Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Skullduggery...or skulduggery if you prefer-pick the bones out of that!

 I don't ever really expect to find much in the way of invertebrates when I visit coniferous woodland, with its densely populated and planted trees, it hasn't proved to be a good hunting ground for me regarding insects and bugs.
That's how it was again on a recent hike around Hemsted Forest, a local wood owned and managed by the Forestry Commission. 

But as I was making my way back, I saw this skull, or at least a part of it, poking out of the ground. I think it is the skull of a red fox. It's a real shame that it is incomplete but what I did find cleaned up quite nicely and is quite an intriguing little artifact...if you like that kinda thing! Below is a photograph of all the bones I found after they'd been thoroughly cleaned.

 I did have a nice find elsewhere though, it was one of those where I didn't realise quite what I had found at the time-I knew it was something different but had to get the photos on to the laptop to have a good look and try to find an identity for it. 

That proved to be quite a challenge for me. I hunted through all of what I considered to be reasonable suspects and drew a complete blank. Little did I know at the time, this would take three days to resolve and even then, there was a twist in the tail (of my story, not the insect!) I suppose I should stop prattling on and post a picture of this mythical beast, so that you can decide for yourself as to whether I was being incompetent? Okay....

The shape of the head and length and markings on the antennae were giving me some clues but it was those, what would you call them, mandibles? Look at how long they are and all the beetle larvae (that's what I considered amongst others this might be) I have seen have mandibles/jaws that curve inwards to grip their prey, these seem to be turning out to me. What purpose could they serve? Anyhow, it transpired that it wasn't a beetle larva after all, although I'm not sure if that's significant regards the mandibles.

'Osmylus fulvicephalus'...or more commonly, a giant lacewing. That's what this turned out to be. I think I would be right in stating that the larvae are rarely seen, but I did mention that this story has a twist and that is the fact that I have actually found this species before, but had totally forgotten until, something rang a bell having settled on its identity this time.
A search of the internet revealed this image from a few years back...

It's a picture of one of the photographs on my old flickr photostream; I no longer have an account with flickr in protest at their enforced changes.

Since finding this amazing creature I have been fascinated by those jaws and how they evolved as they have and I discovered a key...

Under the 'Key to larvae' section, I discovered the following passage of text:

The most useful characters are the fusiform shape (wide in the middle, tapering at both ends) of the body and the large 'jaws' which are either large mandibles with teeth for biting, or modified mandibles and maxillae (for manipulating food) which fit together to form two forwardly-directed 'spears' or jaws, used for sucking the contents of the prey.

And so it seems that those enormous jaws are little more than straws...

Something else that I have seen and photographed before, although not that often, is a tiny harvestman called 'Megabunus diadema' it is only about 3-4mm and hides away most of the time, the reason I suspect that the Spider & Harvestman Recording Scheme has only a handful of records for this species in Kent and less than 1,000 across the British Isles...

This one is a female, as it's only females that have those pronounced spikes above the eyes. I spotted this one a few days ago and I think it's probably only the third I have ever seen.

I have featured a few millipedes in past blog updates but I don't think I have ever covered the pill-millipede? Until now that is...

The pill millipede (Glomeris marginata) is quite similar to the pill woodlouse, in that they both curl up into a tight pea-like ball when threatened. This one however has 2 pairs of legs per segment, rather than the one of the woodlouse. I have been photographing lots of woodlice for a future blog update and so will try and include a photograph for comparison then.

I think that as this update has been quite wordy, I'll add one final picture and description and call it a day-I do tend to get carried away with some of these updates when little and often would probably be a better motto.

And so for now, here's the stretch limo of the spider world; a Tetragnathide, or 'Long-jawed Orb Weaver' that I found over wintering under a leaf...

Until the next time...

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A visit to Wildwood...

Jan 11th 2014 - Wildwood: Herne Bay Kent.

A Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)
After an early frost, Saturday 11th turned into a blue-sky bonanza! Amazing weather for mid-January and I was excited to at last be visiting the animal park I had passed many times but never looked around.
Travelling through Biddenden towards Pluckley, I made a point of looking for the wild egrets that I had seen once before but not managed to photograph-sure enough, there were a pair a way off in a field full of sheep. 
With my lens at full stretch, I could just about capture enough detail. Even better, I was able to confirm that the large raptors I had heard and seen on a couple of occasions were as I had suspected, red kite. Edit:My thanks to Maria Justamond for the following information: Hate to say this (please do delete this section before 'approving it) but your 'red kite' photo is actually a buzzard. Wrong wing and tail shape, as well as wrong colouring for a kite. No doubt you've seen the kite, but that isn't a photo of it. Sorry.

Only wrong on just the three counts then Maria. I have to say that I did wonder about the tail shape and also head colour but just thought it must be a red kite and didn't even consider buzzard. Disappointing but so pleased you put me right...the only excuse I can muster is that...'I haven't had much experience with birds!'

I have left the link at the end of this update to a report in a local newspaper about these birds. The photo below isn't one that I could say I am proud of as far as quality and detail go, but I felt it worthy of inclusion.

Buzzard (see my edit)

Red Kite for comparison (not my photo)

Arriving at Wildwood just after opening time (10am) I was a little disappointed at how, messy the entrance was-I suppose I was expecting something more impressive, when actually, it involved driving through a kind of mini-trading estate. The road was pot-holed and uneven and the Wildwood car park matched.

At reception however, I found the staff friendly and helpful, having parted with my £9.50 entrance fee, I was given a slip of paper that detailed feeding times for the day, along with a map and a couple of other leaflets.Declining their offer to become a 'member' for...'Just £3.50 per month' (I took details and said I'd think about it) I was pointed in the direction of the animals.

Being winter, there were a good number of animals that I wouldn't see as they'd be hibernating or sleeping, hiding away from the cold etc. I calculated that I could expect to maybe find about half the actual total...

I thought I'd begin with this creature because Wildwood advertise themselves as being 'The home of British wildlife, past and present' and this as you probably already know is an elk. I didn't realise that elk ever roamed the British Isles-I knew that there is an extinct species called the Irish Elk but this is apparently the Eurasian Elk and so I guess they did once inhabit the U.K. 

What is an elk anyhow? Isn't it another name for a moose? Or is a moose a larger animal? 
I guess I should take the time to find out about these things.

There were other deer at the park:

I'm not sure what this big stag was trying to tell me but I'm fairly sure it wasn't good news? Maybe he'd had his fill of photographers for the week and just wanted to be left alone with his harem?

I know that by the time I was at the enclosure where the deer are held, the head count of unruly little brats...erm...sorry, I mean, well behaved, interested children was increasing dramatically and if he wasn't getting fed up with them, I was! 
I know these places have to catch children's attention early on to inspire them in later life but most seemed to me to be more interested in trying to frighten the animals, or engage in shouting matches.

Still, I managed to keep my cool, even when the bright young thing standing next to me was trying to see how much water he could transfer from the puddle between us to my legs by stamping as hard as he could!
These are red deer by the way.

Next up were the red foxes...

I had been looking forward to seeing and photographing the red squirrel but found that, as with so many of the smaller animals, they were confined in cages that had a very close mesh wire around them, that wasn't conducive to getting clear/clean photos. They are such superb little animals though and I was really taken with them and their striking ear tufts and rufous coats. I shall make it my challenge to find and photograph more at some stage through 2014 for sure.

There were also a number of friendly, wild grey's foraging in several areas outside of the red squirrel compound...

Another animal that I was hoping to photograph was the grey heron. My home town of Cranbrook takes its name from this bird. Well, okay 'crane' but it's thought more likely, or at least debatable that it is the heron, as the area has always been known for having good numbers of the birds.

I had a wonderful half an hour photographing the heron-I wish the head of the in-flight photo had been just a tad more in focus but then, I am always critical of my work.
These are impressive creatures with a wingspan of around 6ft. Probably the largest bird you are likely to see in your garden here in Kent.
As you can see in the photo on the right here, this heron is on its nest. It is not unusual apparently for heron's to lay eggs in early February.

The numbers of grey heron breeding in the U.K. has been steadily rising; although they do suffer in bad/cold winters, when ponds and lakes remain frozen, cutting off their food supply.

It's thought that people who try to protect their fish ponds from a marauding heron by placing a decoy, are in fact just encouraging them to visit.

There are crane at Wildwood but I didn't manage to see one on the day. This is a stork. Another bird once found wild in the British Isles but now sadly only in places like Wildwood.

And so I think I actually saw around 30 species on my visit. I didn't photograph lots of them just because the surroundings looked so unnatural but all the same, a great place to visit and I really enjoyed my time there.

Ideally for me, I would have liked to see larger cages for some of the animals and for instance, I disliked the way the wolves constantly patrolled their perimeter fence-just pacing back and forth. I know that Wildwood do a lot of good conservation-wise and all care deeply about their animals. I would like to visit again come summer, but for now, I'll leave you with a photo of a wild boar-I was shocked at just how large these beasts are.

Until the next time then...

Red Kite Story (Link)
The Wildwood Trust (Link)

Monday, January 06, 2014

Michelin man and the Magnet...

Having never been respectful of rules and boundaries, I have no problem at all in snubbing the unwritten law that states it's bad form to apologise for the lack of recent blog updates.
I spent Christmas and New Year suffering from what I had thought was a troublesome cough, but was actually pneumonia.
And so blogging wasn't something I had the energy for.

Anyhow, brave little soldier that I am, I will struggle on and update right away...

Click to enlarge
Exciting  news to start 2014 actually; I have been invited to write a monthly article for a second magazine. This time I am pleased to say that I have the luxury of a full page and full-colour photographs too.

There is now a link at the right hand side of this blog to a page where I will upload a copy of each issue as published. The magazine is 'Magnet'- Please do take a look.

Late in December whilst looking for collembola, I found an oak leaf with a couple of galls still attached. I put it in my bag to take home and photograph on one, or any, of the bad weather days we have been getting. I took a couple of shots and then, thinking perhaps I would just drop it close to where I found it next time I was out walking, left it on a shelf in the garden shed.

This particular gall seems to have been formed by the cherry gall wasp (Cynips quercusfolii) and although most species of gall wasp emerge in the spring and summer, this is one that can and does emerge in the wintertime.
They are called cherry galls as they are similar in size to cherries and can have a reddish hue; a word of warning though, they contain lots of tannin, so don't try eating one. They are likely to be quite bitter and unpleasant.

Anyway, I forgot (of course) about the galls over Christmas and when at last I felt my energy returning, I looked at the shelf one day expecting to see them exactly as I had left them earlier. Indeed one was just as before, the other however didn't look anything like, instead, it had changed shape and had a largish hole in it. It didn't take too long to find the reason behind the changes either...

This little wasp had emerged since I last looked and I don't think I had missed it by much. I left it in peace and the next time I visited, assumed it had wandered off as there was no sign of it. I say wandered off because I have read that they are reluctant to fly. Quite a common gall in this part of the world. Another name is actually the common oak gall.

Back in November I posted a photo of a millipede that I had found and I came across another yesterday. This time it was one I hadn't found before despite it being widespread and common.

Cylindroiulus punctatus

This one is the blunt-tailed snake millipede. What a big name for such a small thing (25mm) but I think I have got this one right as although there are several similar ones, this one has a few markings that combine to aid identification.

As well as the dots along each side of the abdomen (hence punctatus) and a banded appearance, you can see here that the face has this wide, dark band across it, almost like a mask. This one was quite a golden brown but they can also be paler and even more of a buff colour. The legs are pale and my best (rough) estimate would be that there are somewhere between 180 and 250 in total.

These are long lived invertebrates with the female laying eggs every three years. They are also the most frequently recorded species in the British Isles.

There is one more defining feature and that is at the other end! The tail-end points backwards in a rounded, club shape that is known as a 'caudal projection'- I have circled it in the photograph below...

Back to the collembola that I was telling you about right at the top of the update; I have covered these before in some detail and so won't add loads again here but below is a photo of a couple of the more colourful, globular springtails that I spotted...

The one that I really enjoyed finding though,  was this strange example. I think this might  well  be
Onychiuridae species, although there are others similar. It might be Kalaphorura burmeisteri? It's one that is often recorded in winter and is even active under snow. The other thing to consider is that I have found the same species in the same location before too.

It measures around 3mm in length and hides away in leaf-litter.

If I wished to get really nerdy...I could check out the anal spines and vestigial furca to fully confirm an identity but let's just settle for 'possibly' as an identity on this one and then we can all get on with our lives! 

Besides all that, there is something far more interesting I discovered about this tiny creature; I doubt if it'll need much of an explanation after you look at the photo that follows?

C'mon, there's a resemblance to this Bibendum right? Ha, ha...that's what it reminded me of as soon as I saw it anyway. 

Actually, this is another example of what is a bad habit of mine, I am forever trying to liken one thing to another. Not just insects but all kinds of things, even music-I'll hear a song or tune and immediately think how it reminds me of something else. 

If you have an interest in trying to find some of these springtails (collembola) for yourself, then I would advise that you look.......anywhere, as there are an estimated 100,00 individuals per cubic metre of topsoil. Basically, everywhere on Earth where there is soil, or related habitats, such as grass and moss, will support populations waiting to be discovered.

2013 was the first year of running my home-made moth trap and I think it was quite successful regarding the number of species recorded. I need to make a few design changes for this year but nothing major.

I don't know if it's coincidence but I have noticed an increase in the amount and variety of moth caterpillars or larvae that I have been finding recently in the garden...

This little one pictured above turned up a few days ago-it's only about 35mm total length and I haven't managed to confirm an identity yet but I think it may be one of the tortrix moths? Moths are so tricky as there are so many and variations are often subtle.

This cocoon was another find. It was under what I think might be a dried willow leaf and I am sure it is a moth pupa/cocoon, perhaps a pale prominent? I plan to try and keep this one through the winter and so should be able to find out exactly what it is, providing it survives okay that is.

If it does turn out to be a pale prominent, I would expect it to emerge around May time.
I'll certainly add photos to the relevant blog update come next spring.

And so the first update of 2014 is complete and I hope before the next, I shall have better health to allow me to get about and about taking photographs.

Until the next time...