Community Wildlife Area – September 2020

View from The Wildlife Patch

Our second summer on the wildlife area has been interesting. The hedge plants that were put in in the autumn have survived the dry spring and summer and are growing well. The seeding of the meadow area was less successful as the winter was so mild there wasn’t enough cold weather to promote strong germination of the wild flowers. Hopefully another winter may help. The corn flower annuals did much better and made a colourful show as well as being a resource for the bees and butterflies.

The pond initially filled with life; newts, frogs various beetles and other aquatic insects soon moved in. However after the drought in April things seemed to go a bit flat. We had to constantly top up with tap water and maybe this didn’t suit the pond life. However recent heavy showers have brought the water level back up and it seems much livelier again. Interestingly I noticed a large tadpole swimming around in August, long after most have already turned into frogs and left the pond.

Dragonflies
The pond has proved a great draw for dragonflies. At least four different species have been seen. In the early summer there were broad bodied chasers, the males of which are light blue. Then we saw four spot chasers, which are more sober coloured. Later on an emperor dragonfly turned up, and we were excited to see that this was a rare variety where the female is blue like the male instead of green. However she still has a green head and eyes. Now in late summer there are common darters there, a smaller species where the males are red. All these different species have laid eggs in the pond and it was fascinating to see the different methods of egg laying. The emperor perches on a plant stem and carefully places its eggs well below the water surface, whereas the chasers just place them onto weeds on the surface only briefly coming to rest. The darter just flicks its eggs onto the surface as it flies across above the water.

The larvae (nymphs) of the dragonflies will now be in the pond for a year or two before emerging as adults. During this time they will be fierce predators and will eat any of the other pond life, including no doubt each other!

Butterflies
We have clearly now got healthy colonies of several species of butterfly; the tortoiseshells are breeding on the nettles. The grass areas are being used by ringlets, meadow browns, skippers and gatekeepers, there are common blues on the medick and clover, and small coppers on sorrel and dock. This year however there have so far been no painted ladies despite our leaving some thistles for them.

Mark Newstead

Community Wildlife Area – July & August 2020

View from The Wildlife Patch

Dytiscus marginalis (Great Diving Beetle) is a large and voracious predator of underwater life in both larval and adult stages.

Pauline and myself were watching life in the pond and spotted a Newt trying to shake off something that had a hold of its neck. When the newt eventually managed to shake it off, we could see it was a nearly full grown larvae of the above species. At around 50mm long it was maybe half the length of the newt. As we watched it became evident that there were a number of these larvae who were mostly attacking tadpoles but would try for anything that was moving underwater. Always grabbing from underneath with strong jaws around the neck area. I was watching the pond with Mark and watched one of these larva rise from the shallows to grab a good sized tadpole then swim across the surface to hide, with it’s prey under a lilly leaf, no doubt to consume it’s prey out of sight. That pond may look peaceful but underwater it’s a “proper jungle”.

My own first experience of this beetle was when at the age of about 7 years I caught a adult whilst collecting frog spawn. I put it on an old white enamel bowl along with the spawn. By the next morning the beetle had eaten around half of the centres from my Frog spawn. I remember it well as I told my parents that it was eating the yolks and leaving the whites of the eggs. Both adults and larva of Dytiscus are said to deliver a painful bite. Mine did not bite me despite much handling.

On the rest of the patch Mary found and photographed a lovely Scarlet Tiger Moth. This is another large, showy moth that is gradually moving its territory Northward. We found one there last year so could have a breeding population of these. We would love to find Garden Tiger Moths there. Their larvae are the once common Woolly Bears that people over a certain age remember from their youth. They have sadly declined drastically -possibly due our warmer winters. I have not found a Garden Tiger or a Woolly Bear since moving back to England in 2015.

Despite the drought we are seeing some fruits from earlier sowings. New species of Grass, Yellow Rattle (which could be important to our plans) and other plants are gradually showing their heads. Unexpectedly, a few specimens of Night Flowering Catchfly are growing on last years “Annuals Patch”. This is member of the Campion family that was introduced to the UK sometime in the past. It looks quite insignificant in daytime but comes into it’s own when the sun sets, showing intense, almost luminescent, white blooms that fade with the dawn. Undersides of leaves and stems are covered with sticky hairs, hence the name “Catchfly”. We did not knowingly sow this plant and did not see it last year last year. It is an annual and very easily overlooked in daylight hours so it may well have been among the Wildflower Annuals planted last year.

Dave Musson

Davemusson073@gmail.com 07942 674867

 

Community Wildlife Area – June 2020

View from The Wildlife Patch

It’s hard to believe that the year is nearly halfway over. I am still waiting for the spring rains to bring the Patch into life. Of the wild plant mixtures sown, some seeds have germinated but many are still awaiting the right conditions before raising their little green heads. This is a bit disappointing but not a disaster by any means. These are wild plant seeds and adapted to survival in adverse conditions. They will come up sooner or later, sometimes after laying dormant for years.

The pond now has its full compliment of plants and is looking good. Tadpoles are growing and the Smooth Newts are eating tadpoles and laying eggs which will duly develop into “Newtpoles” which are like frog tadpoles but a bit slimmer with external gills. My Wife Pauline, and I were there today removing blanket weed which is a type of algae. It is surprising how many invertebrates are in the pond already. Many like the Great pond snails and Water hog lice – a close relative of Woodlice – and others will have been introduced with the plants. Some insects including several Water Beetle species, Pond Skaters and Water Boatmen have flown in attracted by the sight and smell of the pond.

Whilst we were there, Dragonflies and Damselflies were landing on the water plants. These lovely insects must surely be familiar to everyone. Dragonflies are the large, often huge and colourful four winged insects that sometimes visit gardens, especially if there is garden pond around. Damselflies include the smaller, often brilliant coloured insects that look a bit like bits of blue of green straw floating on air around water margins. There are also larger, often blue bodied damselflies that often have a black band on their wings. These latter are often in abundance on the River Nene in the height of summer. It’s safe to say that Damselflies rest with their wings along the back in parallel with the body, whereas Dragonflies rest with their wings sticking out, often at a right angle to the body also Dragonflies are usually larger.

Both groups are carnivorous in all active stages of development. Dragonflies patrol a “beat” catching insects on the wing whilst damselflies mostly catch smaller prey by sitting on a fixed object and rising to catch small flies etc. All lay eggs in water or on plants above water. I remember watching one of the banded Damselfly species at an old stone quarry in South Warwickshire. They flew joined in pairs. Both would land on a rush sticking out of maybe 4 feet of water. We could watch the female in the crystal water, as she descended the rush stem to it’s base, then deposit an egg there whilst the male waited, sometimes flying a short distance before returning to collect the female as she reached the surface to repeat the process on another stem. Maybe we will eventually see this in our pond. All have highly predatory larvae that develop underwater often taking years according to the species. Some Damselflies were seen last year laying on plants in the area where the pool now sits. Maybe they had a premonition.

Dave Musson

Davemusson073@gmail.com 07942 674867

 

Community Wildlife Area – May 2020

View from The Wildlife Patch

2020 is proving to be a strange year in the Musson Household. We are all “locked down” and somehow, time seems to standing still whilst we wait for life to return to “normal”. Regardless of personal feelings the year is moving on quite rapidly. On “The Wildlife Patch” grass is growing slowly. The Seed mixtures that were chose with care and sown in anticipation are looking a bit sparse and patchy. Maybe now that we have had a ½ day of rain, a bit of warm sun will bring them on a bit.

With early butterflies in evidence I realised that I did not have decent photo of a Male Brimstone Butterfly. -The common name comes from the old name for Sulphur, alluding to the yellow colour of the male. These large, leaf winged, pale yellow/green butterflies can be seen visiting flowers from early April till middle or late May. Females are white with similar, leaf shaped wings. They emerge later in the season than males and can still be on the wing in early June. These Females can be mistaken for Large White (Cabbage) Butterfly to which they are not related. To my mind Brimstones are one of our most beautiful butterflies. There is something very special about the delicate leaf shape and colour, especially the underwing which even has an imperfection by way of a small spot on this “leaf”. Really, this is winter camouflage which enables them to hibernate whilst clinging to the underside of Ivy leaf clusters unseen. If you want to find one hibernating, you will need to take a torch to Ivy plants on a winter night. If you shine your torch on the underside of the Ivy leaves, the butterfly’s wings will reflect the torchlight whilst Ivy leaves stay dull.

Eggs are laid on Buckthorn (which we have in the Watery Lane Hedge). The Caterpillars grow quite large and lie along the centre of the food plant leaf. They are almost impossible to see as the colouration gives the effect that the larva is no more than a bit of extra shadow along the leaf midrib. We have both Buckthorn and Ivy on the wildlife patch so as long as early spring flowers persist we should have Brimstones for a long time. To go back to my photo, I found a really large Brimstone male, lined my shot up and pressed the shutter button. That is when the camera auto focus failed so I still need decent picture of my favourite butterfly.

Elsewhere, the Wildlife Pond is looking good; plants are being added as they turn up on walks or from donations from garden ponds. (no visiting aqua culture centres this year). We have bought some oxygenators and one Lily online which should arrive in May and some money was donated which was used to buy two marsh marigold plants. There are Tadpoles of Common Frog in the pond. These are preyed on by water Boatmen. There is also large round version of Water boatman. This is a species that usually lives in white water rapids (must have got lost). This one swims manically around and also catches tadpoles. We also have a few Pond skaters and some Whirligig Beetles that have flown in. If you have never seen this latter just go to the pond where it will swiftly become evident where they get their common name.

Dave Musson

Davemusson073@gmail.com 07942 674867

Community Wildlife Area – April 2020

View from The Wildlife Patch

I was looking round the patch today. It is wet, cold and at first sight inhospitable. Yet there is lots going on really.

We have 4 Blue Tit boxes on the patch and at least one is occupied. The prospective occupants were twittering angrily at me as I took a close look at the box. This indicates they have decided to take up residence there again. These Birds almost entirely depend on the larvae of the Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata).

This moth is an interesting species in itself. The sexes differ in that only males have wings, the females being entirely flightless. As the name would suggest adults are only active in winter having developed means of generating heat from inside their bodies. The female hatches from the pupae in Late Autumn/Early Winter. She emits a Pheromone (aerial hormone) which wafts through the cool air to attract an eager male. After mating she lays eggs at the base of the buds of many species of deciduous trees. The Larvae hatch in early spring. They feed first in the expanding buds, then on the leaves of the same plant. They pupate in Late May to hatch in Late Autumn. These are the Small Green Caterpillars that are often seen hanging from mature trees and shrubs in Late Spring.

Being unable to fly could mean that these would struggle to distribute their species to new locations and areas. These caterpillars overcome this by a means of Aerial distribution. They let out a silk thread from their tail end. When this becomes long enough to be caught by a breeze, the caterpillar lets go of earth to fly as if on a parachute. Of course they have no means of steering or governing height but it works for them.

Many species of invertebrates use this form of Aerial distribution. Spiders, mites as well as Lepidoptera all “fly” in this manner. So many in fact that different species accumulate in the air to form a sort of “Ariel Plankton”. A reduction in the volume of this Plankton Layer must surely be a factor in the shortage of Swallows, Swifts etc. we are experiencing today.

Now back to Blue Tits. In Late Winter/ Early spring these birds can be seen in parties of 6 or more pecking at the Buds of deciduous trees. When they do this they are thought to be searching for Winter Moth Eggs. It is believed that the amount of eggs consumed by the birds has an effect on the amount of eggs the Tits lay in that the more moth eggs the birds eat, the more eggs the birds lay. Moreover, it is thought that Blue Tits are so closely tied in with Winter Moths that they react to a substance in the developing Moth egg that stimulates the birds breeding behaviour. This enables the birds to have an abundant source of food timed to feed the hatchlings at the right time.

One more thing. If anyone fancies making a couple of Hedgehog Hotels (plans on the internet) we can find good home for them on The Patch.

Dave Musson

Davemusson073@gmail.com 07942 674867

Community Wildlife Area – March 2020

View from The Wildlife Patch

I have never really explained the underpinning belief that provides our framework for planning development of The Wildlife patch. Before Spring “springs” and there are many other subjects waiting to be aired I will now attempt to remedy this.

You will already know that as a team we seek to recreate local habitats (often “micro habitats”) that existed on this site in past times. In doing this we try to provide as many ecological niches as we can in the available area. Before doing this we consider likely species and their lifestyles. We know that each species needs its` own unique conditions in order to thrive. They need to eat and to drink, they need to be safe night and day, winter and summer and they need to perpetuate their species. Each species needs to do this without competing with other species.

We narrow our search to seeking to attract sustainable populations of insects and invertebrates. Some would ask “Why focus on these? Why not try to attract Birds or Mammals? Or a really varied flora maybe?”

The answer is that Invertebrates (insects are invertebrates) underpin the entire Ecosystem of life on Earth. Life on Earth depends on Invertebrates thriving. A recent study measured the effect of restoring neglected farm ponds. This demonstrated an increase of insects due to this restoration which led to an increase both in numbers and in species of Farmland Birds feeding nearby. They attributed this rise in birds to the rise in insects numbers stating that these creatures (invertebrates) are “at the very heart of nature’s food web) (Waterlife Magazine, Spring 2020).

We believed this when we put the wildlife pond on the site but it is gratifying to see good research supporting this belief. The same report found that active ponds can act as “insect chimneys” pouring vastly greater numbers of insects into the surrounding countryside. We decided to put our pond in as there had previously been a brook flowing alongside the patch. We could not recreate the brook so a pond is the next best thing. In addition to the pond we have piles of logs-and are hoping for more. We have a pile of dry grass mowings with a hedgehog nest box inside. It is used by something, maybe not hedgehog. We are intending to create and maintain a bare earth area for Mining Bees, maybe a sandy patch as well. We already have 4 or 5 bird boxes ready for occupation.

The area is just entering its second year as a Wildlife Patch so is still in its infancy. Necessarily we have destroyed some good habitat in creating the pond and reshaping that area generally to provide better habitat. It will be interesting to find at the end of next year if we still have our 19 species of butterfly etc. on the site. Our hope is that due to work completed in this first year the count will rise and continue to rise in following years. That will be the measure of our progress to an ideal species rich local habitat.

Dave Musson

Community Wildlife Area – February 2020

View from The Wildlife Patch

Well, 2019 ended very wet and 2020 has begun just as wet. This has meant that not much work has been done on the patch since Autumn last year. Before the rain came we did put the pond in place and fill it with water. However, there is still some tidying up to do round the pond edge and the pond needs planting ready for use by frogs etc. We will choose plants which provide habitats that attract species already known in the area or even attract new species. Although we have still to make a detailed list of what these plants will be. We will mostly use plants that are known to grow in the wild locally, then after establishing them in the pond, allow it all to develop with as little intervention as possible.

On the rest of the patch, Mary and Mark have sown most of the available ground with a wildflower and grass mixture that should form a sward similar to that which would have grown in antiquity and still exists in some parts of the county. It is hoped by doing this we we will encourage more species to make a home in Nether Heyford. There is also another plot planted with the “Cornfield Annual” mixture that was so successful in providing pollen as food for a variety insects last year.

What have we learned in 2019? One lesson for me has been to be prepared to change plans with new knowledge. For instance the original plan was to have a lot of flower rich grass that we could mow once a year as in many wildlife reserves. Our insect count demonstrated that long unmown grass with flower rich grassland easily available is much more conducive to what we want to achieve. Another surprise was when our insect recording (especially Butterflies and moths) demonstrated that southern species are colonising suitable habitat well to The North of their previous strongholds. We recorded a Jersey Tiger Moth and a Cream Spot Tiger Moth. Both are unmistakable large, showy, southern moths that are steadily moving North as our climate warms up. I logged a Dusky Sallow Moth which is a new moth to me and is similarly moving extending it’s range to the North.

The identification and recording of wild species is major part of our work on the patch and is the main way that we gauge success or otherwise of the project. This work can be very time consuming yet exciting and rewarding. Mary and Mark have done wonderful job of recording Bees, Wasps, Beetles, Flowers etc.. I have recorded a few Moths, Woodlice and Molluscs. There is still much work to be done in 2020.

We also have a target to involve local children in the project but have yet to decide on what form this work will take.

Dave Musson

Community Wildlife Area – December 2019

View from The Wildlife Patch

Right now much of the ground on the patch is cold and very wet. The difference between the ground that has been cleared, sown or made ready to sow and that still covered in old standing grass is very clear. The latter is still relatively sheltered with a few dry places even after all of the rain we have had. There is evidence of runs made by mice and voles in this whilst the bare earth is cold, wet and exposed to all elements. It is very clear that untouched grassland is much more conducive to the bio diversity that we desire than that managed by other means.

One of the things that I noticed, at ground level in the long grass was the presence of small pieces of “bitten off” green leaf seemingly placed around the aforementioned runs. This is often evidence of Wood mouse activity. Previously named “Field mice”, these are large (for mice), brown, with whitish tummies and bulging, black eyes that look about to fall out. If you grab one by the tail it will shed the skin of the tail to get away and you will be left with just a mouse tail skin in your hand. They are relatively numerous, you will almost certainly have come across a Wood mouse at sometime.

As far as is known they are the only British mammals that place “markers” to help to find their way round. The pieces of leaf are some of these “markers”. They do use other material but green leaves are the most noticeable. In autumn a family of two parents with 4 or 5 young will live in a nest which is usually a burrow but may be anywhere warm and dry. They line the nest with dry grass etc and build up a store of grain, nuts, berries etc to keep them through the winter. My Wife has a family in her greenhouse right now that has stored an incredible amount of chestnuts. Unlike House Mice they never breed in the winter but all snuggle up as a family throughout the cold weather whilst using up their store. In Springtime parents stay together whilst the young find mates of their own. They then feed on young buds and invertebrates such as Caterpillars, Worms, Beetles etc. and start to breed again. In Spring and Summer months the broods are larger with 7 young not unusual. Populations are kept down due to a high level of predation.

As a young man I spent many winter months ploughing with tractors much smaller and slower than today’s tractors. There was usually a Kestrel or two watching the plough from a comfortable perch. There were also Carrion Crows doing the same. I often ploughed up Wood mouse families that were over wintering as described. Often alive but exposed they would run like mad to find shelter. The Kestrel would come down to pick one up, then take it to its perch to consume at leisure. A Crow would fly down. Then hop from one mouse to another, despatching each mouse with its huge bill. It would then pick them all up in one “beakfull” and fly off to eat them on the edge of the field. There must be lesson there somewhere.

Merry Christmas

Dave Musson

Community Wildlife Area – November 2019

View from The Wildlife Patch

We have been busy preparing the patch in preparation for sowing the wildflower seed on the designated meadow area. We have removed the weed smothering covers and raked over the soil ready to receive the seed; all we need now is for the rain to stop and the seed can go in.

We were extremely pleased to find during the uncovering operation that our resident toad is still in situ.

HeyfordResidentToad

We shall have to ensure that we keep an area covered over for it to lurk in. Toads, unlike frogs, are very conservative creatures and will only lay their eggs in the place where they themselves were tadpoles, so it is unlikely that we will have toad spawn in our new pond. However we shall almost certainly find frogs and newts in there fairly soon.

As the days shorten and cool, the amount of insect life in the patch is reducing, but the flowering ivy is still producing things of interest. Recently there has been a group of large black flies with showy orange wing bases hanging out there; these were noon flies, something I don’t remember seeing before. A large orange flying insect also appeared, looking at first like a hornet, but it turned out to be a species of hoverfly. This creature not only looks like a hornet, but flies and moves like one too. Its larvae actually live in hornet and wasp nests where they eat the rubbish in the bottom of the nest, and so are tolerated by their hosts.

On a recent trip to Suffolk (prior to the wet weather) I was astonished to see on lawns and patches of grass numerous little bees flying just above the ground. These were mining bees which had just hatched from their burrows in the soil. This is something that would normally happen in the spring (I have seen that at Harlestone Heath in the past) but September would seem too late for the bees to get enough pollen and nectar to make the nests to raise the next generation. If we keep an area of close mown grass we can hope for a similar colony of bees on our own patch in due course.

Mark Newstead

Community Wildlife Area – October 2019

View from The Wildlife Patch

The heads of Ivy in the bordering Roadside Hedge are now in full bloom and providing a bounty of nectar for a variety of insects. Right now there are several species of Wasp, Hover Fly, Bee, Butterfly and many more insects, including massive European Hornets which are really just huge Wasps. On warmer nights, nocturnal insects, especially moths will be found on the same flowers.

Elsewhere, we have cut down as much of the long grass as we are going to. This has been collected and put in heaps. One of these has a cavity underneath which will hopefully be taken up by a Hedgehog.

Grass has been cut and removed from the area where the pond will be. Most of the area exposed thus will be cut quite short and covered with spoil from pond digging. This will be planted with a wildflower /grass mixture though some will be kept as bare earth. This being essential for some solitary Bee and Wasp species.

Early in October we will sow the Cornfield Annual patch with the same mixture as the new ground and those patches now covered with plastic sheeting will be stripped bare and sown with Cornfield Annuals. The seating/picnic area will be sown with a Wildflower Lawn seed.

When the pond is in we will need to provide a barrier to keep small, unattended children from the pond. One of my Grandchildren, when younger, tried using my garden pond net as a trampoline which was not good idea. I think we will need to put a fence round the pond with a gate for access. This should be much safer.

Molehills are usually very much in evidence at this time of year. They live singly and feed mainly on a diet of Earthworms. Each mole digs series of subterranean tunnels which it “cruises” along, picking up any worms which drop into the tunnels. Earthworms migrate up and down vertically in the soil according to outside conditions. For example they go deeper in times of drought, then Moles dig their burrows at a lower level to trap them. When they dig these new tunnels they push the spoil to the surface to create Molehills.

I know that some gardeners believe moles eat vegetable roots from underground. This belief is erroneous. Moles cannot digest any form of vegetable matter, they are not rodents and just do not have the dentition to gnaw roots. Moles need to eat every few hours and dine EXCLUSIVELY on earthworms and insects. Having said that I did find a beetroot on my allotment that had been well and truly gnawed below ground underneath was what appeared to be the top end of a Mole Tunnel. A closer look at the damage showed very clearly the double tooth marks of a Rodent. This was no doubt the work of a Brown Rat which had modified a moles tunnel to burrow up to my Beet.

Dave Musson