Saturday 31 May 2014

Week 19, Extra: Carpet, Muslin & a little Gem

Not the contents of my living room but a few of the captivating critters around Box Moor. After the rain at the start of the week, I managed a couple of outings, targeting moths in particular. With some 2400 possible UK species, and less than 30 on my found list, the odds are in my favour to experience the thrill of a new discovery.....every time I go out! It is strangely addictive.

However, before I get to the moths, it is a bug to rival any jewel that Mr Fabergé could create. The tiny but beautiful Woundwort shieldbug. It is, of course, a member of the True Bug (Hemiptera) order (no Fake Bugs peddled on this blog thank you). It is a bona fide gem of nature, which was once rare in the UK but numbers have since grown. This one was at the Bovingdon Brickworks site. However, Martin Parr has also found them at the Gadespring cressbeds, a site which is not yet open to the public but which has an “Open Day” tomorrow 11am - 2pm. See the Box Moor Trust website for details.

Martin is one of two Conservation Managers at the Maple Lodge nature reserve near Rickmansworth, but he is also very kindly carrying out some informal survey work for the Box Moor Trust. He introduced me to the shieldbug species earlier this month and, so, it was all the more rewarding to finally find one. The only downside was that it was deep in dark undergrowth, so, in order to photograph it, I had to lift it out. I would have preferred a natural setting but my finger had to suffice. Anyway, back to the sheildbug: “There is one generation per year; the nymphs feed on hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) and sometimes other plants...such as white dead-nettle. New adults may be found from August onwards.” Keep your eyes peeled!

Next up, who could resist an ivory cloak with black spots, accessorised with an extravagant, white feather ruffle!? Not me, that's for sure. Another Brickworks find, an elegant female Muslin moth (Diaphora mendica) that looked positively strokable (is that even a word?!). The male is a grey-brown colour and is nocturnal. The female gets out and about during the day, soaking up the sunshine (sensible lady). The larval food plants are “dock, dandelion, heathers, chickweed, plantains, Purple-moor grass and Eared Sallow”. It isn’t rare but was a joy to find, and, it actually sat still for photographs, which made it all the more satisfying. [Better reproductions can be found in a set on Flickr here]

Now, to the Common Carpet moth (Epirrhoe alternata). It’s not difficult to see how it acquired its name. It’s widespread i.e. “common”, and it looks like, well, a 1970’s carpet (what? It does!). I think it is mostly nocturnal but “is easily flushed in the daytime”. This one was at Roughdown Common.

A couple of other moths, photographed in the drizzle at Dellfield. The Yellow-barred Long-horn (Nemophora degeerella) (look at those antennae!) and the tiny (6mm long) Diamond-back moth (Plutella xylostella).
  • Longhorn fact: This is probably a male, judging by the length of the antenna (i.e. long! (and I am resisting all smutty jokes)). 
  • Diamond-back fact: it only lives 14 days.

    Long-horn (Nemophora degeerella)
    Long-horn (Nemophora degeerella)
    Diamond-back (Plutella xylostella)

Finally, the prize for the most curious find of the week goes to this

    Side 1
    Side 2

It was approx 1cm long, “hairy” and obviously “plugged into” the willow (Salix fragilis) leaf. In fact, it’s probably the larval casing of a Coleophora lusciniaepennella moth. Basically, inside that tightly compressed casing, created from the leaf, is a developing larva. As it grows, it constructs new cases in which to live. It feeds by attaching to the leaf and “mining” for nutrients. At this stage it’s still feeding but will soon enter the pupation phase, when feeding stops and metamorphosis occurs. The adult moth emerges June or July. It’s an incredible process these little creatures go through!

Birding moments of note this week at the Brickworks: I not only heard but saw the male Cuckoo singing; a stunning male Bullfinch perched in the open but not long enough to photograph unfortunately, and I heard my first Brickworks Willow Warbler.

Wednesday 28 May 2014

Week 19: Beaming through the Drizzle & a Rare Moth

There’s nothing quite like stumbling across a flower that’s smiling at you, in fuchsia pink, to lift your day. It felt all the more delightful in the face of steady drizzle, leaden skies and gusty breezes.

Yesterday, I decided to embrace the rain, the wet, straggly hair and the soggy socks. I wasn’t disappointed, although I did manage to drop a lens into the sodden grass and temporarily stop my heart in horror. No harm done thankfully. Dellfield continues to be a source of joy-filled surprises. I never know what I’m going to find next. This week, it was the first spikes of the Common Spotted orchids, peering out from the expanse of wild flowers and grasses. It's a fairly common perennial, found in “grassy habitats and open woods”.

The next 3 paragraphs may look a little intimidating but are worth the effort if you fancy hearing about life-sucking, innocent-looking wild flowers; a rare Hertfordshire moth and the all too public consequences of prioritising a cup of tea over getting a decent photograph. Read on, if this appeals.

Another plant which is thriving, in its thousands, on Dellfield, is Yellow Rattle. Apparently, it is uncommon in Hertfordshire but less so on Box Moor Trust land, which is managed to encourage wild flowers and associated insect life. Above ground, it is all "sweetness and light" with its jaunty, rattling seedpods nestled behind dainty, buttercup-yellow flowers. Below ground, it's a thieving toe-rag, sending out parasitic roots into neighbouring grasses to nick their nutrients! But, it is this vampire-like behaviour which makes it such an asset to developing wild flower meadows. Potentially suffocating grasses are weakened and kept in check, allowing wild flowers to compete and establish. Yellow Rattle is also, I have learned, important in the wonderful world of moths.

It’s been nearly 4 weeks since my first mothing experience and so it was about time (not at all!) that I found a county rarity. In fact, it was another of Dellfield’s happy accidents. One of the moths I chanced upon last week, the Grass Rivulet, is, I learned, listed in the moths of Hertfordshire (2006) as “very rare”, with the only known colonies being around Long Marston. Its laval food plant is, you guessed it, Yellow Rattle and so its presence on Dellfield is neither coincidental nor insignificant. It is at this point that I must thank the Box Moor Trust mothing team for their help. In particular, Roger Prue, for providing all the information on the Grass Rivulet; for alerting me to the presence and significance of Yellow Rattle on Dellfield, and for going into the field and re-finding the moth. Hopefully, over the coming weeks, we’ll be able to get an idea of how many there are at the site and see whether the species has a stronghold. Furthermore, Ben and the team had their first ever Grass Rivulet at the Brickworks last week, so, perhaps another colony exists over there.

Although rare, following a string of emails between various knowledgable moth’ers, it transpires that the Grass Rivulet is gaining ground. In the last 3 or 4 years, there have been a number of sightings across Hertfordshire, most of which are in the west [thanks to Colin Plant, county moth recorder, for this information]. Naturally, for my most significant find to date, I pulled out all the stops and managed 2 over-exposed, off focus photographs (it's a relief I haven’t got a reputation to maintain). They may be rare but they are also right little so-and-sos to capture at rest, especially when they are the last thing you find before heading home for a much needed cup of tea! Roger did far better during his visit, but I’m consoling myself with the thought that he wasn’t gasping for a cuppa nor had he been driven to the brink of madness by disappearing Small Coppers!

    Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor)
    [over-exposed & out of focus!] Grass Rivulet (Perizoma albulata)

The very dull, low contrast conditions gave me the opportunity to photograph the Oak with Hay Wood as its backdrop. Normally, in good light, the shadows and/or position of the sun make this composition very tricky. Silver linings and all that.

I still haven’t got used to the change from bare winter trees to lush spring vegetation. Every time I arrive at Dellfield at the moment, I have to drink in the transformation from empty, spiky, brown branches to lavish, green, soft textures of all hues and sizes. Maybe next week it'll be less of a surprise...

Left, 26 February 2014; Right, 27 May 2014

Monday 26 May 2014

Week 19, Common Blues: Intimate Moments

After a sunny Sunday, the forecast is for a fairly breezy, wet week. It’s going to require a bit of luck to catch a dry spell of weather at the same time as I’m free to get out around Box Moor. So, in an attempt to maintain summer optimism whilst waiting for a break the rain, here are a few shots to be going on with. A mating pair of Common Blues from the Brickworks on Sunday morning. They really meant business, remaining firmly connected in flight (impressive!), at rest (easy) and whilst clambering over plants (also impressive, although, I'm not sure who leads and who walks backwards).

[Better reproductions can be found in the Flickr set here].

And, finally, preserving their modesty with the proverbial fig leaf...

Saturday 24 May 2014

Week 18, Map: Bovingdon Brickworks

I hadn't realised, until this weekend, that there isn't anything immediately accessible to provide directions to the The Box Moor Trust's Bovingdon Brickworks site. I'm sure there will be (or are) official maps/guides but, until I can find them, I hope the following information is helpful.

Firstly, I've put together a rough map in google maps, HERE. You will need to switch to "satellite" view to obtain all the detail.

It should look like this, with notes for the markers in a margin on the left

When you arrive at the corner of Green Lane, marked on the map by the flag, you'll see a number of paths/entrances.

The Corner of Green Lane

At the "Entrances to Bovingdon Brickworks Site" shown above, you'll see 3 paths. The left and right (behind the hedge) paths lead to the Brickworks site, the central path leads to a private house and shouldn't be approached.

You'll find numerous tracks and trails to explore, so good luck and have fun!

EDIT 29 May 2014: The Box Moor Trust have kindly supplied a copy of the Bovingdon Brickworks leaflet which was distributed last year (2013) for the Family Day. It provides detailed directions to the Brickworks and a suggested walk. The PDF can be found here or here.

EDIT 31 August 2014: I only discovered the area of the Brickworks shown in orange (SE side of Baker's Wood) this month (August 2014) so have updated the google map and the map shown above accordingly.

Thursday 22 May 2014

Week 18: The Butterfly Effect

There has been an awful lot to catch my eye, spark my interest and tickle my fancy this week! I’m quite glad of the forecast rain today. It gives me the opportunity to put together a post.

The butterfly effect. Going to sleep last night, the lasting vision, burned into my retinas, was that of a tiny butterfly, on the top of a flower, blowing gently in the breeze. Unfortunately, in the field, that vision is all too often accompanied by mild impatience and the taste of helplessness (please let this little creature stay put), with anticipation that said flower might finally come to rest, allowing the chance to take a shot. It may not be chaos theory but, capturing the moment is downright tricky, especially if a butterfly decides to flap its wings.

When it comes to photographing these lovely insects, I am a novice. It seems to involve a heck of a lot of patience and luck. I have been pursuing Orange-tips all spring, without success. This week, it was the Small Coppers that led me on a merry dance (quite literally) around Dellfield and Bovingdon Brickworks. I dread to think what I looked like to passing dog-walkers, as I ran around in circles, weaving this way and that, following tiny (invisible?!) flying objects! However, when you do come across a butterfly, or group of butterflies, which are inclined to settle in one spot, it is pure heaven. Such was my good fortune on Tuesday afternoon.

The main meadow at Bovingdon Brickworks (the one with the mound of earth in the centre) held at least 7 Common Blue butterflies, all in one small area. This meadow, and the one to the north-west of it, are covered in Bird’s-foot Trefoil, the favoured nectar plant of the adults and the primary foodplant for the larvae. Through the afternoon, the sun was hidden behind clouds, which meant the butterflies were less energetic. In what felt like the blink of an eye, I had whiled away an hour in the company of predominantly settled Common Blues. I had the opportunity to photograph both male and female and to gain upper and underwing shots.

Common Blues (almost a mating pair, female, left; male, right) on Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi)

    Male upperwing
    Female upperwing

    Male underwing
    Female underwing

[If you’d like to see higher resolution images of the Common Blues, they are in a set on Flickr, here]

The good weather carried on into Wednesday so I decided to return to the Brickworks. I’d seen a Small Copper the previous day and hoped to relocate it. However, before I even arrived at the meadow’s entrance gate, in an area of dappled shade, I came upon a duelling pair of male Speckled Woods. I watched them tussling in flight until the interloper eventually capitulated and flew off. The victor quickly took up his favoured, sunlit spot in the nettles to wait for passing females. As for the Small Copper, I did eventually find one at the Brickworks but only managed a record shot. In the afternoon, I thought I’d try my luck at Dellfield and when I’d finally given up and was heading home, I stumbled upon a settled Small Copper. It absolutely made my day.

    Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)
    Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas)

Butterflies weren’t the only insects on the wing this week. Whilst trying and failing with the Small Copper at Dellfield, I came across my first migrant moth, a Silver Y (Autographa gamma). The “Y” refers to the prominent creamy/white marking on each wing resembling a “Y” or the greek letter “gamma”. There were also a couple of Grass Rivulet moths (Perizoma albulata) and numerous Burnet Companions out around Dellfield (where there’s plenty of Red Clover (larval food plant)). There was also a Cinnabar moth and 2 or 3 Burnet Companions out at the Brickworks (the Bird’s-foot Trefoil being another preferred larval food plant for the Companion).

[Dellfield] Silver Y moth (Autographa gamma)  [For a higher resolution, see Flickr image]

    [Brickworks] Cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae)
    [Brickworks] Burnet Companion moth (Euclidia glyphica)

A couple of other fun finds at the Brickworks were a Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly and the aptly named Swollen-thighed Beetle. The Chaser took me completely by surprise (I was nowhere near a pond!) and I only managed 2 photographs, from a distance, with the wrong lens, before I lost it again. The Beetle was feasting on the buttercup pollen and it's the massive thighs which indicate gender.

    Broad-bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa) (female)
    Swollen-thighed Beetle (Oedemera nobilis) (male)

Birds of note at the Brickworks on Wednesday morning were a singing male Cuckoo, a couple of Bullfinches (a male flew over my head) and a Nuthatch in the woods by Shantock Hall Lane. I also came across a ragged looking female Whitethroat, perhaps busy raising a brood. The Common Frog spawn seems to have disappeared from the flooded gully so I shall stop reporting on that.

Ben and the team ran the moth traps this week at the Brickworks and Gadespring. They attracted more than 100 species, staying up into the early hours of the morning! That’s what I call dedication! You can read the full report on Ben’s blog here.

If you’ve not had a chance yet to vote in the readership poll, in the previous post, there's still time. It would be much appreciated. Thank you.

Finally, this week’s Oak photograph. What a difference a few leaves makes!

Left, 23 January 2014; Right, 19 May 2014

Sunday 18 May 2014

Week 17, Extra: Flying Tiger & A Poll

I reckon my mothing initiation is complete. There I was, listening attentively to the sound of a Whitethroat, hoping against hope it might actually emerge from the brambles, when out of the corner of my eye, a red flicker. Without a thought for the consequences, I abandoned the Whitethroat and went after the Flying Red Thing. “Birder!?”, I hear you cry, “call yourself a birder?!”. Happily, many of my birding friends are interested in other areas of natural history, so, a burgeoning affection for moths is, it seems, entirely acceptable and, perhaps, par for the course, as the wonders of nature take hold.

Anyway, back to the Flying Red Thing. It descended down into the long grass and I had to carefully lift away individual strands in order to uncover it. Of course, I hadn’t got a clue what it was, but I could at least see that it was a moth. I wished I had a specimen pot (essential mothing tool) but I only had binoculars (useless mothing tool). I photographed it as best I could, and left it to it.

A little while later, walking through a particularly large expanse of nettles, I came upon a number of tiny, day flying moths. Again, not a clue what they were called, but photographed one and came home to discover more.

It transpires that the Flying Red Thing was a Ruby Tiger moth. What a great name! The colour of a precious gemstone combined with a majestic, wild cat. I won’t forget that one in a hurry. The other little moths were Nettle-taps, which makes sense since they were all on Common Nettles (the laval food plant).

I returned to Bovingdon Brickworks the following day (Friday) and had a further 3 species of moth (Silver-ground Carpet, Common Carpet and an Epiblema species). Plus, a couple of lovely Dingy Skipper butterflies.

         Ruby Tiger (Phragmatobia fuliginosa)

    Nettle-tap (Anthophila fabriciana)
    Epiblema species
    Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages)

Finally, a poll. I started this blog for a number of reasons. One was to see whether there was an interest in hearing about the wildlife on the Box Moor Trust sites. I’d be grateful if you could register your vote in the poll below just to give me (and the Trust) an idea of readership (it is anonymous). I suspect the numbers are very low and it may be a case of needing to publicise the blog and the Trust more widely. Thank you.

Who reads this stuff anyway?! Which one best describes how often you read this blog? free polls 

Thursday 15 May 2014

Week 17: Knowledge & Affection

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. I don’t mean that in the “I’ve read ‘Neuroscience for Dummies’ and can therefore perform life-saving brain surgery” scenario! I mean that once you ignite the spark of curiosity, you could well be hard-pressed to extinguish it. Since spending just 3 hours in the company of lovely mothing enthusiasts, I now find myself scouring the scrub for day flying moths, developing larvae or pupating chrysalides. (I positively glowed at the discovery of Drinker moth caterpillars yesterday at Dellfield. And, I even contemplate leaving the outside light on at night to see what might turn up. What have you done to me Ben/Roger/David?!). Since finding, identifying and researching my first batch of Box Moor Bugs, I am now on the look out for more weird and wonderful creatures. Whatever you do, don’t give me any interesting facts on spiders, otherwise this blog will become disastrously inaccessible to the countless arachnophobes out there. So, beware the peculiar perils of knowledge.

As I write, it is another gloriously sunny day and Box Moor is blooming. It’s a shame I can only capture a tiny snippet of it each week. I took a walk through the Boxmoor moors yesterday morning, finishing up at Dellfield. On the banks of the river Bulbourne, I yielded to my obsession with the reflecting willow. Bulbourne Moor and Meadow are now lush and covered in buttercups, and the willow is a vibrant, celadon green.

Left, 5th March 2014; Right, 14th May 2014

I made my way through Harding’s Moor, where the cattle were taking their role as conservation grazers very seriously; the Green Woodpeckers were yaffling and 2 Grey Herons were perched on the river. Over Station Road and through the handsome herd of horses (more conservation grazers) on Station Moor. The Grey Wagtail pair and a couple of Canada Geese were by the bridge and 3 Swifts circled overhead. Later, on my way back, a family of Starlings were lined up on the bridge railings, with the fledglings begging parents for food.

I amassed innumerable photographs of bugs and beetles (I repeat, beware the perils of knowledge! Don't say I didn't warn you). Below are 3 of the prettier ones. The Green Nettle Weevil on my finger, provides a sense of scale. All of the creatures were between 6 and 9mm long. The first and third were on Harding’s Moor, the second on Station Moor. For more information (if you dare), just click on their names.

    Green Nettle Weevil
    Green Dock Beetle (pregnant female)
    Rhopalid bug (Corizus hyoscyami)

The Belted Galloways were grazing in the sunshine on Herdsman’s Moor, and a flock of Jackdaws were pulling up worms from the rain-soaked earth.

Finally, I reached Dellfield. I had no idea that watching a tree, every week, for 4 months would lead to me developing such a sense of affection for it. When I first caught sight of the Oak yesterday, I was genuinely thrilled to see how much greener it has become. For weeks, from any and every angle, I have been photographing the stark, leafless branches. I know its shape inside out and back to front. I know its form and place within the landscape. Now, as the leaves develop, it is as though I am watching what was the bare bones of a pencil sketch, finally begin to engender soaring colour, defining detail and palpable life. It is surprisingly wonderful and I can’t wait to see the Oak next week.

Left, 26th February 2014; Right, 14th May 2014

Sunday 11 May 2014

Week 16, Extra: The Temptation of Brambles

What a difference a couple of months makes. The photos, left (14th March) & below (yesterday), are of the chalk-faced dell on the north side of Lower Roughdown. The transformative power of nature never ceases to amaze me. Colours, shapes and textures all living and breathing.

I hadn’t intended to write another post this week but, hey, here I am again.  It was a spur of the moment thing. With rain forecast all day and the sun blazing down, I concluded I wasn't hallucinating and headed out. My intention was to take a short, gentle stroll to see how the Green Hairstreaks were getting on but, well, one thing led to another, and instead of rummaging around in stinging nettles, I succumbed to the temptation of brambles.

However, before I made it up the slope, I noticed that the Common Twayblade orchids are just about to flower. I shall look forward to photographing them in the next week or two. There are also plenty of Common Spotted orchid plants around and they'll come into flower next month.

The south-west ridge of Lower Roughdown isn’t the most idillic spot, bordered as it is by the A41. However, it is a bountiful mass of brambles, nettles and all sorts of rough vegetation, which is perfect for invertebrates. I worked my way slowly and carefully along a small stretch of it. I didn’t come across any Green Hairstreaks but I was pleased to find 3 different species of Bug (with a capital “B”) all sitting on accessible (which makes a nice change) bramble leaves.

It is at this point that I confess that the ecology of bugs is not something I know anything about. However, I will share what I’ve gleaned from a little research. The 3 bugs I came across are all True Bugs (Hemiptera), which is, of course, a blessed relief. I wouldn’t want to be caught promoting Fake Bugs. I will leave it up to you to decide whether or not to delve deeper into the defining characteristics of a True Bug but, suffice to say, one feature they all possess is a proboscis which is “capable of piercing tissues (usually plant tissues) and sucking out the liquids – typically sap”. Mmmm...

             Common Green Shield Bug

    Dock Bug
    Dock Bug (showing proboscis)

The Common Green Shield Bug (part of the Superfamily Pentatomoidea [Shieldbugs]) and the Dock Bug (part of the family Coreidae [Squashbugs]) were both approximately 10-14mm long. They are both herbivorous, with the Dock Bug typically feeding on the leaves and seeds of docks and sorrels; and the Common Green Shield Bug being a lot less fussy. Neither of them cause particular harm to the plants or crops they frequent. Like the 7-spot Ladybird, when threatened, both Bugs possess the ability to release foul-smelling, irritating liquid from glands located on the thorax. So, like ladybirds, they don’t make for a tasty snack.

Harpocera thoracica
The third sap-sucking Bug I found was a Harpocera thoracica, part of the family Miridae [Plant bugs]. Plant bugs make up over 35% of all UK species of bug and is the largest in the True Bug order. This rather pretty little bug was just 6mm long and I found it in a deeply shady spot, under an oak tree, on a bramble leaf. It is a female and will have reached adulthood this month, with only 6-8 weeks to live. The male of the species only survives a month (sad, but true). Mating and egg-laying all take place during May and June. The egg stage lasts 10 months, with larval development only taking 2 weeks. It seems I should count myself lucky to have seen this short-lived bug yesterday.

Two hours and far too many blurry photographs later (note to self, don’t find interesting bugs, perched on delicate leaves, when there are 30 mph gusting winds blowing, especially if the bug is in the shade!), I made my way back through Lower Roughdown. The male Chiffchaff had been singing all morning and I must have walked into an area where a Mistle Thrush is nesting. Instead of flying away, the bird flew towards me, rattling at constant intervals, and insisted on staying in the tree nearest to me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a clear view up into the canopy, to find a nest, but it would make sense of the defensive behaviour. I will keep an eye out for fledglings in the coming weeks.