Saturday, 18 May 2013

Out and about.

Not-so-abandoned quarry.
First a safety note:
Heavy lorries have returned to the quarry to haul gravel. This means that there will be heavy traffic on the concrete road for a month. Sadly, it does not mean that the quarry is re-opening; they are simply selling off the stock-piles from their yard.

I often stop people and ask them what they have seen. "Not much" they often say, looking at me accusingly. I guess I'm supposed to provide more amusement for them. The truth is that there is always a lot to see at Paxton Pits and if you look carefully, you will find something you have never seem before; even if you are an expert. It might be a bird or even a mammal, but mostly it will be something small; perhaps a plant or an insect. Think macro!

Despite the cool weather there has been a vigorous growth of vegetation, especially the foliage on our bushes and trees. I have never seen the scrub habitat, on which so many of our birds are dependent, looking so thick. It is harder to see the birds, but that's a good thing for them, making nests more difficult to find by predators such as magpies and jays. So, we have the habitat, but what about the food?

14 spot ladybird.
Migrant birds continue to arrive. This week we had a brief visit from a spoonbill, but the gulls soon saw it off. Up to three cuckoos have been heard and a couple of turtle doves; both rare birds these days. We have had an influx of sedge warblers, garden warblers and swifts and we still have time to recruit a few more reed warblers and grasshopper warblers. A swallow was seen checking-out our barn for a nest site and our camera-box blue tit is sitting on 8 eggs this week. The nightingale's have not been properly surveyed but we are confident that we have over 20 singing males; perhaps 23. With a growing number of mouths to be fed, we are anxious to see more insects about the site, but I fear that the cold weather is suppressing their emergence.

Mystery guest.
Orange-tip butterflies were abundant in April but they have almost all disappeared now. We should be seeing damsel flies but I have seen none yet. The St Mark's fly, a Bibionid that preys on midges, should have been around on St Mark's Day, April 25th, but they are late. Look for them around the hawthorn blossom, which is also late. They are black with long, dangly back legs that they use to grasp their prey. There are some midges about as well as mining bees, bumble bees and bee-flies.

Ranger Rob has been captivated by our mining bees (I call them J C Bees) and noticed that they only come out if it is warm enough for them.

When they do emerge they fall prey to several kinds of waspsn and even other bees. He found the corpse of one of these predatory bees (less than 1cm long) and brought it back for me to photograph. You can see it has big, butch, white, hairy hind legs, like the St Mark's fly. We think it is a rare animal; a solitary bee called Sphecodes spinulosus. (Predators are always outnumbered by their prey, so they tend to be rare by comparison.) Perhaps it is a first for the county? But is it actually a mining bee? It is the same colour as many of the mining bees. I'm guessing that, if you mimic your prey, you can get really close before they recognise you as an enemy ......Fascinating.

At ground level the vegetation is really lush at the moment, dominated by crucifers (members of the cabbage/mustard family that have four petals on each flower). Winter-cress normally grows by water but, because it has been so wet, it seems pretty widespread this year. You can eat the leaves, but they are bitter. However there is a cultivated variety used in salads.

Green Hellebore
Another striking plant that likes the rain can be seen in the open area behind the old Lafarge plant. It looks like a large spurge but is in fact a green hellebore;  quite a favourite with insects at this time of year. You might have some in your garden, but it is actually a native plant.

In my next blog there will be news about the "Shrinking Pond". I promise.