June 2017 - notes from the Somerset Levels

June 26th 2017. Our little group met at Lots Grasslands, formerly known as the Grasslands Trust, but now run by the Somerset Wildlife Trust. This an area high up on Mendip on a gradual slope, wet and boggy normally but much drier for lack of rain recently. It is far from easy walking but proved most rewarding. Rough grassland gives way to a deal of Gorse bushes Ulex spp. and rushes towards the top. The main features are several tiny streams running down from above, the acid cap on Mendip, leading to its importance for dragonflies. It is close to where Gold-ringed dragonflies Cordulegaster boltonii were first spotted in the area but is known for the rarer Keeled skimmer Orthetrum coerulescens breeding here.

Keeled skimmer Orthetrum coerulescens imm. © robin williams

It was a warm, humid day with hazed sunshine and some overcast coming on at lunchtime. Nigel, John, Margarete and I parked inside the gate, out of sight from the road, left the cars and moved immediately into a swarm of horseflies, Clegs, Haemtopota pluvialis, but fortunately they seemed only to be by the hedgerow bushes and trees, disappearing as we went up hill. Lots turned out to be another place where bumblebees were present in considerable numbers. The biggest problem was identifying them for they were either exremely abraded or the majority so smothered in white pollen as to obscure the features. This pollen came from from the numerous Marsh thistles Circium palustre on which they were feeding and collecting. Both true and cuckoo bumblebees were found in some numbers but if I am really honest, the detective work needed to research the colours under pollen-coated hair has been difficult to say the least. At lest one picture has been marked as a query for identification - perhaps others might have been?

bumblebee Bombus hypnorum                            © robin williams

bumblebee Bombus lucorum f                              © robin williams

bumblebee Bombus lucorum f                              © robin williams

bumblebee Bombus pascuorum f                         © robin williams

cuckoo bumblebee Bombus sylvestris f                                                                          © robin williams

cuckoo bumblebee Bombus sylvestris                 © robin williams

cuckoo bumblebee Bombus sylvestris                                                                            © robin williams

It was good to come across bright flash of colour on a gorse bush. It has been a year or so since I saw a Green hairstreak butterfly Callophrys rubi, but Menip has always been a good place to find them, especially close-to nearby Waldegrave Pool. An ancient apple tree was always a good source at the right time of year. We also spotted a pair of mating Meadow Browns near-by.

Green hairstreak Callophrys rubi                         © robin williams

Meadow browns mating Maniola jurtina            © robin williams

Finally, gradually we became aware that many of the Marsh thistles had a flourishing population of extremely colourful ichneumons on them. They were all Amblyteles armatorius, a common find at this time of year. I thought I had an idea of whether they were male or female but gave up when I realised how variable the markings were on the abdomen. They were devils to photograph, rarely stying still for more than a moment and twining themselves under leaves and round stems, but rewarding when sound picture was taken.

ichneumon Amblyteles armatorius                    © robin williams

Even more finally, I have at last been able to add a picture of a sawfly we found feeding in the prickles of a Marsh thistle. Nigel was certain he had not seen one of this species before, while convincing me that it was not another species with which we were much more famiiar. In the end, I sent it off to Andrew, the acknowledged expert who told me it was Strongylogaster multifasciata, a common species found on and near bracken where the larvae feed Pteridium aquilinum - a handsome creature.

sawfly Strongylogaster multifasciata                  © robin williams

June 22nd 2017. It is good to stay at home, as we have beeen, shut inside by the extreme heat outside, and look out at what is going on around. Outside the kitchen window there something takes place throughout the year. It may not alway be what you hope for, but the changing patterns of widllife are taking place in front as the creatures go about their everyday life. The focal point is our bird feeding station, with a number of Sunflower seed and fat-ball containers hanging off a wire stretched bettwen the wall and a nearby tree, in a vain attempt to keep the squirrels from stealing all the food. I cannot help admiring the squirrels for their strength and agility, but they can be a real pain. We have watched them twist a domed steel sheet to give entrance to the feeder - one that I can barely bend back. They jump up four feet to hang onto one of the feeders while sucking back the seeds from the small bird entrance hole. Youngsters have joined in the fun now and, like children, have boundless energy, chasing each other up and down the trees, not stopping for a moment. They jump off the tree and run along the wire, even going much higher to display their agility on the telephone wires.

Grey squirrel Neosciurus carolinensis                  © robin williams

Grey squirrel Neosciurus carolinensis                 © robin williams

Grey squirrel Neosciurus carolinensis                 © robin williams

In the last few days, some of our missing bird species have turned up again. The plaintive whistle of the Bullfinch is heard again and I have had a male peering through the study window which ends near ground level. Several other finches have re-appeared also, to join the faithful Chaffinch population. But now the Long-tailed tit families have vanished, after being part of us for several weeks.

Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula                                 © robin williams

Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis                               © robin williams

Greenfinch Carduelis chloris m                             © robin williams

Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs m                                                                                          © robin williams

June 20th 2017. We are in the middle of an extreme heatwave - at least for our part of the country. This evening, the thermometer was set at 30° at 6pm. It was higher than this round midday. At this latter time not an insect was to be seen flying at the logs, while no insects were spotted ona really prolific rose which should normally be full of flies and hymenopterans. Be that as it was, Maddie and I did manage an earlier walk down at Catcott Heath, surrounded by trees and hedges to give some shelter. The walk did not take us far beyond the laregly reglected second hide. The paths are kept cut usually, but I have noticed that this aspect of reserve managment is being somewhat neglected by management of the Somersert Wildlife Trust. I trust it is temporary only as some of the wilder, quieter parts are reached by those same ways. Actually. our walk was quite productive. I came back with pictures of a number of insects I had not expected.

hoverfly Leucozona laternaria f                           © robin williams

hoverfly Epistrophe nitidicollis                             © robin williams

hoverfly Cheilosia spp. f                                                                                                     © robin williams

horse-fly Chrysops relictus                                    © robin williams

soldier-fly Odontomyia ornata f                                                                                      © robin williams

Coming back over the moors, it was interesting to see several buzzards circling over the fields, after a long absence in recent weeks. Stopping for a look over the hedges, showed the reason. The fine weather had brought on a frenzy of hay-cutting. Wherever this took place, buzzards and crows were on alert to catch small mammals as they dart out in front of the cutting machines. It was a splendid chance to see these stately birds rather closer than usual.

Common buzzard Buteo buteo                              © robin williams

June 18th 2017. A busy day of extreme heat for this country - 30°. The logs continued their increased activity, though over the lunch period, the time of greatest warmth, it was noticable that there was absolutely no sign of movement for an hour or so.

cuckoo bee, Coelioxys elongata f                          © robin williams

digger wasp, Pemphredon lugubris                      © robin williams

mason bee, Osmia leaiana m                                © robin williams

leafcutter bee, Megachile willughbiella f             © robin williams

parasitic wasp Gasteruption jaculator f              © robin williams

In the afternoon, took Maddie for a walk at the bottom of Jack's drove. For a change, the wind had dropped, making photography on the umbels rather easier.

sawfly, Cephus pygmaeus                                                                                                  © robin williams

hoverfly, Eristalis intricarius f                              © robin williams

soldier-fly Odontomyia ornata f                           © robin williams

digger wasp Ectemnius continuus                         © robin williams

June 16th 2017. A morning besides the log trap-nests yielded some interesting pictures, after a period when not much was going on. There is no doubt that, in common with many other insects, the logs and bamboos have produced only a small percentage of their ususl population.

mason wasp Symmorphus bifasciatus                © robin williams

mason bee, Osmia leaiana m                                © robin williams

leafcutter bee, Megachile ligniseca m                  © robin williams

digger wasp crossocerus elongatulus                  © robin williams

digger wasp crossocerus styrius                                                                                      © robin williams

June 14th 2017. Rooks have had a most succesful breeding season this year in our garden . Nine nests were built and fully occupied and, this afternoon, nineteen adults and youngsters gathered in front of the kitchen with a great display of family. Well-grown youngsters, distinguished by their all black heads, the feathers not yet worn down by digging their beaks into the ground but as big as their parents, were continually begging for food from their parents. We are delighted to support these numbers, nesting in trees we originally planted. Jackdaws join in these celebrations though I do not believe they nest in the garden.

Rooks Corvus frugilegus                                                                                                   © robin williams

Rooks Corvus frugilegus                                                                                                   © robin williams

Jackdaw Corvus monedula                                                                                                © robin williams

Green woodpeckers have taken to visiting much the same area, as they do every year at around this time, searchinjg the area for ants.

Green woodpecker Picus viridis                           © robin williams

While Great-spotted woodpeckers come to the nuts in the feeders, This year they were found nesting in a hole in an electricity pole in the garden. A discovery which propted the re-routing of the wires to a newly-installed pole. The electricity company has left the old pole for its new purpose I am glad to say.

Great spotted woodpecker Dendropus major    © robin williams

June 13th 2017. Our group met at Chudleigh Knighton Heath today in Devon, on what turned out to be an absolutely glorious day, with cloudless blue sky and, mercifully, little wind. Recent days have gone by with endless gusting, strong winds, making everyone tetchy, while absenting the insects. Nigel drove John and I there, where we met Una, Margaret and a friend of theirs, Rose fron North Devon. We all had an enjoyable and productive day, even spotting two of the creatures we had hoped to come across. The rest of the group saw a Potter wasp Eumenes coarctatus, a rare heathland specialist of which Nigel managed a good picture. The wasp flew in to a lenght of path where it dropped a bright green larva it had been carrying, and collected some soil to construct its pot. The other speciality of the place, Formica excecta, a rare, large wood ant for which this is the only location in England, was spotted at the very end by a group taking a separate path. Again, I missed out, but I have seen these ants in previous years at this location. I show my photograph from that earlier era.

ant, Formica exsecta                                              © robin williams

Bumblebees were much in evidence on this large site, often congregated round the few bramble flowers already out, Rubus spp. It would be fair to say that in fact the place was a bit of a desert, in the sense that ther were few flowers out in a sea of scrub and coarse grasses. At first sight, I thought we had made a mistake and come at completely the wrong time of year. Actually it proved an interesting and variable day with a variety of insects spotted - though in relatively small numbers as is so often the case nowadays. Other than those shown below, Bombus hypnorum were present in some numbers, small wokers hard at pollen gathering, some very worn with patchy hair covering.

bumblebee, Bombus terrestris                             © robin williams

bumblebee, Bombus pratorum m                        © robin williams

One good spot, set in a slight clearing in the taller scrub, was a small stand of Foxgloves Digitalis purpurea. As at Castle Neroche, they were magnets for bumblebees. Surprisingly, most were Bombus pascuorum, bees with shorter tongues.

bumblebee, Bombus pascuorum w                      © robin williams

It was fascinating to watch one little drama taking place on the lip of one of the Foxglove flowers. A tiny little crab spider Misumena vatia, was almost invisible as it sat quite motionless on the surface. A very small fly landed by it and, with an almost invisible blur of motion, was pinioned and quickly rendered helpless.

crab spider & prey, Misumena vatia & fly          © robin williams

I sat down on my backpack stool, an ingenious frame built-in to a normal rucksac, providing a low seat to watch what is going on, by a patch of open soil and low plants, making for much better supported photography during a period of waiting.  - also good for eating lunch. I really would not go without this on a longer outing. It was a rather frustrating patch in the sens that there were a number of very small mining bees collecting pollen from the yellow Tormentil flowers, Potentilla erecta. What an odd name? 'Erecta' presumably means upright, yet the plant is described as 'creeping and patch-forming'. Unfortunately, they were too fsar away to obtain a useful picture but I suspect they were a Lasioglossum species, the only solitary bees I saw during the visit. One insect I watched with great interest was the small specialist heathland bee-fly, Bombylius minor. I have only seen this species on the Dorset heaths previously. It has an ingenious method for laying its eggs in the nest holes of solitary bees, as can be seen in the picture. The bee-fly collects a ball of soil on the tip of its tail, then lays an egg on this before hurling it down the nest-hole.

bee-fly, Bombylius minor  f                                                                                               © robin williams

Hoverflies were in short supply - a growing concern in our part of the country. However I managed pictures of two species of bumble-bee mimics, both from the same family, Volucella. They are smart-looking flies but bombylans, in particular, is very variable in colouring, mimicing several species of bumblebee within whose nests their larvae live.

hoverfly, Volucella pellucens f                               © robin williams

hoverfly, Volucella bombylans f                                                                                      © robin williams

Lead Belle moth, Scotopteryx mucronata          © robin williams

Moths are not really my thing. They are not good at settling and the daylight-flying varieties often do so beneath leaves. But this one was so co-operative and so hadsome, I could not rest. It seems it is common place on heathlands such as this.

rove beetle, Staphylinus erythropterus                                                                          © robin williams

Rove beetles are odd-looking insects, looking as if they cannot fly, yet have their wings elborately folded beneath a cover. I read recently that scientists are studying them to see if a better umbrella could result if these folds were adopted. Most of the rove-beetles are comparatively small. This one is large and strikingly handsome when seen close-to. My picture only indicates this as it moved really quickly through the undergrowth when released. One of my friends found it, put it in a tube to identify it and then let it go in an open patch, but it was too quick for a picture in the open. I hope this gives some idea of its general appearance.

squash bug, Coreus marginatus                           © robin williams

Bugs have become distinctly unusual in recent years. We used to see Shieldbugs and Squashbugs such as this on any patch of nettles or bushes. Not so nowadays so that is why I took pictures of this one, quite apart from the interesting pose - a record of one being present at all.

ichneumon, Ichneumonidae                                                                                             © robin williams

My final picture is of an ichneumon whih I am quite unable to identify, as happens with so many of these striking parasitic wasps, difficult even with the aid of a microscope and impossible from a picture. Many of them are extremely photogenic  and I can only hope a friend will eventually help narrow down an identification at least a little. Our meeting ended with everyone having enjoyed the day, not least through the continuing good weather. A period of mild panic over a flat battery was solved by some jump-leads and we all made home safely at our normal time.

June 9th 2017. I must apologise for the absence of the website for the past week or so and, prior to that, for the fact that no entries had been added for some weeks. We have had problems with the host program, but these have now been resolved and all is back to normal. During that dark period, the Diary and its pictures were written in Word, then transferred to the website when the system was recovered. This meant that events were recorded as they happened, rather than in the vagueness of a later date, maintaining freshness and reliability. These entries, covering the whole of May, have now been added to the site, bringing it right up-to-date. In future, searches for the current period should be made under MONTH, rather than quarter.

June 7th 2017. Our group was supposed to meet at Castle Neroche on the Blackdowns on Monday, but the weather was so bad it was moved to today. The weather was excellent, but for various reasons it turned out I was the only one present. Nevertheless I had a most enjoyable day and saw some interesting insects, though all were bumblebees. Virtually the only other insects were a single hoverfly, Syrphus vitripennis, and a Speckled wood butterfly Pararge aegeria. This was surprising, I had expected to see more hoverflies as well as solitary bees and wasps. Castle Neroche is a marvellous place, a forestry park run by the Forestry Commission, popular with visitors and locals. The castle is an ancient monument and is in ruins but there is much more to enjoy than those. The Neroche scheme covers 35 square miles in extent, so there is plenty of room for people, although I only met one couple during the visit. The Forestry does a marvellous job in looking after these remnants of a much larger ancient forest. The paths are well-maintained, there is an excellent tarmac car park and constant activity ensures that improvements will continue. Areas of softwoods are being removed and fully cleared, newly-emerged hardwood saplings encouraged and dead-wood left where is it is, where practicable. I know from previous visits that is a great place for insects but both species and numbers were much reduced this time. However, I found numbers of bumblebees of various species which kept my camera clicking for much of the time. The visit divided itself naturally into two different areas. The first lay up on the top, for the east side of the site drops alarmingly, revealing paths running along below. Alongside one portion of what I think of as the main path running south, there was a huge patch of buttercups Ranunculus spp. A stream of bumblebees was visiting the flowers, while one bee was so 'drunk' it could hardly move - an excess of nectar no doubt? I was particularly surprised that many were cuckoo bumblebees, that parasitise the true bumblebees, for i have seen none of these so far this year.

cuckoo bumblebee, Bombus sylvestris               © robin williams

cuckoo bumblebee, Bombus campestris            © robin williams

cuckoo bumblebee, Bombus vestalis                   © robin williams

cuckoo bumblebee, Bombus vestalis                   © robin williams

Covered in bits of pollen and dust, they are difficult to identify and I could not be certain my conclusions were absolutely correct. After a great deal of study I am well over 90° certain and more so for several of them. Colour dims or vanishes, bands on thorax and abdomen become worn or obscured, making this group one of the most difficult, but rewarding, to study. It was interesting that both Bombus hortorum and B. jonellus were present, similar in colouring but feeding quite differently because of their comparative tongue lengths. A few  B. lapidarius workers were seen briefly. Visiting the other area meant re-tracing steps to the main grassy parts and walking westwards. This was populated by large, mature trees widely separated by fine grass, with little scrub, as we are told mature forest tends to produce. A few remnant Bluebells hung on among this, rather later than near us.

Bluebells, Endymion non-scriptus                       © robin williams

My next really productive area was on a patch of Foxgloves Digitalis purpurea. Numbers of true bumblebees were feeding on these, landing on the lips and disappearing up into the flower. The great majority were Bombus hortorum, with its very long tongue, but a bit later B.pascuorum also started down the same path, vanishing into the flower.

bumblebee, Bombus hortorum                             © robin williams

bumblebee, Bombus hortorum                             © robin williams

bumblebee, B. jonellus m; B. pascuorum q        © robin williams

bumblebee, Bombus hortorum w                         © robin williams

I watched and photographed this spectacle, absolutely fascinated by their manoeuvering, twisting and turning to ease their way into the depths, or more properly, heights of the flowers. I had lunch beside these beautiful flowers before going back to the car. The weather forecast was proving accurate as it was was chilling and dulling, losing many of the insects from their active feeding. Before this I explored a couple of long dead trunks lying nearby but there appeared to be nothing obviously nesting in them, with few holes visible in spite of their long history since the end of their life. It was a pity noone else came today, it had been a fascinating visit.

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