Autumn 2015 

November 27th 2015. Not a very nice day but time for a long walk with the dog. As we drove by, Richard, a friend of ours, was busy with a huge tracked digger clearing the rhynes and ditches on Tealham and Tadham moors, really necessary in an area with such a high water-table. This offers great opportunities to resident and visiting herons. The peat and vegetation brought up from the channels brings with it a great deal of food, molluscs, eels and the like. Herons may be seen following the diggers like great oversize gulls.

Nowadays, they are often accompanied by Little egrets, Egretta garzetta, their white plumage harsh against the dark fields. Our destination was the Catcott complex, stopping first at Catcott Lows. At first glance it looked empty but a Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinius, swooping down brought a minor eruption of Wigeon.

The falcon did not appear very serious in its attack and settled on a mound of cut weeds but too far off for photography. For some strange reason, the Somerset Wildlife Trust have removed a row of posts in the middle of the field where birds of prey often used to sit, like this  bird, digesting their last meal. This seems to be one with their equally curious move on opening up the covered drove by the second hide. My final picture is of a Carrion crow flying towards and across the hide, too good to miss.


November 26th 2015. Nigel and I drove up to Slimbridge today, as it seemed to be the best of a bunch of wet or overcast days forecast over the next couple of weeks. Unfortunately, the news about the better day had not reached Slimbridge, giving a distinctly glary, contrasty but grey day, with little light, the sort of day that sucks the colour out of everything, as the picture of Wigeon landing shows well

Nigel said he preferred conditions such as this, with flat light, but it definitely does not suit my camera and its operating system. For all that, we had an interesting and varied day and covered almost all of the grounds during the day. I took a great many pictures but spent an evening deleting one after another, leaving few from which to choose.At one point we did hit gold though. A smartly-plumaged Lapwing came close to a hide and enbled a few useful shots. Nigel managed some with the bird pulling worms out of the ground. I contented myself with this shot.

Although it looked like mid-winter, the day was warm but it soon became clear that this balmier weather had not brought in the hordes of birds for which we had been hoping. There were more than during my last visit, but still way behind expectations. This was well illustrated by visiting the hides looking over the Tack Piece. There was little movement up and down or in from the river and few birds on or around the water. We spent some time enjoying a Shelduck preening and washing itself; a really thorough process which went on for ages.

There were a few waders, but far off on the wet grasslands, scarcely visible. White-fronted geese, Anser albifrons., were present in small numbers, and many more Greylag geese, Anser anser, while a few Bewick's swans, Cygnus columbianus, fed in bunches, with groups flying in and out - but there was none of the excitement normally associated with the area. Wigeon, Anas penelope, with numbers of smart Pintail, Anas acuta, were the most numerous, while Shoveler, Anas clypeata, was the most obvious of the rest, but still sparse for the time of year. The most surprising find was a female Red-crested pochard, Anas rufina, sitting by the edge of the water, part-screened by a fringe of grass.

You do not expect to go to Slimbridge to photograph other than waterbirds and birds of prey, but I must enter my photo of a Goldfinch feeding on Teasels near a feeding station close to one of the main hides.

The Southlake hide was equally deserted, except for Black-headed, Larus ridibundus, and a few other gulls, and Tufted ducks, Aythya fuligula, which were flying in and out, rather restlessly. We had expected to see an autumn intake of waders but, apart from numbers of Lapwing, Vanellus vanellus, there were just three  Black-tailed godwits, Limosa limosa.

Later, we walked right out to the Kingfisher hide, which I had never visited before. There was little to see, but it must provide fine views in the nesting season. The nearby Zeiss hide was interesting. The upper floor looks out over the distant river and a rather fine pond closer-in. This was busy with many Wigeon, while Greylag geese grazed in the field below. Out on the river, two Peregine falcons, Falco peregrinus, sat on adjoining posts and, every so often, took off and scared the living daylights out of large flocks of Lapwings and of a great many Golden plover, Pluvialis apricaria.

It may be hell for the waders, but there is nothing more exciting than large flights of these sharp-winged birds. Although far off, they provided a great spectacle and rounded off a fine day out. Nigel was particularly pleased to pick out a small party of Greenland white-fronted geese, Anser flavirostris, he had been hoping to spot, though they were too for off for useful photograpy.

November 22nd 2015. Really cold but with plenty of sunshine. A perfect day, you would think, for a visit to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge. But, sadly, it seems I missed the best. As someone from the Trust said, 'the sharp frost has driven the birds upstream; there were plenty here yesterday'. The story of my life this autumn. Nevertheless, I had an enjoyable time and took a few pictures in spite of it all. Above everything, it was worth the fresh air in such beautiful surrounds. The closest I got to a Bewick's swan was one that flew over the car as I was unloading my kit in the car-park. It seems there are over twenty in the area, but not visible as expected. I also had a close encounter with a Mute swan at much the same time, giving a good comparison.

Of course there were ducks to be seen, particularly both Shelduck and Tufted but the huge numbers of Wigeon I had been expecting were out of sight on the edge of the river. A few Shoveler, Anas clypeata, were dabbling away on the Tack Piece but, in general, the place looked largely empty. I must come again and hope to see them all over the area in front of the first hides.

The one group for which there was no real shortage of individuals, though even these are down in numbers, were the grey geese. The great bulk of these were Greylags, always a welcome sight. In front of the Garnett hide were a scattering of Whitefronts, Anser albifrons, while to one side was a group of Greenland whitefronts, Anser flavirostris, as pointed out by one of the Trust staff, altogether darker. To the best of my knowledge, I had never seen this latter species before.

The final shot is of a Rook. Slimbridge is a good place to photograph these fine birds and their cousins. So, in spite of some disappointments, especially seeing no waders at the South Lake discovery hide, it was well worth the drive. Hopefully later visits will yield more.

November 21st 2015. A drive down Jack's drove shoed that at last the water-table was starting to rise and show up on a particular field on Tadham Moor. This is always the first spot to gauge what is hppening down on our moors. Perhaps now we will start to see the first movements of winter waterfowl?

 

November 18th 2015. A variable day, characterised by some very high winds that persisted throughout. In the morning, weak sun came out for a while, while Romey was out walking Maddie, and I felt a walk would do me good also. I decided to visit Canada Lake, at the western edge of Shapwick Heath. It has been some time since I last visited there and I had been hearing good things about its hide and inhabitants, so the choice was made. The way off the Shapwick road is down a long, straight drove, through beautiful largely untended woods. Deer or other wildlife might have been expected, but nothing moved today. The ever-changing light spot-lit a series of wooded landscapes behind open fields - a wonderful backround.

Some while back, the hide was virtually impossible to reach because of deep water and wet peat, but English Nature has done a first-class job of making a dry but natural-looking path right to the door. The wooden hide is raised above the bank, looking down on a really large sheet of water - old peat diggings - surrounded in part by trees. At one side, skeletal dead trunks rose from the water, providing perching and nesting places for Cormorants, Phalacrocorax carbo, and other water birds.

In front, some bright soul had fixed a dead branch into the bank, which projected a few feet in front of the vegetation and just below the hide openings. This was a major reason for my visit. It seems this perch is used regularly by Kingfishers, Alcedo atthis, as a diving platform. Sadly, they did not appear during my visit. Indeed, what few duck there were remained mainly far over the other side, though a few Wigeon flew closer once, obliging with a photograph.

However, all was not finished. A dark mark appeared briefly in front of the hide, though rather distant, as the sun had vanished into dark clouds. On further emergance, an Otter swam right across the front and into the reeds on one side, giving views of it diving and emerging, head up. The considerable length of body and tail, often confused by the water flowing past the end, always makes the animal look small in the frame, the main emphasis being on the head usually held at an angle. It was so pleasing to see this creature, even if for such a short period. It is always exciting, wherever it occurs.

November 14th 2015. I have now completely revised the section on Hymenopteran insects at the logs and flats. Many pictures have been subsituted and new ones added to give a better idea of the rich variety of insects that have been identified at the nest holes. Pictured species currently number 57, while total species seen stand at 68. No doubt many more than this represent the true figures. Without trapping everything that went in or out, we will never know. I would never do this, as my enjoyment lies with the sheer fun in watching them as they live their lives. To visit the revised section, please click on hymenopteran insects.

November 7th 2015. Today, Nigel and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Worcestershire Entomology Day at Rock village hall near Bewdley, starting at 10 am. This event, run in conjunction with the Wyre Forest Study Group for 16 years, has become a Mecca for those interested in insects and invertebrates from the area, and much further afield. It attracts first-class speakers and always leaves you with much to think about. A talk on the Potter wasp, Eumenes coarctatus, a couple of years ago, prompted two special visits to see these fascinating creatures.

We saw many friends at the meeting, including Peter and Gareth from the Nature Photographic Society, Una from our group and Nigel from BWARS and Shropshire. Networking is an important part of meetings such as this.

The key speaker was Paul Brock, author of the best-selling ‘Insects of Britain and Ireland’, notable for the large number of species the author has photographed. His excellent talk was on how many of the rarer species had been researched before photographing them, revealing how much effort and time goes into this. A much more local talk was by John Bingham, on finding Snow fleas in the area. A virtually unknown species proved to be there but, it seems, no-one is quite sure where they fit into the classification – fleas or Scorpion flies, Boreidae? It seems the question is still open. Caroline Uff gave an interesting talk on Soldier beetles, Cantharidae. It seems they are easier to identify than we had thought, as well as having many species. I shall be taking more interest in these in the future as they are found all over the flowers during the summer months.

Other talks covered the tree canopy and efforts to find out what lives there; a plea for more recorders for Worcestershire; and a fascinating one by Kevin McGee on insect photography, or rather how to behave in the field, looking for that special habitat wherever you go, full of common sense and practicality. A splendi day, with special thanks to Rosemary Winnall and the committe who have been running this for so long. I look forward to next year.

November 6th 2015. People may be wondering why news of wildlife and the Somerset Levels is sparse at present, given days without any reports. The reasons are twofold - and connected. First, it is an in-between season. Insects have largely vanished, while the winter influx of wildfowl and wetland birds has not yet taken place. Presumably this is because the days are unseasonably warm, though autumn colouring is in widespread evidence. The second, and connected factor, is that I have taken the opportunity given by this lull to re-design the website completely. This is by no means complete; I will report when it reaches the final stages. Basically, I have changed the sizes of the pictures to give a better balance between text and photographs. I am also replacing less than satisfactory pictures in some of the factual sections. I hope it will be easier to read on the screen when finished.

November 1st 2015. Looking out of the bathroom this morning, I spotted a lone Fieldfare by the pond. Usually, this does not happen except in poor weather, later in the winter. But the day is warm, though misted over. A welcome sight.

October 31st 2015. Although it was warm today, very warm, there are signs that the cold and wet months are coming. The Starling flocks are increasing and the first Lapwings flew over, though still in small numbers - the turning point perhaps?

October 28th 2015. A star day. On the way to Westhay Moor, what looked like a familiar shape caught my eye on a gate on Tealham. I stopped the car as gently as I could and what I took to be a Common buzzard, Buteo buteo, turned its head and displayed a pair of ear feathers. I had managed to get quite close to the Short-eared owl without disturbing it and took numerous pictures. The last time I had seen one of these splendid birds was 1979, when three were present for much of the winter near the same spot. Those amazing yellow eyes! Definitely a day to be remembered.

From there I made my way to Westhay Moor, the Lake hide, but there was little activity, though a Kingfisher, Alcedo atthis, dashed across in front at its usual bullet-like speed, and a Bittern, Botaurus stellaris, briefly lifted out of the reeds and over the tree line. The few ducks that appeared were distant and all Gadwall, Anas strepera. On the private reseve opposite, numbers of Canada geese livened the atmosphere and I photographed a lone Greylag.

Autumnal colours are starting to strengthen at last, and leaves fill the lanes. Westhay has its own display of these.


October 12th 2015. My first visit of the autumn to Greylake reserve was not what I expected. Once again due to the unseasonably warm weather. In spite of quite a bit of rain, it does not appear to have filled the crumbs of the soil and overflowed anywhere. For much of the time, on a beautiful morning with lots of sun, nothing much moved. There were few duck and just the odd Common snipe. Then someone spotted a Kingfisher hovering in front of the hide and I managed a rather distant shot - what a beautiful bird.

The final picture, taken as heavy clouds came over, summed up the visit, a few Wigeon dropping in against the dark sky which looked like winter but was in fact still warm.

October 2nd 2015. Woke up to find a dead pigeon on the drive, no sign of anything wounding it, and everything covered in the brilliant colours of autumn.

Later, I drove down to Westhay Moor, the Lake hide, in a morning of autumnal mists. Our high water-table makes this a hazard each spring and autumn but they are also times of great beauty. As I had feared, since it has been so unseasonably warm recently (15°c), there were next to no birds on the lake for much of the time.

Just as I was about to leave, a Marsh harrier put in a distant visit, and then a Cormorant flew straight in towards me, to give some spectacular views. 

Driving back, I diverted to Tealham moor and had some splendid views of this heron fishing in a rhyne.

October 2ist 2015. This morning I received an e-mail from Toddy, a friend living near Exeter in Devon, following earlier remarks on the website.
“I was interested to read some of your comments in your bush-cricket account. I have the impression that this year has been poor for many insects, especially butterflies and bumblebees. Of the latter, Bombus terrestris and B. lapidarius have been almost absent, I have only had a single queen of each in the garden so far this autumn, and only B. pascuorum are hanging on by their wing-tips, an occasional one being about on sunny days. (in previous years some bumblebee colonies have continued throughout the winter in thse parts of Devon) Other bees and 'common' wasps have been a bit more frequent than last year, but no Colletes hederae around the ivy (a mining bee that has colonised Britain in the last few years). A walk along the coast at the start of the month showed a few of these on ivy, but nothing like the usual hordes at this time of year.
The bindweed has put on a good show here, but there doesn't appear to be much interest in it by insects. When I visited my son in Spain last April, they have a fine show of arum lillies and it was interesting to see that there were 4 or 5 beetles, similar to our Rosechafers, Cetonia aurata, pushing and shoving each other in all the blossoms as if there was some 'goody' at the base of the spadix.“
So, it is not just Somerset feeling these trends. 

October 20th 2015. A splendid sunny day out on the moors, though much colder than previously. The roadside ditches and posts are becoming much more populated at last – a sure sign that the year has really turned.Herons, Ardea cinerea, fish in the same place most days and are easier to reach than they were, but the Little egrets, Egretta garzetta, are as tricky as ever. They really do not seem to like humans. Our juvenile buzzard seems to spend a great deal of time sitting on a low tree some distance from the road. It is still has not lost the uncertain feathers of earlier times on its head, though the rest of it seems fully fledged.

I was lucky enough to spot a fine female kestrel as she took off from a post beside Jack’s Drove. Instead of flying off, she started hovering in just the right position for photography. The pictures show how the head remains in the same position, regardless of the action of the wings – a natural form of ‘vibration reduction’, as found on most modern cameras, ensuring a steady view of the ground below.

October 7th 2015. An afternoon visit to Westhay Moor NNR revealed what I had suspected. It was really too early for the expected winter wildfowl to have arrived. It was a lovely afternoon with a fitful breeze but there was very little to be seen. An early Shoveler drake was still in much of the eclipse plumage, otherwise the few ducks present were Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos.

I was disappointed and pleased to hear that an Otter, Lutra lutra, had been seen a few minutes before my arrival - but no luck while I was there.

The journey back gave a couple of surprises though. A young and still fluffy buzzard was perched on a tree near Jack's Drove, allowing some photographs before eventually flying off.

Then, a splendid close-up of a heron ended the afternoon perfectly, better than expected.

October 6th 2015. A walk up the drove at Catcott Heath revealed how sparse were the insects, in spite of some fine weather. All that are left, are the remnant flies hanging on. Flowers are really few and far between in this type of habitat. The occasional umbel had a population of Greenbottles, Calliphoridae, and Flesh-flies, Muscidae, together with various Eristalis hoverflies, which seem to be the first and last of every season.

But the most important flowers were the large white bells of Bindweed, Calystegia sepium, climbing through the other, mainly green, plants. Almost every flower held Rhingia campestris, taking advantage of this last nectar source. The odd Helophilus pendulus had also found this and was busy feeding.


We enjoyed our outing, and I am sure there will be other days yet, but there is a sad feeling, to all intents and purposes, of being the end of the season. Soon, this diary will be celebrating the winter birds again.

I must apologize to everyone who reads this piece, since it has been interrupted so much – pictures not following the article entries until much later. The fact is that my broadband has been intermittent for more than three months now and is still not sorted out, though the end looks as if it may be near. My host-provider tells me that the matter is beyond them, dependent on a monopoly service that provides the lines, and maintains them. This latter service tells me that there is no outstanding fault being reported. I have been caught in the middle, with nothing happening while my broadband comes and goes for no apparent reason, sometimes for days on end, at other times allowing me a window of half an hour or so to enter the current content. All that is needed, it seems, is a short length of wire to replace one many, many years old which has been affected by weather and aging. I pray that the two organizations sort out their problems and think about who is the customer.

September 30th 2015. Greeted by flights of Greylag geese, Anser anser, shouting their way across the sky over the car-park, it seemed a good omen, instead I enjoyed a day with different birds – more ordinary, less exotic. The first hide after the optical shop, produced a wonderful period watching a Grey heron emerging from the reeds and working its way across the water, bending down, intent, then striking but only bringing up the tiniest of fish. Somehow a heron looks out of place. The usual noise and constant movement of ducks appears to drive them away. I have only seen a couple before over many years visiting here.

 

 


Then, this heron was joined by another, a Little egret working its way along and under the bank. The dead white of its plumage always challenges the camera meter. Intriguing as ever, the yellow feet always look strange; set, like shoes, against dark legs, only seen when walking.

One exotic species was present though; a pair of Ruddy shelduck, full-winged, so delicately coloured, but definitely alien. I was delighted to see them swimming around, the sun changing the colours on their plumage.

While there were one or two other species, Common teal were the majority of the ducks – present in some numbers dotted around the water’s edge and in the fields opposite. These small ducks spend much of their time in shallow water, dozing for much of the time, so delicately plumaged.

Just to complete the day, a couple of Common cranes, Grus grus, were spotted in the distance, one looking as if it was from this year’s brood.

September 29th 2015. Catcott Heath was our afternoon walk today, always enjoyable though the acres of reeds on the fen have not yet sprung to life as in due course they must. Our way took us on through the woods where I was delighted to spot one or two Rose bedeguar galls, nowadays not as common as they once were. This gall is caused by a small cynipid wasp, shown below, and is a potential home to a host of parasites and inquilines, described elsewhere on the site.

An ichneumon was a surprising find in view of the paucity of insects at this late time of year. The long antennae are used to sense the chemical smells of its prey, larvae hidden in stems and holes in wood.

Finally, it was good to find a sawfly. Normally, we expect to find many, particularly in August and September, but this year that period yielded few. They are such variable insects, few resembling each other. The only way is to look hard and remember they may look like wasps, but have not got a wasp-waist.

September 26th 2015. Robert, Martin and I met at Robert’s workshop in Stoke sub Hamdon, at mid-morning of what turned out to be a warm and sunny day, a pleasant change from the cold, windy weather of recent times. We were here with a definite plan in mind; to search for Roesel’s bush-crickets. This spectacular-looking creature used to be a considerable rarity but, in recent years has spread widely. Robert and Martin had been following this and had found many colonies in the area. I was most anxious to have close look and try to take some pictures. It seems they are active in warm weather late into autumn. To help with the search, Robert brought along his bat-detector, proving invaluable in the search as all of us have lost the ability to hear their real-life calls, an inevitable factor of age.

The way led us up Ham Hill with its spectacular views, to the country park on the top, crowned by a still-working quarry producing the beautiful honey-coloured Ham stone for which it is famous. We drove past the main entrance into a big field where our quarry had been numerous a week or so ago, but now there was no sign of them. Sheep had been let into the area and could have been responsible for driving out the many bush-crickets and coneheads present previously. There were stands of dead grass and clumps but the young grass between had been taken right down. I would never have believed they had this effect so quickly or that this would affect insects so badly.

The next place was even further, a narrow track leading downhill. After parking on the road, we had a great time strolling along the track between banks of bramble and bracken. The bat-detector picked out numbers of Long-winged coneheads all along the path and, among them, the odd Roesel’s, but they stayed invisible. Just before a gate into the reserve, we stopped by a bank with mainly grass cover. This must have been cleared completely earlier in the year, to plant a few shrubs along the top, and had left quite long but not too dense grass. Here the cricket sounds were strong and I found myself looking at this glossy, colourful insect with an inverted white ‘C’ edging its side, well worth the wait. Long-winged coneheads formed a solid background to the sounds in the bat-detector wherever we went.

At this point we noticed a number of small black and yellow-banded solitary wasps flying in and dropping down beneath the cover. Then we noticed that the majority were flying in carrying flies slung beneath them. I could not make out other than that they were digger wasps, possibly Ectemnius. Later examination of the pictures showed they were all Mellinus arvensis, another species of digger wasp. Last year, at much the same period, we found another such colony of the same species, in very similar circumstances, with long sparse grass hiding the nest holes in the soil. I remember how difficult it was to pin down the location of the nests. Here, we never did find any nests, though clearly this was their location. Their prey were large and bulky and the strain on the insects was obvious. They flew in, settled on a leaf for some while, re-arranging the prey, before dropping straight down like small boys in a swimming pool. I hope to show the pictures to a dipterist to see if we can get the prey-flies identified. Although they look like members of a community, the wasps are all solitary, simply finding similarly suitable nest-housing in close proximity to each other. I could have spent all day with the wasps, but we wanted to visit at other parts of the park and check further for the crickets.

We lunched beside the track near the pub at the top of the hill, then followed a track to the quarry itself. This track was edged with a low cliff to one side. The multi-coloured surface of rock and lichen was shimmering with heat and attracting a population of Field and other grasshoppers, as well as various spiders. We found our way up to the field atop the rock face, a plateau of mixed grassland, with some of the most stunning views ever, across miles of beautiful rolling countryside. A search of this area eventually brought a number of Roesel’s, as well as masses of Long-winged coneheads providing a background of sound on the bat-detector. By 4pm, insect activity was in decline and home called, after a first-class day out.

September 24th 2015. Came in for a bit of lunch and noticed an unfamiliar bird outside the kitchen window, clearly a wagtail but with gentle grey and yellow plumage. Never before have we seen a Grey wagtail in the garden or indeed on the surrounding moors, so it was an interesting find. She paid little attention to the pair of us, but was gone later in the afternoon.

September 22nd 2015. The yellow daisy plant is all but on its way out, but one flower remains. This was still attracting bees in the warm sunlight. A cuckoo bumblebee spent ages on this, seeming to warm itself against the bright yellow rays.

A late leafcutter bee posed beautifully also, allowing me to catch it through the lens as it lifted off. I suspect this is the last of the bees for the year though.

A black hoverfly with unusual spotted eyes caught my eye, sitting on a Common fleabane, Pulicaria dysenterica. We see this most years at this time.


Going through insect photographs taken over this season, I came across this. It is of one of the picture-wing flies, though not certain which, with what I think is an egg of a parasitic wasp protruding from its thorax – something I have never seen previously. If anyone can help with further identification of egg or insect, I would be glad to hear from them. I have now heard from John M. who tells me it it is a larval case of a mite. He found pictures on a website.

September 19th 2015. A surprisingly productive period spent in front of the drilled logs at home, brought a most interesting find. One of the small black digger wasps turned out to be Crossocerus styrius. I have seen this wasp at our logs in a previous year even though the books query whether it does or does not inhabit holes in wood. A series of pictures clearly shows the pale ring at the end of the scape and the pale joints at the end of the tibiae that are it’s characteristic.

Also present was yet another Crossocerus annulipes, which delighted me and confirmed it was a regular visitor at this time of the year.

Finally, to complete the watch, a single Ancistrocerus nigricornis turned up, exploring one of the logs. Normally, this mason wasp is a regular visitor to the flats but this is only the second specimen to be spotted this year, the previous one being the first of all the insects. What has happened to them?

Ectemnius continuus was still present, confirming that they appear to have had a really successful year, both here at the logs and out in the wild on mainly white flower-heads, such as umbels.


September 18th 2015. Walking over Chilton Moor confirmed what I had suspected. Most of the interesting insects have virtually finished their existence on what few wild flowers are still blooming. The only two hoverflies spotted were the two shown below. Otherwise, most were blow-flies, Calliphoridae, or greenbottles, Muscidae, still swarming on the few umbels that were producing nectar and pollen.


September 16th 2015. It seems that birds are coming back into the agenda, after a prolonged summer of insect photography. I walked up one of the droves on Tadham Moor, leading to the North Drain. Driving there, a Grey heron allowed me to stop close to where it was feeding and I grabbed a few interesting shots.


Then, as we got out of the car, a Kestrel flew close overhead and landed in a nearby tree, staying put as I walked slowly towards it, right out in the open. It is a delight to see on of the these birds, once so common but now rare, out on the open moor.

Finally, on the way home, a buzzard flew into a bush close to the road and allowed its portrait – a trio of my favourite moorland birds.

 

September 10th 2015. Today was the time of the final SIG informal field meeting of the year, a sad moment, but the events of the the day proved that we could not go on much longer. Tony, Úna, Margaret, Dave, John and I met up in the large car-park on the southern side. The meeting, arranged by Úna, was at Aylesbeare nature reserve, on the Sidmouth road outside Exeter. Before we started, Úna gave us a brief overview of this important heathland, part of a much larger area of the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Much of it is a mixture of dry and wet heathland with heathers and gorse the most obvious plants – the heather out in glorious colour during our visit.

Wall to wall sunshine greeted us and remained all day but a sharp wind curled round you wherever you went, seemingly changing to frustrate any hope of a sheltered spot. Partly as a result of this, the insects were largely absent, or present in single figures. I know it is late in the season but, where we found a bare, sheltered area with only young plants, there were more insects to be found.

The area is largely flat, with undulating edges. Sandy paths run though it, looking perfect edge habitat for bees and wasps, but the only sign of nest holes was a newly-cleared area where a few small hymenopterans were buzzing round, though not settling. They were a mixture of small mining bees, some solitary wasps and spider-hunters.

We walked up a farm drive and struck off right, then later over to the left or western edge. Our way ended at a series of beautiful small ponds that had been excavated in clay subsoil, all holding water perfectly. We had lunch on the first, which had an extensive board-walk or jetty and watched Emperor dragonflies, Anax imperator, and Migrant hawkers, Aeshna mixta, flying up and down along the edges. What was unexpected was to see the wonderfully-coloured Emerald damselflies, Lestes sponsa, on the ponds. I believe they are still comparatively rare.

While eating lunch we had a real privilege; a Hobby flew overhead and landed on a nearby dead tree, settling on the very top, eating a large dragonfly. I only had a short macro lens but managed to take a better picture than I had thought likely. When, eventually, it lifted off, it sailed close overhead before disappearing but I was not able to focus in time.

The grasshopper family was not obvious, though  Meadow grasshopper, Chorthippus parallelus; and Mottled grasshoppers, Myrmeleotettix maculatus, were seen. Bog bush-cricket was found but it was dull-coloured and well-camouflaged. On the Levels they tend to be a bright green. Perhaps that reflects the colours of the herbage?


Three different bugs were photographed; Gorse shield-bug, Piezodorus lituratus; Forest bug, Pentatoma rufipes; and Picromera bidens with its sharp, pointed shoulders.

I only saw three bumblebees, of which the most surprising was Bombus barbutellus, a cuckoo, which was as numerous as any species. The other two were Bombus hortorum and B. pascuorum.

I was rather doubtful about a possible B. jonellus, though it is a perfect habitat for this species. Apart from the usual Eristalis tenax, hoverflies were all but absent. A single Scaeva pyrastri, was watched hunting through the prickly stems of gorse just as we were leaving. Hervestmen turned out to be one of the most numerous groups, appearing to be floating above the ground as they walked.

Thanks to Martin for suggesting an identification for this fantastically-coloured fly. While I generally leave much of that group, I could not resist this one or its resting place - heather pods after flowering.

September 6th 2015. A good part of the morning was spent in front of my 'flats', the drilled logs in particular were watched with interest. It was good to see that there was still some activity, though much reduced. Pemphredon was still searching for suitable nest sites in the mid-sized holes, looking polished and extremely smart. There was little sign of the small black digger wasps that had been so busy a week or so back, always so industrious, flying in and out of the tiny holes into which it appears impossible to squeeze their body, yet even manage to turn round on their way out. It is always sad when this activity slows and stops, a sure sign of the end of my insect summer.

I took a number of photographs of a particularly well-marked Ectemnius and was fascinated to find, on blowing the pictures on the computer, that she was carrying a paralysed fly beneath her body. This was a bulky insect and shows how powerful insects such as the wasps have to be. The prey was being stuffed into the nest hole to provide fresh meat when its egg hatches.

The last picture of the morning was of a very tiny wasp a few millimetres long, taken just to see what it was. She turned out to be a parasitic wasp, a chalcid, seen here before, but only rarely. Part of the trouble is that she is so small, and has a habit of concealing herself as rapidly as possible. These little chalcids are parasitic on megachilid coccoons, as well as those of butterflies.

After lunch I wandered up to look at our large daisy plant which has been attracting so many bees but, sadly, the flowers are all over for the year. A few days ago, there were a few leafcutter bees sitting glued to the remains of flowers, looking inert and shrammed with the cold. But now, nothing. However, the next-door Hibiscus plant was in full flower and apparently as attractive to bees as the other. It is a strange plant, half has white flowers with purple hearts and insect guides, while the other half has pinky-purple flowers. Only the white ones appeared to attract the bees though. There were no leafcutters; their season appears to have finsihed, with no sign of them at the logs either. Small solitary bees were present in some numbers when the sun came out for a few minutes. The greeny-copper colour of Lasioglossum morio was particularly noticable and attractive in full sunshine.

The other relatively abundant bee was L. leucozonium, the black skin and white bands on the gaster catching the eye as it brightened up. They appear more exotic than they are, for they are a common species normally.

 

It was good to find a few bumblebees  visiting the flowers also. Most were Bombus pascuorum, with one or two other unidentified species still surviving  as the pollen-bearing flowers gradually disappear. I hope it is not the final fling for the year's more interesting insects. I feel we have not been given a fair crack of the whip this season. The bumblebee below looks very like B. muscorum but there are a few black hairs which give it away.

September 5th 2015. It was very pleasant today, spending part of the morning sitting by the flats and later exploring a splendid Hibiscus bush out in full flower, though the weak sun did not do much to encourage the bees. Nevertheless I was particularly interested to see my first sighting of the year for Crossocerus annulipes with the pale yellow underneath to its scape, a distinctive feature. It has been seen before at the logs but it is an uncommon event.


In the afternoon, the Hibiscus yielded Lasioglossum leucozonium and some late Bombus pascuorum bumblebees, males hoping for more than just a drink of nectar.

September 1st 2015. A few of us decided to go and have a look at Chudleigh Knighton heath, near our previous visit to Bovey heath, and very similar in character over a considerable part of the area. Una, Margaret, Dave and I were interested in anything we could see but were hoping to see the rare and handsome ant, Formica exsecta, for which it was know, as well as, perhaps, a Potter wasp, Eumenes coarctatus, but no luck for either. My memories going back many years for this same place, could not reconcile these ants without an open, bare track along the edge of which they had their many nests. No such habitat appears to exist here. Indeed the tracks at Bovey heath seemed more suited, although we were told the ants were no longer found there. When I visited Bovey heath many years ago, the place was alive with a great many species of common and rare ants. The reason, I was told by world experts, was the presence of a motor-cycle scramble track along the edges of which they were all found. This sandy edge perfectly suited the ants. Both the track and the ants are now long gone.

Toddy, as usual, was deeply involved in his spiders though, because of the variety of lay-bys for parking, we did not meet up with him until lunch. Considering that more than half our time was spent in bright, warm sunshine, we were surprised that so little was flying or present. However, as will emerge later, there was one moment of real excitement during the day.

The most interesting hoverfly was Myathropa florea, so bright and handsome; otherwise I only spotted a few Syritta pipiens, a single Sphaerophoria scripta and the usual Eristalis tenax and pertinax.

A dark small fly caught my eye on a flower head and I took its picture, wondering what it might be. The computer revealed a mass of bristles and the fact that she was probably full of eggs. It is amazing what a sharp lens picks out from an amorphus mass with little shape or colour at first glance.


There were at least four bumblebee species but only Bombus pascuorum and B. jonellus were definitely identified, the others were too distant. B. pascuorum was perhaps the commonest of any of the insects, busy feeding on Heather, Calluna vulgaris and other flowers. There were also a good few Honeybees covering themselves in heather pollen.

Much of the area was open heath, with Heather, Bell heather, Erica cinerea and Gorse, Ulex spp. the most prominent plants. The heathers were in full bloom and it all looked quite beautiful. It should have been perfect conditions for invertebrate life, though there was little to be seen.

The next two pictures show the differing colours between pollens. I presume the orange pollen comes from Gorse and the neutral, pale pollen from Heather, though it was not certain. Elsewhere, I have seen blue pollen on bumblebees.


Considering the time of year, and with some justification, we were hoping we would see many grasshoppers, but they were little in evidence. However, walking along a track between banks of heather and gorse, I glanced down at something dark on my pale trousers. It was a large bush-cricket, with a really prominent curved white mark on its side. With that, it leapt off and out of sight, leaving me with a distinct but fleeting impression. There is no doubt it was a Roesel’s bush-cricket, Merioptera roeselii; a species I have never seen before, though it is spreading across the country quite vigorously. Other Orthoptera were a single Dark bush-cricket Pholidoptera griseoaptera, a Meadow grasshopper Chorthippus parallelus, and a Long-winged conehead.

Walking back through a rather scraggly wood, our final sighting was a black beetle sitting on the very top of a young oak tree. What was a Bloody-nosed beetle doing there, as it is a flightless insect with the wing-cases sealed together?

I know the day does not seem very exciting but we thoroughly enjoyed being outside in such splendid surrounds. Lunch, taken on a bench set in an open meadow, lasted longer than ever, as we had not seen each other for some while, and a great deal of natural history and other matters were discussed.


 

Summer 2015

 

 

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