Saturday, June 24, 2017

There's a hole in my pupa, dear Liza...

I want to begin this update with an example of how a chance encounter, and further investigation, led me once again to discover more about nature than I would ever have known otherwise.

On a recent visit to my local hospital, I noticed as I walked back to the car park, an area of grass that had been allowed to do its thing and go to seed. On the long stems I spotted burnet moth pupae. One in particular caught my eye because it seemed to be a double: one directly on top of another. I decided to take it home to observe. I'd had it a couple of days when I did my usual morning check, to find a hole in each of them. Not where a moth had emerged, it was too small for that...




It looked like the work of a parasitic wasp; but I had no knowledge of wasps that attack burnet moth pupae, and so a little detective work was called for. 
Ironically, as I was settling in to that research, I was distracted by what sounded like something tiny hitting against my studio lighting. Ha! Two teeny wasps were buzzing around, and occasionally, hitting against, the strip lights. I managed to capture them both to photograph before releasing; they would also help confirm an identity...

Brachymeria tibialis - A Chalcid Wasp

And what a hind femur and tibia this little wasp has huh? Now this is what I just love about having an interest in nature and discovering facts purely through being mindful enough to look past the obvious. This rarely seen, 5mm wasp turned out to be quite a special creature. Its habitat is grassland where moths of the Burnet family (Zygaena sp.) are found. Although, as with many invertebrates, it is probably vastly under-recorded, it was only added to the British list in 2008 and there were only three British records by 2009. Status: Nationally rare.






You have to wonder what the necessity for those rugby-player thighs is all about? 





Another recent, exciting find was these shieldbug nymphs...


Definitely the youngest nymphs I have seen of the hawthorn shieldbug Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale. Spurred on by my fellow 'Flickerite' Maria, who is queen of the shieldbugs and on a quest to find ova, I returned to the dogwood tree where I found these, to see if I could spot any eggs. What followed was one of those, oh so frustrating times that seem to blight my world way too often. 

Imagine my delight when after searching and searching, I finally found a clutch of eggs! I was overjoyed (temporarily anyway) even though I couldn't prove they were actually hawthorn shieldbug eggs. They were on the very same tree, so it was looking good. Delight soon turned to despondency though, when the adrenaline rush faded and my logical(ish) brain began to function once more: Hmmm...those eggs look a tad grey to me. When was the last time I saw some that looked similar? I know, when I found a batch a few years ago that had been attacked by a parasitic wasp...



Here they are anyway...








And here's what emerged a day later...







From bugs to beetles: you will have to cut me some slack regards quality of this video but watching this ground beetle amble along, I was struck by how it moved all six legs. What I should have done is recorded in slow-motion, instead this is just the original slowed down, which results in the rubbish quality. But it does demonstrate nicely what happens...



It seems to follow this pattern: Front and hind right, plus middle left, followed by front and hind left, plus middle right. Meaning that they are almost moving their legs in pairs; well , two lots of three, if that makes sense? I was about to say, let's move away and have a look at what I have found in the garden recently; but that beetle was in the garden, which, even though I say so myself, is looking fabulous (in parts at least) now...





 How about the discovery of a thick-headed fly...


This could well be Sicus ferrugineus, a Conopid, or Thick-headed fly. Strange? 'Ugly' seems to be the word most often associated with these flies. Their larvae are quite 'dark' characters too: they are endoparasites of bumble bees and they pupate and overwinter inside their victims. Endoparasite refers to those that live inside their hosts; whilst the parasites that choose to live on the outside of their hosts are called Ectoparasites.


This tortoise beetle was something of a photographic experiment. Wanting to use natural light, but retain as much depth of filed as possible, I went for a setting of f20 with an exposure of 0.8 seconds (yawn!)...











C'mon...if cuteness were a crime, this one would be in big trouble!

This little beauty is Cionus alauda - a bird-dropping mimic weevil. Associated with figwort and described as a 'local species', well it was certainly local to me, it was in the garden. The next one I am unable to provide a positive ID for based on the photograph. Probably an acorn weevil? 





The beautiful structures in the picture below, are a form of protection from parasites for the larvae of a weevil that I am pretty confident is Hypera rumicis. Maybe those shieldbugs would benefit from something similar?






Enough with the weevils; I will put an end to this update with a happier story. How about the smiling faces of a batch of common green shieldbugs that were healthy...


These avoided the dreaded parasitic wasp invasion and emerged as nature intended (although, I guess you might say that having wasps emerge instead is also as nature intended).



And they soon changed to a less teneral colour...


It's a strange irony that green shieldbugs begin life as green, then change to brown, before becoming green again, only to change back to brown come the autumn. Whilst you ponder that thought, I will away to the woods and meadows of the Garden of England to see what else I can discover...



Friday, June 02, 2017

Scatological shenanigans...

It's hard to believe it is almost a month now since my last update. As somebody once said though "Time flies, it's up to you to be the navigator". I prefer this Woody Alan quote myself: "Time is Nature's way of keeping everything from happening at once". Enough time wasting anyway, on with the motley! 

"Thou art not a man, thou’rt but a jester!
On with the motley, and the paint, and the powder!
The people pay thee, and want their laugh, you know!"


Well I am not sure I can provide laughs, but this moth might at least make you smile?


I know there are people who will already know the name of this particular moth; but for those who don't, if you had to name it, what would you choose? Well, if you said The testicle, you would be right. Oh! No, sorry, I ballsed-up...if you said The Spectacle, you would be right! Probably one 'toilet humour' joke, is one too many, so let us dump the jokes and move along. 

By the way though: did you know the great composer Mozart was fond of toilet humour? Yes, it's true. Example: when Margaret Thatcher was apprised of Mozart's 'scatology' during a visit to the theatre to see Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus, director Peter Hall relates:

She was not pleased. In her best headmistress style, she gave me a severe wigging for putting on a play that depicted Mozart as a scatological imp with a love of four-letter words.
 It was inconceivable, she said, that a man who wrote such exquisite and elegant music could be so foul-mouthed. I said that Mozart's letters proved he was just that: he had an extraordinarily infantile sense of humour ... "I don't think you heard what I said", replied the Prime Minister. "He couldn't have been like that".
 I offered (and sent) a copy of Mozart's letters to Number Ten the next day; I was even thanked by the appropriate Private Secretary. But it was useless: the Prime Minister said I was wrong, so wrong I was!


Copyright free photo (not my image)
T'other day, I came across an owl pellet. An owl eats  small rodents, birds, and bugs as a part of its nightly diet, its stomach cannot digest the fur, bones, teeth, feathers, and insect shells from that food. These “extra” parts are formed into a tight pellet inside the owl and are then  later regurgitated


I think from using this guide above, I am happy that the pellet came from a little owl and I have seen them at the location. These pellets are always fun to dissect and examine to see just what the owl has been feeding on, and so I did...


It looks as though click beetles are a favourite! Four almost complete beetle were inside the pellet. You have to wonder what nutritional value they offer, being so small and so intact looking when they exit the owl? Don't you? Well I do!

More pellet contents

Could this be the remains of a shieldbug?


I'm not sure; could just be the rear end of a ground beetle, as they seem to be another favourite dish for this little owl. What about this next one though, any ideas?






This year seems to be proving a good one for the little 24-spot ladybirds. These are vegetarian ladybirds and are covered with a layer of fine hairs (who amongst us isn't?) and they measure around 4mm. Their colouring is described as russet...



24-spot Ladybird (Subcoccinella 24-punctata)




24-spot Ladybird larva
The larvae are quite spectacular, and not at all like the adult beetle. I used flash on these photos but it was giving me some trouble on that day and sometimes was not firing at all. Here's one when it failed to fire: I actually quite liked the effect and so kept the shot to share...



While...(I was going to write 'whilst' then, but according to the Cambridge Dictionary 'While is much more common than whilst, and whilst sounds more formal', so I didn't) anyhow, while I was out photographing the ladybird and larva, I came across something I rarely see; mostly I suspect because of its size at just 2.5 - 4.5mm. This is a Delphacid bug and looks like this...




I wouldn't like to speculate about species, as there are so many similar ones.






This update does seem to be featuring mostly tiny creatures, but I can assure you that it isn't planned...JJ planning??? This one turned up in my moth trap recently (along with a number of moths that may have to wait for another update. It measures just 3mm and as far as I can tell, seems to be a species of powder post beetle. They are wood boring beetles and get their name from the fact that the larvae feed on wood and can, in time, reduce it to powder.

This beautiful beetle was also in the same moth trap; in fact I had 3 that night...

May-bug or Cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha)


I continue to rescue wildlife from the bird bath in the garden. Mostly insects and often bees...





I haven't a scooby-doo about the identity of this one, but what a beauty. Those eyes are amazing. I only wish I did know, but my skills at identifying bees rival my prowess at sport! A couple more finds then and I think that will probably suffice for this update...


A Brown Lacewing - Wesmaelius subnebulosus (Neuroptera

Leptopterna dolabrata nymph

Alabonia geoffrella (Common Tubic moth) 







Friday, May 05, 2017

Now it's not only the birds that are blue...



Oh Boy! Where to begin this post?

Erm, when I last updated the blog with news of the blue-tits, there were 6 eggs in the nest. That was on April 18th and since that day, there has been drama and I now have a dark tale to tell...

I shall try and use a pr─Ścis form of writing as it is going to make agonising reading, and frankly I am struggling to even share this with you!

Let's then return to a couple of days post my last update information. By the 18th April there were 8 eggs and as it appears the norm is to lay one per day, I wasn't surprised to find 10 eggs 2 days later on the 20th. That transpired to be the total she would lay and she began brooding. At this juncture, the male seemed to cease feeding her and she was left to cope alone. I got to wondering if birds have any sense of loneliness, as she sat tight day after day, only leaving the nest for very short periods to find food for herself. 

This routine continued until May 3rd. The only real change I noticed was that a couple of the eggs now seemed to be elongated.

On the morning of May 4 I didn't get to check the nest-box until around 10am because I had suffered a migraine in the night and took a while after waking to gather my thoughts. 

When I did finally check, the female was busy eating eggshells and when she got off the nest, I could just make out 3 or maybe 4 tiny chicks. Now the male returned for the first time in about 10 days and was once again providing food. 
I was amazed to see the female leave the box soon after and not return for well over 10 minutes. The little chicks seemed very vulnerable to the cold at such an early age.  By 3pm on this day there were just 3 eggs left to hatch and things were starting to hot up regards feeding visits. I was so pleased to see that all was well on my last check of the nest-box at 8.30pm and the female was fast asleep with her brood safely beneath her in the warm.


       



6.30am May 5th:
Disaster! A neighbour's cat is seen close to the box and the box is hanging at an angle now. On closer inspection, I could see that the hole was blocked with nesting material too. I found a ladder and climbed up to open the top of the box and see what had happened. Inside, the nest had been almost totally destroyed and there were eggs and babies everywhere!

 As I attempted to tidy it up, best I could, from right underneath the carnage, the female emerged and took flight. She had obviously been trapped inside the box when the hole got blocked. I assume the cat had somehow managed to climb up to the box and put a paw right inside and had started to drag the contents out. What could I do? Only try to rearrange the nest and replace the chicks that were still alive, along with the eggs, and hope against hope that something could be salvaged from this mess.

And so that's what I did, and soon after the male was back with food, but was so confused that he eventually flew off again without going right into the box. He continued to visit with food and as I write this, some 4 hours later, is still doing so. The female returned too after about an hour, and so at least I know she survived okay. She too is confused of course and in her panic to restore order, has only succeeded in destroying the nest once again, to the point where the occupants are once again scattered throughout the box. I haven't seen her for a while though and assume she has given up hope!



Having followed these birds since mid March and kept a diary, as well as observing them via the nest-cam, I am absolutely distraught right now. Yes, I learnt a lot from what I did get to observe, but this was not the ending I envisaged. I am cross with myself for allowing this to happen; not doing more to protect them from cats. I had no idea the bloody things could be so agile though. The blue-tits have used this box before with great success. Sitting here writing this update, I have a nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach, and a broken heart over today's events. My immediate reaction is that I can NEVER allow this to be repeated, and so will take both the nest boxes down and remove all bird feeders, so as to not encourage birds into the garden, along with the damn cat-predators that accompany them! 

The other option of course is to construct another box for next year that is bullet-proof regards cat attacks. I have seen plans for such a thing on the internet. I will have to try and decide once I can think straight again.

The only saving grace here is that both the adults survived and will no doubt breed again, if not this year, then next.

I'll be back soon with another update that is much less downbeat. Until then, thanks for reading all this.









Wednesday, April 19, 2017

I think it was 2011 when the blue-tits nested successfully in the garden. Then again in 2012; since then, and despite installing a nest-box camera in 2015, they have got no further than regularly checking out the box. This year however, the waiting came good, and they were spotted taking a real interest on March 23rd. And so at last, I am able to blog about their progress and hopefully we will all get to learn just a little bit more about these special birds.


There are a couple of things to say before I start this diary in earnest. Firstly, I upgraded the nest-box camera to a colour and night-vision type, with a good deal of naivety over just how difficult it is to get enough light into a nest-box for colour reproduction. I cannot let it concern me now that they are nesting though; perhaps, if this is successful, I may look into it for next spring. Even then, it isn't gonna be a 'Springwatch' style event, and to have a live web-cam seems quite a complicated thing to consider. The main problem with this particular camera seems to be that the night-vision is on during daytime filming too, and that tends to washout the colour.

Then there are the videos themselves. I would be the first to say that I am no cinematographer. I am trying to learn a few tricks but need to learn to walk first! I did harbour thoughts of maybe 'cutting and shutting' all of the videos into one long one, but soon gave up on that idea, and so what you get instead are lots of short clips.




I guess I should have also mentioned that I have no way of recording directly from the screen at present, and so these videos are all recorded by holding my point and shoot camera, or sometimes phone, in front of the monitor.

Oh! One more thing: these videos don't display too well in the emailed version of this update (phone version) you really need to view the web version (scroll to bottom of post on phone and hit 'View web version').

Here we go then: this is the very first time they actually got brave enough to look inside the nest-box...

      



And then on the 24th March the female (I think) enters and positions herself in one corner and begins calling to the male, who eventually joins her, and then they both promptly leave...

     



There was a small amount of bedding added and lots of pecking and wing fluttering going on during these early visits...

      



On March 25th I decided to risk changing the camera. The old one was not really a nest-box camera at all, but a CCTV unit which had a really poor coverage area. It was also black and white with no night vision...




 The blue-tits didn't seem to notice the change and carried on with the same routine of slowly adding nesting material whilst pecking and scratching at the box. As this first clip (of disappointing quality) with the new camera shows; there was lots of nervous tension, head twitching etc. This has had the speed increased by the way, just in case you thought your eyes were deceiving you...

                                 
     





March 26th: And the interior had filled up quite a bit with nesting material, mostly moss at this stage. The behaviour pattern remained the same. This again is at x16 speed...


      




March 29th: I spotted the female removing material, as well as bringing fresh...


     
      


Thursday March 30th: Lots of morning visits, mostly removing nesting material. Whilst the female was inside the box, the male was positioned on the roof of my studio, standing tall like a meerkat on sentry duty. I am sure he was scouting for danger...




By 2pm on the last day of March, around 70% of the bedding had been removed. It wasn't until April 2nd that I noticed fresh nest-material being added again. The first week of April saw no real changes, they continued to add bedding, usually starting anywhere between 7 and 8am. Then on the 9th I saw that the female was now bringing feathers to add to the nest.


     



Most were white and seemed way too large for blue-tit feathers, and so I have been wondering where she found so many, and who the donor might have been.




At 8pm on April 9th the female settled in to spend her first full night in the box...

      



She was gone before 6.30am the next morning but has returned every night since; usually at around 7.30 to 7.45pm. There seemed to be a lot of shaking and shivering taking place before she settled each night.

      


Thursday April 13th: Once again, the nest-box was vacant by early morning. The male had ceased visiting long ago by the way, and left the female to build most of the nest alone. I haven't seen any eggs yet but tonight at 7.30 when she returned for the night, she seemed even more edgy and unable to settle. Pecking at her own chest, perhaps preparing a brooding patch?


Friday April 14th: At last! One tiny egg to be seen (just) when I checked the box at 6am...



April 15th: The now usual routine of vacating the box early morning. It seems strange to me that although the egg(s) are covered by feathers, they are left alone all day in the nest.

April 17th: 12.10pm: The female arrived with yet more feathers to add to her nest. The male then appeared and fed the female whilst inside the nest-box. Both then left within a few seconds.


      


5.10pm: The female returns and as soon as she sits on the nest, the male appears and feeds her and they are both gone again; all within 20 seconds. But at 7.10pm she returns alone to spend another night.



Tuesday April 18th: There are now six small eggs in the nest...



And that just about brings us up to date. I will update just as soon as there is news of any chicks, or anything else exciting happens.