Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Wildlife photography’

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Macro Monday 17th August 2020

*Warning*: as you may have guessed, this post contains spiders. Some people may find some of these photos unpleasant, but it may help you to learn to overcome your fear. I am not a spider-psychologist so this is not professional advice, as ever.

Here are frequently asked questions about spiders if you want to dispel any myths!

Well, what a week that was. Very high nightime temperatures and unbearable heat through the day. I barely spent any time outdoors, let alone in the garden. I really struggle in temperatures over 30 degrees. Most of the images this week come from the post-heatwave days towards the end of the week.

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One evening, after the heat had largely dipped, I noticed some odd behaviour from a zebra jumping spider.

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It was hanging from the leaf of a climbing rose we have growing from a terracotta pot on the front of our house.

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I noticed there was another, smaller, zebra jumping spider (ZJS) lower down on the pot. I think this was some kind of territorial or even courting behaviour. Eventually the ZJS made it down to the terracotta.

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It was running around on the edge of the pot, looking for the smaller ZJS. It was a total nightmare to get in focus.

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There was also some time to clean its legs while it tried to find out what the other ZJS was up to.

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I’ve seen these lovely spiders all throughout the spring, but much less so in the summer. It was nice to see them again.

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I also noticed this crab spider floating in midair on its silk. There is something quite weird about this image I think. The limbs look a bit like human or robot arms. This was a pure fluke of hoping it got into focus, even then you can’t really see the spider properly.

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I’ve noticed far fewer insects in my garden, probably because the plants we have are largely over. I need to get some late-summer to autumn flowering species like stonecrop to keep things rocking and rolling. I had a look through the hedge while having an afternoon break after the storm took the heat away. I noticed this spider tucked away down in a bunch of leaves in the hedge. The silk is there to help catch prey but also it will react to movement, triggering the spider to attack.

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I visited my family home for the first time in 6 months last weekend, a really special experience after such a long time away. My parents are avid readers of this (perhaps that should say, the readers) blog and my mum pointed out to me that there was a big spider in the bath that I might want to include here! YES MUM!

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Now there have been several times this week when I’ve noticed out of the corner of my eye a shadow moving across the floor. This is something a lot of people are very unhappy about! But it’s the time of year when giant house spiders are becoming more evident. They are fiersome looking things yet they are harmless. They are more afraid of you than you are of it. They have every right to be afraid, because people will likely try and kill them when they see them, out of misplaced fear.

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That said, they are a bit scary to look at and those mandibles are massive. I had my small mirrorless camera with me and a macro lens. The images are quite harsh and grainy because the light was so dank and the flash is a pop-up one without a diffuser.

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The spider didn’t actually mind me at all. It was trying to remove some spider silk from its legs by running them through its mandibles.

Far from wanting to harm this animal, I am pleased that we can have such close encounters with big insects like these. If you let them go about their business, there’s no problem. No spider in Britain is venomous. This is not Australia!

Thanks for reading.

Photos taken with Nikon D5600 with Sigma 105mm f2.8 macro lens and SB-700 flash. Giant house spider photos taken with Olympus EM-10 MIII with 60mm f2.8 macro lens.

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Macro Monday 10th August 2020

Welcome to the weekly wasp.

A couple of years ago my friend recommended a book called The Snoring Bird by Bernd Heinrich. The book is a memoir about Heinrich’s relationship with his father, Gerd, an entomologist who collected ichneumon wasps but who was never fully accepted by the scientific or academic community. Bernd tells the story of his father’s escape from the Red Army in 1945 and how he buries his collection of ichenumonids so they aren’t destroyed. Gerd travelled around the world collecting specimens.

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In Britain we have poorer biodiversity than even our closest continental neighbours because of physical separation from the European landmass, intensifying land management practices, the impact of successive ice ages and, furthermore, the fact our climate is not tropical. But even then, we still have over 2000 species, which you can’t say for other fauna like birds or butterflies.

Reading The Snoring Bird consolidated a personal fascination with wasps, one which has not really travelled beyond blogposts, photos and seeking them out where I can. I’m not a collector of anything other than images.

Ichneumons have what we perceive as an unpleasant ecology. Females use their needle-like ovipositor to ‘inject’ their eggs into the burrows of insects, into crevices in wood or, most appallingly to our species, caterpillars or the larvae of bees. The eggs hatch inside the live caterpillar and eat it. It’s probably where the inspiration for the Alien films came from. To balance things out, insects inspired the creation of Pokemon.

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Last week I was sitting in my garden catching up with visiting family. I looked to my right at a pot of ornamental yarrow flowers (Achillea). I had noticed a bit of activity and glanced over to see a slender insect flying around the flowers. It was the equivalent of a video buffering over a poor quality internet connection. When it landed on one of the flowers I recognised it instantly as an ichneumon wasp. I ran inside to get my camera and managed to get some good photos: in focus, well lit and sharp enough.

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I have always wanted to see this species. Its scientific name is Gasteruption jaculator. To find it in my garden was a real surprise and one of the highlights of my time seeking wildlife.

Why might it have visited? We actively garden for wildlife, insects particularly, and there is a log store that this kind of species will seek out. A couple of months ago I saw a similar species hovering around the logs, but I couldn’t get my camera quick enough and it moved on.

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There are people whose first reaction to seeing this insect may be to kill it because of its ecology. That, to me, says everything about our misunderstanding of nature. A natural history lesson will tell us that without solitary wasps such as these we would have no social bees, a community of insects which prop up our dependencies on pollination of both crops and other flowering plants (including trees). Social bees evolved from solitaries wasps. The ichneumon’s ecological relationship with bees is one millions of years old, one small part of a web of life that has given human societies licence to develop through an abundance of food.

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However, this is an insect which has affected the way some of the science’s key thinkers have framed their own mortality. Darwin doubted that any benevolent God could have created animals which behaved in this way. Not sure about you, but I often think that about Donald Trump or Boris Johnson.

A few years ago I encountered a cousin of the ichneumon that visited me in my garden. It has a far shorter ovipositor and its scientific name is Gasteruption assectator. I was walking on the North Downs when I found the insect nectaring on hogweed flowers. A woman passed me and asked what I had found. I said I’d found the insect that made Darwin doubt God. She looked away with a knowing smile:

‘I remember reading about them,’ she said.

Thanks for reading.

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Recent photos taken with Nikon D5600, Sigma 105mm F2.8 macro lens, Nikon SB700 flash and Raynox 250 adaptor.

 

 

 

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Macro Monday 27th July 2020

The garden is very dry and the insects are becoming more scarce, but that can help to focus on a species and reach deeper into their ecology and the relationship we have with them. We’ll get to that in good time.

I’m writing this on a rainy day so hopefully summer won’t come to an end prematurely. I have one plant which I’m hoping will flower soon that my invertebrate friends will like.

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I did a lunchtime circuit of my garden on a warmer, sunnier day and found pretty much nothing. I was just heading back into the house when I spotted this zebra-like patterning on a towel that was drying in the sun.

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I realised it was a species of picture-winged fly! I think it’s a species of Urophora.

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I snapped a few pics and luckily they focused in on the eye. Looking at a towel this close shows what we fail to see with the naked human eye in terms of microfibres.

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The fly family were the most visible subjects in the past week. This is a species that seems not far from picture-winged flies. It’s probably Sepsis cynipsea, a scavenger fly. Its wings do this rotating movement as it hops around in the hedge. They’re known for their relationship with cattle dung, and there are farms about 2 miles away so maybe they travel into small towns as well for fun.

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Another black and white fly but much larger than the other species above. I really like these flesh flies, their black and ash-white patterning, and bright red eyes are really attractive. I appreciate that is probably not to everyone’s taste.

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But of course, this blog would not be complete without checking in on those gorgeous greenbottles.

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To The Man on the Street’s acute frustration, wasps are now active. I saw a wasp peeking out from behind a leaf in a hedge one lunchtime and found that it wasn’t moving. I picked it up and saw that it had been predated, with its lower abdomen missing. I think this was probably the work of a bird, as species like great tit are known to eat bumblebees by basically disemboweling them. House sparrows are also in good numbers in my garden and I often see them picking bees, flies and butterflies out of the air. In this case I’m praying that insects don’t feel pain 😦

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Over on the other side of the garden, this wasp was doing its woodcarving work. These woody fibres will be taken away and used to build the stunning nests they make. For anyone who has read this blog series before, you’ll know that I love wasps and am keen to promote their conservation in any way I can. Let’s talk about their nests a bit.

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This probably isn’t a common wasp nest but it’s the best external image I have. It’s a nest in a protected landscape in Czechia, the White Carpathians. I think it’s a social wasp nest, rather than a solitary species because it’s a bit bigger but I could be wrong.

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This was also taken in Czechia but in a different location. This is what it looks like inside a social wasp’s nest. Can you believe that this is built by wasps? It’s absolutely mind-blowing. We were walking along a forest road and it was sitting there on the ground. The best explanation we could come up with was that the nest had been predated by a honey buzzard and dropped in flight. Honey buzzards mainly eat this kind of thing. At least, that is the most spectacular explanation for why we found it.

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So next time you consider needlessly destroying a wasp nest, think about all the craft and insect-skills that went into it. Do you really need to harm it? Can you learn to accept them and keep a safe distance? Can you learn to love them?

Thanks for reading.

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Macro Monday 6th July 2020

Cooler temperatures greeted us this week after the recent heatwave. The gusting winds didn’t go away, though, and that makes it tricky for macro. The constant blowing sways the plants where the insects are, meaning that the number of photos you’ll get in focus will be far fewer than if it was still. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, though.

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Though our small garden isn’t up on a hill, it’s beginning to feel rather exposed where it sits in the Arun valley in urban West Sussex. I’m open to letting more of the shrubs grow to create wind buffers, not that it will make a huge different. One of the buffers is this ornamental hedge (which, after 6 months I still haven’t checked the name of in a garden centre). I found this ladybird in a state of metamorphosis, shifting from larva to adult ladybird. You can see its shell appearing from the skin of the larva, like superman minus the phonebox and slower.

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In the raspberry patch I found a solitary wasp. My insect guide gives nothing close to a resemblence to any species.

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The most popular plant in the garden now is this mallow. Lots of different species are foraging from it, to the point where I know an insect has been there because of those massive pollen grains. This is a red-tailed bumblebee, as you can probably imagine.

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I’ve noticed this ichneumon wasp (one of over 2500 species in the UK) spending a lot of time flitting over the flower buds. I presume it is using that needle-like ovipositer to lay its eggs. It has a beautiful chrome-blue eye. Again it has a pollen grain on its shoulder.

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This is another yellow-faced bee that I haven’t managed to identify. I love how papery the petals of the mallow appear here.

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The wool carder bees are still busy in good numbers on the lamb’s ears. This plant has been a revelation this year. At most I’ve counted 5 wool carder bees and this week I saw 3. They seem to be more at ease with me now (if that’s a thing, probably not) and don’t fly a mile when I sit next to the plant to get photos. They also allow me to get much closer than I could back in May.

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They are really attractive bees. What interests me is that they aren’t at all interested in the mallow but only the lamb’s ears and a foxglove which has popped up nearby.

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The lamb’s ears continue to be a perch for lots of different insects. I would say this is a common froghopper.

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The hot weather really has killed part of the lawn but I don’t care. I haven’t even cut it since April! One thing I have noticed is that our yellow-legged mining bee friends have begun to proliferate further into the other living areas of the grass.

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This was one of those cooler days, so perhaps this bee didn’t quite have the energy to get going just yet. Or perhaps it was just wondering what a giant was doing pointing a camera into their doorway.

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On my way back into the house one lunchtime I found a moth fluttering around at the door. I didn’t think much of it with my normal human eyesight but the photograph shows up something far more beautiful. The (undiffused) flash exposes the carpet-like patterns of the scales, with a hint of tiger stripes to the wing tips. It reminds me of curtains closed in a living room.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro Monday 15th June 2020

Each week, this blog is defined by the weather the week has thrown out. The headline photo of a wool carder bee sheltering under a leaf defines it pretty well. It’s been grey, sometimes wet, and very windy. That has meant more than anything that I’ve been focusing again on the garden. No trips to local National Parks this week.

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One of the regular lessons I learn from macro photography is that travel is not necessarily helpful. It’s knowing your location. Macro makes a National Park of a flower bed in terms of micro-locations to visit. A beetle is a bison, a bee is a beaver, if you see what I mean. In a raised bed where raspberries are growing prolifically one leaf has fallen and is housing these eggs. I’m not sure what they are, perhaps a shield bug.

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I’ve started to notice more ladybird-related activity (serious stuff). In the same raised bed as the previous image, this ladybird larvae was looking for trouble.

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I didn’t quite get a good enough photo of the moment the larvae began to bother the aphids it was hunting, but you can see it here in close proximity. Ladybird larvae predate aphids, one reason why ‘gardeners’ (that highly opinionated tribe) like them, because aphids can damage plants. These larvae also can give a human quite the nip. When the larvae approached the larger aphid it began to do this aggressive waving of its legs. It seemed to work, the aphid didn’t get anywhere and went to hang out at the tip of the leaf as above.

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I found the next stage of that larva’s development. This ladybird has just exited its pre-adult stage. It had taken about a week or more, which is a lot longer than I thought that would take.

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The cooler, greyer weather is brilliant for macro because it slows insectlife down and creates much softer lighting. Direct sunlight can make images unmanageable. This lacewing-like insect looked to be dining out on some kind of egg or larval stage on a leaf in the hedge. I enjoy the little herd of aphids in the bottom corner.

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In the same hedge I noticed the movement of a small, wasp-like insect. To many people you may think that means yellow and black. I doesn’t but it’s quite difficult to describe. I got lucky with this picture, the autofocus (which is not the best way to take macro, manual focus is better) zapped right on the eyes just before it flew away. I actually thought at first that this was a gall-wasp, the kind that makes galls grow on oak trees and other plants. But I think it’s probably an ichneumon wasp, one of over 2000 species found in the UK. I say this on account of its long antennae.

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Yellow-faced bees are tough to photograph, as the above illustrates- it’s not in focus! But it was only later that I noticed something else. At the gap in the flower heads (this is a yarrow from the garden centre) a spider is waiting. I know this because after the bee had flown I saw the spider come out, prey-less.

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On the same flower this rather agile looking hoverfly was seeking a nectar-based lunch.

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The cool, grey days are a good time to look for insects on wooden surfaces. I remember reading a blogpost a couple of years ago all about fenceposts in rural areas for macro. The idea is that when it’s cold, and especially windy, it can be a great place to find insects that are too cold to move. I wish I could say the same for this solitary bee, which only let me get this close after about 15 minutes of muttering to myself while running up and down the garden.

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I’ve bought another thyme plant after seeing how popular it’s been with local pollinators. I was heading in for the evening when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a moth roosting on a leaf like a little bed.

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This is a micro-moth and, like so many species snapped in my garden, I don’t know which kind. I do have a micro-moth field guide but I can’t say it sees too much action.

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It’s important to remember that it’s not all about insect life, though. Cleavers, goose grass, sticky willy, whatever you strange English people call it, it has beautiful flowers. This plant is in the gardener’s ‘weed’ category (not marijuana, though it does have medicinal properties). The flowers are miniscule, and only by using something to magnify your vision can you really appreciate how beautiful they are.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro Monday 13th April 2020

Happy Easter to both of my readers. Hope you and your loved ones are well and that the social distancing is proving manageable. Apologies if this is appearing twice, I was so prepared that I accidentally scheduled an unfinished version of this three days early.

The temperatures have entered the insect realm now and what was tentative in making an appearance in recent weeks is now flying around on its in-built magic carpet. More of those later.

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I have been trying out a new toy, a diffuser for my flashgun. I bought it on Ebay for less than a fiver and it so far has made a massive difference. All the images seen here have been taken with the combination above. It looks hilarious. I’m generally using my Nikon D5600 and Sigma 105mm macro at the moment when nipping out into my small garden at lunch times. It has a crop-sensor which crunches the megapixels into a smaller image, excellent for macro. Attached to the front is a Raynox macro attachment which gives extra magnification.

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More good news. After three years of trying at three different properties a red mason bee has finally found my bee hotel to be sufficient accommodation. Expect to see more of them as the spring progresses and I develop my lurking technique. The key I’ve found is that the location of the bee hotel recieves almost constant direct sun and faces south. Even if it faces south but the available sun sometimes gets blocked, it probably isn’t good enough.

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This is the single greatest insect hotel I’ve ever seen. It belongs to a forestry academic in the Czech Republic on the farm where he lives in Bohemia. It’s about 6ft high and has logs, bricks and lots of clay which many insects love. I spent about an hour lurking around it one warm August morning and the diversity of insect life on it blew my mind. This is what I would some day like to construct for myself. But in the meantime the typical shop-bought bee hotel will have to do.

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I’ve been spending more time hanging around my stachys plant and it keeps coming up with the goods. God only knows what it will be like when it flowers. I could probably do a whole blogpost about it. It’s da bomb. It has the common name of lamb’s ear which is perfect for this time of year. It’s also known as silver carpet (more like magic carpet). This is a groundbug that was perched on a leaf tip, perhaps it’s a birch catkin bug.

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Deeper within the silver carpet I found a capsid bug climbing vertically up through the plant. It took lots of attempts to get this picture. I love the labyrinthine or cave-like feel.

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I’ve recently re-watched The Little Mermaid and this empty spider skin or casing looks to me like one of the lost souls held by Ursula at the bottom of the sea! Those eyes are haunting.

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I’ve been pushing the extreme close-ups to the limit of my equipment. This insect looks somewhat like a relative of a mosquito or gnat. It was absolutely miniscule, barely visible to the naked eye.

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Most triumphant aphid of the week is this character here, claiming the sliver-carpet for itself. I read once that aphids can be carried across continents by sudden upsurges in windflow that draw them up into the sky and then, who knows.

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I’ve also ventured further into the back of the garden where it’s cooler and there are different plants growing. This leafhopper made a lovely contrast with the velvety leaves that are unfurling in the shade. I enjoy the cartoon eyes.

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A few days later I found what I expect are planthoppers in their metamorphic stage, moving from larvae to adult insect.

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This one was incredible up close, like some kind of armoured beast from a sci-fi programme in the early-1990s. I had toys that looked just like this when I was a child.

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Looking equally angry (and rather punk-like) this picture winged fly was poised to take off. As spring progresses, each week will start to show different species of plants and therefore insects. The first butterflies are on the wing now, so let’s see what happens!

Thanks for reading and stay away from each other.

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Here’s a recommended video from a very accomplished macro photorgapher, Thomas Shahan, which was posted this week:

 

 

 

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