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Vernal stars

Wood Anenome, Anemone nemorosa

Anemone nemorosa

Stretching on red spindle stems through still sleepy foliage to find the warmth of the vernal sun, this has got to be one of my favourite Spring flowers. The Wood Anemone Anemone nemorosa is a splendid sight when its tiny stars form a white carpet on a woodland floor.

The six white petals (technically its sepals) are sometimes streaked with just the slightest hint of purple-pink and can be softly shaded with lavender on the reverse. A delicate blue version Anemone appennina is sometimes grown in gardens and often becomes naturalised which may account for the odd colour variation.

It’s found flowering as early as March, but Spring appears to have been a little late this year so enjoy them while you can. These were photographed at West Woods, near Marlborough, Wiltshire.

Black Oil Beetle

Black Oil beetle, Meloe proscarabaeus, male

Meloe proscarabaeus – male

The Black oil beetle Meloe proscarabaeus is a beetle that I’ve looked for on Salisbury Plain before but not found until just recently. It gets its name from its habit of secreting droplets of ‘oil’ from its knee joints when roughly handled. This contains the odourless and colourless toxic chemical compound cantharidin which can cause blistering.

There used to be eight species in the UK but sadly three of them are now considered extinct. In fact two of our remaining five, the short-necked oil beetle Meloe brevicollis, last recorded in 1948, and the Mediterranean oil beetle Meloe mediterraneus, last recorded in 1906, were also thought to be extinct but were recently rediscovered by amateur entomologists in Devon.

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Bee mimic

Volucella bombylans – male

Volucella bombylans – male

The hover-fly Volucella bombylans, male pictured above, uses Batesian Mimicry to imitate the Red-tailed Bumblebee Bombus Lapidarius. Batesian mimicry is where a palatable or harmless species has evolved to imitate the warning signals of a harmful or inedible species. In this instance a stinging bumblebee. It is named after the English naturalist and explorer Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892).

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The Pellucid hoverfly

Pellucid hoverfly, Volucella pellucens – female

Volucella pellucens – female

Here’s a photo of one of our largest flies, the Pellucid or Large Pied-hoverfly Volucella pellucens that I took back on the 8 July 2012 in Marlborough while I was in the middle of a RiverFly survey on the River Og. Pellucid means transparent or translucent and in this instance refers to the ivory-white band across the abdomen, which if caught in the right light enables you to see through its middle. This and the dark spot on each wing makes this species quite easy to identify in the field.

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Seen your first butterfly yet?

Red Admiral butterfly, Vanessa atalanta

Vanessa atalanta

As I left the office for lunch the other day (Wednesday 28 January) I saw my first butterfly of 2015, a rather tatty Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta similar to this one I photographed last year. This took me by surprise momentarily as it was quite a cold day. It was fluttering around inside the glass canopy that covers the Holly-lined pathway that leads to the entrance of the building and that I suspect was the reason. The combination of the low winter sun and the shelter from the icy wind had warmed it sufficiently to have woken it from its slumber.

The Red Admiral is predominantly a summer migrant that most often arrives in the UK in May and June but a small population do overwinter in the south of Britain and therefore this butterfly is also considered a resident. Unfortunately this hibernation strategy is a risk as many individuals will not survive our winter unless conditions are mild.

However, global warming may help it to become more firmly established as a resident species in the future.

Have you seen your first butterfly of 2015 yet?

 

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Mint moth, pyrausta aurata

Pyrausta aurata

I used to live in what is now called Royal Wootton Bassett. It was just plain old Wootton Bassett when I lived there. But then that was before we were flying back union jack covered coffins from Iraq and Afghanistan. Thankfully most of our troops are back home now.

On sunny days in July I’d often find this tiny moth in my equally tiny courtyard garden basking in the sun. When I had to move home, there it was again in my new garden near Marlborough. Now much as though it would have cheered me no end to imagine it had followed me, perhaps hidden amongst my many books, there had to be a common connection. After giving it some thought I came to the conclusion that it was either attracted to mint or marjoram, or both. Read more

Squeaky gate

Bullfinch, Pyrrhula pyrrhula, male

Pyrrhula pyrrhula

A few of you have been kind enough to enquire how my bird-ringing training is coming along. That’s bird-banding if you are reading this in North America or Australia.

Well after gaining my T-permit (training permit) from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in April things got off to a pretty good start, particularly at the constant effort site (CES) but unfortunately illness in August and September meant I had to take a short break. However, since October things have picked up again.

The stars are of course the birds. The male Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula is a particular favourite of mine. In fact I really love this bird and it always gladdens my heart when I see one in the countryside, or rarely in my garden, so it is a real privilege to be able to hold one in my hand.

It’s still early days for me of course and it’ll probably take me a couple more years before I can apply for my C-permit.

As for the title of this post, it is a reference to the song of the male Bullfinch, part of which is thought to sound like a squeaky gate. Have a listen here although the relentless ‘chiffing’ of the Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita in the background makes it difficult. However, the critical note is right at the beginning at 00:02 and repeated again at 00:14.

Milk or dark chocolate?

Ringlet, aphantopus hyperantus, female

Aphantopus hyperantus – female

Here’s another photograph from back in July, again from Morgans Hill. This time it’s the Ringlet Aphantopus hyperantus.

This example is in full sun and therefore appears to be a rather pale brown, but at least that allows you to see the detail. The plumper body suggests this may be a female. However, when freshly emerged the colour is a much darker, velvety chocolate, verging on almost black in some instances. You can get a flavour of this in the example below that I photographed in July 2012 which I’m guessing may be a male. And a very handsome butterfly it is too with the contrast of the delicate white lace-like fringes to the wing edges.

Note the variation in the spots which are much more prominent on the specimen above.

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Essex Skipper

Essex Skipper, thymelicus lineola, female

Thymelicus lineola – female

Here’s a photo from Morgans Hill that I took back in July of a female Essex Skipper Thymelicus lineola. Followers in North America may recognise this butterfly as the European Skipper. It closely resembles our Small Skipper Thymelicus sylvestris which it is often found in company with, but that species lacks the black tips to its antenna.

Because of the similarities, it is often under-recorded and for this reason was not recognised as a separate species until 1889. As such it was the last British resident species to be described.

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Red and black froghopper

Cercopis vulnerata

Cercopis vulnerata

Last weekend I attended a workshop on Auchenorrhyncha hosted by Alan Stewart and Tristan Bantock, superbly organised by Mike Edwards of the British Entomological and Natural History Society (BENHS). More info about BENHS here and the Auchenorrhyncha Recording Scheme here.

Leafhoppers, planthoppers, froghoppers, treehoppers and cicadas are a sub-order of insects from the order Hemiptera that I know little about, despite the fact there are around 400 species in the UK. I’ve rarely seen or photographed any of them but I did get a photo of this red and black froghopper or ‘spittlebug’ Cercopis vulnerata earlier in the year at West Yatton Down. This should be an easy species for me to remember in future as it is our only red and black ‘spittlebug’ and our only ‘hopper in the family Cercopidae.

As a quick way of telling them apart, leafhoppers Cicadellidae have rows of spines on their rear legs (hind tibiae). Planthoppers Delphacidae have a large moveable thumb (spur) on their hind legs and froghoppers Cercopidae and Aphrophoridae have one or two stout spines on their rear legs.

We only have two treehoppers Membracidae and both have a backward extension of the pronotum (basically the back of the head is pointed like a spine). As for Cicadas, we only have one species, the New Forest Cicada Cicadetta montana which is very possibly extinct in Britain.

They are good indicators of site quality, particularly grassland, so I’ll be keeping a look out for them next year on Salisbury Plain.

 

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