The lackey in the Cuckmere valley 🐛

I was out and about in the Cuckmere Valley in May and had the chance to learn a little bit about some of the species found there. Here’s a small selection of images, a blend of phone pics and some from my camera.

Once again I was treated to the sight of early spider orchids, a plant I blogged about only recently. This was a big surprise, having spent a lot of time looking for them elsewhere. This is a nationally rare plant and I won’t be giving away its location. I did get the chance to learn that the flower mimics the scent of the buffish mining bee. The male bee is lured in and attempts to mate with the flower, thereby pollinating it. In the photo above you can see the pollen grains that have been helpfully, accidentally, applied by the visiting bee.

The mining bees live in the nearest exposed areas of chalk where they drill their burrows. It’s a short commute to their deceptive orchid neighbours.

The blackthorn hedges were holding populations of moth caterpillars that cover the branches in webs of silk. This is the kind of thing that pops up in local newspapers as some kind of wild clickbait. The moth is known as the lackey in English. What the significance of that name (or any of the number of weird moth names) is unclear to me.

We found this proto-Mesolithic (Stone Age) scene, with a discarded King Alfred’s cakes fungus. The fungus had probably been used to maintain the fire of one or more disposable barbecues. The stones were littered across the scorched earth like the throwaways of some prehistoric stone mason.

On the banks of the Cuckmere’s static meanders are ranks of hoary cress. At first I thought they looked like a type of sedum but in fact they’re in the cabbage family. This is an introduced species.

A view back up the Cuckmere meanders, at very low levels for the time of year. Two little egrets can be seen here.

Thanks for reading.

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The South Downs

April flowers at Nymans 🌹

My partner and I made a couple of visits to Nyman’s in West Sussex recently to drown our sorrows after the death of our lovely rescue cat. We drowned those sorrows in flowers. Nymans is one of the jewels in the Sussex Weald, with amazing views across woodlands towards the South Downs.

I usually photograph less formal landscapes than National Trust gardens, but perhaps I am too particular sometimes. The stark colours against the grey backdrop of the day (literally) make for really pleasing images. All the pics here are ‘straight out the camera’ and I haven’t edited them. Olympus cameras produce beautiful jpeg files which my experience with Nikon equipment has never matched.

Thanks for reading.

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Tooth of the lion 🦁

Back in London and a chance to see what my Mum and Dad’s garden had to show for itself on the first day of May. This is when we really start to get into the pollinator season, which peaks in July. The weather was perfect for macro with no harsh light. The forget-me-nots were still… Continue reading Tooth of the lion 🦁

Early spider orchids 🕷️

Chalk grassland is an incredible habitat. It’s extremely rich in plants and animals, with high cultural value from the historical assosciations with human activity over at least 8000 years. In the UK it defines the downlands of Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset and Wessex. Sounds like an episode of The Last Kingdom. Thankfully I was spared the sword (this time).

In early May I was fortunate enough to visit a chalk grassland site near Brighton with two people who knew the landscape extremely well. I had been invited to visit this area to help find early spider orchids 3 years ago but the pandemic got in the way of travelling there.

A landscape raked by stone, bone and iron

I visited on a sunny day in what was a very dry spring indeed (I hate how dry winter 2021/spring 2022 have been). We had heard of hundreds of orchids in recent weeks at the site but only found 3. It was baffling. Perhaps we were just too late and the dry conditions had brought an end to their season earlier than expected.

These orchids get their names from the fact their flower looks like a spider. You may be familiar with the names of bee, fly, man, lady, lizard and monkey orchids also.

They are truly beautiful.

During the survey a woman came over to talk about orchids. Her knowledge was incredible, with known locations across Kent and Sussex. She travelled by train from her home in north London.

She showed us a gentian, a type she said was only found at this location in the UK.

Perhaps the most abundant plant was milkwort, appearing in white, pink and blue.

This is some kind of daisy (probably hawkbit) with petals that look like hands shielding something.

There were a fair number of small beetles in the grasslands, including this click beetle (I think).

A nice surprise was finding a small blue, one of the rarest butterflies in the UK. This is a very small blue, though most of them in Britain are small anyway. They’re pretty much tied to chalk grasslands from what I know.

Thanks to Phillippa, Jan, James and Monica.

And thanks for reading.

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The South Downs

Tooth of the lion 🦁

Back in London and a chance to see what my Mum and Dad’s garden had to show for itself on the first day of May. This is when we really start to get into the pollinator season, which peaks in July. The weather was perfect for macro with no harsh light.

The forget-me-nots were still on fine form.

I noticed how the dandelions in their pre-flowering phase also look like lions. Their name actually means tooth of the lion from the French “dent-de-lion”, which is one of the great common plant names in my view. Also a reminder of how the English language takes from so many others (did you know English also contains ‘Viking’ words like sky, eggs, and happy?!) The leaves look like teeth but the flowers look like lion’s manes. I’d love to learn more about the history of the name in England.

The ladybirds were quite active. We may be looking at the invasive harlequin here.

I saw this micro-moth on a few occasions, if they are the same species. Their behaviour was similar and their patterning is also.

It’s always nice to see a bee-fly, unless you’re their prey. They can’t have much longer left of their season.

This cucumber spider was hiding away in a buddleia leaf.

This is one of the first green shieldbugs I’ve seen this year. They are a really common garden bug in England.

Mirid bugs are a quite big group, but this is definitely one species I’ve encountered often in suburban gardens.

My Dad spent ages trying to control the Spanish bluebells that were running rampant. They are a difficult species to remove. That said they are attractive both for photos and some pollinators like mason bees.

My final image was of a hoverfly I see quite a lot that holds its wings in to its body, making it difficult to observe its markings. I think this one looks like a metallic robot from a 1980s sci-fi movie.

Thanks for reading.

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Forget-me-nots and tawny mining bees 📷

I spent Good Friday with my Mum in London and managed to sneak in 5 minutes of macro photography in her garden. It was a warm but fairly overcast afternoon, which is pretty perfect for macro. This is because the light is softer, creating less contrast in images, and not so hot that insects are hyperactive.

Every spring my Mum and Dad’s garden explodes with self-seeded forget-me-nots, lesser celandines and garlic mustard. The forget-me-nots are truly stunning flowers.

Up close and under a macro lens they are even better. I didn’t get a photo of their full spread, but this tweet completely sums up how I feel about them:

I think it’s a good idea to normalise calling certain things ‘wildflowers’ rather than ‘weeds’.

Years ago my Dad used an old enamel sink to make a pond. We put some marsh marigold in which has proven very content indeed in that small basin. It’s a good nectar source for bees in particular.

One of my Dad’s favourite plants in the garden was the smokebush which grows outside the kitchen window. The colours are incredible when in full swing, but the plant is no less beautiful when it comes into leaf. One of the last proper conversations with my Dad was when I told him I had cut this back (it was getting quite big) and he thanked me for it. I can’t tell you how significant that is now.

I noticed a familiar bee whizzing around the gooseberry bush – another of my Dad’s favourites, which he would pick fruit from and put into desserts, but also curse the woodpigeons who sometimes ate all the crop in one go! This little red bee is a tawny mining bee, one of the early solitary bee species that we get in southern England. Here you can see it pollinating the gooseberry flowers, that highly valuable ecosystem service you may have heard about. Also note the ant approaching!

The ant is clearly approaching the bee, which in turn is shifting ready to fly. You can just about make out the ant’s mandibles opening in a threatening manner.

The ant has done its job and the tawny mining bee has fled the scene. I can only guess that the ant sees the bee as a threat to any aphid farming operations which are taking place on the plant, or happening nearby. The mining bee is no threat to the ant or the aphids. It only wants nectar and pollen.

I didn’t know that I had captured this scene – it is out of focus after all! But it is a reminder if you spend even a few minutes looking you will find some drama going on out there.

Thanks for reading.

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Is it safe to come out yet? 👀

Two years ago I began posting a weekly macro blog, mainly because of the UK Covid-19 lockdowns, which only allowed us to leave the house once a day. I kept to those rules to protect other people, ultimately sacrificing much of the time I would have been able to spend with my Dad in the final two years of his life. If you’re in the UK and in touch with current affairs, I think you probably know why I’m making that point. During the lockdowns I spent a lot of time in my garden, in a house we had only just moved into, and relished the opportunity to get to know the tiny lives being lived in the small space of my back garden.

I mention all this because I now have nothing like the same amount of time to spend outdoors in the garden. So what time I do have out there is precious. One thing that hasn’t changed too much is that I am one of those privileged people who is able to work flexibly and I can visit my garden on breaks. I’m yet to receive a passive aggressive post-it note from a bespectacled Somerset MP.

I popped out one morning recently and found a neighbour had returned, though they were rather nervous about leaving their own quarters. For many people, it’s a similar issue.

Last June I got some of my best ever macro photos as I leant over my fence, straining my lower back to capture photos of a fencepost jumping spider. I was pleased to see this beautiful spider in the same spot once again this year. It was rather timid and if I got too close it would dart back in. The photo above has been edited to bring out the shadows so you can see those beautiful cartoon eyes. I think this species is mainly interested in hunting the flies and other winged-insects that bask on the hot spot of the fence top.

The spider did venture out on occasion, but after a couple of minutes I felt it was best to leave it to do its work, what is of course key to its survival.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro 📷: the glowing bracken

One morning recently, I spent a couple of hours wandering around my local tract of the Sussex Weald. The bracken and beech were glowing as the sun edged its way up through trees. The sun had blown the world wide open. After a personal self-imposed Omicron lockdown to protect a significant event, it felt like the sun had ripped up that anxious feeling of being locked away. Life was in full flow:

Sun rising, melting the frost and ice in the woods. Winter bird flocks – blue tit, nuthatch, siskin, lesser redpoll. Great spotted woodpecker hammering to mark out its territory. The chirp of a skylark passing over the canopy, perhaps on migration, maybe heading to the South Downs. The hollow sound of the M23 and aeroplanes connected to nearby Gatwick. The strategic calls of crows. A jay screeching. Gunshots pop beyond the woods.

The light in January and February appears at a fairly sociable hour, and after frost the landscape glistens even more. At this time I seek out beech leaves, with their patchworks of fading cells and arrowing veins.

I was using my 12-100mm f4 zoom lens, with more a mind for landscapes, when I spotted this bracken frond dangling down with a droplet of water at its tip. The sun was creeping up through the pines in the distance. The melting frost in its path upon reaching the bracken providing the lush bokeh circles that bed the image down.

I read recently that the photons of sunlight that touch our skin take 200,000 years to travel from the sun itself. That’s around the time that our ancient Homo sapiens ancestors were evolving. So often we can barely see weeks or months ahead when the world we live in is so ancient in its making, it can feel impossible to comprehend. Taking the time to stop and think about it makes life so much richer.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro 📷: hoar frost

I am a big fan of Russian film and literature. Nature, wildlife and the landscape is often at the forefront of this great field of art. It’s the beating heart of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the poems of Anna Akhmatova and the short stories of Anton Chekhov. The vastness of Russia’s landscapes is central to much of the art to have come out of that amazing and poorly understood country (especially in the UK & US).

In Chekhov’s short stories there are simple, beautiful descriptions of nature. Chekhov travelled widely as a doctor, treating people across Siberia. It’s where he also found time to write his short stores, and much of that work was inspired by his encounters with ‘ordinary people’. The first place that I ever heard of hoar frost, was in one of his short stories.

Living in cities for most of my life where the heat-island effect quickly melted frost and ice, I didn’t really have the chance to see this until moving out to Sussex.

Ground frost forms when the air is still and cold, usually on clear winter nights. Water vapour in the air condenses on solid surfaces, and as the surface temperature drops below 0°C, ice crystals form.

The Woodland Trust: What is hoar frost and how does it form?

The other day on a morning walk before starting work, I saw something close to it. The night before had been clear and full of stars. In the morning I was walking near the river Arun when I began to notice the heavily-frosted grass heads of bent, on the edge of a tennis court where the strimmer can’t reach.

Frost will always remind me of my dad telling us as children that if you put your hand down the sides of the bed Jack Frost would get you (I wrote about this almost exactly a year ago). The cold down there felt so real. Dad got this story from his childhood, when he and his siblings would wake up in their house in Liverpool to find frost inside the windows. My grandmother would greet them all and say that Jack Frost had been to visit. Apparently they absolutely loved that he’d dropped by in the night!

I didn’t have a macro lens with me on this walk, but I pushed my camera’s capabilities to that point. Looking closely at a frosted web which was beginning to lose its frostiness, I noticed a non-biting midge that had become trapped probably days before. The beads of the melted frost were trapped in its hairy antennae and around its limbs. It would look spectacular in extreme close up, but without that equipment at the time, a view of the ‘unfortunate’ insect’s final resting space will suffice.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro 📷: the smallest wasps on Earth

This blog often complains about the poor understanding in England regarding wasps. I began drafting this post in the midst of what’s known as ‘the silly season’, when Britain’s tabloid newspapers turn their guns on gulls, wasps and spiders, with a seasonal vacuum in news. However, in a global pandemic there is no real vacuum in news, and there is no way I’m going to go looking through those rags for stories I know are rubbish. Perhaps it’s my Scouse heritage.

What I didn’t expect was for YouGov to run a poll on the most hated invertebrates in the UK. I don’t understand how this helps in a time when invert populations – which we depend on for survival – are crashing. You know what they say, don’t trust the polls. Unless it’s the most recent ones in which case please God let it be true.

Moving on.

Yes, you guessed it, this is another post about wasps. This time, it’s some of the smallest wasps in the world. The group I encountered, and which are shown here, could amount to a total of 500,000 species, with about 470,000 of those species unknown to science. Do you need help picking your jaw off the floor?

Reminder: we are just the one species, Homo sapiens.

You have to think sometimes – imagine all the ecological networks and relationships between species which we actually have no idea about. In places of the highest biodiversity, they’re being made extinct by the loss of habitat, before we even know they exist. Jair Bolsonaro has more to answer for than we may yet realise.

The wasp photographed here is now a species I know thanks to iNaturalist – a chalcid wasp in the genus Ormyrus. ‘Chalcid’ comes from the Greek word for ‘copper’ because they have a metallic appearance.

Back in August I visited a nature reserve local to me. The meadows had far more seed heads than flowers and I wasn’t intending to see a huge amount of invertebrate life. I give up on birds around July when they go on their holidays, usually low in a bush somewhere.

In actual fact I found a lot of species, many of them quite happy to be photographed, though of course not yet understanding of what a photograph is. I was drawn to a large area of dead nettle, a family so big there are many plants I just don’t know the names of yet.

Looking at some of the leaves of the plant, I noticed something about 3-5mm in length, resting on the leaf. When I looked through the macro lens and additional extension tube, which magnifies the view further, I could see it was a type of wasp.

This wasp is obviously a great deal bigger than that. That said, I couldn’t see that it had red eyes without some magnification.

Chalcid wasps are parasitic species, as outlined by their Wikipedia entry:

Most of the species are parasitoids of other insects, attacking the egg or larval stage of their host, though many other life cycles are known. These hosts are to be found in at least 12 different insect orders including Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), Diptera (true flies), Coleoptera (beetles), Hemiptera (true bugs), and other Hymenoptera, as well as two orders of Arachnida, and even one family of nematodes.

Wikipedia via iNaturalist

I’ve written about parasitic wasps before.

Now I don’t know much about the very small wasps, and one thing I really didn’t know was just how small they get. Some species of wasps are smaller than the width of a human hair, or even smaller than a single-celled organism!

Perhaps they’ll be the ones to get pilloried during 2022’s tabloid silly season. In truth, I doubt it.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro 📷: a photo each day in June for 30 Days Wild

In June 2021 I undertook a variant (not that kind of variant) of the Wildlife Trusts’ 30 Days Wild campaign. I decided to try a month-long project of taking a macro photo every day: #30DaysMacro.

It was a lot of work, mainly in processing and tweeting the photos to keep up with the community aspect. But it reminded me of the importance of making time for yourself each day, even if only for 5-10 minutes, to go outside and look at things other than a computer or phone.

In the past 18 months my salaried work has become screen-based, when once I used to spend several days outdoors each week talking to people and monitoring wildlife. It’s not healthy, but it’s a byproduct of UK lockdowns.

I feel a bit as if this was such an intensive assignment that it has burned me out a bit photography-wise, among everything else happening in Brexitland (it didn’t come home in the end 🦁🦁🦁). I definitely hurt my back from some poorly considered leaning over waist-high hedges (bending with my lower back, not knees, etc.).

Almost all the photos were taken in my small urban garden, with a handful taken away from home. All were in Sussex. I am adamant that travelling for macro is often unwise, depending on your focus. Macro takes a lot of time and if photographing wildlife, you need to know your patch. Otherwise you spend ages trying to understand the landscape when you could be taking photos.

Below I go through the photo captured each day. Hopefully this post unclogs my macro blogs, which have been waiting on this monster post for a while now.

Thanks for taking a look and I hope it inspires you to consider the wilder things in life.

1st June 2021: aphids protecting their young (I think) on the underside of a sycamore leaf.

2nd June 2021: a noble false widow spider in my porch. There is a whole lot of hysteria about this species, which has actually been in the UK since the 1800s. It has caused me no trouble.

3rd June 2021: a moth resting on a leaf at dusk. I was working quite hard to get this pic and as the temperature fell it calmed a bit and let me get close.

4th June 2021: a noble false widow spider on my kitchen surface ledge. The weather wasn’t great on this day, so I had to find something in my house!

5th June 2021: a red and black froghopper in the South Downs near Alfriston. I walked 20 miles on this day for Macmillan Cancer Support and found this lovely hopper snoozing in the field edge.

6th June 2021: a mint moth selecting its preferred thyme flower. This is one of the more common or visible day-flying moths I encounter.

7th June 2021: a green shieldbug, the most common of its kind in my garden.

8th June 2021: one of the highlights – a fencepost jumping spider in my garden (on the fence!). I wrote a post (lol) about this encounter which you can read here.

9th June 2021: a bumblebee worker drinking aphid honeydew from the curled leaves of an apple tree in my garden. This was fascinating behaviour, with many bees of different species visiting this tree to nectar. I posted it on Twitter and a lot of people got in touch to say they were seeing the same thing. Glad I shared.

10th June 2021: a wonderful caterpillar in my green alkanet patch. I’ve not attempted an ID yet.

11th June 2021: this is a fly I see often in the garden. It is so cool. Its wings often whirr around its body as it walks around a leaf.

12th June 2021: a weekend away in East Sussex, met this well-travelled painted lady butterfly along a country lane.

13th June 2021: the carapace of a European green crab at Rye Bay.

14th June 2021: a beautiful gingery moth that spent the weekend looking after my house for me. Not sure of the species.

15th July 2021: the halfway point and an exciting find. I spotted a bee in the garden which looked unusual. Having got a photo I saw that it was a sharp-tailed bee. Delighted to have this in my garden as I’ve never seen one before and it was a new species for the garden list.

16th June 2021: green nettle weevils are funny. They play hide and seek sometimes. This weevil was happy enough to have its photo taken for a little while.

17th June 2021: a wet and rainy day when I thought a photo might not be possible. The hedge in my garden was alive with these beautiful snails. I opened the aperture to allow blur to occur and highlight the swirling shell.

18th June 2021: common jelly spot grows on the bird table in my garden. After enough rain has fallen it bursts back to life and probably chucks out some spores.

19th June 2021: a plume moth on another wet one in the garden. I love the pattern on this species, which I think may be a beautiful plume.

20th June 2021: a trip to the Adur Valley which I blogged about here. A ruby-tailed wasp, one of the most beautiful insects in the UK.

21st June 2021: another rainy day. I have learned how to find meadow spittlebugs in grass heads in recent years after finding one just outside my back door.

22nd June: a hairy masked bee (perhaps the American name), one of the yellow-faced bees, Hylaeus. These are tiny bees and not easy to photograph.

23rd June: one of my favourite partners in macro, a zebra jumping spider. They’re devilishly tricky to get in focus sometimes. I think this is just out, but I like its posture.

24th June: a running crab spider waiting for its lunch delivery. The fly behind probably didn’t know it was there.

25th June: another highlight which caused quite a lot of back strain! Here you can see an ant harvesting (and I think consuming) the honey dew from aphids they have farmed. This needs a blog all to itself to go through the amazing ecology of these two species.

26th June: I went to my local nature reserve, a farm managed by the council, to look for some different types of arthropod (insects and spiders, basically). It was hard work but I got some decent images. I like this one because it looks like this beetle is attempting to get better signal! This visit needs its own blog post as well.

27th June: I was tired after my macro outing the day before but managed to find this small green fly in my garden. I like its 1980s robot-like compound eyes.

28th June: I had been observing a large, dangly spider that lives in the corner of my kitchen for several weeks. I decided to get a closer look and was amazed by what I found. This is a cellar or daddy longlegs spider. They are from the tropics and are well established in the UK, having been here for hundreds of years. This also needs its own post!

29th June: I planted stachys (lamb’s ears) especially for this species, the wool carder bee. I haven’t seen much of them this year but they did show up towards the end of June. I love them, they’re also easy to photograph in cooler weather as they just clamp on to the flowers and chill. I blogged about them in 2020.

30th June 2021: and so the final day. I dropped by a favourite Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve on the way home, which I posted about here. This tiny slug was having a good look at me as I searched for mushrooms and slime moulds. It felt like a good reminder that as much as I was watching the wildlife, it was also watching me.

Thanks for making it this far and I hope you will spend some time out there looking out for insects, spiders, slugs and snails. They need us.

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