Wildlife diary

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Regular reports about some of the plants and animals that you may see
on a visit to Fineshade Wood - and also some that are rather more elusive!

5th May:  Praising bluebells

There is something very special about bluebells and a great amount has already been written in their praise.  Anne Bronte's famous poem from 1840 concentrates the reader's mind on the beauty of individual florets:   "A fine and subtle spirit dwells

              In every little flower...."

And Adam Nicholson writing in the Guardian in 2010 described them so well:

"The folded-back tips to the petals, flicked back like early Lady Di hair, are a pale lilac, but the base is a royal blue, a church carpet blue, and stripes of that richer colour are interleaved with the lilac."

But for other writers it is the sight of masses of them that is most praiseworthy - we often hear of seas of bluebells, woods that are carpeted with them. And it is the sensory experience of being in a bluebell wood in spring that seems to be an important part of our national heritage. Paul McCartney's last words to Linda were:

"You're up on your beautiful Appaloosa stallion. It's a fine spring day. We're riding through the woods. The bluebells are all out, and the sky is clear-blue".

 

As always, there are lots of bluebells in Fineshade this spring, though they are possibly a little later because of the beastly cold of March and April. What is particularly good to see is that these Ancient Woodland Indicators are coming up all along the widened rides in Westhay Wood - maybe not seas or carpets there yet, but enough to scent the air in an early windless morning, and offering hope and re-assurance that this part of Fineshade's ancient woodland is gradually recovering. We hope that, in future years their nectar will be delighting the Chequered Skipper butterflies here too. 

10th May:  Animal, vegetable or slime mould?

 

We were out looking for reptiles - part of the Back from the Brick reptile survey that's taking place throughout Rockingham Forest. 

And then we noticed what looked at first sight like about 20 blackberries lying on top of the stump of a felled tree. But, of course, it's not the season for blackberries so what could they be? Piles of eggs of an insect seemed a possibility - but what insect lays its eggs in piles in a prominent position like this? Could they be mammal droppings - a careful sniff ruled that out.

We sent the pictures to two Facebook groups and asked for ideas as to what they could be.

(See here https://www.facebook.com/groups/invertid/  and here https://www.facebook.com/groups/ukargs/ and then search the group for "blackberries". )

 

The first suggestion was perhaps the nastiest.... tick eggs!  Well a tick might want to lay its eggs where they could be brushed against by a passing deer (or reptile surveyor!). But the consensus was that they were too big for tick eggs. Someone else suggested frogs' eggs (on top of a tree stump? and surely it's nothing like frogs' spawn?)  but then several people argued that they were probably a type of slime mould such as Metatrichia floriformis. A return visit to the stump confirmed that they didn't have the tiny stalks expected on a slime mould and, meanwhile, the proponents of the frog's- or toad's-eggs theory were providing more explanations. 

 

It was suggested that a frog or toad had been caught by a predator (such as a Buzzard or Crow) and taken to the tree stump where it had been disembowelled. Apparently, it was said, the dots and jelly that make up the familiar frogspawn are held separately inside the female right up to the moment of laying. The dots are not eaten by the predator because of their hygroscopic nature - they would swell to huge size inside predator as they do in a pond. We were encouraged to drop them in a jar of water to see that happen - so we did and, surprise surprise, over a couple of days it did happen! We were also encouraged to see if we could find other remains of the hapless amphibian around the stump. Sadly we couldn't find anything that would have completely confirmed the theory - though a live toad and tadpoles were found nearby.  So we're 90% sure that the answer to the puzzle was that these were the desiccated eggs from a predated frog or toad.

1st June:  What do we mean by "new species"?

On April 24th in this diary we used the headline  "Another new moth for Fineshade".  We were quite excited because, as far as we could tell, the Frosted Green (a rather nice moth) had never been recorded before. Apparently the species has been spreading north. As John and Brenda Ward point out in their really useful book (The larger moths of Northamptonshire and the Soke of Peterborough) "Although still more widespread in the county's southern woodlands the species is recovering its former range in the north of the county.... In 2011 two moths were seen in Geddington Chase, the first time since a record in 1906"". So perhaps the Frosted Green is not really new for Fineshade but is just returning after a long absence. All we can say is that, as far as we know it is the first time it has been recorded here.

During May there have been several other species that are "new for Fineshade" and some of these are shown below. Once again, however, it is probably the case that they have been here for a very long time but no-one has known about them. For example, the forbears of the parasitic wasp below have probably been here for centuries, each year living a short but fulfilled life, laying their eggs inside the caterpillars of particular moth species. It is not often noticed, has been very rarely recorded across the UK and never before in Fineshade Wood.  On the other hand the attractive Dusky Crane's-bill probably has arrived very recently. The species is non-native to Britain but is now classed as an uncommon garden escape that has naturalised here. 

This is Dusky Crane's-bill, Geranium phaeum.  

The very attractive plant is growing beside the lorry bay near the Gruffalo statue in Mill Wood. It is growing right beside a Pencilled Geranium - another probable garden escape. It seems likely that the seeds of these plants came in with imported road stone when the lorry bay was created. Thanks to Brian Laney for help identifying this 398th plant species for Fineshade.

Ichneumon stramentor​ above, is an uncommonly recorded parasitic wasp  and was found in a garden at Top Lodge. It was captured, photographed, identified by experts on Facebook and released. The larva parasitise the caterpillars of Large Yellow Underwing and Setaceous Hebrew Character moths (possibly others). The adult wasp lays its eggs inside the caterpillar, the developing larva then eats it from the inside. 

On the left is what can be a very common species in the south and east of England, Ephemera vulgata, the Drake Mackeral Mayfly.  Usually seen over water and well known by trout fishermen adult mayflies live for a single day (hence the latin name ephemera). Woodland doesn't seem the right habitat for mayflies but it was found here and identified as a mayfly by bird ringer Colin Graham. We subsequently identified it to species level by its distinctive abdominal pattern of dark triangles and lines. 

The very large crane fly on the right came into one of the Top Lodge houses and caused a bit of a stir. Once we had its photograph we sent the image to county fly recorder, John Showers, who identified it as a female Ctenophora pectinicornis, a comb-horned cranefly. John says it is an uncommon, ancient woodland species that typically breeds in rotting branches high up in trees, often beech.

Finally Chlorophyllum rhacodes, the Shaggy Parasol. We've seen these before in the wood but, like most of Fineshade's fungi we (and no-one else it seems) have ever bothered to record its existence before.

 

We are really grateful to all the experts who are helping us to identify more Fineshade species. In particular we've been working with Ryan Clark of the WILDside project at Northants Biological Records Centre. All records have been entered on the NBRC website, for the appropriate county recorders as well as being sent to the Forestry Commission. If anyone with particular expertise can help gather records of other neglected groups of species we'd be very pleased indeed - please get in touch.

In January we reported that 1650 species had been recorded in Fineshade - today that total stands at 1709.

Also during May four species of beetle were recorded for the first time - the Common Malachite Malachius bipustulatus, a soldier beetle Cantharis pellucida, a leaf beetle Chrysolina hyperici, and the Shore Sexton Beetle Necrodes littoralis. There was also St Mark's Fly Bibio marci​, the Flavous Nomad Bee Nomada flava, and the Vestal Cuckoo Bee Bombus vestalis. Spiked Water-milfoil Myriophyllum spicatum was identified in a pond and the large common fungus Dryad's Saddle Polyporus squamosus in the Ancient Woodland area.  The Large Red Damselfly Pyrrhosoma nymphula and the Dock Bug Coreus marginatus were also added to the lists.   

 

16 "new species" in all - it was quite a month!

19th June:  Wood Warbler and Spotted Flycatcher

On 2nd June Robin and Lisa Perry were carrying out a survey for Back from the Brink and heard a very distinctive bird song that is very unusual in Northants. The song is described as an accelerating series of sharp metallic notes and is often likened to the sound made by a spinning coin on a stone surface. They knew immediately that this was a Wood Warbler, related to our familiar Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff and looking quite similar to them both. The male's song was answered by the call of the female and they were able to watch the birds moving about high in the canopy. Wood Warblers generally breed much further west in the UK but in Northants they are classed as rare passage migrants which have, very occasionally bred. So would these two stay around to breed, or perhaps they had simply stopped off in Fineshade on the course of their migration?

Bob Bullock, the former county bird recorder, came to check out the birds and on 9th June he heard the song again, increasing the likelihood of a breeding attempt. However, despite attempts by other birders, their have been no further definite records. Still, this is one more addition to the list of birds that have been recorded in Fineshade - it's now 95 species.

Also this week, a pair of Spotted Flycatchers have set up territory. They are one of the last migrant species to arrive from Africa and are becoming increasingly rare in the county and nationally. It is one of the target species that the Roots of Rockingham Back from the Brink project is seeking to help. Last year they were found breeding near the entrance to the caravan site at Top Lodge and it is great to know that there is a pair once again making themselves at home in Fineshade Wood.

Although having unremarkable plumage, Spotted Flycatchers are one of the most delightful small birds to watch as they sit, pert and upright, watching for a passing insect, before fluttering out to seize it and returning to the same vantage point.

Spotted Flycatcher: Photo Barrie Galpin

 

27th June:  His Majesty pays a visit

Late last night I returned to the house after a sortie into the wood looking for Woodcock, bats and Glow-worms. The "conservatory" at the back had been open all day so I was not too surprised to see a moth or butterfly with its wings closed on the window. But this was big - very big. And that marking underneath... could it be... surely not?  A quick check in the butterfly book confirmed my suspicion that what I was looking at was the Holy Grail for butterfly enthusiasts - the legendary and elusive Purple Emperor! 

 

They have been seen in Fineshade before, though not by me. Like many others, some years ago,  I had made the pilgrimage to Fermyn Woods and had managed to see one or two flying down from the tall oak trees flashing many shades of iridescent purple in the sun. But now here was one in front of me, in the middle of the night and it was being eyed up by a selection of large spiders - it's that sort of conservatory!

I decided that I would take it into care until the morning so gathered some oak leaves in a plastic container and gently moved the magnificent insect into its overnight accommodation. There were two reasons for this: to protect it from predation and also so that we could appreciate the purple wings, if indeed it was a male - so far it had kept its wings tightly shut.

This morning dawned rather grey and sun-less. I peeped into the box and the butterfly was sitting on an oak leaf, wings still closed. Perhaps it was hungry? I'd read that they sometimes descend from the trees attracted by all sorts of vile rotting matter, and that some Emperor-seekers use old banana skins to lure them down. I retrieved an ancient piece of banana skin from the compost bin and slipped it in - we must do this B&B thing properly, I thought.

As the sun began to come up the butterfly warmed and began to flash its wings - it certainly was a male: females don't have the purple sheen. I was amazed to realise that the colour can only be seen from some angles: with the butterfly staying still, if I moved slightly to the side the colour disappeared and it seemed almost black. Suddenly it revealed the two orange eye-spots, glaring at me like some predator about to strike. Presumably this can be used to frighten off inquisitive birds that come too close to it in the tree tops.

Photos, lots of photos, and then it was time to set His Majesty free. At first he sat on top of the edge of the container and, probably, looked around. He transferred to another sheltered spot to warm up more for a few minutes and then, suddenly, he was gone, continuing to explore Fineshade Wood and hoping, no doubt, to find a mate.  And I was left in awe.

Above: first glimpse in the night time. A very distinctive pattern on the underwing and, just maybe, a hint of purple showing as well?

Below: The butterfly after release - not a hint of purple from this angle

The Wildlife Diary has been published regularly since early 2016. You can find all previous diary entries here.

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