Browsing the plant life near to the beach at Snettisham I found something unfamiliar — a large attractive flowering shrub growing in the midst of stinging nettles and thistles with quite leathery leaves. It was blowing a gale, black clouds were heaving overhead and I had no gloves to explore more closely. So I took some photos and made haste to the car park!
Here it is again, note the tendrils and the ivy shaped matt leaves. This is white bryony, Bryonia cretica — a climbing perennial related to squash and cucumber but is poisonous — deaths have been recorded. Even drinking milk from cows that have grazed it can be harmful. This one was climbing all over its neighbours, pretending to be a dense bush. Black berries in Autumn but not to be confused with Black Bryony our familiar hedgerow climbing vine which has red berries — is that clear?
Black bryony, I don’t know why they call it black, is also known as lady’s seal or black bindweed, Tamus communis. It is a member of the yam family, twining clockwise, some say ante-clockwise — I suppose it all depends which way you look at it, or whether it grows in the southern hemisphere! It has no tendrils, the leaves are heart-shaped and shiny and all parts are poisonous containing saponins. Intrepid or very hungry folk evidently eat the new shoots when cooked — not recommended, as even if it doesn’t poison you, picking it may bring you out in a nasty rash.
However, if of a squeamish disposition — do not continue.
The clue is in the name — it’s not got black and yellow stripes — it’s a ferocious predator and so is it’s baby which lives in a burrow with only its face showing which will grab any passing creature, like an ant, and munch it up with its formidable jaws.
These lavae become fat and juicy on their diet of hapless insects but if they are unlucky enough to encounter their own specific ichneumon wasp, Methoca ichneumoides, they in turn meet a horrible end. Life is like that! Here is one who has met a sticky end, lying on its back showing its terrible jaws.
Methoca ichneumenoides came along and allowed the beetle lava to pull it into its burrow but then stung it, which paralysed the beetle lava, Methoca then laid a single egg in the body and filled up the top of the burrow with sand. Here you see that the the egg has hatched and the live lava of the wasp has eaten its way out and is chomping on the beetle lava. I suspect the pair were both dug up by a nosey human like me and photographed without permission!
We did not find an example of Methoca on Dunwich Heath last week but we did see another interesting wasp there last time we visited, the red banded sand wasp. It has similar habits.
Click anyway — I think it will work — otherwise search red banded sand wasp on Wikipedia!
I go and look him up — how do you know he is male? I hear you ask.
This is how.
But his gender would not be given away by his colouring. This is one of the most variably marked species of ladybird — the harlequin ladybird Harmonia axyridis — it has many forms. The female (I hope I am not making a false assumption here) is f. succinea, orange or red with 20-22 black spots and a white pronotium, the plate over the thorax, with a black M on it — you can see that quite clearly. The male in f. spectabilis, black with four red spots and again 2 big white splodges on his otherwise black pronotium. There are completely red ones and black ones and all sorts of variations. The first thing you notice is that they are bigger than our native species.
And they are bad news for native species as they are very successful — not surprising. These have appeared first and, as you can see, are getting on with the job — very active and difficult to photograph as they would not stand still!
Native to eastern Asia they are voracious predators and were evidently introduced to control aphids on commercial crops here in Britain, Europe and also North America .
A threat to diversity but good news for the roses.
Like the hippopotamus our usual habitat is mud — glorious mud. Only occasionally do we venture from the soggy highlands of these British Isles to the sand around the edges and then what we see is unfamiliar.
Like this red banded sand wasp (Ammophila sabulosa).
This is a solitary (actually quite antisocial) wasp that stings its prey, often caterpillars, into submission then drags them to a burrow, sealing them in together with an egg of its own that will hatch into a hungry lava. If she finds another burrow that already contains prey and another female sand wasp’s egg she will eat the egg and replace it with one of her own — not very sisterly. They lose a third of their offspring this way which perhaps explains the frenetic way they were dashing about the sand on the day we visited Dunwich Heath.
We met this woolly bear on the sand dunes at Ynes Las, it is the caterpillar of the garden tiger moth (Arctia caja)– not rare in our childhood and not limited to sandy habitats, it becomes a colourful moth that evades our attention by flying at night. It is increasingly uncommon despite its disgusting taste which it enhances with a horrible sauce exuded from the back of its neck when attacked by a bird — its bright colours advertise this fact.
Not everything on the sand is unfamiliar, not even to this mallard!
The trouble with Nature is that it runs away with you!
You give her, Nature that is, a small area of hillside to play with and, before you know it, she has barricaded herself in with thorny thickets and hidden earthworks, molehills under layers of slippery bracken and ankle breaking, knee jarring pitfalls made by rabbits and badgers. (Did I tell you I’ve just had a new knee.) The whole area is now dense undergrowth, criss-crossed by looping, flailing brambles and willow whips.
Ah, you say, that’s nice — good for diversity!
But is it — it’s not as simple as that!
So concerned were we that we called in an expert — Super-eco-man, a conservation hero —
He’ll know what to do.
And he did — we slithered and scrambled up and down our precipitous banks as he introduced us to species of which we had been oblivious. Pleased to meet you! He showed us how to distinguish between our six common ferns, and to start to make sense of some of our mosses, not easy as they mainly have Latin names, now recorded in my roughly dried notebook — it will be fun giving them proper English names — shaggy christmas tree moss and less shaggy christmas tree moss.
Most importantly he showed us what we might lose. In our emerging woodland, already we are losing the avenues of open ground for butterflies and moths, insects and bats. The paths that remain are steep sided — like canyons through the trees without the gently sloping edges needed by butterflies and pollinating insects — there is a lot to do.
The overgrowth of bracken is alternately shading and insulating the great anthills on the sunny bank so that our ancient neighbours, the huge colonies of yellow meadow ants cannot so efficiently control their temperature as they have done for thousands of years.
Our carefully placed owl box overlooks dwindling areas of decent hunting ground for barn owls as the vole habitat is being eroded by blackthorn — probably the reason they haven’t used it of late.
Our mature oaks, it turns out, are only 100 years old, adolescent almost, not nearly gnarled and hollow enough to provide adequate nesting for all the bats, like the ones currently breeding in the bathroom ceiling and the pied and spotted flycatchers that come looking for nest sites every spring. Our new barn will need a large well insulated roof space to deal with the housing shortage! A new owl box is planned for the old barn and a safety rail for the swallows and martins as the roof purlins are too steep — the nests tend to fall off.
Seems I’ll have to start production again. Did you know that spotted flycatchers like to nest near buildings.
Now I’ve got to go and plan the new pond, we know exactly where to put it and its adjacent compost heap and en-suite woodpile. Our lizards need somewhere to bask with an air raid shelter, we’ve got just the rocks we need.
Seriously we found the exercise very helpful, now we realize that managing an area for wildlife is not a passive exercise. Those who think that any form of re-wilding threatens the rural lifestyle had better think again — even though we might only be cutting some of our hedges every other year (to get more berries) we will be generating lots of other activity.
It may look like Cornwall but you can tell it’s not Cornwall because there aren’t any people, police, naval ships, radar installations, helicopters or motorcades. And no G7 demonstrators — a beach near my daughter’s Cornish home has been piled high with the undead bodies of middle aged ladies dressed as dead mermaids! All very artistic. No, this is Wales, this week at Cwm Tydu and I had no idea that this part was so beautiful.
One or two midges by the stream and butterflies in the meadow. Best of all (you may remember how long I hunted these last year) there are choughs! Spotted by chance and very active probing for ants on the grazed sward, just as they like it, courtesy of wild ponies.
Its a shame their bills and feet are so muddy, you can’t see how vibrantly red they are. Never mind — the news is good about these rare birds because the previous day we saw a chattering of them swooping above Bird Rock, north of Aberystwyth showing the splayed, finger-like feathers at the ends of their wings– seems their numbers may be on the up.
Mud is the order of the day — here one of the many house martins at Aberaeron harbour is collecting mud to build his house.
The common whitethroats are displaying.
Everywhere there is the hum of bumble bees making the most of this years blooming of the dog roses.
This one has so much pollen in her sacks it is a miracle that she can still fly — but then wild life is full of miracles.
Lovely day in Mid-Wales with a strange sound drifting over the forestry pond — like softly spoken geese. Not geese, not any bird, certainly not cicadas on this chilly, bright spring day. They are the muted tones of amorous amphibians — lovelorn toads!
Thirty, maybe fifty, in the pools of sunshine around the margins of the upland pond.
The smaller, more numerous, males clinging,piggy-back, onto the fecund females, bulging with eggs. Others joining in and some with their heads above the water calling.
See the strings of fertilized eggs and (below) an exhausted male!
or are we just seeing what was there all along, albeit in the shadows.
My daughter lives in a modern development in the centre of Peterborough, a city of over 200,000 people. They don’t have jackals in the subways (like Tel Aviv) but since lockdown she has been working from home and has noticed snakes in the garden, grass snakes and there are adders too. Her neighbour recently opened the door to a Roe Deer.
Feral goats have come down off the Great Orm, a hill in North Wales, to roam the streets of Llandudno left deserted by the tourists.
Locked down in Mid Wales we are spending much of our time out of doors and seeing more of the wildlife than I have ever done before.
In the wood there are flashes of Pied Flycatchers and all around the sound of Wood Warblers, starting their little engines. A Redstart poses briefly in the sunshine:
We have discovered lizards for the first time, basking in the unseasonal sunshine — skittish and shy, unlike this celebrity cousin down the road at Ynes Hir — posing for the visitors to the reserve when I last visited.
I always knew we had newts in the pond but we recently noticed something very strange — some have great big (relatively) floppy, webbed hind feet and pin-like tail extensions —
In case you are in any doubt about the identity of these little beauties — look! No spots under the chin:
Now we know that they are Palmate Newts we put them back quickly as they are protected!
Back home for tea having guiltily spent the afternoon pond dipping without even the pretence of a single grandchild but not before checking out the Pied Flycatchers nesting in the oak tree by the track.
To calm my nerves my daughter, who is staying in Australia, writes that she has been clearing the cobwebs from the outside of the house!
Today she sent me a picture of the St Andrew’s Cross Spider (one of her neighbours) :
If its back were showing you would see dramatic (wasp like) bands of yellow and black. She shows the characteristic saltire, that X of zig zag, actually spiral, threads called web decorations or stabilimenta. This last word says it all — these have to be stabilizers or shock absorbers to strengthen the web. These are formidable engineers.
Webs like this are made by members of the Argiope family all over the world. Here’s one we saw in the southern USA:
Just a little spider, sitting in the middle of a huge cross made of spiral threads, wrapping something up before Christmas. It was the cross that fascinated. In the US they call them Zipper Spiders (A. aurantia) or Writing Spiders — some of the more untidy spinners produce stabilimenta that look as if you should be able to read them!
You can find their cousins all over the world with assorted variations in markings and web stabilimenta. There’s at least one that can be seen in Britain (Argiope bruennichi) and isn’t it just typical that we have to travel half way round the world to find that out!
We’ll be looking for this one at Minsmere next summer!