Thursday, 28 November 2013

Leaves, Starlings and a Sparrowhawk too!

Hello dear reader, hope this finds you nice, snug and warm, wrapped up against the chilly weather outside. The leaves are at long last beginning to fall and my garden is covered in the beautiful autumnal colours of brown, reds and yellows. Many of you will be starting to dig the rake out to scoop them all up to either stick in the composter or to make a small slow burning pyre from. But there is another important use they have and one I think you should consider.

The importance of leaf litter

Colours of autumn.

Leaves are not just pretty green things that hang of trees, they have a very important function in the the grand food web which we discussed last time. Firstly, through the process of photosynthesis, they combine and convert the sunlight energy, water from the soil and the carbon dioxide we exhale, into a chemical energy such as sugars which the tree/plants can use as food. A wonderful by-product of this process is oxygen which we need to survive, so trees/plants are your friends, remember that.

But this is not the only thing they are good for as leaves are a host to many other important organisms which have their place in the environment. Some moths known as micro moths 'mine' the leaves as a larval stage. This involves the very small caterpillar that hatches from the egg which was laid on the leaf by the parent moth which sometimes measures no more than 2-3mm long. This gives you some idea how big the egg and the larvae are. The caterpillar would then make a small hole on one side of the leaf and then burrow in between each side of the leaf so that it is actually inside the leaf. Now considering how thin some leaves are, this is quite an amazing feat. You can tell when a leaf has been mined and you may have in fact seen this type of thing before without realising what it was. As the caterpillar munches its way through the interior on the leaf, it leaves behind a trail which can be seen in the pictures below.

A mined hazel leaf.

Another mined hazel leaf.
Here, the white zig-zaggy lines can be clearly seen. Sometimes, if you hold it up to the light, you might be able to see the larvae inside or, even some of its frass. Some species of micro moth overwinter within the leaf or the leaf litter when the leaves fall to the ground in autumn. Another insect that uses leaves are gall wasps who implant their eggs into the leaves of trees. This implanted egg has an effect on the chemicals in the leaf surrounding the egg/insect and this causes a growth to occur which can either act as a protective shell around the developing insect or, act as a source of food for it during development.

Galls on the underside of an oak leaf.
Again, come autumn when the leaves fall to the ground, the developing insect inside overwinters amongst the leaf litter. So why is this leaf litter so important?

The simple answer is warmth. If you have a compost bin that the council collect full of leaves or grass cuttings or, you might have a pile of leaves/grass cuttings in the garden, you might notice that the bin may be warm to the touch or that the pile of leaves/grass seems to be steaming. If you carefully place your hand into the leaf pile, you will feel the heat being generated. But what is generating this heat? 

Amongst all this leaf litter are micro organisms, detritivores, who munch away at all the dead vegetation on the ground. All this hard work generates the heat within the litter and provides a wonderful little micro climate in which all those invertebrates within, survive. This process helps many invertebrates get through the harsh, freezing temperatures of winter. When the ground is covered in frost or snow, and temperatures fall to zero or below, in amongst the leaf litter, the temperature is 1-3ÂșC above zero, stopping the insects within from freezing to death. This warm layer also provides protection to any seedlings on the ground or any dormant plants from frost damage. Worms, which keep our soil aerated, love to munch on a leaf or three over the winter period. They slide up out of the ground, grab a leaf in their mouth and then retract back down the hole pulling the leaf with it. As these leaves are eaten and destroyed they release vital nutrients back into the soil around the tree they fell from, which in turn provides important rich nutrients for not only the tree next year, but also the plants and other insects that also depend on these nutrients as well.

So, at this time of year, you will find me raking up the leaves in the garden and instead of placing them in the composter, I spread them over my flower beds about 3-4 inches deep. This process helps to keep some of my plants protected from the frosts, keeps the soil above freezing and the biodiversity of my garden rich and varied.

Pile it on. Leaf litter spread deep over my flower beds.
So before you go chucking those leaves into the compost bin, just think again about what good they could do your soil with all those lovely rich nutrients. Think about all those wonderful creatures that depend on the energy trapped within those beautiful colours and then go and spread them on your flower beds. I've been doing it for a couple of years now and the amount of colour from flowers that I got back this year was lovely, something which I attribute to my leaf spreading. After all, before mankind was on the scene taking pride in his garden, what happened to the leaves then?

A murmuration at last.

Over the last few weeks, I've been on the look out for a murmuration of starlings. This is where starlings gather in huge numbers and fly back and forth creating huge patterns in the sky that are  mesmerising. Earlier in the year, I captured this event on video not far from me in the east of Ipswich near Ransomes Europark industrial estate. My neighbour had said he spotted a small flock of starlings in the same place recently looking like they were trying to start a murmuration (thanks Mick). Anne, a regular reader to this blog (Hello Anne) also contacted me to say she had spotted around 120 starlings not too far from Ransomes as well.

So, last night I had some time available to me and went to have a look to see if anything was happening. I drove straight onto the industrial estate to see what I could find and it didn't look promising as I sat waiting, scanning the skies for any movement. But after about 5 mins I spotted a small flock of about 30 starlings flying over the entrance to the estate where Nacton Road meets Ransomes Rd. I pulled into the Thrashers Pub car park, where I spotted the murmuration earlier in the year, and waited. Sure enough, within minutes a flock of about 100 flew over in cloud formation.

The gathering murmuration had begun.
They kept on flying back and forth and at one point as they flew towards the tall trees behind the pub I was taken by surprise as a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) came up from behind me and flew past my head and into the trees. Had it made a catch? At that point I wasn't too sure as the light was already fading and the dark back colouring of the sparrowhawk coupled with the dark silhouette of the trees made it hard to tell. However, the murmuration continued its fantastic display above the rush hour traffic gathering below, then all of a sudden, the starlings flew low down and towards me filling the eyepiece of my camera as they made a rather quick and dramatic split into several smaller groups above my head.

A startled starling split.
They passed overhead and then I saw again the sparrowhawk fly back from the direction of the pub towards the industrial estate and I could quite clearly see that this time it had dinner clasped firmly in its claws in the shape of a starling. As it approached the trees surrounding the estate, to crows left their perches to try and mob the sparrowhawk, but it quickly out flew them and found sanctuary in the darkness of the conifers around the estate. Again, although I could see it clearly with my eyes, it was still too dark for my camera to try and get an action shot, that it happened so quick.

After this, the murmuration, now about 200 birds strong, moved deeper into the estate. I got in my car to follow them but the light was beginning to fade much quicker now and photographing them was no longer an option. One thing I did notice whilst I watched this magnificent display was that all the while as they flew back and forth, every now and then a much smaller flock of 5,8,10 or 15 birds would fly in and join them. I have seen this before in my hippy days of living on a boat on the broads. One evening watching a huge murmuration near Barton Broad in Norfolk from about a mile away. Yet every now and then a small flock of starlings would fly over my head, heading towards the murmuration. So maybe these murmurations are a way of communicating to all the surrounding flocks of starlings that, 'we're all sleeping here tonight, come join us if you want to be safe'. After all, safety in numbers usually works, although try telling that to the sparrowhawk's dinner.

A sky full of starlings.
I will try and keep an eye on this murmuration over the next few weeks to see if it gets any bigger, hopefully it will. However, if you do want to see a much bigger murmuration, apparently, there's a flock of around 30,000 starlings on the river Alde between Snape maltings and Iken. These larger murmurations are really fantastic and awe inspiring to watch. If I get the time, I may try to go this weekend, fingers crossed.

That's about it for now, till next time dear readers, take care.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Invasive species calls for drastic measures

Hello dear followers, I hope all is well in your world wherever you happen to be. I am glad to report that my man-flu has subsided only to be replaced by a tooth abscess. I've had a couple of off days with it as you can imagine, but now the antibiotics have kicked all is much better. 

Invasive species calls for drastic measures

I came across this report from the BBC about how the Environment Agency are planning to use a fish poison called rotenone to remove a non-native species of fish called Asian Topmouth Gudgeon (Pseudorasbora parva) which has thought to have been introduced to our ecosystems by either the aquaria trade or by deliberate use as a fish bait according to RAFTS.

Now there is a very good reason for wanting to eradicate this new invasive species. 
  • It has a very rapid breeding rate up to 4x faster than our native species, which could have a massive impact on our native fish. This would lead to the natives being out competed for food leading to a reduction in native fish populations.
  • It also severely impacts on native populations by predating on native fish eggs. 
  • It is also a carrier of a parasite that affects carp and salmon.
So, as you can see, this invasive species could devastate native fish stocks across the UK. A bit like what the Harlequin Ladybird (Harmonia adryxis) has done to our native ladybirds. However, and this is a big however, the poison that they are going to be using on the river will not only kill the non-natives, IT WILL KILL ALL THE FISH IN THE RIVER, including our native species such as eels, roach, minnow, stone loach. Even though the poison is a piscicide, which means that it will only affect fish. No other organism will be affected, including any that may feed upon the dead fish apparently. However, this will create a huge impact upon the ecosystem on that stretch of river as a major factor has been removed from it, meaning that all of a sudden there will be an influx of other organisms that the fish used to feed on. With that part of the food chain missing, the balance becomes unstable. So lets look at this food chain to see why it could become unbalanced.

The food chain always begins at the very bottom where the detritus (dead vegetation, dead organisms, etc) build up and where the diatoms/algae feed from the nitrates and nitrogen's that leach into a water system from the surrounding land and also the detritus of rotting leaves and dying organisms in the silt on the riverbed.
In turn, this is food for other organisms such as worms like bloodworm (mosquito larvae), freshwater shrimp and mayfly larvae.
Again, these are eaten by small fish fry, dragonfly and caddisfly larvae who get eaten by bigger fish which end up getting eaten by birds such as herons, kingfishers, etc. I’ve knocked up a diagram below to try and simplify things a bit. Not easy with such a complicated system.
A much simplified version of a very complicated food chain interrelationship.

All this works seamlessly and has done so for millennia, but now we remove the fish from the equation and things start to get messy.

Suddenly, there are no fish to eat the mosquito, mayfly, dragonfly larva or the freshwater shrimp and suddenly populations start to get out of control because the main regulator, the fish, have disappeared from the system. So come the warmer weather and suddenly there is a greater influx of mosquitos and mayfly emerging from the water due to lack of predation. There are more dragonflies on the wing which love to chase and eat other flying insects and it would be fair to think that the dragonflies will have plenty of food with all the mosquitos and mayfly about. However, the mosquitos and mayfly have much shorter lifespans than the longer lived dragonfly and soon the dragonflies will need to search elsewhere for food causing impacts on other ecosystems and food chains and species and this is only a very small part of the whole complicated system.

I won’t lie, when I first saw this report, I was shocked, appalled even. I immediately took to contacting the Environment Agency for more information. I even tweeted to them asking could they not remove the non-natives first, then replace them afterwards. In fairness, they tweeted straight back to say that the fry of the gudgeon were as small as an eyelash and could possibly be found in the gills of native fish. This would mean that even if they did remove the natives first, they could re-introduce the non-natives when they put the natives back. A waste of time and effort. However, I was still shocked by such drastic action I began preparing my blog whilst awaiting for the information to come in.

As I did so, I soon began to realise that what the EA were doing wasn’t such a bad thing after all, when you consider the much bigger picture. A new non-native species could and would take hold quickly and as they did so would also spread rapidly causing much more devastation to our native wildlife than the EA would do in a relatively very small operation. They have even said that they would restock the waterway with new, safe livestock. Then, the following morning, the EA emailed me a 6 page PDF which was very informative and explained so much more than the original BBC report. I’m not going to reproduce the whole PDF here as it does take some reading, but I will list the important bits that news agencies seem to miss and give you a more detailed version copied direct from the PDF.

The report states:

The main issues:
  • Its presence within the lake and the nearby Cuffley Brook not only threatens the local wildlife but if they were to spread, it could have serious impact on our native wildlife and habitats on a national basis
  • This is one of only 34 topmouth gudgeon populations in the wild across the UK, with populations being concentrated in the South East. We have already eradicated 14 of the 34 populations . 
  • Topmouth gudgeon are considered one of the most potentially damaging non-native fish species in Western Europe and are banned from sale in England and Wales. They harm the environment, fisheries and angling quality where they are present. 
Why are they a problem?

  • If they escape or are intentionally introduced into the wild they have the potential to harm our native wildlife, habitats and fisheries.
  • They reproduce rapidly, spawning up to 4 times per year.
  • They eat the eggs and larvae of native fish.
  • The male guards the eggs from other predators.
  • They out compete native fish for food and habitat.
  • They are very small and are easily accidentally transferred with movements of native fish.
  • There is evidence that they may carry the threat of new diseases and parasites that could affect our native species. 
Is the method of removal humane?
  • Yes the dose applied will ensure that the fish are removed rapidly with minimum stress. 

Why can’t native fish be removed first?
  • The lake near Crews Hill is very shallow which means we won't be able to use boats to remove native fish. The lake is also very silty, which makes it unsafe to remove them by wading into the lake. There are not a high number of native fish in the lake.
  • The native fish in the stream are primarily roach, and we do not believe they would survive the necessary quarantine processes if we were able to remove them. If we were to remove the native fish from the stream before applying the rotenone, we would only be able to remove fish over 15cm to avoid confusion with non- native fish. We would need to hold the removed fish in quarantine before we could return them to the water. The quarantine process requires that each fish is inspected several times for topmouth gudgeon before it can be returned to the water. 
  • Unfortunately some native species like roach cannot be put through this process as they would not survive, so we will humanely cull them along with the top mouth gudgeon.
Will it harm other animals?
  • Rotenone is selective to fish, which is why it is used. Mammals and birds are not affected. Animals that eat it, either directly or through eating animals that have been exposed, will not be affected because all animals have natural enzymes in the digestive system that break down rotenone. 
What will happen to the rotenone?

  • Rotenone is a naturally occurring organic substance. It breaks down when exposed to light, heat and oxygen. When applied to water it will break down to carbon dioxide and water in a few weeks depending on conditions. In the case of the stream treatment, we will be neutralising the rotenone using potassium permanganate. 

Has this method been used before?

  • Yes, we have used this method before to eradicate other populations of invasive fish, including topmouth gudgeon, sunbleak, wels catfish, pumpkinseed and fathead minnow. All our operations have been successful and the sites have now been restored to their former condition as productive, valuable, fisheries. 

Can another method be implemented?

  • No we have examined and tested all other options for management of topmouth gudgeon including: no action, screening outlets, rod & line removal, netting / electrofishing removal, egg removal using spawning mats, biological control (introducing other predatory species), drain down and liming. All of these options will only achieve management of the population and not eradication. Due to the threat posed by topmouth gudgeon it is essential that 100% eradication is achieved piscicide application represents the only viable option to achieve this in this case. 

What will the EA do to prevent this happening again?

  • We regulate every fish introduction and removal in the freshwater environment through fish movement consents and ILFA licenses.
  • We educate anglers, clubs, land owners and fish farm owners about the risks posed by non-native species and importance of managing their activities carefully.
  • We make clear that there is a buyer beware' responsibility on the buyer of any fish.
  • We work with Cefas and the fish farming industry to monitor fish movements. 
Like I say, I haven’t included everything that was in the PDF, just the bits that I thought were important. However, if you’re still not happy and want to know more, then send me your email below via the comments page (don’t worry, it won’t be visible to everyone) and I’ll email it to you.

However, this wouldn’t be needed if news agencies were to publish full details instead of just going for the sensationalist approach. Even just supplying a link to the PDF would have helped. On a positive note, the EA were very helpful and quick to respond to my questions, something other agencies would be good to pick up on.

We, the general public and businesses, especially those who impact on nature, need to learn and learn quickly that our actions, regardless of how insignificant WE think they are, can have devastating effects on our surroundings and beyond. As an ex-truck driver, I have delivered to out of the way, back of beyond warehouses in the middle of nowhere. All around their perimeters are rodent poisons which may be good at killing rodents, but they are also good at killing other wildlife such as owls, kestrels and other predators through secondary poisoning, eating an animal which has been poisoned by the rodenticide.

No-one knows how Topmouth gudgeon got into the system. They could’ve been introduced by someone who stocked a private pond, or an unscrupulous fish dealer out to make a quick buck. They could’ve been a tank fish that someone had got tired of and decided to release them into their nearest waterway thinking the weather would kill them off. Many years ago, I once knew a person who released Koi into a stream because they were getting to big for his pond. I won’t repeat here what my response was to him then. Needless to say, I no longer know this person as I don’t suffer idiots well.

Starling news

Reports have been coming in from a couple of my readers of starlings in largish numbers. First report is from Mick who tells me that he saw a largish flock at the original site at Ransomes this week and that they were starting to murmurate when he saw them.

Anne emailed me to say she spotted around 120 starlings at the nearby Trinity Showground feeding on land adjacent to Purdis Heath. I remember many years ago when I lived on a boat on the broads, I remember mooring up one evening and seeing a murmuration in the distance which I watched for ages. As I did so, every now and then a small flock of starlings would fly past or overhead, heading in the direction of the murmuration. A sure sign that these displays pull in much smaller groups for quite some miles around, safety in numbers!

So thanks to my roving reporters, I will be out in the next few days to see what murmurations I can find.

Still time to vote.

In case you haven’t done so already, you can still vote for my Barn Owl Hunting mobile device picture in the Suffolk Wildlife Photo Competition here. Voting closes soon so no time like the present. 

Till then dear reader, take care.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

In 1st place...

Hi dear followers, hope all is well in your world. Glad to see that finally, the leaves on my cherry tree are beginning to turn colour and give in to gravity. The temperatures are beginning to drop rapidly now with frost being reported from friends up north. Temperatures have affected me too as most of the last week I've had the dreaded lurgy, so haven't been out much. But still, I have good news to report.

In 1st place…

One evening in the summer, I was off to do a bat survey at Dunwich Heath in Suffolk. It was late in the day and the sun was beginning to set as I zipped along in my car down a country lane I saw a barn owl (Tyto alba) fly across the road in front of me. I've always been fascinated by these creatures and even raised one from a chick (Tyto was her name) in my younger days and used to take her out flying lots. 

As I approached the section of road I had just seen this bird fly across, there was a small lay-by which I promptly pulled into, after all, I was running early for the survey. Pulling into the lay-by, I could see the owl quartering the field next to the road. It was a lovely evening and like I say, I had a bit of time on my hands, so I got out of the car just to stand and watch. Barn owls really do fly silently due to a row of comb like bristles on the leading edge of the primary wing feather. They also make flying look incredibly easy as they fly so slowly and stop to hover over an area looking for a meal. Everything about an owl suggests that it's not built for speed. The flat disc shaped face is far from being aerodynamic, yet it serves another important purpose. The face is just like a satellite dish and it directs any sound direct to the birds ears, which are asymetrical (one higher than the other) to allow the bird to triangulate exactly where a sound is coming from.

I watched the owl fly around the far bottom off the field then slowly make its way up and then it reached the far end of the field next to the road and I expected for it to fly back over the road, but no. It turned and flew along the field back towards me. From my keeping of Tyto, I knew from experience how an owl sees things, believe it or not, that don't have great eyesight. Their hunting skills predominantly rely on sound. So I ducked down in front of the car so my outline could't be seen protruding from around the outline of the car. I then realised, my phone was still in my pocket instead of being left in the car, so I whipped it out ready to take a photo. But then the bird turned back into the field then turned again going back the way it came. Drat! I thought, a missed opportunity as the bird flew away from me. But then it turned again flying towards me on the same path and as I got ready I really couldn't believe it as the bird flew right past me and I managed to grab this shot with my phone. 
Barn owl hunting.
I cannot tell you how extremely pleased I was with this shot, so much so, that I entered it into Suffolk Wildlife Trust's Photo Competition in the category of 'Mobile Device Photo'. The closing date for entries was on Sunday Nov 3rd and on Thursday I got an email to say I had won that category! Amazing! That chance encounter I had with a very special bird just got even better. So what did I win, I hear you ask. Er, sorry, I can't remember what the prizes were, but I was asked for my home address so that my prize could be sent to me, I should imagine it might be delivered by armoured van and security people, as I doubt a cheque of a couple of million pound would be sent in the post (always hoping).

Anyway, it doesn't end there. Apparently, my photo, along with other section winners such as my good friend Matt Berry who deservedly won the invertebrate section with a lovely photo of a Brimstone Butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni), will be printed in our local paper the East Anglian Daily Times and on the Suffolk Wildlife Trust website where can vote for the overall favourite photo here

Always worth looking.

This good news helped lift me out of the doldrums of man-flu so much so, that I decided to have a little walk around my local patch to see what I could find. It had been a nice morning/early afternoon so I was hopeful to find something of interest. Perhaps a recently deceased minotaur beetle that I could preserve in my pinned insect collection, or a late bumblebee queen looking for a place to hibernate for next years project.

It seemed quite busy when I got there, as most of the parking spaces were taken, but I managed to squeeze onto a little bit at the end. Then I bumped into a couple of friends just coming off the heath. All was looking lovely, however, the weather was on the turn and I knew I wasn't going to be here long. I concentrated my efforts on the bare patch of soil where I had been working last time removing the invasive brambles. I know this area is well populated with Minotaur beetles (Typhaeus typhoeus) and was apparently still quite active as I could see many fresh piles of sand removed in order to dig their deep burrows. I did find the remains of some ground beetles, in some fresh Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) droppings scattered around the area, which was another sign that the beetles are still active. I walked on to the archaeology pit where Matt had been working the week previously strumming down the gorse bushes. I wanted to see if there was anything about there of interest. As soon as I got into the pit I did find what I thought was a freshly dead Minotaur beetle. I say I thought, it wasn't till I got it home to put it on the setting board that I realised its head was missing. Drat, must remember to use my glasses more often.

I wandered up out of the pit with the odd drop of rain now beginning to fall and the clouds getting darker when something fluttered past me. At first, I thought it was a damselfly, but dismissed this thought as quickly as it came as it's quite late for damselflies now. I spun around to get another look to see it shoot out of sight behind a tree and my second thought was small dragonfly, but again I dashed the thought as it was too small body wise. At this point I was already extending the handle of my insect net ready for the capture when all of a sudden it came up behind me after circling the tree. Then I knew exactly what it was, an Ichneumon wasp. I waited till it settled on the leaf of the oak tree it had been circling and then quickly swished my net over it. Looking into the net I could see I had caught it and I potted it straight away in the hope of getting a proper ID on it later.

The rain drops were getting bigger by now and began to make a hasty retreat to my car to go home and identify my catch. It was quite obvious the ichneumon was best pleased at being caught, so I placed it in the fridge to cool down and after a few hours pulled her back out again to get some shots and an identification.

Now when I say ichneumon, this wasn't just any old ichneumon, this one was a big one at around 6cm long with an impressive tail that was just over 3cm long. It was awesome.

My what a big tail you have!
I say tail, but of course, this isn't exactly a tail, it's an ovipositor. This is the end that lays the eggs in the bark or leaves of the tree. This happens when the female, pictured above, senses the larval form of another insect munching away in the wood. The ichneumon will then insert its ovipositor into the wood to lay an egg close to the unsuspecting grub. Then when the egg hatches, the newly emerged larval ichneumon has another grub to feed on close by. I know this sounds a bit gruesome, but this is another reason why insects lay so many eggs, so that even when there are predators like this about, still some will have a chance of making it through to adulthood.
The top view clearly showing the ocelli on top of the head.
I posted these pictures on to some internet forums, social media, etc looking for help with the identity of this wonderful creature and was informed that the only real way of getting a true positive ID was to use a microscope to see the tip of the ovipositor, which was not going to be easy to do with a live specimen.

Such beauty.

Now, as most of you know, I'm really not into killing things. I recently submitted my moth list of all the moths I caught this year to my County Moth Recorder, who informed me that he wouldn't be able to accept some ID's because they could only be positively identified by cutting open their genitalia. My thoughts on this are exactly the same for the ichneumon and any other creature I happen to come across, I don't need to know the name of it that badly, that I need to kill it. That said, one fellow who seemed to know his ichies (not an official term) had come to the conclusion that it was most likely going to be Dolichomitus mesocentrus, a common large ichneumon found in the southern half of England. Looking at other pictures of this species, it looks pretty spot on to say the least and I'm more than happy with the ID and this beautiful creature was let go to fly away to do what nature intended it to do.

Look up to the skies!

This is a plea from me to you to ask for any sightings you've had of any starling murmurations in or around the Ipswich area. I saw a small one earlier this year over east Ipswich near Ransomes Industrial Estate. 

Caught on my mobile earlier this year.

However, this murmuration hasn't returned this year and I would like to get some decent shots of one. So if you know of a murmuration near you, please let me know either by leaving a comment below (don't worry, no-one will see any of your contact details) or via Twitter @SuffolkNature.

Wildlife turns up in the strangest of places

Me and the wifey went out shopping this afternoon and the first thing I noticed was this lovely looking creature.

An incy wincy spider...
on a teapot...
in John Lewis'
Even spiders have taste.

So wherever you are, whatever you're doing, always keep an eye out for wildlife, it's always there and sometimes as above, in the unlikeliest of places.

Till next time dear followers, keep safe.

Monday, 4 November 2013

I met a Minotaur on the heath

Hi dearest followers, hope all is good in your world. This weekend saw me and fellow nature freaks out in the wilds of Purdis Heath, my local patch. About 13 of us had gathered to help clear the heath of saplings, gorse and bramble. This is important habitat maintenance work to help the Silver-studded Blue (SSB) butterfly (Plebejus argus) maintain a foothold here after numbers of these beautiful insects plummeted around the turn of the century.

The morning began with Julian, the volunteer officer, explaining to any newcomers the history of the heath, the threats to it and the reasons for doing our work on it. Tools were distributed, jobs delegated and me and my friend Jackie, who was new to all this, set to work in clearing the bramble from an area of bare sand on the heath. This sand needs to be kept bare for good reason. The lifecycle of the SSB involves ants believe it or not. I think this was first discovered in the 70's with the Large Blue (Maculinea arion) butterfly. This insect was in sharp decline due to habitat loss and its last stronghold was on Dartmoor and everything was being done to save the butterfly including sending found eggs to butterfly breeders, but still without success. It wasn't until the late 70's when the butterfly was declared next to extinct in the UK, that a naturalist who was studying ants, dug into an ant nest and found a solitary larvae of a Large Blue deep in the nest in the nursery part. It was then that the penny dropped and further research found that the life cycle went something like this:

Butterfly lays egg on flower of plant. The egg hatches, eats the flower then falls to the ground. Here it lays looking all helpless and defenceless until an ant comes along. Not just any ant, but a Myrmica ant, the larvae is thought to emit a pheromone that makes the ant think the larvae is in fact an ant larvae. The confused ant, thinks what's this doing here? I must take it back to the nursery immediately.

Once in the nursery the ants care and feed the larvae until it is ready to pupate. It then emerges as a butterfly from the ant nest and the cycle is ready to begging all over again.

Once this cycle was discovered, it was realised that all the time they were trying to save the butterfly, they should've been paying closer attention to the ants instead. Because the ant habitats were becoming over grown, which were causing the ants to move away from where the butterflies were. So the butterflies weren't being carried down into the ant nests and thus the butterflies were declining.

Unfortunately, by now, the Large Blue was extinct in the UK. But all was not lost as there were still some healthy populations in Europe and a plan was put in place to re-introduce the Large Blue back to the British countryside once again. So the habitat was managed in favour of the ant populations by introducing grazing animals such as ponies and sheep and once the ants were doing well and thriving, specimens from Norway were re-introduced and till this day, they still exist.

This is a lovely example of the important and amazing interrelationships that exist within nature where a butterfly is reliant on a grazing cattle to breed.

The SSB is also reliant on ants in the same way and therefore, parts of the heath have to be maintained for the ant populations to thrive. Dry, encrusted areas of bare sand are good for ants as well as some other wonderful insects and me and Jackie wasn't into long lopping the brambles when I came across this little fellow.

A male Minotaur Beetle (Typhaeus typhoeus). Just look at those little horns.
These lovely looking beetles are the beetle partly responsible for making holes in and around the sandy part of the heath.

One of the many holes dotted around the sandy parts of the heath. Not every one has a 50p next to it though.
I posted the photo above in the early part of the year trying to find out what was making them. In the early part of the summer I came across an old favourite of mine, the Green Tiger Beetle (Cicindela campestris) and thought these were responsible for the holes. However, even at this time of year, I could tell from the fresh mounds of sand being piled up that the holes were still active, and yet, Green Tiger Beetles aren't active this time of year. So something else had to be responsible and here it is, the Minotaur beetle. These lovely looking shiny beetles eat the many rabbit droppings that litter the heath and drill deep into the ground, up to 12-18" deep, where they pull the droppings down to feed their larvae through the winter period.

As you can also see in the photo above to the left is a gorse sapling. This too needs to be kept in check as it spreads quite rapidly and quite easily. It's also quite amazing how deep the roots of these plants can penetrate the sandy soil.
A small sapling of gorse dug up by Ann. Just look how long that root is!
So just by seeing the photo above, you can see that we have our work cut out in keeping certain plants at bay and in the right places.

Jackie and Helen busy removing the brambles that spread so quickly.
It wasn't all about work though, we had tea breaks where Matt & Julian laid on tea and biscuits for us and we got to have a good chat in the lovely weather too.

Tea break
I'm also happy to report that whilst we were busy attacking the brambles I came across 4 ladybirds and they were all native 7-spots (Coccinella 7-punctata) which I recorded with the iPhone ladybird survey app. One of the ladybirds was dead, after all, it is that time of year, but it was recorded all the same. 

Sorry for the poor quality, never had me glasses on.
Not all the work involved cutting back the bramble and gorse, there was wood from previous work parties that needed to be moved in preparation for dead hedging and habitation piles.

Lots of Silver Birch, see interesting fact below

Interesting fact

The silver birch, as pictured above, was the birch that was used as a form of corporal punishment. It is believed that birch was used because of it being white in colour. The early Christians believed that white was pure and free from evil and therefore, good for beating the evil out of those who do corrupt things. So there you go, another piece of useless information you never knew you needed.

Another part of the heath is the archaeology pit which was dug some time ago to see if there had been any activity on the site. Not many people realise this, but the east side of Ipswich has several burial mounds that  date back ~3500 years. In fact, just up the road in Woodbridge, there is the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial site. In the opposite direction down the A12, we come to Colchester, the oldest recorded Roman town in Britain, so it would seem that this part of East Anglia is steeped in history. This pit was never filled back in and has now become its own micro-habitat and has to be kept free of the gorse that is now encroaching upon it. Matt Berry of Butterfly Conservation bravely went into the fray with strummer to cut as much of the gorse back as possible. I say bravely because unless you've ever been spiked by gorse, you will never know just how vicious the stuff is!

Anyway, the day went well and the weather held out. So much so there were still plenty of insects flying around including a queen bumblebee and this lovely little shieldbug which stopped and joined us for lunch on Ann's shoe. 

Hawthorn Shieldbug (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale)
 All in all, a good day was had and lots got done. It's a nice way to give something back and good for your health too. You get to meet lots of nice like-minded people and learn more of what's happening in your area through this networking. The next work party is on Saturday 7th December, weather permitting and it would be lovely to see you regardless of your abilities. There's something for everyone to do at the work parties and it beats sitting around watching telly or shopping!

Till next time dear followers, take care.