Saturday, 31 December 2016

Welcome to Volehouse Moor...

Deep in rural Devon, on a lane without a name or number is the little Devon Wildlife Trust reserve named Volehouse Moor.

Volehouse Moor- south side
It's a tranquil sort of place where you'll seldom meet anybody else, because there are other reserves that are so much easier to find. At Volehouse, you can always find a space to park- and there's only enough parking space for two cars!

Volehouse runs across two facing sides of a small valley, divided in the middle by the quietly flowing waters of the river Torridge. The river means you can't get from one side to the other so there are actually two reserves- Volehouse North and Volehouse South.

Together, they cover an area of some 39 hectares, about half of which consists of Culm grassland and half of meadow and woodland.

This is a diary of what happens there during the summer.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Big news: Ladybird spotted!

In my last post I wrote about how worried I was about the lack of ladybirds in North Devon this year.

In fact, I was so puzzled that I contacted the Ladybird census people. (I am not making this up- there really is a ladybird census person and she's called Helen). 

Hi there,

I'm a wildlife photographer based in North Devon and despite actively searching for ladybirds this year, I have failed to find a single specimen. Is 2016 a particularly bad year for ladybirds, and if so, is this a year on year decline or an anomaly? Do you have any idea what is causing the numbers to (apparently) crash like this? 

I hope to hear from you,

Kind regards,

Tim Hearn

This week, to my surprise, I got a reply:


Aug 26 (7 days ago)
to me
Dear Tim

Thank you for your e-mail. We are getting similar reports from other people – numbers do seem to be lower across the UK but we are still receiving lots of records which is great. Ladybird populations are influenced by many factors – temperature and aphid availability are two important factors. Ladybird numbers do fluctuate a lot year on year and so the long-term trends are important to assess – which is why records to the UK ladybird Survey are so important.

Many thanks again, Helen

This was excellent news. Similar reports were coming in from other people- so not only was I correct about the absence of ladybirds, but there were other people out there searching for them! I got quite excited by the thought of all the intrepid ladybird hunters swinging into action across the nation... and by all, I mean at least three.

I can't see that aphid availability is a factor here- there's millions of 'em on account of there being no ladybirds, (and most of those are sunning themselves on the plants in my greenhouse).  Temperature, yes. But the temperature's  been mild. Does this imply that ladybirds require a cold winter, like some butterflies? And do long term increases in temperature and mild winters due to climate change threaten the ladybird's future in the UK? Helen, as a Ladybird scientist type, is pretty noncommittal about these kinds of questions, content merely to say that trends are important to assess.  

Anyway, the very morning after I received Helen's mail I was out for a walk with Rosie when I saw the telltale flash of ladybird red on a nettle. And then another, nearby. Ladybirds, it seems, are like buses. You wait all year and then two come along at once. 

I moved the first ladybird to a dandelion head that was rather more photogenic than the manky old bit of nettle that it was choosing to live on, marking the leaf so I could return her from whence she came after I'd finished with her, and did a quick photo shoot. 

I shall send details and a print of the picture to Helen, partly for being for being so obliging and partly because as she so rightly said, records to the UK Ladybird survey are important. 

I still think that there is some kind of ladybird crisis in progress, and I still believe that pesticides are probably at the bottom of it. 

But if we don't all join in and supply the good guys (or in this case Helen) with data, we'll never be able to prove it.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

When was the last time you saw a ladybird?

When was the last time you saw a ladybird?

I ask because one of the things I wanted to do this year was some photography using ladybirds as subjects. I even planned out some of the shots during the winter. Props and everything.

So it has come as quite a disappointment to me that this year, I haven't seen a single, solitary ladybird. Not one.

Now, this wouldn't normally concern me hugely. They're quite small insects and I suspect that I often just don't notice them.

But the thing is, this year I've been actively looking.  On every walk, I've been keeping my eyes peeled. No 7 spot, no 2 spot, no 12 spot. Not even any Harlequins.

I've looked on window cills in sheds. Normally a rich source of ladybirds, albeit deceased. No ladybirds, living or otherwise.

I've looked on thistles. Nothing.

I've looked on nettles. Nada. Zip.

I've looked everywhere I can think of that there are aphids. Zilch. The aphids are around in numbers- presumably because they aren't getting eaten by any ladybirds.

I asked people. Well, 3 people. All amateur entomologists or nature lovers. One here in Devon, one in the Cotswolds and one near London. They couldn't remember seeing any ladybirds this year either.

One of them suggested that it might be down to the weather. Well, yes, I could understand fewer ladybirds. But none at all?

I contacted the ladybird census people. Yes, there actually is one. To date, I've had no reply. Maybe they've disappeared along with their little charges.

So where are the ladybirds? For once, Google isn't telling. There's nothing about a scarcity of ladybirds this year. There's nothing at all about ladybirds in 2016, as far as I can tell.

Although there are an increasing amount of articles, mostly from the U.S. (where they call them 'Ladybugs') pointing to a link between the use of Neonicitinoids and the death of non-target species such as ladybirds.

Is that it? Are the ladybirds disappearing from right under our noses?

Or am I wrong- have other people seen ladybirds this year? I'd love to be proved wrong, and awake to a long list of comments saying what a twit I am and that I'm just not looking hard enough. I'd love to know that somewhere away from North Devon, all the ladybirds are gathered having a good old laugh at my expense.

I really hope that's the case.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The day of the big butterfly count

I was walking Rosie (and Rosie was walking me) a few days ago. We weren't at Volehouse. Much to Rosie's disgust, the cattle are grazing it at the moment and that means she has to go on a lead, which she hates. So we've been going to a place known as Powler's Piece. It's a nice enough place with several different habitats and a well defined, easy track. I usually take my camera when we go, just in case anything's about.

And on this particular day, what was about was a rather depressing man.

"What are you doing"? he said
"Walking the dog. And looking for butterflies to photograph". I replied.
"You won't find any. Not this year. This year's rubbish for butterflies."
"Bloody rubbish".
"I don't know- there are a few around."
"No there aren't. It's bloody rubbish".

The conversation, if it could be called that, rambled on in the same vein. Him telling me how rubbish this year was and me looking over his shoulder at the butterflies that he was telling me weren't there.

The situation was, to quote a phrase, bloody rubbish.

Eventually I got rid of him, much to my relief and Rosie's, and we continued on our walk. But the man had rather spoiled the moment and I didn't do much more photography. Instead, I wondered whether he was right. Were there fewer butterflies than normal this year? The cloud that had hung over him had rather spread to me, so on the spur of the moment I decided to take action by joining in the big butterfly count.

When I got home, as luck would have it, I found that the following day was the final day to take part.

So the following morning, Rosie and I struck out to the same patch where we met Mr Bloody Rubbish, determined to prove him wrong. I must confess that I was more interested in the number of species I could photograph in 15 minutes than the number of individuals- which isn't really in the spirit of the big butterfly count, but there you go. I did actually also keep score, in the interest of submitting to the official count.

The day was sunny with some light cloud scudding across in a light breeze. And this is how it went....

Minute 1- There's a Large White (Pieris brassicae) further down the track but it won't stay still to be photographed. Not an auspicious start. 1

Things get better as a pristine second brood Speckled wood (Pararge aegeria), on patrol down the side of the fir trees, stops and poses at eye level. 2

Minute 2- All the whites are out today. A small white (Pieris rapae) is nectaring while above it, a green veined white (Pieris napi) is on the brambles. Both are occupied enough to allow a quick snap.

Further down the brambles, I spy a Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus). The Gatekeepers have only recently emerged, so I'm hoping he won't be damaged, and he isn't. 5.

Minute 3- More whites, large and small. Still no picture of the large white.

Minute 4- There's a grey butterfly a way away that I can't identify at first. As I get closer it reveals itself to be not grey, but black and white- a marbled white (Melanargia galathea). A good sighting, and my first of the year at this spot.

While I was closing in on it, I noticed a few skippers buzzing around. I return to take a closer look. They're all Small skippers (Thymelicus sylvestris).

No Esssex or Large skippers to be seen. 7.

Minute 5- Aaargh! The sun goes in and immediately the track becomes devoid of butterflies.

Minute 6- The sun is still in, but there's 2 Ringlets (Aphantopus hyperantus). They're faded and a bit tatty on one side, but one shows me his good side obligingly. 8.

Minute 7- Nothing.

Minute 8. Nothing. How big is this cloud?

Minute 9- Sun!!! And I'm back on track, making up for lost time with a Vanessid double header- Peacock (Inachis io) and Painted lady (Vanessa cardui) both second brood and both perfect. 10.

Minute 10- My jaw actually does a comedy drop as two silver-washed fritillaries (Argynnis paphia) float past the end of my nose in a pairing dance. After the other smaller butterflies they look as big as handkerchiefs. I have seen them here before, but only very sporadically. They part for a while and one starts to feed. I can't quite believe my luck.

Minute 11- Nothing new, but another very tatty silver-washed. They're like buses- you don't see one for weeks and then 3 come along at once.

Minute 12- The grass at the side of the track has a few daisies in it, and on one of those I spy a flash of blue. Common blue (Polyommaus icarus), second brood are out. 11.

Minute 13- Still no shot of a Large white. They're around, but very skittish. I spy a Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina). It's late in the season, but it doesn't look in bad nick. I've never had much success with these. They bolt at the slightest movement. Today though, this one sits just long enough for a photo before running for it. 12.

Minute 14- I think I've seen all there is to see in this section, so I'm racing for a side track lined with knapweed and sallow, where I'm reasonably sure I'll find...

Minute 15- ...Brimstone! (Gonepteryx rhamni).

The second brood started emerging last week and right on cue, here's a nice male. And as an added bonus, on the stroke of 15 minutes, I pull the trigger on an elusive Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta). 14.

Time's up.

Now, fourteen species is about 24% of the native species found in the UK. And given that many don't fly in August, and many don't live in Devon, I'd say that for a 15 minute period, that's not too shabby.

At any rate, it makes me think that 2016 isn't as bad for butterflies- at least second brood ones- as is being made out.

So, Mr Misery, here's my answer to you;

You know what you were talking?

That's right- bloody rubbish.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The day I discovered a Dragonfly having lunch.

I'm constantly amazed by the vast extent of my lack of knowledge when it comes to natural history.

For example, I've known about dragonflies all my life. They've always been there. If I was 299,999,948 years older than I currently am, they'd still always have been there. But I didn't know about them. For instance, I'd never considered what they had for lunch.

On a flying visit to Volehouse last week Rosie was off ahead undertaking important spaniel tasks, when she paused and started sniffing interestedly at something in the middle of the track by the entrance.

This is usually a sign that she's found a particularly alluring pile of fox poo to roll in, and since that involves much shampooing and no little displeasure from my wife for permitting dog and poo to connect, I quickened my pace to intercept before the s*** hit the spaniel, as it were.

But this was something else. As I lumbered up to her, she was actually sniffing at a dragonfly sitting motionless on the path.

Golden ringed dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii)

It was a Golden-ringed dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii) but at the time, I couldn't understand why it was just sitting there allowing a Welshie to prod it with her nose. It was a sunny day, so there shouldn't have been a problem with its flight muscles. And yet there it was, as torpid as me with a  Breaking Bad box set.

I knew that when Bees became like this, they needed emergency food. Perhaps this dragonfly was starving, I reasoned.

I rather balked at the thought of trying to catch flies for it. I've seen Rosie try that many, many times; never with any success. And she's much faster than I am.

Whatever the problem, I decided that it couldn't stay there in the middle of the track. It was inevitably going to get squished by something.

So, rather at a loss, I decided to transfer it to a nearby foxglove on the basis that if it actually was short of energy maybe it would break with dragonfly tradition and try some nectar. If not, then at least it would starve to death rather than get stomped on.

And it was as I transferred it that I realised what was going on. Far from starving, it was actually having lunch.

Beneath it, trapped in its jaws and struggling weakly was a bee.

Beneath it, trapped in its jaws, was a bee

I had no idea that a dragonfly would take something as large as a bee. I'd never really thought about dragonfly food at all. I knew from much pond-dipping as a child that their nymphs were fearsome predators. But as far as I was aware, the adults were like many moths, doing all their feeding in the larval stage. (See what I mean about lack of knowledge?)

This one had clearly bitten off more than it could quickly chew, and was struggling to keep its prey under control.  It hadn't been bothered by Rosie because it had quite enough on its plate already.

Now, in the few days since I joined the dragonfly for lunch, I've noticed them more and more. I've become interested.

I've seen a Golden-ringed dragonfly deftly snatch a moth out of the air and eat it on the fly, spitting the wings out as it went.

I've started spotting and identifying different species.

I now understand that the group of them called Hawkers are so called because of the way that they feed.. Obvious, but it's one of those connections that I'd never made before.

In a single chance encounter that morning I learned something that's sparked an interest that will last me a lifetime.

And that's why it's so fantastic to see so many young people blogging so enthusiastically, passionately and knowledgeably on the Local Patch reporters site.

Because youngsters that have an interest in the natural world will never, ever be bored for as long as they live. They'll never need to occupy themselves by sitting listlessly in front of the TV, PC, VG or whatever.

They will always be able to find something in their surroundings to learn about. And that's a wonderful thing for someone to be able to look forward to.

Although, when they're old enough, I would recommend that they do a Breaking Bad box set binge. Because everybody should. Seriously.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

The day of the hornet that was really a moth.

Disheartened by the summer stretching out in front of it, and knowing the abuse it was going to take, my mower had given one last exhausted phut and died. The mower man came and looked at it, sucked his teeth and shook his head. The mower had moved on to pastures new.

So I had to buy a new mower, which was very expensive. Although I was slightly mollified to find that the new machine had- and I am not making this up- a beverage holder. Every man's dream.

Anyway, to keep the new purchase in tip top condition, I decided to build a little house for it to live in. And while I was doing that, I noticed this, sitting on the fence post that I was about to hammer into.


It's a hornet, right?

That's what I thought as I ran away. A nasty incident some years back has left me with a healthy respect for bees and wasps, even singly.

But then curiosity got the better of me and I crept back with a camera for a closer look. And that's when I realised that this wasn't a hornet at all. On closer inspection, this was unmistakably a moth.

Never having come across anything quite like it before, I did some googling and came up with a bit of background.

This is a Lunar Hornet Moth (Sesia bembeciformis) which must surely be one of the all time great Batesian mimics- species that evolve to look like dangerous or distasteful species in order to protect themselves from predation. The Lunar Hornet moth even moves like a hornet when it flies.

Now I know it's a moth, it's all fine.

It's a reasonably common moth but seldom reported because everybody thinks it's a hornet instead of one of the Clearwing family of moths. Thus proving the effectiveness of its cunning disguise.

It emerges in July and the larvae are burrowers, feeding for 2 years internally on the wood of sallow and poplar trees, of which there is a lot in North Devon.

Once I'd realised there was no imminent danger to me, I became quite fearless and rather fascinated with this little moth.

Hopefully, I'll come across it again, perhaps in a more photogenic position than my fencepost. And maybe I'll say to myself 'Why, that's not a hornet- that's a splendid example of Batesian mimicry' and not run away.

But I wouldn't bet on it.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

June 19th- The day I went abroad to find the Silver-studded blues.

I had never actually considered Cornwall to be abroad until I lived in Devon.

Devonians do seem consider Cornwall to be a foreign land, and I suspect the Cornish think the same about them. It's rooted in a rivalry that, as far as I can work out, comes down to the orientation of the crimp on a pasty (Devon is on top, Cornish in a semicircle round the side) and the order in which jam and cream are placed on a scone.

Anyhoo, delicious cultural differences aside, one of the Cornish speciality butterflies is the Silver-studded blue, a small and rather rare insect that hangs around- at its remaining strongholds- in colonies, sometimes many thousands strong. Who knows why? Probably as a form of defence. Maybe each individual thinks that it can call on the rest of the mob for support in the event that any old-school butterfly collector comes calling.

It's a species that I've never actually seen in the wild, despite over 40 years watching butterflies. We all have species like that, wildlife nemeses which for no particular reason simply elude us. Although I've been to places where Silver-studded blue were found, I've never seen one and I've never got around to actively seeking them out. So when I moved to Devon, it was high on my hit list.

Male Silver studded blue (Plebejus argus) 

One of the largest colonies in the country is down near Newquay at Penhale Sands, a sprawling dune complex spread over 6 square miles, some of it owned by the MOD. You often find that MOD land is good for wildlife. Our fauna and flora seems to prefer living in what is, basically, a war zone than amongst the general populace. It's a sad reflection of the human species.

The SSBs that I was seeking would seldom fly more than a half mile from their place of emergence. Indeed, they are reputed to be so reluctant to explore that you could walk past a colony of several hundred on the other side of a dune and never know a thing about it. (This is, I assume, because they live next door to a bunch of rifle-toting military types. Sticking an antenna over their sandy parapet could be the last thing they ever do).

I was at something of a loss to know how to find the colony in such a large hunting ground.

So I delved a little deeper into the web, to try and find a clue as to where the butterflies could actually be found.

And the web introduced me to the Cornwall Butterfly and Moth Society, who were planning a field trip to the very same Penhale Dunes the following day.

I phoned Lee from the society and booked onto the trip, hoping that the fact that I was coming from Devon wouldn't lead to any unseemly pasty-based friction (or my being detained as a foreign spy).

As I left home the following morning, it was raining hard and since I had a 2 hour drive to find them, I did rather question my sanity. However, as I crossed the border into Cornwall, I regained my sense of adventure and rather enjoyed the journey.

I kept expecting the rain to stop, but as I got closer and closer to my destination, it didn't.

The moors were covered in fog and lorries were putting up great peacock plumes of spray behind them. My windscreen wipers were having trouble keeping up with the water that was being deposited onto them.

When I got to the allotted lay-by,  I met Leon. He turned out to be the County moth recorder for Cornwall and clearly knew his stuff, recording all information in a small hardback notebook that he carries everywhere. A glance inside showed me that he undertakes a butterfly hunting expedition pretty much every day in the season- yesterday he had been up at Aish Tor in Devon, recording sightings of the High Brown Fritillary.

Since it was still raining, I was pretty dubious about seeing anything, but Leon was completely confident. He pointed out that when so many butterflies were concentrated into one area, there was really nowhere for them to hide.

Last week, he told me with a gleam in his eye, at a reserve down the road he'd seen a dozen on a single umbrella of Angelica. And his friend had counted over 80 in a two metre square. He spoke of a time some years ago when the population had got so numerous that they were like confetti when you walked.

'I'll believe it when I see it', I thought with a London ex-pat's cynicism.

We threaded our way through the dunes, pausing only for pyramidal orchids

We threaded our way through the dunes, pausing only for pyramidal orchids. Leon in his waterproofs nattering away happily about the aberrant form of the Grizzled Skipper that is found on the dunes, ab. Taras. Me plodding along behind him, my inappropriate deck shoes emitting a loud squelch with every footstep and my soaking jeans covered in grass seeds and sticking to my shins.

Eventually Leon paused and his eyes narrowed. 'There's one of the little so-and-so's" he said triumphantly.

And there it was indeed. A tiny butterfly, far smaller than I'd expected. Smaller than the Common blue, and with a more purple tinge to the upperside, and black bands evident on the males. I knew immediately that if I ever came across them again I would be able to identify them from the upperside alone.

The identifying clincher, though, is on the underside and it's where they get their name from. In the black spots at the edge of the hindwing are small groups of blue scales, which allegedly look like studs of blue. They're not a constant- some individuals have them very pronounced, others hardly at all and in some they are absent altogether.

The silver studs are a dead giveaway

Females, Leon informed me, though they lack the blue upper side, often have better 'studs'.

Like most blues, the females are brown. Which is just contrary, really.
Silver-studded blues are found in three distinct habitats- the dunes and calcareous grassland sites where the larval food plant is primarily Bird's-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and the adults are on the wing from June to mid July. But they are also found on heathland from July through August, where the larvae feed on Heather (Calluna vulgarise) and gorse (Ulex spp.)

As with many Blues, they have a close relationship with ants; in the case of the SSB, black ants in particular (Lasius niger and Lasius aliens).

Almost as soon as they hatch, the larvae begin to secrete a form of honeydew that the ants respond to. They pick up the larvae and transport them to their chambers within the nest, where they are tended and protected by the ants in exchange for supplies of the secretion. When pupation occurs, it is usually near the ants nest, and the pupa continues to secrete honeydew in exchange for protection until the butterfly emerges. Anecdotal accounts have the ants actually carrying the adult butterflies out of the nest to expand their wings, where they join the others in the colony.

Like most of these things, when you've got your eye in, you start to see them properly and it soon became clear that we were right in the middle of the colony, with hundreds of butterflies visible.

When you get your eye in, you wonder how you ever missed them

'If the weather was half decent', said Leon expansively, 'you'd see thousands'. I immediately determined to come back when the sun was out.

We experimented with shining a torch on them to see if they'd open their wings for us, and amazingly, it worked. Something to bear in mind for cloudy days in the future, as is the simple need for a pair of nail scissors to undertake the occasional bit of pruning before taking photographs. I had one chap with a lovely set of studs that insisted on hiding behind a blade of grass, and I couldn't get rid of it without disturbing him.

That moment when you realise you've forgotten your nail scissors.

Eventually, the discomfort of the rain took its toll. My spectacles were covered in rain and fogged up from my breath behind the back of the camera. I was drenched from head to foot and so much grass seed had stuck to me that if I'd slept on the ground, I'd have woken up in a meadow.

But I'd finally seen the Silver studded blue. And as I drove back across the border from the pouring rain of Cornwall into the pouring rain of Devon, I couldn't help thinking what a nice place Cornwall was.

Awfully wet, though.