Like nowhere I had seen before – The Florida and Georgia Wetlands
Everyone seems to rave about Florida. Not me, and I’ve been there too. Now, I admit to no longer being a youngster, so I am not ‘into’ theme parks, over-crowded beaches or built environments. Yup, I am an old grouchy! But, give me a pristine wildlife site and I feel forty years old again. The same, plus a snake = thirty!
Most of Florida was instantly forgettable. It is nearly flat, is virtually history-free and full of people. Not so some of its north-west watery fringes, and certainly not the eastern parts of the neighbouring state of Georgia.
I went there early in 2019 for a three-week investigation, touring from Orlando north to the delightful city of Savannah in Georgia.
With limited human access to the Everglades, and the wildlife decimated by Burmese pythons, we gave that a miss, instead adding the stunning Okefenokee Swamps – a world class location.
A short drive east of Orlando is Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. 140 000 acres of sub-tropical grassland, scrub and wetlands that sit alongside the NASA Kennedy Space Centre and the technological wonderland of the Visitor Centre.
If we ever return to Florida, we would give Merrett Island three days. Sea turtles nest on its 43 mile long barrier islands, inside this chain manatees co-exist alongside the inevitable powerboats, while elsewhere there are 350 bird species and 31 mammal types. Add in the 68 reptiles and amphibians, 117 species of fish and one obtains some feel for the biodiversity. As everywhere, alligators are common.
Across the state border into Georgia, it feels unworldly. Miles and miles of treed wetlands bordered the route. Living there looked mentally demanding and the residents poor. We shot north to the urban gem, Savannah and returned to Okefenokee – just north-west of Jacksonville.
A big word of warning: accommodation is not easily found next to Okefenokee. Especially near its main (east) entrance. You will need to explore your options well ahead of time. Also, try to obtain: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Okefenokee Swamp by Taylor Schoettle that cost us $25. It is 160 A4 pages of quality information.
The Okefenokee Swamp is close to 700 square miles (3.5 times bigger than the New Forest) of a flooded depression surrounded by pine flatwoods. Most of the swamp is covered by water no deeper than about 2 feet (60 cm).
Now, access is difficult to the area. Boat trips are minimal and roads almost non-existent. It is possible to hire a boat and a guide, and canoe trips are possible. With four entrances, each offering different facilities, my advice would be to visit them all. We had only time to visit the main (eastern) entrance.
We visited when water levels were high (February), so the grassy prairies (8% area) were flooded with emergent carnivorous plants everywhere. Bladderworts were in vast mats and pitcher plants reached high above water level. Swamp cypress trees were clothed in Spanish moss (a bromeliad, and nothing like a moss!) and the swamp forests make up nearly 60% land area. There is 30% scrub, while small ‘islands’ and lakes make up the rest. Some of the islands were once farmed and the trees logged – but neither were long-term viable, and the swamp is now human-free.
With nutrient-poor soils, regular flooding and a lack of human pressure the place is a biological and ecological wonderland. Alternation of hot, mostly dry, summers and wet winters also will put ecological pressure on the wildlife, which as evolved to often be unique. It also has to also cope with the lightning-induced summer fires.
I will leave the images to provide a feel to the place.
On the western edge of North Florida, adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico, are a chain of wildlife sites – State parks and wildlife refuges. These offer the chance, especially in winter, to see manatees. But vultures, alligators and water snakes are around in numbers too. We stayed in Cedar keys, Manatee Springs State Park and around Crystal River.
For a touch of inland Florida, try Eustis and the pretty Mount Dora – both close to the Ocala National Forest and touching distance of the airport at Orlando.
All my own photographs. We did see a single wild manatee, but it was too difficult to photograph. The colder the weather the more likely to view manatees in the warm springs.
David Beeson, 24th November 2020
Posh words, like metabolism, frighten some folks. Not you, I’m certain. This word just means the total chemistry inside an organism. And we, plants and even our friend Covid-19 are bundles of chemicals, and they all work via chemical reactions. Yup, you and me are bags of chemistry. If the chemistry goes wrong, we are ill or die.
The study of body chemistry is called biochemistry, and that was my degree. I hated it! It never made sense … which is why I spent much of my life teaching it. Surely, I could do better than my university.
Bios = life, so, biochemistry – the chemistry of life.
Green plants trap carbon dioxide and water using sunlight energy and make things, chemicals, such as glucose.
Energy being the critical word, above.
Animals would start the diagram above from their food, rather than photosynthesis … the end products of digestion, releasing chemicals such as glucose.
In order to grow, an organism, plant, animal or virus, needs to make new chemicals. Building new chemicals is called ANABOLISM. *1 on the diagram. And we all know that making things needs energy.
That energy comes from breaking chemicals down, CATABOLISM. * 2 on the diagram.
So we have an equation: anabolism + catabolism = metabolism.
In a conventional power station we ‘burn’ (catabolism) coal or oil (both energy-rich) to make energy-rich electricity, which we use to make or do things (anabolism).
In organisms the equivalent of the electricity is an energy carrier, abbreviated to ATP. The organism’s energy currency. *3 above.
If the organism runs out of ATP, it is dead.
In most situations the anabolic reactions of making the ATP is called RESPIRATION. Take some cyanide and it stops respiration … and you know the result. No ATP, no life. But, there are lots of catabolic processes. Some need oxygen, some do not – e.g. fermentation to make alcohol needs no oxygen.
Clever, isn’t it.
BUT, organisms need other things in anabolism. To make bones, humans need calcium. Blood needs iron. Plants cannot live only from the outputs from photosynthesis. They need calcium to make cells stick together, iron and magnesium for chlorophyll and nitrates to make DNA, amino acids and proteins. In most plants these inorganic / mineral extras come from the soil. And many folks add fertilizers to ensure these are not in short supply, and limit growth. Me, seldom, as I prefer to add compost or mulched wood.
Ah, but some plants live where the soil is deficient in these extras. They grow in water-logged peaty soils … bogs. So, obtain their extras from capturing and digesting other living organisms, that have these chemicals. These are the CARNIVOROUS PLANTS.
Some books call this type of plant – insectivorous, but they consume anything they can grab – including, in big plants, mammals. In the UK we have: sundews, butterworts and bladderworts. Elsewhere there are pitcher plants and the wonderful Venus fly trap.
The capture mechanisms are all clever diversions from the basic plant design to obtain their anabolic extras. And the ability to find these ‘little extras’ determines which plant lives where, as soil pH also influences mineral availability. Alkaline soils have a different spectrum of available minerals than a neutral or acid one. Different soil pH, different ecology.
So, now you know … a touch of biochemistry can help sort out your ecology!
Homework – look up bladderworts, you’ll not be sorry. Fascinating plants – look for them in the New Forest, Studland Heath and Wareham Forest.
Inside plants – the stem
Let us face it, the stem must provide multiple functions for the plant. It supports the leaves in suitable positions to allow them to photosynthesise, carries water and possibly nutrients up to the leaves or flowers and sugars down to the roots, it may store useful materials such as carbohydrates, perhaps make food itself (if green) and still keep the plant safe from attack. Quite a task. Add to these the need to expand and grow up, and you see that it is a complex organ.
The basics are simple enough.
- It is covered in an epidermis that may contain protective toxins and covered in a waterproofing waxy coating.
- It has vascular bundles – a package of phloem (organic nutrient transport mainly), a cell division layer (Cambium or meristem) and xylem for mainly water carriage. [In many examples there is a patch of sclenchyma outside the phloem – staining red.]
- The rest of the structure is often filled with a cell type called parenchyma that aid turgidity and have storage jobs.
Sometimes the peripheral zone has photosynthetic cells (chlorenchyma) or cells with thickened cell walls to add strength (collenchyma). The ‘corners’ of square stems are often filled with collenchyma – look at mint or deadnettle stems.
To stop water loss hairs may grow out of the epidermis.
There are two stem designs that are common: Those with vascular bundles that occur as a ring in young stems (dicot plants) and those that are more randomly located (monocots like grasses).
Most photographs you will encounter are of young stems. In older stems the vascular bundles merge to form a continuous ring in dicots, and eventually grow into a woody stem.
David Beeson, 7th November
And, yes, as it was a dull day, and I wished to raise your spirits, so the images have been enhanced a bit.
As I have mentioned before, dormice are declining and generally rare or uncommon in the UK. They are southern in distribution and have been one of the mammals I look out for more than most.
Less than a month ago I found what I thought were dormouse nests in my own garden. Had I found them out and about I would have certainly said, “Dormouse”. It isn’t quite so easy when it is your own back yard … a little more certainty is needed. So, I sent my photographs of the nests to The Mammal Society. They were not sure. Dormouse, perhaps harvest mouse? Either would be great news, but despite my trying, harvest mice nests have not been found just here. A couple of miles away, yes, but not really local.
My previous camera trap was stolen from the end of my garden. It was padlocked in place and wire cutters were needed to remove it. I’m sure who did it, but proof is another thing.
A new camera trap / trail camera arrived yesterday. And, like a little kid, I rushed out and set it up immediately. It was not a quality set up, but with dormouse hibernation supposedly almost immediate, a night was not to be wasted.
I woke at dawn to FROST. The camera trap recorded 0 Celcius / 32 F and that doubly says ‘Hibernate all ye dormice.’ Not so, my images are crawling with cute dormice and not a common wood mouse is to be seen.
Now, yes, they are rubbish images … just give me time! So, no hibernation and the cuties still active in freezing conditions.
Food? Forest Edge’s own walnuts, shelled to make life easy for them.
Handling, live trapping or disturbing hazel dormice is illegal.
RE-posted 1st November 2020
A walk from the B3400, south along the footpath from Andover Down to the Middleway.
SU403463. Pisa Cottage stop on the 76 bus route from Andover to Whitchurch and Basingstoke.
Harewood Forest has been woodland forever. It is in north-west Hampshire near the market town of Andover, and its woodland straddles the A303 – a dual carriageway leading from the M3 towards Stonehenge and Exeter. It might be the second largest tract of natural woodland in Hampshire, yet it is hardly a vast tract of wilderness at only around 8 – 10Km². Britain is poorly wooded when compared to most of Europe.
With the clay soil sticking to my boots, I head along the footpath alongside Pisa Cottage and under an intermingling canopy of leafless hazel stems. With the route totally shaded in summer, no plants have managed to survive the tramp of walkers’ feet – hence the winter mud.
Hazel loves calcium-rich areas and here that bedrock lies just a few metres below the clay soil surface, close enough for the roots to reach. Other plants also are adapted to this clay-over-chalk part of the woodland and I soon spot wild clematis (Old Man’s Beard) and honeysuckle clambering high towards the light.
These climbing plants have a good strategy. Growing a woody stem is biologically expensive. If you can clamber up to the sunlight utilising another plant that can be a sound plan. Honeysuckle and clematis have weak stems and produce little wood. The wild rose and blackberry uses a similar technique, except here their spines allow easy scrambling and provide some protection against browsing by deer.
Nearby I spy some plants more associated with gardens and allotments –gooseberry and red currants. This is their origin, but the gardener would hardly recognise their wild, scraggy nature growing in the gloom of the hazel coppice and in the murk of February. None-the-less the birds will keep them in mind when the fruit is ripe a few months later.
Hazel fringes this part of Harewood and it is neglected. This is a species that benefits from a regular cutting down to ground level (coppicing)at around ten-year intervals. The two-centimetre width harvested stems were then traditionally woven to make sheep hurdles. These were transportable fences, around a metre high and two in length, and often used to manage sheep. Hurdle manufacture was once a thriving countryside industry and it still happens in a few selected spots, especially adjacent to wildlife conservation projects.
I first encountered hazel-hurdle making near Odstock, Salisbury. The hurdler was a part-time preacher, spending the winters in the USA and the spring, summer and autumn making his living. And a charming character he was, describing dormice as ‘dorymice’ or occasionally as the ‘sleepers’, and knowing all the creatures of that quiet isolated spot. He wielded his billhook expertly slicing the three-metre long hazel stems in a single movement before moving onto the next. Laying each length in a neat stack after the side shoots and end portion, too thin to be useful, had been removed. These brashings went onto a bonfire, whose smoke always alerted me to where he was working.
The thinner hazel lengths could be used whole, the thicker wood needed spitting. Then his billhook would be sharpened with a grindstone, the blade chopped into the stem’s end and pushed down the length to divide it into two. It was hard manual work, yet he’d done this all his life and the effort never left him short of breath.
The Odstock hurdle maker had a former to help build his product. The thicker stems were inserted into this to become the uprights – three or four or more according to the length of the hurdle. Then slightly thinner, but longer lengths, had to be woven between the uprights – requiring strong hands and powerful wrists, for the stems needed twisting around the end poles to 180 degrees to give the structure strength.
This countryman had established enough hazel woodland that he could work it all in around ten years, so keeping the stems to a perfect size. And the wildlife appreciated it as well. By clearing the canopy light streamed onto the soil. This spurred the purple and white-flowered violets and the multitude of woodland-loving primroses into renewed vigour and exuberant flowering. The fresh leaves, plus the ample nectar and pollen the multitude of species produced gave sustenance to butterflies, moths and an abundance of other invertebrates. These, in turn, fed the warblers and flycatcher birds, and then the sparrow hawk that called this woodland home.
Hazel and other types of coppicing is an important conservation tool. However, it is seldom economically viable unless grants are available.
Split hazel hurdle making
At this time of the year, Harewood’s ground flora is limited. The drifts of snowdrops, garden escapees, are showing the last of their delicate white flowers. Of the native plants, only Dog’s Mercury is showing much sign of life. This is a plant with roving rhizomes below ground that allow it to spread far and wide when conditions suit it. It can be a pest in gardens, thriving in the semi-shade beneath shrubs and needing constant weeding to keep it under control. Here, in the woodland, its dark-green leaves can pick up the limited light that reaches the floor and enables it to be amongst the first flowering plants. Not that the uninitiated walker will notice, for the flowers are not showy. Being wind-pollinated they require no flamboyant petals and their separate male and female flowers are almost the same colour as the leaves. It is a plant that needs close inspection.
Dog’s Mercury, Mercurialis perennis to give it its scientific name, only covers the ground in alkaline ancient woodlands, that it is found here in abundance tells us that this is indeed a place that has never been ploughed. This woodland was here well before humans came along.
Dog’s mercury, like most plants, is highly poisonous. If its leaves are consumed, symptoms of poisoning appear within a few hours: they can include vomiting, pain, gastric and kidney inflammation. The first-known account of this phenomenon probably dates from 1693, when a family of five became seriously ill from eating the plant (after boiling and frying it); one of the children died some days later. So, I’ll not be tasting it!
Harewood is not named because of the hares that do occasionally frequent it, but probably from the grey trunks of the oak trees that are dotted between the hazel. ‘Hoare’ (or ‘hore’) in old English means grey – this forest was inhabited by the grey trunks of the English oak. Hoare Wood Forest became Harewood Forest over time.
Looking closely, one can soon see that the bark of the oaks is far from a uniform grey. A cloak of evergreen moss grows someway up from soil level and this plant often coats the horizontal branches. Green, grey or blue-grey lichens clothe other parts- with some being crusty in form and others like miniature antlers of fallow deer. The remainder of the trunk shows a distinct green tinge – a powdery alga that’s probably Pleurococcus. These trees are colonised from shoot tip to soil level with a multitude of organisms – epiphytes.
Around the forest, in many places, is a double bank with a ditch between. Centuries ago it would have been quite distinct yet today rainfall, animal digging and the attrition by plants dying and disturbing the structure has left it a shadow of its former self. This structure was the old forest boundary that went back at least to Saxon times (around 800 – 1066AD) and possibly earlier. This forest was once the hunting ground of the Saxon kings and King Alfred the Great, whose palace was in Winchester and who had a hunting lodge nearby, chased the native red and roe deer here.
For the Saxons, any forest was a vital resource. It potentially provided structural timber, from the oaks, the hazel allowed walls to be built, pigs would have eaten the autumnal acorn crop and the green plants provided a source for both herbage and natural medicines. Fallen wood would keep them warm in winter and some of the fungi gave them some diversity of flavour in their food. Not so the deer and wild hogs, they were owned by the local lord. Even today the deer are not available on the locals’ menu – the ‘sport’ shooting of deer (and pheasants) is strictly controlled by the owners of the land.
With clay dominating some parts of Harewood this material was the raw material of a local brick-making industry. Although today the clay pits are hidden away from public view, they still exist.
Beyond the hazel fringe of this forest is one of the sites of previous charcoal manufacture. I first came across this in the 1970s during a time when some of the oak timber was being extracted. In this location was a huge metal cylinder about 5m in diameter and around two high. The side branches, cut off after the oak had been felled, were stacked into the device and finally when filled, the top was covered by a metal cover with a central hole. By starting a fire, allowing it to burn away the oak cuttings until just white steam was emitted, and then sealing the opening to restrict air flow, within days a few tonnes of half-burned wood (charcoal) was produced.
Even today the effects of that charcoal making have influenced the plant life: it is grassier than any surrounding area.
During World War One there was a munitions factory in Harewood – presumably using charcoal. It is said that trees with a trunk width greater than 6 inches (15 cm) were cut down. So, today’s mature trees must be at around 100 years old.
While this woodland can be considered ancient, it has been used by humans for thousands of years and through that time has much changed. Today it is dominated by English oaks, with silver birch and hazel. The oaks have always been cropped when at maturity and much replanting has recently started – but as a monoculture. Other trees do occur in smaller numbers, among them are hawthorns, wild apple and blackthorn (sloe). The rich diversity of that original pre-human forest ecology has been lost to economic profit.
Today, garden centres offer bark products to enhance the appearance and fertility of garden soils. Something soil scientists approve. This is a recent development and formerly the oak’s bark would have been used for something quite different: leather manufacture. Andover was a leather producing town. Animal skins would be seeped in a water and bark mixture. With the tannic acid from the bark attacking the protein in the skins and converting it into what we call leather.
By studying the pollen grains captured in boggy areas, it is possible to say that oak trees moved into Britain around 8,000 years ago. As these trees established themselves they could outcompete smaller, less robust plants and eventually this climax oak woodland developed. The process leading to this potentially self-sustaining community is termed succession.
In other parts of the extensive woodlands, a diversity of trees occurs. For example, along the north-western fringe there are ancient yews and huge beech trees that are slowly decaying and shedding their limbs. Where a Victorian-built railway was in a cutting the spoil was spread locally and here is an isolated stand of sycamore trees.
After the First and Second World Wars, a drive to make our island more self-reliant in timber saw the planting of many exotic conifers. This can be seen here with individual Douglas Fir trees and coniferous plantations scattered around this northern part of Harewood. These trees add to the biological diversity. For example, one can occasionally spot the crossbills that eat the seeds that are found in the cones. The male birds in summer can easily be mistaken for escaped parrots – they are so colourful.
As the year progresses other plants will show their flowers. March will see the exuberant yellow of the lesser celandine – a plant that dies down when the summer’s dryness and warmth is with us. Beside these plants one can spot the white flowers and feathery leaves of wood anemones – a relative of the pasque flower, a rare native plant that is often grown in gardens. The white anemone is a reluctant seed producer and most of the plants here will have spread by their underground roots.
Both the anemone and the celandine provide much needed nectar and pollen for the emerging queen bumblebees. The harmless furry insects are joined in the woodland in April by bee flies. These insects with a single pair of wings (bees have two pairs) hover above nectar-rich flowers sucking up their sugary donation with a long tongue-like proboscis.
As I wander along the public footpath the ecology changes. There are now more oaks and fewer old clumps of hazel, so the dog’s Mercury is outed by bramble (blackberry) that scrambles over the forest floor but, because of the lack of light, seldom fruits. It is joined by an advancing army of bracken, although in February only the decaying fronds are visible.
Age and wind eddies have caused several oaks to crash to the ground. In their place, rapidly-growing silver birch trees have taken over. These elegant trees only produce weak wood in a rush to capitalise on the break in the woodland canopy and, as a result, are prone to fungal attack and have only a 30 – 60-year lifespan. This suits the lesser and greater-spotted woodpeckers who excavate their nesting holes where they find a weakness in any trunk. Both bird species mark their territories with drumming, that of the smaller bird (Lesser spotted-woodpecker) lasts just a second longer than that of its cousin. Being sparrow-sized, skulking and uncommon the lesser spotted-woodpecker is hard to see. Not so the larger bird that makes its presence easy to spot with its alarm call and undulating flight.
Being late February, the woodpeckers are seeking out nesting locations and their drumming is starting. Spring will soon be here.
Despite being in leaf for only around six months each year, the oaks absorb great quantities of sunlight energy in photosynthesis. Enough energy for a woodland square 12 x 12m to capture enough to keep a human alive for a whole year. Clearly, humans do not and cannot eat oak! But, that gives an idea of how effective they are at collecting sunlight.
The bulk of that captured energy is lost when dead flowers, seeds, twigs and branches or leaves are shed – 88%. Of the rest, about 3% is passed directly to herbivores as they feed and the other 9% is used in building the tree. Obviously, the bulk of the energy is passed to the decomposers, such as fungi and woodlice, on the woodland floor.
Some of the winter migrant birds are still around me. Not so the redwings and fieldfares – they have moved north, but siskins and redpolls are around. These two species benefitted from the cutting of oaks during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The removal of the timber allowed birches to grow and it is their seeds that the birds are adapted to consume. Other birds scoot around the branches – four species of tits, three resident finches and nuthatches. Tree creepers are around too; however, they seem to be in low numbers and rarely show themselves to me.
At the crossroad, where two tracks intersect, I enter a spot I call Badger Valley. This is the loveliest spot in Harewood. Soon the wild cherry trees will burst into blossom (early-April) and later their bitter-sweet berries will be on many birds’ hit list’.
Here there is more open land on either side of the footpath and, with primulas growing in abundance, is the place to find uncommon butterflies. Open glades are often full of nectar-rich flowers and attract these fragile-looking flyers.
Today the track shows signs of a vehicle – the gamekeeper is about, but not with a shooting party as that ‘season’ ended at the start of the month. Scattered through the wood are pens where the young pheasants (natives of Asia) are reared as semi-tame birds. The dozy birds are released at the end of summer but fed daily to keep them in one area – so they can be easily driven onto the awaiting line of shotgun touting individuals from 1st October. These are not street-wise birds, being only months old, and are killed in their dozens … if the keeper has done his job. And here lies a problem – birds of prey, foxes and other predators eat an occasional bird. So many keepers kill any possible opposition.
Badgers do not attack and kill pheasants. They are targeted by some keepers because foxes sometimes co-habit with badgers. The number of active setts that I’ve been told about in Harewood Forest’s northern section is far below the number I would have expected, and the sett here, in Badger Valley, has been inactive for more than a dozen years. There is more badger activity on the southern side of the A303.
The Badger Valley sett had its main complex on one side of the gentle valley with a series of single holes scattered on the other side. These other locations may have been used by a non-dominant female or by males pushed out by a pregnant dominant female. This February all the holes are probably filled with leaves and show no signs of badger activity. Were the sett active today the footpath would be flanked by signs of their feeding and with dung pits filled with damp black droppings. None are to be found.
I have previously found empty tins of ‘Cymag’ (Releases cyanide gas when dampened) by the local badger sett and the animals dug out a fearsome metal Gin trap that had been placed in their entrance. Cymag was made illegal in 1982 and Gin traps in 1958. No one can accuse the current keepers, but it is highly likely someone acted quite illegally in the past.
Metal snares have been used locally and have killed badgers. I have found a snared badger adjacent to a nature reserve in the past. The animal was throttled to death. The snare was illegal as it was self-tightening. The police were informed.
Badgers mainly consume earthworms. A place, such as this woodland, will not be rich in such food and most woodland setts are located where they have access to damp grassland.
Now the woodland gives way to an open field. It has been cultivated for many years and ploughing has shown it to be a very thin soil onto chalk at one end and chalk and clay in the distance. Now only the far part of the field is in cultivation, the thin soil grew almost no crop so has been left to develop into a grassy area beloved by the fallow and roe deer often seen here. I have, in years past, seen and photographed red deer in this part of the forest, yet their time seems to be passed.
By the year 2010, with no natural predators, the deer population of Harewood Forest had grown. Herds of thirty or more fallow could be seen here and it was surprising not to spot two or three family groups of roe during a short walk. On the other hand, muntjac deer were seldom noticed. Deer numbers were probably outstripping the woodland food and mainly feeding in the arable fields. Not so recently. Now muntjac deer are today the commonest species observed and the other deer’s numbers have been controlled by shooting. I guess part of the reason for that control is because of the oak replanting – deer browse such trees, so killing off deer has its advantages.
Muntjac are small, non-native, dog-sized animals and most often seen individually, so harder to kill. The only time I spot two together is when a mother has a youngster with her. Only roe and red deer are native to the UK.
Roe calls for warning and during the mating period – a sharp single bark with an echo-like repeat or rumble. Scary the first time you encounter it! The neat and gentle fallow, currently in their darker winter coats, are mostly silent although they stamp their feet to warn others of danger. Not that a single human elicits much concern and I’m mostly ignored. Muntjac females are the noisy deer in winter. The females breed through the year and the sound of one barking at two-second intervals, for up to half-an-hour, is common. The barking serves to attract males. As a warning, the muntjacs lift their thick tail as a flag and disappear into dense undergrowth.
The observant explorer will, by now, have spotted more deer signs. The slots (footprints) in the mud will vary in size from those of the muntjac through to the fallow deer.
The second sign of deer activity will have been on the hazel stems close to the footpath. While two deer species advertise themselves principally with sound, roe males mark their territory in the spring – and the marks are still there now. At around 2/3M above soil level, you may spot centimetres long scars on some branches. These were put there by last year’s dominant male and they also added their scent to intimidate rivals.
This open field is a great wildlife location at dusk, and the walk here often rewarding. Tawny owls are vocal in February with their proclaiming their ownership of this territory. Unusually, both the male and female call. T’wit (female) – t’woo (male) is the usual pattern. In most avian species the females are non-vocal in territorial bouts.
There is a contrast between the arable field, the grassy area and woodland surrounding these two. The arable field is stopped from moving through succession to grassland by ploughing. Work is carried out. The grassland is cut in autumn. It is this work that stops it establishing scrub vegetation, such as hawthorn and blackthorn. If left alone the grassland would move, by succession, to the climax community of the area: oak woodland.
If you explore the grassy field, you may spot shrubs and even birches trying to establish themselves. With light, wind-blown seeds the plant easily spreads into new locations. It survives in hostile, infertile places, even having root nodules in which bacteria fix atmospheric nitrogen into growth enhancing nitrates.
As you wander along the edge of the open field notice how the wind, light level and temperature are markedly different to within the woodland. This will affect what wildlife can survive here.
We will only have walked a kilometre, but even in late winter, there is plenty to keep a wildlife watcher interested.
A glance at the soil on either side of the path will show not only the clay and chalky nature of the area, but also smoothened river-worn stones. These are not sharp-edged, broken flint nodules, which you would expect in a chalky soil. When the chalk was laid down in warm tropical seas some silt arrived from distant rivers and mixed in. Over millions of years, the rain has eaten away (Leached) at the chalky calcium carbonate and washed it deeper into the soil, leaving the silt on the surface – today’s clay. So, when you travel through a chalk or limestone environment notice how the hilltops are often covered in forest – the clay making ploughing too difficult.
Nearer to the mouth of those ancient rivers, in times of flood, stones and gravel will have been washed down. Parts of Harewood have a topping of river gravels and these will influence the vegetation, often making it more porous, less alkaline, and so conversely slightly more acidic – allowing small patches of ling heather.
During World War Two Harewood was used to store munitions for D-Day. That required concrete tracks, which are now covered in humus from the decades of fallen leaves. Humus is acidic, and so gives another twist to the diversity of the vegetation.
The Middleway lane is now close yet one needs to keep an eye on the sky for buzzards and red kites often soar here looking for unwary rabbits and other prey.
I decide on a right turn at the lane. This takes me slightly westwards and, on the left-hand side, is a recently layered hedge. The mature hazel and other shrubs have been cut back or laid down and interwoven into stakes to form a dense barrier. Amongst this network climbing plants have thrived and bramble has filled in some of the gaps. It has formed a perfect wildlife corridor and dormice have taken advantage to move in from adjacent coppiced woodland stands. In December I spotted a compact breeding nest that had been in use during the warmer months of the year. Now the occupants of that ball of woven grasses were fast asleep, in hibernation until April, May or even June depending on the weather.
I encountered my first wild dormouse some years before. I was with a group of young adults coppicing a woodland to enhance its wildlife. There was snow on the ground and I’d taken a snowy battering before work had commenced. Then, one of the group had knelt to cut a hazel stem when he reported hearing a squeak. We discovered that the student was squashing a hibernating female dormouse! Even asleep she’d cried out. With a wet and squashed animal, I decided she required rescue. Happily, she recovered, became the star of BBC2’s A Mouse’s Tale, had several litters of babies before they were all released back into the wild.
Dormouse signs are difficult to spot, and I missed signs in this part of the forest for many years. For I have sought out dormouse-eaten nuts with their characteristic small neat hole several times, and had never seen a nest before in this area. That December day I had been lucky, and it is only in the early part of winter that nests are visible. Before then they are hidden by vegetation, and by January they are mostly destroyed by the winter’s weather.
Whenever I spot a new or unusual mammal I pass the observation onto the Mammal Society for it to be officially recorded. Such data allow distributions to be plotted and experts can determine if an animal is in decline or doing well. Happily, I have friends who do a similar job for butterflies, birds and plants.
One trick, when exploring a new area, is to visit the local library and view the historic maps. You will gain insight into how the countryside has changed with time. Woods are lost to development and ploughing, and some are gained by planting. So, I know that the fields on either side of this single-track road have been in cultivation for hundreds of years.
The field on my right is regularly ploughed; not so that on my left. With permanent grass and sundry herbs growing there, and open to the woodland, it is a feeding ground for deer, hares and should offer earthworms for badgers. Soon there could be a dozen or more long-eared hares rushing around the field – but not yet. Today they are hunkered down, resembling brown rocks. They know I’m crossing the field, heading up the slope on the footpath that leads to The Monument and another section of the forest. They are watching me, and I know that because they seem to get smaller with time as they crouch even lower to hopefully stay un-noticed. Once they decide their security has been breached they are up and off at a gallop.
The hare’s cousin, the rabbit, has been in fast decline locally. Indeed, they are almost exterminated by a viral disease that has badly disrupted the early 21st Century food chain. The cunning stoat, a daytime predator of rabbits, has lost its main food source and has vanished from its old haunts. No longer do I spot a buzzard with a young rabbit clasped in its talons flying off to feed its youngsters.
Rabbits are not native mammals. They were introduced from Southern Spain and kept in captivity as a winter meat source – only to escape and to colonise the lush, green, British countryside. Experts also say that the brown hares seen here were also introduced, with only the mountain hare being a true British animal.
We gain and lose animals all the time. While the rabbit has declined in numbers locally we are regaining some important creatures. The red kites now frequent the air because of their re-introduction. Polecats have a made a welcome re-appearance having spread slowly from their last stronghold in Mid-Wales, otters are again gracing our waterways and pine martens, while still rare, have a foothold not only in Scotland but mid-Wales and The New Forest.
This field is colonised by grass and other small, non-woody plants whose seeds have been carried to this spot. It should be moving along succession but is stopped especially by the grazing of sheep and deer.
It is always a sensible move, when reaching the brow of even a modest incline, to stop and view the scene. From here the extent of the woodland cover and the amount of the clear felling and replanting becomes obvious. The rolling countryside is pleasing to the eye and the diversity of habitats obvious: arable fields, pasture, hedgerows, re-planted and mature woodland. Each zone will have its own food resources and cover, and so an area like this should support a good diversity of wildlife. Harewood has an exuberance of moths and butterflies.
Oxford University has been studying the population dynamics of great tits in their outdoor laboratory of Wytham Woods for many years. The woodland is peppered with nest boxes and all the breeding birds use them, so set themselves up to be studied. Adults can be weighed and their eggs (usually around 10 or 12) counted. Cameras record the type of food being fed to the youngsters and the mortality rate at the nest, while in-nest weighing machines record the weight of the insect food. Young and fledgling birds can be caught and weighed. Indeed, their whole lives can be studied and the effect of weasels, who can climb up and enter some of the nest boxes, and the impact of their main aerial predators, sparrow hawks, assessed.
After a hard winter more eggs are laid as competition for food has decreased with many tits killed. If the spring is wet and cold the supply of insect food is reduced and more than average young birds die in the nest. If mouse and vole populations are low the resident sparrow hawks target more fledgling great tits.
Interestingly, if the researchers removed breeding pairs of great tits other soon took over their territories. They discovered that the newcomers had moved in from established territories in local hedgerows. They were sensible birds, as the food supply and chance of predation in hedgerows was not as advantageous as living in the wood! (Only 20% of hedgerow nesting birds produced fledgling young birds – compared to most of the woodland nests.)
The research showed that the dynamics was complicated, but, on average, the population of great tits in Wytham Wood remained nearly constant from year to year.
The life history of Wytham’s great tits (Parus major).
- Imagine a population of ten birds. Five females and five males.
- The five females lay 50 eggs.
- 84% of those eggs hatch, giving 42 nestlings at one month old.
- 71% of those surviving hatchlings escape the nest as fledglings.
- So, we have 30 fledglings at 3 months old.
- Only about 10% find enough food during summer, autumn and winter to survive to breed the next year.
- These 3 birds join with the parental survivors to give a breeding population at the start of year two of about 10 birds.
- The population remains stable, the non-survivors are ‘fed’ into the woodland food chain.
- (The maximum lifespan of this species is normally 5 years.)
As I enter the woodland at the top of the slope the difference between the vegetation to left and right is a contrast. On the left the felling has allowed light to flood in, while to the right the tree canopy absorbs most in the warmer months of the year, leaving the soil cooler, moister and, with more leaves falling, with slightly more humus in the soil.
February might appear to be a time when there is a lack of food in woodlands, yet that depends on where and what you desire to eat. If you dwell on the woodland floor your time of plenty is in the autumn and early winter. Because this is when the annual glut of leaves arrive – and they represent food to the fungi, bacteria and the invertebrates that feed on these. The deciduous trees have removed many of the nutrients into storage, yet the plant left behind a cellulose skeleton and these fallen plant powerhouses contain many complex organic chemicals that can keep other organisms alive. To see the animals of this part of the food chain the easiest spot to peer is amongst rotten wood. Peel back any well-rotted bark and this world will be reviled: woodlice, minute spiders and their allies and the white filaments of fungi. A sample of leaves and topsoil will also give good results if hand lens is available.
Collecting, drying and then setting light to leaves soon demonstrates the energy they contain; energy that can give life to other organisms.
Much of the wildlife diversity is hidden from view. A twelve-year study near Oxford of an area occupied by only twenty-one oak trees identified more than a thousand insect species. Many were small or lived in the leaf litter at soil level or in the multitude of crevices provided by the trees’ bark. It will be these insects that help feed the birds that flit around the woodland.
Mosses are often overlooked in woodland. Mostly they are living on the bark of the oak trees (the birch shed their bark too quickly to allow mosses to thrive), while some are found colonising damper spots on the ground. Amongst the latter is the haircap moss (Polytrichum sp). This non-woody, small, clump-forming, Christmas tree-like moss has such a primitive transport system for water that it can only survive in damp conditions.
Goldfinches, at this time of the year, eat haircap mosses and lichens and their roof and tree-living relatives.
Mnium moss is the one most often found climbing up the trunk of oak trees. In the summer these small plants look unhappy but now will show their leafy best and are worth investigating.
With the diversity of plants, this woodland holds the huge species diversity in the moths, butterflies and invertebrates generally is not a surprise. However, the wingless female moths that live here could even attract you out at night! In the depths of winter, you might spot the Winter Moth and in March and April the March Moth. In both cases, the males are the flyers and the ladies can only walk.
As you can imagine, ecologists love these moths. Using small tunnel traps it is possible to catch the females as they crawl up the trunks to attract the males. Their egg numbers and the numbers of resulting caterpillars can be counted. When fully grown the caterpillars descend to pupate underground – and can be caught and counted. Hence, the whole life cycle can be studied and the effects of disease, lack of food, predators and parasites discerned.
With cool temperatures, little sunlight and sometimes waterlogged soils, it is no surprise that just beyond the minor trackway crossroads few plants are showing any sign of flowering. The exception being the hazel, which is nearing the end of its season. The elongated catkins, packed full of wind-blown pollen when fresh and just opened, are now looking bedraggled and it requires a sharp eye to pick out the ‘female’ flowers. These appear bud-like with a pair of crimson stigma peering out to pick up any pollen that should drift onto them. I say ‘female’, although the purist botanist would rightly point out that the sexual cycle of plants is more complex than almost all books admit. Correctly, the buds I referred to potentially contain the female parts but are not themselves female.
Let me digress. Ferns, of course, do not flower. The green plant we see produces and releases spores from the underside of their fronds. These are made asexually and are spread by wind currents. When they land and germinate they grow not into a new big fern plant but into often minute flat leafy structures. These (gametophytes) produce the equivalent of eggs and mobile sperm that can join in fertilization producing a zygote. This zygote can then grow into a big leafy fern plant (Correctly termed a sporophyte). Spores never directly grow into a fern plant.
This life history is true from the mosses, through the ferns and horsetails, to the conifers and the flowering plants, with a few changes as we go!
Woodlands have a human history to them. We’ve mentioned timber production, charcoal and hurdle manufacture, now a signpost will lead us leftwards to The Monument, and human influence of a more aggressive nature.
Despite the time of the year, there are plenty of birds in the woodland. Flocks of goldfinches and redwings are especially common, and the many species of the tit family are out and about – coal, blue, greater, long-tailed and marsh tits all are found. Finches move around in mixed flocks yet are often hard to identify unless they wander into gardens and to the bird feeders, then their identities are clear: bramblings, gold, green and chaffinches with near relatives such as redpolls occasionally joining them.
Each type of bird has its own niche. With its niche explaining when, where and how it eats and so how it fits into its environment. The tawny owl’s niche is as a nocturnal, woodland hunter of small mammals and amphibians. Thrushes are snail-eating specialists and the tits fill different niches. Blue tits seek out their preferred insect food on the finest of twigs, their chunkier cousins, the great tits, on the more substantial branches.
Feeding niches may result from morphological differences among species. Blue tits are better adapted anatomically than great tits to forage from buds and leaves of tiny twigs because they have longer and stronger feet which allow them to hang upside down more easily while foraging than great tits.
In an experiment in Norway, blue and great tit eggs were moved between species. The results showed that their feeding behaviour is also determined by learning from their parents i.e. the young birds, for the whole of their lives, moved their feeding location towards that of their adoptive parents.
Treecreepers, also insect feeders, use their narrow beaks to probe for insects in the bark’s cervices, so do not come into conflict with those two tit species.
Subtle changes occur in some niches during the year and their body shape changes to reflect this. For example, the beaks of great tits become shorter and chunkier in winter as their main food source evolves from insects to vegetable foods.
While this exploration has been during daylight hours, I frequently walk it at dawn and dusk. Then the forest feels quite different! Not scary in the slightest, yet the sounds of the darker hours and the dawn light give it a magical quality.
At this time of the year the full dawn chorus is some way off, yet the tawny owls make their presence clear. Often, while standing at the Badger Valley crossroads, I can hear two different males proclaiming their territories with my own location the ‘no-man’s-land’. Tawnies pair for life and locally would hold territories of around 30 – 40 acres (12 – 16 hectares).
In October or November, male owls establish territories while females find nesting locations (holes or old nests of other large birds or squirrels). At this point in the year, males and females roost separately. The pair defend their territory year-round with minor changes to boundaries each year. As winter approaches, territories are finalized and pre-breeding behaviour begins with males and females roosting together. This is the time for courtship feeding, which is centred around the future nesting site.
In February / March their breeding territory should be well established, however, the pair still call out and make contact calls.
One pair of tawny owls nested in my own garden two years on the trot. When the female died the following year the nest site was taken over by stock doves. Presumably the new tawny pair preferred a different location.
Tawny owls hunt primarily between dusk and dawn. They perch and watch for prey, then use silent gliding flight to catch their victim on the ground, extending the wings to cover the prey and killing it with feet and claws. Occasionally they may use the beak to deliver a blow to the base of the victim’s neck. Tawny owls have also been reported to beat their wings to flush smaller birds out of hiding and into flight and then take aerial pursuit. They also fly over grassland, marshland, or bushes looking for bats or incubating birds to pluck from their roosting perches and nests.
At dusk the deer, especially roe, are less wary of humans. Now, if you avoid making too much sound and do not use a light, one can approach them closely and additionally hear the barking of the roe deer and their grunting and complaining as they wander off with their foraging disturbed by these strange human-like creatures.
Details of the route:
The walk starts at the ‘bus stop (Pisa Cottage) on the B3400 Andover to Whitchurch road. It follows the adjacent footpath south, turning left on reaching The Middleway lane and finally takes the footpath, left, across the field after about 400m. It ends at The Monument.
It’s all to easy to not see the woodland for the trees. We have been brought up with the idea that a woodland is composed of individual trees. That is not how ecologists see it anymore!
Research shows us that plants, including mature forest trees of different species, can join underground. Roots from individual specimens can fuse and soil fungi can also join plants together. Resources made in one tree can be passed to their neighbours. Birches can communicate with oaks, possibly hazel with dogwood.
In Africa it has been discovered that acacias alert others of the same species of prowling giraffes. Willows, alders, poplars warn others of insect invasion. Plants can communicate by airborne chemicals and via their joined root systems.
Gardeners, when planting a new tree or shrub, are encouraged to add some fungal spores to the soil. The fungus will develop links with the plant and it is more likely to thrive.
The forest is an ecosystem with individuals often aiding their neighbours by alerting them to possible attack or of resources available. Amongst the branches are a thousand species of invertebrates, algae, mosses, ferns, lichens and flowering plants. All form part of the forest food chain. Even the insignificant spore capsules of the mosses are eagerly consumed by bands of goldfinches. No oak trees, no epiphytic mosses and so, fewer goldfinches in our gardens.
An additional short Harewood woodland walk: March at Tracy’s Dell.
Snow has come, gone and returned this year – and it came late enough to disturb especially the migrating bird life. Residents know their territories and can eek out their food supplies, not so the insect-eating travellers from the south. One day the queen bumblebees are out and about collecting supplies to feed to their insipient brood, then next they are shut in by several centimetres of snow. Flies visit the open primroses in warm sunshine and the next are comatose. Insectivorous birds will have a devastating time.
Pits, like Tracy’s Dell, about in these woodlands. Some old clay diggings have water in their bases in winter and attract the amorous frogs, others, like this one, were dug to extract the chalk. When this calcium carbonate-rich rock is spread on the clayey fields it causes the microscopic clay particles to stick together (flocculate) improving water drainage, aeration and the ability of roots to penetrate the ground.
The sides of the dell allow anyone to see the profile of the soil. Here the soil layers can be seen as: clay topsoil for only a few centimetres, then chalky soil before we reach the ‘bedrock’ of white chunky chalk that goes down for hundreds of metres.
The short walk down to Longparish Village passes two plants of interest, the first is holly. The plant is not common in Harewood but one of the dominant species on the acidic soils of the New Forest.
The dark-green, leathery, spiny leaves ensure the plant is known by everyone and its dark-red berries are well-known in the period leading up to Christmas. Ecologically it is a valuable plant. Its berries, while poisonous to humans with six or more being lethal, are of great nutritional value to both birds and mice. They are consumed in quantity and mistle thrushes are said to guard their territorial trees. Wrens and dormice often nest there, and their accumulated fallen leaves are the hibernation places of choice for some hedgehogs.
Looking carefully at the leaves it’s easy to spot the fact that many are not pristine: they are blotched, torn open and have trails leading through them. Much of this is caused by the holly leaf miner (Phytomyza ilicis), a fly whose larvae burrow into leaves leaving characteristic pale trails or leaf mines.
Eggs are laid by the female flies in spring when the newly emerging holly leaves are tender enough for the hatchlings to burrow into it. They feed between the upper and lower outer layers of the leaf, growing in size and leaving their characteristic trail. Some fly larvae die, killed by bacterial infection, and the trail ends. Some are predated by tits, who tear open the leaf to reach their food, and others emerge through 1mm wide, circular holes as adults. By observing a few leaves the chances of a hatched egg surviving to adulthood can be studied.
Usually, in May or August, the holly blue butterflies lay single, white, spherical eggs around the tips of branches. The white eggs are laid singly at the base of unopened flower buds of the foodplant. Eggs laid in spring are typically laid on Holly, whereas the summer eggs are typically laid on Ivy. In good years, the eggs can be relatively easy to find on the foodplant and hatch in around 2 weeks. The larva is extremely well camouflaged and is usually a plain green colour. The larva is most-easily found by looking for damage to the developing flower buds, where it may usually be found attached to a neighbouring bud. The larva bores a hole in the side of the flower bud and scoops out the content, leaving a succession of empty flower buds, each with an access hole, in its wake. The larva leaves the foodplant to pupate on or near the ground. The larva spins a very fine silken girdle to attach itself to the chosen pupation site. Pupae from the spring generation emerge in 2 to 3 weeks, whereas those formed in late summer overwinter, so there are two flushes of the adults during the year.
Further along, the footpath is a colony of wild daffodils. The small size of the blooms and the different colours of the two flower layers is characteristic. They look a delight with primroses as their neighbours.
Plants gain nothing by having their leaves eaten, so almost all fill their leaves with toxins. Such complex chemicals are ‘expensive’ for the plant to manufacture and are usually only made once the leaves are fully grown – giving animals an opportunity to feed. Plant toxins are a security system … a bit like the one you have at home. So, would you have the same door lock as everyone else on your street? Unlikely, and so plants have different toxins – so, if one animal finds the correct key to detoxifying the poisons it cannot eat every plant. The poison in foxgloves is different to those in daffodils, holly or snowdrops. But animals have to eat something, so how do they do that? Well, there are three strategies. 1. They eat only young leaves before the plant can make its toxins. 2. They find a cunning plan to detoxify one poison, but that’s expensive. 3. They eat a little of everything and hope they do not get too ill. Small organisms, such as caterpillars follow option 1. Holly leaf miners follow 2, and deer follow 3. Isn’t wildlife wonderful?
Like all Narcissus species, wild daffodils contain the alkaloid poison lycorine, mostly in the bulb, but also in the leaves. Because of this, daffodil bulbs and leaves should never be eaten.
Wild Justice statement on gamebird licensing
30th October 2020 12:23 pm
Wild Justice secures an historic environmental legal victory
Just days away from facing a barrage of legal arguments in court (on 3 and 4 November) DEFRA has agreed to license the release of Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges to control ecological damage to wildlife sites.
Wild Justice mounted a legal challenge to make DEFRA review harmful gamebird impacts and introduce proper protection for wildlife sites and we have got DEFRA to address both. There is more to do to make sure this regulation is made to stick but we have reached the limit of what the legal system can do at this stage.
Wild Justice expects that a proper licensing system, compliant with the Habitats Directive, will require the following actions:
- Adding the Pheasant and Red-legged Partridge to Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which contains species which cause ecological, environmental or socio-economic harm (such as Signal Crayfish, Grey Squirrel, Ruddy Duck, Japanese Knotweed). This means that those species can only be released under licence.
- Refusing to license gamebird releases on or within 1km of Natura 2000 sites unless stringent conditions on numbers of birds released are met.
- A ban on the use of lead ammunition on or within 1km of all Natura 2000 sites.
- Further research on impacts of predation by Pheasants on threatened reptiles such as Common Lizards and Adders.
- Further assessment of the influence of gamebird droppings on soil and water chemistry.
- Further monitoring of impacts of gamebird releases on densities of scavenging and predatory birds and mammals.
- Monitoring by Natural England of a large number of sites to ascertain the extent of damage caused by non-native gamebirds.
Wild Justice said:
‘We’re delighted! And we thank our brilliant lawyers at Leigh Day and Matrix Chambers and hundreds of people who contributed to our crowdfunder which allowed us to take this case.
This is an historic environmental victory by the smallest wildlife NGO in the UK against the massed ranks of government lawyers, DEFRA, Natural England and the shooting industry.
Thanks to our legal challenge, the shooting industry faces its largest dose of regulation since a ban on the use of lead ammunition in wildfowling in England in 1999. Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges are now recognised by government as problem species where their numbers are too high and they cause damage to vegetation, soils, invertebrates, reptiles etc.
This move forward was only possible because of the legal protection given to the environment by the EU Habitats Directive (incidentally, largely drafted by Stanley Johnson, father of the Prime Minister). On 1 January, at the end of the Transition Period, the Habitats Directive and other EU legislation will still be relevant to UK environmental protection but each government in the UK could, in theory and in practice, start amending those laws. Society should be vigilant that environmental protection is not whittled away.
There is more to do in making sure this regulation is made to stick but we have reached the limit of what the legal system can do at this stage. We called for review of gamebird impacts and proper protection of wildlife sites and we have got DEFRA to address both’.
Leigh Day solicitor Carol Day said:
‘The decision to establish a licensing regime for the introduction of some 60 million gamebirds a year is a major breakthrough in regulating the impacts of these non-native birds on our most valuable wildlife sites. Our clients will be examining the detail of the proposed scheme very carefully to ensure that it fulfils the Secretary of State’s obligations under the EU Habitats Directive‘.
Media enquiries to email@example.com
- Wild Justice is a not-for-profit company set up by Dr Mark Avery, Chris Packham CBE and Dr Ruth Tingay
- Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges are non-native species which are bred in captivity and released in vast numbers (around 60 million a year) for recreational shooting. These birds are omnivores and their huge numbers can damage vegetation, fragile invertebrate communities and soils. Their droppings can affect soil and water chemistry. They may spread diseases to native wildlife. They provide abundant food for some predator and scavengers whose elevated population levels may then affect other species.
- Natura 2000 sites are those designated under the Birds Directive and Habitats Directive, and form some of the most important sites for nature conservation in the UK.
- BASC described the Wild Justice legal challenge as ‘an attack on shooting’, ‘vexatious’ and ‘deeply flawed’ back in January and pledged to fight the legal action.
David put some money into this legal challenge. He is aware of the damage seemingly done to wild reptiles and insects (eg butterfly larvae) by ground birds (including chickens). Clearly he is content with this start to regulate this practice.
Hazel dormice are not common in the UK, but they are slowly being reintroduced, with some success. My area is a comparative ‘hot spot’ for the species and I have found live animals and nests in the past. The nearest nests have been within 1Km, but species-specific nest boxes and searching for opened hazel nuts and nests have been unproductive for 32 years in or near my garden.
Until today! My autumnal revamp of the garden was progressing alongside our car garage, and, in a shrub I found two nests! One probably a breeding nest, the other a much smaller version possibly for a youngster.
The site is within 10m of out front door and just one from the garage. To occupy the site the animals must have progressed along a conifer hedge of large proportions.
The garden is rich in small mammals – we have long and short-tailed voles, pygmy and common shrews, wood and yellow-necked mice, plus the inevitable (non-scary!) rats. The dormice are a major addition and the hedge will be further enhance to provide as near ideal habitat as possible.
My wildlife camera was stolen a while back despite being padlocked to my forest gate, so this represents a reason to obtain a new version. Then I can attempt to film the dormice.
I said ‘non-scary’ rats. I first encountered Rattus norvegicus at university – a Skinner Box study during post-grad. ‘Sally’ came home with me after the experiment was completed and lived with Annette and myself for about two years. She adored hot (drinking) chocolate and once dived into a mug filled with it – soon to be shampooed and dried. She had a habit of running around our flat and seeking peel in our open fire. One day she failed to notice it had been set alight! She survived that too. Her main snag being her habit of nibbling woollen clothes when being lap-cuddled. Perhaps we treated her too well.
Rat two was Suzie. She was pure white, albino. Sally was black and white. Suzie had two claims to fame.
Once, we had some new friends visiting our house after a theatre visit. We arrived first and, as ever, opened Suzie’s cage so she could explore. One of her favourite locations was halfway up a white wooden bookcase. She could scale this with ease. Friends arrived, settled and looked around as coffee was prepared. SCREEM! A white fluffy ornament on the bookcase had just started to clean its whiskers. They never came again.
Episode two. We had an open-plan house and open stairs. Suzie regularly went up and down the wooden treads … but one day slipped and fell, breaking a leg. Annette placed her in her handbag and caught a bus to take her to the vets … the rest you can guess. Suzie recovered and enjoyed a contented life with us.
Other ‘pets’? Putorius the polecat. Poo, he did have a distinctive odour, was his pet name. We took him for walks on a cat’s / small dog harness. He was fearless of cattle and dogs. He bit the former on the nose once and dogs just were scared stiff. On one occasions he was running loose on the Salisbury water meadows when he encountered a grass (water) snake eating a toad – he attacked the snake … so we had the perfect food chain. Polecat > snake > toad. All three survived the encounter. Poo loved to go down rabbit burrows – bringing out the babies (unharmed) so we could see their development. They went back after, but Poo was always very reluctant to let us have the last animal he brought out.
Why a polecat? I was doing otter distribution work at the time, and gave plenty of lectures. A polecat was as close an animal as I could get to demonstrate was an otter was like. Otters were almost extinct at that time in the UK.
Poo lived half in the house and half in a garden run. He escaped three times. The second time he has caught by a gamekeeper. When I went to claim him, I was asked, “Ow do I no he’s yourrss?” I put Poo to my nose – he licked me. Otherwise he would bite! “Hees yourrz.” The third time he escaped he vanished.
One last Poo story. He would never walk the second half of a walk. Always needing carrying.
The Dorset Heathlands
My part of Southern England is dominated by a chalk geology. That results in thin, calcium-rich soils and a characteristic ecology. Much of south-east Dorset has sand and gravels beneath the surface, and these generate very different conditions.
I was based a few kilometres north of the walled, Saxon town of Wareham – in Wareham Forest. Morden Bog National Nature Reserve is just a short walk away. To the south is the (UK talking) huge area of nature conservation zone owned by various organisations, including The National Trust and RSPB – Arne RSPB reserve, Stoborough Heath NNR and Hartland Moor NNR. That joins on to Studland Heath NNR.
A quick viewing of a map will allow you to decide that this is not the whole picture. For, just to the south of these acidic soils is a ridge of chalk centred on the amazing settlement of Corfe Village with Corfe Castle. The headland at Ballard Down is the best location I know for seeing wild adders. On a divergent note, there is a steam railway between the Victorian seaside town of Swanage to Corfe and, when the railway is not running, is a great snake spotting venue!
The two, native deer to the UK are the roe and red. This part of the country has large numbers of sika deer, and you will find it hard not to see them at Arne. During my visit the mammals were gearing up for the annual rut – again, best seen on the fields at Arne (GR 975 880).
Poole Harbour is the second largest inlet in the world, and its southern shore stretches from Arne to Studland. Shipstal Point has good hides to allow viewing of the tidal zone birds and the sika deer feeding on the marsh. Brownsea Island, in the harbour, has a Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve with red squirrels. I have carried out research on Brownsea (voles) and Arne (adders and small mammals).
The forestry industry dominates this area and mainly grows non-native conifers, although Scots pine are seen. The valley sides and hillocks are full of sand that has a hardpan beneath, and that inhibits water drainage further, pushing it sideways to form Morden Bog.
Attempts were made in the 1960s to grow trees (probably sitka spruce) on some of the wetland. This was achieved by ridges and furrows, with the trees planted on the ridges. The photographs will give a strong indication of its success.
Recently a devastating fire destroyed a large section of the ecosystem, however the Morden Bog area escaped and looks pristine.
The fauna to look for include: Dartford warblers, sand lizards and the ubiquitous sika deer. With extensive conifer plantations, keep alert for crossbills. Newts occur in the numerous ponds, yet the one encountered could have been smooth or palmate. Adders are around, but kept out of the way, sadly. The flora is dominated, in the open areas, by heathers – Dorset heath is rare, but widespread here, ling and bell heather are common. In the bog I encountered carnivorous sundews, cotton grass and bog asphodel, plus the various sphagnums.
There are long walks and off-road cycle trails available, but few seats.
Parking available (free) at the start of the Sika Trail.
Arne RSPB reserve is an absolute delight. Rare birds, all the UK’s reptiles, too many sika deer and views across Poole Harbour. The reserve can be busy and dog’s too numerous, so chose a potentially quiet time. Free parking for RSPB members, otherwise £5. Food normally available and plenty of helpful staff and maps.
Two main trails are available, yet the vast majority of the reserve is closed to visitors. In summer the eastern trail is the more divergent with heathland, deciduous woodland, freshwater pools, with numerous uncommon dragonflies, raft spiders and amphibians. The views over the harbour yield sightings of spoonbills, various egrets, deer. Woodlarks, nightjars, Dartford warblers and 34 species of waders can all be seen.
The other trail transgresses an open heathland, home to the smooth snake and possible views of osprey.
Look out for two interesting plants: dwarf gorse, that grows close to the ground, and the thin pink threads of the 100% parasitic dodder.
This has most of what has been described elsewhere, plus large lakes and glorious sand dunes along the seacoast. The only snag is the beach is amazingly popular in summer, and parking can be impossible. NT members park for free, others pay a lot!
From the road between Corfe and Wareham a single-track road crosses the NT heaths northwards towards Arne. This gives access to lonely areas of open heath.
The Basingstoke Canal
(This is located in Central Hampshire, close to the M3)
Serendipity led me to this spot. We had an appointment in the ever-enlarging town of Basingstoke, and, having completed this chore aimed somewhere new. Having arrived at Odiham, a Georgian-styled town, we explored: finding beautifully-designed houses, the village stocks, inns and restaurants … and a canal.
The Basingstoke Canal is a British canal, completed in 1794, built to connect Basingstoke with the River Thames at Weybridge via the Wey Navigation. With the waterway passing through only agricultural areas, it was never a commercial success, and the last barge that penetrated to Basingstoke was in 1910. Mostly, since then, it has been neglected, and the 1Km Greywell Tunnel collapsed in 1932. However, that is not the end of the tale. From 1966 volunteers have been restoring the waterway and, today, it is navigable along most of its length.
It is the final stretch that will never be restored. Greywell Tunnel is an important bat conservation location, and the mammals will not be evicted.
So, why would a wildlife-enthusiast be so interested in the canal?
Two sections of the canal totalling 101.3 hectares (250 acres) are a Site of Special Scientific Interest and Nature Conservation Review site. These are the main length between Greywell and Brookwood Lye and a short stretch between Monument Bridge and Scotland Bridge in Woking. It is the most botanically rich aquatic area in England and flora include the nationally scarce hairlike pondweed and the nationally scarce tasteless water-pepper. The site is also nationally important for its invertebrates. There are 24 species of dragonfly, and other species include two nationally rare Red Data Book insects.
I would care to add:
In places, springs throw crystal-clear water into the canal. In these spots the freshwater fish are easily seen – perch, rudd and pike, for example.
At either end of the towpath walk from Odiham to Greywell are old-English inns – The Waterwitch and The Fox and Goose at Greywell. Parking is free near the Odiham inn.
The canal is worth exploring.
As a bonus, on the walk one passes the ‘Historic Ruin’ of Odiham Castle. At one time this was one of the most prestigious castles in England.
A tour of the chalk landscape.
For me, this is a quiet time. The male birds (except the pigeons)are non-territorial and mostly quiet, although the UK robin is his normal pugnacious self. Butterflies have largely vanished to dust, while a few struggle on. It is the same with the flora, some show their colours now, while the English flush of flowering is history. So, we have to look for more divergent highs – the fungi are showing their spore-bodies and the misty mornings are atmospheric. The fallow, sika and red deer are gearing up for their rut, however the roe are past their mating season (May and June locally) and the muntjac females are sexy all the time!
I am hopeful of spotting bronze slivers of baby slow worms soon. A mating pair spent 36 hours in copulation in the spring and this female spends time near our wild hedge … so I will keep an eye out under some tin put down for them. Our horse-obsessed neighbour kept hens until recently (I’m told to eat the ticks carried by the horses), and these birds (with pheasants) are reptile predators. With the last hen’s demise I am hopeful the slow worms will increase their population.
About half of the Summer Meadow is now cut short, and that herbage is composting. The remainder is awaiting the final movement of butterfly larvae to hibernate at soil level before it too will be managed. If the plants are not removed the meadow will go through succession, becoming shrubby and will grow too strongly for the orchids and lower-growing plants to thrive.
Conservation is always a compromise. What do you save? In our case, with only a small Summer Meadow we aim at flora first, then insects. The seeds are not left for the finches, so they lose out. However, the ant-eating green woodpecker enjoys the short turf. Fungi find too little organic matter to show well, and voles have too little cover. Wood and yellow-necked mice do well from the hedge, mini copse and quantities of nuts, acorns and hedgerow berries on the garden’s forest fringe.
Flower borders still hold both pollen and nectar, so the wild bees are having a good time. There are wasps and their bully-brothers, the hornets, around searching out food. A day ago, I watched a common wasp stalking around and chasing, on its feet, a big aphid. It caught it and ate it while the green insect attempted to depart. The wasp won.
Yesterday, Annette and I joined Julie and John Moon exploring Sidbury Hill on the army’s Salisbury Plain Training Area. The Moons have a great knowledge of the area.
Sidbury Hill is a Bronze Age settlement situated on chalk. Nearby are (Superficial) Reading Beds of a more acidic gravel geology and these have allowed the development of chalk heath – a more acidic soil type that allows ling (a heather) and gorse to establish themselves on top of the chalk.
Some butterflies were still flying: small heaths, common and Adonis blues, meadow browns.
The extreme north-west of Hampshire is a quiet area. A place lost.
These images are of a walk from Linkenholt to Combe.
So, that’s a tour of what’s about on the north Hampshire chalklands.
Seeds are crucial to the survival of a plant species. No viable seeds and the genetic line will die out, although some plants (e.g. English elm) mainly asexually reproduce from suckers forming a genetically identical cluster of plants.
Seeds are a genetic mixture of DNA (genes) from the two parents, plus genetic mutations that throw in the ‘joker’ of new genes. Constant re-shuffling of the genes in a population (called the gene pool) is good, yet adding new genes is better longer-term.
The seed is an immature plant: stem + one or two seed leaves (cotyledons) + shoot (plumule) + root (radicle) + food store in the leaves or separately as an endosperm (in monocotyledonous plants such as the grasses or sweetcorn). Around all this is the seed coat, the testa.
Seeds start with an endosperm, then in the dicotyledonous plants (two seed leaves) the food store moves into the seed leaves which enlarge. Peas, beans and peanuts all have two seed leaves filled with stored resources.
(The white of a coconut is endosperm, as is white flour.)
Most books ignore the testa. Sadly, as it is the most interesting part! It is the seed’s protector and it controls germination. A seed germinating under the wrong conditions will be committing suicide. A waste of resources.
The seed coat is made up of several layers of sturdy, thick-walled cells, and in many plants it is impregnated with wax or varnish-like chemicals. Unchanged, this testa will stop water ingress and inhibit germination. The rate at which the seed coat breaks down controls germination. Seeds can occasionally remain viable for thousands of years (Egyptian tombs).
In arid locations, the seed coat is designed to take up water and rupture when water is sufficiently abundant. Sometimes, it breaks down when rubbed by water against sand grains. Gardeners can rub seeds against sandpaper to stimulate germination in a seed tray. With dodder (Cuscuta), I have treated the seeds with an acid (white vinegar) to encourage growth. (It didn’t work!) In germinating hardy orchid seeds, I have used bleach to break dormancy.
Oxygen can also be a stimulant to germination in some species. Presumably these seeds are in danger of being deposited deep underground, and the diggings of hogs allow them access to oxygen and growth when nearer the surface.
The range of germination stimulants is long, including light (lettuce), micro-organism attack, release of anti-inhibitors by other plants and time. Seeds of some plants germinate in phases and others need smoke to stimulate growth.
(Seeds come from a fertilized egg cells. As you can see at the end of the article, it is not as simple as human egg plus sperm! In reality, the plant’s egg cell is one of several cells that make up a female gametophyte, that has arisen from a spore.)
Above: life cycle of a fern. Note the two stages, that can live independent lives. Such cycles occur in all plants from mosses to flowering plants.
Below is a diagram of the ‘female’ parts of a flower. Stigma, style and ovary – containing the ovule (within yellow coloured part.) This flower has a single ovule in the ovary. That is not always the situation.
Below is a flower with many ovules with one ovary. The number varies. In the pea, the pod is the ovary wall and the peas (seeds) form from the ovules.
Seeds are contained within a modified ovary wall. Seeds + modified wall = a fruit. The starches that may be present in the fruit change to sugars when the seeds are ready for dispersal. (My yellow fruited viburnum and crab apple trees have fruit that never ripens to the red colour and are mostly ignored as inedible by the birds.)
Seeds eaten by birds mostly pass through the gut unchanged. If they are crushed they will be digested and die. (By putting chilli seeds in with a bird food mixture it will discourage rodents, who chew seeds, and not birds who usually just swallow. The birds do not taste the hot chilli seeds.)
Giberillins (gibberellins) are plant hormones release from the embryo when it becomes hydrated. The hormone works on the stored starch in either cotyledons or endosperm causing amylase production. Amylase is a starch digesting enzyme (Like salivary amylase in mammals). The sugars produced is the energy and raw material for growth and germination. However, it all is triggered by the testa allowing water into the seed.
Above, a diagram showing the complexity of ‘real’ flowering plant reproduction. Meiosis is cellular and nuclear division that halves the chromosome number to make gametes. Gametes (sex cells) combine to form a zygote and to grow to form the next generation via the seed.
In flowering plants the gamete-producing stages are held within the ‘normal’ green plant.
A section through the mid-rib of an Acer plant.
A section through the mid-rib of an Acer plant.
The mid-rib is the central support of a leaf and has both structural support and the transport (vascular) tissues.
The cells are visible as they have firm cellulose walls which hold their shape (provided they are water-filled).
You will notice the cells vary in design with smaller cells on the surface (epidermal cells) and some larger ones inside.
The central core of the mid-rib contains the main veins, with xylem (water transport) and phloem (organic transport – sugars, amino acids and hormones).
Those cells that appear to have thicker walls are some of the support tissues, holding the leaf in a position to enable effective light capture.
On either side are the flat parts of the leaf – the leaf lamina.
Part of a leaf lamina. This shows a small leaf vein and the lower epidermis.
The big red-coloured (they are stained and not naturally this colour) cells are xylem. They have their cellulose cell walls filled with water-proofing lignin. Beneath the two large xylems is a patch of green-coloured cells (also stained). These small cells, with cellulose walls, are the phloem.
Green-stained cells containing red dots are the main photosynthetic cells – chlorenchyma. The red dots are chloroplasts, the organelles that carry out the light capture and production of glucose.
You know the formula!
6CO2 + 6H2O + light energy = C6H12O6 + 6O2 + some waste heat.
Carbon dioxide combines with water, if suitably activated by energy, to form carbohydrates with the release of oxygen.
Here you can see from the upper epidermis down to the lower epidermis. Between are the chlorenchyma cells – long thin ones at the surface and more irregular one below. The irregular shaped ones allowing gases to move (diffuse) between them.
Upper epidermal cells usually have thicker walls and a surface layer of wax (lipid or fats) to reduce water loss.
Epidermal cells contain the leaf’s toxins.
A single stoma (plural, stomata) with a hole in the middle of variable width and two guard cells containing chloroplasts. These mainly occur on the lower surface and allow gas exchange into and out of the lamina. They can open and close to control flow.
Above, vertical section through a leaf with stomata visible with their guard cells.
The red structure is a leaf hair. These are mostly used for protection against water loss in that they reduce the diffusion of water vapour to the environment. They are especially common on the leaves of plants living in dry locations.
A section through a heather leaf. This is living in dry conditions, so has thicker epidermal cells with (look carefully) a thick waxy surface. Small leaves are an adaptation to reduce water loss.
A section through a growing shoot. You should notice the young leaves developing and dense areas of rapid cell division. The small dots are nuclei.
Chromosomes! Can you see the darkly staining nuclei in the cells and some are dividing, showing the chromosomes.
Hope you liked that! Feed back appreciated!!!!!
Plants are well adapted to life, part 1.
David Beeson, August 2020
Annuals, biennials and perennials
Evolution, through Natural Selection (Survival of the Fittest), is a powerful force. Death does that! If a plant’s strategy is poor, it dies and fails to pass on its genes. On the other hand, if it gets everything perfect, it will have many viable offspring and its genes are not only passed on but multiplied. And, that’s the aim of life.
Annual plants are often agricultural weeds, or plants surviving alongside soil disturbers such as pigs or badgers or rabbits. They germinate in the spring, flower and seed during that year, and die when adverse weather conditions hit them. The parent plant might have died, yet its progeny will have over-winter protection and germinate next spring when adverse conditions are past.
Garden centres are full of annuals in the spring – but put them into your garden too soon and you will lose them all to frost. Poppies are an example of an annual.
Biennials have a different life strategy. Mostly they germinate in the spring, grow a whorl of ground-level leaves and then store their products of photosynthesis in their roots. In the late autumn, they cuddle down for the winter, and remain comatose. Spring temperatures and sunlight levels stimulate growth using up their stored starch or oils and proteins; they grow tall to have their flowers visible to pollinators, set seed and die. In the UK, foxgloves are good examples of biennials.
Perennials can be large organisms. They hold the resources produced each year and do not die back. Redwoods, oaks and eucalyptus can live for many years, and put on tonnes of weight. However, they too have their challenges, especially away from the tropics were frost, snow and freezing temperatures may persist for several months. Of course, other environmental factors can cause dormancy. For example, summer drought or extreme temperatures.
Perennials need well-protected buds, to keep the growth points (meristems) away from weather damage. This often involves having thick, closely overlapping scale buds that hold out moisture. Inside the bud will be low in moisture and may have added anti-freeze to stop needle-like ice crystals forming and destroying the cells.
Scale buds are best seen on horse chestnut buds.
Whatever the life strategy, a plant needs to flower early enough to disperse full-formed seeds. Genetic material that are protected to remain viable until germination time. Flower too early and frost could kill the plant. Too late and the seeds will not have enough development time to be viable.
In my local forest, Harewood, many plants flower in March or April. They store resources in swollen roots or bulbs so they can rush to leaf and flower before the trees shade them out and pollinators vanish. Inside a woodland, temperatures are more moderate than in an open site, so frosts are less likely and so allowing early flowering.
Many plants flower later in the growing season, allowing maximum growing time, photosynthetic resources and, hopefully, lots of seeds. In my garden the flowering peak is May or June for the flower borders and June and July for the wildflower meadows. Some plants only flowering in August, but they are in a minority. I have to selected plants carefully to have flower-power late in the year – Japanese anemones, asters and fuchsias … these being exotics, not native plants.
Our native trees and shrubs flower from February (cherry plum) through to July (privet). Non-natives, such as hibiscus, may flower into September, yet I doubt viable seeds will be produced before the first frosts hit them.
2020 had a wet spring, but lacking cold weather, and seed / fruiting has been exceptionally heavy. Our English oak is currently shedding a huge crop of acorns. The winter birds and active rodents will have plenty of food.
(At this time of the year, domestic pigs are released into the New Forest – called pannage. The hogs are keen acorn eaters, so reducing the chance of forest ponies being harmed by the acorns’ tannins. Pigs are immune to the toxic effects of the tannins.)
(Non-native plants will have evolved under different environmental pressures, so their flowering strategy will be non-adapted to southern UK conditions.)
We will return to flowering shortly. It is a complex topic!
A major article by John Solomon, August 2020
A guide to the ODONATA of the ANDOVER region.
Odonata is the Latin term for the insects more commonly known as Damselflies and Dragonflies. While superficially very similar they do differ in several ways. Firstly, Dragonflies are larger than Damselflies and when they rest they always do so with their wings stretched out from the body. The nymphs, the immature forms that live in rivers, streams, lakes and ponds, add another major difference in the positioning of the gills they use to breathe. Damselflies have three feathery gills, known as caudal lamellae, attached to the end of their abdomen. Dragonfly nymphs, on the other hand, have their gills inside their abdomen, actually taking water in and then expelling it through the rectum. If necessity demands they can eject this water very forcibly to give them a short burst of speed, perhaps to escape a predatory fish.
Being insects all Odonata larvae have six legs, an exoskeleton with wing buds and a hinged jaw. A characteristic of this is the extendable lower lip, or labium. This mask consists of two connected parts and a pair of labial palms, these end in thorns which are used to grab the prey. In resting state the mask is held under the head and covers the mandibles, but when striking prey the mask is extended by a contraction of muscles and bodily fluids, greatly increasing the reach. This strike can happen in as little as 25 milliseconds and enables the nymph to catch and kill prey even larger than itself. It was this that provided the inspiration for the Alien in the movies of the same name. While young nymphs might feed upon small water insects such as Water Fleas more mature and larger nymphs might take on small fish, tadpoles and even newts. They live in submerged vegetation, or even down in the silt and sediment at the bottom of bodies of water, and are prodigious hunters.
As insects they cannot grow by simply getting larger, their exoskeleton prevents that, so at regular intervals they shed the exoskeleton they have replacing it with a new one a size larger. The smaller Damselflies will go through 5 such moults but the larger Dragonflies might moult as many as 14 or 15 times. Similarly, the larger the insect the longer it takes for it to feed up and reach the state of emergence. The Common Emerald Damselfly lays its eggs towards the end of Summer and they do not hatch until early the following Spring. The larva then feed voraciously, emerging only 3 months or so later as adults, but this is exceptional. Most Damselflies take 1-2 years to reach the point where they are ready to leave the water and take to the sky, although this is dependent upon the availability of food. Larger Dragonflies, such the Golden-Ringed, can remain as nymphs and feeding up for as long as 5 or 6 years.
The timing of the emergence the insect is decided by the nymph being fully grown, but also the length of daylight and the temperature. When the insect decides the time is right it climbs up out of the water, often using a reed. The exoskeleton of the nymphs splits and the adult insect starts to push itself out. It pauses once the head, thorax and legs are free, waiting for half an hour or so to allow the fresh and soft new exoskeleton to harden. Once the legs are firm it then hauls out the abdomen. By pumping fluids around the body and through the veins of the wings the abdomen is extended and the wings reach out into their full glory. The fluids are then drawn back into the body and the wings and exoskeleton allowed to dry and set. This is a crucial period in the insect’s life. Not only is it intensely vulnerable to any predator but if the expansion of the wings is compromised, for instance by being restricted by vegetation, then the wings will not form properly and it will not be able to fly … and if it cannot fly it cannot catch prey and feed.
They leave behind the empty shell, or exoskeleton of the nymph they have been through their water-bound phase, known as an exuviae. These can often be found still attached to reeds around the water margins. This is the exuviae of a Migrant Hawker:
The newly emerged adult, or teneral, may not necessarily have its full adult colouration and patterning. Dragonflies are often pale green while the Damselflies offer a variety of different colours, the female Blue-Tailed Damselfly being an excellent example, and the insect may take around a week before the full, adult pigmentation is seen. This can make identification interesting.
With wings dry the insect now heads skyward to take its place as one of the most deadly predators on Earth. Their hunting success rate has been estimated at 95%, so if you are a small flying insect and a Dragonfly or Damselfly decides that you are lunch, then you are truly lunch. They owe their devastating prowess in part to their four magnificent wings. They can operate all of them independently through a wide range of movement, enabling them not only to fly forwards, upwards or sideways but also to hover and even fly backwards. Furthermore, they are able to execute a change in direction at blinding speed. To guide this amazing flying ability and pinpoint their prey they have remarkable vision. All insects use what are known as compound eyes, being formed of a series of what are effectively tubes, known as facets or ommatidia. These contain light sensitive proteins, or opsins, which respond to different wavelengths of light. In the case of Dragonflies and Damselflies there four or five different opsins enabling them to see beyond our own spectrum and into such optical regions as ultra violet. Each eye can contain up to 30,000 of these ommatidia and, thanks to their round structure, the two eyes give them a fully spherical field of vision. Last, but not least, careful examination of those 6 legs will reveal what look like hairs or bristles, but they are not. Instead they are stiff, hard spikes of the chitin that forms the insect’s exoskeleton. When it attacks its prey it wraps them up in its legs, which form a cage known as the basket, and those spikes help hold it secure. Damselflies and Dragonflies really are the dragons of the insect world. Unsurprisingly, the choice of prey will depend on the size of the insect. Damselflies will take smaller flying bugs and beetles but the Dragonflies, especially the larger ones, will take anything and everything, from smaller prey right up to butterflies, bees and other Odonata, including Damselflies!
As adults their main aim in life is to breed. To this end male Dragonflies will often commandeer a stretch of bank or reed bed which they will patrol relentlessly, investigating any intruder. They will drive away possible rivals but the insect will endeavour to mate with any suitable female that passes through, often quite forcibly. Damselfly species found in the area are not so territorial, mainly living in large groups throughout the reed beds around the local lakes, although the males are just as bent on fulfilling their obligations. The weather can be conducive, or otherwise. The hot early summer of 2018 filled the reeds and even the air with courting couples, while the rather lower temperatures and gustier wind of the same period a year later, in 2019, saw a much lower level of activity.
Male Odonata have two sets of sexual organs with the primary sperm producing organs situated at the very base of the abdomen. The insect transfers sperm from here into what might be thought of as a pouch on the underside of the second section, known as the ‘accessory genitalia’. During mating the male holds the female by the back of the neck using the claspers at the very tail end of his abdomen. If the female is agreeable she then reaches the tip of her own abdomen forward and up, so it meets the male’s accessory genitalia, and the sperm is transferred. This position is technically known as in copula and more commonly described as ‘the wheel’, although any observer will see from the shape the insects form that perhaps the term ‘the heart’ would be more fitting in more ways than one. The length of time the partners remain in this position varies considerably and has little to do with the size of the insects. The Blue-Tailed Damselfly is one of our smallest but the pair may remain attached to each other for up to 6 hours, while in the Chasers it lasts only a few seconds and can even take place in a brief mid-air encounter.
The fertilised female will spend most of her adult life engaged in laying eggs. Most species lay their eggs in floating or emergent vegetation, sometimes depositing them directly into the water but more often using a needle-like ovipositor to inject them into plant stems. A Damselfly will lay hundreds of eggs during the 2-4 weeks of her life and a Dragonfly, which may live for couple of months, could lay thousands. To give an idea a Banded Demoiselle was observed laying 450 eggs in one 45 minute session, while another unidentified Dragonfly was seen hovering over Rooksbury Lake laying at the rate of one a second for 7 or 8 minutes, giving a total of between 420 and 480 eggs. Normally the eggs hatch within 2-5 weeks although, as mentioned above, some species, such as the Common Emerald as well as some Hawkers and Darters, wait until the following Spring.
The egg-laying process is often a solitary thing for the female, but not always. It is common to see Damselfly pairs, locked together by the male’s claspers, flying low over the water in tandem. The male is the insect on top, carrying the female from egg-laying site to egg-laying site whilst keeping a lookout for anything threatening. Occasionally you might find a place that is popular for the activity and it can be surreal to see twenty, thirty, forty or even more pairs gathered closely en masse, the females down on the floating vegetation and laying while the males, attached to them, hover above. Although Dragonfly pairs will be seen flying in tandem this is not at the egg-laying phase but earlier in the courtship, as the male seeks a safe perch for them to complete the fertilisation. Once the deed is done it is very normal for the male to simply fly off into the blue yonder in search of another conquest, however, just occasionally he will stay with the female. I have watched this at Rooksbury, a female Emperor Dragonfly down on the floating debris and laying as her male hovers a yard or so over her offering protection. On this occasion I saw him drive away another male, a would-be suitor, so as to ensure it was his progeny that she injected into the floating stems.
Parasites are one of the most diverse groups of fauna infecting virtually every organism on the planet. As such they are a significant evolutionary force, influencing genetic diversity and affecting not only individuals but entire species. In the Odonata these are mainly Gregarines and Water Mite larvae with studies finding that individuals often suffer from an infestation of both. Damselfly females tend to be far more vulnerable to ectoparasites than males, but there was no difference between the sexes in Dragonflies. Territorial and larger species, which mainly means Dragonflies, also seem to have far less susceptibility than smaller species, mainly the Damselflies. This might, perhaps, be reflected in a greater annual variation in the numbers of individuals counted. When the insect numbers are high this provides a ready feast for any parasites, resulting in a rapid growth in their numbers. This profusion means that the numbers of the host species are driven down, making life harder for the parasitic species and causing their numbers to fall. The drop in numbers then makes it easier for the host species to proliferate, which results in a rapid growth of their numbers in turn. Then the cycle starts again running over several years.
Endoparasites, these are a group of Apicomplexan alveolate, classified as Gregarnasina or Gregarinia. They are large for Protozoans, roughly half a millimetre in length, and inhabit the intestines of many invertebrates, including Odonata, but are not found in vertebrates. They are usually transmitted by the orofaecal route but some may be passed from one individual to another during copulation.
Water Mite Larva
These are what are known as ectoparasites. The vast majority of Water Mite larva are parasites of aquatic insects, including Odonata larvae, the mite young attaching themselves to the underside of mainly the thorax and occasionally the forward sections of the abdomen of the nymph. Some species of nymph can resist infestation by what is known as melanotic encapsulation, by which the mite’s stylestome, or effectively the feeding tube, is blocked and the larva starves to death.
Dragonflies and Damselflies are insects, which means that, in basic terms, their bodies are formed of three sections. Their head, which is self-explanatory, holding those over-sized eyes, the crushing jaws and a pair of very small antennae. The mid-section is a large and solid box, known as the thorax, which has the wings on its upper surface, holds the powerful flight muscles, having the under-carriage of the legs underneath. The third section is visually its tail, stretching out long and slender behind the insect, but is in fact the abdomen. In the Andover area there are two species of Demoiselle and seven of Damselfly. While the Demoiselles are reasonably easy to tell apart the Damselflies often have a blue male and a green female. It is only the careful study of the different colours, and sometimes very slight and subtle variations in the patterns of the markings, which enable differentiation. For identification it is also important to remember that the long abdomen is formed of ten sections. As mentioned above the male has accessory genitalia. This is effectively a bag seen as a small bulge found on the underside of section 2, just behind the thorax. In the descriptions that follow there will often be references to sections 8, 9 and 10, the end of abdomen’s “tail”, where some of the minor but important differences between species can be found.
As a general rule Damselflies emerge earlier than Dragonflies and that is certainly so for the species found locally. They will start to be found in small numbers towards the end of May, rapidly growing the populations through June and into July, then gradually disappearing through August. We start with the Demoiselles.
The two species of Demoiselle found in the UK are the Banded Demoiselle and the Beautiful Demoiselle. Both like moving water and when they are found around standing water there will always be running water nearby. They love the chalk streams that run throughout the Test Valley and can also be found all along the Test itself. They emerge fairly early in the season and certainly you will begin to find them on the wing by mid-May. Most numerous through June and into July their numbers begin to drop off as you move through the month and into August.
They are metallic looking insects of medium size with a noticeably fluttering flight, often seen among reeds. The males like to find a spot at the water’s edge where they will establish a vantage point on a chosen reed and wait for a female to fly by. From here they will often dart out off their perch to chase other males away. In thick reed beds they seem more tolerant of each other, but the male will still like his chosen reed and expect others to keep away.
The commonest, one might say ubiquitous to the area, is the Banded Demoiselle:
Easily identifiable the male has a dark “thumb print” on its forewings. The female has pale green translucent wings with a “false white spot” towards the tip.
They can be found throughout the Andover area but are particularly prevalent at Rooksbury Lakes, which has a small network of streams running through it, also on Cow Common at Chilbolton. However, anywhere you are able to reach the reed beds at the side of the streams throughout the Test Valley you are going to find these.
The second Demoiselle species, the Beautiful Demoiselle, is far less numerous:
The male is immediately different to the Banded as the forewing is completely dark. I have read this described as a brown-black but, to me, it seems more a deep, inky blue-black. At first glance the female seems little different to the Banded Demoiselle female above and, in the wild, they can be difficult to tell apart. The thorax and abdomen are much the same colour but the wings are actually a translucent brown instead of green. Sometimes the sun will catch the insect at just the right angle and then she becomes lit up as a surprising gold. The one way to be sure, unless you are lucky enough to stumble across a mating pair, is a reasonable photograph. Even if the colouration isn’t clear from this you will be able to see that the “false white spot” of this species is not quite as far along the wing, being a little further away from the tip, in comparison to the Banded female. This species can be found at Rooksbury and at Longparish, but the numbers are always rather low and always by the streams that run through. It is doubtless present along the length of the Test Valley, but access is severely limited so its exact distribution is not clear.
Moving on to the Damselflies themselves, unsurprisingly, the country’s four most common species are all present and correct, namely the Common Blue, the Azure, Blue Tailed and Red Eyed. All four are easily found around the three local lakes, but the first three also cope with moving water, particularly the small streams and gutters that are liberally spread throughout the water meadows of the Test Valley. The adults begin to emerge in May, although all three continue to hatch throughout the summer months, keeping a presence until the season draws to a close. The adults will usually live for around 2 to 4 weeks, although some individuals will be lucky enough to be on the wing for rather longer.
When these Damselflies first emerge they have very little colour, being an off-white, but this gradually becomes a browner hue. This is a female Common Blue:
At this stage of its life the insect is described as teneral. Over the next few days the insect will normally adopt its adult colouration.
Common Blue Damselfly
The Blue Tailed female manages to confuse matters so we will stay with the Common Blue Damselfly:
The male is always the electric blue colour but the female comes in two forms, blue, looking almost identical to the male, and green. However, the two can be easily told apart by a rapid examination of the “tail” of the abdomen:
As can be seen the male has the blue colouration wrapping boldly around sections 8 and 9, while in the female it is broken and concentrated where the sections meet. As the name suggests these are very common insects and can often be seen as mating pairs on reeds and other foliage, and also flying locked in tandem as the female lays eggs into floating vegetation.
The Azure Damselfly is very similar in appearance to the Common Blue:
As with the Common Blue Damselfly the female occurs in both blue and green forms and, again, the same broken “tail” colouration can be seen in the female as with the Common Blue, allowing the differentiation of the two sexes. As can also be seen, these two species are very similar. There are several ways of telling them apart, but with all of them either a very close view or a reasonable photograph is necessary. The first is known as the Coenagrion Spur. This is a black marking, almost like a finger, protruding into the thorax colour of both sexes although I show it here on the male:
The next is a marking on the top surface of the second abdominal segment. If you examine the above photos and look at the upper surface of the second abdominal segment you will find the second difference between the two species. The male Azure Damselfly has a clear black marking looking approximating the lower three sides of a rectangle. This is commonly termed the “beer glass”. On the other hand the male Common Blue has a smaller marking looking almost like a child’s drawing of a silhouette of a round tree.
The females, similarly, have a different marking on the top surface of this segment:
In the Azure this almost a wine glass shape while the Common Blue female has a much more robust slab of black.
The third difference applies only to the males and is found right at the end of the tail of the abdomen. This can be seen in the lower black circle marked on the above photos. The Common Blue has solid colour wrapping around sections 8 and 9, whereas in the Azure male this is broken by an obvious intrusion of black on section 9. In the field this often the easiest identifier to see. The mark on section 2 can be hidden when the insects land as they usually lay their wings along their length, hiding it, and the Coenagrion Spur requires a good close up view of the side of the thorax.
Blue Tailed Damselfly
This leads us to the most confusing of the commonest Damselfly, namely, the Blue Tailed. The male is simple enough. After emerging he first assumes his immature colouration:
As can be seen the thorax is green and the blue tip of the “tail”, the reason for its name, is very clear. Careful examination of the underside of the second section of the long abdomen will reveal a small bulge, being the accessory genitalia. This is the adult colouration:
So far, so straight forward, but the female adopts an array of different colours depending on not just maturity but also simple colour variations. She has two immature forms. The first is known as violacea:
This very attractive lilac form then changes to either of two adult forms. The first is typica:
This particular example still has a trace of immature lilac on the thorax but the similarity to the male is very clear, that is why a good photograph is desirable. Examination of the second abdominal section is required, checking out whether the male’s accessory genitalia are present, to establish exactly what the insect is. The other possible colouration for the violacea form to mature into is known as infuscans:
The second immature form of the female is rufescens:
As this example shows in a young and fresh insect the thorax can be a very striking raspberry colour. This insect matures, the thorax going through a more adobe colour, gradually assuming a golden brown colour known as rufescens obsoleta:
Red Eyed Damselfly
The last of the four species is the Red Eyed Damselfly. This is more strictly a still water species, preferring ponds and lakes, especially those with a healthy reed growth, but it can also be found along canals and very sluggish rivers.
This is the male:
Notice the obviously red eyes and the Coenagrion Spur, which can occasionally finish in a detached “full stop”, but there is another visual clue which is helpful if you are more than a few yards away. This is that the insect has no shoulder stripes running down along the upper side of the thorax. These are known as the antehumeral stripes and their absence can make it look almost as if the Damselfly is wearing a “Batman” style cloak:
The female is green and very similar to the Azure female, having the same Coenagrion Spur on the side of her thorax. The eyes do have a reddish upper surface but it is nowhere near as noticeable as the burgundy-red of the male:
The tell-tale for this species is, again, the antehumeral stripes. The female does have them but they are short, often only running a third of the way back along the thorax:
This particular specimen is an absolutely text book example, which is why I have used it, but I have come across others where the cut-off of the antehumeral stripes is nowhere near as clear, and even others where there is a very thin a wispy vestigial stripe running most of the length of the thorax.
If you are very lucky you might come across a Damselfly that looks like a female but the antehumeral stripes are missing and the insect seems to be a rather paler green, almost a yellowy colour:
This is an immature male Red Eyed and it will take him a day or so to assume his electric-blue adult colouration.
Small Red Eyed Damselfly
There is one more “blue” Damselfly found in the area but it has only been reliably seen and recorded on film once, on 25 July 2017, at Charlton Lake. This is the Small Red Eyed Damselfly. It is nowhere near as common as the Red Eyed, only beginning to colonise this country in July 1999. Its flying season is later than the Red Eyed, beginning in the second half of July and stretching through August, so a sighting of a possible insect at the beginning of June will be the Red Eyed. It favours still waters with plenty of floating or emergent vegetation over which it will fly, mate and sunbathe, making it difficult to photograph as it will usually be well away from the bank. I feel they could well be present on Anton Lake, at the town end, as there is plenty of emergent vegetation there, but to find out would require access to a boat which I don’t have! This is a mating pair:
As can be seen the similarity with the rather commoner Red Eyed is obvious and the two species are virtually impossible to tell apart without a reasonable photo. With this species, too, the Coenagrian Spur often finishes in a “full stop”. The differences between the two species are very small indeed and to try and show them I am first going to zoom in on the above photo:
This shows that the female has a complete and strong antehumeral stripe, and that the male has a small break in the blue band around section 10. These are the only immediately obvious identifying features.
Large Red Damselfly
This completes the “blue” Damselflies in the area but there are two other species resident. The first I shall look at is the Large Red Damselfly. These are widespread and common, according to the book, but they are nothing like as ubiquitous as such a description would lead you to believe. Like the first three Damselflies, Common Blue, Azure and Blue Tailed, they are not too fussy about their environment, being found both on still water and small streams and gutters. They like the presence of reeds and other emergent vegetation and perhaps that explains why they don’t seem to be present on Charlton Lake or at Rooksbury.
They are easy to tell apart by looking at the abdominal sections:
As can be see the male has only a red band circling the joining of the sections and broader red bands at the junctions of the last four. The female has yellow banding as well. The female variation shown is the commonest, being known as typica. She comes in two other forms. One has barely any of the blackness on section 6, being known as fulvipes, while the other has the blackness extending all the way up the abdomen and is called melanotum. Personally, I have so far only seen typica in this area … watch this space!
Common Emerald Damselfly
The last Damselfly known to be in the area is the elusive Common Emerald:
Apologies for the softness of the female photo, she was being blown around by the wind. This mating pair shows her more clearly:
These have only been found at Anton Lake, in what is known as the Tench Pond at the town end of the lake. Another species annoyingly described as widespread and common it is on the wing later in the summer, through July and August. It is not a robust insect or a strong flyer and it is only found where there is still water, preferring ponds or parts of lakes where there are thick reed beds in which it can tuck itself away. This makes it a tricky customer to see properly or photograph, the females being particularly shy. In fact the photo above of the female is very third rate compared to what I consider acceptable and I wouldn’t normally use it, except that it is the only one I have.
This Damselfly has a very different life cycle to others which usually lay their eggs, in submerged stems or debris floating on the surface, through the spring and summer. They then hatch and the nymphs feed up over the next 9 months or so to then emerge as adults the following year. The Emerald female lays her eggs in the stems of the reeds and other emergent vegetation towards the end of summer. Often they will not be laid below water level but may be deposited quite far up the stem, I have even watched a female injecting them into plant tissue near the top of tall reeds. The eggs don’t hatch until the following spring, the prolarvae wriggling out and, if necessary, dropping down into the water. As with all other species of Odonata the prolarva quickly sheds its skin and then starts hunting and eating. Common Emerald nymphs are voracious, and they have to be. In as little as two or three months they must feed up and reach the stage of being mature nymphs ready to take to the air as adults.
The fact that they over-winter as eggs means the Damselfly can colonise and inhabit smaller ponds which might dry up as the summer progresses. That is not a problem for them as the ponds will fill with water over the wetter winter months ready for the young to hatch from the eggs in spring. It also brings with it the added benefit of removing any predators.
I include one more photograph. Identification of this species in the field is made a lot easier by the position it assumes when sitting. Other Damselflies habitually sit with their wings either folded along the length of the abdomen, or else with them held out horizontally at right angles to it. The Common Emerald, very distinctively, holds its wings in a delta formation:
This is very noticeable, even from several yards away and, helpfully, both sexes do this.
This concludes the section on the Damselflies in the Andover area, now let us move on to the Dragons!
Dragonflies are larger than Damselflies and always rest with their wings held out horizontally from the thorax. Many of them are relatively large insects with powerful flight enabling them to easily travel significant distances. Upon emerging and taking to the air they will often leave the lake, pond or river where they spent their nymph stage of development to be found coursing woodland paths and rides. The smallest members of this family are the Darters.
The sole local representative is the Common Darter. Both sexes of this species emerge and first adopt a yellow colouration:
Apologies for the not entirely sharp quality of the male! The two insects look very similar at this stage of their lives, but don’t worry, they know the difference! To us the easiest to see is that the female has a clear rectangular panel in the middle of the side of the thorax, as circled. After a few days the insects take on their adult colouration:
The male adopts a strong red colour with two very clear yellow, diagonal stripes on the side of the thorax. These markings will delineate it clearly from the very similar Ruddy in areas where they are both found … not here, as mentioned above only the Common Darter is found locally. The female turns a grey-brown colour and as she ages displays a blueish pruinescence along the underside of her abdomen. The species is very common around the local lakes, preferring still water, but occasionally being found along rivers and streams in the area. They like to adopt a perch on an outstanding stick, twig or other vantage point from where they will ‘dart’ out to take prey, then often returning to the same place, hence the name.
Broad Bodied Chaser
There are two species of Chaser found around Andover but it is believed only one is actually resident. This is the Broad Bodied Chaser:
These are very much creatures of the lakes and ponds and are often the first Dragonfly to colonise a new body of water. They are one of the earliest on the wing being found in May through to July and often far away from water. Locally they are seen at Charlton and Anton lakes but also at Harewood Forest where they will cruise the clearings looking for small flying insects to devour. The female is often nicknamed the Hornet Dragonfly because of her and, in flight, the similarity is very clear. The golden filigree at the base of the wings is fairly typical of the Chasers but tends to fade with age. The female shown is young and the colours are strong and vibrant. Below is a photograph of another much older female, this time taken on 7 July 2018:
As can be seen the difference is remarkable to the point where you would not think they were the same species of insect.
Four Spotted Chaser
The second Chaser found here is the Four Spotted Chaser:
The one shown is a male but the female is almost identical. I have circled the claspers at the end of the abdomen and, as you can see, they curve slightly outwards. The claspers on the female are straight, otherwise the female’s abdomen is slightly stockier but the two insects are very similar. The only place they have been seen locally is the Tench Pond at the town end of Anton Lake.
Black Tailed Skimmer
There are only three Skimmers indigenous to this country, the Scarce, the Black Tailed and the Keeled, and locally we only have the Black Tailed … and I only have photos of the male. The first is that of an immature individual, which I include in spite of the fact that it is one of my earlier efforts and, therefore, rather unsharp, because this insect looks very different when newly emerged to the eventual adult colouration:
This is a mature male:
Again, this species of lakes and ponds but, especially when young, can be found well away from them. The youngster above was found out in the countryside near Longstock. The female is yellow with striking black markings, but not too dissimilar to the juvenile male. I have only ever seen a couple around here, one being up in Harewood Forest. As with the Darters their flight pattern matches their name. Like the Darters they have a tendency to find a perch they like from where they sally out ‘skimming’ low over the water, back and forth, back and forth until they return to their chosen vantage point.
These are the large and showy creatures that everybody thinks of when the term Dragonfly is mentioned. Showing no preference I shall go through them alphabetically, starting, therefore, with the Brown Hawker. I make no excuses here, I only have a female example in my photo-library, so here she is:
You are not missing too much. Just as with the Four Spotted Chaser the two sexes look very similar, the only giveaway being that the upper surface of the eye is blue in the male.
Their main flight months are July and August. These are insects of standing water and sometimes canals and very slow rivers where the water flow is negligible. In this area that means the lakes and we seem to be in a situation for this insect that is, hopefully, in the process of developing. For a good number of years the occasional one has been seen here and there, the thought being that these individuals were tourists visiting from some other site unknown. Then, in 2019, there were suddenly large numbers of them.It was extremely unlikely that all those insects were visitors. Insects don’t have access to the internet and so wouldn’t have read rave reviews and suddenly decided to visited Andover en masse. A possible and more reasonable explanation is that around three or four years ago, the approximate length of time it takes for the nymph of this species to feed up, a fertilised female came to the area and spent a few weeks dashing around the local lakes laying eggs. Since numbers have always been down to individual sightings it is unlikely that a gang descended on Andover so the most plausible explanation is that just one insect was involved. In 2020 sightings were back down to the occasional single specimen, which supports this hypothesis of colonisation. It will be interesting to see what the numbers are like in 2022-23.
The Emperor is officially the largest native Dragonfly and the second largest in the World, although more of this later! It is one of the commonest species around Andover’s lakes, preferring still water although it will inhabit sluggish moving water such as canals and very slow flowing rivers.
At rest this species would not be confused with any other appearing locally as the green thorax and blue body of the male is very distinctive. The ultimate diagnostic feature is the clear black line that runs all the way down the upper surface of the abdomen. The female can be trickier to identify, but only in telling her from the male as she, too, has a the same clear black marking. Often she has a green abdomen, in which case the identification is straight forward, but equally she may have a blue body, as with this specimen, then the differentiation is more difficult. In real life it is clearer that the blue colouration is rather paler on the female than the male. This species is also fairly easy to identify in flight as it characteristically flies with the abdomen drooping slightly downwards behind it.
It is one of the first Hawkers on the wing, appearing as early as late May, although more usually early in June, and continuing to emerge through the summer months. Late insects may even be seen through September.
This striking insect is a creature of moving water, loving the rivers and streams of the Test Valley. These are found all around the area so the Dragonfly is widespread but never particularly numerous. They don’t often turn up on Charlton Lake but are regularly seen at Anton and Rooksbury, along the Anton River and, of course, the Test. When I described the Emperor Dragonfly, above, as our largest Dragonfly I said I would mention that again. For me this is arguably the largest Dragonfly. According to “the book” the abdomen of the Emperor runs between 66mm and 84mm, while the same measurement for the Golden Ringed is 77mm for the male and 83mm for the female. The length of each hindwing is 45-51 for the Emperor and 41-50mm for the Golden Ringed. In other words the size of these two insects is so similar, allowing for individual variations, that it is impossible to truly describe one as bigger or smaller than the other. It also seems to me that the Golden Ringed is slightly stockier than the Emperor. Whichever way you choose this is a beautiful thing.
This is also on the wing from the beginning of June and will continue to emerge through the summer, although gradually disappearing through September. While looking superficially similar the sexes are easily told apart by the examination of both ends of the abdomen. While the female is stocky around sections two and three the male is clearly waisted. Meanwhile, at the further end of the abdomen the female is straight while the male has clear swelling to the shape.
This is probably the commonest Dragonfly around the local lakes. It is noticeably smaller than the Emperor and while the latter flies with its abdomen drooping this insect flies with the abdomen held slightly aloft.
At a glance this species can be confused with the Southern Hawker, but examination of the segment just on the top of the thorax, just behind where the wings join, reveals a clear “T” shape as circled on the male, which both sexes have. Don’t be fooled by the name, this species is very much resident although, as with a lot of British insects, their numbers are regularly bolstered by visitors from across the Channel. They are a later emerging insect, generally first taking to the air in August. Their exuviae, and the photo I have used earlier in this article is one such, can often be found hanging onto reeds around a foot or so out of the water. The Tench Pond at Anton Lake is an excellent hunting site for these. The freshly emerged insect will happily travel away from the lake for a while to adopt its adult colouration, and can turn up anywhere. As with many other Dragonflies the female is rarely seen, concentrating on egg-laying, but she may be heard as she lays her eggs into the stems of live reeds and other vegetation. Listen for the rustling and beating of her wings against the leaves. The male can be seen in numbers, especially around Anton and Rooksbury, patrolling a chosen territory and occasionally resting on reeds or even surrounding bushes. Often he will be unfazed by a curious human creeping over to take a good look at him or run off a few shots.
Not the commonest species locally but usually present, more so at Rooksbury and Anton Lakes than Charlton. This is another creature of the second half of the summer, emerging through July, but continuing to fly right through September, it is one of the last to finally give way to the chill of autumn.
As mentioned above there is a superficial resemblance to the Migrant Hawker, the visual clue is the two bold yellow markings on the front of the thorax. Called “the headlights” by Dragonfly spotters they are not only obvious when the insect lands but can also often be discerned in flight. The sexes can be more difficult. Like the Emperor, the female can have a green abdomen but all those I have seen have had a more bluish colour, very similar to the male. The answer lies in the second and third abdominal segments where, as with the Golden Ringed, the male is waisted while the female is stockier. Like the Migrant the freshly emerged insect can travel considerable distances from where they hatched to adopt adult colouration, and the female shown here was found on Danebury Hill Fort. Again, they prefer lakes, ponds and canals and the female lays her eggs into the stems of vegetation growing in the water, such as reeds. Listen for those wings beating in the vegetation next to you!
That completes the roundup of local species, 9 Damselflies, including two Demoiselles, and 9 Dragonflies, including 1 Darter, I Skimmer, and 2 Chasers. However, we are not so many miles from the south coast and South West area of England, which is the landing and colonisation area for species from Continental Europe, and it is always possible that something not on “the list” may turn up. Candidates include the Willow Emerald Damselfly, there is no reason why the Ruddy Darter might not find a home here and the Lesser Emperor Dragonfly has been recorded as far afield as Gloucester, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and even Orkney. Keep your eyes open, always have a camera with you and … good hunting!
August always feels a quiet month to me. Yes, the wood pigeons are still flirting and the stock doves singing their cooing lullaby, yet the other birds are back into their teenage groups and flittering around the trees and shrubs.
Gulls are around here in never-seen-before numbers, and flocks fly in to roost on our industrial estate’s roofs nightly.
Bird breeding success has been poor here. The goldfinches built and went elsewhere. Various tits built in our provided boxes, although one pair never laid and one other family were discovered dried out like Egyptian mummies. Harewood’s oaks had a lack of caterpillars during the crucial feeding period and this may be the reason for the poor reproductive rate. I doubt anyone disputes global warming these days – one consequent is that oaks and other trees can synthesise their tannin toxin faster – killing off the insect larvae. No free meat, no breeding success for the insect-consuming birds. Guess the more vegetarian finches & pigeons have done okay.
Our grassland butterflies have laid their eggs and perished. The meadow is strangely quiet with just a few whites enjoying the remains of the summer’s glut of nectar.
Bees are still active. The bumbles, the solitaries and the miniatures still go about their nectar collecting, often in ways that circumvent the plant. But, that’s the plant’s fault – the ones I’m watching are exotic plants and should not be here. Their specific pollinators do not exist and our native bees cannot let those Joules (Calories) of energy go to waste.
The bumbles insert their tongues between the petals and sepals of the physostegia and extract the nectar totally bypassing the stigmas and anthers. A clever ploy I have never seen before. With the Lobelia cardinalis, they are attacked by drilling holes through the petals near the sugar supply, and the tongue can reach the normally unreachable in that divergent manner. Of honey bees I see little, as they seem to need urgently collect water to cool the hive and they have ignored our flowering plants.
With the warmth, hornets were expected but have been absent. Just an occasional one being spotted … so far, no invasive types.
A wasp spider has moved into the meadow. They come and go, not being consistently around each year. The big females appear willing to tackle any prey.
I measured the heights of our wild cherry and walnut trees recently. I did the two species together as they are the same height! All are 28m, with the textbooks stating 25 is a maximum height. Someone is wrong.
The cherry trees fruited well and the cherry stones have been spread far and wide. Walnut fruits are maturing and falling, with the glut due during the next month.
The wild fruit will be amazing here soon. Hawthorn, sloe, elderberries, dogwoods and hazel looks wonderful. Winter birds, dormice and other fruit eaters will have a great autumn.
Firstly, some questions. Now, no cheating and you really should write down the answers.
Question one. (An easy one to give you confidence) Does nectar contain dilute honey?
Question two. Are nectar and honey of the same composition, even if honey has less water?
Question three. Where is nectar made? (Precision needed here!)
Question four. How does it get out of the plant?
Question five. Does nectar protect the plant?
Question six. Do non-flowering plants such as ferns make nectar?
Question seven. With floral nectaries, where are most located?
Now, that was not too difficult. The answers are in the script, so no need to send in your responses for me to mark.
Nectar is a sweet exudation from a plant. Not all flowering plants do produce it, for example wind pollinated plants often lack nectaries, as do magnolias and conifers. Surprisingly, the fluid can be produced anywhere – flowers, leaves, stems and even, it is said, roots. Other similar structures can produce oils, for example in Lavandula and Mediterranean species, and insect attracting scents.
The base of the stamens are the most likely location for them in a cabbage-family flower, although they occur at the base of sepals, petals and carpels.
Nectar is a sweet carbohydrate mixture with the main ingredient, apart from water, sucrose (Common table sugar) although small quantities of glucose, fructose and traces of protein may be present. The stomach enzymes of honeybees converts the sucrose to glucose and fructose (A mixture often termed invert sugar). So, nectar and honey are different in that the chemical composition is revered.
Nectar is made in epidermal (surface layer) cells and pushed out through modified stomata. Production can be stimulated by the vibrations caused by foraging insects, land mammals or bats.
Nectar-filled spurs are found in many orchids and only accessed by long-tounged insects.
Floral nectaries co-evolved with insects. Larval stages of many flies and butterflies require body-building proteins and fats to grow. Once mature most do not grow or live long lives, so they only need energy supplies, and these can come from the sugars secreted by plants. Baby butterflies often eat plants, adults take nectar.
Here, at Forest Edge, many of the larger bumblebees cannot squeeze into flowers and access the nectar, so cut holes and rob the plant without dispersing the pollen. Their problem is that the tongue lengths of bee species varies, so are not suited to all flower designs … so cheat! We have honeybees, bumbles and solitary bees such as Davies’ mining bees, also the miniscule common masked bee that is only 5mm long and nests in holes in wood. Physostegia is the common masked bees’ favourite flower.
I’m sure you have noted that bees do not spend their time in a single bloom, but constantly go from one to the next. This is clever plant behaviour, delivering miniscule quantities that takes time to restock – so enhancing the chance of pollen transfer.
To my surprise I found that ferns produce nectar. They, like plenty of other flowering plants, use the free sugars to attract insects that remove insect parasites from them. One African acacia grows holed galls in which nectar is produced and the ants nest. When animals browse the plant, the ants rush out to sting the opposition.
The guttation seen especially well in tropical (house) orchids is a type of nectar secretion. Pitcher plants produce the chemical below the lip to encourage risky insect behaviour and the sticky glue of sundews could be produced by modified nectary cells.
July 18th 2020
As much as many of us enjoy seeing and recording wildlife we need to engage others – especially young people. Big Butterfly Count and RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch are following that approach although the oldies tend to dominate. I do not believe the results are taken really seriously as the sampling is not regulated. Yet, I’m not knocking them as they do encourage involvement.
Some of my grandchildren descended this weekend from London and aquatic ecology was on my agenda.
The garage was set out as a laboratory and a professional water net had been purchased.
Initially my small pond was sampled: some dragonfly nymphs, two types of snails and myriads of waterflea-type organisms. Not a great catch, but we only had a minimal volume to search through – which did keep interest for long enough.
Phase two was a local chalk stream, shallow enough that fun could be had and safety was not an issue. Kick samples of the gravel bed and amongst weed was well received.
And back home for sorting.
This time the catch was more divergent: bullhead fish, a miniature minnow, plenty of caddisfly larvae, may and stonefly nymphs, wonderfully interesting planarians, a few fly larvae and water beetles. A chance to view an alga (Spirogyra) and to see its cells was lovely addition.
I was lucky. The children were enthusiastic and absorbed plenty of new information and observed the diversity of life.
If you have never encountered planarians, do investigate them. Their mouth is mid-way along the body and is both mouth and anus … no through gut. If you cut the head in half it grows two heads, with the world record 64 heads on one planarian. Cut in half and the head section grows a new tail and the tail a head … and much more.