The lackey in the Cuckmere valley ๐Ÿ›

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 ๐ŸŒน

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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Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: 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 ๐Ÿ“ท: 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 whatโ€™s known as โ€˜the silly seasonโ€™, when Britainโ€™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 Iโ€™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, itโ€™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 โ€“ imagine all the ecological networks and relationships between species which we actually have no idea about. In places of the highest biodiversity, theyโ€™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 โ€“ a chalcid wasp in the genus Ormyrus. โ€˜Chalcidโ€™ comes from the Greek word for โ€˜copperโ€™ 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 wasnโ€™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 donโ€™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 couldnโ€™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 donโ€™t know much about the very small wasps, and one thing I really didnโ€™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 ๐Ÿ“ท: 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 ๐Ÿฆ๐Ÿฆ๐Ÿฆ). 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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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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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: 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… Continue reading Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: hoar frost

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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From Brockenhurst to Lyndhurst in the New Forest ๐Ÿ‘ฃ

In April I walked from Brockenhurst to Lyndhurst and back in the space of two days. This post focuses on the first day walking from Brockenhurst railway station. Iโ€™ve created a route of the walk here. These are probably the New Forest’s biggest towns, with Brockenhurst being bigger than Bournemouth until the advent of the… Continue reading From Brockenhurst to Lyndhurst in the New Forest ๐Ÿ‘ฃ