Longparish – 29 April
It’s been raining all morning but as the afternoon appears the precipitation fades away and I begin to think about escaping somewhere more interesting. There is no sunshine but the temperature is well into the mid-teens and there will be creatures about. I set off for Longparish and the tiny lane that runs up behind the Mill, my destination the small parking space beside the bridge over the Test at OS 444 448. The easiest way to reach here is to take the A303 a couple of miles to the East of Andover and leave on the Longparish junction. Drive north into the village, past the church and round the double bend to pass the school on the right. A couple of hundred yards further on there is a small crossroads. Turn right and drive out of the village and over three bridges crossing streams. Immediately after the third there is a right hand turning, Nun’s Walk. Take this and drive just over a mile, passing Vale Farm on the right. As you leave the farm behind you there is the most minor of crossroads, very easily missable. Turn left down a very narrow lane and you will see the River Test ahead of you. There is a small parking area on the right of the first bend but, if you continue another hundred and fifty yards or so, there is another and this is where I stop and disembark.
Still no sunshine and neither does its arrival look very likely any time soon, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. When the sun is out so are so many interesting things. Even at this time of year there are a number of butterflies, including Commas Tortoiseshells, Red Admirals and Peacocks. There are five Whites, including Small, Large, Green-Veined and the Spring specialities of Brimstones and Orange Tips. On top of this are Holly Blues and the first Speckled Woods. With such fare to feast upon it is easy to forget that there is other life here, too, just as interesting and just as vital.
You can just see the bridge over the river from here and I take the narrow footpath towards it. I walk slowly and carefully scan the undergrowth around me. There are critters but they are tending to fly off before I can see them properly, let alone get a photo, but some things don’t fly. So I make my first good find nestling into a nettle leaf:
This is a Nursery Spider, latin name Pisaura mirabilis, and is very common in long grass and other dense vegetation and, peculiarly, particularly likes nettles. This one is nicely marked up, they are often rather plainer. The creature earns its name because the female carries her eggs around with her in a ball-shaped pea-sized sac. Just before they hatch she builds a tent out of silk and puts them inside for protection.
Crossing the bridge I scan the river for an exceptionally early Mayfly or Damselfly even though I know I won’t see anything. Perhaps the frustration over the slow arrival of the warmer months is slowly driving me mad.
I step off the further side of the footbridge and walk a few paces to reach the triangle of thick grass, nettles and mixed vegetation to the right. This patch is only around ten yards by ten yards by ten yards but this my playground for this afternoon. Before I step in I scan the leaves carefully for a minute or so, blundering straight forward could scare the day’s best find far away. I move slowly forward and it isn’t long before I spot something. A caterpillar and a small surprise, not because of what it is but because of what it is feeding on. The larva of a Scarlet Tiger Moth:
The recognised foodplant of choice of this species is Common Comfrey, which is, as the name suggests, common, especially in dampish areas. It is found here and I was hoping to find the caterpillars, but this specimen is not feeding on the surrounding Comfrey but on nettle … and it is not alone. Peering around I quickly count more than half a dozen others and they are all on nettle. The adult moth is a day flier through the early Summer months, with satin black front wings, marked up with cream, and stunning crimson red hind wings. The eggs hatch during July and August, the caterpillars feeding up during the later months, to around 15mm long, when they hibernate down amongst the leaf litter. The Spring sun brings them out to finish growing until they pupate to emerge as the adult moths in June.
I move slowly on, stopping every couple of paces to carefully search right down into the depths of the greenery. After a while something flies chaotically past me and lands nearby. A Cranefly:
I get the photo above and later go through the books I have and the internet but am unable to establish the species. This is not surprising as there are over 300 different species of Cranefly in this country but this one is fairly distinctive, with the band towards the rear of the abdomen.
I stand up from getting the shot and turn around, immediately finding a striking looking fly resting three or four yards away:
With a black body and orange streaks bleeding down through the wings it is unmistakably a Noon Fly, or Mesembrina meridiana. Not so delightfully it breeds in dung.
I stand up again and start to cast my gaze around but am interrupted by something landing on my sleeve. A striking and slightly early Green Carpet Moth:
This photo wasn’t taken of the one saw, that one promptly flew off and hid in a willow, and it’s not entirely in focus and as wonderful as I would wish, but it does show what the moth looks like. Exceptionally pretty, especially when fresh, and reasonably common with the caterpillar feeding on Bedstraws. Ten minutes later and my eye is caught by something small but still very conspicuous:
This is a Red and Black Froghopper and it is the only British representative of the Cercopidae Family. The adults feed on plant sap, often from grasses but also other plants while the young, called nymphs, stay underground and take the sap from the plant’s roots. The adult insects are well capable of flying but can also jump more than half a metre to help them escape predators. I spend a few minutes searching around and am rewarded by finding two more close by.
Then something a little different, a Fly:
Not as striking as the Noon Fly above until a reasonable photo shows the detail and the patterns. This is a Muscid Fly, or Graphomya maculata. Some sources say the maggot is a predator in standing water while others suggest it hunts in leaf litter, so I am unable fill out its lifestyle for you! What I find next is also something of a conundrum. I was unable to get great shot but this is a Sawfly:
Unfortunately there are over 400 species of sawfly in this country and reference material is poor, so I can’t even make a guess at which species this is. My next find is a lot easier, though:
This is a Tapered Drone Fly, or Eristalis pertinax. The maggots are aquatic predators, living in wet, decaying vegetation in ponds or ditches, but sometimes farmyard manure pits or silage. They filter-feed on tiny organisms found in the decaying water and sludge and are described as “rat-tailed”, as the abdomen ends in a long tube which they use rather like a snorkel to breathe.
Turning around I find something small. I move right in to get some idea of what I’m looking at. All I know is that there are a number of them sitting on the leaves around me and then pinging off into the greenery:
Perhaps I should have guessed but these are very young Grey Bush Crickets. It takes me a while to get a decent shot as they are very small, meaning I have to get in very close, and even though they are young they are still very adept at jumping!
When I have finally got something acceptable I spot another interesting looking fly. I have to work my way round carefully to get to a position for a photo but when I do I am hidden to an extent by leaves and vegetation and I manage to get the camera fairly close without disturbing it:
If a Fly can be quite a pretty thing to look at then this fly manages it. It is a Blotch-Winged Hoverfly, or Leucozona lucorum. As with a number of Hoverfly species the larvae are predators hunting aphids, which should make them the gardener’s friend. This particular species hunts ground level aphids, down amongst the leaf-litter.
A little more creeping through the brush and I spy something tucked away:
This is a mating pair of Tiger Hoverfly, or Helophilus pendulus, one of our commonest Hoverflies. I give you another photo to show the markings rather better:
Because of the stripy jersey look it has the insect is sometimes called The Footballer.
Enough now, I have exhausted this small triangle for today and, also, I have run out of afternoon. It’s surprising how quickly an hour and a half can go when you are hunting, and surprising what you can find in a very small corner of a meadow. The end of April will bring the beginning of May in two days time, the last month of Spring and the Welcome Mat to Summer. A magical month when nature really picks up the pace. I can’t wait.