How can one of the UK’s largest and most distinctive moth caterpillars go under the garden radar at home for so long without being seen until Sue found it feeding on her prize fuchsia. This is one of Britain’s largest caterpillars growing up to nearly 9cm long with an eye popping front end and a punk rock style spike at the rear. See attached photo. This is the caterpillar of the elephant hawk moth. The adult is one of our most elegant moths and beautifully photographed by our president, John Gardner. in his post on 27 May 2020. The caterpillars also feed on rosebay and bedstraws before settling down in the autumn to pupate as a cocoon in leaf litter and soil. The adults emerge and are on the wing during summer feeding on the nectar of night scented flowers such as honey suckle, which by coincidence is growing just next to the fuchsia in the garden.
elephant hawkmoth caterpillar
Also going unnoticed under the garden radar until this summer have been some grasshoppers. Quite a surprise in such an urban area and particularly as I have now been looking after the garden for over forty years!
A more obvious insect seen in the garden in the past two weeks has been the silver Y moth. This is a regular migrant often seen flying fast and somewhat erratically during the day searching flowers for nectar and in the attached photo can be seen on heather.
silver y moth
Not deterred by the unsettled weather at the end of June, I planned to start the new month with a walk using footpaths around the village of West Bretton avoiding the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which remained closed due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Come the morning of 1st July with a forecast of grey skies and intermittent drizzle I was beginning to have second thoughts. However, the clouds started to thin, albeit slightly, allowing some weak sunshine to filter through coaxing the temperature to slowly lift. So I was soon more hopeful of seeing some wildlife and set off. The conditions underfoot, indeed almost up to waist level in the tall grass, was very wet. Nevertheless, in places there were clouds of ringlet butterflies fluttering carefully amongst a mass of raindrops delicately balanced on narrow leaves shimmering like precious gems. An ephemeral gift of heavy overnight rain.
Other butterflies included a small number of meadow brown, two small tortoiseshell, a single small skipper and good numbers of the caterpillars of peacock butterfly feeding on nettle. During a brief shower towards the end of the walk I shared the shelter of a tall hedgerow with a bumble bee attracted to the flower and pollen of a field rose (Rosa arvensis). So even on this occasion rain didn’t stop play.
field rose and bumble bee
These days I am doing the same local walk so often I can imagine I am cutting a groove in the tarmac along Jerry Clay Lane, Wrenthorpe. This lane is my gateway to a small island of surviving countryside around Brandy Carr and Carr Gate. I guess due to the Covid-19 outbreak the verges along the lane have not been cut back allowing many plants the opportunity and freedom to flower and hopefully seed. In particular the hedges are entwined together with flowering bramble and dog rose (photo attached). In turn they are attracting a wide range of pollinating insects. I wonder if giving wildlife a chance like this will catch on. My first meadow brown and large skipper butterflies of 2020 were seen here on the 31 May. A photo of a large skipper nectaring on an elder bush close to Brandy Carr Road is attached. Also, there appears to be a good emergence of small tortoiseshell butterflies probably resulting from eggs laid this April and early May by the overwintering adults. Certainly the caterpillars feeding on the garden nettle patch at home dispersed some time ago. Astonishingly researchers have found them to travel up to 55 metres from the nearest nettles looking for sites to pupate. Bird sightings along Jerry Clay Lane this week include buzzard, kestrel, great spotted woodpecker, blackcap, whitethroat, yellowhammer, chaffinch and a lapwing has returned after an absence of two weeks.
arge skipper near Brandy Carr Road
Further into the walk looking towards Ossett church the yellow sea of oil seed rape has ebbed away exposing ribbons of scented mayweed and poppies around the field edges. The attached photos show the changing landscape on 2 May 2020 and scented mayweed and poppies on 2 June.
Ossett church from Carr Gate
poppy and scented mayweed
Elsewhere in our local park the marsh orchids are flowering. Photo attached. They are most likely to be hybrids. Wakefield is close to the southern limit of the northern marsh orchid and close to the northern limit of the southern marsh orchid and offspring showing characteristics from each species may be expected. Similarly, both species may also hybridise with common spotted orchids. So the jury remains out for another year on trying to positively identify them.
4.hybrid marsh orchid
The Corvid-19 outbreak lockdown rules have recently been relaxed. Even so at the moment I continue to be loyal to my local walks all taken within one and half or so miles from home rather than travelling further away. This has now become a very familiar landscape to me, but it is beginning to show signs it is ready to change and leave spring behind. The pristine fresh green tree leaves are now more sombre with many sycamore covered with ‘honeydew’ a sticky substance excreted by feeding aphids. The tiny caterpillars of moths blown in the wind abseil down from the tops of oak trees on fragile silken threads like miniature SAS commandos. All these insects are a timely food source for hungry young birds and their exhausted parents. Similarly, the yellow fields of oil seed rape are fading fast turning their energy to the job of seed production. Even so their narrow field margins remain a refuge for some wildflowers to shine especially flaming red poppies. Photo attached. Elsewhere yellow is intensifying around paddocks full of buttercups and young rabbits.
poppy and oil seed rape
9.rabbit and buttercups
On the 11 May I reported the progress of the small tortoiseshell butterflies caterpillars that have transformed the garden patch of nettles into their dining room. They continue to devour their host plant leaving only a skeleton. It is a reminder they will soon start to pupate and then emerge to announce a changing of the guards and summer has arrived.
small tortoiseshell caterpillars
On the 12 April I noticed a small tortoiseshell butterfly egg laying on the garden patch of nettles. These have now hatched and, characteristically, the caterpillars have formed a communal silken web around the uppermost leaves for protection whilst they continue feeding. Six days before, a comma had used the same patch of nettles for egg laying (see reported dated 13 April 2010). Comma eggs are laid singularly and the caterpillar also spins a silk web on the underside of the leaf. At this stage they are less conspicuous than the small tortoiseshell butterfly so I am not too surprised not to have found a caterpillar so far..
On the 14 April while sitting next to the nettles armed with a cuppa and a piece of cake I noticed an orange tip butterfly egg laying on the flower of a garlic mustard sometimes known as jack-by-the-hedge. I was unable to see any eggs without causing damage. However, it appears they are laid singularly. This may be a blessing, because as they grow the caterpillars may be cannibalistic and no doubt more so when food is in short supply.
On 6 May in accordance with the official Coronavirus outbreak advice of stay home stay safe I once again got myself comfortable with a cuppa and another piece of cake next to this tiny and yet action packed patch of nettles. I was soon joined by a small tortoiseshell butterfly. This time I could clearly see her carefully releasing the eggs from her ovipositor on the underside of one of the uppermost leaves. See attached photos. Eggs are normally laid in batches 0f 60 to 100 so I am not sure how many may survive particularly as the caterpillars have very large appetites. So during this very dry spell I have been busy watering the nettle bed to ensure there is a supply of fresh growth for the growing numbers of caterpillars. Not sure this is reflecting too well on my horticultural credentials!
small tortoishell eggs on nettle
small tortoiseshell egg laying
Studies increasingly show us that just looking at pleasant landscapes and watching wildlife can significantly improve our personal health and well- being. It is sometimes referred to as Nature’s Health Service especially in terms of helping to manage the stress of modern day life. Therefore, connecting with nature has never been so important as it is at the moment while our normal activities are suspended due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Fortunately, at a time of great need nature is not in lockdown, indeed its currently on overdrive moving apace receiving a helping hand from a long spell of fine weather. This has been very much in evidence this week during my permitted walks from home, which have taken me around Brandy Carr and Carr Gate. Wildlife sightings have included watching a pair of lapwings busy feeding in a paddock and later seeing them being dive bombed by a swallow. This turned out to be quite innocent as the swallow was swooping down low to collect what appeared to be a small piece of white tissue presumably for nest building? Nearby there is hedgerow containing several mature oak and surprisingly several midland hawthorn. This species flowers before the common hawthorn, also its leaves are less divided and importantly looking closely at the flowers it has two or three stigmas later forming two or three seeds in the berry. The common hawthorn only has a single stigma and only one seed in the berry. Confusingly these two native species hybridise so this is a good time of the year to tell them apart by counting the stigma rather than trying to find the seed in the autumn.
Continuing the walk the oak are clearly in leaf well before the ash. So are we in for a splash and a dry summer as the old country rhyme goes? Also, I noticed one particular oak tree is holding a mass of oak apples, These are caused by the gall wasp, Biorhiza pallida. The eggs are laid in a dormant leaf bud and the tree reacts by producing this apple like growth around the egg and larva. These are not apples you can eat. However, on the plus side insects are vital for pollinating a wide range of blossom. The attached image shows a busy bee helping to ensure there will be a good crop of apples in the garden again this year.
Yesterday I watched several peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies making their now regular visits to the garden. Most are just passing through, but yesterday I noticed a comma circling around a sheltered corner containing a small, well established patch of stinging nettles currently only about one foot high. It alternated between settling on the nettles and then resting on a small nearby log left as deadwood habitat (photo attached). When the butterfly had finally left the garden I noticed it had laid several single eggs on the upper side of the leaf. The egg is tiny and the attached photo shows it resting against a sting spine/hair. Another spine/hair in the top left of the photo helps to give some sense of scale. This patch of nettles has been used by commas in the past and it is good to know it remains a suitable egg laying site for them.
comma butterfly egg on nettle leaf
Today a brimstone butterfly paid another fleeting visit, but a peacock stayed much longer nectaring on a flowering currant.
peacock nectaring on ribes
Over the last week my permitted outdoor exercise with some variations has been based on a walk from Wrenthorpe via the nearby Wakefield Junction 41 Industrial Estate, Lawns Lane, Brandy Carr Road and along Troughwell Lane back home. The industrial estate is busy with large haulage vehicles and not an obvious place to see wildlife, but it has been extensively landscaped. In amongst the mixture of plants there are a number of native tree and shrub species. In particular, some maturing wild cherry trees sometimes known as gean look very spectacular at the moment with masses of white flowers. Together with its good looks it is a superb tree for wildlife, the flowers are an early source of nectar and pollen for bees and the cherries are eaten by many birds in the autumn.
In between the many warehouses there are small areas of rough and disturbed land. These habitats can sometimes be hostile places for plant growth, but not for coltsfoot. This is one of our first plants to flower in spring. Producing a mass of yellow blooms early in the year may help to attract insects before they are obscured by their large leaves, which are silver-white on the undersides. During spring coltsfoot is one of several species which flower before their leaves unfold. Some are much less noticeable and, therefore, more easily missed on my walks like the flowers of the common ash tree. Ash trees are wind pollinated and perhaps it may help their pollen to travel further if their flowers are not obscured by the leaves. See photo. Also, at this time of year there is still the opportunity to spot birds singing high in the trees before they too are obscured by their leaves. See photo of song thrush taken near Lawns Lane.
While in the garden on Tuesday 24 March I spent some time watching two buzzards soaring higher and higher above me in a beautiful clear blue sky. Only when I looked down I noticed three very mobile butterflies – peacock, brimstone and comma. No doubt these butterflies have recently emerged from hibernation and are now busy searching for early flowering plants for nectar, which can be in very short supply at this time of year. In spring brimstone are said to nectar on dandelion, primrose, cowslip, bugle and bluebell. Comma may be seen looking for nectar on sallow and blackthorn flowers. Peacock may search blackthorn, cuckooflower and dandelions for early sources of nectar. I attached photos of the peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies taking a short break to bask in a sunny sheltered corner of the garden on 26 and 27 March respectively.
The big butterfly count 2018 is now well underway with records from all parts of the UK being invited. The count is organised by Butterfly Conservation and runs until the end of August and is open to everyone and is easy to take part in. It only takes 15 minutes during bright weather and full details are available at www.bigbutterflycount.org. The count is an annual check on changes in butterfly numbers, which is important in helping to identify how various butterfly species are reacting to changes to their environment and potentially may flag up early warnings for other wildlife losses.
The garden is proving to be an ideal place to sit each day with a cup of tea for 15 minutes and watch visiting butterflies. So far small white butterflies occupy top spot with holly blue holding onto second place, which is surprising for a species once uncommon in the Wakefield district. Some of the same individuals appear to stay in the garden for several days patrolling a long hedge, which contains plenty of ivy looking for suitable egg laying sites. Images of a female holly blue feeding on common fleabane and a tiny egg placed just below a developing ivy flower bud are attached. There are generally two broods each year. The holly blue overwinter has a chrysalis with the adults emerging in early spring when the first eggs are generally laid on holly. These form the second brood of adults at this time of year, which lay eggs on ivy although other shrub species may be used.
Other species continue to visit the garden, but not necessarily in the 15 minute recording time. These include large white, green veined white, speckled wood, ringlet, meadow brown, gatekeeper, comma, small tortoiseshell and a single small copper.
Holly Blue egg on ivy