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.


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.


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.


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!


Unseasonal Stellaria…

Greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) is an archaetypal springtime species, seen to most dramatic effect in a woodland floor amongst bluebells. I was therefore a little surprised to see one in flower in October, a long time past the typical flowering season for the species (April – June).

Greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) flowering in OctoberA few days later, I spotted this lesser stitchwort (Stellaria gramminea) flowering profusely beneath autumn dew. This species is less characteristic of the springtime with a typical flowering period between May and August, but is still extending to the end of it’s typical flowering period in October.

Lesser stitchwort (Stellaria graminea) flowering in OctoberThe most frequent response to this seems to be ‘they don’t read the books’ which I always find a little intellectually unadventurous. The books characterise the usual habitats of these species and they are broadly correct when describing the norm. Rather than to dismiss exceptions, it is surely more interesting to note them, record them and wonder why? Is it something about the local conditions; or the weather this year; or an impact such as cutting which has encouraged them to flower again? I don’t know the answers in this case, but I will always keep on wondering why!

Spring before the snows

It’s the second of December and cowslips are flowering in the garden. November has been warm, and the newspapers are reporting apple blossom, breeding frogs and fresh leaves on the trees. On the driveway, the snowdrops are pushing their spears of glaucous green up through the wilting autumn leaves whilst last weekend’s trip to Wimpole Estate revealed daffodil leaves arrayed around a tree like soldiers awaiting their instruction to advance and flower.

The cowslips are wild, as far as can be told. I spotted them on a site inspection, in the path of a proposed access track, and salvaged those I could with clumps of the clayey soil still clustered around their roosts to ease the transition. Now they bask around the edges of the pond, or dapple the swaying light at the edge of the lawn.

Some of our cowslips are bold and triumphant, showy and brassy, with flowers packed so tight that they tremble like a firework just exploded, the shape held for a split second before the sound catches up with the light and all is shattered. Others are shy and retiring, demure and delicate, with single flowers bowed abashedly downcast until you lift them to look them in the face. The petals are a soft banana yellow with flecks of apricot orange which is also the scent that a closer sniff will reveal. The five petals are deeply notched and conspire into a deep corrola tube which the green calyx envelops. This encourages pollination by long-tongued invertebrates – bumblebees, butterflies, moths and bee-flies – which are in very short supply at this time of year meaning that the late flowers are unlikely to be fruitful.

The cowslip usually accompanies the other yellows of spring – the daffodil, the brimstone butterfly and the sun itself. I hope the unseasonable appearance will not affect the April display which heralds the winter’s end.

Cowslip - Primula veris - flowering in winter

A midnight shadow of its summer self

Summer saw the garden thronged with marmalade hoverflies (Episyrphus balteatus), our commonest species and one which most people will recognise on sight. They are the small flies, with thin, broad bodies like a cuttlebone or a knapped flint. Their thorax is marked with yellow and black – typical warning colour mimicry but the marmalade hoverfly is entirely inocuous, unable to sting, bite or otherwise inflict the damage that its stripes would suggest. The white etchings between the warning bands give them an edge of elegance, and perhaps give them away as the imitators they are.

The familiar summer form of the marmalade hoverfly - Episyrphus balteatus

The familiar summer form of the marmalade hoverfly – Episyrphus balteatus

The garden is quieter now, but November sun still brings pollinators to visit the few remaining flowers. I first thought that the hoverfly in its midnight blue insignia was a new species, but it turned out on closer inspection to be the cool incarnation of the familiar marmalade, now a darker shade of its summer self.

The amount of yellow on their bodies waxes and wanes as the year progresses, starting low in March and rising to a peak in midsummer, declining again into the autumn and early winter. The arc it describes almost tracks daylength and this is not far from the mark; the darker pigments act like a black shirt on a hot day and help the hoverfly to absorb as much heat as possible when warmth is scarce. The temperature at which the larvae develop is key to the colour of the adult and this sleek specimen must have hatched into this early November chill.

The Batesian bands of black and yellow are lost – staying warm must be more important to the hoverflies than warding predators away once the summer abundance is passed.

The darker form of the marmalade hoverfly - The familiar summer form of the marmalade hoverfly - Episyrphus balteatus

The darker form of the marmalade hoverfly – The familiar summer form of the marmalade hoverfly – Episyrphus balteatus