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.