July 2017 - from the Somerset Levels

July 26th 2017. The garden has been more lively recently as a family of Green woodpeckers have taken it over. It started with a grown-up and a single baby appearing, with the youngster carefully shepherded and fed by the adult, now the two immature woodpckers have become really adventurous, exploring everywhere on their own, the parents only appearing when they want to feed, not acting as nursemaids.

Green woodpeckers Picus viridis imm.               © robin williams

Every year we are visited by a similar family, ocurring over many, many years - a joy to see. I do not hunt for nests and have never had a clue where they come from but hope they will continue in the future. 

Green woodpecker Picus viridis imm.                                                                            © robin williams

During the last year or so, the birds have been seen clinging to the side of tree-trunks and searching, an unusual habit for these birds, usually feeding on ants in the ground, of which there are enormous numbers here. (They have been swarming in the last few days, both in and out of the house).

Lasius niger females & males in house                © robin williams

For some while now, we have watched a rather sad-looking Rook wandering around the garden on its own, often under the bird-feeders. Earlier the place was alive with young families from the nine nests within the area, a bedlam of movement and noise. Our current rook seems to be a remnant, without a family, silent, stalking around alone.

Rook Corvus frugilegus                                          © robin williams

July 25th 2017. For some while there has been a void in this diary while I worked on a large gallery, copying pictures from the computer, processing them and entering them into the website - a lengthy and intricate process at best. At last they are completed and the results may be viewed. A year ago I decided that my early efforts in the gall insect gallery were not up to scratch. Since then, these have been removed and many more dug out from the files to provide a more comprehensive coverage of 200 images. All the insects portrayed are small, the least under 1.5mm and the larger ones 5 or 6mm long (measured without any extenal ovipositors). It is a fascinating field, demanding of technique but rewarding, with some of the wonderful colours, intricate shapes and delicate bristles which are revealed. See Gall insect galleries for a closer look. This  morning was spent perched on a rather uncomfortable stool in front of our drilled logs. It was not that there was much activity but what there was, was classy. I had hoped to see numbers of the little black Crossocerus wasps but these were largely absent, as they have been for much of the time recently.

digger wasp Crossocerus spp.                               © robin williams

I thought I was seeing a very small species of digger wasp but, excitingly, they turned out to be solitary bees, Hylaeus. The particular species present is found normally in and around hollow plant stems, but it has been found on our logs previously, so perhaps this type of nest habitatat ought be added? Females have small whitey-yellow marks next to the eyes, this particular species is characterised by really small ones. The males of all species have much more extensive marks, looking like facial shields in the field, making them very distinctive.

solitary bee Hylaeus brevicornis f                       © robin williams

Most of my time was devoted to watching a leafcutter bee finishing off a nest-hole by sealing it with a fresh green leaf. Clearly this not a simple case of cutting and pasting in a quick operation. The insect took ages to get it exactly the way it wanted. It involved more than just cut and glue, it looked as if quite a deal of chewing and sticking was involved, leaving a slightly domed cover fitting perfectly. The twisting and turning involved had to be seen to be believed. It is a real privilege to be allowed such close glimpses of intimate periods such as this.

leafcutter bee Megachile centuncularis f            © robin williams

leafcutter bee Megachile centuncularis f            © robin williams

leafcutter bee Megachile centuncularis f            © robin williams

leafcutter bee Megachile centuncularis nest      © robin williams

The final sighting was of a mason wasp which I had not seen for a couple of years or more. Prior to this, Ancistrocerus nigricornis had been really common at the flats, the first of the coloured wasps seen in the year as well as the last. Welcome back, but what happened to make it vanish?

mason bee Ancistrocerus nigricornis                  © robin williams

mason bee Ancistrocerus nigricornis                  © robin williams

July 20th 2017. Had a brief look at the logs this morning. The only thing going on was a single leafcutter bee busy working on the final stages of her nest-hole. It had not yet reached closure but must have been still constructing the fianl cell. Her pollen brush was full when she arrived, so she was almost ready to lay her egg. I had to leave at that stage but clearly it is the season I had been expecting at this time.

leafcutter bee Megachile centuncularis f            © robin williams

In the afternoon I took Maddie for a walk down to the southern edge of Chilton Moor, a favourite spot duing the drier seasons of the year - it can be very muddy and difficult to negotiate. Early, it became clear that it was the time for the thistles to bloom, with the odd one appearing in the hedges and edges. Round the main corner on the drove, these increased in numbers, culminating in a large patch of Meadow thistles Cirsium dissectum. These plants were busy with numbers of bumblebees, mainly Bombus terrestris. After rather a dirth of bumbles over the early summer, it is good to see them in abundance in some parts.

leafcutter bee Megachile centuncularis f            © robin williams

July 13th 2017. I had a morning free, so decided to visit the RSPB reserve at Ham Wall. It turned out a strange visit, noisy and crowded, but enjoyable. Two busloads of schoolchildren were busy disembarking when I arrived and soon spread themselves in parties throughout the reserve. They were impecably behaved, with a fine attitude to other visitors, but inevitably carried with them a great deal of noise - clearly enjoying themselves. It was good to see them having fun while also listening carefully to what their teachers were telling them about the wildlife. I had hoped to see Bitterns Botaurus stellaris flying around but once again was disappointed. Are the increasing numbers of visitors making them shyer? After all they have miles of water and reeds in which to hide themselves. The first bird spotted from the island hide was a fine fmale Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus sailing round  in the distance, too far for a decent picture. A Dabchick, or Little grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis, popped up opposite where I was sitting - what colourful birds they are.

Little grebe, or Dabchick, Tachybaptus ruficollis                                                        © robin williams

This area has always been a gathering point for pochard Aythya ferina. The water depth and composition must suit them perfectly. A group in their eclipse colouring swam round as if attached by string. Still in their dull eclipse plumage, they were instantly recognisable by their shape.

Common pochard  Aythya ferina                                                                                    © robin williams

Every so often, Cormorants Phalacrocorax carbo flew over, searching for quiter, less-disturbed areas. They have lost their distinctive breeding plumage with the white spot on the flank and look more satanic against the sky. I was carying my new 100-400mm Sigma lens and thought I would see how it performed close-up, with the full range of focussing available. It turned out really well as may be seen from the following pictures, some of which were taken without the steadying influence of a monopod, though I had one with me. It is a first-rate performer with quite small insects, adding another swathe of picture-taking possibilities, all with a single, highly versatile lens.

Common blue damselflies                       Enallagma cyathigerum 

© robin williams

hoverfly Eristalis sepulchralis m                         © robin williams

bumblebee  Bombus pascuorum                          © robin williams

Peacock butterfly  Inachis io                                  © robin williams

July 12th 2017. A walk down Jack's Drove over lunch confirmed what I had ben thinking recently. While there were many muscid Muscidae, Tachinidae or Calliphoridae, there was remarkable little else to be seen. The umbels were covered in these flies, giving the impression of great activity, but the majority were of one or two species. There were no hoverflies - the most noticeably absent being the various drone-flies Eristalis spp. which are so visible in a 'normal' year, if such exists.

Muscid & other flies on umbel, Muscidae etc                                                                © robin williams

I did find a Harlequin ladybird, predator on other ladybirds, but that was all. It appears that very few of the various other ladybirds are seen nowadays - they used to be so common.

Harlequin ladybird Harmonia axyridis             © robin williams

July 11th 2017. A most confusing morning. Our invertebrate group was due to meet at Worley Hill, the splendid private reserve run by Millfield School on the Polldens. Weather forecasts had been fluctuating wildly for some days and I picked the wrong time to look, so people cried off, but I went. The noble Nigel met Shane and I just as the first light drizzle started! Surprisingly, although it went on to rain much more heavily, we had an interesting and enjoyable short visit, enlivened by the usual chat between people interested in the same subject. This was one of many visits we have paid at the kind invitation of Shane sand his predecessors. The reserve is extremely well managed and has been transformed by long-term clearing, pollarding and planning, into a quite amazing place for wilddlife, and includes a very interesting annual report to the school on developments and findings. Although the rain gradually strengthened, I did manage some pictures, as did Nigel, mostly in places part-shaded by the trees. I ventured onto the open hillside, but retreated rapidly - nothing was moving and it was very wet. The first interesting shot came with the discovery of a moth pupa on a stem, with the fully-grown inhabitant part-in and part-out. Frm the look of it, the poor creature appeared to have died during its manoeuvres. The picture below shows another 6-spot as a freshly-emerged specimen, found on the more open ground.

6-spot burnet emerging Zygaena filipendulae  © robin williams

6-spot burnet  Zygaena filipendulae                   © robin williams

There was some excitment when we found a really tiny black bumblebee on a flower, definitely alive, but sheltering underneath from the weather. I took several pictures, most of which left me as puzzled. Then I enlarged a final one and it showed small portion of red tail - Bombus lapidarius worker.

bumblebee Bombus lapidarius w                         © robin williams

The wide shot below is of one of the commonest beetles, seen on a great many umbels at this time of year. Still, it is a rather splndid creature, a soldier-beetle, so called because of its red colouring, the uniform of soldiers in the 1800s.

soldier-beetle Rhagonycha fulva                                                                                     © robin williams

Finally, the picture is of a common harvestman. They were found on a number of plants, hiding behing a stem or scuttling out of sight. They have such long legs, it must be a problem sorting them out in a tangle of leaves and blossoms. In the open, they with great grace.

harvestman Leiobonum rotundum f                   © robin williams

July 4th 2017. This morning, some of our invertebrate group met at Staple Park Wood reserve, near Staple Fitzpaine in Somerset. This is part of a huge wild wooded area on the Blackdowns, reached by a really long, narrow lane ending not far beyond the entrance to the reserve, which is managed by Butterfly Conservation. We were somewhat diminished by holidays and other reasons, including one person who came but missed the rest of us in the intricacies of the wood. Toddy, Una and I had a most enjoyable and surprisingly productive time which ended some time after lunch when the weather, lightly overcast and warm, clouded over further. We confined ourselves principally to the main drove from the entrance. The flowering plants edged this, whereas the woodland was dark, with much understorey. Una told us that she had been there with an ancient-tree society and been shown oaks that were said to be 800 years old but we did not have time to search for these again on this occasion. It was good to come across a few hoverflies again - notably missing beforehand. The most numerous was Leucozona laternaria, a handsome creature in both sexes, instantly recognisable in the male by ithe two translucent panels on the front of the abdomen. The close relative, Leucozona glaucia, was also spotted but only as a single specimen, shown below for comparison. The two species look quite different in books but in reality may be confusing.

hoverfly Leucozona laternaria m                         © robin williams

hoverfly Leucozona laternaria f                                                                                       © robin williams

hoverfly Leucozona glaucia f                                © robin williams

Eristalis intricarius was the other common hoverfly, appearing on most of the larger umbels, rather an untidy-looking bumblebee mimic.

hoverfly Eristalis intricarius m                           © robin williams

hoverfly Meliscaeva auricollis f                                                                                       © robin williams

hoverfly Episyrphus balteatus m                         © robin williams

hoverfly Cheilosia pubera m                                 © robin williams

hoverfly Cheilosia illustrata m                              © robin williams

leafcutter bee Megachile centuncularis f            © robin williams

leafcutter bee Megachile centuncularis f                                                                        © robin williams

But we also came across a few individuals of other species including a squashbug Verlusia rhombea, hiding in the undergrowth. Bugs in general seem to be seen but rarely nowadays, whereas they used to be numerous some years back. On a pile of cut logs, Una spotted a tiny beetle scuttling along. This turned out to be Molorchus minor, a relatively common but often overlooked longhorn beetle, because of it size and rapid movement.

longhorn beetle Molorchus minor                       © robin williams

The woodland is very mixed, with both broad-leaved and conifers. Amongst the former were some really large Horse-chestnuts Aeschulus hippocastanum, badly covered in the leaf-mine Cameraria chridella. These were particularly noticable on the lower leaves which were enormous. The causer is a leaf-mining moth from the family Gracillariidae. 

Horse-chestnut leaf-mine Cameraria ohridella © robin williams

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