Mad dogs and wildlife surveyors

With temperatures soaring, you would have to be a fool to go out in the midday sun.  Unless you had a wildlife survey to do.  This weekend, like a fool, I went out twice.  On Saturday I did my monthly BeeWalk (now in the fourth year), and on Sunday I went to survey a square for the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey.

The Bee Walk can vary in difficulty, depending on the time of year.  Early in the year there are only queens to worry about, as the season goes on there are workers, males and cuckoos thrown into the mix.  I am not the most confident bee identifier, so I really should get some practice in before hand, especially when the lavender is in full flower and the bees are buzzing all over the place.  Much easier to be confident identifying the different species in the field than to try and take photos, do diagrams and count at the same time.

I did take a little diversion on the way home to try and see my second favourite butterfly (Marbled White) and also to check that the Brown Argus are still where I expect them to be (although not for much longer as the site is going to be built on).  Both were ticks – my first for the year for both species.  Brown Argus are a bit tricky to ID, unless you are prepared – they look very much like a female Common Blue – except that they have two dots that are close together on the underside of their hindwing making it look like a figure of 8.  The Blues don’t have this, but they do have an extra spot of the underside of the forewing.  Fortunately the Argus does like to pose with its wings closed so you can be sure of the ID.

Brown Argus Butterfly

On Sunday I had a cunning plan – get out early to look for butterflies and get home before the heat really ramps up.  Unfortunately the old adage of fail to plan, plan to fail, held true for me.  I was picking up a route that had already been done by a previous surveyor a couple of years ago.  But, I thought I knew where I was going and, armed with my print off of the map I set off in high spirits having just seen a Red Kite overhead.  I took this as a good omen as it is my favourite bird of prey.  In hindsight, maybe it was looking for the carrion from previous unprepared surveyors.  The survey involves walking two roughly parallel 1km paths, and should take about one to two hours.  (Although the last square I had was in the land where butterflies feared to fly and it took about 30 minutes because I only had to count 5 on the entire route).  I was happily following the field margins along the path, counting large whites, small whites, meadow browns and gatekeepers.  I even managed to spot my favourite butterfly, the small copper – which was an unexpected bonus – things were going well.

Small Copper Butterfly

Then, I thought I had reached the end of the first 5 parts (of 10) of my walk.  I emerged onto a road – and found I was back where I had parked my car – not halfway along my walk, but actually at the end.  I had to start all over again!  I hadn’t realised that the path I was supposed to take went through the middle of the field, but instead I had followed a path that wasn’t marked on my map!  So I walked down the road, and tried to find out where I should have gone – sorted.  I did the last three bits of that part and went to go and find the route back – and got lost again.  Instead of going through a field, I was in a housing estate and found myself on a completely different road – it took me nearly 30 minutes to get back to where I should have been!

On the plus side I did see a nice dragonfly, survived the field with cows in it and still managed to find a Small Copper (actually two of them) on my proper route.  But, instead of being out for about an hour or so, I spent two and a half hours in the sun – good job I had factor 25 and insect repellent on as well as a stout hat.

So, for anyone thinking of going out and surveying, please do but be more prepared than I was – visit the area first so you know the route, and make sure you have an idea about the species you are likely to see.  I was told earlier this week that lots of people send in records of the rarer butterflies such as Purple Emperor and Wood Whites, but there are not many records of the generalists – people will just report lots of whites, or plenty of gatekeepers  – which is not really very helpful to determine the state of the butterfly (delete and add in appropriate wildlife) population.

Some firsts for me.

In the last week I have been out and about a bit more getting some time in the great outdoors.  This has been aided by some new insect repellant that seems to be working so far.

In the past week I have completed another bumble bee survey – better than last month but only half the number seen last year, spent a happy couple of hours just looking and photographing around Daventry, to be completed on Saturday with a WildSide recording sessions with the fab and enthusiastic Ryan Clark.

I’ve uploaded all of my sightings (or at least those that I can identify or have a semi-decent photo for) either onto iRecord or the local Biodiversity Records Centre, as well as entering my BeeWalk data so I am keeping last week’s resolution.

One of the joys of recording nature is that you are constantly discovering new things.  During the BeeWalk this month we found a long-horned beetle that I’d not seen before, last month was my first Mother Shipton moth.

Golden-bloomed Grey Longhorn Beetle

On Monday I was quite excited to discover that there were quite a lot of bee orchids flowering in Daventry (for once the mowers hadn’t done for them) and, quite unexpectedly I found a pyramidal orchid next to them.  I am reliably informed that this might be the first record for this in the Daventry area.

Pyramidal Orchid

Then, during the recording session at Mill Park Nature Reserve in Long Buckby, I found a small magpie moth.  Completely new for me, and although quite common in the county, still something to get excited about I think.

Small Magpie Moth

And, the more you look, the more you learn and then the more closely you look.  A virtuous naturing circle.

My next task is to start making a full list of the species I have seen and then keep it up to date!

Metamorphosis – March Book Review


MetamorphosisAstonishing Insect Transformations – the subtitle definitely describes the content of this book by Rupert Soskin.

Insects – often overlooked, thought of as bugs or pests, possibly with the exception of butterflies (although the cabbage white butterfly springs to mind) but with around one million species known and named.  Untold numbers are still to be found.  Contrast that with birds – ten thousand; mammals – five thousand; even reptiles and amphibians only manage fifteen thousand between them.  It is no surprise then that there are many things that even the most fervent entomologist can still learn about this diverse class of creatures.

In Metamorphosis the author beautifully illustrates an area that I haven’t yet seen covered in another book – the transformation that insects must undergo to get from an egg (in the majority of cases) to the adults of the species that we are usually most familiar with.  This lack of familiarity is despite the fact that the adult stage is usually the shortest with many living days or weeks but spending years as a larva or nymph.

The book is essentially in two parts – those insects that go through several instars (stages); looking to some degree like miniature versions of the adults, and those that undergo a complete transformation from what is essentially a tube of innards to something completely different (the most obvious example being the change from a caterpillar to a butterfly).











I started off wondering  so much of the book was devoted to the first class of insects; the hemimetabolous insects (the young of which are called nymphs) when the changes they go through are nowhere near as marked as those of the holometabolous examples.  But, as the author explains, the only way that an insect can grow is to shed its skin – and, in some cases (such as some of the shield bugs) I don’t think many people would match juvenile with adult.

What makes this book a joy to read are of course the photographs.  Where many books show the adults in all their glory, Rupert Soskin shows the different stages in the life of the insect, from egg to larva / nymph, to chrysalis and adult. IMG_3989

The photographs are beautiful and I can only begin to wonder at the patience of the author as he waited to get the shots.  Within the different chapters there are of course notes about the insects and their lives – after all, the photos only tell half of the story.  In some cases he has even shown the scale of the insects – a very helpful device.

I was a little disappointed at first when I saw how many of the insects are from outside the UK and therefore something I am never likely to see (no matter how much the climate changes).  But, they were fascinating – I was completely won over by the stick insects and the Peruvian Horsehead Grasshoppers.


All the main orders are included from grasshoppers to mantids, dragonflies to beetles, butterflies, moths, flies bees, wasps to hemiptera.  I began to wonder how he decided what to include and also what didn’t make the final cut.


I thought that the sections on the butterflies and moths were interesting choices, showing the changes in size and coloration of the caterpillars and the resulting adult.  But, my favourite photo of all (other than the horsehead grasshoppers, mantids and stick insects) had to be the female wasp removing water from her nest after the rain – just fantastic, one of the best insect shots I have seen and behaviour I hadn’t heard about.  Just one of the many interesting aspects of insect life that Mr Soskin managed to capture and share.


I have only two real complaints about the book; I would love to have known more about how he took the photos – he has a small section about this but it was very short on actual details and I would have liked it to have been twice the size with more fantastic insects and beautiful photos (this is of course selfish as the book is 250 pages long).

This is a beautiful coffee table book that I could look at again and again, and a starter for anyone interested in insects showcasing some of the less well known stages of their lives.  Whilst it is only a starter, it does include some further reading suggestions that will be making an appearance on my birthday wish list.  Many thanks Mr Soskin for creating such a wonderful book (and to Northampton Library for stocking it so I didn’t have to wait until my birthday to read it).

New for me

Time for a confession.  Before the start of this year I had never heard of a Brown Argus.  I didn’t know that it was a butterfly.  How bad is that.  Moreover, I saw them in the results for the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey, and assumed that they were a specialist that I would never see.  I saw pictures on Facebook and then thought nothing much more about them.  In fact I wasn’t sure I would recognise one if I saw it.

Yesterday I took my camera out for a walk – for once the weather was warm and not very breezy.  I saw a lot of gatekeepers, a very lovely small copper – a butterfly that I had never seen in Daventry before.  I also saw some common blues flitting about the field edges.  Lots of photographs were taken as you can probably imagine.

Today I decided to upload them and sort out the fuzzy from the sharp as well as those that might not be the best, but could be useful for ID purposes.  After I had sorted and tagged them it occurred to me that I had assumed that the small brown butterflies were common blue females (which have wings that vary from blue through to brown) because they had frequently been disturbed by blue males.  But, for some reason I thought I would see what the difference was between a brown argus and a female common blue.

A brown argus has no blue on the upper side of its wings, whereas there may be some blue scales on the female common blue.  It also has more orangey spots along the edge and often a dark brown spot in the middle of its brown wings.  Not much help because my photos were all of the underside of the wings.  So, for the undersides the description was related to two spots with that form a figure of eight on the hindwing and the absence of a spot on the forewing for the Brown Argus.  This didn’t seem to be much help either – I was a bit non-plussed until I saw what they were talking about in pictures on the UK Butterflies website.  Suddenly I knew what to look for and guess what?  Yes, one of the butterflies I photographed was in fact my very first Brown Argus – colour me happy!

brown argus

I’m not sure if this is a viable population as my Northamptonshire butterfly book states that their range has contracted a lot in the county and that their traditional food plant is rock rose and, where this is not available, they have moved onto crane’s bill.  Unfortunately the only things I could see around the field edge were ragwort and a chamomile, along with lots of grass.  I will have to have a look around there to see if I can find the requisite flowers!



I think that spring has finally arrived when the chiffchaffs are calling, but this can be misleading.  However, once the butterflies are out, and, in particular, the ones that didn’t overwinter as adults, then I know spring is here.

There are a few butterflies that are due out in the first weeks of April.  One of the most distinctive (well, the males, anyway), is the orange tip.

orange tip

These butterflies are found along many lanes, and are particularly fond of garlic mustard (as shown above) and cuckoo flower which are amongst the food plants of the caterpillar.  The female orange tip looks like the male, but without the orange tips, so could be confused with some of the other whites.  But once the wings are folded it is again unmistakeable with green mottling on the underside.  Although they are usually seen in May, if the weather is warm they might be out in April.  However, blink and you will miss them – they will be more or less gone by the middle of June.

Today’s new discovery

Today seemed like a good day to go insect hunting.  The sun was out, the sky was blue and, for a change, it was warm.  As the back garden seemed mainly to have flies in it and little else (other than a rather lovely toad) of interest, I put my boots on and we went for a walk along some of our bee transect.

However, we hadn’t even got as far as the old railway track before the butterflies were out showing themselves.  And, to be fair, the front garden had a couple of bees (red-tailed and tree bee) as well as a basking small tortoiseshell.

We walked for a mile or two, and saw butterflies in many of the sections we went along, although, noticeably, not in the newer housing sections – good job as they probably would have starved.  There are four, possibly five, butterflies that overwinter as adults – the jury is out on the red admiral which normal migrates over.  The definite four are Brimstone, Comma, Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock and all of these were out in abundance, sometimes a couple on the same flower.  Dandelions seemed to be the flower of choice for the small torts, peacocks were a bit more interested in the willows and flowering cherries whilst the commas were mainly on viburnum tinus.  As for the brimstones, they were just dashing about like mad things.

So, I took lots of photos, had a big smile on my face, saw some bees and discovered that in contrast to the rest of them, commas have white legs.


On the upper side of their wings commas are a beautiful bright orange, but underneath they look like an old dried up leaf – move along birdies, nothing to eat here, type of leaf – a dull, brown, raggedy old leaf.  This is in fact the only butterfly with such jaggedy wings, although they are perfectly symmetrical in shape.  However, they are named for the small, white, comma shaped mark on the underside of the wing.  I suppose it is better than being called a dried up old leaf butterfly.

As usual, I only saw single specimens of these, as they are one of the few spring butterflies that isn’t often seen in any groups with others of its kind.

Have you seen this butterfly?

Once the weather finally makes up its mind to be warm for more than a few hours, have a look for this butterfly, the Speckled Wood, Pararge aegeria.

speckled woodIt’s quite a common butterfly and should be out and about in the beginning of April.  Like many of the browns, it tends to breed on grasses, and this one likes soft grasses in dappled shade.  In Daventry there will usually be quite a few along the old railway track and in the country park.  The sunlight usually picks up their distinctive yellow spots (numbers and markings vary) and often several will be seen having a bit of a tussle in the air.


White toadstools popping up near you this autumn

I’m not very good at recognising different types of mushrooms and toadstools.  I’ve been on an organised fungi foray over at Gamlingay Woods, I’ve taken pictures and put them on iSpot, but I can rarely remember what they are called or remember having seen them before.  In fact I can count on two fingers the ones I can recognise and name immediately on sight.  This, is one of them.

Shaggy Ink Cap

This is a shaggy ink cap (Coprinus comatus)  – comatus means hairy and refers to the scales that are clear once the cap has pushed out of the ground.  They pop up all over the place and are widespread across Europe and North America.  In fact, if you are an urban naturalist then you are in luck because they are often found in the green spaces in towns.

They first form as little egg-shaped white caps peeping out of the soil, and, as they grow the gills turn from white to pink to black as they liquefy themselves to death from the edges forming  an inky like substance as they spread their spores.  In the end there is just a white stem with some inky remains at the top.

They are supposedly edible, although not that tasty and not poisonous, but have to be eaten pretty quickly as they will have liquified themselves within a couple of hours of picking.  However, as with all mushrooms you need to really know your stuff to prevent accidentally picking something poisonous.

Not all yellow flowers are dandelions.

If you look around for the next six months you will see a lot of flowers – but how many do you actually recognise, how many do you stop to look at in more detail.

Take Coltsfoot for example.  Until today I didn’t know what it was, I had heard the name, but wouldn’t recognise it at all.  It caught my eye because although it looked like a dandelion it was standing proud of the waste ground in groups.

IMG_1503 IMG_1504


Apart from looking beautiful with such an interesting stem coltsfoot are recognisable in spring by their lack of leaves.  These appear after the flowers have died back and give the flower their name – apparently looking like a horse’s footprint, but not exactly convincing.  These leaves can grow up to 1.5m tall – that’s nearly as big as me!  However, the latin name Tussilago farfara is derived from its traditional medicinal as a cough medicine – tussis meaning cough and ago to act upon.  It has also been used for skin treatments, gout, rheumatism, colds and viral infections.  More recently though there are concerns about potential liver damage that could result from its use.  This is due to the pyrrolizidine alkaloids that are found in coltsfoot along with other members of the daisy family such as ragwort.  It is these chemicals that attract the caterpillar of the cinnabar moth to ragwort in such numbers as they use these poisons as a deterrent against predators.  However, the levels in coltsfoot are much lower than those in ragwort.

As it appears so early in the year (they flower as early as January and last through into March) it provides an important food source for many insects including honey bees as well as this little beetle.




Alder Fly

Every year I learn more and more about the natural world surrounding me.  I find that for every creature that I learn to identify there are at least a dozen more waiting for me.

One of the advantages of working in my current location is that I can quickly get to the riverside and look for wildlife.  In the sunny days of early May (which, looking at the grey sky seem a long time ago) I went looking for the first butterflies of the year.  I saw a few, but they were disturbingly small in number.  However, I did come across this fly which I had never noticed before and which is apparently fairly common and widespread.

Meet the alder fly (sialis lutaria):


Not very exciting you might think, and you would probably be right – the Wildlife Trust site describes them as sluggish and apparently dead alder flies are used as fishing bait.  However, I have never noticed them before even though they were everywhere on the day I went for a walk.  And, look at the detail in the wings.  How can you fail to be impressed by that!  Apparently, they have no connection with Alder other than being found near the edge of water (where the female lays about 200 eggs) which is where Alder is commonly found.  Being sluggish they spend most of their time near the water where they hatched and where they live as carnivorous larvae for a couple of years before pupating into these adults.  In case you are interested they are about 2 cm in length and there are several varieties which require expert identification to differentiate them.