The Sussex Weald: the piping woodpunk

On the last day of May I set off on a walk into the High Weald not far from where I live. It was spring at its height, with warm weather more like the summer months to come. I waited until the late afternoon to head out for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I don’t love walking in the heat, secondly, the light is better for photography when the sun’s glare has softened.

The willows had begun to release their seeds, the ground covered in a coat of white fluff. This seed dispersal is what makes willow so effective. The catkins are pollinated by bees, flies and other insects, which then produce the seeds. The same effect comes from poplars, which are willow relatives.

Hawthorn peaks around the end of May and I always look for insects on its nectar-rich flowers. I didn’t have a macro lens at the time but with my zoom found this large sawfly nectaring. Sawflies are relatives of bees and wasps, though sawflies actually came first. Their reputation is usually defined by the behaviour of the larvae of a species which can eat roses. You can of course say the same about many other species, moths for example.

The High Weald is home to a lot of Scots pine, where it succeeds the once open heathland. I have always been confused by the ‘native range’ of pine, whether it is naturally occurring in places like the Weald. It was planted for forestry, especially on the heaths, though it is not being harvest in the same way here anymore. Pines are gymnosperms which came before the flowering plants (angiosperms). They evolved over 300 million years ago, whereas angiosperms ‘arrived’ 130million years ago.

A flowering plant I was hoping to find on this walk was lily of the valley. Last year I found this beautiful plant in the very same spot. Someone who works on this site told me that it may be evidence of earlier human settlement because it was once cultivated for perceived medical purposes. That would require a blog in itself!

Having spent several years working, walking and hanging around in woodlands, you become accustomed to hearing certain birds and learn about their behaviour. One call I’m unlikely to forget is that of the great spotted woodpecker nestling. I was walking along a track, mostly minding my own business, when I heard the piping of the little woodpunks. There didn’t seem to be many suitable trees around, but the birds were definitely there.

Continuing down the path I saw that a hole had been made in this standing dead birch tree. I could hear a nestling but also another woodpecker nearby, outside of a nest. I used the foliage seen here to hide for a while – still on a footpath – and see what would happen.

The nestling soon popped its little head out of the tree hole, calling for its next meal. They are beautiful little birds. I did once have the chance to see one up close after it fell out of a nest:

They are beautiful, reptile-like birds. I once said to a colleague who was also a herpetologist that they look reptilian.

He scolded me: ‘they are reptilian!’

The Wealden woodpunk did get its dinner after a while. A parent bird returned to pass food between bills. It was such an incredible thing to witness and all the more special because I had not expected to see it that day. It was also interesting to see the role of fungi in this breeding opportunity. The birch tree had been softened internally (if not actually ‘killed’) by birch polypore, a type of bracket fungus. I received several other examples from people in London of great spotted woodpeckers breeding in standing dead birch trees. It should be a lesson to people managing woodlands or birchy landscapes such as heathland – this is an important tree species in the wider ecosystem.

The first oak leaves were out in that lovely fresh green, which will soon turn more leathery and a deeper shade.

New holly leaves were appearing also, like little flames or woodpecker crests in the shade.

On the return home from the woods, I noticed these large spikes of orchids in a field. A new farm building had been built in the background. At the edge of this field, alongside the footpath I was on, the landowner had tried to plant leyland cypress and laurel, probably the worst things to plant in this landscape, next to rhododendron (which was nearby anyway). It seemed so mean-spirited to block the view of this expanse and its rare flowers for people passing by. Do people know how privileged they are to own land like this in England?

I know this beech tree agreed with me (yes, it’s been a long year). Or at least that’s what its facial expression seemed to suggest.

Thanks for reading.

The Sussex Weald

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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 Monday: the red wasp makes the raspberries

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Macro Monday 3rd August 2020

Summer came back last week. The annual breach of 30 degrees celsius took place, with more forecast for the month ahead. The warm weather meant there was a lot of activity in my garden, with opportunities to find wildlife lasting until dark.

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The hedge has seemed less active in recent weeks, whereas in early June I could sit in front of it and find too many insects to photograph. But this week I found this tiny sawfly, or at least I think that’s what it is.

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It’s a relative of the bees, wasps and ants (Hymenoptera). I know this because of its eyes, both the compound side set and the ocelli on the top of the head. The antennae are long and wavy like an ichneumon wasp’s. I didn’t quite manage to get it perfectly in focus but I think the composition came out quite nicely.

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I’ve noticed a number of amber-coloured beetles around the outside of my house and the garden. I also found one in the raspberry patch. I think it’s a hawthorn leaf beetle. It was nowhere near a hawthorn.

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The other week I disturbed something in my garden that flew up from the grass and away into a small tree a few gardens away. It looked a bit like a flying fish. Picking raspberries one evening, under the only trees we have – small sycamore, rowan and a larger magnolia all crammed in – I noticed that this cricket was trying to remain hidden among the long grass. It’s a dark bush cricket.

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One of the most important parts of managing my small garden for wildlife has been to allow the grass to grow long for a time. I’ve also found frogs at the back in a cooler, shadier area where the grass has grown. If you can leave some of your lawn to grow between May and mid-July, I would really recommend it. I only mowed mine this week, mainly because the rye grass is setting seed and my old sleepy cat seems to be allergic. Also, it’s the right time of year in the world of meadow management.

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I’m starting to see more nymphs appearing, and I don’t mean the fairies. That’s another story. This is probably the nymph of a dock bug. Again, it’s in the raspberry patch, which is where this blog ends with a flourish.

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As I mentioned earlier, the warmer days have meant that insects have been active longer. When we were out picking the day’s raspberries, I noticed an insect pollinating the raspberries at speed. I couldn’t get a proper look or get a decent pic.

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Given some time, I saw that the insect, a type of wasp, was going to the same flowers in a cycle around the patch of raspberries. It didn’t mind me getting closer as time went on and the night drew in.

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My first thought was actually quite extreme – Asian hornet! But this wasn’t an invasive non-native, “killer hornet”. It was a species of wasp. With more time to observe it I could see its red eyes and red striping to its body. It’s a red wasp. I love those eyes! Let’s also not forget that these wasps here are pollinating raspberries that my family and friends will later eat. Wasps are pollinators more than they are pests, the tide needs to turn on that damaging myth before our insect populations are harmed any further.

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I know this blog is pretty much a wasp fanzine week after week, but these animals are so amazing. I had never expected to see this species in my garden. But it highlights the joy of this entire project. Each species seen here this week, bar the dock bug, is a new species for the garden list. Many of the species I’ve seen I will never be able to identify, but that feeling of newness and discovery is precious to me.

Next week: more wasps.

Thanks for reading.

Photos taken with a Nikon D5600, Sigma 105mm f2.8, Raynox 250 adaptor and Nikon SB-700 flashgun with diffuser.

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