Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: a ruby-tailed wasp in the Adur valley

I got to spend the afternoon wandering around the Adur valley recently. The River Adur runs through West Sussex where it reaches the sea at Shoreham. There are wonderful views of the South Downs, especially from the area I was wandering around.

Truleigh Hill on the South Downs, seen from the Adur valley

This landscape fascinates me because it was once a much wider and wilder estuary. The town of Steyning had its own port, but the river’s margins and the marsh has become farmland. Looking at the maps you can see Rye Farm, with Rye potentially from the West Saxon word for ‘island’, just as it once would have been when surrounded by water or wetlands.

The River Adur

It was the end of a very rainy period and the insect life was out in force. There were hundreds of bumblebees on tufted vetch in the damp margins and probably thousands of newly emerged grasshoppers.

I wasn’t alone on this walk and so couldn’t linger too long. But along one of the lanes I found some umbellifers. On one flowerhead there was the unmistakable green and red of a ruby-tailed wasp!

They are stunning insects – with metallic blue-green thorax and a ruby-red abdomen.

The wasp was feeding on hogweed, a popular plant with pollinators.

This is a better view of the ruby abdomen.

There were just so many insects out and about, it was a joy but also a massive distraction. Buttercups are often the favoured haunt of sawflies – the earliest relative of wasps. This is a species in a group of rather elongated sawflies.

Tufted vetch was growing in the flowery margins where the bumblebees were in great number. There were also large numbers of small tortoiseshell butterflies.

On a fence near the river a blue damselfly was eating some kind of bug. It was so focused on chewing its prey that I could get very close indeed.

The number of ladybird larvae was also great, with many either on the hunt for aphids or setting themselves up for their metamorphosis.

Elsewhere on hogweed I found these carpet beetles. They are very, very small and can’t seem to tear themselves away from the nectar.

The Adur Valley with Chanctonbury Ring in the distance on the South Downs

Thanks for reading.

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Postcard from the Dales

Hi everyone, No usual blogs from me this week as I’m away in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s been very hot here which makes walking more difficult (for me). The evening light has been absolutely sensational, though. Walked the Muker-Keld loop incorporating the Pennine Way in part. It’s such an incredibly rich landscape of natural and… Continue reading Postcard from the Dales

Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: the fencepost jumping spider

Another week and it’s another spider post. This time, it’s a spider that also likes posts.

One evening a couple of weeks ago I had logged off from work and went out into the garden to look at something other than an email. It was a warm evening and the sun was dipping below the surrounding roofs. I noticed a blemish on the fence, a place of macro dreams.

I identified the blemish immediately as a jumping spider but one bigger than the usual crowd. Even better, it was sitting still!

The grey-brown colouring of the spider helped to camouflage it against the sun-bleached wood of the fence. It was no surprise at all, when looking at my spider book later, that I learned this was a fencepost jumping spider!

Finding a jumping spider as relaxed as this and in an accessible position can raise the adrenaline levels, meaning you can lose composure and not get images that are in focus. That said, probably about 90% of macro photos I take are out of focus because the range is wafer thin. The stars aligned this time, however.

The spider was so still that there were no issues. It seemed quite interested by me and looked straight down the lens, as far as I could tell.

One of these images will certainly go down as portfolio worthy, at least in terms of happy memories. And really there’s no better place to end this post than looking into the eyes of Britain’s largest jumping spider!

I hope you like (my) posts, too.

Thanks for reading.

Equipment used: Nikon D5600, Sigma 105mm f2.8 macro, Nikon SB-700 flash, Raynox-250 macro adaptor. Photos edited in Adobe Lightroom.

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Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: the zebra in the room

I know that this blog has focused a lot on spiders this year. My spider knowledge is basic and these posts, their photos and required dip into spider ecology (arachnology) helps me to improve that knowledge. I recently purchased a spider ID guide (Britain’s Spiders by Bee, Oxford and Smith) and it’s helped me to gradually open a better understanding of these, well, misunderstood animals. I do wonder how much the tales of antipodean killer spiders has made people in England, where there are no venomous native spiders, needlessly fearful. Of course it’s different for arachnophobes.

My favourite group of spiders are the jumping spiders, the salticids. The first jumper I ever saw or photographed was one of the zebra spiders, of which we have three species in the UK. You can only identify them with microscopic assessment of their genitals, which is beyond this blog. Regardless, I found a zebra spider on the wall of my living room, which I now appreciate is just a giant invertebrate trap. I have actually also had a starling find its way in.

I knew this would be a good chance to try and get some good photos of the spider because there are few places to hide. I helped the spider onto my finger tip which, though the photo isn’t focused properly, does show how small (and harmless) it is.

And here is a reminder to you all of how most macro photos come out – out of focus. I suppose it’s half the fun.

Zebra spiders are beautiful inverts. Their name obviously comes from their black and white patterning.

One part of the spider that I really wanted to share is its fangs. They are seen below the pedipalps, what are effectively reporoductive organs for spiders. I presume the spider was hunting for prey, or perhaps even looking for a mate.

I helped the spider back out onto the windowsill where it wandered along the draught excluding brush. I hope it found what it was looking for (unless you were the thing it was looking for!).

Thanks for reading.

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Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: spring spiderlings

Just a note that throughout June I’m posting a macro photo each day for the Wildlife Trusts’ #30DaysWild campaign, which you can keep up with here!

There has been a clear shift in the invertebrate world and it’s resulted in a lot of macro photos for me. So much so that I can’t fit them all in one post and will need to post more than once a week!

After early May’s heavy downpours, warmer weather arrived towards the end of the month and with that the insects, spiders and other arthropods. Summer feels closer now, with June being that tipping point between cooler spring weather and the hot mess of July.

One day last week I noticed a small clutter of, well, things on the garden fence. From a distance they looked like a smudge. At closer viewing they were tiny spiders all bundled together. This will be quite disconcerting to some people perhaps, including a friend of mine who I hide social media posts from because of his arachnophobia. I don’t have that problem luckily and I’m fascinated by spiders.

I had no idea what the spiders were until I submitted the record to iNaturalist and then waited for a suggestion. I leafed through my new spider book and landed on a page with the same image as the one that heads this post. They are garden spider spiderlings! The scientific name is Araneus diadematus.

It is pretty amazing that they will develop to be such large spiders, holding their places in webs over the summer months. Imagine the biomass of flies and other insects this clutch will manage to consume over the months ahead. Then again, many of them will be taken as prey themselves by birds and other insects. Don’t forget there are such things as spider-hunting wasps.

Here is one of those spiderlings (I am guessing) having set up its own web on the other side of the garden (approx. 3-4 metres).

And here was one of the adults garden spiders. I don’t know enough about the ecology of this species to say if this could be the parent or one which appeared earlier in the spring. One thing is assured – they will be getting much bigger and by August you won’t be able to miss them.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: gearing up for London’s planthoppers

I visited the family home last week and, despite heavy rain most of the time, managed to spend an hour papping the inverts in the garden. The garden has good views of London’s ever-changing (and IMO, degrading) skyline, not that the inverts much care. The view is a bizarre localised battleground, with neighbours trying to annoy their nemeses by blocking the view where they can, usually with trees. My parents also received a letter once passively offering to pay for tree surgeons to cut their trees down so a neighbour could enjoy this view. Otherwise, London’s gardens are quickly become outdoor rooms, if all your indoor rooms contained plastic grass and a Porsche.

Smokebush looking lovely in the low evening light

The garden was quite aggressively rewilded in recent years (๐Ÿ‘€) and has become particularly rich in birdlife. It’s a mixture of small trees, hedges, shady and sunny areas, with ornamental plants like smokebush and the otherwise invasive snowberry, but also lots of self-seeded wildflowers.

Female hairy-footed flower bee having a bask

I find that early evening, on what has been a warm or sunny day is a really good time to look for inverts. Particularly if there’s a shrub or hedge with some of the low evening sun. All the life photographed here was on the combination of elder, bramble, snowberry and hawthorn that made up the garden’s boundary hedge. My first species was this female hairy-footed flower bee, often mistaken for a bumblebee. She is solitary, and she is usually being followed by a male bee. I haven’t seen any males in the past week, so I think their time has been and gone for 2021. It’s the work of the female bees to now finalise the chambers and food caches for next year’s brood.

Common carder bee

One of the most common bees in London is seen here, the common carder bee. This gingery bee was also basking and preening in the low-slung sun. They are fairly easy to identify if you can acquaint yourself with their ‘ginger’ thorax. Don’t quote me on that.

Marmalade hoverfly

The hawthorn was blossoming and a marmalade hoverfly was feeding on the flowers. It was nice to see, as English hawthorns appear to be falling silent, in comparison to those in Europe. This is a really very common hoverfly.

Here it is again, having stocked up on nectar. They get their name from the orange and yellow abdomen.

Gammoptera ruficornis, named after its red antennae

Though I was seeing mainly common species, I found one that I’d never seen before. It’s always nice to see a longhorn beetle and this species, Gammoptera ruficornis, was new to me. It was first feeding on the hawthorn flowers but then moved to bask on this leaf. It gets its name from its red antennae, hence the ‘rufi’ in the scientific name.

A planthopper in the Issus genus

This is a planthopper in a stage of metamorphosis, I think, before it becomes an adult. Having read about this genus, Issus, I’ve learned that this group have biological versions of gears. They are the only animals to use gears, other than those invented by us humans. Amazing! They use the gears to hop or propel themselves to such great distances:

This video gives an insight into the jumping prowess of these insects.

I’ve covered spiders (well, one) a lot in the past couple of weeks. I found a couple of spiders in the London garden with this one in the process of feeding on what appears to be a former caterpillar.

The magic of macro is of course its ability to ‘blow up’ something like an insect to a size far greater than that seen by the naked eye. This is a speckled bush cricket nymph and, I promise you, with that green on green was almost impossible to see. It reminded me again of the power of patience and of looking more closely.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: the oak jumping spider returns

I came back from a walk the other day and, customarily, went straight to wash my hands. Looking in the mirror, I noticed something small dangling from my hair. Having just been on a walk my nature senses were fine-tuned and I realised it was an invertebrate. Looking more closely and removing it from my hair with care, I realised it was, one – alive, and two – a jumping spider.

I am fortunate enough not to have any fear of these spiders and, unlike a close friend, I’m not arachnophobic. I also have them fresh in my mind, after having a species of a nationally scarce spider confirmed by the county recorder earlier this week.

I looked at this tiny spider as it rested on my hand and thought, ‘it’s the same species’. I had my camera with me but perhaps not the best lens, i.e. not a macro, but one with some close-focusing capabilities. I took the spider outdoors, anxious that it might jump and never get outside again. I took photos with what I had. Without a macro lens I had to crop the images heavily in post-processing.

Looking at the photos, I am confident it is the same species again, Ballus chalybeius, the oak jumping spider. That confidence is boosted even more by this purchase, which arrived in the post the other day:

I have no idea where this particular spider came from – possibly from any of the oak trees I walked under? The book above states that the species is one of the only ones found only in trees and bushes. Its common name is oak jumping spider, which means I may have picked it up during my walk as there are no oaks anywhere near my house or along the street. It could also means it’s more common than is understood. That’s the beauty of community science!

Thanks for reading.

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Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: is that a nationally scarce spider sitting on the fence?

*Update: this record has now been accepted as correct by the county expert and has become official ๐Ÿ˜*

Most of the jumping spiders I find in my garden are sitting on the fence, LITERALLY.

The jumping spiders are a group of beautiful arachnids (spiders and arachnids are not insects FYI) that are renowned for their cartoon eyes and ‘cuteness’. There is something very ‘floofy’ about them. This video by Thomas Shahan has some lovely images of some American species:

I love to see them in my house, exploring the doors and window frames. One got into difficulty recently and was captured as prey by another window-dwelling species. Even the indoor parts of our homes are wild places at macro level.

Most of my macro is getting done through intensive 5 minute breaks during my working day, in which I take rushed and low quality photos (as seen here). I am stuck at a computer all week at the moment and these micro-macro garden safaris are keeping me ‘productive’.

I spent some of the time checking out one of the fences where I’ve found lots of interesting species like hornet-mimic hoverflies, digger wasps and jumping spiders (above).

During one break I noticed a tiny jumping spider exploring one of the posts and attempted some snaps. The pics are grainy and nowhere near portfolio quality, but that’s not what matters here. I put the photos on iNaturalist and an Italian spider expert gave an ID of Ballus chalybeius.

I tweeted the British Arachnological Society and they were happy enough that it was this family, with only one species within that family in the UK. Looking at the map of their records, it has not yet been recorded in this part of West Sussex. It’s also Nationally Scarce. Bingo!

One of conservation’s big problems in the UK is its insularity and misanthropic tendencies. Thankfully organisations like BAS are active on sites like Twitter to speak up for spiders and to engage with people online. Nature conservation in the UK is claimed to be better when bigger and more joined up. You could say the same for its ability to communicate and gather information. That’s me off the fence, then.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: this bee is Goodenough for me

One of the things I love about the insect season in England is the diversity. We are surrounded with doom messaging around wildlife in the UK – it really is too much – but that’s what you get if you only look for birds. The invertebrate world is far richer, more complex and fundamental.

In April and May the first of the nomad bees make their appearances. I spend a lot of time making a fool of myself trying to keep up with these solitary bees. They are extremely beautiful and very cool-looking. Twice in April I witnessed nomad bees in my garden and on both occasions they passed me by.

One afternoon while #WorkingFromHome I went downstairs for a break. I noticed an insect on the inside of the windowpane. It was a nomad bee! I couldn’t believe my luck. I grabbed my camera and attempted to get some photos of this now very slow bee (it was a cool, wet and grey day). I got some average images and then decided it was time to get this bee back into the wild. I ushered it onto my hand and found that it didn’t want to leave my skin. It gave me a great opportunity to take some better images. I’m not sure of the species, they are difficult to separate.

I had another bee-break but this time in my garden and on a better day. There was so much happening in the hedge I didn’t know where to look. I saw three nomad bees flying around and resting but never long enough for me to get a decent pic.

The sun dipped in momentarily and the cooler air forced the nomad bee to remain on this leaf. I got as close as possible. When I submitted the photo to iNaturalist someone suggested it was Gooden’s nomad bee. That’s… Goodenough for me. Now do people see why iNaturalist is so much more preferable to iRecord? You get help with your identifications, not just thanks but no thanks from our man in the shires.

What do nomad bees do? They’re parasites of solitary bees, with some species laying their eggs in the sites of others. Their eggs hatch and the larvae consumes the eggs of the host, before eating its food stash. Not nice in human terms (because we’re all so lovely) but definitely something that has been occurring for many millions of years.

Thanks for reading!

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Latest from the Blog

Unlocking Landscapes podcast: south London’s ancient woodlands

https://mcdn.podbean.com/mf/web/z3ethg/UL_Ep5_SBT_CL_Master10ayke1.mp3 In this episode, I am delighted to welcome Chantelle Lindsay and Sam Bentley-Toon. Chantelle and Sam are environmental professionals who worked together on London Wildlife Trustโ€™s Great North Wood project. You can also listen via these podcast providers: Apple: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/unlocking-landscapes/id1551547335 Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/3fkXaryfdB1g0PVdz6WPMb Podbean: https://unlockinglandscapes.podbean.com Chantelle and Sam share their experiences of protecting and managing… Continue reading Unlocking Landscapes podcast: south London’s ancient woodlands

Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: how I garden for wildlife (in 3 minutes) – video

This morning I recorded a 3 minute video zipping through the key areas of my garden and how they support wildlife. Just before I pressed record a sparrowhawk nearly took my head off as it was chased away by a starling! Wish I’d caught that on the video.

Here I quickly outline the key habitats and luckily manage to film some bees demonstrating why ‘weeds’ are important, too.

I think I promised something like this a few months ago, so enjoy! Of course I’d love to do some more in future if I can find the time.

Thanks for watching!

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Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: City Nature Challenge 2021 (in the South Downs…)

In recent months I’ve become somewhat addicted to iNaturalist. It’s a website or app which collects species records but has AI which can identify a species from a photograph. It can be used by anyone and even has an auxiliary app called Seek which can scan plants, animals, fungi and other animals and identify in real time. It’s the way ecological monitoring is going. Nature conservation is dominated by too small a cohort of people and needs to find ways to open its doors to more people. I will never forget hearing of a lifelong species recorder who wouldn’t provide their sightings to science, and that they would rather be buried with them than share them.

It’s lamby time

Onto more inclusive ways of thinking, over this bank holiday weekend it’s the City Nature Challenge (CNC) where people the world over submit species records to iNaturalist and into the project. As of 10pm on Sunday 2nd May there have been 631,418 sightings submitted. Amazing!

I went to a part of the South Downs that was just about included in the Brighton CNC catchment. I used my zoom lens rather than a dedicated macro because I was doing general ‘work’ with creatures great and small. I used an Olympus 12-45mm lens which can still do macro to a degree (in normal camera terms it’s 24-90mm because I was using a Micro Four Thirds camera, which has a cropped sensor). It worked like a dream.

Xanthoria parietina, a sunburst lichen

I photographed each species once, rather than everything, which would never work – can you imagine? I’d still be there now. I really noticed how, even though I probably recorded about 100 species on the South Downs Way, it was dominated by a small number of species. Ground ivy was very common, as was hogweed, white deadnettle and nettles.

Another Xanthoria sunburst lichen

The most dominant species were nitrogen-loving, just like this golden shield lichen above which is able to deal with fertiliser and other agricultural pollutants. I wonder how different things might have been before the Second World War’s agricultural boom. The Downs is known to have lost a vast area of chalk grassland in the 20th century, one of the rarest and richest habitats in Britain.

Two ravens (centre) and a red kite

I will save you all the generic images of flower-less plants. I did manage to capture record shots of ravens mobbing a red kite, of which there were several. I love ravens, they are such intelligent and characterful birds. They are also not quite common enough to feel as familiar as crows or jackdaws.

A heath snail

One of my favourite encounters was with this heath snail which was curled up (so to speak) in the flower head of a dandelion or hawkbit. I instantly saw this and started talking to myself dangerously loudly about what a nice image it was. I hope you agree!

Hawthorn trees with the Arun Valley in the background

I inspected some old hawthorns that were dotted on the edges of the grasslands. I’ve heard they’re good places in the South Downs to find lichens. Though I found nothing outrageous, there were some beautiful species growing on the branches.

These are possibly the beard lichen Ramalina farinacea. iNaturalist has a weird name of farinose cartilage lichen. Farinose seems to mean mealy or floury. That’s a new one for me.

A small parcel of woodland atop the Downs

On this section of the South Downs Way there is a sudden square of woodland which the path cuts through. I had always thought this was perhaps planted or some recent woodland that had grown up on fallow land. But I found something that makes me think very differently about it.

Town hall clock

This is the first time I’ve seen town hall clock or moschatel. I was amazed to find it. It’s an ancient woodland indicator, which suggests that the woodland is far older than I had realised.

Cowslips flowering en masse

It was nice to witness the typical downland spread of cowslips. Last year we got locked down before this began, and now I’m just getting back here at the point that they’re peaking.

The view towards Amberley

The weather started behaving like something you’d expect in the Yorkshire Dales which cut my species recording short, bar a few desperate snaps in the cold and wet march back to the start.

I managed to capture this footage of a hunting kestrel, hardly macro, but worth sharing.

Thanks for reading.

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