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#30DaysWild – Days 24 – 30

I had a manic few days to finish off the month of June and thus 30 Days Wild – pond dipping, moth trapping, butterfly chasing … the usual stuff really. Rather than go through all 6 days, I have included the highlights below.

Day 24

Day 25

Day 28

Day 30

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#30DaysWild – Days 6 & 7

day 7

My first act of going wild on Day 6 started early when I released this Elephant Hawk-moth (Deilephila elpenor) into my garden. I had originally collected it as a caterpillar back in Dorset in September / October. Since then, I had been carefully looking after it – feeding it appropriate food when it was a caterpillar (mainly Fuschia, ) and then keeping it cool and a little bit moist when it was pupating. It had come in ever so useful as a party trick, as the pupae moves when touched! But finally, it emerged as an adult on the evening of Day 5. Ideally, I should’ve released it back where I originally found it, but I was no longer in or near Dorset, so I released it into my garden instead. It didn’t seem to mind!

At work, I was doing Wild Art with schoolchildren at Wicken Fen. The main activity is to make a creature from clay and natural materials – hedgehogs are a popular choice, but there were also ladybirds, snakes and swans. Between sessions, I kept my eye out for interesting wildlife as usual. A good find on this day was a Wasp Beetle (Clytus arietis), I’ve only ever seen one before, during the bioblitz at Llanbwchllyn Lake this time last year. One of the volunteers was running the pond dipping sessions and found some Bladderwort. Although it looks quite benign, Bladderworts are actually carnivorous plants which capture prey (small aquatic invertebrates) in their bladders (small sacs) and slowly digest them to absorb nutrients without having to rely on roots.

The following day (Day 7), I was leading some pond dipping sessions with the school groups. We found some excellent creatures – damselfly, dragonfly and mayfly nymphs, a huge diving beetle larva and some newts (one adult Smooth Newt, and two young newts – one with legs, but still with gills, and one that must have only been a few days old). In the afternoon, I shadowed one of the volunteers on the boardwalk session with the school, as I’ve not seen that session yet. I learnt that Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) was used as a poultice for fixing broken bones, where to find Watermint (Mentha citrata) and that there is a subspecies of Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) called the Fen Nettle (U. dioica subsp. galeopsifolia) which doesn’t sting!

I am unsure whether to add Fen Nettle to my Pan-Species List, since it is a subspecies rather than a separate species. However, it is quite distinctive. Hm. Thoughts welcome.

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Scilly Species Sightings

Last weekend was amazing. One of the best weekends in my life for sure. It was a long weekend, where ten women headed down to the Isles of Scilly to relax, drink wine and watch wildlife. This being a wildlife blog, I shall focus on the latter in this post, but I can reassure you that copious amounts of the first two also occurred. Each day on Scilly deserves its own blog post – in fact, each half of a day! But I shall keep it as short and concise as I can.

It was a false start to begin with, when I got very excited during boarding as I saw an Eider Duck (Somateria mollissima) in the Penzance harbour. The excitement was (a) it is a gorgeous duck, and (b) I thought it was lifer. When I got home, I realised that I have actually seen an Eider Duck before during the Scottish wildlife holiday last year. But still, it was very nice to see it. The sightings continued during the journey on the Scillonian across to the Scilly Isles – Gannet (Morus bassanus), Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), Great Northern Diver (Gavia immer), and most wonderfully – dolphins (Delphinus delphis)! We saw one playing in the waves created by the boat, only briefly mind, but gosh it was superb. Then not long after, I saw a pod of at least 8 in the distance, leaping into the air. There isn’t much in life that beats the thrill of watching wild dolphins.

Once we were on Scilly, I had the pleasant surprise of watching our usual garden birds on the seashore – House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), Robins (Erithacus rubecula) and Blackbirds (Turdus merula), searching amongst the seaweed for food. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was as I had never seen these birds on a sandy beach before! I even saw a Blackbird getting its feet wet – it didn’t seem to enjoy paddling as it quickly jumped out onto a rock!

The timing of our visit worked very well in coinciding with the very low spring tides, and we were able to walk from Tresco to Bryher (after seeing the Iberian Chiffchaff, Phylloscopus ibericus, and feeding crisps to the Golden Pheasants, Chrysolophus pictus). I had great fun rockpooling between the islands, finding the cast-off shells of crabs, peeking in at Hermit Crabs (Pagurus bernhardus) and generally poking around in the seaweed. At one point I almost died (well, not quite, but it makes it more dramatic), as I found a Short-spined Scorpion Fish (Myoxocephalus scorpius) stranded on the sand and moved it back into the water. Fortunately I picked it up by its tail, as it was only afterwards that I found out that they have venomous barbs which can cause swelling and pain! Yikes!

On Bryher, we had one thing in mind. The Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)! And what a beauty it was. Though I have to admit, I didn’t realise where it was at first. When I first looked through my binoculars at it, its face was turned away and honestly, it looked exactly like a big white rock. I felt like such a bad birder when I had to have someone tell me that actually, the big white rock was the Snowy Owl – oops! Once it turned its face back towards us, it definitely looked like an owl again thankfully. I have some awful distance photos of it which don’t really do it justice sadly.

After the Snowy Owl trip, we headed out on the Sapphire boat to find some seabirds (and to drink Prosecco). There were Razorbills (Alca torda), Guillemots (Uria aalge), Shags (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) and more Great Northern Divers and Gannets. My avian highlight had to be the Puffins (Fratercula arctica)! I’ve only ever seen dead ones, having worked on Chesil Beach just after the big winter storms in January / February 2014 and found plenty of dead birds on the beach. So I was overjoyed to actually see a live one, happily bobbing on the water. We also saw Grey Seals (Halichoerus grypus), which were great fun to watch as they would pop their heads up out of the water and then disappear again, only to resurface in a different spot.

One of the most hilarious moments of the trip came on Sunday afternoon. We’d had a nice relaxed walk in the drizzle, clambering through muddy woodlands and up hills to find the best apple strudel. By the way, I can confirm that it is the best apple strudel I’ve ever eaten. However, strudel / tea / beer was abandoned mid-bite / drink when Lucy shouted incoherently and ran out the cafe. Beth and I followed, somewhat confused but knowing it must be a good bird. And swooping over the fields, was a Harrier bird. Even distantly and without my binoculars (why didn’t I have my bins?!), I could see a nice white patch on it (ruling out Marsh Harrier, Circus aeruginosus), and very long and pointed elegant wings (apparently ruling out Hen Harrier? C.cyaneus). Lucy called it in as being a Montagu’s Harrier (C.pygargus) – my first!

I’ve not yet mentioned insects, and that’s because it wasn’t a good weekend for them. The drizzle and chill meant the only the most industrious were out and about, the bumblebees buzzing about the flowers. I had hauled my moth trap all the way down there, and despite the low numbers of moths caught, I was quite happy. It was better than the (non-existant) hauls I was catching at home, and there were even (at least) two new species for me: Marbled Coronet (Hadena confusa) and Chamomile Shark (Cucullia chamomillae). I say ‘at least’ because there were a couple of micros that I haven’t identified yet, which may turn out to be lifers for me.

It would be wrong to leave out the dipping*. I didn’t manage to see a Red-rumped Swallow (Cecropis daurica), and when we got back to Cornwall, we tried to see the Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus) but we didn’t see it sadly. The twitchers in the group were rather gripped** by others seeing it earlier in the day. However I have to admit that by that point, I was absolutely shattered and worried about getting home too late, so I was less gripped.

Despite writing over 1000 words, I really have only laid out the bare bones of the trip. I haven’t mentioned the superb glamping experience at Peninnis Farm (really not anything like camping at all!), the stunning landscapes, the scrumptious food, the cute cats and dogs that I met (there were a few in particular that I absolutely fell in love with), and the wildflowers that I have been attempting to identify. But I’m sure you get the gist – it was amazing and wonderful, and I want to go back!

*dipping is when you go to twitch/see a bird (or other wildlife) and don’t see it

*gripped off is when someone has seen a bird and you haven’t, and you get rather jealous/annoyed/frustrated

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Just Another Way To Die

A warm sunny day kicked off the start of May, although a fair few layers were still required to protect from the occasional chilly breeze. Matt and I headed over to RSPB Fen Drayton with some family friends for a relaxed wander.

There were plenty of birds, but they were far too quick to take photographs of. Swifts (Apus apus) shooting past in quick succession, Blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla) flitting between vegetation and even a Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) floating smoothly but speedily across the sky and into a tree, where it perched out of sight but calling loudly. Speaking of calls and songs, Matt proved himself useful as usual by identifying a variety of bird songs as we wandered – Blackcap, Whitethroat (Sylvia communis), Sedge and Reed Warblers (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus and A.scirpaceus), and even my first Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)! It was such a thrill to stand amongst the vegetation and listen to the beautiful songs of so many birds.

It will come as no surprise to many of you that I had great fun finding, photographing and trying to identify insects. There were some of the usual suspects, such as 7-spot Ladybird (Coccinella 7-punctata) and Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni). Plus some species that were new to either myself or my company, including Cream-spot Ladybird (Calvia quatuordecimguttata) and Common Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus vespillo). I was particularly excited to find my first Orthoptera of the year – a very tiny and adorable Dark Bush-Cricket nymph (Pholidoptera griseoaptera)!

I also found something rather odd, perched motionless on the top of a plant. A very strange-looking fly. As you can see in the photograph below, its abdomen is very swollen and cream in colour, and it doesn’t look at all healthy.

Thanks to the wonders of Twitter, I was able to find out the cause of this unhealthy look. The fly is actually infected by a parasitic fungus which has made it crawl to the top of the plant, and die there!


The location of the death is to maximise dispersal of the fungal spores – this webpage has some more details should you want to further gross yourself out. The fungus is apparently a type of Entomophthora, most likely E.mascae but I can’t be sure without looking under a microscope at the structure of the fungus.

All very interesting – nature can be cruel, but it sure is fascinating.

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Fire In My Heart

I had a rather cool evening earlier this week. Now that the evenings are both lighter and warmer, and it feels like summer is not far around the corner (with the exception of this weekend which has decided to be cold, brr!), I can start going on interesting evening adventure trips again. You may remember that I did these quite a lot when I was working in Dorset, because there was so much to explore and so much wildlife to see! And now I get to do it all over again, but this time in Cambridgeshire where there are new places to explore!

Albeit that Tuesday evening’s adventure wasn’t in Cambs. I decided to take inspiration from Bilbo Baggins by going on an adventure outside the Shire! At least, to the next one, Hertfordshire, which I can see from Wimpole Hall.

Anyway, sparked by inspiration with one of the Hall volunteers during the day, I went down to Therfield Heath near Royston (literally just over the border into Hertfordshire!) to try and find a rare flower that is currently in bloom. More on that later. After initially heading the wrong way, where I saw Bulbous Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus), a Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) and about six Skylarks (Alauda arvensis), I found myself walking through a sun-dappled woodland.

Male Blackbirds (Turdus merula) were singing beautifully, and a Robin (Erithacus rubecula) was trilling away. And there was a high pitched noise I couldn’t identify. Up in the branches above, a tiny shape flitted back and forth. Never long enough to get a really good look, but enough to see that it was either a Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) or Firecrest (R.ignicapilla). I just needed to get a view of the face to see if there was a black eyestripe over the eye (Firecrest) or not (Goldcrest). Annoyingly, it did what small birds tend to do, and it flitted away. I dug out my phone from my pocket and looked up the Firecrest song, since my hunch was that it was a Firecrest, as I wanted to check my hunch against what I had heard.

So there was I, thinking the Firecrest had disappeared off into the trees, never to be seen again. Note to self – Firecrests have good hearing. A few moments after playing the song, and confirming my hunch, it was back. And oh my, it was in territorial mode. If it had been a human, I would say that it was in my face saying “you what, mate?”. I feel really bad for having played the song now, and affected its behaviour, particularly as this was during breeding season. I have learnt my lesson! I did manage to get a few photos before it flew off again to search for another (real) Firecrest. I also got a number of blurred or empty photos!

Continuing through the woodland, with a melodious background noise of Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) and Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), I emerged out on the top of a hill in full sunlight. A small note that I was thrilled, as Cambridgeshire is ever so flat and I have been missing the hills of Dorset and Radnorshire! The hillside was dotted with butter-coloured Cowslips (Primula veris) and flowers of a deeper purple, the aforementioned endangered species. The rare and beautiful Pasqueflowers (Pulsatilla vulgaris), although they aren’t so rare on this particular hillside! There were loads of them! It was almost a carpet of flowers.

Aren’t they just stunning?!

I especially love the hairs on the stalk and sepals, and I did some reading up on them – the Wildlife Trusts species explorer page on the Pasqueflower has some interesting, and succinct, information on them.

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How A Nomad Helped My Confidence

This week saw my first office day at the Wildlife Trust BCN as a Volunteer Communications Officer. Alongside writing a piece for their blog, assisting with a competition and learning more about how the communications team functions, there was a particular aspect to the day that has since become very memorable. The lunch break.

Now I didn’t have a very exciting selection of food for my lunch, but it was eaten outside in the beautifully warm spring sunshine. Brimstone butterflies (Gonepteryx rhamni) flitted through the garden, bees worked hard to collect pollen and a Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) called from a nearby tree. Being the keen naturalist that I am, I was mentally noting down the different species about – Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus), Red-tailed and Early Bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius and B.pratorum), Rosemary Beetle (Chrysolina americana), 7-spot Ladybird (Coccinella 7-punctata) and so on, all of which would be put into my wildlife records notebook. Further to being a naturalist, I am a pan-species lister which means that I am extra excited if I see something new to me. And during this lunch break, I did just that.

I was watching and photographing some bees on the rosemary (NB: I need some for my garden, it is brilliant for pollinators!) when I noticed another insect nearby. With its wicked looking markings, I thought that it was probably an ichneumon wasp species (Ichneumonidae). I snapped a few photos, taking care to get it from different angles, before it wandered off into the undergrowth. I decided against potting it, I didn’t think I would be able to identify myself and figured it would be better off in the wild.

So that was my lunch break, all in all, the type of lunch break I love. Warmth, sunshine and wildlife. I didn’t think much more of it until later. I got home and downloaded the camera photos onto my laptop, whilst flicking through my insect book to find Red Mason Bee (Osmia rufa), a species that I had seen for the first time recently and needed to put a tick next to in the book. I was in the Hymenoptera section (bees, wasps, ants) and as I flicked through, I saw something vaguely familiar – a group that looked like that insect from earlier. But it wasn’t the ichneumon wasp section, it was the Nomada bees group.

After a bit of thinking, and a sip of tea, I decided I would give the identification a go. If nothing else, it would show me whether this group is ever ‘doable’ from photos alone. Immediately I felt a little overwhelmed … the Nomada bees do look pretty similar to each other! Rather than trying to focus on each species at a time, I drew up a shortlist of potential species, casting aside species that I decided against – too much yellow on the abdomen, stripes on the thorax and other such characteristics.

I ended up with a shortlist of 6 potential species, and I turned to a more detailed, and wonderful, book (Falk – Field Guide to Bees of Great Britain and Ireland) to examine each of these species in turn. I slowly read through each description, flicking back to the anatomy page when confronted with technical terms (tergites, labrum, pronatal tubercules), crossing the species off if the description didn’t match the photograph in front of me.

In the end, I was left with one, Nomada ferruginata also known as the Yellow-shouldered Nomad Bee. The technical bits in the description matched up:  the pronatal tubercules were yellow (i.e. small yellow circular lump on the thorax), there were yellow spots on the tergites 2 and 5 (i.e. the yellow spots on different sections of the abdomen) and the antennal scapes were black (i.e. the first section of the antennae, closest to the head).

Nomada ferruginata ID features

I posted my thoughts on the UK Bees, Wasps and Ants Facebook group and on Twitter, and received confirmation that my ID is correct! Having looked on the NBN gateway, I can see that it is not a new species to Cambridgeshire, but it may be a new species for Cambourne. I shall dig further and find out.

Having identified the bee as N.ferruginata, I did some reading about it. Bees in the Nomada genus are commonly referred to as Nomads or ‘homeless bees’. This particular species seems to be quite a rare bee, listed as endangered in the Red Data Book but this probably needs to be revised. It is either being identified correctly more often, or actually experiencing a population increase with more records the last couple of decades (a new species for Worcestershire in 2008). It is a cleptoparasite on another solitary bee species, Andrena praecox, although one website refers a source that suggests that A.varians might also be a host species. A.praecox also seems to be quite a rare species as apparently the females are very dependent on willow catkins.

In conclusion – what I have learnt from the Nomad ID?

  • That not all wicked-looking Hymenoptera are ichneumon wasps.
  • That it is worth taking notice of the small, quiet insects that aren’t buzzing or fluttering about.
  • That some Nomada species can be identified from photos only, but only if photos are taken from lots of angles (I could have done with more angles). However, not all of them are as there can be some slight differences that require closer examination.
  • That a good field guide can make all the difference. Whilst my general insects book (Brock) led me to the correct group, the bee book (Falk) provided the technical expertise to narrow it down to the exact species.
  • That it is worth pursuing identification and I shouldn’t give up on species identification just because it looks difficult! I.e. I should be more confident in myself and my ability to work through the process of identification.