Thursday 26 June 2014

Week 23: Damsels on the Moor

Thankfully all these damsels (bar one, I think) were male and they weren’t in the least bit distressed, as far as I could tell. Me, a camera and a pair of binoculars wouldn’t have been much use as a means to securing a rescue, I can assure you. This week, I decided to walk the moors (that sounds like something out of Great Expectations but you know what I mean). I ended up spending most of my time opposite the reflecting willow (photographed below), although, out on Harding’s Moor, it was great to see a family party of 4-5 Jays and a male Kestrel drift through. Down at Two Water’s Moor (east), an adult Song Thrush was stuffing its bill with juicy worms to feed to its youngsters.

Back at Bulbourne Moor, I arrived at the willow at the same time as a Kingfisher zoomed up to perch in a branch. From there, it plunged into the water, emerged with a fish and darted off, back down river, to feed its growing family or, perhaps, to sustain the nesting process all over again. Also downriver, I could hear the Grey Wagtail pair calling to one another. I wonder if they’ve bred nearby this year?

Much of my attention was directed towards the small clumps of vegetation, in the river, by the north bank, almost opposite the willow. In one small 1-metre-square area, I spotted 5 different species of damselfly! There were Red-eyed, Large Red (2), Common Blue (2), Blue-tailed (2) (all males), and a single female Banded Demoiselle. In total, along the stretch of river between the willow and where I stood to take the photograph, there were 2 Red-eyed, 1 Banded Demoiselle, 4 Large Red, 10+ Common Blue and 3 Blue-tailed damselflies. A little further down river (just behind me in relation to the photograph above), were 3+ exquisite male Banded Demoiselles. They really are breathtakingly beautiful.

    Banded Demoiselle (male)
    Banded Demoiselle (female)

    Large Red (male)
    Common Blue (male)

    Blue-tailed (male)
    Red-eyed (male)

Photographing all of them without a pair of waders, a swimming costume(!) or a boat was a precarious business. Countless times I nearly ended up as Kingfisher food. The Red-eyed and Blue-tailed damselflies were particularly tricky and simply would not perch within optimum photographic range (anyone would think they were wild and free!). Regardless, they were peaceful and mesmerising to watch, fluttering over the water; taking their time to decide which perch was best; settling and then unsettling; “bumping into” one another and finally settling for longer, before starting the whole “which perch is best” deliberation all over again.

Dragonflies and damselflies belong to a group (or “order”) of insects known as Odonata. Within this order, there are two main types (or “sub-orders”): damselflies (Zygoptera, meaning "paired-wings") and the true dragonflies (Anisoptera, meaning "unequal-winged"). According to the British Dragonfly Society, in damselflies, "[a]ll four wings are near enough equal in size and shape. They are usually small, weakly flying insects that stay close to the water margins or water surface. When at rest, most species hold their wings along the length of their abdomen. The Emerald Damselflies are an exception and usually hold their wings partly open when at rest. They are therefore known as Spreadwings in North America. The eyes are always separated, never touching. The larvae have external plates (lamellae) at the end of the abdomen, which act as accessory gills.” So, there we go. If you'd like to read more about their life cycle and breeding process, there's a lovely article written by Scottish Natural Heritage here.

Eventually, it was nearly time for lunch but, just as I was about to leave, a female Mallard swam up with her 5 ducklings (one was hiding behind the vegetation in the photograph below). Always irresistible!

This week's Oak photograph is a little different. No reason, I just fancied a change.

Finally, as I was crouching by the river this week, it was nice to be greeted with a friendly hello by a local dog owner. A timely reminder that in a couple of weeks, 12th July, there is the fun Box Moor Trust event, Paws on the Moors, aimed at the canine carers who enjoy the land, come rain or shine.

Sunday 22 June 2014

Week 22: Of Chalk Grasslands In Hemel Hempstead

Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba minor) (I hope!), the indicator species for chalk grassland, on Further Roughdown, overlooking Hemel & the KD Tower

“Chalk grasslands have been likened to rainforest for the diversity of species they hold. But they are being lost at an alarming rate due to changes in land use causing the decline of grazing: it's estimated that we've lost 80% of our chalk grassland over the last 60 years.” BBOWT

A statement like that makes you sit up and take notice. I was fortunate to be able to attend the “Chalk grassland flowers and grasses” seminar at the Field Studies Council (FSC) in Amersham last weekend. It was led by the incredibly knowledgeable and wonderfully approachable Brenda Harold. On the up side, I could at least identify and discuss the place of Yellow Rattle within the ecology (ref Week 19). On the down side, I’d run out of energy by lunch time and it took 2+ days to recover. Well worth it though and I'd do it again, given the choice. Anyway, this week has been all about enjoying the chalk grassland at Roughdown Common and seeing it through the lens of my new knowledge.

A few notes from the course, in case they are of interest. If not, just skip it.


Semi-natural, Unimproved land
  • Semi-natural i.e. the land has been cleared of trees by man and grazed or mowed for hay. All the plants are wild/self seeded. 
  • Unimproved i.e. no mineral fertilisers or lime or other substance added.
Grasslands in general are dependent on the history of grazing, which virtually ceased after the second world war in the UK. This is where “conservation grazing” comes in (ref my “sheepish explanations of ecology” post). Sheep, rabbits, any kind of grazers, are important to prevent “thug species” like dogwood, hawthorn, bramble, thistles etc taking root, monopolising nutrients and overwhelming the smaller species and reducing species diversity.

Chalk Grassland
Calcareous, alkaline, free-draining, drought-prone soil. Low in nutrients (thus no good for agriculture) and often on slopes (so no good for building/development).
To the uninformed it is useless and even costly. Except, by the wonders of nature, it is also the most species rich in terms of the plants which thrive there and the wider ecology which follows. Incredibly, you can have up to forty different species per square metre of grassland. The key is low nutrients and high pH. Low nutrients otherwise the thug species move in and drown everything else out. High pH otherwise the acidity destroys and only the few strong or tolerant survive. It is one of the rare environments where nature is at its richest. And yet, as the BBOWT states, almost 80% of the UK’s  “unique and fragile chalk grassland has been lost....due to intensified agricultural practices, development and mismanagement.” It makes me appreciate all the more the value of places like Roughdown Common, the obligation to protect it and the need to support those who manage it.

Ok, context set. Chalk grassland to enjoy.

Where to begin? The orchids! They really are quite spectacular at the moment. The dell, on the north side of Lower Roughdown, is cradling Common Spotted and Pyramidal orchids (both calcareous soil indicators). Something seems to have nibbled heartily at all of the Twayblades but the tell-tale leaf pairs remain. The Selfheal is also flowering now. A Robin was busy collecting food for an insistent youngster, the chiffchaff keeps on singing and a Jay bounced through the trees trying hard to remain inconspicuous.

Up on the south-west side, the bank which runs along the A41, the orchids are breathtaking. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Swathe after swathe of deep pink/purple, white and every colour in between rising up from the earth, each a beautiful specimen, together a feast to behold.

Walking south-east along the bank, I came across a pair of Bee Orchids (Ophrys apifera), which was a lovely surprise. And, I spent a couple of contented hours completely absorbed in the nature around the grassy bank, just before you reach Further Roughdown. It was quite literally jumping with life. Meadow Grasshoppers stridulating (singing), causing grasses to ping every so often as they launched themselves on their merry way. All colours represented. This one (below) is the green variety, and could possibly be a young adult, judging by the short wings, but there were plenty of red/brown examples too. Grasshopper fact to throw into conversation next week: their ears are on their bellies (cool, eh). “On each side of the first abdominal segment, tucked under the wings, you'll find membranes that vibrate in response to sound waves. This simple eardrum, called a tympana, allows the grasshopper to hear the songs of its fellow grasshoppers.” More facts here if hoppers are your thing.

Dock bugs and Common green shieldbugs were flying between plants, butterflies too (Marbled Whites, Meadow Browns, Ringlets, a Skipper species (smaller than the Large Skipper but too quick for me to identify), Small Tortoiseshell, Speckled Wood and a few remaining Common Blues). Then there were the moths. Numerous Burnet Companions, Six-spot Burnets, a Cinnabar and three new ones for me, Knapweed Conch (Agapeta zoegana), Shaded Broad-Bar (Scotopteryx chenopodiata) and Celypha lacunana. A Great Tit family came through noisily and an adult Dunnock was trying hard to keep a squeaky juvenile well fed.

    Knapweed Conch (Agapeta zoegana)
    Shaded Broad-Bar (Scotopteryx chenopodiata)

Out on Further Roughdown, the Pyramidal orchids outnumber the Common Spotted, I think. They are not so numerous but the discreet clumps are fresh and vibrant. A few Swallows were hawking low over the ground, after the insects (and guaranteed to beat me to it!)

Further Roughdown Pyramidal Orchids overlooking Hemel and the KD Tower. 
Also in the mix are Birds-foot-trefoil, Fairy Flax, Yellow Rattle, White Clover and many more species besides (the names of which have yet to take root in a brain cell)! 

And, to round off this week's post, the Oak

Friday 13 June 2014

Week 21/B: Brilliant, Bountiful, Box Moor Bee Orchids

My Tuesday had begun with blue sky but something of a dark mood. The discovery of the fantastic little Bee Orchids (Ophrys apifera) not only lifted my spirits but filled the morning with new colours, shapes and textures (how velvety does that “bee” flower look?!). As I mentioned in the previous post, there were more than 92 spikes in this one small area! From what I understand, it is considered rare locally and hasn’t perviously been reported at this site. I got utterly engrossed in photographing them. Lying belly-down in rabbit droppings was neither here nor there. It wasn’t until I needed the loo, my stomach was rumbling, my back was hurting, my elbows were sore (from propping myself up) and my knees were pretty much welded bent, that I reluctantly (and slowly) creaked my way to standing and headed home for a bacon butty. Here are a few memories from that morning… [as ever, higher resolution images in a set on Flickr here]

It seems that the Bee Orchid isn’t rare per se, but the habitat it can especially thrive in is becoming increasingly so i.e. open grasslands and, frequently, chalk (and limestone) grasslands. This is a reason why it isn’t seen locally. Box Moor Trust land is one of the few places left for it to colonise. It’s a perennial, dependant on mycorrhizal fungi for nutrients, and is self-pollinating in the UK (we don’t have the right bees here (honestly!)). Travel to the balmy Mediterranean and you’ll encounter the patently very sensible (but easily fooled) Solitary bee (Eucera). This pollinates plants in the southern regions by falling for the mimicry of the look-a-like “bee” flower. Males are drawn in and even “attempt to mate with [the flower], transferring pollen in the process” (silly Bee!). Self-pollination is just as interesting. Basically, as the flower develops, the pollinia [two yellow blobs of pollen grains] are released from the green, curved arch in which they are held (this is the anther, the male part, and the structure you can see overhanging the “bee”). They then hang loosely on yellow threads (caudicles) and are blown against the receptive surface of the stigma (the female part), et voilĂ ! Just below the stigma, at the base of the reproductive column, is the ovary (the part of the flower that contains embryonic seeds, called ovules). According to Wikipedia, this Orchid is unusual in that “in some years they appear in great numbers, then sometimes only reappear after an absence of many years.” How ever it reproduces, it is clearly a plant to be made the most of whilst it is around!

I was fortunate to be able to return to the Bee Orchids on Thursday morning for a short time, with a few rough ideas for compositions. I wanted to capture the context and the proportions. I also hoped to capture the texture of the “bee”, show the pollinia and also photograph a bud which was in the process of opening. I hope you enjoy the results as much as I did achieving them…

    Velvety "bee" & Pollinia pair
    Bud opening in progress
    Compared to Dr Pepper!

Thursday 12 June 2014

Week 21/A: The Power of a Little Flower

Tuesday morning the sky was blue, the sun was shining and I was feeling absurdly overwhelmed by the possibilities for a walk around Box Moor. Blue skies in particular are so rare that you feel as though you have to ring every last ounce of potential out of days like that. Just the thought of it can be exhausting!

I arrived at Dellfield with only one aim. To photograph the Oak. Good light and blue sky is like being faced with an open goal. Too many options, too rare an opportunity to miss: bound to mess it up. Anyway, having snapped the Oak, I took a wander around the meadow. A Silver Y (Autographa gamma) fluttered up from the grass, numerous Burnet Companions floated by, and there were mating Soldier Beetles (Cantharis rustica) and Scorpion flies (Panorpa communis) galore. I found a single flowering Poppy and a snazzy Five- or Six-Spot Burnet caterpillar (not sure which). Photographing them was like something out of a Laurel and Hardy sketch - every time the breeze died down, I’d just about compose the shot, be ready to fire, and a puff of wind would scupper my efforts (although not entirely, as you can see). Over and over, this happened until I eventually gave up, feeling increasingly paralysed by the potential of the day and my inability to capitalise on it.

I moved on from Dellfield and up to Preston Hill to catch up with the Broad-bodied Chasers. One male was definitely still around. I then carried on through Hay Wood and onto Bovingdon Reach. My idea was to walk to Ramacre Wood and check again for Spotted Flycatchers. Little did I know my morning was about to be transformed by the discovery of a little flower. There I was, somewhat dejected and flummoxed and, down there, just to my right, what did I spy? A Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera)! I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. But, true enough, there it was.....and then, there was another. And another. And another. And this went on and on. In one small area, there must have been around 30 spikes of Bee Orchids*. Dejection was quickly replaced by pure joy! From what I can gather, they have not been reported here before and are considered rare for the area. I suspected they were something special when I found them and I finally knew how I was going to best use this beautiful morning of near perfect light and potential: photographing the Box Moor Bee Orchids. And, they deserve a post of their own...

*I went back to Bovingdon Reach on Wednesday evening, sure that I must have over-estimated the number of Bee Orchids. I did a fairly thorough count and totalled 92 spikes!

Left, 19 February 2014; Right, 10 June 2014

Sunday 8 June 2014

Week 20, Surprises: The Skipper & The Tortoise

It really doesn’t have the same ring to it as “The Hare and the Tortoise” does it, but I didn’t want to get you here under false pretences. A few nice surprises yesterday, which deserve a mention, mean a hurried Sunday evening post is in order.

Saturday, I braced myself for torrential rain, thunder, lightening, and the apocalypse. However, by midday, all the drama had passed and it was warm, dry and sunny. I headed to Dellfield early evening as there is a particular scene I want to photograph. More on that another time, though. Anyway, as I climbed the path through Dellfield, a bug flew in front of me and landed in the grass to my right. Taking a closer look, it was a Common Green Shieldbug (Palomena prasina) (of week 16 fame) but what was more exciting was the Tortoise Beetle on leaves just behind it. This is another invertebrate group (or genus, the Cassida genus, to be precise) that Martin Parr introduced to me. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of specific information about them on the internet but, as far as I can make out, they feed on the surface of leaves (specific plants for specific species) and, like tortoises, when threatened, they can pull in there antennae and legs and drop their dome-like carapace so that it is flush with the leaf. Great camouflage and good protection. 

From what I’ve read, determining species can be quite difficult, even with a photograph. However, it’s likely that the Tortoise Beetle I found yesterday was Cassida vibex, which feeds mainly on Thistles and Knapweeds. It seems to have a south-easterly UK distribution (rare or scarce beyond this region). And, it’s another tiny little creature, just 7mm long. (….Oh, ignore the Large Skipper for the moment)

    Tortoise Beetle (Cassida vibex)
    Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus)

My first encounter with a Tortoise Beetle was last month at the Brickworks. I had joined Martin for an afternoon of surveying and he came across what we later identified as a Thistle Tortoise Beetle (Cassida rubiginosa) (not to be confused with the thistle eating Cassida vibex!). The rusty brown “triangle” at the front of the wing cases distinguishes it from the Green Tortoise Beetle (Cassida viridis).

     Thistle Tortoise Beetle (Cassida rubiginosa) [16 May 2014]

The “rubiginosa” of its name “refers to the beetle's ability to produce a red liquid from [its] head”! I’m not sure I fancy seeing that but good to know if it happens in the field and you’re after an ID! This species feeds on Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense) and, according to NatureSpot, “has the most interesting larvae and pupae. The larvae have twin tail-spikes and these are sometimes used to carry dead skins and droppings in a kind of parasol [nice!]. The spikes are retained by the pupa and these are flicked forward if it is disturbed.” Weird eh! So, there were are. A whirl-wind introduction to the genus Cassida, the Tortoise Beetles. Hopefully, I’ll come across a few more over the coming months.

Obviously, the other colourful find yesterday was a Large Skipper butterfly (Ochlodes sylvanus) (actually there were two) on Bovingdon Reach. And, on the pond on Preston Hill, I watched 3 male Broad-bodied Chasers achieving olympic standard “chasing” around the water. One, with a broken wing, eventually perched on a twig close by, giving me a chance for photographs (below). Finally, as I was walking from the pond towards Hay Wood, I heard the most peculiar sound. A friend had recently described to me the “call” of a female Cuckoo and, I can only conclude that that is what I heard. It was a kind of subdued, hallow, rich random burbling, coming from the tree tops. Unfortunately, it was too distant for the mic on my camera to register otherwise I would have recorded it. Ultimately, the source will remain a mystery but it would be nice to think that a female Cuckoo is around and the species has bred this year in Hay Wood.

Saturday 7 June 2014

Week 20: Old Crone & Woodland Fairies

I have about as much mental acuity as a feather duster this week. Penning prose is hard going, so, you’ll have to bare with me. Thursday, the sunshine battled its way through the clouds and it was a warm and sunny day, albeit very blustery. I spent a couple of hours around Dellfield where a dozen Swallows, House Martins and Swifts were hunting for insects low over the meadow. I love hearing their chirpy little contact calls and seeing them swooping this way and that over the rippling grasses. This one (below) was taking a break from the hunting, but not the calling, perched on the roof of the Old Barn.

One of the first insects to catch my eye was a huge, green dragonfly. Unfortunately, it apparently came with its own cloaking device because every time I arrived at the spot where it had landed, it was nowhere to be found. I spent a good hour trying to relocate it without any luck. Not time wasted though, I rustled up a couple of new moths instead. First, the wonderfully named Mother Shipton moth (Callistege mi) with the mirror images, one on each wing, of the old 16th century Yorkshire crone (or witch!). It’s a day-flying moth, fairly common in England and Wales, favouring open grassy sites, such as wild flower meadows like Dellfield. This fella fed on the nectar of a Dandelion whilst I was watching it (notice the yellow pollen still on/around its proboscis (below)) but it also likes Creeping Buttercup and White Clover (of which, there is an abundance!).

    Mother Shipton
    Mother Shipton (head on)

The second moth to flutter up into my path was a beautiful Yellow Shell (Camptogramma bilineata). I think I found one of these earlier in the week up at College Lake, Buckinghamshire, but it disappeared before I could get a good look or a photograph. It made Thursday's find especially satisfying. This is another common moth that likes wild flower meadows. It isn’t a day-flier as such but is “easily disturbed” and then “flies from dusk onwards”.

I returned to the area on Friday, mostly just for a wander and to take this week’s Oak photograph. I also wanted to walk up through Ramacre Wood with my eyes peeled for Spotted Flycatchers. This is a migrant bird species, forging its way from Africa and arriving in the UK during May. Unfortunately it is becoming increasingly scarce and it would make my summer to find one on Box Moor Trust land. No luck today but I did come across this brilliant Black-headed Cardinal Beetle (Pyrochroa coccinea) (below). It’s obvious black head and deep, blood red tones distinguish it from the more common Red-headed Cardinal Beetle (Pyrochroa serraticornis). It’s 2cm long and a predator, feeding on smaller insects that happen to land where it’s perched. According to one website, it “is an uncommon and specialised ancient woodland indicator species”. That’s good news for the Box Moor Trust land management team.

In this same area was a cloud of fluttering fairies, dancing in the air. Oh ok, not actual fairies. They, of course, keep their tiny wings, their powers and their existence carefully hidden from humans. No, this was a wonderful swirling haze of perhaps 50 Yellow-barred Longhorn moths (Nemophora degeerella). A species which is part of the Adelidae or “fairy longhorn” family of moths (and featured in last week's post). It was the second time I’d experienced this sight this week (the first being in my garden). I’m not entirely sure what's going on but I’d guess it’s some kind of courtship behaviour. I could only find one female in the group (with very obvious, short antennae). The males seemed to take it in turns to go up into the displaying cloud before coming back down to land on a leaf. There didn’t appear to be any obvious hostility. It seemed to simply be a mass flying event. As an afterthought, I grabbed some video footage but really didn’t think it through (mental acuity of a feather duster, remember). The dimly light woodland made focusing tricky but hopefully you'll get the idea!

This week's Oak photograph

Whilst walking through Bovingdon Reach
  • Moths of note: 7 Yellow Shells, 1 Silver Y, 1 Straw Dot. 
  • Butterflies: 2 Small tortoiseshell, Speckled Wood, 2 Peacock, 4 Common Blue. 
Dellfield is bustling with Burnet Companion moths. There’s got to be at least 30, probably more.

Finally, in other mothing news, Ben and the team had an excellent evening trapping on Monday at Roughdown Common. Amongst the catch was a rare Pammene albuginana. For more details, take a peek at Ben’s Blog.