Wednesday, 24 May 2017

May 24th Strumpshaw Fen

Swallowtail season has begun at Strumpshaw Fen. Today, people have been turning up from all over the country. Some as far as Somerset. The weather was perfect for these beautiful butterflies, but it turned out to be a slow morning. I only managed to spot one fly past Reception Hide very briefly and that was it. A further two were spotted in the fields beside the late doctor's cottage at the other end of the reserve.

Blue-tailed Damselfly
Not the greatest day for swallowtails then, but for other butterflies and insects, it has been a brilliant morning. Especially damselflies. I think I have seen nearly every species that I know are out now. When it comes to damselflies, I can't say that I am a true expert on telling them apart. The obvious one is the large red damselfly, which is self explanatory, but the others are blue and can look very similar to one another. To tell them apart, you need to study the black markings very closely. Not an easy task even for an amateur expert like me. The best one that I do know with enough confidence is the red-eyed damselfly, which has, well, red eyes and loves sitting on lily pads.

Variable Damselfly
Azure Damselfly
Red-eyed Damselfly
Large Red Damselfly
Not sure. Immature Azure Damselfly?
Jewel Wasp
If you want to see a swallowtail, the best place to be is at the nectar garden adjacent to the Reception Hide. Its also a great place to see other things such as brimstones, orange-tips, green-veined whites, peacocks, red admirals as well as the many species of hoverfly and bee that visit the flowers to pollenate them. The centrepiece is the standing log peppered with holes for solitary bees and wasps to nest in. I love this log. There's always something to see on it during the summer months and today was no exception. There were many tiny jewel wasps checking these holes out. These small colourful wasps are like cuckoos, laying their eggs in holes used by mason bees. The wasp larvae will then hatch and feast on the bee larvae. As well as the jewel wasps, I also saw this ichneumon wasp, which injects its eggs inside another insect's larva. They hatch out within their host and feed on their insides, leaving only the vital organs, before bursting out of their host like from the movie Alien. Nature is nasty sometimes!
Ichneumon Wasp
Dark Bush Cricket instar
Tree Bumblebees nesting under the tiles of the workshop building

If the cruel habits of insects have put you off a bit, then I'd better talk about birds. During my walk before my shift, I walked down to the river and heard a male cuckoo. It sounded close and after hearing him calling a few times, I managed to locate him. He was perching at the very top of a bare branched tree on the opposite side of the river calling proudly. Then a boat passed by and caused it to fly off. I then heard it again. It sounded like it was near Fen Hide. So I went down there to find it again, only I couldn't. It was still calling though and I was able to locate it finally, perched on a bush in the distance, as I was making my way back to Reception Hide.

Yellow Flag Iris
Common Lizard
For those who love kingfishers, you'd be pleased to hear that at least one was showing well from Reception Hide throughout the morning. That new perching tree is proving very popular indeed. They just keep coming back to it every few minutes. Sometimes they sit on the very top, which makes them appear as part of the tree, surprising since they are so strikingly colourful. I also saw marsh harriers, a hobby, reed, sedge, Cetti's and willow warblers, whitethroats, reed buntings, a few dragonflies and some common twayblades  that are now fully developed in the usual spot along the woodland trail.

Marsh Harrier
Cobber the Black Swan
Coot with chick
Common Twayblade

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

May 22nd Brandon Country Park

Copper Beach at Brandon Country Park
Giant wood wasps (or horntails as they are also known) are one of the most scary-looking insects that are on my list this year. They are large, wasp-like creatures with long stinger-like things protruding from the rear. Despite the menacing appearance, they are actually harmless. The long 'stinger' is actually an ovipositor which is used to lay it's eggs deep within a trunk of a pine tree. It is indeed a fascinating creature and one I wouldn't mind seeing as part of my bug hunt this year. As horntails prefer pine trees, the best place to look would be in a pine forest. So Thetford Forest, one of England's largest pine forests, should be an ideal place for them. Today, I have travelled to Brandon Country Park on the hunt for this giant wasp.

Ephialtes manifestator
Unfortunately, despite checking every pine tree I could find, both standing and fallen, I was not able to find myself a horntail. But I did find something that was a good replacement. Crawling around a tiny piece of pine on the forest floor was a small ichneumon wasp with an ovipositor that was twice as long as it's body. There are around 2,300 species of these wasps that paralyse other insects to lay their eggs within them, but I think this is a female Ephialtes manifestator. This species targets the larvae of other wasps, like horntails, that live within the wood of a pine trunk. They use that incredibly long ovipositor to reach the larvae inside the tree by drilling into the wood. I also found a few similar looking wasps without that long ovipositor buzzing around a different tree covered in holes. Mum was brave enough to catch a couple for me, but I am not sure if these are males of the same species or a completely different species entirely. I'll leave that to an expert to decide.

A male one or something completely different?
Orange Footman
Solder beetle?

While searching for horntails and other wasps, we were following a tree trail that featured 20 trees from around the world for us to see. This included...

Copper Beech

Monterey Pine
Western Yellow
Grand Fir
Deodar Cedar
European Larch
Monkey Puzzle
Wellingtonia or Giant Redwood
Blue Atlas Cedar
Fern-leaved Beech
Delaways Silver Fir
Horse Chestnut
Tree of Heaven

Douglas Fir

Colorado White Fir
Coastal Redwood
The banana-shaped pinecone of a Bhutan

I also heard a firecrest and saw treecreeper preening itself halfway up one of the 20 highlighted trees. At the only pond in the park, we saw plenty of roach swimming near the shallows as well as red damselflies and flag irises around the pond's edge.
The pond at Brandon Country Park
Large Red Damselfly
Yellow Flag Iris
Grey Squirrel
Handkerchief Tree
After lunch, we checked out the handkerchief tree in the walled garden. The flowers on this Asian tree looks just like handkerchiefs hanging on the tree to dry. While in the garden, I saw a few interesting insects. The real highlight here, though, was finding a really special moth. Broad-bordered bee hawk-moths are summer visitors from Southern Europe. They are much scarcer than their cousins the hummingbird hawk-moth, but I have seen one before a couple of years ago at Holt Country Park. They are day-flying moths that feed on rich nectar-filled flowers, hovering at a distance with their long proboscis sucking up the nectar like a straw. Finding this wonderful insect was a real surprise and more than makes up for not finding a horntail today.
The flowers of the Handkerchief Tree

Broad-bordered Bee Hawk-moth
Small Copper