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April 2020: wildlife, from the Somerset Levels

April 27th 2020. Checking the trail camera set up by an old badger path, brought some interesting results, although I found I am still not using the features fully and correctly. The tripod needs to be closer to the trail and one or two features need changing. But it was fascinating to find that our young Roebuck spent much of the night in the place, feeding just outside the study. This last picture was timed at just after midnight. A lovely, delicate creature. Using a trail camera brings its own problems and solutions. As a picture emerges on the computer out of the camera, it is grainy and of dubious quality, especially in nightime shots. But there is a way of improving matters. Use your favoured program (Nikon NXD/NX2 in my case) to convert from jpeg to tiff. The improvement is visible immediately, though more has to be done. Jpeg frames reduce in quality every time you make an alteration. Tiff does not. So, normal changes to colour, quality, focus etc. may be applied. The results are considerable, bringing the picture to life. Converting back to jpeg for insertion into the website retains this quality.

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus f

Fox and Badger were also photographed during the night, so there is plenty of activity on that ancient track that has shown vigorous signs of use over all the years we have been here. In late morning, I sat on a garden chair outside the study with its pile of drilled logs. At last there were more signs of activity,  a brief glimpse caught a mason bee visiting one of the associated bamboos, though the expected numbers still were not present. A larger ichneumon settled on a log and started probing with her ovipositor, concentrating so hard she paid no attention to my face looming over her.


ichneumon Ephialtes manifestator f

ichneumon Ephialtes manifestator f

The main activity came from a number of Crossocerus digger wasps exploring existing potential nest-holes. Each year, I wonder whether my reflexes are able to keep up with thes tiny, thread-like black wasps (from 6-9mm long) as they dart from one place to another. Fortunately, I still seem to have the capability, even if concentration and determination lag rather earlier than previously. The key to success is anticipation, but also the astonishing ability of autofocus, even on the Nikon D300/Sigma 180mm f5.6 combination, now many years old.

digger wasps Crossocerus megacephalus

digger wasp Crossocerus megacephalus

digger wasp Crossocerus megacephalus

digger wasp Crossocerus megacephalus

It was fascinating watching another Crossocerus setting up its nest. She emerged from the hole with a mouthful of sawdust; disappeared, then came back. I thought she looked a little strange, then realised the bulk at the back and beneath was her prey, a fly of indeterminate species. Quite often, the only way to pick up the fact you are seeing prey coming in, is the realisation there are two pairs of wings showing. 

digger wasp Crossocerus megacephalus f

digger wasp Crossocerus megacephalus f, with prey

Walking round the garden I photographed another hoverfly, as well as a click beetle.

hoverfly Rhingia campestris m


click beetle Athous haemorrhoidalis

April 24th 2020. A wander round the orchard, with its expanding patch of Ramsons Allium ursinum, paid off well this afternoon. The flowers were just on the edge of shadow, still catching the direct sun for a few minutes more. Andrena labiata males were busy, darting round in a zig-zag path, settling only for the briefest of moments. Still no sign of the females.

mining bee Andrena labiata m

mining bee Andrena labiata m

On another Ramson, a small, quite stocky Lasioglossum emerged from the centre of a flower smothered in pollen, a species I have not seen in the garden previously. It was one of the four metallic-bodied species, this one a lovely deep bronze.

mining bee Lasioglossum leucopus m

As I decided to move on from the Ramsons, my eye was caught by a minute speck hovering close to one of the flowers. More importantly, the camera autofocus latched on to it, and I found myself blowing up the picture on the screen with some excitement. As far as I can judge, it can only be an Anasimyia, the smallest of related species with a distinctive striped thorax, almost exaggerated in this case. Only A. lineata seemed to match the abdominal barring, though not exactly - they are narowly divided usually, but this may be due to the expansion of the segments in flight. I shall have to send a copy to someone in our group who may be able to help. In due course Martin, who has great experience, came back with another identificaion, obvious once you knew, but beyond my knowledge.

Chloropid fly Chlorops spp. f

In an apple tree, Andrena nitida, with its grey-patched abdomen, was busy feeding in the centre of the blossom and made a tidy job of it, the pollen brushing off readily.

mining bee Andrena nitida f

mining bee Andrena nitida f

Colour in the garden is quite marvellous at this time, great areas of grass suffused with bluebells, sadly the Spanish variety Hyacinthoides hispanica but just as beautifully coloured. Many, many years ago Romey was given a single bulb and they have all spread themselves from that. The other colours in the lawn are from a great many primroses Primula vulgaris, both wild and cultivated. They too have spread everywhere over the years. Mow them and they are up again the next day.

April 22nd 2020. The fine days continue, leading to another wander round the garden in search of wildlife. But first, as I sat outside before starting, a House martin Delichon urbica shot past at high speed while, on the opposite edge of my vision, a Hobby Falco subbuteo flew past and out of sight. That so-characteristic shape was not what I had expected, though these little falcons should start gathering over the lakes on our local reserves shortly. One of the most interesting factors in looking over the garden so often is that fresh new species are turning up regularly. A good example is the little, colourful mining bee shown below. A few years back, I planted some Ramsons Allium ursinum bulbs in an area of rough grass in the old orchard. Nothing happened for several years but they have emerged over the last two and are flourishing in a widening patch - such lovely flowers.These bees were concentrated round this patch.

mining bee Andrena labiata m

My 'wander' was characterised by variety. At the bottom of the garden, where there is a small and grown-over patch of water, I found some newly-emerged, ghost-like damselflies. The picture shows one of the more colourful specimens moving towards adult colours.

Variable blue damselfly Coenagrion pulchellum imm., m

Close to this, there was a mass of mixed leaves, all intertwined. On these were masses of Sloe bugs, not seen here in recent years. It was so good to watch them massing, flying from point t-to-point, thoroughly enjoying what we had to offer.

Sloe bug Dolycoris baccarum

Another bug was quite unexpected, said to be coastal, found in sandy areas. I suppose coastal could be expanded to include us, but sandy were are not.

squash bug Corizus hyoscyami

Finally, I was once again fooled by a hoverfly, as I have been in the past. Epistrophe eligans looks superficially so like an Eristalis hoverflly but is in fact in a totally different grouping. It fools me every time when I come to look at my pictures. The insect is really shiny, has a lovely furry thorax and dark tail behind typical Eristalis markings, but it has yellow legs, characteristic of only one of that grouping, not found anywhere near here.

hoverfly Epistrophe eligans f

Later on, I removed the card from the trail camera I set up a week ago outside the study, on an ancient animal track that has always run up and down the garden. I am not really into the inricacies of setting it up, the legs have been cut off in this picture, while I have had to enlarge it somewhat to make a reasonable picture. It is the same buck seen in the picture on the previous day. In fact the camera recorded deer on three previous occasions, but there were no night shots at all. No creatures, or are my settings incorrect?

Roebuck Capreolus capreolus (from trail camera)

April 20th 2020. We woke to find the young Roebuck lying by the side of the old pond again. He was totally relaxed, occasionally looking round, lit by the sunshine, warming himself after a cold night. He stayed for nearly an hour, then vanished. It was so good to keep contact with at least part of the family after all this time.

Roebuck Capreolus capreolus

Today was notable also for the first signs of life at the flats. I went out for my daily session watching for life and spotted a mason wasp vanish down a hole in a log. Ancistrocerus is known for providing first and last dates for nesting over the years.

mason wasp Ancistrocerus nigricornis

I have been through the insect galleries insects in flight and updated them with well over a hundred pictures added from the 2018/19 seasons. I have also been through all bumblebee pictures, weeding out some earlier, lower-quality ones, as well as adding the new season's crop. 

April 15th 2020. The unseasonally beautiful sunny period continues, with little wind. I spent some time in the garden looking for insects. So far, the 'insect flats' have produced nothing. I am not sure why, as several friends report bees energing from theirs. Are my logs and bamboos too old, too rotten, or will this be of benefit later? Certainy, there are no signs of any mason bees Osmia spp. emerging. There are increasing numbers of hoverflies, but flying very fast in these warm conditions.

hoverfly Syritta pipiens f

hoverfly Platycheirus albimanus f

In the end I found myself concentrating on one species, Rhingia campestris. It is not very big, though wider than many others, 7-11mm long, common. It is most notable for having a distinct beak jutting forward from its face. This serves to hold a long, solid proboscis and, an unique feature, a sort of 'hoover' bag that unfolds after the proboscis. This enables it to reach deep into a flower and suck out the nectar. Clearly this works well, because they are so common. The picture below, a very old one and of rather poor quality, does show this in detail (the proboscis buried deep in the flower). Many years ago, I showed this to a room full of expert dipterists and found none had ever spotted this, demonstrating the power of photography to capture minute and unexpected detail.

hoverfly Rhingia campestris f (see 'hoover' bag)

hoverfly Rhingia campestris f

hoverfly Rhingia campestris f

hoverfly Rhingia campestris f

hoverfly Rhingia campestris f (note proboscis extending)

Bumblebees Bombus spp. are still in penny numbers. But, time passed quickly and I had a most enjoyable time, though some of the early flowers are already past their best. It is so easy for insect species to get out of synchronisation with their flower-hosts, a feature of changing climate and seasons. Presumably a process of long-term adjustment of both should take place eventually - we must hope.

April 10th 2020. Although we are locked-in, and have been for some while, we are lucky enough to have a garden. Prior to coronavirus, it had seemed a burden, so much to look after, how could we reduce the work-load? Now, it is a godsend, a lifesaver, a place to sit out and to walk, even if confined. These past few days of glorious weather are continuing, sunshine all day it seems, no wind. I spent over an hour sitting in various spots looking at what is going on outside. Birds are in full flow, dominated by the relentless and, dare I say it, repetiitive song of the Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita but, fortunately balanced out by the glorious singing from a couple of Robins Erithacus rubecula. I wish I knew more garden bird songs, but they are a wonderful accompaniment to life at this time of year. My friend Nigel seems to know every bird that sings, a great gift. The Rooks Corvus frugilegus on our set of nests chat to each other all day, every so often taking off and circling wildly, pumping out even more sound, again a great comfort. My ear was drawn to a really strained sound and watched a Rook being attacked by a Jackdaw Corvus monedula. The Rook's voice grew higher and more urgent, sounding just like somebody who has been nagged beyond the point of no return.

It is a sad fact that, in spite of this lovely weather, there are nothing like the numbers of insects there ought to be. I managed to photograph quite a few, but they needed much searching out. A few years ago, hoverflies and bumblebees would have been swarming. Conditions could not have been better today. The first female Anthophora plumipes appeared on the upper bed, a couple of weeks or so after the first male had arrived. I always think of this species, where male and female look so different, as the symbol of spring.

flower bee Anthophora plumipes f

One or two hoverflies were spotted, but were limited in both species and numbers. I would have expected a great many in these perfect conditions. I really had to wait and search hard for those I did find.

hoverfly Cheilosia scutellata f

hoverfly Rhingia campestris m

hoverfly Platycheirus scutatus 'pregnant' f, full of eggs

hoverfly Eristalis tenax f

In one area of rather scruffy but short grass, it was good to see numbers of mining bees, the majority Lasioglossum calceatum, zig-zagging backwards and forwards. I watched a number of Nomada cuckoo bees searching for mining bee nest-burrows. The Nomada flava identified here surprised me, they are not associated with Lasioglossum, but with several species of Andrena; A. scotica is the main host, definitely found here each year, as is A. nigroaena, together with A. nitida. It gives me an incentive to look for these once more. Cuckoo bees lay their eggs on the larvae of their hosts, hatch, kill them and then use their food store. Most species are rather colourful.

cuckoo bee Nomada flava m

cuckoo bee Nomada flava f, scanning for host nests

Of course there were bumblebees, my favourite subjects, this time of more than one species, followed by my faithful at this time of year, a bee-fly - their presence does not last long and they are the most delightful small creatures. I ended by finding a bug, not the generic name for insects, but the family proper.

bumblebee Bombus hortorum w

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum w

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum m

bee-fly Bombylius major

Green shield bug Nezara viridula

Last night, late, Romey and I saw the so-called 'Pink' moon at last. It was not huge, as I had expected, but most spectacular, a wonderful, deep orange glimpsed through trees. It seems the moon is at its closest to earth at present, certainly memorable.

April 6th 2020. I pulled the curtains in the bathroom, glorious sunshine flooded in and I watched 'our' three roe deer Capreolus capreolus walking down towards the house before disappearing. Romey then saw them down at the front of the house, then vanishing and finally reappearing at the back, disappearing finally into the hazy understorey to the old apple trees. No time for a picture though, but lovely to see. A neighbour told me that they also spend time in her garden nearby, so they have a good choice of venue round here. Later, at the end of the afternoon, the clouds shaded over and I was sitting in my study when I saw a grey shadow pass across the window, moving up to the wilder part above. The deer looked surprisingly sleek, an even grey. We watched from the kitchen as she stood above the pond, looking around. Then she relaxed and settled down on the ground. We looked again later but she had gone once more, disturbing no-one with her passing.

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus f

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus f

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus f

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus f

April 5th 2020. In the last couple of days there has been more bird activity than previously. There are now 15 Rook's nests at the top of the hill, several up on last year. It seems rather late to be constructing them still?

Rook Corvus frugilegus

A Song thrush has appeared again. It only seems to visit us for a short period once a year, culminating with the sight of a thrush with a beak full of caterpillars. These beautiful birds used to be common, now only an annual treat. I watched this one as it had a bath and spent ages preening its feathers until all was as it wanted.

Song thrush Turdus philomelos

Song thrush Turdus philomelos

One of our perenially fat pigeons took its place and thoroughly enjoyed its bath before wandering off on its small legs.

Wood pigeon Palumba columbus

Wood pigeon Palumba columbus

I have been hearing a Raven frequently recently - a sign of breeding nearby?. Today brought confirmation of this. Two of these fine birds flew over, constantly harassed by other crows, in the same manner that buzzards suffer, the smaller birds diving and stooping on their large enemy, who appeared quite put out by it all, twisting and turning to avoid the attention.

Raven Corvus corax

April 4th 2020. Even warmer this afternoon, more insects appearing again - so welcome. The most exciting came about as I was wandering around the garden for some excercise. I saw something dark drop down into a Magnolia flower, one of the large, flask-shaped ones, white with a touch of mauve in parts. Inside, down close to the stamens and anthers was a really dark mining bee searching for a drink. It made a nice picture as it scrabbled its way up the slippery side and out again.

mining bee Andrena nitida

There were one or two bumblebees on the flower beds, Bombus terrestris and a less usual B. jonellus, a heathland species, but seen here previously.

bumblebee Bombus terrestris w

I could not resist photographing some more of the little bee-flies as they searched for nectar. These insects are not the cuddly paragons they appear. Their speciality is collecting sand on their rear end, laying an egg into the mass, then hurling the bundle into a mining bee or bumblebee nest, which they do with great accuracy. These eggs hatch and eat the host's larvae. The insects range from 6mm long to over 12, the smaller ones being males. All the ones seen so far appear to be those. Their wings are reputed to beat at around 200 times per second.

bee-fly Bombylius major

bee-fly Bombylius major

bee-fly Bombylius major

April 3rd 2020. After a slow start, it developed into another fine, warm day with little wind. I left the upper beds and explored the daisies, primroses and primulas growing in our so-called lawn; still looking like the potato field it was during the war.

 

Primroses Primula vulgaris, Daisies Bellis perennis and primulas 

This year there is an extraordinary number of these flowers everywhere, popping up where they have not been seen before. Patches like the picture above are a particular attraction to Lasioglossum calceatum, a mining bee that lives in large numbers on the lawn, producing nests holes like small volcanoes, in two generations a year, Spring and later summer. Each nest hole consists of a deep shaft with a number of cells containing an egg, a pile of pollen, and an eventual bee. Bee-flies Bombylius spp. also appear to have a special attraction to these flowers.

mining bee Lasioglossum calceatum f

mining bee Lasioglossum calceatum f

In the afternoon Romey caught a glimpse of a Roe deer Capreolus capreolus in the garden, but it wandered off and vanished uphill, lost in the ever-increasing pattern of light and shadow as the new leaves appear. It is good to know they are still in the area.

April 2nd 2020. After several days of apparently-suitable weather ruined by icy winds, today showed more promise. It was still sunny, even warm, but the wind had almost died. Time to get out the camera and search the flower beds for insects. A strong high-pitched hum took me to search for the owner, one I knew well, a bee that ought to be here at this particular time of year, even if many of its favourite Lungwort Pulmonaria flowers were looking distinctly past their time. It was  one of the elusive Anthophora plumipes flower bees, a male waiting for a female to emerge, then mate. This behaviour is typical of many bee species.

flower bee Anthophora plumipes m

The next series of pictures are of one of my favourites, a bee-fly, notable for its long, rigid proboscis protruding from its head. This enables it to suck nectar out from even the longer flower-tubes. They are notable for their method of feeding, sucking from the tube but poised hovering in free flight. While they do settle occasionally, often they keep their wings winnowing all the while. the first sight is this small 'helicopter' poised an inch or so away, absolutely stationary, with all but invisible wings whirring away.

bee-fly Bombylius major

bee-fly Bombylius major

bee-fly Bombylius major

bee-fly Bombylius major

There one or two bumblebees around, Bombus pascuorum in the main, but only a couple came close enough for a picture. It was good to be sitting by the flower-beds pitting my wits against these familiar insects.

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum m

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