Chilly evenings and shortening daylight hours remind us that summer is now slipping away and autumn is here. This is confirmed by a bounty of sloes and elderberries, together with a good crop of acorns. A further sign of the changing seasons are fewer wildflowers in the surrounding countryside. Even so, this remains a good time to enjoy watching butterflies, especially comma and the other species that overwinter as adults rather than eggs, larva or chrysalis. They now gorge themselves on life giving nectar offered by flowers in many of our local ornamental parks and gardens to help them survive the winter and breed next spring. This also includes red admiral, which can currently be seen in very large numbers around Wakefield. This species can be seen flying during milder days well into November and sometimes beyond. This may suggest it overwinters in a reduced state of dormancy compared to our comma, peacock, brimstone and small tortoiseshell. Indeed, there is growing evidence to suggest this butterfly is beginning to be accepted as a resident, especially in the south of the UK.
Photos of red admiral feeding on Buddleia x weyeriana and comma feeding on Sedum spectabile at a Wrenthorpe garden during the past week are attached. In addition, to our garden flowers look out for our native ivy. This is starting to flower now and is a magnet for a wide range of insects searching for nectar at this time of year. This important plant is one of our few native evergreen plants sheltering many wildlife species during the winter months.
comma on sedum
Red Admiral butterfly
The Society’s final outdoor meeting of a full summer programme for this year attracted a very good attendance on 13 August 2017. Members were greeted with a fine sunny morning and treated to some special wildlife sightings as we walked around part of the Nostell Priory parkland, which is managed by the National Trust.
comma butterfly caterpillar
purple hairstreak butterfly
The bottom lake provided good views of various dragonflies and damselflies, including brown hawker and common blue damselfly patrolling around a large area of fringed water-lily with its attractive yellow flowers. Large bracket fungal fruiting bodies of Ganoderma spp on old oak trees and a giant polypore (Meripilus giganteus) at the base of a mature beech tree were also noted. Eagled eyed members spotted a couple of caterpillars of the comma butterfly feeding on nettles at a woodland edge. The white markings on their backs are thought to resemble a bird dropping, perhaps a good defence mechanism. See attached image. Possibly, the highlight of the morning was the appearance of a purple hairstreak butterfly high in the canopy of an oak tree, which is the food plant of its caterpillars. Although the adult butterfly may sometimes be seen at lower levels it spends much of its time searching high in the tops of oak trees and occasionally other species for honeydew from aphids. For this reason it is easily overlooked and under recorded and certainly it was difficult to photograph on the day. Other butterflies seen, included red admiral, speckled wood and meadow brown. Other interesting wildlife included a hornet’s nest in an old veteran tree and knopper gall on oak.
The knopper gall is caused by a small wasp (Andricus quercuscalicis) laying its eggs in the young acorns of pedunculate oak. This tiny insect forms a second generation in the spring when it lays its eggs and forms small galls on the male catkins of turkey oak (Quercus cerris), which can be found in small numbers at Nostell Priory. At this time of year the acorns become increasingly wrinkled as they develop. In some years this can reduce the number of viable acorns produced. However, many may remain unaffected and perhaps this insect may not be the threat to our native oak that it once feared to have been.
Encouraged by the visit I returned to Nostell on the 17 August to photograph the giant polypore, which was by then much larger. I also noted a further three purple hairstreak butterflies in the same area, together with a brown hawker and migrant hawkers. Images of the brown hawker, which rested for a matter of seconds on a fence post, together with the migrant are attached.
The indoor meetings resume on Tuesday September 12th at 7.30 p.m. at the Quaker Meeting House, Thornhill Street, Wakefield WF1 1NQ with a presentation by Steve Rutherford when he will take us on a journey around the islands of the UK.
Last week Wakefield enjoyed a mini heat wave, which was encouraging for our local butterflies. This week we have seen an abrupt and very wet change in our weather with any sunshine in short supply; a real dampener for any butterfly activity. However, today just after 3p.m. after the main showers, I called into Nostell Priory. It was still gloomy with occasional spots of rain as I walked around the wildflower meadow and orchard in the gardens. Despite the weather there were several ringlet butterflies flying amongst the tall grasses and occasionally some would rest to open their wings to bask (see attached photo) even though there was no direct sunshine. However, this behaviour is not unusual for this species which is not deterred by overcast drizzly days. Happily, ringlets appear to have extended their range throughout much of the Wakefield district over recent years.
ringlet butterfly at Nostell Priory
Happily, this spring appears to have been kind to many baby birds with good numbers of fledglings of various species seen during my local wanderings. At home, noisy queues of starlings and house sparrows jostle for position at the garden feeding stations. The photo shows a female house sparrow feeding one of her young.
female house sparrow feeding young
Elsewhere in the garden young blackbirds appear to be somewhat vulnerable as they are unable to fly at first when leaving the nest. However, they continue to be well cared for by their own parents who are busy finding food and watching over them. The parents are never far away and seldom abandon their young. Fortunately, the garden has good foraging areas, together with a solid shrub layer of mixed native species such as hazel and hawthorn to provide food and cover from predators. Blackbirds and robins appear to have had two broods and young dunnocks are also regular visitors searching for leftovers beneath the feeding table.
The colour yellow was certainly in fashion today during my walk around the woodland and waterside edges at Stanley Ferry Flash. Most eye-catching was a number of wandering brimstone butterflies often flying too fast to follow and to get a close view. However, during a brief cloudy spell one did settle long enough to manage a photo (below). Happily, this attractive butterfly is becoming more frequent in the district and sometimes visits my own garden on the outskirts of Wakefield where I have planted buckthorn. Buckthorn is one of the two food plants of the caterpillars of the brimstone butterfly. Next on the wildlife fashion boardwalk during my visit was the marsh marigold; this plant is frequent in open damp woodland and often grows into large clumps. Botanically the blooms are without petals, but have 5-8 showy and glossy sepals, which are the outer ring of the flower.
brimstone butterfly, now widespread in the distrcit
marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)
On the edge of a large nettle bed close to Engine Wood I watched a male small tortoiseshell butterfly establish a courtship territory. It was basking in the morning sunshine and suddenly taking flight high into the sky to investigate every passing small tortoiseshell butterfly. Other males were chased away before eventually, a female was attracted back to the nettle bed where I managed to take the image below. It appears mating takes place well inside the nettle bed and afterwards the female goes off in search of suitable nettles to lay her eggs. Sadly, nettles are often cleared away as part of clean ups in the garden and countryside. My encounter shows how valuable nettles are to wildlife. Indeed, they are vital food plants for the caterpillars of small tortoiseshell, peacock, comma and red admiral butterflies. The other image is of a roosting male orange tip butterfly that I found earlier in the morning
small tortoiseshell mating
orange tip male roosting
Today, braving the cold wintery showers with occasional sunshine, a walk around the lakes and woodland at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park was rewarded with some wonderful wildlife sightings, including two stoats at first oblivious to my presence whilst chasing each other along a woodland path. Birds included kestrel, goosander and grey heron high up in their nests feeding their fast developing young. Just like me, a male tufted duck had no alternative but to sit out a passing heavy shower of sleet. In contrast, and only a start time afterwards, the sun appeared attracting orange tip and green-veined white butterflies to the woodland glades. I managed a photo of green-veined white on bluebells while other woodland flowers included wood-sorrel and yellow archangel.
tufted duck in the rain
green-veined white on bluebell
At the last indoor meeting Richard and Barbara mentioned they had recently watched the courting and mating behaviour of mallard ducks, including them bobbing their heads up and down. We wondered if this was normal for this time of year. By happy coincidence we bumped into each other by the lower lake at Nostell Priory on 11 November and witnessed the same behaviour at close range (see image). After some research it appears Mallard start to pair up in October and November. Nest building may start during March and is generally done close to water. However, I recall during June 2012 a female built a nest in a flower bed outside Wakefield Town Hall on the busy Wood Street, a long distance for the ducklings to walk to find the nearest water. This may happen in towns and cities where Mallard are attracted to the plentiful supply of food from passersby at our urban lakes and ponds in such large numbers, that sometimes there are not enough suitable nest sites for them all.
mating mallard ducks
Other birds noted walking around the middle and lower lakes included grey wagtail, firecrest, goosander, tufted duck and wigeon
wigeon at Nostell lower lake
The changing and breathtaking colours of some of our magnificent trees, together with flocks of visiting birds on their long migration journeys, and a bounty of fruits and seeds for them to feed on are proof that autumn has arrived. However, thanks to Pauline, on the 27 October we were witness to a less obvious clue if not, indeed, a very spooky sign of the season. We met along the disused railway, now a fantastic public walkway, starting behind the Co-op stores on Leeds Road, Outwood. There, on the timber post and rail fencing we found hundreds of ‘Halloween ladybirds’ as they are known in the USA, because they gather in their overwintering areas during September to November before hibernating, often in buildings. Such large gatherings of insects are known as aggregations.
Here in the UK this beetle is known as the harlequin ladybird (Harmonia spp) and is an unwelcome invader. The adult is very variable in appearance with a range of colours and patterns (see photos). Unlike many of our native ladybirds it produces multiple generations and a single female may lay up to 2,000 eggs in a lifetime leading to large populations. The life cycle then proceeds to a larvae (see attached photo), which can shed their skins several times before forming a pupae, and then after several days the adult emerges. The larvae and adults feast on aphids and when these have been devoured they sadly eat and out-compete our native, treasured ladybirds, bringing a ghostly end to autumn.
harlequin ladybird larvae
harlequin ladybird adult
Local walks over the Easter break have revealed some of the usual suspects. No real surprises, but it is just nice to see familiar species and some at more or less the time we might expect to see them. However, the cowslips at the Balk area near to Stanley Flash are perhaps slightly early with some flowers beginning to go over. At the flash itself there are abundant goat willows in flower providing a useful nectar source for insects such as over wintering Peacock butterflies and bees although none where seen on my walks this time.
At Bretton Park, wood anemone are providing a welcome sight in the woodland around the upper lake. This plant can be an indicator of ancient woodland, which is an area that has been treed in some way for around four hundred years and therefore they are an irreplaceable and valuable habitat. Occasionally wood anemone may also be found in some of the district’s meadows or hedge banks and here it is possible they may be ‘ghosts plants’ from a long lost woodland. Also, the upper and lower lakes at Bretton Park have once again attracted frogs to spawn.
Frogspawn at Bretton CP