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Making friends with dragons

Everything is beginning to calm down and sort itself out in my life, which is wonderful and also means that I may just have some time to write my blog again! Fingers crossed! There is a lot I could write about in this post, but I am going to focus on a nature walk I took recently – the first in ages and it was wonderful!

(c) Andrew Kerwick-Chrisp

A friend and I decided to use a weekend day to visit Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows in Northamptonshire. This was a new nature reserve for me so I didn’t know what to expect, but it is on his doorstep so he knows it quite well. However, he isn’t wildlife-mad/obsessed like myself so it turned out to be a learning experience for him too. Not to mention that he hasn’t seen me in wildlife-mad/obsessed mode before, so that also turned out to be a learning experience for him! (Yes, I do actually associate with people outside the world of natural history!)

I managed to find quite a few plump and juicy blackberries to snack on, although we are beginning to near the end of their season sadly. We even found a dragonfly – which I believe to be a Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) though I am completely out of practice, so do let me know if I’m wrong! We watched it for a minute or two, and I tried to get a decent photo of it. I think I did quite well, though not an amazing photo. It then flew off and we didn’t see where it landed, until we went to walk on again at which point my friend noticed that it had landed on my hair! It actually stayed there for about 5 minutes or so, and only flew off when I went to carry on walking. On an unrelated note – how fantastic does my plait look in the photos?!

Further along the way, we were intrigued by the sight of a lady crouching down in the grass by the side of the path. What could she be up to? Something nefarious or was she, like I usually do, looking at something interesting? It turned out that she was photographing Shaggy Ink Caps (Coprinus comatus), a lovely fungus that it is one of the easier species to identify. Apparently it is edible and quite tasty, but before the black ink begins to appear. I wouldn’t take my word for it though, as I don’t know much about foraging for mushrooms!

What with there being lakes at this nature reserve, there were a fair few birds about – Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea), Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus), Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), etc etc. I had my duck identification skills tested, after quite a few months of not even attempting any duck ID. Racking my brains, I managed to remember that they were Wigeon (Anas penelope) and Teal (Anas crecca). It shouldn’t have been quite so difficult to remember, but I am very out of practice with ducks! Must work harder!

We almost passed by this female Blackbird (Turdus merula) without noticing her, she was sitting ever so still and quietly in the Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) tree. A little later, we spotted another Blackbird, this time a male who was not so still but instead was enjoying some haw berries.

Our last find was a good one – a grasshopper! I had wondered if it would be too late in the year or too chilly to find any Orthoptera, but I was not to be disappointed it seems. With the side keels of the pronotum being so straight and almost parallel, my guess would be Lesser Marsh Grasshopper (Chorthippus albomarginatus)?

All in all, a rather nice nature walk. I bet it is even better in late spring and summer when I am sure it is buzzing with even more Orthoptera, and filled with exciting wildflowers and other insects!

In other news, I have left National Trust’s Wimpole Estate (though not before finding a rare fungus!), moved house, and have exciting plans for the near future. Watch this space! For now, a few tweets of what else has been happening recently:

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Life goes on

I haven’t managed to write a blog post for three months now, which is just crazy. Due to a combination of being incredibly busy at work, very busy with A Focus On Nature work and some not-so-great stuff happening in my personal life, I haven’t had the time to write. And when I have, the latter has meant that I am not feeling particularly inspired either.

I hope that everything will calm down and sort itself out soon, and that I can return to writing. If so, it is likely that posts will be sporadic for a while before I manage to make a regular posts again. Until then, you can see what I have been up to in the past few months below (most recent first). I haven’t managed to include anywhere near everything I have been up to, but it will give you a flavour of how busy I have been!

 

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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 – Day 23

Another day at Wicken Fen today with another school group. I was leading two of their activities today: pond dipping and a guided walk on the Fen.

However in other news, this week is National Insect Week and today I published my post for the A Focus On Nature blog about NIW and how AFON members can get more involved with this fascinating group. Read the my post here.

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#30DaysWild – Days 15 – 22

Ok, so I fell behind somewhat on my #30DaysWild blogging – oops! Not to worry though, I have been connecting with nature every day despite being busy with work, AFON bits and pieces, and general life stuff. I won’t go into every single wild act that happened every day, so here is a summary, shown through my tweets.

Bee Orchids (Ophrys apifera)! <3 <3 <3

Somehow, and after quite a bit of searching, I found the Bee Orchid from last week again. And in fact, I found a further 6 plants! Then later that day, I was informed of two more locations of Bee Orchids on the estate, which is fantastic news indeed.

 

I was able to put the moth trap out at Wimpole for the first time in ages (since I need to be there two days in a row to run the trap). There wasn’t much, but I did catch this beautiful Pale Tussock moth (Calliteara pudibunda).

 

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#30DaysWild – Day 14

I was at Wicken Fen again today, and I wasn’t actually pond dipping! Instead I was leading the sessions on minibeast hunting for a local school. We went pretended to be centipedes and millipedes – at one I was the centipede’s prey, and we were hungry dragonflies looking for lunch, and we also did some log rolling. Under said logs we found two Lesser Stag Beetles (Dorcus parallelipipedus), a Glow Worm Beetle larvae (Lampyris noctiluca), and many many ants, other beetles, worms, snails, slugs, spiders, millipedes, centipedes … At one point I had a moment of “wow, I’m getting paid for this?!”

Despite not doing pond dipping, my highlight for #30DaysWild had to be a creature that they found during pond dipping. One of the children managed to scoop out a female Great Crested Newt (GCN, Triturus cristatus). You can see how big she is and the typical GCN patterning – orange background with black spots, plus mainly black chin. Apparently each GCN’s patterning is unique to that individual – maybe I should try to build up a photo archive of the GCNs at Wicken Fen?

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#30DaysWild – Day 13

I was back at Wicken Fen today and in charge of 110 children! Fortunately they were ever so well-behaved and not too loud. I was doing the pond dipping sessions with them, and one of the children caught a dragonfly nymph that had started to emerge. However, it was absolutely chucking it down so I took the nymph inside to (a) warm up and (b) dry off!

You can see that it didn’t help all that much as the wings didn’t open properly, not helped further by the fact that the dragonfly kept falling onto them. At the time of writing (c. 7pm), the wings are still quite folded and crumpled. I’m not feeling hopeful for a full recovery.

On an additional note, my photo made it onto the BBC Cambridge Local Live page (posted at 17.49).

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#30DaysWild – Days 8 – 11

It’s proving difficult to blog every day for 30 Days Wild this year, but there is no need to worry. I am most definitely still connecting with nature every day!

Day 8

I actually had a day off from working on Wednesday (Day 8), though I spent much of it either working on my laptop or working in the garden. However, Matt and I did go for a lovely walk at lunchtime. Alongside admiring dragonflies and butterflies, we also heard a Corn Bunting (Emberiza calandra) and I managed to get good views (but no photos) of a Whitethroat (Sylvia communis).

Day 9

The wildlife spotting started early on Day 9 when we emptied the garden moth trap. There was a good variety of species, above you can see Cinnabar (Tyria jacobaeae), Poplar Hawk-moth (Laothoe populi), White Ermine (Spilosoma lubricipeda) and Green Silver-lines (Pseudoips prasinana). The morning was then further improved when I found out that the abstract I had submitted for giving a talk at Ento ’16 had been accepted!

I was working at Wimpole that day, so I took a lunchtime walk in front of the house. The lawn is absolutely gorgeous, as they let the grass grow long and there are lots of wildflowers amongst it. Including a Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera), as shown below. I think I may attempt to photograph the orchid in flower next week – though I don’t know if I will manage to find it again!

Day 10

On Friday I was working at Wicken Fen, leading KS2 school groups in pond dipping. We caught a silly number of newt tadpoles, and some absolute whoppers of diving beetles and their larvae. I recently learnt that the underside is useful in identifying the different diving beetle species, hence the photos below of their undersides! For example, I am pretty confident that the adult beetle below on the right is a Black-bellied Diving Beetle (Dytiscus semisulcatus). We also saw the food chain in action when a diving beetle larvae was caught with a water boatman in its jaws! I knew they were predators, but didn’t realise that they ate adult beetles of other species!

Day 11

I had yet another day off this week! Very strange indeed. My To Do list was depressingly long so I spent the morning and much of the afternoon attempting to tackle it, but I did manage to get out and visit a local nature reserve in the late afternoon. I decided to local Wildlife Trust reserve, Houghton Meadows. On the walk down the lane, I found a couple of feathers to stick into my hat which was fun.

Houghton Meadows is a lovely place, the fields were just brimming with flowers. Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) was everywhere, and so because it has parasitic properties on grasses (thus limiting their growth), there were other wildflowers everywhere too: Bird’s-Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), Ox-Eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and Red Clover (Trifolium pratense). The insect population was strong too, lots of Diamond-backed moths (Plutella xylostella), a Common Blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus) and plenty of damselflies and dragonflies. I had particular fun photographing a male Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) through the grass stems.

On my walk back to the car, I was thrilled to find a family of Long-tailed Tits (Aegithalos caudatus), as they were one of my favourite birds. Mind you, they are a nuisance to try and take photographs of as they move around so much! However, a couple of these particular birds didn’t move around as much, I think they must’ve been fledglings.

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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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#30DaysWild – Days 4 & 5

There isn’t much to show for Day 4 as I spend much of the day out in the garden without my phone or camera. However, I did pop out for a bit and I saw a family of Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) on the river. Look at how cute and fluffy the cygnets are!!!

I was working on Sunday (day 5), but still managed to squeeze quite a lot of wildness in! We have Swallows (Hirundo rustica) nesting in the stable block at Wimpole and I finally saw one of them with nesting material. Until then, I had only seen them flying about and chattering away.

It was relatively quiet at work that day as the county show was occurring nearby (on Wimpole land, but not run by Wimpole). I popped over to give someone a new radio, and walked through the gardens to get there. I was thrilled to find Yellow Rattle () in the gardens, as it is one of my favourite wildflowers, (a) because it is very pretty, (b) because you can rattle the seeds around and (c) because it is a hemi-parasite on grasses and thus it is brilliant for turning an area of grass into a wildflower meadows!

The wildness continued after work as I was able to fit in a short wander whilst I waited for Matt to pick me up from Wimpole. I’ve not identified the white flower or the white moth just yet, though I am taking an educated guess and saying that it is a White Plume moth  (Pterophorus pentadactyla). The other moth is a Blood-vein moth (Timandra comae), a species that I was very excited to find as I have admired in the book for ages and hadn’t actually seen one before!

For both days, I then spent the evening as a volunteer on the @30DaysWild Twitter account (whilst someone else volunteered on the Facebook group). I knew in advance that it was going to be quite busy – but I hadn’t realised quite how busy it would be! I barely had time to take a sip of water or to eat snacks during the four hour sessions. Whilst it was quite hectic, it was very enjoyable and so inspiring to see what everyone has been up to for #30DaysWild