Purbeck mason wasp

In the UK the rare Purbeck mason wasp (Pseudepipona herrichii) is found only in the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset.

The female excavates a nest burrow in bare ground on heathland and later seals it with moistened clay.

Wasp with excavated soil

Purbeck mason wasp (Pseudepipona herrichii) excavating nest burrow on heathland. Dorset, UK.

She stocks her burrow with the larvae of a small moth which feeds mainly on bell heather.

Purbeck mason wasp: prey

Purbeck mason wasp (Pseudepipona herrichii) with Acleris hyemana moth larva prey at nest burrow entrance. Dorset, UK.

The adults chew distinctive holes in the heather flowers to obtain nectar which their short tongues could not otherwise reach.

Wasp drinking from heather

Purbeck mason wasp male nectaring on bell heather. Dorset, UK.

The Purbeck mason wasp is thought to rely solely on the larvae of Acleris hyemna, but in 2017 I photographed this female provisioning her nest with what appears to be the moth Acleris notana.

Purbeck mason wasp: prey

Purbeck mason wasp (Pseudepipona herrichii) with moth larva prey (Acleris notana?) at nest burrow entrance. Dorset, UK.

One small victory for citizen science?

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Fly orchid pollinator

The fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) is usually found on chalk and limestone soils in open deciduous woodland and scrub, but is also recorded from grassland and chalk-pits. It is rare in the UK and even at known locations can be difficult to spot.

Fly orchids

Fly orchids in woodland clearing. Surrey, UK.

Fly orchids are in flower between May and June. At this time they attract male digger wasps (Argogorytes mystaceus) with a scent which closely resembles the female wasp’s pheromone.

Males attempt to copulate with the orchid and during this process pollinia become attached, which may be carried to the stigma of another flower, completing pollination.

Digger wasp pseudo-copulating with fly orchid

Digger wasp attracted to fly orchid flower.

Male digger wasp pseudo-copulating with fly orchid

Male digger wasp pseudo-copulating with fly orchid.

Digger wasp with fly orchid pollinia

Fly orchid pollinia attached to the head of male digger wasp.

I was finally lucky enough to observe and document this behaviour in the Surrey Hills earlier this year.

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Amphibian Kama Sutra

Common toads in amplexus

Common toads (Bufo bufo) spawning

After emerging from hibernation in early spring, toads migrate back to their breeding ponds.

Males fight to secure mates and often outnumber the females at some sites. When this happens the female may be grasped by several males in a position known as ‘amplexus’, as they compete to be in the best position to fertilise her eggs.

Common toads in amplexus

Group of toads in amplexus

Common toads in amplexus

Spawning might look fun but can also be life-threatening!

Common toads in amplexus

Toad sex is apparently a moveable feast!

The common toad is widespread in Surrey, however populations appear to be declining. Where toad migration routes cross busy roads there can be many fatalities, and local conservation groups police ‘Toad Crossings’ at dusk to help them safely across.

Common toad crossing track

This toad was late to the party, but managed to avoid oncoming traffic

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Spring Wood Ant Antics

Wood ant with heather seed

Wood ant (Formica rufa) foraging in early spring

The wood ant mounds among the pine trees were beginning to stir on my visit to the RSPB’s Arne reserve in Dorset recently.

Nests become active in early spring when worker ants begin to forage for food items and building materials to repair damage sustained over the winter months. Badgers, magpies, jays and other animals often raid wood ant nests for food.

Wood ant carrying twig

Wood ants are capable of carrying relatively heavy loads

Wood ant colonies can contain up to half a million individuals. On sunny days worker ants ‘sunbathe’ at the nest entrance to absorb heat and then re-enter the nest to release it – keeping it at a steady temperature. When the nest becomes too warm they open small vents to cool it down.

Wood ants at nest entrance

Sunbathing worker ants at nest entrance

The ants are particularly aggressive in springtime as they re-define their territories. Sometimes ants from weaker neighbouring colonies are recruited by force and carried back to the main colony.

Worker ant carrying another wood ant between nests

This species of wood ant is classified as Near Threatened (NT) in the IUCN Red List and classified in Great Britain as Local. Numbers seem to be increasing in the south of England but it has become locally extinct in parts of its former range in the north and east of England, the Midlands and north Wales.

Photographing ants is always a challenge because they’re small and they move very fast. It’s a good idea to keep your trousers tucked firmly into your socks when lying on the ground this close to a nest full of them! They will bite occasionally but can’t pierce skin. The formic acid they squirt in defence is too weak to harm humans.

Butterfly Conservation Moth Report

Butterfly Conservation: Moth Report 2013

Butterfly Conservation: Moth Report 2013

Butterfly Conservation used my image of a nocturnal moth trapping event to illustrate their latest report:

Unsurprisingly the report concludes that UK moth numbers are in decline, documenting a 40% drop in total abundance in the south of England over the last 40 years.

On the bright side many more moth species have colonised Britain in recent decades than have become extinct.

This photograph was taken at a recent moth trapping event on Chatley Heath organised by Surrey Wildlife Trust. The original image below:

Moth Trap Assembly

Skinner Trap on Surrey heathland at night

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Suburban Oak

Suburban Oak

The ancient Crouch Oak in Addlestone, Surrey, UK

The Crouch Oak once marked the perimeter of Windsor Great Park and is thought to date from the 11th Century, making it in excess of 900 years old.

This ancient tree now looks a little incongruous as a modern residential estate has grown up around it.

Night Oak

The Crouch Oak at night with passing traffic

It’s interesting to compare depictions of this tree from the 19th Century and in 1904 as wooden fences are replaced with metal railings and a dusty track becomes a surfaced road. The oak also enjoyed an additional limb in those days.

In more recent times the Crouch Oak survived an arson attempt in 2007 and is now fitted with metal grilles across its hollow openings to prevent a repeat.

Oak Urban Effects I

Metal grille stops burning objects being thrown inside

To see the Crouch Oak for yourself follow the map below to the bend in Crouch Oak Lane:

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Raft Spider Life Cycle

Raft spider on pond surface

Raft spider on pond surface

You’d think that arachnids and water was an unhappy combination, but one species of European spider has made boggy ponds their home.

The raft spider (Dolomedes fimbriatus) is the UK’s largest native spider – its body growing up to 2cm long.

It uses the water’s surface like other spiders use their webs – feeling for the vibrations of potential prey with front legs extended. Using this technique it hunts tadpoles, insects and occasionally small fish:

Raft spider eating damselfly

Raft spider eating damselfly

When alarmed, the water repellent hairs on the raft spider’s legs enable it to dive beneath the water, trapping a bubble of air to keep it alive until the coast is clear and it cautiously re-emerges:

The wetland pools favoured by raft spiders are increasingly rare in this country. On the RSPB’s Arne reserve in Dorset their habitat is lovingly preserved, and offers wildlife watchers easy access from the nearby heathland trail:

Boggy pond habitat

Boggy pond habitat

On a good day dozens of raft spiders at various stages in their life cycle can be witnessed at the pond’s edge.

1. Sex

The female raft spider is often considerably larger than the male and mating is a dangerous business. He approaches her cautiously, waving his front legs tentatively to judge her receptiveness:

Male raft spider approaches female

Male raft spider approaches female at her den

She may rush out to scare him off on numerous occasions, after which she retreats and the process begins again, the male edging closer all the while. It’s a nerve jangling thing to watch, let alone participate in.

2. Birth

The female spins a silk bag to contain the fertilised eggs, which she carries about beneath her body, keeping it just warm and moist enough to ensure their survival:

Raft spider carrying egg sac

Raft spider carrying egg sac

Then, when the baby spiders are ready to hatch, she lashes the egg sac to vegetation at the edge of the pond and the tiny hatchlings emerge:

Baby raft spiders in nursery web

Baby raft spiders in nursery web

Mum typically lies in wait nearby to ensure that her young ones don’t come to any harm:

Raft spider guards her hatchlings

Raft spider guards her hatchlings

This phenomenon of hundreds of spiderlings crowded together for their own mutual safety is only really appreciated up close:

Raft spider hatchlings

Raft spider hatchlings closeup

But soon the young raft spiders are large enough to fend for themselves and disperse around the pond.

3. Death

Raft spiders are not fussy eaters. When times are tough and food is scarce, or when too many raft spiders compete for the same local resources, they may even turn to cannibalism:

Not such a pretty sight!

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The Cult of Moth Trapping

What kind of crazy folk go out at night and gather round bright lights in the expectation of winged visitors? Stoned party-goers after a particularly heavy session? Die-hard pagan worshippers perhaps? And moth trappers obviously.

It was my delight both to participate in and bear witness to this strange spectacle on an evening with the Surrey Wildlife Trust and assembled experts on Chatley Heath in Surrey last month. It began innocuously enough with a barbecue meal and mildly alcoholic beverage, but then the great orb in the sky descended, the darkness gathered, and things began to get weird.

Moth trappers at Chatley Tower

Moth trappers at Chatley Tower

A white sheet stapled to the side of Chatley Semaphore Tower and illuminated with fluorescent light set the stage for our distinguished guests to arrive, and it wasn’t long before the lure of this burning beacon drew them in.

Moth trap and man with net

Moth trapper with net

At which point all pretence of ceremony evaporated and a man with net in hand, a wild gleam in his eye, pounced with the irresistible speed of a coiled spring released!

Once netted, the moth in question was transferred to an improvised lab bench nearby for inspection, ID and recording.

Identifying and recording moths

Identifying and recording moths

Steadily a queue of nocturnal visitors grew, each enclosed in a cylindrical plastic cell, and each requiring identification. A few of the larger, more striking moths, were familiar to the interested observer, but – to all except the most dedicated experts present – the majority remained strange and new.

Moth trap jars

Moth trap jars with inmates, including the yellow brimstone moth

There are roughly 800 species of ‘macro moth’ in the UK. These are the species you will find illustrated in standard field guides on the subject. But there have been 2,400 species of moth recorded in the UK when ‘micro moths’ are accounted for, and only the high priests of this cult can read the runes of their colouring and patternation with any degree of certainty.

On this particular night 73 separate species of moth were recorded – the list of outlandish guests including:

  • Water Veneer
  • Mother of Pearl
  • Maiden’s Blush
  • The Mocha
  • Lime-speck Pug
  • Coxcomb Prominent
  • Dark Sword Grass
  • Shuttle-shaped Dart
  • True Lovers’ Knot
  • Setaceous Hebrew Character
  • Neglected Rustic

Elsewhere on the heath nearby an even brighter beacon was being kindled: a Skinner Trap, fitted with a blinding electric bulb powered by its own noisy generator.

Skinner moth trap and trappers

Skinner moth trap and trappers

Not only is this contraption very effective at attracting moths, it’s also remarkably photogenic! A portal to another world appears to have opened up on the heath at night. And for all those present at this special event, it undoubtedly had.

Light rays from moth trap on heath

Light rays illuminate the heath

Nobody knows precisely why these creatures of the night are attracted to bright lights amidst the darkness, but it’s fortunate for us that they are.

With thanks to SWT Ranger Gemma.

An Audience With The Purple Emperor

Purple Emperor Banquet

Purple Emperor butterfly (Apatura iris) feasting on fresh dog turd

Such a beautiful creature with such un-photogenic habits! Infamously the Purple Emperor butterfly (Apatura iris) spurns the sweet nectar of wildflowers in favour of dog faeces amongst other delicacies.

Now mostly confined to the ancient deciduous woodlands of Surrey and Sussex in the UK, the Purple Emperor has a devoted following in the world of butterfly fans.

Normally it flies high in the woodland canopy and only occsionally will the male descend to the ground to replenish its liquids and salts in this peculiar fashion.

On these rare occasions the Emperor’s acolytes fill their boots.

Here on Bookham Common in Surrey, within sight and sound of the M25 motorway, the lack of a long lens is no handicap when this butterfly is distracted by a fresh deposit:

Purple Emperor Phone

Purple Emperor posing for a mobile phone photograph

The less exotically coloured female at least has more refined tastes, and generally remains high in the oak trees feeding on the sticky sweet honeydew secreted by aphids. She returns a little closer to earth only to lay her eggs in a suitable sallow tree nearby.

Purple Emperor Laying

Female Purple Emperor laying eggs on willow sapling

Such is the lure of the Purple Emperor that fanatics have been known to entice ‘His Majesty’ down from the trees with a number of foul smelling concoctions. In the absence of dung a rotting carcass may occasionally do the trick. This recently deceased rodent at a favourite butterfly haunt in the wood may have benefited from a coroner’s inquest:

Suspicious Death

Suspiciously well placed mouse carcass!

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Surrey Glow Worm Quest

If you’re looking for a photographic challenge then wildlife macro at night is guaranteed to keep you amused and frustrated in equal measure.

Glow worms (Lampyris noctiluca) come equipped with their own bioluminescent light source, and with a bit of research shouldn’t be too difficult to locate in the right environment. But in the dark simple tasks become considerably more complicated.

These ‘worms’ are in fact a beetle. On summer nights the flightless female glow worm climbs a grass stem,, or other vegetation, and emits a bright chemical light from her lower abdomen. This luminous display attracts the flighted male glow worm and mating begins, at which point the happy couple turn out the light and retire to bed together in the undergrowth.

In the UK glow worm numbers – or at least the number of people reporting them – have diminished over the years. Light pollution from sprawling urban areas may be one reason for this, as the female doesn’t like competition, and seeks out the darkest rural recesses in which to display to potential mates. The inexorable rise of the motorcar has also meant fewer people traversing the countyside on foot at night, and so less likelihood of happening across these creatures. Modern use of pesticides may also have played a part.

The wilds of South Dorset proved good hunting grounds for me last year and I was keen to have another crack at this subject in Surrey over the summer.

Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty: Dorset glow worm (Lampyris noctiluca)

Initial research turned up not much however. Almost every contact I quizzed looked at me with bafflement and a little wonder when I enquired about glow worms in the county, as if they’d become semi-mythical beasts in this stretch of the London commuter belt. A bit of Googling turned up a handful of vague mentions and precious few images.

The excellent UK Glow Worm Survey website, run by the extremely dedicated Mr Robin Scagell, offered more precise records and this especially tantalising glimpse of days gone by:

Box Hill, nr. Burford Bridge, Whole slope of Hill covered with glow-worms, summer 1915

Promising, but a long shot more than 90 years later perhaps. Then a chance meeting with a twitcher confirmed glow worms sighted in a very specific area of the hillside in the 1980s and the balance of probabilities swung in favour of action!

From my vantage point atop the steep chalk slope of Box Hill the sun began to set impressively, and the exhausting vertical scramble required to get there faded into memory.

Tight security in preparation for the Olympic cycle race meant that the entire National Trust property was ringed with high steel barriers. A checkpoint restricted traffic up the narrow zig-zagging road to the top, and guards with walkie-talkies patrolled its length. The pedestrian gates thankfully remained open.

Dorking at night

Town of Dorking in Surrey from Box Hill after dark

Bright lights from the dual-carriageway below continued to illuminate the entire downland slope after the sun had faded, which wasn’t promising. But in a deep, shady dip behind the ridge a twinkling greenish light in the grasses finally caught my eye.

In total 8 glowing females were located along a short stretch of chalk track.

The first young lady was tucked well back into the shrubbery and inaccessible to my lens. The second was more exposed, on leaf litter near to the ground. With a bit of tripod gymnastics and some macro slider extension action I edged within range.

Glow Worm Filigree

Glow Worm Filigree: Surrey glow worm on leaf litter

In this shot the natural glow from the beetle was supplemented with indirect light from an LED torch off to one side. It’s a balancing act to expose the whole subject without drowning out the insect’s own subtle illumination.

The same creature on a long exposure without the artifical light source gives a quite different visual impression:

Glow Worm Limelight

Glow Worm Limelight: Glow worm (natural light)

More typically glow worms can be found in thick grass, clinging to the stems a short way up, and rotating their bottoms skyward as this next one was:

Glow Worm Jade

Glow Worm Jade: Glow worm in grass

Where the beetle is tightly surrounded by reflective surfaces the light she emits is magnified.

In all the above images the glow worm’s head is firmly concealed beneath her carapace, and this is usually the case I’ve found. But before I departed for the night another individual proved less coy.

Glow Worm Red Light

Glow Worm Red Light: Glow worm under red filter LED

In these circumstances a bright white light can disturb the beetle, which then turns tail and vanishes, which is no good for observing behaviour. So I used a red filter, hoping she would be less sensitive to light in this part of the spectrum. It appeared to work and she continued to clean her antennae for some while:

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