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.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Not Empressed

With the school hols on the horizon, a Big dragonfly Day Out was needed, so with the weather being conducive yesterday I chose another long trek to Bowes Valley NR, generally to see what had changed since my last visit but prime target being the Emperors, in particular to try and get decent photos of an ovipositing female, something which has eluded me so far.

The day started well, with a Weasel running across my path as I approached the reserve, always a treat to see.
Dragonflly-wise, a slow start was made worse by three lots of dog-walkers, one after the other allowing, nay encouraging, their mutts to rampage through the pond followed by the now compulsory 'good dog (insert name)' uttered loudly in a voice only a doting mother would use when addressing her baby, Christ they make me sick.
A disappointing 7 species seen, 4 of which were damsels, and not a sign of Broad-bodied Chaser or Black-tailed Skimmer, which was quite surprising for mid-July.

My prime target showed well on and off, two male Emperors patrolling, skirmishing and occasionally alighting in the reeds but always too distant for decent photos, and a single female which repeatedly beat off the advances of either male and oviposited at regular intervals though once again always just too distant for my camera's capabilities. But again disappointing numbers, I've had double-figure counts here for this species later in the season than this on more than one occasion.

Best shot I could muster of a male Emperor

For a while this was the best shot I could muster of an ovipositing female

But just when I'd given up all hope of bagging her in action, a final jaunt around yon side of the island found her ovipositing in sheltered shallows. Still quite distant but far closer than past sightings and she was there for a long time, allowing me at least to take up the best strategic positions I could (without getting my feet too wet.)

Finally a bit closer, and undisturbed she used this area for some time

A rear few was all I could get, changing angles only slightly

She took flight momentarily, and in profile shows a distinctly blue-sided abdomen like a male
usually the sign of a very mature individual 

Back to the same spot but still facing away

Not great results but my best attempts yet, I'll be taking my wellies next time for sure.
Here's a round-up of the rest of the action :

Violacea Blue-tailed female, quite a few of these around the pond

Teneral Common Blue, a second of wave of damsels emerging all over the area, mainly blue-tailed
and emerald. 

Cinnabar Moth caterpillar
Has to be one of the most distinctive catts around, one of two on the same ragwort stem

Common Darter (male)
Many of these both emerging on the day and in immature guise  

Mating Blue-tailed damsels, much of this activity going on as well

Four-spotted Chaser
Not so numerous as on my last visit but well into double figures

Common Green Grasshopper, plenty of these leaping about, but sadly their song too shrill for my elderly earholes.
First time I've seen a grey green grasshopper, colouration denotes a male, the female is always green apparently.

A bonus on the long walk back to Tanfield Railway was finding an immature male Southern Hawker, hawking along the path under shelter of trees where there was an assortment of flying insects to eat. It took a while to ID him as he seemed to be a bit of a stunted specimen, and sporting the dull colours of immaturity against strong sunlight too, but I eventually got decent enough views to confirm ID, so my first Gateshead sighting of the species this year, plus it broke up the arduous uphill journey, though meant I did miss my bus resulting in lost brownie points at home :-/

Southern Hawker (immature male)
For a long while this was the best view I got, always looking into the Sun 

Eventually his true colours were shown, but to me that abdomen looks a bit short
which threw me for a while.

Nice arty shot to finish - the brown eyes, yellow thorax and pale blue abdominal markings
of the immature male all showing well in the sunlight

At the bus stop this Common Footman moth flew into view
A first for me though apparently (as the name suggests) common as muck

As I had time to kill while waiting for the bus I captured a worker ant from the
local formica lemani colony to photograph, this wasn't easy as they're fast little buggers and this one
was whizzing round in my container, but I got a nice profile shot . . .

. . . and a decent shot from above showing their incredibly long legs which give them their
turn of speed, and one of only four species of ant I've managed to find locally.
Released just in the nick of time for my bus, so time well spent.

Next task, find an elusive Ruddy Darter. This was a gimme up to 2014 but they've tailed off dramatically at my banker site (Far Pasture) with just one sighted in 2015 and last year I failed for the first time to find one. Am hoping it was just a blip but the status of this species in the Derwent Valley could well be under threat as none were at the regular Gibside site last year either, though further afield Burdon Moor held them last time I checked and I do believe they were seen at Bowes Valley NR last year. I'm hoping I don't have to trek back there again though, it's a killer in the heat of summer :-/ 

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Chasing around Stargate

The 'changeable' north east weather is starting to do me head in.
Was looking forward to a nice hot sunny day today, retiring last night thinking I'd be off to Kibblesworth for a large scale dragon hunt. This morning it was all change with a forecast of early sunshine, then variable amounts of cloud by late morning and the afternoon largely a write-off, with temperatures now about 5 degrees below the projected 21 of yesterday.

A quick change of plan, I decided to trek up to Stargate (as it doesn't take so long and there are no buses involved) for a last go at photographing Broad-bodied Chasers, as I hadn't done this cracker of a dragonfly justice for the last couple of years now, the powder blue male in particular had proved elusive. I'd never been up here later than mid-June for the Chasers so didn't know what to expect, but as I walked up in strong sunshine and sweaty heat, what I did expect was the sun to disappear as I arrived on site after completing the 50 minute trek, and guess what; it did :-(

A mix of sunny and cloudy spells over the next couple of hours meant dragon hunting was patchy. The lack of damsels was baffling, the three blue species were present but in far smaller numbers than expected, I fear the downpours and long periods without sunshine have really had an effect on the bumper early season crop of damsels.
A few teneral Common Darters were taking their first flights and small numbers of immatures 'darted' about, a single Four-spotted Chaser was seen, and two of my target species were present. No females seen, but a couple of male Broad-bodied Chasers searched the margins and occasionally skirmished.

After a while I traced one to his perch, a small stick of dead emergent vegetation under shade of a pond-side tree. He kept coming back to this same perch over and over, and though in not the most convenient of places to approach, I was able to get in position while he was away and await his return to get some fairly decent photos from a number of different angles. Mission accomplished, here's the best of the bunch :-)

The Sun (how ironic) was a bit of a spoiler with the reflective light from some angles but in others it made an 'arty' background effect. All in all quite happy with those, and here's a few I took of the Common Darters :

maturing male common darter

immature male common darter

Most mature male on site

Don't think I've ever seen such an immature male in the mating wheel before

And another maturing male

At least that mission was a success after the last couple of failures, but here we are halfway through July and its all been a bit poor after a very good May and early June. Plenty still to do, to see and to photograph, here's hoping :-/

Monday, 10 July 2017

Spot Fly

Another disappointing weekend. Saturday morning I tried again to see if any Southern Hawkers were (or had been) emerging from Thornley Woods Pond, with pretty much the same results as last week. Nothing emerging on the day, and not an exuvia to be found.
This can mean one of three things; either they emerged early during the hot spell mid-June and all the exuvia washed into the pond during the torrential rain that followed, or the sudden drop in temperatures following the rains has retarded the emergence.
Time will tell on that one as the third option (that there aren't any this year) doesn't bear thinking about.

On the plus side (as I spent a lot of time wandering the woods), I came across a pair of Spotted Flycatchers, first I've seen here, and rare breeders in Gateshead over the last decade or so.

One of the two spotted flycatchers, not great pics but taken from a safe distance and zoomed in

I next visited Clockburn Lake outlet stream, quite a few blue-tailed damsels here as per usual but too many rampaging dogs around so I cut short my visit, does no-one read the bloody signs?

Practically no dogs are ever on leads, owners frequently let them run into the lake
(even while I'm there trying to take photos) and congratulate them in baby voices
'oooh did diddums get wet then' for example.  

'Oooh are you saying hello to the ducks then'  is another recently heard quote
from some ignorant bint as her mutt scares the ducklings into the 'safety' of the centre
of the pond.

A quick trek along to the 'Bomb site' to check on the demoiselles as the Sun had decided to poke free of the clouds for a while resulted in just two males, but I was only there half an hour and as usual the Sun disappeared practically as soon as I reached the site. A flypast kingfisher was (as always) a treat to see, and a grey wag entertained me for a short while, then it was off home I trotted.

This male Banded demoiselle was slipping and sliding all over the place
when trying to land on the vegetation . . . 

. . . and from this angle you can see why, both his rear legs had been shorn off at the 'knee'
may affect his ability to catch prey but certainly didn't stop him from fighting off
the only other male on site trying to take his territory. 

On the way another couple of Ruptela Longhorn Beetles in the same area as usual, and back at home the few spearheads of Buddleia which have opened have started attracting the butterflies, a Meadow Brown and a Red Admiral being the first two species noted (I think I'll keep a Buddleia list).

Both with different markings again (that's 5 now), especially like the 'Batman' insignia at the top of the one on the left. 

1. Meadow Brown

2. Red Admiral

A better shot of the Red Admiral resting on another plant

Sunday would have been a much better day for dragonhunting, but I spent it in Newcassel at the NE1 motor show, watching Lambos and Astons rather than Lestes and  Aeshnas.

Aston Martin Vanquish, what a handsome beast.

Lamborghini Huracan, nice angles (shame about the colour)

Lambo Aventador, geometric perfection

James Bond Aston Martin DB5 - enough to get Miss Funnyfanny's juices flowing

Hoping for better this week, fingers crossed, looks like I'll need it.