Category Archives: Arachnids

Welcome house guests

One day in the summer I noticed a crane fly sitting on the outside of a window so I grabbed my camera with the macro lens and went on a bug hunt round the house. And these are the beasties I found lurking:

Male house spider, Tegenaria gigantea, with a glint in his eye

It was a murky day so the pictures I took in the house required the flash, so I experimented with the flash power, the ISO, and used the smallest aperture I could to maximise the depth of field (DOF). The ones I took through the window didn’t require the flash, but I kept the ISO higher, again so I could maximise the DOF:

Crane fly or daddy longlegs, Tipula paludosa, revealing one of the more bizarre head designs in the animal kingdom

On the same window as the crane fly were a number of garden spiders (Araneus diadematus) including this male:

The same male garden spider wrapping up a hoverfly

The crane fly was playing a dangerous game running the gauntlet of the garden spiders but it managed to avoid getting eaten. The garden spider above was on the window for weeks and was rather larger at the end, demonstrating that ambush predation is a highly successful strategy when combined with a sophisticated web to ensnare the prey.

Female oak bush cricket, Meconema thalassinum

It’s not uncommon in the summer for oak bush crickets to appear in the house and there’s no mistaking this creature. the one here is a female which is immediately apparent from her long ovipositor protruding from the back end. They are common all over the south of England and are carnivorous, feeding on small insects, so they’re welcome in the house.

And another carnivore which I’m happy to provide accommodation for is the daddy long legs spider:

Daddy long legs spider, Pholcus phalangioides, with a few of her many offspring

The daddy long legs spider looks so delicate but is a voracious predator and will catch and eat the much chunkier house spider as well as its siblings!

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Spiders, dragons, damsels and reptiles

During my trip to Scotland earlier in the year with my friend we stayed at Boat of Garten in Speyside which is close by Loch Garten in the Abernethy Forest, the primary location in the UK for seeing ospreys. So, as well as the ospreys, one of the iconic ‘must-see’ creatures on my wish list was the pine marten (Martes martes), but we had fairly low expectation of seeing one so we booked an evening with Speyside Wildlife in a purpose built pine marten viewing hide. We spent the evening there with half a dozen other folk and a knowledgeable guide who told us all about the local wildlife. We saw a deer and a badger and then a couple of hours later, well after dark, a pine marten appeared and spent several minutes feeding right in front of us, just a few feet away. So it was well worth the wait! It fed from a branch right outside the window and it was a truly beautiful animal, and what struck me most was its size, it was much bigger than I’d anticipated. Because it was night time and I didn’t want to disturb teh marten there are no photographs, but if you want to see one there are images on Speyside Wildlife’s website if you follow the link above and browse to the Gallery. It was an evening well spent!

An unidentified, but spectacular, floating spider

The morning after the marten hide we set off into Abernethy Forest, stopping off at RSPB Loch Garten to see the resident osprey which duly obliged and perched on the nest. There were lots of other small birds, in particular siskin, mobbing the feeders around the visitor centre, but after the osprey we headed off into the forest on a dragon hunt.

We found a small pool in the forest but the weather was grey and cool so the dragons were still under cover, but a magnificent spider was hunting on the surface. There are tiny dents in the water at the end of its legs where the surface tension is being tested but is still holding firm and supporting the weight of the spider. My knowledge of arachnidis is miniscule so I sent this photograph to the British Arachnological Society in the hope that they could identify it, but they said without dissecting it they couldn’t unambiguously name it.

In the absence of dragons we decamped to another much bigger pool a couple of miles away, and as we arrived there the sun emerged and brought the dragons out. It got very warm very quickly and they appeared in their hundreds:

Four spot chaser – Libellula quadrimaculataNorthern damselfly – Coenagrion hastulatum

The four spotted chaser is common all over the UK and can be seen in my neck of the woods too, but the northern damsel is only found in a few small lochs – or ‘lochans‘ – in Scotland. Consequently I’d never seen this one before. It can be identified by the bottom half of the eye which is green, and segment 2 of the thorax has a black marking resembling the ace of spades.

And while squadrons of dragons patrolled the air, the suns warmth had also enticed out a modern day dinosaur who was patrolling the marsh around the edge of the lake:

Common lizard – Zootoca vivipara

And now the sun was out we headed back to the original pool with increased hopes of finding a white faced darter and lo and behold we found a newly emerged one:

A very newly emerged white faced darter – Leuchorrhinia dubia

This species is limited to just a few sites in England and Scotland, it has declined in recent decades due to habitat destruction, pollution, etc, etc – all the usual reasons why human activity is causing species loss. This was the only one we saw here and I couldn’t get into position to photograph its white face, but I was very pleased to see such a pristine example of a species I hadn’t seen before.

Dragonfly drama

Early last Saturday morning I set off for Paxton Pits, a group of lakes on the edge of St Neots, between Bedford and Cambridge. It was anticapted that we wouldn’t see much birdlife but there could be some inteersting dragonfly activity. And apart from a lone turtle dove (which justifies the trip on its own!) and a sparrowhawk, we noticed surprisingly few birds. But the Odanata were there in abundance with large numbers of various species of damsels and true dragons.


Common blue damselfly

I spotted this common blue (Enallagma cyathigerum) before I’d even got out the car. This one a male, was perched on a seed head at the edge of the carpark and there were several others in the vicinity warming themselves up in the early morning sunshine. At the other side of the carpark is the visitor centre which has a small pond outside and over the pond were a red eyed damsel (Erythromma najas) and another common blue warming up on the same rush leaf:

Paxton Pits are disused gravel workings and have been turned into a nature reserve that is managed by Huntingdonshire District Council with the back up of the voluteers of the ‘Friends of Paxton Pits’. If you happen to be contemplating a visit to the Pits, there is a lot of information on their website: (https://sites.google.com/site/paxtonpitsnaturereserve/home), and the reserve also has a blog where sightings at the lakes can be recorded: (http://paxtonpits.blogspot.co.uk/). The website lists all the Odanata that have been resident there and many of them were on display on Saturday. They don’t all emerge at the same time of year so it would never be possible to see all of them during one visit.


Another common blue damsel on final approach to land on a stinging nettle stem

The Pits are adjacent to the River Great Ouse and swarms (literally!) of banded demoiselles (Calopteryx splendens) were fluttering within 20m or so of the banks of the river. The banded demoiselle is one of two species of demoiselle in the UK and the only one in the east of England, and I think they’re absolutely beautiful as they sparkle in direct sunlight:

A female banded demoiselle perched on top of a nettle (I like the background here – out of focus brambles)

The other species of UK demoiselle is called the ‘beautiful demoiselle’ (Calopteryx virgo) and is found in the south and west but not the east. It is most easily distinguished from the banded version because the wing pigmentation in the male extends to the base of the wing, so it’s a much bigger spot than those on the wings of these banded demoiselles:

Above and below: male banded demoiselles

And the female beautiful demoiselle  has broader wings with a brown tint that’s lacking in the banded demoiselle. The male demoiselles were busy chasing females with all thoughts turned to mating.

But in the midst of all the the mating activity, danger, as always, was lurking in the undergrowth. This unfortunate female common blue damsel had been caught in  a spider web and was in the midst of a mortal struggle with the owner, which she eventually lost:

The male common blue was also caught in the web and was struggling to extricate himself. Fortunately for him, all the spiders efforts were needed to subdue the female and whilst it was otherwise distracted he made his escape whilst the female eventually succumbed to the spider venom.

A dragonfly larva having scaled a stem to leave the water will shortly burst out of its skin and fly off as an adult dragon

It’s also that time of year when dragonfly larvae are metamorphosing into adults. The larval stage of all dragonflies is aquatic and so they require gills or ‘caudal lamellae‘ to breath underwater, and these can be seen protruding from the end of the abdomen of the larva above. At the end of its aquatic life the larva climbs a stem out of the water and emerges from its larval skin as an adult, leaving behind its discarded outer casing, or ‘exuvia‘:

Dragonfly exuvia  – a dried out larval husk left behind on a rush stem after the new adult has flown

As well as the damsels, several species of true dragons were on the wing including brown hawker, migrant hawker, black tailed skimmer, and the grandaddy of all UK dragons, the emperor (Anax imperator):

Emperor dragonfly male patrolling his stretch of water against allcomers

The emperor, as its name suggests, is a whopper. It is also an aggressive defender of its territory, a consummate aeronaut and a ferocious hunter, taking prey as big as other dragonflies. It’s easily distinguished from other dragons by its sheer bulk, the apple green thorax and the drooping abdomen. I sat and watched this one for some time and he rewarded my patience by posing for a portrait on a stem just  a few metres away:

And after all the dragon activity I peered into the water on the way home and spotted this little chap:

A young newt

I don’t know what species of newt this is but it’s still so young it hasn’t adapted to air breathing and still has its feathery gills which are visible just in front of the fore legs.

It’s been a long time since I last posted so it’s good to be back Life should be generally less busy for the back end of the year and I’ve got lots to share, so hopefully I can start to post more regularly again!

Cheap and cheerful

Last year when I changed my old Nikon D40x for a Nikon D7000 I also bought a cheap second hand Sigma macro lens to go with it. I wouldn’t normally do that, but because of the attractive price tag I thought I’d give it a go in order to dip my toe in the water of  macro photography without upsetting my bank manager. Or, more importantly, my wife!

When I first got the lens I mooched around the house looking for small things to photograph and I didn’t have to wait long before a selection of arthropods presented themselves.

Vespula vulgaris, I also like this image because of the clear double reflection in both panes of the double glazing.

The wasp was buzzing up and down the glass of a door trying to find a way out so I practised my macro technique on it before opening the door and providing it with an escape route.

Even though the head is not in sharp focus I also like this image because of the reflections in the window glass

In this image the plane of focus has captured the wings and the head is slightly out of focus, demonstrating the narrower depth of field (DOF) inherent with macro photography. Tech note: DOF decreases in range with magnification and aperture, so for a given aperture the DOF will decrease with increasing magnification. Or put another way, if you need to open the aperture wider (smaller F-stop number) to get enough light on the sensor to generate an image, you may need to sacrifice some magnification.)

And while I was busy with the wasp a house spider appeared by my feet so I had a shot at that too:

Young house spider, a species of Tegenaria. Despite the size and speed, their bite, if not their induced terror factor, is harmless to humans

This individual was only 2-3cm long indicating it’s a young one and from the shape of its abdomen it’s a male. The female is bigger and has a more bulbous abdomen.

And on an earlier occasion, whilst fulfilling my domestic obligations and doing the washing up, this splendid red eyed dipteran appeared on the teapot on the kitchen window sill and sunned itself for long enough for me to grab the camera and snatch a few close ups.


I don’t know what species the fly is but if anyone is able to enlighten me I’d be very grateful. And it added an enjoyable interlude to the washing up too!

The lens I bought was the Sigma 70-300mm APO DG 4-5.6 macro zoom which can switch to macro between focal length 200-300mm. It has pretty solid build quality, it’s reasonably small (although it gains approximately 5.5cm in length at 300mm zoom) and is a pretty good little lens for general purpose zooming too.  It’s noisy and slow when moving from far away to close in, and vice versa, but as you can see I’ve had some fun with the local insects, and although I need a lot of practise it holds the promise of lots more minibeast shots. All in all it was a good ninety quids worth, and I shan’t be rushing out to spend lots of cash on a better quality lens just yet because I don’t think I need one. I shall carry on having fun with this cheap and cheerful one.

 

The Four Spot and the Strawberry

Regular readers of The Naturephile may have noticed numerous references to the loopy weather we have experienced in this part of the world this year, in particular the wetness of the spring and the subsequent brevity of the summer. And you may also have cottoned on to the fact that I have a spider fascination.

Despite the unusual summer weather conditions, later on in the summer and into the autumn I found lots of spiders including two species which I haven’t seen here before. Common garden spider webs (Araneus diadematus) adorned every surface in my garden in the autumn and this particularly nice example was strung between two hawksbeard stems in the local meadow:

Garden spider web bejewelled with dew

One of the most intricate webs I found was that of the labyrinth orb weaver (Agelena labyrinthica), they’re amazing constructions and most of them aren’t very visible until there’s a cold morning and the webs are laden with dew, then it’s possible to see that they adorn all the hedgrows and undergrowth.

The two species I found which I hadn’t seen before were the four spot orb weaver (Araneus quadratus) and the strawberry spider (Araneus alsine, aka orange wheel weaving spider).

The green body of the four spot orb weaver

Both my initial encounters with these little beauties were a little unnerving because I was unaware that spiders with these colours were lurking in my local undergrowth. The four spot flew past me at high speed when I snagged it’s trip line when I was trying to get in position to photograph a male common darter dragonfly:

https://i0.wp.com/farm9.staticflickr.com/8066/8155314987_f0c0087b41.jpgA male common darter dragon – non-arachnid interloper in this post

And a strawberry spider dropped down a few centimetres from my eyes when I was unlocking my gate! All I saw was a bright red bulbous abdomen so my first thought was “Bloody hell, it’s a black widow!”. So I ran to get my camera before it disappeared. Both of these were females and around the same size as a regular garden spider, but as you can see the colours were very different.

The bright red body of the aptly named strawberry spider

Another spider I found in my garden this year was the missing sector spider (Zygiella x-notata). I was intrigued by the name of the missing sector spider and it transpires it comes from the design of the web. If the planar, circular web is a clockface, the part between 11 and 12 o’clock has no spiral threads, so is effectively a ‘missing sector’.

The missing sector spider making a meal out of a cranefly

This particular individual was busy securing a cranefly and it seemed to take great pains to ensure the fly was maximally envenomated. It spent a couple of minutes running around the struggling fly, inflicting multiple bites before wrapping it up in a cocoon of silk and carrying it off to be hung from the window frame and consumed at leisure.

Back yard safari

A couple of posts ago I described my Fenland safari and since then I just happened to have had my own ‘back garden safari’! Lots of colourful creatures have been stopping by to refuel.

I’ve previously expressed concern for the depleted populations of insects, in particular butterflies and dragonflies, due to the mad weather we’ve experienced in the UK this year, but in the last couple of weeks there have been some great sightings outside my back door.


Common darter (Sympetrium striolatum) female perched on the clothes line

The dragons have been late to appear but since the last week in August there have been common darters regularly alighting and migrant hawkers hunting overhead.

And of course it’s that time of year when the arachnids are most in evidence, and my garden is festooned with garden spiders, there are webs attached to every surface: walls, plants, windows… everywhere.

Garden spider female, Araneus diadematus, despatching her prey, a small fly

The female garden spider has a bulbous abdomen which is adorned with the fabulous diadem that gives the species its name. The male is smaller than the female and has a flatter, kite shaped, abdomen, but he also carries the diagnostic markings. A couple of years ago I posted about the perilous love life of the garden spider, suffice to say the sex life of the male can be dramatically and terminally curtailed if he fails to show the lady sufficient respect!


This garden spider male set up home inside the bedroom window – until  the resident arachnophobre found him and relocated him

As well as the spiders, the occasional cricket strolls by, and this little chap was taking shelter under a sunshade from the unseasonally hot weather last weekend:


Oak bush cricket – Meconema thalassinum – the male of the species. The female has a long, upturned ovipositor protruding from her rear

The oak bush cricket is quite a small example of the genre, they are 13-17mm long and are carnivorous, feeding on small insects. They live on the edge of woods and in gardens and appear from July into the Autumn.

Also putting in a welcome appearance was a common buzzard, Buteo buteo:

The buzzard has been one of the birds which has really bounced back since the more stringent controls on of agricultural pesticide use were introduced in the 1980’s. I’d never seen a buzzard until I was in my 20’s and even then it was the occasional sighting in the wilds of west Wales or down in Cornwall. But they can now be seen over all of England – even from my garden.

Hoverfly – Volucella inanis

Hoverfies rarely have common names, they’re simply known under the generic name ‘hoverfly’. And V. inanis is no exception, at least as far as my research reveals. There was great excitement when it first buzzed into the garden because at first glance we thought it was a hornet due to it’s size and its yellow and red colouration. And it was a whopper! They can grow up to 15mm long and this one was one of the bigger ones. It eventually settled and posed rather obligingly on the edge of the rabbit run while I snapped a portrait, and it is a very handsome fly. It has an interesting breeding tactic too laying its eggs in the nests of other social wasps, including hornets – which probably explains its size and colour scheme – where they hatch and feed on the larvae of the host.

Comma – Polygonia c-album

I waited expectantly for this comma to open its wings and show the gorgeously ragged orange symmetry, but it didn’t. So I had to content myself with this silhouette of it perched on a cooking apple.

Turn of the century

After 20 months of posting this is the 100th episode of The Naturephile. The original plan was to post once a week wherever possible and I’ve averaged around five a month, so that stayed roughly on track. I thought I may struggle to find enough subject material and to acquire sufficient photographs of the necessary quality to post as often as I wanted too, but that hasn’t been a problem, so far.

When I started off writing The Naturephile, the idea I may reach a hundred posts never entered my mind, so to mark the moment I’ve trawled back through the archive to find my favourite posts to give them another airing. I’d anticipated it would be a straightforward venture but of course I’d rather underestimated the amount of subjects/species and photographs I’ve written about. But the number of posts was eventually whittled  down to 14.

1) At the end of September 2010 one of natures more brutal rituals was played out right outside my back door involving garden spider courtship. Like other spiders this can easily end up in the death of the male as it did in this case. ‘Araneus diadematus‘ posted on 2nd October 2010:


I really love you… . Male on the left, Shelob on the right

2) A little farther afield are dragon flies, the most common species I encounter are common darters and migrant hawkers. This Common darter appeared in a post on 19th October 2010. I like the symmetry of the fly and the seedhead and the red colour of this male darter against the brown grass.

3) A few years ago when my sister lived in a house (she lives in a kennel now. Only joking, she lives on a narrow boat ;-)) they were digging the garden and this piece of rock turned up. It’s an Acheulian hand axe made from flint and the marks on it are where it was worked with a deer antler. It dates from around 400,000 years ago which means it could have been made by a pre Homo sapiens hominid! It fits beautifully into the palm of my hand and after that many years the edges are still sharp. Even if I was blogging about topiary or book binding I’d have to find a way to slot this in.

4) The winter of 2010/11 was known as a ‘waxwing winter‘. Every winter a  few waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus, Dansk: silkehale) migrate to our shores from Scandinavia to overwinter. But occasionally the weather up there is fearsome so the waxwing migrate in large numbers and we then have a ‘waxwing winter’. And I hope you’ll agree the waxwing is a beatiful  bird:

A group of waxwing perched at the top of a rowan tree in north Cambridge

5) Another consequence of the bitterly cold winter of 2010/11 was that most stretches  of open water were frozen over and our herons (Ardea cinerea, Dansk: fiskehejre) were starving because they couldn’t access their normal food supplies. During this winter  a hungry heron appeared in my friends garden and taking pity on its plight he fed it some fish. And of course one fish supper turned into rather more than one so the heron came to expect it, and if dinner was late it came and tapped on the window to complain to the management.

6) Sea mammals of any description are always a delight to see and photograph and one of my favourite places on the planet for doing that is the Farne Isles situated just off the Northumberland coast.


Atlantic grey seal in the North Sea off the Northumberland coast

Our holiday last year was to Northumberland and I can’t go there without taking in a boat trip to the Farnes where hundreds of Atlantic grey seal were basking on the rocks and generally taking life easy in the water.

7) Closer to home, April last year was hot and sunny and a great time to see songbirds in the countryside. One of my favourite birds is the yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv) and they’re regulars in the hedgerows around Cambridge.


Yellowhammer male  – what a gorgeous colour!

8) A creature I’d never encountered before last year was the great crested newt. My friend told me of a place where they could be found so we ensconced ourselves in the nearest pub in preparation for a nocturnal newt hunt after closing time.

It was a very successful trip, a few pints followed by finding  not only the great crested newt but the other two species of UK newt, palmate and smooth newts.

9) As the year rushes headlong into summer and the butterfly season really gets underway I can spend many an hour chasing our Lepidopterans round the fields trying to get that perfect picture. One of my favourites is the common blue and this is about the closest I got to that perfect picture:

Common blue male sipping nectar – one of the best photographs I’ve ever taken

10) As well as being a top location for marine mammals the Northumberland coast is also home to huge numbers of seabirds so it’s a very happy hunting ground for me!

Just poking your head over the seawall at Seahouses can reveal lots of seabirds including oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade), knot (Calidris canutus, Dansk: islandsk ryle), eider (Somateria mollissima, Dansk: ederfugl), turnstone (Arenaria interpres, Dansk: stenvender) and this  redshank (Tringa totanus, Dansk: rødben).

11) RSPB Fowlmere, to the west of Cambridge is famous for its water rail. On a trip there in December 2011 I was tipped off by a local that a particular hide was good for water rail (Rallus aquaticus, Dansk: vandrikse) and one had been seen there that morning, so off I went to try and see it.


My informant was correct. There was just the one bird there, but it scoured the mudflats in front of us for a whole hour before disappearing into the reeds, giving me plenty of good photo opportunities. I was very pleased with the primeval feel of this image with the bird face on infront of the horsetails.

12) In January this year the weather was absolutely freezing causing a small group of red-legged partridge at Tubney Fen, east of Cambridge, to seek the warmth generated by a mountain of dung:


13) My favourite bird of prey is the kestrel (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk) and they are always to be seen hovering in the skies over the fields around Histon. I love watching the highly specialised hunting techniques all birds of prey in action, but the kestrel beats them all in my opinion:


A male kestrel showing off all his hunting hardware: talons, flight feathers, eyes and aquiline beak

14) And lastly, I couldn’t write a post like this without including my battling blackbirds. Of all the bird species that visit my garden these are the ones that provide the most entertainment:

My garden gladiators locked in aerial combat

These were a few of my favourite posts, favourite for various reasons: the stories attached, the rarity of the sighting or simply the exquisite natural beauty of the subjects. I hope you like them!

And lastly, I’ve been stunned by the numbers of people from all round the world who read The Naturephile and like it enough to follow it or click the ‘Like’ button. Thanks to everyone for stopping by and enjoying a read, I love sharing the nature from my corner of Cambridgeshire with you!

2011 – That was the year that was

Every month of the year has different conditions which create environmental niches that favour different flora, fauna and stages of life cycles. So as 2011 rushes headlong to its wintry conclusion, for my last post of the year I was going to select a single photograph to represent the month to month changes in our wildlife throughout the year. And that was of course impossible for a number of reasons, mainly because it was impossible to represent any one month with a single image, and also because I have lots of images that I like and I want to share. I eventually managed to whittle the number down to an average of two per month which include a wide range of our native creatures in the UK including birds (migrants and natives), butterflies, moths, flowers, amphibians and fungi. I hope you like them!

January

Every autumn  lots of bird species vacate our shores to head to warmer parts of the world while we endure the cold of winter, and they’re replaced by other species which come from the north to the relative warmth of the UK in winter. Last year the autumn and winter weather in Scandinavia was ferocious and consequently many birds arrived here in larger numbers than usual, including the gorgeous waxwing. Along with the waxwing, redwing and fieldfare came too, as they do every year, and remained until the spring, providing some welcome colour.

On a bright cold January day a lone fieldfare perched in a tree

February

February was cold and the middle of the month saw us taking the children to the coast for our annual spring half term excursion, and this year we headed to the Suffolk coast at Dunwich. Dunwich is a really interesting place for lots of reasons, not least because the wildlife there is rich and varied. One of the harbingers of springtime which I look forward to every year is the flowering of snowdrops, and the woods on the edge of Dunwich were covered in them:


A carpet of snowdrops in the woods at Dunwich Greyfriars

March

By March many flowers were blooming and the fauna was turning it’s thoughts to matters procreational. And this dunnock was no exception:


A dunnock serenading the ladies from a bramble stem on Cambridge Science Park

Dunnocks have a rather to-the-point approach to the art of regeneration. They don’t get together in pairs as most birds do, they form small groups and mate with multiple partners and the males go as far as to remove packets of sperm from the cloaca of females who have been inseminated by rivals prior to passing on their own DNA. No nonsense!


A robin singing for a mate in an alder tree, also on Cambridge Science Park

And of course the birds aren’t the only creatures to get the urge in March. For the past 2-3 years a guided busway has been built between St Ives and Cambridge and as it approaches Cambridge Science Park it passes alongside a lake that is a spawning ground for thousands of toads which live in the adjacent woods and fields. The busway has therefore cut off the toads from the lake and, driven by the unstoppable instinct to reproduce, this pair were trying unsuccessfully to negotiate the sheer walls of the track. For a week in March I would get off my bike every morning on the way to work to help as many of them across as I could find.


The male toad is hitching a lift on the back of the much larger female on the way to the water to spawn

The male toad locks onto the back of the female with his front claws around her chest and he’s not at all keen to relinquish his grip until they’ve reached the water and he’s fertilised her eggs. After which armies of lone toads can be seen heading back the other way.

Fortunately for the toads Cambridge City Council funded the installation of toad tunnels under the busway so next year they should be able to negotitate the track and avoid the carnage which would otherwise have ensued. Hats off to the Council!

April

This month was a real wildlife fest and many types of creature allowed me to take some great photographs. The trees now have shooting leaves so everywhere has that lovely green colour from all the fresh growth.


Windswept male yellowhammer in the top of a hawthorn tree

The yellowhammer is a species which has become less and less common in recent decades as a result of hedgerow destruction and other modern farming methods, but we’re lucky to have plenty of hedgerows still in situ on the outskirts of Histon, and consequently, good numbers of these lovely yellow buntings. The hedgerow this one is on is mature and has old oak and ash trees in so it plays host to alot of bird species including blackcap, chiffchaff, dunnock, common whitethroat and green woodpecker, to name but a few.

Whilst sitting watching TV late one evening in March, what I initially thought was a bat emerged from behind the sofa I was sitting on with my wife. There had been no prior warning of its presence and myself and my wife both levitated off the sofa uttering something along the lines of “What the heck was that!?”. It fluttered into a lampshade where it staid long enough to get a photograph, and it turned out to be an emperor moth:


Our emperor moth inside a lamp. I though creatures like that only lived in tropical rainforests!

Unfortunately, a couple of days later I found her dead (she was the female of the species) still inside the lampshade. I extricated her and measured her and she was 7cm wingtip to wingtip. A magnificent beast.


A willow warbler beautifully framed by new leaves and blossom of the blackthorn tree

These little warblers which weigh on average around 9g have just arrived from southern Africa. I think bird migration is one of the most amazing natural phemonena – how does such a tiny creature navigate and survive a flight across the Sahara and then the Mediterranean? It’s absolutely incredible.


A pair of great crested newts getting ready to mate in a shallow pond – male on the left, more slender female to the right

The great crested newt was probably the highlight of my year. I’d never seen a newt before and in this pond there were great crested, palmate and smooth newts. I turned the flash power down and used an 18-55mm lens and got some reasonably good photographs of the newts underwater. And that at 1am after a few hours in the pub!

May

I’ve spent many a fruitless hour chasing orange spot butterflies up and down the hedgerows of Cambridgeshire, but they never seemed to settle for long enough to get a photograph. But one morning in May I must have timed it just right, they were in the mating mood.


Female orange spot announcing her availability in somewhat unambiguous fashion to a passing male who was just out of shot


Common whitethroat – these warblers also migrate to the UK from sub-Saharan Africa

The common whitethroat breeds in my local fields in good numbers. It’s easy to identify by its song and the way it perches on brambles and low scrub and then flits almost vertically up into the air to alight a few seconds later close to where it took off from and continue singing. This one is a male, he has a blue/grey head whereas the female has a brown head. As well as avian migrants from warmer climes, at this time of year many species of dragonfly are emerging:


Scarce chaser dragonfly at Milton Country Park

I like dragonflies. In the days of the dinosaurs there were dragonflies with a 75cm wingspan! They are fun to photograph (and often, not too difficult) they look awesome, and they have very interesting life cycles. My scarce chaser sat on a seed head for several minutes whilst I stood a few feet away photographing other dragons and damsels, occassionally he took off to circle the pond before returning to the same spot where he let me get to within around 50cm to capture his portrait.

June

In a normal year the weather will be warming up  nicely by June and flowers and insects and birds should be in abundance. But 2011 wasn’t a normal year, April was unseasonally warm which kick started everything, but the rest of spring and summer were cold and this had dire consequences for many butterflies and other species. One of the few that I did see in reasonable  numbers this year, although not as many as last year, was the large skipper.


Large skipper feasting on the nectar of a thistle

The marsh woundwort is so called because it has been applied to wounds to assist the healing process. I don’t know what the medical basis for that is, maybe it has antispetic properties. It  has a beautiful flowerhead and is one a good number of wild flowers growing in the drainage dikes on the local farmland around Cambridge.

Marsh woundwort poking it’s lovely head out of a drainage ditch which is full of various wild flowers every year

July

I found this splendid looking cricket lurking in the grass in a field on the edge of Histon. I first thought it was a very green grasshopper until I looked more closely at the photograph, and it turned out to be a Roesels bush cricket. It is an introduced species from mainland Europe which until recently was only found in the most southerly parts of England. There are two varieties and this is the long winged one which can colonise further afield faster than its short winged cousin, and is now as far north as Cambridgeshire and beyond.


Long winged Roesels bush cricket

This was the first of its kind that I’d seen and a few days later another one appeared on a blind in my house, so I guess thay can’t be that uncommon in this region now.

A pair of juvenile linnets

Before I got out walking in my local countryside around Histon I can’t remember the last time I saw a linnet, but they breed here in good numbers and in the winter flocks of many tens to hundreds can be seen on farmland around and about Histon. Linnet are finches which feed on seeds and the adult males are splendid with a cerise breast and a crimson spot on their foreheads.

August

When I was at school, many years ago, my Dad would feed the birds in the garden and it wasn’t particularly unusual to see the occasional bullfinch.  But mainly as a result of persecution their numbers declined dramatically through the 1970’s and 80’s and I didn’t see one for years. The males are beautiful birds and I’ve been after a good photograph of one for a long time. And finally…


A male bullfinch crunching seeds at RSPB Fen Drayton

I love this picture – so far it’s the first and only half decent one I’ve managed. Hopefully I’ll get a few more to share with you in 2012.

Later in August, we were on holiday in Northumberland, and amongst the many gulls and other seabirds on the beach at Seahouses was this redshank. I think it’s nature at it’s aesthetic best!


A lone redshank looking for nourishment in the rockpools at Seahouses

September

The biggest garden spider I’ve ever seen – she was around 4cm across

Another of natures harbingers, this time of autumn. My garden fills up with these polyocular purveyors of terror in September, and this lady was huge. She was 4cm across and was big enough to distract my son from a telling off. ‘Dad, there’s a big spider in my window‘ was an imaginative and very effective way to divert my attention from the misdemeanour of the moment. I ran to get my camera and I had to lay horizontally out of the bedroom window to take this photograph, as a result of which I couldn’t stay still for more than a few seconds!

October

After the coldest summer for 18 years we then had a mild autumn which meant that many creatures could be found out and about long after they have normally  migrated or hibernated, or died off. Swallows and swifts were still being seen into October and a bumblebee flew past my lab window one day last week. During a visit to Milton Country Park, on the northern edge of Cambridge, on 28th October, to see what winter wildfowl had arrived, there were some winter visitors including tufted duck, gadwall and widgeon. But the pontoon I was stood on had around half a dozen common darter dragonflies on it along with several species of damselfly in the surrounding reedbed and a lone migrant hawker patrolling the air which took a common darter and butchered it on the wing right over my head. Dragonflies can be seen late in the year when the weather permits, but even so I was surprised to see so many at the end of October.

A pair of common darters mating in the late autumn sunshine

November

One of my November excursions took me to RSPB Fowlmere, between Cambridge and Royston, which is renowned for its water rails. I don’t think I’d ever seen one before but I was tipped off by a fellow naturalist that there was one in front of a particular hide, so I headed off there and there it was, busy foraging in the pond for the whole hour I sat there. It was very murky so the photographic conditions were difficult, but I managed to get a couple of decent pictures and I particularly like this one:

A water rail in the primeval swamps of Cambridgeshire!

And another of my trips in November was to Norsey Wood in Essex which is a very different ecosystem to Fowlmere, consisting of ancient oak, beech and birch wood. So in autumn the forest floor is a really good location for fungi and this fly agaric was one of a large group growing out of the leaf litter.


Fly agaric mushroom amongst the fallen beech leaves of Norsey Wood

December

And finally, a wildlife success story is the long tailed tit. Until the last 10-15 years I only saw these occasionally but they now seem to be common, in direct contrast to so many other species of bird whose numbers are declining. I regularly see flocks of long tailed tits on the feeders in my garden and in the hedgerows and woods around Histon. They’re gorgeous little birds and I love watching a flock of them follow each other one after the other along a hedgerow before bunching together when they have found a food  source and then heading off again in line astern.

A long tailed tit in the hedges along Guns Lane in Histon

I stood quietly for several minutes watching the flock of around 15 birds that this one belonged to and they didn’t seem at all bothered by me as they picked insects from the trees.

So there you have it. 2011 in pictures. If you had the stamina to get this far, thankyou and I hope you enjoyed it.

Best wishes for a very happy Christmas and a peaceful and successful New Year from The Naturephile!

Autumn arachnids

It’s that time of year when on misty mornings the trees and shrubs – and just about any amenable surface – are festooned with the webs of garden spiders (Araneus diadematus). This time last year I posted about an arachnid encounter that occurred outside my back door and this year seems to be a good year for them and my garden is full of them.


This female garden spider was waiting patiently for prey in her web outside my sons bedroom window




The lady in these photographs was spotted by my son and it is the biggest example of this species that I’ve ever seen. The data I’ve seen for them suggests a maximum body size of 18-20mm, she’s all of that and her leg span is around 4cm. She’s in her web outside a first floor window and is still clearly visible from the ground when she’s hiding under the guttering. She really is huge.

Garden spiders are a genus of the ‘orb weaver’ spiders, so named because the webs they build are circular, or orb shaped. The webs can be seen in hedgerows and window frames and just about anywhere else outside at the moment, laden with dew and glistening in the early morning sunshine.

The one below was outside my kitchen window and was in the process of encasing what I think is a male small tortoiseshell butterfly in a silken coffin. It looks as though the butterfly put up a respectable fight as half the web was shredded, but to avail. The spider was poised for some time with its fangs in the body of the butterfly and was completely unfazed by me taking flash photographs within a few inches

They have rather interesting markings too, and another name for them is the ‘cross spider’ from the ornate cream coloured cross on the back of the abdomen. My daughter thinks the cross resembles a design from a stained glass window from a church. Spectacular creatures!

Araneus diadematus

Araneus diadematus” is the Latin name for the garden spider, which is ubiquitous in my garden just now. Every piece of garden furniture is being used as a support for webs, and some of them are huge, up to 12 inches in diameter with anchor lines up to 3m long holding them in place. I’ve never seen such long anchors which the spiders construct by spinning a fine sticky line from spinneret glands at the end of the abdomen which blows on the wind until it sticks to a suitable support. These are the ones which get stuck to your face when you walk in the garden at night! The spider reinforces the first line with thicker, stronger thread until it can support the weight of the whole web. Further support and radial lines are added until sufficient structure is in place to enable strengthening of the middle with a non-sticky spiral, followed by construction of a widely spaced non sticky spiral out to the edge of the web. The spider can walk on this and use it as a guide to build a sticky spiral inwards from the outside edge and this is used to catch prey.    


Garden spider adding the sticky spiral which will trap prey

Spiders have up to 8 spinnerets of different types to produce the various grades of silk required to construct a whole web. It’s a truly incredible biochemical process resulting in a material with strength per gram greater than steel, and so far, despite a huge amount of research, one that humans have been unable to replicate synthetically.    


Perfect web illuminated by the morning sun

Once the web is constructed, the garden spider waits under cover at the end of one of the radials monitoring vibration in the web with one or more of its foremost legs. When struggling prey causes the right frequency of vibration (they don’t react to vibration caused by the wind) the spider ambushes its prey and kills it with a venomous bite before wrapping it in silk and storing it until it’s eaten.    

In the last week or so, as well as finding some beautiful webs laden with early morning moisture and lit up by the sun, I’ve been lucky enough to see some fascinating behaviour by garden spiders. My son pointed one out to me that had built a web between my garden table and the french window and was behaving in an unusual way, alternately raising front and rear legs as though it was dancing. Closer inspection revealed that it was using all eight legs to gather broken web which it then rolled into a ball and ate before recycling it into more web to patch up the original. I found another one at the other end of my garden table – which is no place for an arachnophobe to sit and enjoy an evening beer – which was lurking under a clematis leaf with both of its front legs feeling for vibrations on an anchor line of its web:   


Lurking undercover waiting for breakfast

This morning I was looking for larger spiders to try to get some good photographs and there was a beauty putting the finishing touches to its web on the childrens climbing frame. While I was looking at this adult female, a second much smaller version, possibly an amorous suitor, was building a web from a plant pot joining onto the web of the adult. It occurred to me this was no way to ensure longer term survival for the small spider. As I watched, it approached the female, who was now in the middle of her web, waving its two front legs in the face of the much bigger female. The female reciprocated and for several minutes this game went on with no apparent aggression.   


Female garden spider  


Close Encounter 


Closer encounter 


Dangerous encounter 

I haven’t seen this before so I’m not sure what the small spider was doing, but after several minutes the inevitable consequence was the lady pounced on the smaller spider and killed it rapidly before wrapping it in a silken coffin and transporting it higher up into its own web.     


Lethal encounter 


Shrink wrapping her ready meal 


Carrying off the spoils 

All this within a few centimeters of my eyes. Exciting stuff… and right outside my back door!