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
As today would have been the first of our outdoor meetings, Richard and I decided we would spend our one hour walk to Smithy Brook, between Middlestown and Thornhill, recording the species we saw.
After all the glorious sunny weather over the last six weeks, today was disappointingly overcast, breezy and quite cool, however it actually made it easier to stop and identify the plants as no-one else seemed inclined to be out and about.
We counted 59 plant species but only eight birds, as the cooler weather seemed to have dampened their spirits: we usually get skylark, sparrows and various finches and tits along the lane but today we heard chiff-chaff and yellowhammer and watched a buzzard soaring over the fields.
Because of the cooler weather we didn’t see a single butterfly. We would normally see speckled wood along the sunken lane, then peacock, small tortoiseshell and orange tips along the more open stretch.
Smithy Brook Valley
When we looked closer at the wild flowers, we spotted common vetch alongside the more conspicuous bush vetch and we almost missed a patch of ground ivy, nestling among the grass and herbage on the sunken lane. Over the last few weeks we have watched the countryside changing as the hawthorn hedges turn from fresh green leaf to frothy white blossom, giving off that wonderful musky sweet smell of spring.
Bluebells, white and red campion and Herb Robert were just a few of the species along the lane with wild garlic, white comfrey and yellow flag alongside Smithy Brook. A field dotted with meadow buttercups and the bright yellow of a patch of birdsfoot trefoil add a little brightness to the morning.
Our lockdown local walks have been drenched in warm, sunny spring weather during April with high temperatures more reminiscent of Spain rather than England, Along with alll the spring migrants arriving on these warm fronts, our own native orange tip butterflies seem to have been thriving. They are on the wing in the latter part of April and early May and depend on early flowering plants, such as deandelions and garlic mustard for nectar, and there’s no shortage of these at the moment. So it appears the orange tips wiull have a perfect season and will have chnace to lay plenty of eggs for next year.
We have been getting quite a few orange tips in the garden throughout the last few weeks and if one arrives in the garden at around 5pm, they often stay to roost presenting me with some lovely photo opportunities proving you don’t have to go for for good photo subjects.
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.
Setting out on our morning walk we are surprised by the piping call of three oystercatchers as they skirt the edge of Coxley Woods.
Our regular one hour walk involves a lot of road walking but is proving enjoyable with plenty of signs of spring in the hedgerows.
We have seen lots of dogs mercury and celandine in scrubby areas and over the last week jack-by-the-hedge has come into flower. Chiff-chaff singing and buzzard mewing are much easier to hear without the distant roar of traffic.
Low Lane is a delight with sweeping views across the Calder Valley, grey partridge bursting from the field and a skylark singing in the spring sunshine.
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.
Well folks, it looks as if the April indoor meeting is going to have to be cancelled given the current predicament with coronavirus. Members’ night is one of my favourite meetinsg of the indoor meetings calendar so I will bve disappointed to see it go. However, we are being encouraged to avoid gatherings and I suspect there will be a very low turnout even if we go ahead. Therefore, unless you hear differntly from the Society, assume that the meeting is cancelled.
On the ortherhand, there is no reason for us not to have the first of the field meetings in May which will be a local one, most likely Brockadale, as a follow up to the excellent presentation by Joyce and Paul Simmonds last month. We are currently working on the new programme and the meetings pages will be updated very shortly so keep checking back.
There is no reason not to be out and enjoying nature, esoecially in our own gardens, so here’s a shot I took this morning of a male tawny mining bee emerging from it’s burrow. I presume this is the larvae that has overwinterred and is now emerging as an adult.