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July 2019  wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

July 31st 2019. Our little group met at Langford Heathfield this morning. We were keen to see another phase and time of its existence, as we had so enjoyed previous meetings here. To our delight, Ron W., Chris H., John M., and I, were joined by a newcomer, my daughter Fiona. She had borrowed Kerenza's camera and spent the time coming to terms with it to great effect. I thnk we may have a bumblebee convert here. It was a very hot, humid day which affected me badly by the lunch stop. I had been foolish enough to wear a jacket over a T-shirt. Removing this brought my temperature down, together with lots of water. An uncomfortable experience. For all that, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and we saw some interesting and colourful insects. The route we took was along the length of the reserve, which is comparatively narrow. The first part is a rather scruffy, dark woodland, but this clears quickly to an open area which, in spring is highly floriferous, but at this time of year overgrown with bracken, its presence overhung with an almost herbal scent with darker undertones. In turn, this led on to a much more open part, almost bracken-free, full of flowers, among which were many Saw-worts and Betony, attracting numbers of insects. So we became very active for some while, trying to photograph and record them.

Saw-wort Serratula tinctoria

Betony Betonica officinalis

This was the same large clearing so active on previous occasions at other times of the year. Beyond, the path changed into long sections of beautifully-made board walks. We hoped to see some of the native Common, or Viviparous, lizards Zootoca vivipara that live here, but I the only sighting was a tail disappearing down a crack between the boards; a disappointment. At the furthest clearing, where we stopped for lunch by a convenient and capacious bench, John spotted butterflies at the top of some tall oak-trees. He wandered over and told us there were numbers of Purple hairstreaks coming down to eye level, resting on the oak leaves. They were all females with lesser amounts of purple, but spectacular for all that. Normally they live at the tops of the trees but drop down to mate. Such beautiful creatures.

Purple hairstreak Favonius quercus f

Various other butterflies were found as we went from one clearing to another, amongst which were numbers of Silver-washed fritillaries and a few Peacocks. It seems it is a good year for butterflies in general, as well bringing an invasion of Painted ladies, as reported earlier.

Silver-washed fritillary Argynnis paphia

Peacock Aglais io

Aside from the Purple hairstreaks, the most interesting insect for me was Bombus soroeensis spotted on a couple of occasions in one of the clearings. This is an unusual, quite rare bumblebee, with a split yellow band on its abdomen. I have only come across it a couple of times previously in Somerset, better still was getting a picture in flight showing the whole body so clearly. Not far from this bee, I came across two of its parasites, both conopids. These flies lay their eggs on bumblebee larvae, then burrow into the internals and affect their host's behaviour.

Broken-belted bumblebee Bombus soroeensis m

conopid fly Conops quadrifasciatus

conopid fly Sicus ferrugineus

Another well-represented group was that of the grasshoppers and their sub-headings, bush-crickets and grasshoppers proper. Dark bush-crickets were plentiful, as were the universal Meadow grasshoppers; the main species on so many of our outings in the past couple of years. The Speckled bush-cricket is often seen as a garden insect, though not often seen now.

Dark bush-cricket Pholidoptera griseoaptera m

Speckled bush-cricket Leptophyes punctatissima larva

Finally, a couple of flies. There were a number of hoverflies around, but not as many and varied as I had hoped. This tiny but colourful Sphaerophoria was all but invisible in the undergrowth, while the picture reveals some plendi markings, quite jewel-like. The last picture intrigued me, a graphic and strking image. I think it is a drosophilid, the fruit-fly family, but am open to any other suggestions. What a splendid and varied outing.

hoverfly Sphaerophoria interrupta f

drosophilid fly Drosophila spp.

July 29th 2019. Romey and I drove down to Catcott Lows for a quick look at the end of a beautiful sunny day, hoping for another glimpse of the Cattle egrets. We were not disappointed, though they stuck strictly to the far side of the pond.

conopid fly Conops quadrifasciatus

Cattle egrets Bubulcus ibis

Cattle egrets Bubulcus ibis

Cattle egrets Bubulcus ibis

Cattle egrets Bubulcus ibis

July 27th 2019. The summer continues its amazing run of sunshine and high temperatures. At the same time, Catcott Lows remains a place to visit even at this time of high summer. Before the pond was dug, this was a blank field during these months. Alan was there and Chris H. arrived soon afterwards. And were we rewarded with our visit?

Cattle egrets Bubulcus ibis

 Cattle egrets Bubulcus ibis

Cattle egrets Bubulcus ibis

Cattle egrets Bubulcus ibis

July 24th 2019. I cannot resist these pictures of the Exmoor ponies used as part of the system for optimising conditions at Catcott Lows. They really were enjoying themselves in the sunshine of one our hottest days.

Exmoor ponies

Exmoor ponies

Exmoor ponies

July 18th 2019. John M, Chris H, Ron W, our long missed Robert B, and I met for one of our invertebrate meetings at Ham Hill Country Park, Stoke sub Hamdon in South Somerset. We had a marvellous time at this amazing place with plentiful flowers in easy-to-reach places. It was so good to have Robert with us, he is such a source of knowledge. His problem is transport to other locations. We actually walked relatively short distances - the best single location absorbed much of the morning watching insects coming into and feeding on Spear Cirsium vulgare and Nodding thistles Carduus nutans on a small bank at the road's edge. One of my particular interests is trying to photograph insects in flight. Many are quite impossible, too erratic, but my list of those I have taken continues to increase. Having gone on one outing without a monopod, I realise now that it is vital for consistent success. Even if you have the steadiest of hands, you will lose out without some form of support. As an example, when photographinjg hoverfllies coming to a particular flower, it is essential to pre-focus the camera on where you think the fly will hover. They are consistent in their habits and this will normally work. The problem comes in holding the camera steady in that position, even the strongest will eventually have to put the camera down. With a monopod, you can forget about this fatigue, concentrating for long periods on the viewfinder and that vital spot. To capture the shot, I use autofocus for 99 percent of the time, which works far more reliably than my eye, together with flash to freeze the moment. I think there is no more exciting moment than seeing the insect and its wonderful detail in the viewfinder. There will always be failures, for there is a distinct delay between pushing the button and the shutter opening. A deal of the skill required is anticipating this delay and instinctively taking it into account.

hoverfly Scaeva pyrastri m

hoverfly Scaeva pyrastri m

hoverfly Episyrphus balteatus f

mining bee Lasioglossum leucozonium f

mining bee Lasioglossum leucozonium f

The next photo is of particular interest for me. I haver seen Passaloecus, the digger wasp from that tribe of tiny black insects, in the open countryside, though they are regulars at my drilled logs.  Black digger wasps are notoriously difficult to identify but this one is reasonably easy to take down to the genus, it has a slender, typically-shaped first segment of the abdomen, together with a distinctive head-shape. To get down to species you need other but tiny clues, as is often the case.

digger wasp Passaloecus spp.

My next picture is of a cuckoo bee quite frequently found on umbels and other flowers. The only problem is identification. There are numbers of species that look generally like this, black head and thorax, red abdomen with black tip. Sometimnes you just have to accept defeat if you do not like killing another creature to identify it under the microscope. This genus is another strange one, preying on other bees by feeding on the food store left by the host for their larva.

cuckoo bee Sphecodes spp.

There were quite a number of medium-sized and smaller ichneumons among the various flowers. One I beiieve I managed to identify, the others remain mysteries, sent to a file marked 'unknown'. They are fascinating and often beautiful creatures, well-worth watching as they explore the flower heads, searching for caterpilars or larvae of other insects on or in which to lay their eggs. Their own larvae use these as living larders, feeding on them when they hatch out.The picture below is one of a series taken as she cleans herself.

ichneumon Alomyia debellator f

The pair of pictures below show some of the problems. These pictures look exactly like ones taken of a Glypta species, except for the tiny white trangles on the last two segments of the abdomen. I tried to think this was just something missed out in the pictures but soon came to the conclusion that it was indeed a different species, but have no idea of which.

ichneumonid f

ichneumonid f

During the afternoon I came across a variety of insects, including hoverflies. Perhaps our most interesting find came by courtesy of Robert's bat detector set around 45khz. For some while now he has been studying the spread of Roesel's bush-cricket in the area. We were watching him moving the electronic detector over a patch of flowers when the machine started singing. Eventually we spotted the cricket hunkered deep down in the greenery but with a patch of sun illiminating it, as well as keeping it warm. The bright mark on its side is characteristic of it in the field, the first thing you notice.

Roesel's bush-cricket Metrioptera roeselii

hoverfly Syrphus ribesii f

conopid fly Sicus ferruginea

I would be most grateful for any guidance on the genus or species of this beetle, seen in two widely spaced areas of the reserve. I have searched far and wide without coming across anything definite. My only possibility was it might be an Oxymirus longhorn beetle. Since then, Peter B., had come up with the much more likely identification of an Oedemera, from which I deduced its strange appearance was because she was heavily pregnant, full of eggs. I am most grateful for Peter's help on this.

Beetle Oedemera nobilis gravid f

We almost passed this crab spider by, it was so difficult to spot among the florets. It changes its colour to ensure it is invisible. Crab-spiders specialise in patiently laying in wait, sometimes for a really long time, to catch some less wary insect as it touches down for a refuelling stop.

crab-spider Misumena vatia

Small skipper Thymelicus sylvestris m

You may wonder why it takes a deal of time to put the pictures up after an event? This not so much the mechanics of downloading and correcting on the computer, though that is time-consuming, as the sheer hard labour in identifying insects from photographs taken during the day. This involves studying pictures taken at several angles, searching keys and books, as well as online clues Even then there may not be a useful result.

July 17th 2019. A short session at the logs today revealed three different leafcutter bees, which rather surprised me because we get that number only when insects are prolific. That is certainly not true of the flats this year. They are having an extremely poor time, with few insects.

leafcutter bee Megachile centuncularis f

leafcutter bee Megachile versicolor mating

leafcutter bee Megachile ligniseca f

leafcutter bee Megachile willughbiella f

In the late afternoon I drove down to Catcott Lows, having heard there were some interesting things going on. As I stepped into the hide, brilliant purple Spear thistle colouring was spotted at the foreground of the open shutters. On this Goldfinches were feeding as if the there was no more time left in this world. Thistle seeds are tiny but they were more than happy feeding on them. It was a wonderiul sight, the brilliantly-colored flowers, delicate green leaves and fantastically colourful birds. What an opportunity.

Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis

Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis

Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis

Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis

July 11th 2019. This the last day of a short break near Yelverton on Dartmoor, staying in the delightful Harrabeer Country House Hotel. During our time away, we visited Tavistock and Horowbridge, where Romey's parents had lived during the war - the cottage still there. On the way up we visited the most attractive town of Topsham. Throughout our visit, the weather was warm and sunny; splendid, such a good break. I took the camera with me and managed a session at the entrance to the War Department ranges, mostly round the unexpected carpark with its hard standing and wild flowers all round the perimeter.

soldier-fly Chloromyia formosa f

soldier-fly Chloromyia formosa f

On the last evening, i had a good look round the hotel gardens and found a bumblebee hard at work, apparently unimpeded by the mites on its back. These creatures, though looking dreadful additions, are not harmful. They use the bumblebees as a means of transport from nest to nest via the flowers visited. Their main function is cleaning the nests of debris, on which they feed.

bumblebee Bombus lapidarius w

bumblebee Bombus lapidarius w

bumblebee Bombus lapidarius w

bumblebee Bombus lapidarius w

bumblebee Bombus lapidarius w

July 9th 2019. John M, Ron W and I met at Loxley Wood on the Poldens this morning, joined by Romey after lunch, for another of our invertebrate meetings. It was a beautiful day, sunny throughout and, once we were inside the main ride, sheltered from outside winds. It became intensely hot as the day went on, perhaps 28° at the peak, made much hotter by high humidity. For all that, we had a most enjoyable and succesful day. It is a most attractive place, well managed, full of flowering edges. notable among these were Meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria and Cinquefoil Potentilla reptans, the various umbels were not being used by insects at this time. Meadowsweet does not normally come into my list of insect-flowers but the clumps along the ride were attracting a number of insects, among which were various longhorn beetles.

longhorn beetle Strangalia maculata

longhorn beetle Stenocorus meridiana

 longhorn beetle Strangalia nigra

The strong, heavy scent of the flowers was all-pervading. It was fascinating to see these larger beetles hovering beside the flowers, a melée of of clattering wing-cases, intertwined legs and beating wings, not something seen usually.

 longhorn beetle Strangalia maculata

There were large numbers of bramble flowers though they attracted few insects in the morning, but came to life in the heat of the afternoon. We lunched at the top of the ride where earlier there had been a nearly bare area with a pile of logs. Now it was waist-high with vegetation. We only spotted one of the previously-common Nomada cuckoo bees, but it was too quick for a photo or identification. It had taken the whole morning to reach our lunch place, and much the same as we strolled back, pausing frequently to observe and, hopefully, photograph - all the time surrounded by the heavy herbal scents brought out by the hot sunshine.

mining bee Panurgus spp. f

mining bee Andrena denticulata m

cuckoo bumblebee Bombus vestalis

parasitic wasp Gasteruption jaculator m

Common darter Sympetrum striolatum imm., f

hoverfly Volucella  pellucens m

hoverfly Epistrophe grossulariae f

hoverfly Eristalis nemorum mating threesome

Dark bush-cricket Pholidoptera griseoaptera

weevil Apoderus corii taking off

July 4th 2019. I had a most enjoyable walk on Ham Wall in the afternoon. I had been inside far too long and needed  some fresh air. Wildlife was mostly absent, but for a few Comorants passing over Torview Hide.

Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo

Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo

A reasonably still, hot, sunny day made for fine walking but I did have a final view of a Marsh harrier flying across, just over reed height at the first platform.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus m

July 3rd 2019. In the morning, it was a busy time at my drilled logs. Many leafcutter bees were out, most males dodging from one potenitial nesthole to another, rarely stopping, difficult to photograph and to identify. The males are not looking for sites for themselves, rather hoping that a newly-emerged female will pop out just as he arrives, a preliminary to mating. I was not surprised to note only on cell in the logs was capped with a green leaf, denoting a succesful female nest-0cell.

leafcutter bee Megachile versicolor m

leafcutter bee Megachile versicolor f

leafcutter bee Megachile ligneseca m

leafcutter bee Megachile willoughbiella m

I was delighted to see a cuckoo bee appear later, so elegant, with the female's striped and pointed abdomen. This final appendage is used to cut into cells to lay its egg, where it later develops. This particular species specialises in laying in Megachile versicolor and M. centuncularis nests, both of which are regular here.

cuckoo bee Coelioxys inermis f

cuckoo bee Coelioxys inermis f

cuckoo bee Coelioxys inermis f

The last insect of note was a single ichneumon, moving from hole to another, sensing with ever-moving antennae, searching for a completed nest in which to lay its egg. The long, slender, ovipositor is then inserted and the dirty deed is done.

ichneumon Perithous scurra f

There were very few digger wasps to be seen, which surprised me. Generally, they are the most numerous.

July 2nd 2019. Romey and I drove over to Waldegrave Pool this afternoon, to see if there were better chances of photographing the dragonflies. I had read that the forecast was fine, with a north-west wind, but when we got there, the wind was very similar to the other day, from an easterly direction, so going across to the bay produced absolutely no results. Instead, the open part of the pool, close to the road, proved much more succesful. As we walked back across the dam, the sun came out and dragonflies and damselflies appeared in front. But what proved the luckiest of all was a solitary dragonfly flying across in front, every few seconds dapping the tip of its tail into the water. She was a single Downy emerald, egg-laying. Unusual, because normally the male impregnator hangs onto the female as she carries out this manoeuvre, to prevent anyone else feltilising the eggs. The extraordinary things about these pictures are the perfect reflections below. 

Downy emerald Cordulea aenea f egg-laying

Downy emerald Cordulea aenea f egg-laying

The pond was alive with creatures, Palmate newts Triturus helveticus in their dozens, for which the waters have always been well known, and pond skaters whizzing around to clear up any dead insects.

 Common pond skater Gerris lacustris

July 1st 2019. I had a surprisingly interesting visit to Catcott Lows this afternoon. There is no doubt that having the pond in front of the hide has made the reserve an all-season attraction. Prior to its digging, the area was of little interest during the summer. Cattle were out on the grass, valiently eating their way to clear the area and open it up.

Catcott Lows

While I was there, the farmer visited the herd and numbers of Cattle egrets were driven up by his quad bike. All appeared to be in breeding plumage, so let's hope some have managed to do so this year.

Cattle egrets Bubulcus ibis

A lone harrier appeared and quarted the reeds before vanishing over the roof.

Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus f

But the main characters were geese, Greylags, the final stages of the families raised recently but already dispersing.

Greylag geese Anser anser teenagers

Just before I left, a Linnet started feeding on the seeds of the lush grpowth in front. In spite of them being so common, I have never managed to photograph one before, they have always been too quick.

Linnet Corduelis cannabino imm.


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