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May 2018  wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

May 29th 2018. The invertebrate group met at the car park in East Harptree Woods on top of Mendip, en route to Smitham Pool, known haunt of several species of dragonflies. Sadly, this did not turn out as we had expected, dragonflies were represented only by numerous teneral damselflies, like little shimmering ghosts. Tony from Gloucester was waiting for us when we arrived at the park, stretched out in great comfort in the back of his van. John and I were joined much later by Nigel who had been held up. Indeed by then we were on our way back after the expected rain started up after lunch. It was overcast for all the day but there were times where a subtle increase in warmth made itself felt, then the insects came out onto the flower tops. It was clear that there were large numbers of insects, even they were not seen. Indeed it felt as if there could be more down below than at previous Springs. It was just that they were waiting for the sun to appear, which it did not. We had a fine exploration of the trackside flowers on our way to the pool. The most obvious were sheets of Red campion Silene dioica everywhere, but there were many other plants and flowers all along. In place of the many bees, dragonflies and butterflies we had been expecting, our finds were of a much more general nature, but pleasing for all that, including a few bumblebees.

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum m

bumblebee Bombus pratorum q

We saw plenty of small hoverflies, mostly Cheilosia and related, but also one splendid, awkward-looking Baccha with its slender abdomen ending in a weighty bulb. I managed to catch most of it in flight, with one wing cut short but not really spoiling the effect.

 hoverfly Baccha elongata f

After all it is the Spring of the year, and one of the hoverflies we came across was a heavily pregnant female, signified by the split in the sisde of the abdomen.

 hoverfly elastoma scalare f

Early on, we had come acrossa couple of different flies with marked wings and long protruding mouthparts. One John had referred to as a 'downlooker', on account of its habit of sitting head down on trunks of trees. At first I could not reconcile this with anything I knew, but eventually realised it was was what I had always known as a snipe-fly. It shows how much more consistent it is to refer to scientific names, being more constant - though not always so. You sometimes find that on the Continent there may be descrepancies in the usage of old or revised versions.

Downlooker snipefly Rhagio scolopaceus

scorpionfly Panurgus communis m

Beetles were evident on many of the leaves, together with various colourful weevils. One specially-coloured beetle was a Plateumeris, often found on the Levels, feeding on the numerous Yellow flags Iris pseudacorus.

reed beetle Plateumaris sericea f

Sailor beetles were mating on one plant, the female twisted upside down in what looked a very awkward position. There were many of these beetles, with their blue abdomen, hence the local name. Other common species, with red abdomens, are called soldier-beetles locally, hailing from the times when our army wore red coats.

mating sailor beetles Cantharis rustica

sailor beetle Cantharis nigricans

A well-patterned Tipula maxima crane-fly was a good find, larger than we had imagined. The pool itself was disappointing, the waters deep brown from being coninually stirred up by visiting dogs - it is a popular place for them and activeley encouraged by many owners. It was full, but remarkably shallow, as demonstrated by a Labrador walking right across. Surely this must affect the long-term value of the pool for dragonflies? When I first came visiting many years ago, the water was crystal-clear and surely deeper.

May 21st 2018. I had a really productive morning with the log nests. Clearly the warm, humid weather suited those insects that were present or emerging. For the first real time there was some appearance of life and urgency. It seems that Osmia have really been hit by past events. I only saw one female vanishing into a bamboo, then nothing more, no signs of males which should have been swarming by now under normal circumstances. I suspect we may well have missed out on an entire generation of these. Before I reached the logs, I came across an unusual hoverfly - at least for this garden. Meredon equestris is another one of the bumblebee mimics, dependent on Daffodil Narcissus spp. bulbs for its larval stages, with an ugly protruberent nose but otherwise nicely-coloured.

hoverfly Meredon equestris f

The first insects to show themselved at the logs were solitary wasps, searching possible nest holes with great diligence. I thought they might be males, but in fact the majority were females.They searched the area then went into the holes, but and did not reappear. I did not spot them taking in any prey, so perhaps they were busy building their cells at this stage? Prey are various species of Diptera, which may have fared rather better in the wet weather this year.

digger wasp Ectemnius continuus f

The greatest numbers of insects were little black digger wasps, Crossocerus spp. Without harming them, it is difficut to be certain of identification, but eventually it may be possible after more detailed study on the computer. But it is is their behaviour that is the attraction. They twist and turn in their efforts to test and explore nest-holes. Eventually, they will construct cells and provision them with several paralysed insects, mostly Diptera, as a food store for when their own larvae emerge. A couple of species use Hemiptera or Homoptera as their food-sources. The insects fly in a characteristic attitude, legs dangling beneath, looking more like St. Mark's- flies Bibio marci than wasps. It is only when the pictures are enlarged on the computer that this shows up, otherwise appearing like small conventional wasps.

digger wasp Crossocerus spp. f

 digger wasp Crossocerus spp. f

digger wasp Crossocerus spp. f

The pink flowers beside the logs, name unknown, attract bumblebees and hoverflies all summer, being particularly favoured by B. pascuorum and B. pratorum, the latter smaller and more delicate.

hoverfly Platycheirus albimanus f

Finally, let us not dismiss the roses, which attract their fair share of insects and provide some remarkable colours to blast the screen. This bumblebee shows the problems associated with identifying these insects. It is a worker, of that there is no doubt, but which bee? Both Bombus ruderatus and B. hortorum produce black workers (It is not a cuckoo bumblebee), but a black bee with quite a long white tail is not a common variant. My detective work reckons it is B.hypnorum, which is said to have dark specimens, though none appear to be illustrated, and has such a tail. Of course it might be the same bumble, but severely abraded and ancient. Beware of bumblebees that do not fit the keys or appear in books!

bumblebee Bombus hypnorum w

Honeybee Apis mellifera w

May 18th 2018. On a whim, decided to take Maddie down to Shapwick Moor for a walk. This is a comparatively new reserve, set up by the Hawk and Owl Trust on the way to Shapwick Village via Shapwick Heath. One of its main assets as far a the public is concerned is that it has a splendid car park tucked away out of sight. I am not sure what makes it the setting of a predator bird site, as it is a series of flat moorland grass meadows, but there are a couple of small hides reached along a wide stone track. This is where Maddie and I walked. There were a number of May trees Crataegus monogyna, so the poor dog suffered a slow walk while these were thoroughly explored. There was plenty of activity, mostly Hymenopteran. I was particularly interested to find male Andrena nigroaenea. I have always seen females previously, they really are quite different in appearance. Indeed, at first I thought they were male Lasioglossum, but then looked more closely and noticed the straight basal wing vein.

mining bee Andrena nigroaenea m

mining bee Andrena nigroaenea m

A female A. nitida was altogether easier to identify. Its old name, A. pubescens, was altogether more descriptive of the hairy patches on the sides of the abdomen.


mining bee Andrena nitida f

mining bee Andrena nitida f

The final find, a Sphecodes cuckoo bee is difficult to identify as so many appear similar, but I suspect it is S. ephippius which I do not think I have seen previously. We will be visiting this site later in the year, as a group, which may give us a better idea of what the grassland can offer.

cuckoo bee Sphecodes spp. f

cuckoo bee Sphecodes spp. f

May 17th 2018. Blagdon Lake, on the edge of the northen side of Mendip, was the setting for our invertebrate group today, by kind arrangement of Nigel Milbourne, a member who is also a warden for the lake-estate, as well as a long time recorder of the wiildlife, and near-daily blogger under the name 'Blagdon Lake Birds'. We could not have arranged a better day as far as weather was concerned. Day-long sunshine, but with a strong, cold wind in exposed parts. Holidays, doctors, travel and illness reduced our numbers to Nigel, Rose, John, Ron and myself, but that did not spoil the enjoyment or reduce the discoveries. We drove in and stopped at a number of points to wander in the meadows or look into scrub and woodland. The morning was devoted to the southern parts and the afternoon to the north shore. The lake and its surroundings looked marvellous in the sunshine, the spring greens of the trees still distinctive the one from another. Although we saw a great deal, and we were there at the perfect time for normal peak activity, sadly this dreadful winter has delayed the period by a couple of weeks. The many flower-rich hay meadows were only just coming into floral life, so insect numbers were not high. Nevertheless, there was a deal to admire and enjoy botanically. Orchids were present in some numbers, the deep colouring of Southern marsh  being particularly eye-catching.

Southern marsh orchid Dactylorhiza praetermissa

Green-winged Anacamptis morio and Common spotted orchids Dactylorhiza fuchsii were also present. I had not been aware previously of the variations in the Green-winged and was particularly struck with those - highly photogenic.

Green-winged orchid Anacamptis morio

These meadows, fringing the lake, have not been grazed or treated with fertiliser for many decades and quite possibly for centuries, and are said to represent 8% of similar meadows still existing in the whole of England, a thought-provoking and depressing outlook. There are still people around who remember these types of grassland when they were young, bright with flowers and shimmering with insects but it is unlikely subsequent generations will do so. It is always interesting to hear botanists speculating about plants. There were numbers of beautiful pale-flowered plants growing out of the water near the edges of the lake, as well as in some ditches. Almost certainly they were Horseradish Armoracia rusticana, but it is possible they were a related but rarer species. Whatever, they look most striking emerging out of the water. Although not over-numerous, there were sufficient insects to make for an interesting outing. Of particular interest this year has been the healthy number of Nomada cuckoo bees seen where scrubby bushes edge grass or paths. Again the most numerous were N. leucopthalma, with its furry thorax. A couple of Andrena are its hosts.

cuckoo bee Nomada leucopthalma m

cuckoo bee Nomada leucopthalma m

They were extremely active, rarely stationary for even a few seconds, darting unpredictably between plants. Although their prey bee-nests are underground, they spent a deal of time up at the top of plants - fun, or long-range sensing? A lone N. fabriciana was the only other species I came across, smaller than the others, but even quicker. The abdomen looks strange somehow, as if the bee had not quite finished colouring up, but that is quite normal. Hosts are several different Andrena mining bees.

cuckoo bee Nomada fabricia m

A number of different hoverflies were spotted, certainly an improvement over the previous year. These included one new to me, Portevinia maculata, a specialist in Ramson flowers, Allium ursinum, common in some of the wooded parts. It turned out to be a surprisingly dull-looking fly, by comparison with its name.

choverfly Portevinia maculata m

hoverfly Baccha elongata f

hoverfly Leucozona lucorum f

hoverfly Epistrophe eligans f

hoverfly Cheilosia scutellatus m

It was good to see a few sawflies, though the black ones were not possible to identify. It would be interesting if anyone has an idea. I have a feeling they may have been Dolerus species, but that really is a stab in the dark. The other sawfly illustrates the sheer volume of pollen being given off by those plants that are in flower at this time of year.

sawfy Dolerus spp.?

sawfly Tenthredo schaefferi

There were quite a number of small bees, all Lasioglossum fulvicorne but, as far as i could see, no other species to be seen. It was much the same with bumblebees, but not so many and virtually all B. pascuorum, as has been found elsewhere. I was delghted to obtain this shot of one in flight, such fine colouring.

mining bee Lasioglossum fulvicorne f

mining bee Lasioglossum fulvicorne f

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum

As a grand finale, this fine Cardinal beetle takes a deal of beating.

Cardinal beetle Pyrochroa serraticornis

May 15th 2018. For some while I have been concerned about the lack of activity at the 'flats'. In normal times, early mason bees Osmia should have appeared by mid-April, in increasingly large numbers. I saw the first Osmia bicornis yesterday, but only briefly,

mason bee Osmia bicornis m

while a little black Crossocerus was spotted exploring one of the logs this morning. Generally, they occur from early May on, so not so out of time. But, where have all the busy bees gone?

digger wasp Crossocerus spp.

Later, a search in one small area of the garden revealed a number of Nomada darting in and out of the foliage, searching for bees nesting in the earth beneath. They hunt at such high speeds and unpredictable paths, the only way is to find them resting, always briefly, and take the shot as quickly as possible. My old Nikon D300 and ancient Sigma macro remain the standard for success in these efforts. The results still surprise me.The sheer detail is well shown in the picture of the Rhingia.

cuckoo bee Nomada marshamella f

cuckoo bee Nomada flava f

hoverfly Rhingia campestris

May 12th 2018. Quite the best time for insects in the garden is late afternoon when the sun is still on the upper beds and not yet shaded by the trees. I had a most productive time sitting alongside vetches and Pulmonaria, though the latter really are at the last stages of flowering. The bumblebees were still B. pascuorum, with no sign of other species but lovely for all that. It is not often that the commonest creature is also among the most attractive.

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum w

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum w

My eye was caught by a large wasp searching the undergrowth. I took a few pictures and was delighted to find that it was a queen Dolichovespula media. This wasp is a comparative newcomer to Britain, nesting in trees and with rather a fierce reputation. We have had them here on two or three occasions but have never seen a queen. I managed one shot with the wasp in flight, others on the ground.

social wasp Dolichovespula media q

social wasp Dolichovespula media q

There were increasing numbers of hoverflies, though still only in penny numbers. Rhingia campestris is among the commonest but provided some excellent opportunities on this warm, windless Spring evening.

hoverfly Rhingia campestris m

hoverfly Rhingia campestris m

hoverfly Rhingia campestris m

hoverfly Rhingia campestris m

Finally, a coupole of pictures of my favourite little Platycheirus hoverflies, small and slender, and so confiding - at times. They can be as annoying as any other hoverfly, lifting off just as focus locks on but just too quick withteir initial acceleration on take-off but, earler I was reading inside when one came and had a really good look at me at about an inch range, refusing to leave even when I made to wave it away. after a minute or so of this it turned and shot off through the open door into the garden. Clearly I was as interesting to the hoverfly as I was in it.

hoverfly Platycheirus peltatus m

hoverfly Platycheirus peltatus f

May 10th 2018. Another perfect day, possibly the last for a while - all day sunshine. I was still keen to see more of the Hobbies and Ham Wall was said to be flush with them around lunch time, during a sunny day at this time. I reached there at midday and walked out to the Tower hide in the middle of the reeds but, as so often in the past, there was little to be seen except for a few Tufted duck and Common pochard.

Tufted duck Aythya fuligula f

More interesting was the bench half way down the walkway to the hide. A heron landed opposite in the reeds, sounds of youngsters were heard, confirming that for at least a couple of years, the herons have nested directly in the reedbed.

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

Indeed some people were saying that almost certainly there was another nest within yards of the other. I watched this heron land, a cascade of sound, and it was off again within a very short period.

Grey heron Ardea cinerea

Not long after, a Great white egret Egretta alba landed in the distance, the first of several seen during the day. From there I walked to the Avalon Hide, over the bridge and deep into the reeds to the north. Just before the bridge, the RSPB have placed a comfortable wooden seat tucked away in the greenery with a wonderful view over reeds, patchy stretches of shallow water and on to the low hills far beyond. It ws very peaceful but the wind gusted stongly, chilling in spite of the sun. Gadwall and Mallard were feeding near by.

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos m

Mute swans were restless, lifting and flying in wide circles before settling once more. Egrets flew in and vanished behind the reeds.

Mute swan Cygnus olor

It was a great place to see what was going on in this watery world, perfect at any time of year. I was fortunate, a column of people came down from the hide just before I reached it. Inside there was pleanty of room to take a good seat upstairs. It is the only hide I know with really comfortable plastic garden chairs, so settling in was little problem. A female Marsh harrier was flying off into the distance as I arrived but that was the only one to be seen during the day. I was hoping to see Hobbies but for some while this was a vain hope, then they gradually appeared, high up and distant. Eventually they came closer, darting down and across the water, disturbing the many ducks into flurries of foam.

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo


Hobby Falco subbuteo

Both on the way into the Avalaon hide and going back, a couple of families of Greylag geese were making use of the path, watching over their families of goslings as they grazed the grass on the side. Walking slowly up to them they, eagually slowly sliped over the side and into one of the open stretches of water on the side. They certainly were not frightened og contact with people but sensibly got out of the way.

Greylag geese Anser anser

Part of Ham Wall

May 5th 018. Chris and I had another go at the Westhay Hobbies this morning, at the same place as the last visit. For the first hour nothing happened at all, then we were joined by Ian and Garry, a couple of affable Welsh enthusiasts from Brecon, photographers and birdwatchers who knew this and many other areas really well. With their arrival, our luck changed, up to six Hobbys appearing at a time. At first they were really high above, riding the thermals of a perfect sunny day, circling and circling. It was virtually windless, which seemed to take their insect prey up into a much higher layer above, pursued by the predators. Then as the morning wore on they started to behave normally, swooping and diving, fortunately closer to where we were standing. We thoroughly enjoyed this marvellous display, which eventually involved other birds. A fine male Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus, beautifully marked, appeared high overhead, soaring the thermals in a most uncharacteristic manner. This bird was joined later by a Grey heron Ardea cinerea looking really strange as it circled really high above, looking like a toy version of itself. By now, the day was really warm, shirtsleeve weather such as we have not had to date, almost certainly around 27° or even more, allied with high humidity.

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

More fine weather is promised tomorrow it seems so, all in all, a splendid day out in a beautiful setting of sparkling water and miles of pale winter reeds. We are so fortunate to have such a venue.

May 3rd 2018. Our invertebrate group met at Thurlbear Woods, near Taunton. Two more people were expected but did not turn up. Nigel could not make it because of sudden illness in the family, which is worrying. As it was, Chris, Jan & Jim, Rose, John and I made up the numbers. We had an excellent day in a most delightful setting. The woods are famous for the displays of Bluebells Endymion non-scripta, currently at their peak, while Primroses Primula vulgaris, Wood anemones Anemone nemorosa and many others made up the rest. It was worth visiting just to see these. The insect life was prolific but diminished when we came to the main rides and clearings, beautifully covered with Bluebells along the edges and on into the depths of the wood. It does not appear that these are great insect attractants. Perhaps the most interesting insects were the small Nomada bees found right at the beginning, among the scrub and foliage on the edge of the paths, where the sunlight filtered through from above. There were a great many, but they were the very devil to photograph, hardly settling for more than a second. I identified two species but there could well have been more among the many. These cuckoo bees prey on the larvae of mining bees in their nests, stealing their food, then destroying the grub. They look like tiny wasps.


cuckoo bee Nomada leucopthalma m

cuckoo bee Nomada leucopthalma f

cuckoo bee Nomada flava f

I am always intrigued by tiny creatures found buried in flower heads. I had never heard of fruitworm beetles previously - what a marvellous name - but feel I must have seen similar ones elsewhere as they looked familiar. They were difficult to identify, but it was worth the effort.

fruitworm beetle Byturus oleracea

This shield bug proved to be a first for me. I have never seen this species previously. This is even odder when the fact is that shield-bugs have become far fewer in number during recent years. They used to be found in almost everywhere years ago. Now I cannot remember seeing more than a single one in an outing.

shield bug Eurydoma oleracea

Hoverflies were around in numbers, moving continually in the sunshine. Platycheirus albimanus were particularly numerous but there were others, including Melanastoma scalare, Syrphus vitripennis and various Eristalis, to mention a few. It was good to see them, as they have been in distictly short supply over the past couple of years.

hoverfly Platycheirus albimanus f

Later, we moved nextdoor to Thurlbear Quarrylands, an old favourite site for us right next to the woods. Large numbers of Cowslips were in flower throughout the open spaces and the insect life was quite reasonable, though I suspect we were a fortnight or so too early. One of the first insects we came across was a colourful specimen of one of the commoner micro-moths. It is always good to see these tiny creatures and try to identify them.

micro-moth Pyrausta purpularis

Surprisingly, there were few bumblebees and those all B. pascuorum, something I have noticed elsewhere. They seem to be having a really successful year in all the places I visit.

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum 

We spent an interesting few minutes watching a mining bee searching for a nesting site, dropping down in front, then disappearing below the grass and reappearing several time before eventually vanishing for good in much the smae place she had started. This species used to be named Andrena pubescens, reflecting the tufts of pale hair on the sides of the abdomen, but was changed recently. It is a shame when names which mean something to do with an insect's appearance are given a new one bearing no such meaning, if any.  

mining bee Andrena nitida

The last picture shows a much-favoured position taken by Eristalis hoverflies. They love hovering in a sunbeam set against a dark background, often found on a bright day in woodland. These insects are intensely curious, appearing just as interested in the observer as we are in them. They will fly up within a few inches, so close you feel you could reach out and touch them, then dash off to look from further off, only to return in a flash. This particular one was engaged with me, then lost interest and started examining something on the foliage behind, hence the shot from the back. They pose a photographic challenge, demanding great concentration. I found myself really hot after taking this picture.

hoverflyEristalis nemorum

May 2nd 2018. Chris and I met at the Viridor hide on Westhay Moor this afternoon for an attempt to find and photograph the expected invasion of Hobbies which usually occurs at about this time. The open waters of the reserves and other parts in the area attract large numbers of Hobbys on migration. Noah's lake on Shapwick Heath may attract as many as 60 at a time, or even more in a good year, while they spread widely over other waters and reed beds, hunting the dragonflies which congregate on these. It is marvellous to see such congregations of these beautiful little birds of prey, as they are far from common in the country. We walked down to the tower platform off the main ride but, en route, spotted a large dragonfly floating past which then dropped down beside the track. What was strange was this individual's colouring. For a start, the wings were golden-brown tinged, not unlike those of the Brown hawker Aeshna grandis - which this most certainly was not. Normally adult wings are crystal clear apart from the veins. Various other markings on the thorax and elsewhere did not match the usual, yet it was a Hairy drgonfly Brachytron pratense, typical of the time of year. They are the earliest of true dragonflies and no doubt one of the insects that keep the Hobbys going when they first arrive.

Hairy dragonfly Brachytron pratense f

At the platform, we decided to stand outside to give a wider field of view though later I went inside simply to lean against something. The wind was fairly whistling away, and remained so throughout the afternoon, giving spectacular colouring in the water under blue skies, with inse dark tones and silver tints. There were Hobbys for much of the time, beating up against the wind then turning to simply flash past us, never very close but a real challenge for photography in the conditions. We had a marvellous afternoon wathcing all the activity and are rdetermined to try again soon.

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

Hobby Falco subbuteo

May 1st 2018. After a windy morning, it died down to try some insect photography in the garden. In spite of the earlier cold, Bombus pascuorum and Anthophora plumipes were buzzing round the Pulmonaria and other flowers, the latter insect characterised by a very high-pitched sound from its wings. Its encouraging to find that the progress of the year in insect circles is not deterred entirely by the weather. They are waiting to pop out at the merest hint of sun and warmth at this period. In fact it proved a successful session after all.

flower bee Anthophora plumipes f

flower bee Anthophora plumipes f

flower bee Anthophora plumipes f

flower bee Anthophora plumipes f

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum w

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum w

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum w

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum w

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum w

hoverfly Rhingia campestris m


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