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
Images of some spectacularly early bluebells in flower, together with flowering dog’s mercury, and a feeding small tortoiseshell butterfly taken on 17 March at the Nostell Priory estate woodlands help to show how some of our wildlife are responding to the recent spell of settled, and at times, pleasantly warm weather, especially in the shelter provide by mature woodlands at this time of year.
Dogs Mercury in flower
Bluebells appearing at Nostell
Pauline’s report on 16 February of the area’s first flowering colt’s-foot of the year encouraged a visit to a good spot for this plant on my regular walks around the Nostell Priory estate. I saw the first flowers here much later at the start of this month. However, recent wildflower sightings over the last few days have included primrose, dog’s mercury and male yew trees that have been dusting passersby with clouds of pollen. Interestingly, the female and male flowers on dog’s mercury and yew trees grow on separate plants. Another welcome flower of spring noticed on my walks at Nostell is the lesser celandine growing in woodland and damp places. It belongs to the buttercup family whereas the greater celandine is a member of the poppy family. It just shows common English names can be confusing. An image of the lesser celandine is attached. Bird sightings have included the usual woodland suspects together with frequent calls of a green woodpecker. The lower lake gives opportunities to still get good views of the goosanders and grey herons, images of which are attached.
Goosander (female) at Nostell
The recent wildly unpredictable weather may be a dampener on wildlife watching, but sometimes it can provide its own natural spectacle. During the morning of 29 January looking across the garden the sky suddenly start to darken, but for a few minutes the sun was still shining to help create an amazing full rainbow despite the heavy rain lashing against the window.
Rainbow over Wrenthorpe
Another interesting sighting on 21 January was a flock of birds visiting the fat balls in the garden, including seven long-tailed tits, four great tits and two coal tits, together with a single goldcrest which was more interested in investigating the nooks and crannies around the pruning wounds on an old apple tree.
My last report of finding wildflowers on 4th January this year all seems even more remarkable now following the recent snow. I attach a photo of our Wrenthorpe garden taken yesterday 17 January 2016. It reminded me of a similar spell of weather during 2013 and I attach a photo of a collared dove in the garden taken on 21 January of that year. This dove like many other birds were struggling to find food and were queuing at the feeders. It perhaps is also a reminder of how much wild birds appreciate our help in such changeable weather.
Wrenthorpe in the snow
Collared dove in the snow
Despite the recent gloomy, wet and windy weather there are surprisingly some wildflowers to be found, including red campion and dandelion. On the 4 January in between the showers I found two plants of bush vetch (Vicia sepium) in full bloom growing in the shelter of a hedgerow along Brandy Carr Road, Kirkhamgate. A photo is attached. Its name is misleading it is not a bush but a weak sprawling perennial depending on neighbouring plants for support. The flowers are more normally seen from April onwards.
Bush vetch (Vicia sepium)