Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Pocket Park safari

Last month we had a false spring, and I was grumbling about 'perfidious March'. Today was sunny and warm and I couldn't help feeling that this was the real thing. As Thomas Nashe put it:

                                    Spring, the sweet spring, is the year's pleasant king;
                                    Then blooms each thing, then maids dance in a ring,
                                    Cold doth not sting. the pretty birds do sing...

But this poem was a 16th century job. For us birds and flowers are far less abundant; things to be studied - and cherished.

I strolled over to our pocket park, with as much spring in my step as a 75-year old could muster. The drumming of a Great Spotted Woodpecker was immediately apparent but it was coy and I struggled to get a photograph.

Great Spotted Woodpecker.
Byfield Pocket Park. 9 April, 2014

This was the best I could manage. I was just lining up for a better shot when a heavy tractor passed nearby, with predictable results. A few minutes later it was drumming again - but much too far away.

I pressed on, keen to see whether any of the meadow flowers, planted so laboriously about eighteen months ago, had survived. I was not optimistic as the area had subsequently been overwhelmed with nettles and Rose-bay Willow Herb. But...

Cuckoo Flower, Cardamine pratensis
Byfield Pocket Park.  9 April, 2014

Pink Campion was flourishing, with flower-buds fattening up nicely and Cuckoo Flower, aka Lady's Smock had miraculously survived too. The faint lines on the petals are nectar guides, leading an insect to the nectaries at the centre of the flower. The lines are faint to us but radiate light in the ultra-violet spectrum, visible to many insects. The leaves can apparently be used as an alternative to its close relative, Water Cress but the Cuckoo Flower is also an important food-plant for Orange-tip butterflies. I'll leave it for them.


Female Melanostoma scalare, a very common hoverfly.
Byfield Pocket Park. 

As I watched hoverflies and other insects were calling in for re-fuelling. This specimen ended up under my microscope as it had some of the features of Melanostoma dubium
(a species normally of high ground) but I decided after close examination that it was the exceedingly common Melanostoma scalare.

The plants seemed happy though the species generally prefers wet meadows, as John Clare was well aware:

               And wan-hued Lady's Smocks that love to spring
               Side the swamp margin of some plashy pond.

                                                          Clare's Village Minstrel, 1821

Ground Ivy, a creeping plant of the Mint Family.
Byfield Pocket Park.  9 April, 2014

Ground Ivy, Glechoma hederacea, was also flourishing, attracting numerous bees. This charming species had not been planted by our working party and is abundant hereabouts. It is usually passed by without a glance, but the flowers merit closer examination.

Pied Shieldbug, Sehirus bicolor, poses on a stone.
Byfield Pocket Park.  9 April, 2014

White Dead-nettle is a close relative of Ground Ivy, both species being members of the Mint Family, Lamiaceae. It too was abundant and was attracting Pied Shieldbugs, Sehirus bicolor

Another shieldbug, the Forest Bug Pentatoma rufipes was also present but refused to pose for the camera.

Green Shieldbug on a fence post.
Byfield Pocket Park. 9 April, 2014

Less shy, basking on a fence post, was a Green Shieldbug, Palomina prasina.  It is, with little doubt, Britain's commonest shieldbug although today it was outnumbered by Pied Shieldbugs. It will have overwintered in a drab brown hue but the arrival of spring has prompted the green colour to develop.

Fence posts are always worth examining for insects. Wood warms up quickly in the morning sunshine and various flies will be observed basking.

A female Common House Fly basks on a fence post.
Byfield Pocket Park. 9 April, 2014

The Common House Fly, Musca domestica, is often - as in this case - found well away from buildings. It breeds in excrement and decaying vegetable matter. We learn from Peter Marren and Richard Mabey's book, 'Bugs Britannica' that "it is suspected of transmitting some 65 diseases, among them cholera, typhoid, dysentery, anthrax and leprosy".

Pisaura mirabilis on a dock leaf.
Byfield Pocket Park. 9 April, 2014

Numbers of flies were also basking on leaves. I crouched very still, camera in hand, to photograph a small group on a dock leaf. Suddenly they were gone: a spider had crept on to the leaf. It was a Nursery Web Spider, Pisaura mirabilis, very distinct with the yellow stripe on the 'head' (technically the cephalothorax) and the dark flanks to the abdomen.

I have been disparaging in the past regarding daffodils and their role in supporting wildlife. Certainly a few bees will pay a visit and today a Green Lacewing was present on a 'petal'.

Close examination confirmed that it was the very common Chrysoperla carnea. It is a valuable insect in the garden, where the female lays its eggs on suitable leaves. When a larva hatches it will begin feeding on aphids (greenflies). A lacewing may lay up to 300 eggs and each larva may consume up to 10,000 aphids. Valuable indeed.

Numerous other insects were present, generally of interest only to the enthusiast. I'll be spending the next few hours crouched over a microscope.

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