Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Back in the Game

After a fairly barren July (to say the least), it was good to get a bit of dragon hunting in at one of my favourite spots, namely the Slipper Tarn (or lake) at Cragside in Northumberland.
A family visit so not as much free time to spend there as I'd like, but it never lets me down at this time of year as long as the weather is reasonable, being home to a rich population of Black Darters, and an ample supporting cast of hawkers and damsels.

Today it was one of those Murphy's days, the Sun shone as we drove up the A1, the A697, the B6341, along the Estate Drive in Cragside to the Nelly's Moss car park, and for most of our walk towards the Tarn, but with the dark waters in sight it disappeared behind cloud, and never reappeared for more than a few seconds at a time for the rest of the day.
An all too typical scenario lately, but even so there were dragons on show, the pond margins a bit bereft of cover as for the second year running we seem to have chosen a day when the strimmers had been out, but good numbers of Emerald damsels showed with plenty of tandem and ovipositing pairs.

I find Emerald damsels generally the easiest to approach though the dull conditions helped.
At last I managed to get a 'peek-a-boo' photo in relative good focus, an obliging mature male.

Many tandem pairs on show

Making their way down the stems to begin ovipositing

And another look at the peek-a-boo male 

I was hoping to get a close encounter with a Moorland Hawker after reading TrogTrogBlog on Sunday which contains some superb photos of a perched up male, but the only one I saw was on continuous patrol around the pond, likewise a male Southern Hawker so no photos.

Black Darters didn't let me down though, they'd obviously been emerging during the sun-drenched morning as many a teneral rose up from the grass cuttings as I passed, a second wave by the look of it as a few mature individuals were also present, and a single Large Red damsel completed the array of species seen today.
Here's the best of the photos :

Hit lucky on arrival with this tandem pair of Black Darters landing on a dead stem just off the track

With the Sun behind clouds I was able to manoeuvre around

And get closer to see the male's grip on the stem,
 hmmm maybe clouds do have silver linings

Focussing on the female

She certainly has a smile on her face

Great to get such an unusual angle

one of many tenerals in the grass, this one a female

Again well settled so closed in

Around for a front view

A final close-up

Another teneral, this one a male, you can tell by the shape of the abdomen from above
waisted and slightly clubbed.

A distant shot of a mature male

Single female Large Red damselfly, not many around now, certainly no male suitors for this one

It's always a great day out at Cragside with something to keep the whole family happy, for me it's the dragonflies (obviously) and the amount of wild space to get away from the crowds. I only wish folk with dogs would abide by the 'on leads only' rule that apply at National Trust sites, I now offer gentle reminders to anyone not doing so as my kids are very nervy of dogs, one of the reasons we started going to NT estates in the first place. Today there were more than usual, one even jumped up at them which caused panic. Don't know why many dog owners don't care less about other folk re leads, keeping control, crapping, and respecting wildlife, selfish muppets that's all
Rant over.       

Monday, 7 August 2017

Away in Galloway

Spent much of last week at Kippford in Dumfries & Galloway. The weather was a bit grim at times but an enjoyable few days. It's prime Golden-ringed Dragonfly country and I'd targeted a couple of sites for Variable Damselfly, but sadly the weather played its part in spoiling any potential dragon hunts, with only 8 odonata seen during our stay, namely 5 emerald damselfly, 2 common darter and a single migrant hawker.
The damp weather had its plus points however, on the first morning I discovered a couple of giant slugs outside the caravan door in a mating wheel (or doughnut), the first time I've ever encountered such a spectacle:

Like a slimy doughnut, these mating slugs left a helluva mess when they'd finished

Our static caravan was nicely placed at the woodland edge, and with a plethora of filled feeders provided, the resident birds put on a continuous display for us when we were at home, with many juvs of all the common species coming to the feeders regularly.

Our 'terrace' feeding station, a constant source of entertainment when we were 'in residence'

Juv Robins were most numerous, sometimes half a dozen at a time

This juv GS Woodpecker was a daily visitor

A family of Jays, 2 adults, 2 juvs, were frequent but very nervy visitors, I could only get shots
if I was semi-hidden  

Coal Tits were numerous, this one was like a statue as it must have spotted a predator up above
and remained motionless for a long while. 

Another juv Robin, probably the easiest bird to photograph 

A group of Robins of various ages

Long tailed Tits were regular, anything up to 8 individuals, mostly juvs.

Young Dunnock was quite confiding too

Full list of visitors :
Robin, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Chaffinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Jay, Magpie, Crow, Blackbird, Dunnock, all daily.
Siskin and Wren seen once only.

It's also prime Red Squirrel country, so we were delighted to see these running around outside the caravan, along with rabbits and a resident wood mouse.

Red Squirrel, Rabbit and Wood mouse all regularly seen, taken through caravan windows.

A trip to the nearby (Solway Firth) coast gave an enjoyable few hours rock-pooling and collecting shells, with the kids being rewarded with ice cream after walking the coastal footpath between the villages, where I encountered the migrant hawker. Also added Redshank, Curlew, Lapwing, Linnet and Oystercatcher to the trip list (if I was keeping one)

Kippford Coastline
From distance it looks like a layer of sand in between the mud (left) and rocks (right) . . .

. . . but close up it consisted of possibly millions of shell fragments stretched along the tideline

No idea what this is but it stood out like a sore thumb (hope its living and not just the result
of someone's giant sneeze) 

We found quite a few tiny shore crabs (this one about 1cm wide) and encountered
tiny fish, shrimps and winkles (willicks), the first time I've seen them actually moving,
they really are just tiny black snails. 
Another interesting natural encounter was a visit to the Creetown Gem Rock Museum one rainy day, a fascinating display of fossils including a 175 million year old dinosaur footprint, amazing to think I'd touched a piece of earth where a dinosaur had actually stood all those years ago.

Some fossilized fish

A dino egg fossil
Random Swallow pic (tribute to Leonard Cohen).

It was our final (late) afternoon before I managed a walk in the top woods, which we'd avoided  due to the muddy paths after continued rain, but even with overcast skies I had to have one attempt to find a Golden-ringed dragonfly. I found the woodland pond but no dragons to be seen here, the nearby open rides with areas of fern were the best bet for my target species, but all I managed to see were a female common darter, a few emerald damselflies and a small frog.

I found this cracking woodland pond, much bigger than Thornley.

Male Emerald Damselfly
You can see where the bluish pruinescence is just starting to show at either end of the abdomen
on this immature specimen

Female Emerald Damselfly
profile shot, with ovipositor shown nicely in front of the yellow flower (obviously planned)

Common Frog
A few of these around in the woods, mostly tiny, this one a couple of inches.

A canny break with plenty of interest so not too disappointed, though it feels like I'll never photograph a Golden-ringed Dragonfly, have tried for six years now in which time I've probably seen four, but always flying or perched too high up for decent views. The summer ain't over yet though, I'll keep trying :-/

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Flying Ant Day - The Reality

Tuesday morning saw the first Flying Ant swarm of the summer in the garden and also revealed that our resident Black Garden Ant lasius niger colony was actually nesting in the conservatory wall.

Flying Ant Day hit the headlines just a couple of weeks ago when masses of the same species interrupted the tennis at Wimbledon, and I've never read so much tripe in the days that followed from not just the National gutter press but local newspapers as well, from total misinformation to Oh My God We're All Going To Die, to actually printing the 10 Top Ways of Killing Ants, all ignorant and knee-jerk reaction to this (in my eyes) wonderful annual natural spectacle. It's no wonder that most of my ignoramus neighbours where I previously resided would cover the ground in so much white ant powder at first sight of swarming it looked like we'd had a snow storm in July.
Personally, I'm a bit of an ant-nerd,  I kept a pet colony in a glass formicarium when I was a lad, so just to set the record straight here are a few facts . . .  

The Black Garden Ant Lasius niger is one of those species which has adapted incredibly well to urban living, taking a particular liking to nesting under paving stones where undisturbed colonies can quietly establish themselves into a network of nests containing tens of thousands of workers, only a fraction of which will be seen foraging, so hiding their true number . . . until Flying Ant  Day.

Contrary to some newspaper reports, ants don't suddenly sprout wings when the summer becomes too hot and dry so they can fly off to establish nests where conditions are more to their liking, Flying Ant Day is the big event of the ants' year, if you like it's their 'Fiesta', the equivalent of the biggest annual human festival or celebration you can think of, their Rio Carnival, their Pamplona Bull Run, their Glastonbury, their Wimbledon even, though more important than all of those, as it's key to the species' survival.

Once the nest awakes from its state of torpor in the spring, the Queen starts egg-laying, and depending on the size and health of the colony, a proportionate number of winged 'kings and queens' are reared and kept underground. In lasius niger castes, the queens are maybe three times the size of the workers, and by late spring/early summer you will see piles or ridges of excavated soil along the cracks in the paving stones (or patio, or wherever else the nest is situated) which is the tell-tale sign that the nest is being expanded to create chambers to accommodate the developing giant queens and their smaller male counterparts.

The winged ants are purposely made ready to fly by the hottest time of year, this is how they reproduce, spread the gene pool, the success of the species depends on it.
On a hot, humid and calm day, the workers emerge first, running about as if in a frenzy, covering a wide area around the nest clearing it of danger, paving a safe as possible way for the next stage, the emergence from the nest of the winged Kings and Queens.
You may see a few false starts, if the weather changes during a nominate day the workers frenzy will build up but then gradually peter out, but in the right conditions there will be a spectacle like no other, the whole area will be covered in ants as practically the whole colony will be up on the surface for the first time, some of the winged royals will take off from the ground, others will climb to the highest point possible before taking to the air. Mating takes place in mid-air, but the precariousness of the event makes the large numbers involved a relevant one.

Many of the airborne queens won't find a mate and will remain infertile (they are weak flyers and are slaves to the elements, conditions need to be really calm). Others seem not to have had the rules explained, and shed their wings without flying or (presumably) mating and can be seen running around wingless, close to the nest.
It is a veritable feast for other animals, a few will be caught in spiders webs, but avian predators will take a large proportion of these protein-filled insects. On the ground the local blackbirds, sparrows, magpies, robins and a host of others will tuck in to a hearty meal in smash and grab raids, as stick around for more than a few seconds and they will be covered in biting worker ants.
In the air the hirundines, swifts, tits and even gulls will snap them up by the bucketful.
I witnessed this spectacle (massacre) every year at my old house, my greatest memory being of a band of swifts repeatedly circling the garden low and swooping in to take the ants just feet above the ground over and over again, I was standing by the corner of the house perfectly still with swifts whizzing by often between waist and head height, so close I could feel the rush of air from their wings as they sped past, a marvellous experience I'll never forget.
But back to Tuesday :

Mid-morning, I noticed a trickle of ants around one of the air-bricks on the conservatory
Note these are winged males, not much bigger than the workers

The trickle soon becomes a bit of a mob

The mob becomes a crowd, note the workers policing the event on the left

Now it's like a whistle is blown and the troops emerge from the trenches,
and as most will be massacred, not a bad comparison.

The numbers took me by surprise, I'd seen ants in small numbers throughout the spring
but hadn't traced the nest, now I know.

Not just the air-bricks, any crack in the brickwork saw another outpouring 

Even gaps in the UPVC saw more ants appearing as the frenzy upped its tempo

Out of the trenches they came, now the paving became part of the action

See the difference in size between the large potential queens and the tiny winged males

Part of an expansive 'kettle' of gulls gathered in the skies, obviously other nests
in the vicinity were swarming too, a flying buffet for the birds above, always a tell-tale sign
in the height of summer that the ants are swarming.

Once the new royals have flown, the workers (which also take a bashing on Flying Ant Day) disappear back underground, nest activity tails off and you'll hardly notice them again until the following spring, when the cycle repeats itself.
It's estimated that only 1 in 100 new queens will survive and successfully form a new colony, and you've heard the expression 'King for a day', well this is certainly true in the world of the ant, the males are bred for one purpose, to fertilise the new queens on FAD, most of them don't even get to do that such is the perilous nature of the day, and those that do, well their job is done, they have no other purpose, they simply expire once they've mated, the world of the ant is the ultimate sexual revolution, even the workers are infertile females.

So you see the pointlessness of the knee-jerk reaction. It's a special day (though larger colonies may need two, three or even more of these days to empty the nest of young royals), and once the ants have flown you won't see them in such numbers again until next year, so pouring buckets full of ant powder (or equivalent) on them won't eliminate them, they'll be back again same time next year regardless, and all that happens is the area is filled with poison, likely killing any invertebrate which comes into contact with it, and anything feeding on the dead ants (birds, hedgehogs, rodents) ingests the poison too, it's indiscriminate and unnecessary, Best to just shut your doors and windows, let them fly and embrace the spectacle, it's one of nature's wonders, it may look like an invasion but it's just a one day show the whole colony must attend, try to look at the bigger picture, live and let live.

Here endeth the sermon.