Monthly Archives: July 2011

A Blitz on Biology

Some weeks a photograph just leaps out at me that, no matter how tenuous the link, I simply have to use it for the article. This is one of those weeks.

This stunning shot of a hummingbird hawkmoth was actually snapped across the boarder in Dorset, but its an insect which is becoming increasingly familiar across the South of Britain, especially in East Devon. Local press photographer Alex took this shot of a hummingbird hawkmoth as it fed from valarian flowers, in its characteristic manner which gives it its name.

A hummingbird hawkmoth drinks nectar from the flowers of red valarian. Photo c. Alex Walton

As soon as I hear a report of a hummingbird being seen in the vicinity, I know a hawkmoth has made it across the channel and has been seen feeding. 
This day-flying moth attempts to satisfy its insatiable hunger by feeding on the sweet nectar of flowers, using an enormous proboscis tongue to suck the sugary fluid deep from within the bloom. Just like a hummingbird, it hovers a few centimetres from the flower and dips its tongue from a distance, wings a blur and its bright orange tail flashing, its easy to see how this little insect is sometimes confused with a tiny bird.

It is glimpses of exactly this wierd and wonderful biodiversity, that an upcoming event on the Axe Estuary Wetlands intends to bring to life. An ever popular event elsewhere, this will be the first BioBlitz hosted by the East Devon District Council Countryside Service. A BioBlitz is a period of 24hours when everything that grows, walks, crawls, slides, swims or flies on a particular site is surveyed and recorded.

For the visitor it is an amazing chance to visit a nature reserve with a host of experts, and for those of us who manage nature reserves, it gives us an invaluable record of all those strange, esoteric and complicated groups of plants and animals we had no idea about!

By working with my good chums at Natural England, I have managed to secure the services of some of the country’s leading experts in their field. These are the people who don’t just know about the big, the brash and the obvious; these people know about the odd squidgy bits and pieces other people overlook. We’re in for a fabulous time.

The event kicks off on Saturday 30th July at 9pm for a guided walk around Stafford Marsh in search of bats. Local ecologist, mammologist and licensed bat surveyor Ian Crowe will take us on an illuminating walk in the gloom to find the various species of bat which call the reserves their home.

Considering that we have the rarest bat (and therefor the rarest mammal) in the country living just a few miles up the valley in Holyford Woods Local Nature Reserve, it is something of an ambition to record Bechstein’s Bat on the Axe Estuary Wetlands, perhaps we’ll encounter one tonight?

Overnight, Fraser and I will be running a moth trap, sampling the diversity of moths which fly over the marshes at night. The following day we will be starting early for a moth breakfast, where local moth experts will come along and help us identify everything which ends up in the traps.

When I run a moth trap, either for work or pleasure (yes, my job does have massive cross-overs with my hobby) I end up overlooking at least 60% of the contents, deciding to leave the small micro moths and flies to another day. On Sunday morning it will be crunch time as we attempt to work out what everything is, however quirky. After the moth breakfast, the rest of the day will see scientists, and naturalists scouring the reserve, accompanied hopefully by large crowds of people interested in learning more about our local wildlife. I certainly will be hanging on their every word.

Birds, mammals and reptiles are pretty well studied on the site, so a few walks to look at these groups will be included, but it will be the less eye-catching groups which will no doubt prove the most interesting. I have something of a mental block when it comes to scientific names, and much of what will be found will only be known by its scientific or Latin name.

Please don’t let this put you off, as I intend to make it my day’s task to assign a ‘common’ name to everything we find. Episyrphus baletatus is a mesmeric little hoverfly, known more widely as the marmalade fly, so why aren’t more little flies given such memorable local names? Come along and help me come up with the couple of hundred new names which might be needed if we really strike lucky on the 31st July and hit a rich seam of form in finding creatures.

The new facilities on the Axe Estuary Wetlands will be put through their paces too, as it will be the first time we really use the Field Studies Base for its intended purpose. The solar array will be working overtime to power microscopes, as people identify those odd spiders which can only be clinched by looking at the shape of their genitalia, while the stove will be cranking out a few hundred gallons of tea to keep all those involved fully refreshed throughout their hard work.

I am looking forward to this event possibly more than any other this year, its everything I enjoy about natural history: there’s always something new to get your teeth into!

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Posted by on July 29, 2011 in Birds, Insects, Reptiles


Deerpark 2011

Large family flocks of choughs were easily found on Deerpark, the young are very vociferous when demanding food!

Dark green fritillaries were in abundance on sunny warm days in July on the Deerpark

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Posted by on July 12, 2011 in Birds, Insects


Skomer 2011

Touchdown for one of Skomer's 10,000 breeding puffins

This puffin watched hundreds of others wheeling around the cliffs before leaping off to go in search of sandeels for its pufflings

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Posted by on July 12, 2011 in Birds


Quins take over

A few weeks ago I wrote about a new insect species for Britain, which conservation charities are appealing for sightings of; the tree bumblebee. Many thanks to all of you who have contacted me with reports, these have been passed on to the Bee Wasp & Ant Recording Society for their survey. It would seem this little ginger bee, with its bright white tail, is definitely here in East Devon!

It is thought that the tree bumblebee does not pose a significant threat to any native bees or insects, however at this stage that is only a supposition as no research has been undertaken in the field. At present, hymenopterists are restricted to watching the insect’s spread and piecing together a picture of its ecology as it colonises.

There is however another new insect in Britain. It has been here since 2004; has spread far more rapidly than the bee and is known to be a far more sinister presence in our ecology. The harlequin ladybird is here and its appetite for other ladybirds is awesome.

Harlequin ladybirds are big, hungry beetles which feed mainly on aphids. It was this appetite for plant pests which saw them introduced as a biological control to North America in 1988, since when it has spread so quickly that it is the most widespread ladybird species on the North American continent! Since then, this Asian native has marched on, throughout Europe and was first recorded in the UK in 2004.

Harlequin ladybirds are outcompeting native species

It is rapidly on the way to being the most numerous ladybird species in this country now, too.

From a purely aesthetic perspective, this large orange ladybird is as pretty and colourful as any of our native species, and so its presence here on this level could be seen as a pleasant addition. But the story of the harlequin ladybird is a cautionary lesson in how human interference with a seemingly trivial little bug can have global consequences.

The problem with the harlequin ladybird is that their gluttonous appetite extends far beyond just gobbling up aphids, as they will chow down pretty much any small invertebrate, including ladybird larvae and even their own larvae too!

The harlequin ladybird survey, is asking for records of harlequin ladybirds from across the country. So what should we be looking out for?

The beetle is large for a ladybird, about 7-8 millimetres and round in shape. Colour-wise it is incredibly variable, appearing from orange and black through to jet black, so that is not something to go on. The armour plate behind the head, which is often mistaken for the face of a ladybird, is an important feature to notice. It is broad and wide and adds to the circular outline of the beetle. If you suspect that Harlequin ladybirds are present in your garden or local park, grab a photo and send it to me and I will chase up identification.

One very rare ladybird which might be in peril from the new presence of the harlequin ladybird is the 13-spot. Our common ladybird is the 7-spot, with the 2-spot being a species which was once common but is now increasingly scarce. The 13-spot however has always been rare and is a notable species if found.

A recent discovery of the 13-spot was made on the Axe Estuary Wetlands by local nature enthusiast, Catherine Willerton. In entomology circles, she is now something of a celebrity! She was visiting Black Hole Marsh last summer when she spotted (pardon the pun) the large ladybird near the water’s edge.

She took some great photos of the beetle, including the one here, and sent the sighting to the UK ladybird survey for identification,,  suspecting that it might be the rare 13-spot ladybird.

A few day later she had a reply that indeed she had found this rare UK immigrant. These water-seeking ladybirds die off completely during our winter and all UK specimens come from insects flying over the channel from the continent. They feed on small insects on reed plants, and so are a species with a close association with wetlands.

Superficially the 13-spot ladybird looks a lot like an orange and black spotted harlequin ladybird, however rather than being circular it has a distinctive teardrop body shape.

Cathy’s record was mentioned in a volume of the esteemed publication British Wildlife as well as in copies of other wildlife magazines and newspapers, the sighting of this rare little beetle caused quite a stir!

We’ve not had a record of the 13-spot on the wetlands this year, however it will be high on the wish list of entomologists visiting the site for the BioBlitz planned for the 31st of July this year. Experts in field identification from across the country will be descending on the wetlands for this day of natural history, and its an open invitation to everyone to come along and join the blitzing fun!

The event will start with a bat walk on saturday night, with moth traps being run overnight for a moth breakfast the following morning at 8am. There will then be wildlife walks, talks and tours running throughout the day, looking at every facet of life on the reserves from lichens to ladybirds, brookweed to badgers.

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Posted by on July 12, 2011 in Uncategorized