Friday 19 September 2014

Week 35: Gentle Giant, Furry Cats & Edible Dormice

With a title like that, I feel as though I should open with “Once upon a time...”. I started this week feeling somewhat bereft now that the butterfly season is coming to an end. Their presence makes life that little bit more exciting - you never quite know what is going to flutter past you and whether or not it’ll settle or just give a fleeting view and leave you with an unsolved mystery and a reason to scratch your head.

On Monday, I had a good walk around Roughdown Common. The Juniper bushes are looking beautiful and gothic, adorned with berries which glisten in the sunlight. A Chiffchaff was still singing, the Harebells are flowering but what stopped me in my tracks was a group of 18 hungry, hairy caterpillars munching their way through the leaves of an Oak tree. You could actually hear them chewing! These were the larvae of the Buff-tip moth (Phalera bucephala), feeding up before they drop to the ground, burrow down and overwinter in the soil as pupae (chrysalides). In the spring, they will emerge as fantastic little Buff-tip moths. If you’ve never seen one of these, it is worth taking a look at a photograph. They are the master of disguise, hiding in plain sight, looking to all the world like a broken Silver Birch twig. Amazing little creatures.

Buff-tip Larvae (Phalera bucephala) [approx 5-6cm long]

The sunny, clear skies of Tuesday evening saw me standing in the parched, golden meadow at Dellfield. I wanted to catch the Oak in the last light of the day. Needless to say, every footstep was accompanied by a flurry of Crane flies. But, a short while later, just as I was about to leave, things got a little more exciting, with the arrival of the giant of the eusocial wasp world, a European Hornet (Vespa crabro). I first spotted one of these at the Brickworks back in August. The overriding impression was of a whopping, great big flying insect with a massive yellow butt! It was a good 2.5cm (1 inch) long but never settled and quickly went out of sight. The second encounter was also at the Brickworks and was just as tantalisingly brief. Finally, on Tuesday evening, one of these super wasps flew past me and within a matter of seconds had caught and devoured a defenceless Daddy Longlegs! I heard the clatter of the wings as the Hornet snatched its prey. The sequence of shots below cover a period of less than 60 seconds. They aren’t perfect but hopefully give a flavour of the action.

European Hornet (Vespa crabro) snacking on a Crane fly (Tipula paludosa)

This was a male Hornet (if I’ve counted the abdominal segments correctly: 7 on males, 6 on females), approx 1 inch long, with limited life expectancy(!). In late summer, the queen Hornet (who does all the egg-laying), stops producing worker Hornets (who build the nest, pick up food supplies and take care of the brood), and produces a new generation of males and females. At this time of year, the males leave the nest and perform “nuptial flights” (i.e. mate with unfertilised queens). Unfortunately, the males die soon after mating; the workers and unfertilised queens not long after that, with only the fertilised queens surviving into next Spring. Although they look intimidating, they are less aggressive than your common wasp and will only sting as a last resort or to defend their hive. Ultimately, as the largest european social wasp they are impressive insects and this male certainly made light work of the unsuspecting Crane fly.

Now, I don’t go out much at night...It takes something special to tear me away from my comfy sofa and mindless telly. Wednesday evening, instead of drooling over Mary’s mouthwatering pastries I was wandering the woods of Westbrook Hay. I enlisted the help of a friend with ninja nature skills and we went in search of Edible Dormice. It was this friend who had first shown me this curious, nocturnal mammal back in 2011, near Tring, the site of its original, accidental introduction by Walter Rothschild in 1902. The species is common throughout western Europe but not native to England and can be something of a pest. Its diet is primarily plant-based (nuts, seeds, berries, apples etc). During the day it will sleep in unused bird’s nests, holes in trees or a safe nook or cranny. Over the coming weeks, as winter approaches, they will go into deep hibernation, emerging again in the spring.

OK, so we started our search along the tree-lined path which runs the north-west side of Bovingdon Reach, taking us down into Ramacre Wood. The first creature we actually heard was a Little Owl (Athene noctua) calling from somewhere in Hay Wood. Tawny Owls soon piped up too. But, initially, no sight nor sound of arboreal dormice. Finally, in Ramacre wood, success. My friend homed in on to the subtle sound of an Edible Dormouse feeding (ninja nature skills, I tell you). Unfortunately, we could only hear it (not see it) and eventually had to admit defeat and move on. Walking back the way we came, we had two close encounters with fast moving dormice about 4 feet up in bushes. No chance of photographs though. On our third attempt along this path, it wasn’t a dormouse we saw in the trees but a beautiful Tawny Owl (Strix aluco), looking straight at us (see above photograph)! It can’t have been more than 10-15 metres away, perched on a low branch right above the centre of the path. For a good 25-35 seconds each of us stood staring back at the other. The owl barely moving, us not wanting to break the spell. Of course, the owl eventually decided enough was enough and flew off into the night.

Back to our dormouse hunt. In fact, after 1.5 hours searching, it was all suddenly very easy. Walking from the Dellfield car park, a few metres up the road towards the Old Barn, we found a very obliging fella. He (or she) sat fairly still on a branch for 2-3 minutes whilst I faffed about with camera equipment, flashes that didn’t work and angles that weren’t quite right. Thankfully, I did come away with a few photographs.

Edible Dormouse (Glis glis)

Special thanks to my friend for helping to locate the dinky dormice, identifying the Little Owl call and, most crucially, for holding the torch steady!

If you’re wondering why the night time photographs have a red glow to them, it’s because we used red light for observation. Nocturnal creatures are essentially blind to red light so are not disturbed by it or aware that they are illuminated. You don’t need special equipment, just a standard torch and some red transparent film to put over the front lens. Job done and away you go.

The Little Owl (Athene noctua) in Hay Wood was producing a call similar to this one from xeno-canto (just press play)

The week may have started with missing Summer’s butterflies. But, standing, gazing into the wide eyes of a wild Tawny Owl, hearing a Little Owl chirping away in the darkness and photographing a nocturnal mammal is a stringent tonic. Perhaps I should close with “...and they all lived happily ever after”....although not the Crane fly or the soon-to-be-dead Hornet of course...


Anonymous said...

Wow!!Superb shots and a fantastic write up. This is a brilliant record. from ARF

Anonymous said...

The hornet shots and edible dormouse photos are amazing. from ARF

Bennyboymothman said...

Hi Lucy, must have missed this post. Very nice shots as usual for you. The Edible Dormouse are quite cheeky things aren't they. We have all heard them at night at both Roughdown Common and Bovingdon, screeching away! I caught a fleeting glimpse of one as it ran from a crab apply tree, no doubt feasting on these.
I really like the Hornet collection as well, thy are having a superb year as we have been finding out each time we trap! None were harmed, I simply potted each one up until we went home, as they get quite disorientated by the lights and land everywhere!
All the best now.

Lucy @ A Natural Interlude said...

Thank you ARF and Ben. Ben, interesting to hear how you deal with the Hornets in the moth trap, and I could imagine the mass of Crane Flies you got last week :o)!

Martin Parr said...

Brilliant Lucy!! Well done, I've never seen a Glis glis, and you got pics - with a tawny owl as well!! Great work!

Lucy @ A Natural Interlude said...

Thanks Martin. I must admit that when I went out in the evening, I was hopeful but not optimistic. Very pleased to come away with photos of both the Glis glis and Tawny owl :o).