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 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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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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Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: a hairy day in the hedge

We are at that point in British springtime that feels like a tipping point. The leaves of most deciduous trees are out in small, decorative versions of their summer selves.

The insect life has passed meaningful boundaries: mason bees have have hatched from the hotels and the early species are looking a little overwhelmed by the new life around them. Take the hairy footed flower bees. Now they will rest for a photo, after a month of never settling much at all.

I spent a five minute screen break in my garden observing the silent flight of a mourning bee, a bee that targets the hairy-feet. Its flight was deceptive, hard to know what kind of insect it was. That must be part of its success.

My small chunk of ornamental hedge was once again alive with insect action. There was a party of solitary wasps dancing at the edge of the hedge where I have had to cut back and replant. I will never be able to tell you their truest selves, such is their familial diversity.

A solitary bee that I see often but haven’t yet identified was flying in good numbers. It is such a hairy thing, with a flush of ‘facial’ hair and bristles jutting out from its abdomen. I think it’s an Andrena mining bee.

Hoverflies are always part of the picture. Droneflies flew in midair, legs akimbo, or else bathed with their motorbike helmet compound eyes monitoring my distance.

A brief visitor to the edge of a flower pot turned out to be something more interesting. Users on iNaturalist identified it as a species which is likely an accidental introduction to the United Kingdom, a species I haven’t knowingly seen before.

I spent some time with my camera-mounted face glued to the bee hotel. I am beyond caring what onlookers now think, simply because I’ve shared sightings with my neighbours and they are so keen to let me know what I’ve missed.

I’ve taken their advice on garden plants. Now a beautiful blue Lithodora sits in a pot on the patio, nectared on by hairy-footed flower bees. Lithodora is a borage relative, native to southern Europe.

Evening when the sun is softer can be a good time to check hedges for calmer insects at the end of a busy day. I found a non-biting midge with its punk-antennae. An expert on iNaturalist informed me that it is rare to identify these insects beyond family level, of which there are many! Whatever its acute identify was as a life form, this miniscule, barely visible to the naked eye. Its bottlebrush headpiece was the perfect way to see out a hairy day in the hedge.

Photos taken with an Olympus E-M5 MIII and 60mm f2.8 macro lens with 16mm extension tube

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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 Monday: the mourning bee

In this post: garden bees, extension tubes and woodland lichens

The ‘Stay at Home’ message has ended in England but I’ve learned my lessons in this pandemic year. Macro is a time-consuming activity and the less time spent travelling means more time spent honing the skill and having a good time!

One person whose photos and work ethic I really admire is Penny Metal. Penny’s work is focused on a small park in Peckham, south-east London. She photographs species I would never have imagined possible in Inner London, where green space is a rarity.

The lesson for me here is: keep it local, have faith and you never know what you might achieve. From one of Penny’s accounts last week I saw a mourning bee and a comment that they were abundant.

Now, I’ve only ever seen this bee in rural Surrey near to Box Hill (for those who don’t know, Box Hill is probably the closest SE England will get to a mountain and is a hugely popular place). It seems Penny was capturing a trend – mourning bees were perhaps having a good spring.

And then, on one afternoon last week I encountered this bee in my garden. Mourning bees are parasitic on hairy-footed flower bees, a species my garden is very popular with. I was delighted to witness it feeding on the shrub I can never recall the name of.

That afternoon felt like a watershed moment. Though we have gone from 24 degrees Celsius one week to sub-zero the next, the spring bees are now on the scene. The above is a red mason bee (Osmia rufa), the first I’ve seen this year.

There were more bees, most of whom were not willing to be featured on this blog. To which I would say: whatevs.

This weevil seemed to think it was having a Lion King moment. I’m here for it.

And this yellow dung-fly. It may spend its days cavorting on cow pats, but if you’re willing to pose for a pic for me like this, I don’t care what you get up to.

Away from my garden hedge, I’ve finally bought some decent extension tubes. This is to give better magnification for my macro lens and peer even further into the wild world.

Needless to say, it’s not easy. The woods are not great at the moment, after hot and then very cold weather, the wildlife is a bit baffled. In my local Narnia I tested my new kit out on these Cladonia cup lichens. A nice person on iNaturalist identified this as Cladonia polydactyla. The red tips were so small they could not be seen without a macro lens and the extension tubes. Hopefully it’s a decent start to years of the greatest lichen images the world has ever known.

Let’s hope so.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro Monday: the macro ninja

Last year we installed a pond in our garden. It’s nothing special, just an old washbasin bought from an antique shop sitting on the patio. It has flag iris, some figwort and other aquatic plants bought from the garden centre. I noticed a couple of weeks ago the first resident of the pond, a water beetle zipping around the underwater vegetation. I didn’t get enough of a look to identify it, not that I would have done much there anyway.

One morning I spotted a downy feather resting on the pond’s surface with some drops of dew sitting on it. Looking closely the feather’s fibres were like lightning bolts or fungal hyphae spreading out across the surface of the water. I was crouched down over the pond to the point that the postman didn’t see me and got a fright:

‘You scared the living daylights out of me there, Dan, you’re like a ninja!’

New Instagram handle: Macro Ninja.

Hairy-footed flower bees have continued their territorial dominance of my garden. The male bees are a flippin’ nightmare to photograph, the image above took a lot of channeling my inner ‘macro ninja’ to approach before it flew away.

In the past two weeks the all-black females have appeared and are now being followed by the male bees as their pairing routines develop. Above is an archive image from a few years ago.

Another sign of my rustiness is this sighting of a queen wasp visiting the small hedge. She was nectaring on flowers of the-plant-I-can-never-remember-the-name-of. I have posted quote a lot in the past year about wasps, I love them. A user on iNaturalist identified this as a common wasp queen, Vespula vulgaris.
The same plant was supporting both more species and the non-sensical notion that non-native plants or animals have no place on These Great Isles. This was perhaps the second or third marmalade hoverfly I have seen in the garden this year. They are a nice entry into the world of hovers and are super common.

An example of why bright sunlight isn’t good for macro photography can be seen in Exhibit Z, above. This was fly does have an orange beard though which was something I hadn’t noticed until I drove up the shadows bar in the editing software.

The nursery web spiders were basking once more in their spring way. They are lovely spiders and I think could probably help more people to partially overcome any fears they may have. This was an interesting article (with a clickbait title) on spiders being pushed into civilisation by floods in Australia. And then there was this about the discovery of a depiction of a spider god in Peru. I wish people revered invertebrates in the way they did birds and mammals. Also, fungi.

Finally, a sign of spring’s imminent arrival is this bunch of guelder rose flower buds. Enjoy these spring days if you’re living in the Northern Hemisphere, they’re gone before you know it.

Thanks for reading.

Photos taken with Olympus E-M5 MIII and 60mm f2.8 macro lens.

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Macro Monday: Return of the Mac(ro)

Macro Monday 1st March 2021

It’s true that macro doesn’t end when bees and butterflies are no longer on the wing. But there is something about the first flying insects of the year that feels different. Autumn and winter macro is often a static experience, a bit like landscape photography. In spring and summer, if you’re looking to photograph invertebrates, it’s sometimes a case of the wild goose chase, minus the goose. There is more energy required, a different set of skills in approaching skittish bees or wasps. You need to be more patient, and the results can be life-affirming.

After a cold snap at the beginning of February, we’ve seen much warmer temperatures towards the end of the month. The above photo doesn’t look like much, it’s a hawthorn bud. But it’s about to break and with it the incontrovertable truth that winter is finishing and spring is breaking.

Another sign of spring last week was the basking of nursery web spiders (Pisaura mirabilis). Here is one catching some rays on the petals of a winter hellebore in one of their favoured patches.

This spider let me get very close before edging away. When I stepped back I noticed that it had reverted to its favoured spot again.

My homegrown polypores are coming to the end of their fruiting stage, probably because there hasn’t been any rain this week for them. I think it’s turkey tail.

This year I am putting in more nectar rich plants which I know are good for bees. I’ve also got a new, bigger bee hotel as seen above. For anyone who’s interested I’ll put together a post on my wildlife garden and what has and hasn’t worked.

Thanks for reading.

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