing so, we stopped by the small amount of open water at the entrance to the pool and watched Broad-bodied chasers Libellula depressa hawking over the water. Then Nigel spotted a quite different blue-bodied dragonfly that had landed on a horsetail Equisetum fluviatile. It was a Keeled skimmer and, as far as he could remember, a first sighting for the pool. Our previous acquaintance with this insect had been near Black Down on Mendip. It is quite a rarity in our region, so a fortunate find and worth recording.

Keeled skimmer Othetrum caerulescens m

In Stockhill Wood there were far fewer insects than usual. Everywhere, heat has had this effect on the insect population. As I started this morning the temperature was 18°, by the time I reached Mendip it was 27°, then rose to 28° during the day. On dropping down to Draycott and Cheddar Moor it was 30°, rising again to 31° driving through Wedmore, finally settling to 30° on the Levels. We have had such temperatures now for over a week, while it was very warm for a week or two previously, and probably continuing for another week - quite extraordinary for our islands. The most obvious insect was a hoverfly, present on almost every umbel, Cheilosia illustrata, untidy and woolly. Clearly the weather has not affected them. They have always been numerous in this wood, and it was the first place I ever came across them.

hoverfly Cheilosia illustrata f

I was lucky enough to come across another hoverfly I had not seen previously, Melangyna umbellaturum, with a most unusual mixture of greys in its colouring.

hoverfly Melangyna umbellatarum f

A ghost-like  micro-moth was found hiding under a leaf when we had lunch, so delicate.

Mother of Pearl Pleuroptya ruralis

Many of the umbels had bugs on them, mostly mirids. There were numbers on some of these, tiny and colourful. It is good to see them after a long period where bugs in general have been missing.

Common green capsid Lygocoris pabulinus

mirid bug Calocoris stysi

Our final picture, taken on the open moor round Waldegrave Pool, was of a Narrow-bordered five-spot burnet moth, with most wonderful colouring. It seems the majority of those burnets found here are of this race.

Narrow-bordered five-spot burnet Zygaena lonicerae

June 25th 2018. Chris and I decided to have another go at the Cattle egrets Bubulcus ibis, meeting after lunch at Catcott Lows. But first, on my way across Tealham Moor, I passed a heron flying along a rhyne. Stopped, and saw it pitch into an old ditch filled with vegetation, though there must have been some remnant of water for it started fishing immediately. I edged the car forward until I had a good view and the result was this picture.

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

At Catcott, the cattle were widely dispersed over the reserve, together with a herd of Exmoor ponies. We saw the egrets in the distance but never close enough for a picture, and so it remained the whole afternoon, even when a bunch of young cattle moved closer. But our visit was made more than worthwhile by a fine male Marsh harrier flying across the front of the hide, reasonably close. More often than not, the main views of this harrier are of females. There is always a problem with every great opportunity. Thus time it was the harsh sunlight and its direction. The software had done its best, but the shadows remain.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

June 22nd 2018. I met Nigel at Blagdon Lake, in perfect, sunny, virtually windless weather. We had been planning a further look to see how the famous hay-meadows were progressing. Our last visit as a group was just too early for the full potential at this time of year. This visit was in some ways equally disappointing, though enjoyable and productive. Insects were present, but various groupings were absent, or nearly so. I had hopes for solitary bees and wasps but they were completely missing. The most numerous insects were damselflies, great clouds of them everywhere, many still almost transparent in their youth.

Common blue damselfly Enallagma cyathigerum m

Hoverflies were also present, though in smaller numbers than expected, but we came across one I had never seen before, Ripponensia splendens. This fly really baffled me, as my bible, Stubbs and Falk, had a poor picture of this species which really did not look like the pale-eyed, all-bronze insect I was looking at. This was surprising, as the great majority of pictures in this book are superb. The identification was confirmed by Martin Drake, as well as Nigel.

hoverfly Ripponensia splendens f

One of the commonest insects was the much-varied Eristalis intricarius bumblebee mimic. It really is quite difficult to identify some specimens, varying from very elegant, smooth insects to woolly, parti-coloured creatures. We came across another hoverfly that puzzled us, though it turned out to be relatively common. The various angles and twists it involved in made the determination really difficult, Nigel eventually picking it up from a photo, other shots went on to confirm it was a Sphaerophoria.

hoverfly Eristalis intricarius m

hoverfly Sphaerophoria ruppellii f

Bumblebees were spotted but I only managed to photograph a couple. There is no doubt that Bombus hypnorum is having a rather late good year. My photograph shows one on a plant rarity found here, Sawwort Serratula tinctoria. I am starting to see these bees everywhere, while numbers of B. lapidarius are increasing also.

bumblebee Bombus hypnorum w

bumblebee Bombus lapidarius w

Among the unexpected insects was a single broad-bodied soldierfly, Stratiomys singularior, a species new to me, so an object of special interest. There did not appear to be any other soldierflies out this day, though there were prefect conditions on this damp ground in open sunshine. 

soldierfly Stratiomys singularior f

My final pictures are of two common inhabitants of the lake surrounds, a moth remarkable for its startling colour and shape, plus a delicately-shaded butterfly in a perfect pose. So, a splended day out in perfect conditions but not, perhaps, what we had been expecting. The beauty and tranquillity of the lake made up for that. What a privilege to have it in our area.

Six-spot burnet moth Zygaena filipendulae

Meadow brown Maniola jurtina m

June 21st 2018. I phoned Chris about the egrets and met at Catcott Lows in early afternoon. I was not able to stay too long, as Maddie needed her walk in the middle, but two sessions yielded just what we had hoped. The count was reckoned to be eight birds in the immediate area. It seems that I arrived at a critical moment when three bunches of cattle upped-sticks and came down to chew the cud to one side of the hide. Fortunately, the birds followed them down. It was a magic period, best left to the pictures rather than description. The sun shone, the cattle dozed away and the egrets performed in the approved manner, at times even standing on the cattle.

Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis

Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis

Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis

The only problem arose from the sheer problem of photographing virtually white birds against a background of dark animals, happily largely overcome during processing. Some of the egrets were in breeding plumage, with long buff skeletal feathers drifted over the back and tail, crests well developed, catching the wind. 

Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis

Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis

Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis

Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis

June 20th 2018. I took Maddie down to Catcott Heath this afternoon and, afterwards, dropped in to the hide on the Lows. I had heard that I might see a Cattle egret there. And was this information correct! During the time I was there, at least six, and possibly eight of these beautiful birds were counted, sometimes close in front of the hide, then further away. The attraction for the egrets was a collection of cattle chewing the cud in front. Many were calves, some only a day of so old. The egrets performed just as they were expected, picking flies off from the faces of the cattle.

Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis

Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis 

 Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis

 Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis

Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis

June 18th 2018. I spent a most delightful morning by the logs, and nearby. It was a hot day with just sufficient breeze to bring out the insects (if scorchingly hot, it seems  they take shelter). Three particularly small dark Hymenopterans caught my initial intererest. A tiny solitary bee was most likely Hylaeus communis, though it was not possible to catch all its features. These bees always fool me, looking so similar to digger wasps.The other two were the smallest of the little black Crossocerus wasps, around 5mm long.

solitary bee Hylaeus communis

digger wasp Crossocerus annulipes

digger wasp Crossocerus elongatulus

Several yellow and black banded digger wasps were searching potential nest holes, appearing largely yellow in flight, but dark when settled, with tinted wings covering the body. They were Ectemnius lapidarius, common visitors to the logs.

digger wasp Ectemnius lapidarius f

digger wasp Ectemnius lapidarius f

digger wasp Ectemnius lapidarius f

A nearby rose bush was in full flower and attracted numerous insects. The most interesting, because seldom seen, was a Rose chafer, bright green and comparatively large.

Rose chafer Cetonia aurata

Rose chafer Cetonia aurata

Andrena scotica were busy collecting loads of yellow pollen at speed, as if they doubted whether the supply would last. Bombus hypnorum were also collecting, sometimes scrapping briefly as they went for the same blossom. They come from a nest beneath the kitchen window, survivors of a Badger Meles meles attack the other night. B. pascuorum was the only other bumblebee that appeared. Various hoverflies completed the day's total.

mining bee Andrena scotica f

bumblebee Bombus hypnorum w

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum w

June 17th 2018. For the second night running a Badger was seen outside the kitchen window, tucking into what must be the remains of spilled birdseed from the feeders. I am sure it started with this, but the creature remained so long that it must have found other food beneath the surface. The astonishing thing about the pictures is that they came out at all. They were taken at 1/5th second hand held (elbows on table, through double-glazing) with a Nikon 5200 camera fitted with a Tamron 70-300 lens, stabilised, ISO 4000 at f5. What a tribute to modern technology from modest equipment. It is so delightful seeing a completely wild animal just outside. Soon, this may be a rarer sight, as Badgers are to be culled all over the country, in an effort to stamp out tuberculosis in cattle. Is this the right approach? Who knows. They have been going up and down a well-worn path in our garden for as long as we have been here and, I suspect, for many many years before that. I venture to suggest that, In reality, they are the original owners of the countryside and entitled to continue living here.

Badger Meles meles

Badger Meles meles

June 11th 2018. Peter, hard-working secretary of the hundred year old Nature Photographic Society (NPS) and a very old friend of mine, brought Norman, a mutual friend, for a day out on the Levels, designed also to meet Chris, a new member. Our rendezvous was the car-park at Ham Wall. It was superb, hot, with all day sunshine, plenty of other people around, though not oppressively so. I felt we had not taken that many pictures until I looked at my camera stats - 368! It was particularly interesting in that I took my 100-400mm Sigma lens to see how it would perform photographing insects rather than birds. I was following Chris in this, as he has been using his Canon 400mm lens recently in this manner. Modern lenses focus really close, using the latest developments in optics. I am surprissed how well it performed. We had a marvellous outing, in the morning at Shapwick Heath, lunch back at the car-park and then on to Ham Wall; the moves dictated by the direction of the light. Our friends from Swansea were delayed somewhat on the motorway, so Chris and I decided to explore the ponds within the car-park, known for their dragonfly population. And indeed they were there in numbers. There were a great many damselflies, including Red-eyed Erythromma najas, while Four-spot chasers Libellula quadrimaculata were to be seen on every reed-tip, Many Broad-bodied chasers Libellula depressa were also present, though impossible to photograph in the heat of the day, so restless were they. These dragonflies all appeared to be newly-emerged, perfect, in beautiful, bright colours, every hair gleaming in the sunshine.

Four-spot chaser Libellula quadrimaculata

Four-spot chaser Libellula quadrimaculata

Back by the cars, a Bittern Botaurus stellaris flew over, catching us out, without a camera ready, fortunately it turned up again a bit later and was captured through the lens. Astonishing as it may seem, this is the first Bittern I have seen this year, in spite of the fact that over forty birds were booming during Spring. A Great white egret Egretta alba flew overhead, then back again every few minutes, as if to a time-table. What a welcome for visitors from other parts who have never seen one of these splendid birds.

Bittern Botaurus stellaris

We walked down to the tower hide overlooking the scrape on Shapwick Heath and were surprised to find a small flock of Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa still there - early or late migrants?. We were told a couple of Avocets Recurvirostra avocetta had been among the waders the day before, certainly unexpected. Another Bittern flew across, giving good views before being lost to sight. A Little egret showed its yellow socks briefly. It appears Littles are no longer as common as the Great white, a real turn-up for the books.

Little egret Egretta garzetta

Other than the dragonfly clan, insects were in distinctly short supply. I had expected to see a great many solitary bees and bumblebees, but none were to be seen. As noticed in recent years, there were few flowers on the trackside verges, with the exception of stands of newly-opened brambles Rubus spp. Normally, these are popular with many species, but practically none were taking advantage. After lunch, we made our way out to the Avalon hide, set among the waters and reed beds at the end of a narrow track. As so often, this proved a bit of a disappointment, with few birds and those all distant. When the hide first opened, birds flew over and around in numbers. Maybe there are just too many of us visible there, for the hide has permanent openings all round? Our most productive time came when we took ourselves back to one of the old blinds at the start of the track. A female Marsh harrier appeared, and gradually made her way towards us, rewarding everyone with splendid views of aerobatics. Later, a pair of Marsh harriers were spotted opposite, but remained well away.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

A Great-crested grebe chick caught the eye, diving and enjoying itself nearby. Mother grebe sailed in every so often, bringing tiny fish for its young. She was kept hard at it while we were watching.

Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus

Great crested grebe & young Podiceps cristatus

A young Grey heron, as yet with little colouring, flew in and provided some statuesque poses, tall and slender. Eventually it picked up what looked like a piece of reed and flew off, having provided fine entertainment. 

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

June 7th 2018. John, Chris, Ron and I met at Green Down this morning, to search for inverterbrates and their associated flowers. Green Down is the original site in Somerset where the Large blue butterfly has been found in recent years. It is operated by the Somerset Wildlife Trust who kept it closed for many years, until the absurdity of doing this was realised, as there was open access to another prolific site nearby at Collard Hill. I had been there previously, as had John, and was surprised at how long the grass was, together with its associated herbage. It hd been thought that Large blue populations depend on keeping the grass really short. I know that this year has had tremendous, almost explosive growth, but there could be serious problems in the future, if grazing is not increased considerably - and quickly. However, Large blues were present; we saw small numbers, so hopefully their future may be assured? One pair was even spotted mating. Their name implies a larger butterfly than it actually appears in the field. While a rarity, it is by no means the most attractive of the blues, being understated and slightly muddy in colour above.

Large blue Maculinia arion

The most notable of our finds, a single insect, was a Small elephant hawkmoth, completely new to me, and as strangely coloured as the more familiar Elephant hawkmoth Deilephila elpenor. Both these moths have  the appearance of being artificially coloured, slightly unnatural, though remarkably beautiful and unexpected.

Small elephant hawkmoth Deilephila porcellus

Small elephant hawkmoth Deilephila porcellus

We were as pleased to find various flowers, including Stinking iris, Goatsbeard Tragapogon pratensis and the parasitic Common broomrape. This plant exists without containing any chlorophyl, parasitic on grass and other roots. I have always been ashamed of how little I know common flowers. They are the very bedrock that supports the insect community. Fortunately, John is a considerable expert and extremely good at passing his knowledge on to others. Photographs are my way of ensuring that at least some of this information remains with me.

Stinking iris Iris foetidissima

Common broomrape Orobanche minor

My next picture shows another member of the Dandelion family, forming its familiar clock when seeding, but far, far larger. The banks also held great colonies of hawkbits Leontodon, hawkbeards Crepis and hawkweeds Hiericium, closely related and needing a deal of attention to separate. Their yellow flowers are favourite food sources for a great many bees and always worth a search.

Goatsbeard tragapogon pratensis

Perhaps the most interesting plant from my point of view was the Nodding, or Musk thistle Carduus nutans. This was present in large numbers on the upper slopes of this steep banking and although only just into flower was already attracting a great many bumblebees of three main species. I had been hoping that I would find Bombus jonellus, an insect suited to such surrounds, and I was not disappointed.

bumblebee Bombus jonellus m

The familiar garden bumblebee B. hortorum and B. jonellus are of similar colouring but the former has a long, distinctive face and tongue,  while the latter has a short, round head and short tongue. Two other species on these thistles, B. pascuorum and B. pratorum, were present in some numbers on those flowers that had already opened fully.

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum w

bumblebee Bombus pratorum

Solitary bees were in distinctly short supply, just one or two Lasioglossum leucopus, tiny metallic mining bees, often almost completely hidden within the pollen. I had thought to see more species, as the hedgerows are now showing flowers in comparative abundance.

mining bee Lasioglossum leucopus f

While searching for further flowers, we came across this Harlequin ladybird larva, a fierce predator of anything it can get its jaws into. A fairly recent addition to our species lists, it has wreaked havoc on many of the other native ladybirds, turning common insects into rarities.

Harlequin ladybird Harmonia oxyridis larva

The last find  was a characteristically slender sawfly, Cephus pygmaeus, elsewhere a serious agricultural pest.

sawfly cephus pygmaeus

June 6th 2018. A brief visit to the flats showed a few interesting visitors, among which was a female Osmia, the only sighting this year. Clearly there must have been a male at some time, but of sightings there have been none. The earlier strange weather at their crucial emergence period must have finished off the majority.

mason bee Osmia bicornis f

Ectemnius continuus is the first of that grouping to have appeared. No doubt others will put in an appearance later. It is common on our logs, instantly recognisable from the irregularly-spaced bands on the abdomen.

digger wasp Ectemnius continuus f

Finally, I was pleased to see another common visitor which could be identified. So many Crossocerus are seen as little black threads without any apparent distinguishing features.

digger wasp Crossocerus elongatulus f

digger wasp Crossocerus elongatulus f

June 4th 2018. The fine weather has continued, bringing with it the most tremendous growth everywhere. There is no doubt that insect life has benefitted from this, though my log trap-nests have not joined in the bonanza. There is movement, but much less than could be expected at this time of year. However, I spent a most fascinating hour watching and photographing a female ichneumon searching holes, laying its eggs deep inside. Ephialtes manifestator lays its eggs on bee and wasp larvae and is often observed on log trap-nests. The process is remarkable and most entertaining to watch. The insect searches holes in logs, cracks and under the bark of mainly dead wood, using its long, multi-segmented antennae to sniff out the chemical signs for their potential prey. These may be deep inside, hence the truly long ovipositors. When she finds a suitable host, she folds back her ovipositor sheaths and holds them over her back, upright. The paired twin ovipositor valves act as one, feeding into the hole. Gradually this works its way in until, in some cases, the ovipositor is buried up to its base. The tip of the ovipositor has toothed cutting points which are capable of drilling through wood, where it is unable to obtain entry through the original hole. The drilling process takes time, the incredibly thin ovipositor has to drill in a more or less straight line and the insect twists and turns to put on pressure or keep it moving. The strength built into this slender instrument must be astonishing.

ichneumon Ephialtes manifestator f, drilling & laying

ichneumon Ephialtes manifestator f, drilling & laying

ichneumon Ephialtes manifestator f, drilling & laying

ichneumon Ephialtes manifestator f, drilling & laying

ichneumon Ephialtes manifestator f, drilling & laying

ichneumon Ephialtes manifestator f, drilling & laying

ichneumon Ephialtes manifestator f, drilling & laying

June 2nd 2018. I took Maddie out on a relatively newly-found walk which we both enjoy. Often the main problem is that it is badly affected by wind, so not good for photographing insects on the long wavery stems of so many umbels. Today it was warm, still and the insects were out in force beneath the hedges and along the verges. I pottered and Maddie sniffed her way along the edges. A long drove takes you north, crosses the Cripps River, swings round and turns into a grassy, absolutely peaceful lane. It was good to see two species of mining bee, both common and strikingly-coloured. Andrena nitida is distinguished by tufts of pale hair on the sides of the abdomen.

mining bee Andrena nitida f

A. haemorrhoa has a brilliant patch of red-gold at the tip of the tail.

mining bee Andrena haemorrhoa f

mining bee Andrena haemorrhoa f

June 1st 2018. The start of summer, and the new month, was celebrated in the glim by a Badger Meles meles feeding on remnants of bird seed outside the kitchen window. Earlier, one was disturbed after opening the bathroom window. It was seen galloping up the slope into the orchard, looking like a short-legged sheeep, with its fur flying in every direction.


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