Under the Plant Pots

The creatures living under the plant pots don’t seem to care so much about the temperature, but are back enjoying damper conditions. Doing a quick check around under all the plants I came across plenty of worms, arthropods, woodlice and springtails, including some new ones for the list. #392 Common Cryptops (Cryptops hortensis) is a blind centipede with 21 pairs of legs. #394 Common Shiny Woodlouse (Oniscus asellus) is quite common, but one I’d previously failed to pick out from the multitudes of woodlice around the garden. Orchesella cincta (#395) is a well marked springtail, quite large as springtails go, living in a colony under one of the pots. There was also a new Rove Beetle, Tachyporus nitidulus (#396). Some of these creatures are getting too small to photograph or even see properly without a microscope.

Autumn Colours

We may be a couple of maples short of New England, but there are lovely Autumn colours in the garden this week from the Willow, Silver Birches and Beech around the garden boundary. Birds in the garden have dropped off quite a bit and the feeders are mostly quiet, but there has been some visible migration overhead, particularly of fieldfares, redwings and skylarks. When the weather turns cold again I expect the small birds will brave the neighbourhood cats and the regular sparrowhawk to come into the garden again.

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Giant Aphids

Impressed with this colony of Giant Willow Aphids (Tuberolachnus salignus), species #389, hiding in plain sight on the underside of a branch in the weeping willow. They’re impressively big, at 5mm in length apparently one of the biggest aphids in the world, with a funny-looking “sharks-fin” in the middle of their backs. These aphids are most active in the winter, all-female colonies giving birth to live young clones (males are not found) right through to mid-winter, and in fact they disappear totally from the trees for 3-4 months in spring/summer, going no-one-knows-where. You would have thought the local blue tits would gobble them up, but it seems not - it’s thought they accumulate toxins from the willow bark that make them unattractive to would-be avian predators.

MicroEden Mosses

Dry days in summer weren’t the best time to study mosses, but now the air is damp the mosses are coming into their own, so why not have a proper look at them. (There’s also not so much else going on out there to distract me). Have to say that I found identifying these mosses pretty difficult, especially as most do not have sporophytes at present, but searching around to see how many different kinds I could find was fun. Hopefully the IDs are mostly correct? I concentrated on those at ground-level, growing on rocks, walls and of course taking over the lawn.

Two kinds of Feather-moss are widespread; Rough-stalked Feather-moss (#68, Brachythecium rutabulum) grows in dense clumps on some rocks and bricks around the site, whereas the Common Feather-moss (#381, Kindbergia praelonga) prefers either the lawn or peaty compost in a neglected planter. Wall Screw Moss (#382, Tortula muralis) grows on the limestone rocks around the edges of the lawn and Silver Haircap (# 385, Bryum argenteum) is widespread in cracks between paving slabs.

The next two species are more restricted around the garden: Dwarf Haircap (#384, Pogonatum aloides) is established in undisturbed potting compost in a large planter, while Lesser Bird’s-claw Beard-moss (#386, Barbula convoluta) is restricted to growing on the shady end of one of the railway sleepers around my raised vegetable patch.

This seems quite a good selection of mosses; there’s also Redshank Moss (#273, Ceratodon purpureus) up on the roof, and another check of the mosses up there is probably in order some time. Checking the mosses as they develop during the year may lead to me finding more, or maybe (I hope not) reviewing identification of the ones I’m showing here. There are many, many more mosses out there that could turn up.

#8 Small White Butterfly

I suspect this Small White butterfly (#8, Pieris rapae) must have hatched from a caterpillar or chrysalis hidden among vegetables I bought at the market, as I found it in one of the kitchen cupboards. Cabbage White butterflies should spend winter as pupae, but likely this one emerged prematurely due to the relative warmth of our house. Red Admiral butterflies do hibernate as adults, so it’s less of a surprise that I saw one in the garden as recently as last week, on one of the sunnier days; however I don’t expect to see any more butterflies now until 2019.

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Insects Braving the Cold

It’s 5-6 Centigrade, but surprisingly there are still some insects about. The first is a rather pretty mirid bug - Pantilius tunicatus (#367) - that dropped in via my window last week. Recognisable by its reddish-above, bright green-below colours, this species is a late season bug, seen mostly in September-October, that prefers hazel, alder & birch trees. Common Drone Fly (# 379, Eristalis tenax) is a species which can also be seen all year round. It’s a common enough insect, so not sure how it took me so long to record it. This one was taking advantage of midday sunshine for a bit of sunbathing on a south-facing wall. Finally this lacewing popped up out of some vegetation I was tidying. I think it’s a Common Green Lacewing (#267, Chrysoperla carnea), same as many I found during the summer (though the dark spots down the side are a bit curious). This species hibernates over the winter, changing its colour to brown so as not to be quite so conspicuous to predators.

Small Things growing in Dark Dank Corners

Part of the bio-blitz, especially in this season, is about checking some of the hidden corners of the garden for things that I might have missed before. Procumbent Pearlwort (#366) was lurking in a damp corner of the front yard, hidden by bamboo and one of my pond/basins. A tiny Wall Rue Spleenwort (#375) growing between the bricks by the dustbins, is only my second species of fern in the garden. A solitary Dwarf Bell toadstool (#376) emerging among the mosses in a neglected planter is my first new species of fungus this Autumn; hopefully there will be a few more in the next month or so. All three are quite small and insignificant, but they are part of the ecology of the garden.

Squirrels Preparing for Winter

It’s been fun watching the resident pair of Grey Squirrels (#94) these the last few weeks, as they go into overdrive hunting food to get through the winter. Caches of food, especially walnuts from next-door’s tree, are buried all around the garden. The squirrels are cute, but also very territorial, chasing off other squirrels who invade their turf. One pair of squirrels have a drey in the large beech tree bordering our garden, and another (probably one of their kids) has theirs in a neighbour’s silver birch, barely 20 metres away. Relations are not always cordial, but I didn’t yet see a fight, just lots of chasing, posturing and barking.

Lichens on the Roof

I’d been meaning to go up on the roof to have another look at the lichens for some time now, and as it was a nice sunny, still day and I had the ladders out already to clean the windows, yesterday was the day. This time I concentrated on the west-facing front of the house and I found quite a good diversity of species, adding 6 new species, bringing my count of lichens in the garden up to 10 species. I do not think I will be adding many more to that total. As a newcomer to lichens I do appreciate their subtle variations in colour & texture. My roof would be a much duller place without them.

From top left clockwise, species are identified as: Xanthoria parietina, Caloplaca oasis, Caloplaca dichroa, Collema crispum, Acrocordia salweyi & Protoblastenia rupestris.

Amara sp. Ground Beetle

Considering more than 4000 species of beetle have been recorded in UK, my garden tally of 16 species is not very impressive. I’m not sure quite why I get so few beetles, but anyway it was nice to get some good pictures of this ground beetle on a sunny wall (only the second such ground beetle I’ve found). Sadly it’s just on the list as Amara sp. (#352) as I didn’t yet get it identified to species level. I can’t yet confidently find a species to match the leg colour (all dark), shape and pattern of marks on the pronotum.

Conderton Orchard

I’m lucky that around the area where I live there are many old orchards, often containing heritage strains of apples and perry pears. It was interesting to attend a FWAG meeting about orchard conservation, with a tour around an old and very large orchard in Conderton, Worcestershire. Lots of tips on how to care for your apple tree, and in my case, to prune them so I actually get some fruit! The orchard was full of birds; too early for fieldfares, but a large group of mistle thrushes, (my regular wintering one is also back in the garden this week), and a little owl living in one of the gnarly ancient hollow trees .

Harlequin Ladybirds

A nice selection of multi-coloured Harlequin Ladybirds (#124) coming out in the afternoon sun to look for a place to hibernate. Amazing that these Asian Ladybirds only got established in UK in 2004, because they are now all over the place, and in numbers.

Among the ladybirds, a Scentless Plant Bug (Stictopleurus punctatonervosus), species #357 for the list. This grassland species is also a fairly recent arrival, this time from Central Europe. Starting out from the Thames Valley, it’s now spreading out across Southern England.

Sleeping Centurion

There’s not so many new insects now the weather has cooled right down, so I was surprised to find this late-flying soldier fly, #355 Twin-Spot Centurion (Sargus bipunctatus), while pruning back some overgrown shrubs. You can’t see the two white dots by the eyes on this photo. This fly is typically seen during August-November, its larvae living in mature and rotting vegetation. It was really inactive, sitting on its leaf while I cut back branches all around it.

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September Sunshine

With a bit of Autumn sunshine and temperatures around 20 C, there’s a sudden burst of insect activity. Presumably this is the insects getting ready for winter. Another ichneumon wasp, looking very like Ichneumon extensorius to me. A first Common Plume Moth (Emmelina monodactyla) found in the kitchen window this morning. A rather fine Common Green Shieldbug (Palomena prasina), species #350 on the list. Finally a new Harvestman, Dicranopalpus ramosus, an odd looking spider originating in North Africa, but now spreading across Europe & UK. Apart from these there’s a few remaining Large White and Red Admiral butterflies about, bees and drone-flies on the Michaelmas Daisies, Cross Spiders on every bush and the resident Grey Squirrels are busy hiding walnuts from nextdoor’s garden all over the place. It’s a nice time to be around the garden.

Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust Small Mammals Course

Attended a really interesting GWT course on Small Mammals and their ecology at Greystones Farm. After some background on British small mammals, we learned how to set Longworth traps and run surveys and also recognise small mammal bones from Barn Owl pellets. On a wet day our traps looked inviting, lined with bedding hay and furnished with a variety of different foods - for vegetarian voles, omnivorous mice and carnivorous voles - but placing them for a couple of hours in the afternoon we didn’t catch anything. However, some traps lines that had been set early in the morning were more successful, and we caught 2 Common Shrews, a Bank Vole and (very exciting!) a Water Shrew that had been foraging quite far from its normal riverside habitat. The mammals were sexed, weighed and returned back, none the worse for the experience. I thoroughly recommend the course and will definitely go on some more GWT courses. It was really good to see these mammals alive and close up.

Check out GWT courses at https://www.gloucestershirewildlifetrust.co.uk/courses

Butterflies at Greystones Farm

Back at Greystones today for a walk. Despite the windy day there were still some butterflies about in the sheltered spots. Several Commas around the brambles, Small Coppers and also some Speckled Wood butterflies. The meadows are growing back a bit after their July hay harvest haircut, allowing some flowering of Devils Bit Scabious, Silverweed and hawkbit. Four Little Egrets on the nearby gravel pit were a sign of the season.

Daddy Long Legs

As is usual at this time of the year, several craneflies have come into the house in the last few days. This one is a new species for the list, #344 Tipula paludosa. Like many insects, when viewed close-up they are really quite impressive. One of two similar common species of brown-coloured cranefly, T. paludosa is common in the Autumn and has a shorter wings vs its body length, compared to the other common species Tipula oleracea (Marsh Crane Fly). From the pointy tail you can see this is a female, ready to lay its eggs in the lawn.

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Stenichneumon sp. Parasitic Wasp

With 2,500 species in the UK to choose from, identifying Ichneumonid wasps is a challenge, so much so that it’s hard to even know what sources you can rely on. You would think this one might be quite distinctive as it’s quite large with white sections on the antennae, but after checking around the best I can do is tentatively put it down as Stenichneumon sp., perhaps S. militarius or S. culpator. It’s a dark form, as these species usually have a white spot on the thorax and, in the case of S. militarius, a white section on the legs.

The adult wasp feed on nectar, but they lay their eggs on/in moth larvae, which are then eaten from the inside by the wasp’s own larvae. The fact the caterpillar dies strictly speaking makes the wasp a parasitoid rather than a parasite.

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Grey Partridges at Calmsden Farm

Grey Partridges declined in UK by 90% between 1967 and 2008, according to BTO surveys, and are well and truly “Red List” birds While Red-legged Partridges are widespread, often released for game shooting, their native relatives remain scarce and localised in the Cotswolds. It was really interesting therefore to attend a FWAG South West (Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group) meeting at Calmsden Farm near Cirencester, where thanks to focused habitat management the population of Grey Partridges increased from initially 2 to 50+ pairs.

While the business of the farm is profitable arable agriculture, the land is managed very sympathetically for wildlife. In this environment partridges are dependent on having cover for nesting and to avoid predation over the winter period, insects to feed the chicks during the first weeks after hatching and food to survive the winter. The requirements for cover and food are provided by leaving a patchwork of habitats in narrow 3 or 6 meter strips along the field margins and in some cases through the fields. On Calmsden Farm these habitats are really varied, provided by annual, biennial and perennial sown wild flowers, strips of un-ploughed wildflower meadow and raised grassy beetle-banks. The field margin habitats are not natural, but instead are custom designed to provide for the year-round needs of partridges, such that they can breed successfully and maintain low mortality. Predators are controlled during the breeding season, especially foxes, rats, stoats and crows, and supplemental grain (laced with anti-worm medicine) is provided at feeding stations over the winter. Other practices, like drilling autumn sown oil-seed rape directly into the stubble from the previous grain crop and maintaining hedges over a multi-year cycle, also benefit the resident wildlife. The succession of planting and cutting ensures the field margins provide cover and feeding opportunity at all times, avoiding a situation where birds are left vulnerable to foxes and avian predators such as sparrowhawks.

This dedication to preserving Grey Partridges, which are not hunted on this farm, has been hugely successful. However, it doesn’t just benefit them, but also many other farmland species. For our visit the partridges were (ironically) keeping a low profile - maybe too much cover! - but I did see Roe Deer, Brown Hares, Yellowhammers, Skylark, Stock Dove, flocks of Linnets, Goldfinches, Swallows and Meadow Pipits, Buzzard and Red Kite. All in a short walk over a few of the fields.

I left feeling really optimistic that, with planning, expertise from bodies like FWAG and some financial support from government, farmers really can reverse some declines of farmland wildlife, while at the same time still maintaining viable businesses and feeding us.

Photos show examples of wild-life friendly field margins including natural wild grass, sown annual wild flower mix, deep cover for partridges and beetle banks.

September Flowers

Two new flowers this week, a quite late-flowering Great Mullein (#341) in one of the shadier spots in my garden, and a host of Michaelmas Daisies (#342), which grow like weeds everywhere. It would be good if these can entice out some pollinating insects, as the numbers of these have dropped right off due to late lack of flowers in the garden and summer coming to an end.