Guest Post – Dragonflies

I am delighted to bring you my first guest blog post – by Alice Hunter. If you would be interested in contributing a Guest Blog post, please do get in touch with me!

Alice Hunter is a Cambridgeshire based wildlife photographer who also takes landscape images from time to time. Alice is also a writer and speaker on wildlife subjects, as well as a tour leader on photographic and wildlife watching holidays for several companies.

You can find more of Alice’s work on her website or follow her on facebook or twitter for regular updates!

One of my favourite aspects of summer is the amount and diversity of life that suddenly appears around us. Insects are particularly fascinating for me and one group holds a special appeal; the Odonata. For those of you that are unfamiliar with this taxonomic name, I am referring to the dragonflies and damselflies, which for me signify summer’s arrival just as much as the influx of butterflies in my garden.

These strange creatures seem almost to rattle on taking flight and despite their dainty appearance they have a voracious appetite and a fearsome hunting reputation. They have been around in one guise or another for millions of years, with early specimens being many times larger than those we know today. The colours of our modern-day dragonflies are simply stunning, so although fossils yield little clue as to whether their ancestors were similarly brilliant we can only assume that if they were, they would have been an incredible sight to behold.

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Blue damselfly with prey

Within the Odonata we have two distinct sub-orders; the Anisoptera or true dragonflies and the Zygoptera which are the daintier damselflies. These comprise 42 species which are resident in the UK and a few others which are vagrants that occasionally turn up on British shores.

My personal favourites have to be the Demoiselles. These are slightly larger than other damselflies and can be easily identified by their glossy bodies and coloured rather than clear wings. We have two species in the UK, the Banded and the Beautiful. The former has broad stripes of black across the outer half of the wing while the latter has a completely coloured wing which is a rich chocolatey brown.

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Male banded demoiselle – Calopteryx splendens

The aerial part of their lifecycle is often the only part we see, though I find myself in a privileged position to be able to pond dip on a regular basis as an adult. There is certainly something of a child-like joy and excitement at watching an adult emerge from its alien looking larval form on a waterside plant. I have seen a few very newly emerged adults this year, from a female Large Red Damselfly which had yet to take on its full red colour to a Four Spotted Chaser whose spots hadn’t darkened on the wings yet.

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Large red damselfly – female

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Four spotted chaser

As a photographer I enjoy a challenge and the task to photograph a dragonfly in flight has been one I’ve tried time and again to achieve. I finally managed an image I was pleased with at the end of last summer when I got the chance to snap this Southern Hawker over an ornamental pond.

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Hawker dragonfly in flight

Photographing these beautiful insects is something which I enjoy enormously and there are a great many species which I have yet to see let alone capture in an image. I will always be looking for a picture better than one I already have or a new and different angle. I hope that my images have inspired you to take a closer look at some of these wonderful creatures and perhaps to have a go at photographing them yourself.

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Early Mining Bee

The Early Mining Bee is the first solitary bee I ever took note of. I spotted one pottering around on the garden table a couple of years ago and didn’t know what this charming little creature could be. Luckily it happened to be one of the most easily identifiable mining bees – subsequent efforts at identification have been a rather more mixed success but I do have a soft spot for this one.

The Early Mining Bee – Andrena haemorrhoa in the latin – is one of the larger mining bees and nests solitarily, although there may be loose aggregations of nesting females where the habitat is suitable.

I spotted this one searching for its nesting hole in our back garden before disappearing down the tiny, perfectly round hole. A few moments later, when my elbows and knees were already getting sore, it popped back out. It pauses a moment, has a preen, seems slightly startled by a Chocolate Mining Bee (Andrena scotica) which was buzzing around above it, and then hops out and flies back away. I often see these holes, and it was a real treat to actually watch the bee emerge.

The Early Mining Bee is common across the UK, and are fairly generalist in terms of the flower species they visit which makes them well suited to our gardens where they are regularly seen foraging and nesting.

You can read more about mining bees, and what takes place below the ground, in Brigit Strawbridge’s excellent blog post on the subject here.

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One of the earliest bees to appear in the garden is Anthophora plumipes – also known as the feather-footed or hairy-footed flower bee. These are almost bumblebee-sized solitary bees which buzz at high speed from flower to flower. The lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.) in the garden seems a particular favourite!

The males and females are easily told apart by their colour – the males are a gingery brown whilst the females are almost jet black.

I have often seen them visiting flowers, but have never before come across a nest site. At the Barrington Court National Trust property in Somerset, I spotted several of the females investigating holes in the wall of an old stable. There were lots of nooks and crannies in the old pointing of the wall and the bees were flying into these to investigate. If they liked the site, they stayed and began work on excavating, pushing tiny fragments of material out of the hole to create a nest chamber. Often however, the hole seemed not to their liking and they tumbled back out and continued their search.

One of my favourite uses of modern technology is to gain little insights into something usually difficult to perceive – I think this is a nice example. Using the iPhone camera on slow motion video, I managed to get a few shots of the bees leaving the holes. They seem to tumble back and away from the hole and pause for a moment before continuing their search. Whether this is to steady themselves after their rather ungracious exit, or whether this is to conclude their inspection I am unsure, but the behaviour was quite consistent with different bees. The clip also shows how easily these powerful little bees can deal with the cobwebs of spiders which seem to share their taste in residences!

Lots more info on these bees can be found here!

Springtime along the Afon Dwyfor

With a couple of hours of free time to explore, there could be little more enticing than a footpath along a wooded river in North Wales. It was a little early for some of the spring flowers to be fully out, but there was more than enough to keep me busy!

Just below the bridge at Llanystumdwy, I watched a dipper on the rocks which was soon joined by a second which flew from downstream. They proceeded to perform a courtship display which was a treat to watch, but was poorly captured due to the wrong lens I’m afraid!

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There were many of these caddis flies out amongst the sedges and rushes – this is one of the more attractively patterened species, to my eye, called Philopotamus montanus

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Daffodils are widely naturalised as ornamentals, but there are natives amongst them – Narcissus pseudonarcissus subspecies pseudonarcissus. Some of these will be naturalised natives – ie. those of the native variety which have nonetheless been planted as ornamentals. There were several patches of obviously ornamental daffodils along the river, but some looked tantalisingly like the natives – with the grey-green leaves, lighter outer petals around a yellow trumpet and their lack of other ornementation. Also their positioning was often far from where you would choose to plant a daffodil, in awkward locations or almost out of sight.

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Wild primroses – Primula vulgaris – were scattered throughout the wooded banks of the river – these are an ancestor of many of our more colourful garden varieties.

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Marsh marigold or kingcup – Caltha palustris – was flowering in wet flushes which creep across the path to join the river. These are a member of the buttercup family and were growing alongside one of their diminutive cousins – the lesser celandine.

 

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Opposite-leaved golden saxifrage – Chrysosplenium oppositifolium – is a common low-growing species around damp habitats such as along streams and rivers. Its lime-green flowers are more prominant than you might expect and light up damp patches of the banks.

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This is a closeup photo of the flowers of dog’s mercury – Murcuralis perennis – a very typical flower of older woodlands.

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These wood anemone – Anemone nemerosa – were just beginning to come into flower, rather behind many woodlands further south and east.

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There were plenty of naturalised snowdrops – Galanthus nivalis – along sections of the banks which had clearly been planted to create a more attractive woodland walk

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These strange structures are the sporophtes of a liverwort – one of the Pellia species – which was growing amongst the rocks. The spores are held aloft on these thin, filaments called the thallus. The brown coloured capsules are open and releasing spores to seed the next generation.

Robin picking up after a picnic

We stopped off in Portmeirion in Wales, on the way back from a couple of days in Harlech, and were having a bite to eat in the carpark before heading home. A couple of robins, clearly used to picking up after picnics, hopped down to grab what crumbs they could. I set the camera onto slow-motion video, placed it down pointing towards a scrap and crossed my fingers!

I like how dynamic and powerful such a small bird looks from this angle – it’s purpose of motion and the accuracy of the grab are impressive. For a screature which relies upon seizing an opportunity to take a morsel of food, and then getting back out of range of predators, the little robin is perfectly adapted!

Smooth newts

Springtime sees the movement of amphibians from their overwintering sites back to their breeding ponds to meet, mate and lay their eggs.   

 

Last week we had our first frogspawn of the year in the garden pond – two clumps which have subsequently been joined by a further twenty-two and the sound of mating calls suggests they are in no hurry to slow down!   

 

Newts tend to breed a little later, and I found three smooth newts (Lissotriton vulgaris)  sheltering under a log yesterday. Newts, like all UK amphibians, spend a fair bit of their time in ‘terrestrial habitat’, that is in habitat around the ponds such as grasslands, woodlands and areas of scrub, as well as whatever gardens their ponds happen to be surrounded by. 

The mild winter has led to confusion for some species, and Froglife tweeted that their monitoring suggested that newts haven’t hibernated this year. The three individuals I saw certainly looked wide awake and ready to go in 2016 – it will remain to be seen whether the unusual conditions, and impacts on behaviour, will affect the conservation status of these species. 

 

First appearance of frogspawn (2016)

I spotted movement in the pond as I walked down the path last night and on closer inspection, it was a small number of frogs who quickly bolted beneath the water but soon bobbed back to the surface again. More excitingly, there were two clumps of frogspawn!

We went out for a walk later in the evening and had another look as we passed by, sure enough there were a coupled frogs visible by torchlight.

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This morning, the number of clumps had grown from two to nine overnight. The temperatures had dropped below freezing, as evidenced by the white frosting on the grass and the ice on top of the frogspawn, but this seemed to do little to deter them.

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Nature’s Calendar has average first sighting of frogspawn over the last few years – the 2016 data is still being gathered but the average for the period 2012 – 2015 varies between 2nd and 17th March, making the 9th March an approximately average first-sighting!

If you spot frogspawn, you can help contribute to scientific data by recording your sighting at Nature’s Calendar and the Big Spawn Count.

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First bumblebee of the year!

I stopped off at home today, to grab some lunch between a meeting and an afternoon in the office, and walking down the garden it felt like The Day. And sure enough, a quick check of a local bee-magnet revealed my first bumblebee of the year!

The spot in question is a footpath near my house which is lined with comfrey and a south-facing wooden fence which heats up beautifully in the sun – always a good pollen/nectar/heat source for cold   spring bumblebees.

This is a buff-tailed bumblebee worker who was gathering pollen as well as nectar as it worked its way from flower to flower – this means that somewhere nearby there must already be a nest!

Watching this little bee realy did make my day – it felt like it marked the return of something joyous to the world!

 

Common whitlow grass

I was walking along the road outside my house last week and spotted this tiny miniature forest at the edge of the pavement. At a distance, you’d never even spot them and my first thought was of moss fruiting capsules. On much closer inspection, it was a colony of tiny whitlowgrass (Erophila verna) flowering away.

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Whitlow grass, looking moss-like amongst the mosses, flowering at the base of a wall along the pavement near my house

These are members of the crucifer family – more commonly known as the cabbage family – named for their four-petalled, cross-shaped flowers. Each of the little flowering stalks was just a few centimetres high, and the basal rosettes were around 1cm across – these really are tiny little wildflowers.

I love these tiny ephemeral species which grab their chances un-noticed at the peripheries, whether this is the ‘weeds’ which grow at the edges of pavements or the ‘arable weeds‘ which brighten up the dull monocultures which seem to dominate the local landscape. The perils of appreciating such invisible botany is the concomitant confusion you create in those who pass you, exemplified in this case by the local police officer who happened to be driving past as I took the photo and wound down the window to ask what I was doing.

I brought one back for a closer look under the hand lens at home, and took a few photos. Rose helpfully gives you certainty in the identity in this case – ‘Whitlowgrass is the only white-flowered crucifer with notched petals and a hairless flowering stem‘.

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Photograph of the plant showing the hairless flowering stems above the tiny basal rosette

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Close-up of the flowers – you can see the white notched petals wrapped around the seedpod in the flower on the right, whilst the two on the left are less well advanced.

Early Dog Violet

Every year, I struggle to get to grips with the different violets and then, just as I start to, they’re done for another year and by the time spring comes round again, I’ve forgotten! There is some specific terminology for these flower which adds to the complexity and they are certainly in need of a hand-lens to tell apart.

I saw my first violets of the year on the walk into work this morning so I took one into captivity and keyed it out in the office. This one is early dog violet – Viola reichenbachiana. It typically flowers in March, but in this unseasonably warm spring, it is unsurprising to find it out in February.

The photos below will hopefully illustrate some of the ID tips for this species and hopefully help me to fix them better in my head if nothing else!

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This shows the violet in situ – it was growing on a sunny bank alongside Grantham College in the town. The structure of the plant is leafy flowering shoots around a slight basal rosette of leaves. This gives the plant a slightly sprawling appearance, rather than being a single, neat, compact entity. Importantly, the leaf stems are hairless.

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This shows the flower a little more clearly. The ‘spur’ of the flower is the nobble which extends out of the back of the flower – in early dog violet it is straight and pointed. You can see that it is darker than the rest of the petals – this is one of the characteristics of early dog violet compared with standard dog violet where the spur is lighter. You can also see the way that the top two petals are held back, ‘like rabbit’s ears’ as Rose states.

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The petals are blue-violet, although this can be variable. The purple veins in the lower petal – those which run through the white section – are un-branched or very little branched. The top two petals are also narrower than the equivalent two top petals in standard dog violet.

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This shows a direct view of the back of the ‘spur’ which was visible previously. In standard dog violet, this spur is notched but in the early dog violet, the spur is un-notched. The ‘notch’ is a linear indentation a little like the slot of an arrow where it fits into the string of the bow – imagine the end of the spur as the end of an arrow (not the sharp end!) and you will have the right kind of image!