Friday, 24 July 2015

Serpents and Giants, but no Dragons.

Yesterday saw my first attempt to get golden-ringed dragonfly this year with a family trip to Pow Hill Country park on the shores of Derwent Reservoir, where I've had success in the past.
Not a lot of sunshine about really and my task was made even harder with the kids in tow. Needless to say it was an epic Fail in respect of the dragonflies but after glimpsing a basking Common Lizard (a very dark individual with two lines of pale spotting along the upper flanks) I struck reptilian gold with my first ever sighting of an Adder which must have been basking on the bare ground beside the steps as we descended and slithered off into the woodland undergrowth, giving me time to reel off just a couple of record shots on a random panic setting before it disappeared out of sight. At no more than 8 inches long and a mix of browns it was obviously a youngster, but the zig-zag pattern was clearly visible and I knew straight off it was an adder, a lifer for the Dragonhunter and certainly made up for the lack of Golden-rings and more :-)

Wow moment, my first snake in the wild
Not the biggest or scariest, but a beaut all the same :-)

Even though just a two-tone brown, the zig-zags were a dead giveaway for this juv. Adder

I was buzzing for a while after that sighting and the lack of dragonflies didn't seem too much of a disappointment for once. Pow Hill Bog is usually good for common hawker but not even a damsel here today, and we didn't get the chance to go to the upper levels as the lack of toilets on this site meant we had to cut short our time. Best insect spot (apart from the hundreds of grasshoppers) was this ugly looking critter I found on thistle heads by the bog :

I thought this was a bee at first, it was absolutely massive, all black with yellow head, and on closer
inspection found it to be a fly of some sort, about the size of a queen bee certainly the biggest I've ever encountered 

After investigation I found it to be a Giant Tachinid Fly Tachina grossa
One of the largest flies in Europe, it lays eggs on hairy caterpillars (particularly fond of those of the Eggar Moth)
and the larvae devour the unfortunate caterpillar from the inside.
As gruesome as it is ugly, and compare the size in relation to the soldier beetles it was right next to.
Bigger than most bees I've seen, definitely more scary than the snake 

So that's the first week of the school hols just about over and looking at the forecast for the next 5 days at least I'll be struggling to find a decent dragon session at even a local site. It's times like this I regret not being able to drive, during the school hols my dragonhunting is restricted to casual visits I can wangle from family outings and a few snatched hours in the valley, so don't be expecting too many posts the next few weeks. Still, if they all bring a bit of excitement like yesterday I won't be complaining too much come September :-)

Sunday, 19 July 2015

An Opportune Moment

Another windy day on Saturday, another couple of hours to spare, this time a walk up to Thornley Woods Pond to see if there's any hawker action occurring yet.

I wasn't expecting too much (as usual) but a very interesting session ensued. Highlights included finding this lifeless Southern Hawker in the pond just off the boardwalk, which despite the tragic circumstances made a rather fetching image :

More of that to come, but back to the beginning.

When I arrived at the pond the skies were overcast but a hawker was already in situ. To the eye, it looked a bit dark for a Southern (the resident species here), and through bins I was soon able to confirm it as a male Common Hawker, nice, my first of the year :-)
From the height of his patrols he seemed to be feeding rather than looking for a mate and after no more than a couple of minutes flew off as the wind under clouded skies was getting gustier.

Not the best photo you'll ever see of a common hawker, even as a record shot,
but it'll have to do for now :-/
 After the hawker disappeared I got down to searching the pond. Damsels seemed in short supply due to the conditions but I soon built up a healthy total of azures, all sheltering in the thick emergent grasses.
A few large reds too, all making swift appearances during hints of sunshine.
At the side of the pond I came across an exuvia, in good view for once so I was able to get a decent photograph :

Southern Hawker exuvia, judging by the number seen so far this year it looks like
being a much better year for them here than it was in 2014.
It was in such excellent condition I decided to collect it to photograph later in detail, but not having a suitable container I placed it in my binoculars case, and unfortunately by the time I got it home it looked like it had been in a road accident (bugger!).       

Then came the drowning hawker moment, but after taking the photograph I noticed the dragonfly twitching, it wasn't dead after all, so I fished it out of the water and placed it on a frond of bracken by the seat, hoping it would dry out and fly off, no harm done.

Finally getting a good look at it, an immature male not exactly in tip-top condition.
And of course I filled my boots with photographs at the same time, well it would have been rude not to take advantage of such an opportunity wouldn't it? So hope you don't mind if I over indulge :

His bent abdomen and wingtips suggest he was obstructed by vegetation during emergence

A closer look at the wings, the left hind-wing is half-missing, perhaps chewed off while in the water
or grabbed by a bird which actually put him in the pond?
As an immature I doubt very much it would be a fight with a rival which downed him, but the state of his wings
could impair his flight, he may simply have lost control in the wind.
Brown eyes and pale yellow and blue markings denote an immature male

From this angle he looks a bit like Judge Dredd
I took a variety of shots as he preened himself and warmed up his wing muscles occasionally by vibrating them rapidly, making me hope it wouldn't be too long before he took flight again:

It was soon time for me to go, and he was no nearer to making a recovery. Had I had something suitable to carry him in I would have taken him home and kept an eye on him, but as it was, with the wind still quite vigorous I snapped off the frond I'd placed him on and steadied it in a more sheltered place.

And that was where I left him. I hoped to return in the evening but wasn't able to, and with heavy overnight rain I can only hope he was able to recover in time, and my rescue didn't turn out to be just an insect version of the old joke about the man stranded on the desert island who suddenly sees a ship approaching and yells "Yes, I'm saved, it's the Titanic!"  :-(

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Like a Damsel in the Wind

With July so far being a bit shit for dragonhunting, not that there are many actual Dragonflies around yet due to the late start to the season, I find myself heading out when there isn't really much chance of seeing anything anyway.
Friday was a case in point; the sun was shining but it was incredibly windy for the time of year so there wasn't much point in going any further than Far Pasture (for a change) hoping it wouldn't be so brisk at the bottom of the valley.

Think again, the trees and long grasses in the fields were swishing about like a load of headbangers at a Judas Priest gig, and for once I made a beeline straight for the hide.
Only a few blue damsels dared venture out over the pond, though another brief sighting, this time of a Four-spotted Chaser took me by surprise.
Not really much doing so I checked the roadside ditch and thick vegetation around the gate, and managed to track down some damsels anyway :

This female Common Emerald was hiding in the thick grass by the Forbidden gate,
a cracking damsel though in her prime. 

Next find was this rather flighty green phase infuscans Blue-tail female
She flushed up out of the thick but soon made her way back down again

But not before alighting on the barbed wire for a closer shot

A male Blue-tail also made an appearance just further along the fence
I checked the field where I had the Darters on my previous visit. Plenty of butterflies were braving the conditions but hardly a damsel and certainly no darters to be seen.
Then I caught sight of a bonny little damselfly semi-hidden in the thick growth over the fence, a blue-tail but the most strikingly orange form I'd ever seen though this photo doesn't show it as bright as it looked to the eye :

Now I know the Scarce Blue-tail has an orange form but they don't ever come anywhere near this far north, do they?
Well no, I could only get a couple of record shots of this one before a really stiff gust took it away never to be seen again, but I got enough of it to confirm back at home that it was no more than just a 'strange phase' Common Blue-tail. Still wish I could have got a few closer shots and from side-on as well but couldn't relocate it after the wind took it.

A lovely little damsel this one, but a srtrange one as well.The lack of antehumeral stripes make it
an infuscans-obsoleta form female, but segment 8 near the tail is topped black(like the scarce blue-tail)
however, the orange form scarce blue-tail is also bright orange on segments 1-2 and part of 3 along the abdomen.
This one should have started life as a pink rufescens form with a blue segment 8 turning dull yellowish-brown.
 Never mind, a bit of excitement to end an otherwise pretty dull week, it's the stuff that keeps us going :-)   

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Not so Common Common

Today was meant to be my big day out to Kibblesworth for Black-tailed Skimmer, been trying to get over for the last two weeks but need a full day and for the weather to be right, which has been a bit difficult to synchronise.
The forecast had been good for today all week, but with Sprog1 off school with a throat problem and possibly needing to go to hospital my plans had to be reviewed as I'd have to pick up the other sprogs from school.
Not to worry, family needs come first, and Plan B was a return visit to Gibside, getting back in time for pickup should Sprog1 get his appointment.
Alas, complications set in and by the time everything was sorted, Sprog1's appointment now postponed to Friday, it was already early afternoon, so my only real choice now was the short trek down to Far Pasture to hunt for Common Darter.

At least the sun got out properly by the time I got there, a scan of Pond3 from the coral-gate revealed a large hawker quartering the pond, all too brief for an ID, and though I was tempted to sneak in for a closer look as I could neither see nor hear the ponies, I thought better of it and left it unidentified.

The roadside ditch held a few azure and blue-tailed damsels, but no sign of any darters, though there's still a fair bit of water here so hopefully the ruddy darters will still appear before long.

A couple of Emeralds by the gate to the Forbidden Pond, the pond itself devoid of life, it's now the driest I've seen it, a mosaic of cracked earth, just needs some kind of horned animal skull placed on it to look like one of those stereotyped death valley images.

A look on the main pond brought a surprise in the shape of a Broad-bodied Chaser (male) only the second I've noted on here but didn't stay in view long. Damsels a-plenty, an assortment of blues but again no darters.
I snapped a lot of interesting mini-beasts (for a later date) but just about gave up on my target darters and began to make my way home, still scanning all around as I did so.
An amazing number of butterflies in the bull-field on the thistles, brambles and hogweed, mainly ringlets and meadow browns, but also large white, speckled wood, comma, small tort, red admiral and skippers.
And it was while I was watching these I stumbled across a Common Darter, an immature female, perched in decent view but well in to the field. Luckily I could rest on the fence to get a few shots at full zoom and they didn't turn out too bad, though the angle could have been better.

Common Darter (female) - Far Pasture
first sighting for 2015
After filling my boots with that one it didn't take me long to get sight of another, again a female, this one angled towards me for a better view, though slightly obscured by the rampant vegetation.

and the second sighting, not long after

And the best of the rest, plenty of blue-tails on show today
Really late now and I needed to get back so there wasn't time to scan for any more, but happy with a successful dragonhunt and my mission accomplished, though I doubt I'll get to Kibblesworth now with the school holidays starting, so I'll be missing Black-tailed Skimmer for the second year running (some dragonhunter me eh?).
Never mind, there's always next year :-/     

Monday, 13 July 2015

Tree Bee or not Tree Bee, that Was the Question . . .

Back in April we started hearing a strange noise at night from the bedroom and weren't sure what it was or where it was coming from. At first it was a fairly quiet muffled 'grunt' and sometimes quite gentle and dove-like. We have a thick climber growing at the corner of the house, I wondered whether a dove or some other bird was roosting there or even nesting and the sound was carrying through the grill. I looked, there wasn't.
At other times it was quite sniffy or grunty, almost hedgehog-like and next guess was a hedgehog nesting under or close to the bush in the thicker undergrowth. I looked, there wasn't.

As time went by the noises became louder, more animated and definitely more confusing, sometimes sounding like a troop of monkeys, and as it became louder it became obvious that it was coming from the attic, right in the corner of the room.
I investigated but couldn't see anything in the attic corner, (certainly no monkeys) though it isn't easy to see as we have deep-piled insulation and a narrow-angled roof.

The noises continued to grow louder, sometimes during the day but mostly through the night. I now feared we had rats up there after finding some info and similar sounds on the internet so decided a more thorough investigation was needed.
Back in the attic I went, with head-strap torch, garden tool for peeling back the insulation and poking around in corners, board to place over struts for kneeling on.
Again nothing, no horrid smells, no sign of any animal habitation or damage, and no noises until I heard a bzzzzzz and looked across to see a large bee crawling along the far wall. Couldn't be just bees could it?

That's a bee crawling up the wall just right of centre 
More investigations and though bees were more likely, I was still convinced rats were the culprit as by now the noises were like animals in communication with each other, sometimes softly, other times aggressive, though the aggressive noises were certainly more drill-like and bee-like, an aggravated series of buzzes. But the bees theory did solve one quandary as there had been a constant low-pitched hum which I thought was a fault with the heating, but thankfully that was definitely the bees.

It got to a point where I would end up sleeping on the settee rather than be kept awake all night by the ungodly noises as among other things I couldn't stand the thought of having rats scurrying about above my head while I slept.
We already had a nest of Tree Bumblebees in the garage roof and looking at the bees coming and going from under the eaves these were the same. I was up and down the ladders many more times with always the same result, each time poking around a bit more closely, each time finding only bees and nothing else.

A Tree Bumblebee Bombus hypnorum
A relative newcomer to our shores, first noted on the south coast in 2001 but rapidly spread northwards
and now present in southern Scotland
Eventually (after some weeks mind you) I concluded it was after all just the bees, literature on this particular species says cases like ours cause concern as the bees keep unsociable hours, and it's the chatter of the young Queens which make all the noise, but they should depart the nest in early July and the nest will die off and be abandoned shortly afterwards.
True to form the noises have all but abated now, just the muffled 'grunts' now and again of the resident Queen like back in April, and soon she will be away herself.

Usually the earliest species on the wing, a variable tawny thorax, black abdomen always tipped white.
Unlike other bunblebees they usually nest very high up, mostly holes in trees in the countryside.   

In urban areas they will take over nest boxes (even evicting birds)
but typically find their way into houses through holes under eaves and under roof tiles
(don't I know it)  

The workers feed on a variety of plants and are highly active. Nests in roofs are often made directly
on the back of plasterboard ceilings, making the noise of the 'hive' sound a lot louder
(don't I know it again)    

At first a nest will not be conspicuous, but tell-tale signs
are yellow pollen splodges around an entrance hole, and dead workers
on the ground outside a nest site. Dead bees are simply
dumped out of the nest hole. 

By the end of May activity around the nest starts to become conspicuous, as clouds of bees start to gather around the entrance to the nest in a behaviour called 'nest-surveillance'. 

This can look quite intimidating, but is in fact quite harmless, for these are drones, stingless males, dancing
around the nest hole waiting for the young queens to emerge for mating.
Observe them and you will notice they always face the nest in anticipation, and smaller worker bees will fly
through the swarm straight in and out of the hole as usual.
This behaviour lasts from dawn 'til dusk for a number of weeks, ours peaked at around 16 individuals but is now
down to 1 or 2. Once they leave the nest the drones don't go back, fending for themselves until they expire.  

And this is what it's all about, a lucky drone attaches itself to a larger virgin queen.

They grapple in mid-air and fall to the ground. It actually looks like they're fighting at first,
but once attached properly, mating can last for some time . . .

. . . and not always restricted to a twosome
Two males will sometimes clash and fall to the ground entangled. This is
 apparently erroneous mating but this poor bugger was left damaged
and crippled after one such clash.  

I got the information from :
It explains fully the behaviour and life-cycle I've witnessed over the last few months and put my mind at ease. The bees may have caused me some sleepless nights but at least I gained some insight and knowledge of another fascinating micro-creature.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Pony and Trap . . .

With an hour or so to spare I nipped down to Far Pasture yesterday afternoon, looking for newly emerged Common Darters. The first thing I noted was the number of Cleggies buzzing around and landing on me clothes, but not me exposed parts thanks to Jungle Formula once again :-)
They must be attracted to heat as when someone I knew drove along the road and stopped to chat, the number of cleggs landing on his car was unbelievable. I was a bag of nerves so cut the conversation short and watched him drive off with a cloud of cleggies in tow.

Plenty of interesting insects about, a few damsels from the hide but not much else. Small numbers of damsels at the roadside ditch too, but nothing at all on the Forbidden Pond, though at least there's a bit more water in after the recent rains.

So to Pond3 and it looked like the 7th Cavalry had been through. The single track through the meadow was now a spaghetti junction of trails and flattened areas, the tell-tale horseshoe prints grassing up the culprits.
'Why people need to ride around willy-nilly in a lovely wildflower meadow I have no idea' were my initial thoughts.
I spent a while watching a couple of 4-spotted chasers and assorted damsels at the pond edge but no signs of any darters. Did find a female Common Blue damsel though at long last, conveniently attached to her mate :

A female Common Blue damsel yellow form
 (a rare sight so far this summer)

While I was taking those photos I heard some loud snorting coming from behind the border trees and that was when it suddenly dawned on me that people hadn't been riding around the fields, some bugger had put the ponies back in ! Aaaargh!!!!

I have an inherent fear of horses/cows, just big things in fields really (and I had a terrifying encounter with a police horse at a football match once). Basically I just don't trust the buggers so as soon as I realised just what was going on I bolted for the gate some 50 yards away, (I actually felt a pony and trap coming on but luckily it was just a horse and cart) and just in time, as I practically vaulted the metal gates three hefty-looking ponies ran around the edge of the pond where I'd just been standing and charged across what was left of the meadow towards me.

There's the ponies, but it was me who had the express
(pond just at the right of those trees)

A lucky escape, but that looks like the end of my Pond3 adventures for this year :-(     

Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Prattle of the Little Bighorns

The day after I photographed a couple of very colourful Longhorn Beetles at Gibside (the first I'd noted in years) I couldn't believe it when I found another at Far Pasture, similarly patterned, though duller, and a totally different species.

Pachytodes cerambyciformis (Speckled Longhorn)
Medium sized up to 12mm (though the one I saw was nearer 2cms) a mainly southern distribution,
localized in the north and east, the Derwent Valley seems to be a stronghold of the species in the NE.
Larvae typically develop in exposed roots of fallen trees, take 2 years to mature, and the beetles
fly from May-Aug and found on many plants, preferring hawthorn, umbellifers and buttercups

I don't know too much about the Longhorns, other than they can be quite spectacular so I've done a bit of googling.

In Britain we have over 60 species ranging in size from 3mm to 45mm, though some introduced species are even bigger. It is the lengthy antenna which gives them their name, often being close to or more than body length. A few are considered pests but in the main they are thought beneficial to woodland as most species larvae are found in dead wood or the stems and roots of plants like thistles. Woodpeckers are especially fond of the larvae, and can be seen pecking at dead timber to root them out.
It is the introduced species which are mainly regarded as pests, using live trees for their larval stage, and the impressively sized Asian Longhorn the most destructive of these.
The adults emerge late spring and despite their imposing presence are harmless and purely vegetarian, and can therefore be found in June and July feeding on nectar on flowering plants growing along woodland edges and rides, particularly hawthorn, dogwood, and flat-topped umbellifers like cow parsley and hogweed.

I knew I had some other Longhorn photos of a couple of very distinctive species and managed to find them after a bit of a battle, I hadn't realised it had been so many years since I took them but I eventually found them from way back in June 2007, taken (with the Krappy Kodak) very close together just like my latest batch :

Rhagium Mordax (Black-spotted Longhorn)
A great scientific name, my first Longhorn and discovered in my own
front garden in early June 2007
Up to 23mm long but quite short antennae compared to most species. Larvae found
in stumps and decaying trunks of broad-leaved trees in old woodland
take 2-3 years to develop, adults fly from June-Aug, often found
on dead wood. 

Leptura quadrifasciata (Four-banded Longhorn)
I remember this one well just a couple of weeks later on June 20th, as it almost crashed into my face
at the Octagon Pond at Gibside, then I quickly photographed it when it landed on the fence.
The literature says it reaches 2cms long, I remember it as the biggest beetle I've ever seen
at around 4 cms. It was an impressive beast.
Birchwood (dead) is favoured for larval development which takes 2-4 years. adults like umbellifers and brambles

Completing the line-up are the two differently marked but same species at Gibside on Monday :

Two versions of Rutpela maculata (Black and Yellow Longhorn)
Up to 20mm long they are common and conspicuous. Markings vary, they are very active flyers
and visit umbillifers, brambles and thistles.
Larvae found in dead and decaying wood of broadleaved trees and take 2-3 years to develop
 I'll be keeping an eye out for more, it's peak time for them now and they seem to love the cow parsley flowers by the sides of roads and paths (as do many other pollinating insects) so worth a quick inspection as you pass.

Monday, 6 July 2015

The Final Piece of the Damsel Jigsaw

A trek around Gibside today was a bit of a disappointment, partly due to the lack of sunshine, but mainly due to the lack of Dragonflies, though I was fully expecting to find the final damsel of our regular six to emerge, the Emerald.

The Walled Garden Pond is completely dry and not even a damselfly was present today in two visits. This pond is usually a decent site for Ruddy Darter but I can't see any emerging this year with the state it's in at the moment.

My first visit to the lily Pond coincided with a schoolkids pond dipping event, luckily it wasn't sunny and there wasn't much flying anyway, just a few azure and common blue damsels in the surrounds, so I left them to it.

The Octagon Pond next, an unidentified teneral and a couple of blue-tailed were all that showed here, 'til this feller posed nicely on the fence.

A long walk now as I trekked around the slopes of the deep cut ravine. Rumours of Golden-ringed Dragonfly I think must stem from here as its an open woodland stream, their preferred breeding habitat. One found in the walled garden in 2010 and I've heard second hand that someone has spotted Golden-ringed here the last couple of years. Not today though.
Barking Roe Deer, a calling Tawny, and cracking views of a Buzzard as it flew low down the ravine; then a Dipper near to where the stream meets the river Derwent were the highlights; beating off Cleg Flies were the lowlights (Jungle Formula wins again).

I hoped to pick up a hawking hawker before I completed the circuit and arrived back at the Lily Pond, but none to be had. At least the pond was quiet now and the sun was beating down. Damsel numbers were much improved, the blues were out in force as were the reds now, but I was really hoping to find my first Emerald of the year (and final damsel species), and I soon found some in immature form in the long grass near the 'damsel tree' (where else?)

First Emerald damsel of the year, an immature male, wings spread in typical perching pose

Next an immature female, wings firmly shut as they tend to do more as immatures,
but she's so bad at it she has them all folded over one side of her abdomen. 

Another female, have to say I prefer the colouring of the immature emeralds
the flesh-coloured parts will turn creamy white in the female which still looks good.

The male will develop a powder blue pruinescence which doesn't complement the
metallic green so well (yeah I know its not a fashion contest)

I always find the emeralds are a lot more approachable than other damsels
ideal for close-ups like this one.

The main supporting cast today came in the form of a couple of Longhorn Beetles, the first appeared as I was photographing the Emeralds, then when the afternoon party of Pond-dippers arrived I moved over to the seat clearing and found what I thought was the same Beetle again, only realising the markings were different when I scrutinised the photos at home. Same species though Rutpela maculate.

Cracking beetles these, not called longhorn for nothing, look at the size of those antennas

Great family of beetles the longhorns, these only the third species I've photographed.
But back to the dragonflies and what a difference a year makes. Early July last year there were many more emerald damsels out by now, and I also recorded common darter, common hawker and broad-bodied chaser here, and that was a week earlier. Today only five damsel species on show.

Large Red male, the best of the few I bothered to snap today

 I can only conclude that the cold spring has retarded the growth of the larvae, so taking longer to reach their final instar for emergence, and worse for those in dried out ponds, as they will probably remain underground in a state of diapause 'til next year, if they survive at all.

And on that bombshell . . . . .