A Kaleidoscope of Colour – Wildlife watching in 2020

As the world seems grey as we enter the new year, both literally and metaphorically, now seems a good time to try and bring some colour into our lives. I understand that some people have chosen to keep their Christmas lights and decorations on during January to lift people’s spirits. They are in good company alongside English Heritage and Durham and Salisbury cathedrals keeping to the medieval tradition of celebrating through till Candlemass on the 2nd February.

My contribution to brightening up the new year is to reminisce on the kaleidoscope of colour from last year’s wildlife sightings, both from the NNR and locally when exercise was taken from our home base.

The Bloody nosed beetle Timarcha tenebricosa was one of the first wildlife sightings of last year

Black may not seem the likeliest colour to start with but the black sheen of the fused elytrae (wing-cases) of the Bloody nosed beetle Timarcha tenebricosa was one of the first sightings I made when I started my local lane walks last March. Their slow cumbersome walk along the hedgerow bottoms seemed to reflect the demand to slow down and observe! Those same adults may be overwintering if they matured last spring – as individuals can live 15 months – feeding occasionally in milder weather and any eggs laid in late summer may be in diapause hidden in vegetation waiting for spring.

Photos: Violet oil beetles have a distinctive purple sheen to their bodies; The violet oil beetle larvae favour yellow flowerheads such as the Lesser celandine

 Whilst I noted the appearance, and disappearance, of the bright sunshine of celandines locally, the restrictions last spring meant that the annual emergence of the adult violet oil beetles in the Bovey Valley Woodlands were missed. The purple sheen of these ephemeral creatures, that disappear from view by June, are to me the coming of spring in the way others think about the cuckoo. Much is still unknown about the life cycle of the violet oil beetle, but we do know that last year’s eggs are overwintering in the soil ready to hatch into triungulins, the first of several larval stages, this coming spring. They favour yellow flowerheads and use the Lesser celandine (Ficaria verna), buttercups and dandelion flowerheads as pick-up points to hitch a lift on visiting solitary bees back to the bee nests where they will spend winter 21/22 underground. They will be the adults of 2022 when they emerge after several instars ready to breed in the glades of the Bovey Valley Woodlands.         

Photos: The distinctive Thick legged Flower beetle Oedema nobilis; Flower Crab spiders Misumena vatia can change colour to conceal themselves

Some beetles are much more flamboyant and colouring in all insects is for a multitude of reasons. The male Oedemera nobilis a grassland species that feeds on pollen has both a green metallic sheen and extraordinary bulbous hind femora, hence its literally accurate though insulting sounding common name.  Though this image was taken on Rora Down it is common and can be found in woodland glades and track edges. As noted, the habit of occupying flower heads is not just for the convenience of photographers but a multitude of other reasons. Crab spiders (Thomisidae) conceal themselves within vegetation saving themselves energy in capturing unsuspecting prey. Not all crab spider species can change colour, however, the Flower Crab Spider (Misumena vatia) does have a limited ability to adapt to petal colour. The Green Crab Spider can be found in evergreens and has been noted on oaks and it would be interesting to know if it is present within the NNR. 

Nurseryweb spider carrying an eggsac Pisaura miribilus
Garden Spiderlings Araneus diadematus

Individual spider species overwinter different stages of their life cycle and my knowledge of the life cycles of individual species is sparce but last summer heralded the opportunity to observe elements of the life cycle of a number of species up close. One bunch of youngsters that caught my attention was the cluster (the official name for a group of spiders) of Garden or Cross spiderlings, Araneus diadematus, bright yellow with a black spot so easy to identify. The spiderlings were extremely sensitive to air movement, rapidly separating up the mass of silk threads with the slightest approach, presumably checking for prey. When mature they disperse using a silk parachute thread (ballooning or rappelling) which I did not observe. The recognisable cross of the adult appears on the upper surface of the abdomen, made up of swollen cells filled with a protein by-product called guanine. 

An abundant spider on garden vegetation was the Nurseryweb spider (Pisaura mirabilis). I was never sure if I was observing multiple females guarding their nursery webs or if some females were producing consecutive egg sacs. Females were spotted both carrying their egg sac and guarding the spiderlings as they went through their moults and finally dispersed. One nursery was observed for 8 days from its first appearance to dispersal with the female constantly on guard. 

Photos: Caterpillar of the Jersey Tiger Euplagia quadripunctaria moth; Adult Mint moth Pyrausta aurata

During an investigation of foliage damage on comfrey a beautiful Jersey Tiger moth Euplagia quadripunctaria caterpillar was found snugly resting in the flower head during the heat of a summer’s day, a first sighting of the moth in its larval stage. In the cool of the evening, it went back to munching through the leaves and after a few days disappeared from sight, presumably to pupate. The small but richly coloured Mint moth Pyrausta aurata was a regular sight and deserves a place in any celebration of nature’s colour palette. The common name comes from the foodplant of the caterpillar, the Labiate family including mints and wild thyme.

An iconic image of lazy hot days is the buzzing of bumblebees, and bees of all descriptions were seen nectaring and collecting pollen during the prolonged sunny weather last year. Whilst many solitary bees, as mentioned earlier, use natural sites there is a recognised need to supplement these with solitary bee nest boxes. Red Mason solitary bees made extensive use of a garden nest box carrying in damp soil to create a series of cells in each tube. It was interesting to observe the bees reverse into the entrance to deposit eggs in each cell. Although there was an almost full house by the end of the summer the cells have since been trespassed on by an unknown interloper and it appears that few of the developing larvae have survived.

Although I am sure that the Median wasp Dolichovespula media has been using local fencing and shed wood unnoticed for years, as nest building material, the gentle scratching sound advertised its presence one day.  Their suspended nests are built in hedgerows and shrubs, though the nest was never located despite continued collection of nest material into late summer. The species was first recorded in the UK in 1980 and has spread across southern counties with no known detriment to native species. It can be distinguished by yellow markings on the top/front-sides of the thorax which look like two mirrored number 7’s when viewed from above. As with other social wasps, the only nest members that overwinter are the new queens. 

The crisp cold winter weather and slowly lengthening days are the ideal opportunity to observe aspects of the NNR,  like lichens, that can be overlooked when the lush tree canopy envelopes the woodland. Dog-lichens, as the one seen here along the River Bovey in Hisley Woods, were believed in medieval times to be a good treatment for dog bites as their pronounced rhizines (root like structures that anchor the lichen to the substrate but are not able to absorb nutrients like roots) resemble canine fangs, explaining their alternative name of dog-tooth lichens. 

The mass of red stems of the parasitic plant Dodder Cuscuta epithymum (Haytor Down)

Higher up on the moorland the bright pink tendrils of Dodder (Cuscuta epithymum), seen here on Haytor Down, have long gone but are lurking in the shadows waiting patiently for warmer times. Dodder has several strategies to take the title of ‘most rapidly growing parasitic plant’ one being to overwinter as parasitic tissue by penetrating the woody stems of its host and inducing gall formation.  

I will be out with my camera again in 2021 reminding myself that the annual cycle of wildlife is carrying on regardless. If you are able to get out, enjoy your walks in nature and have a good 2021 wildlife watching.

Written by Linda Corkerton

Some interesting books for when you can’t get out and about!

Spiders by C Warburton. Originally published in 1912 but still in print. I picked up a secondhand copy in Scotland a few years back – an enjoyable romp through spider biology and ecology. Not an ID book

Britian’s Spiders A Field Guide by Lawrence Bee, Geoff Oxford and Helen Smith

Beetle by Adam Dodd 

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