Nature Diary for May 2011
April 17th I had arranged to meet two friends to search a heath, which will remain anonymous, for the very rare Ladybird spider (Eresus cinnaberinus/niger) it has long been a dream of mine to see a live specimen. We started our eager search about 10 am, scouring the heath for several hours without a break our eyes glued to the ground and finding everything from green tiger beetles and lizards to Big Cat spoors but having no success in finding (Eresus). By now the sun was high and beating down on us making it very uncomfortable and the fact that my boots were soaking wet where we had traipsed up to our ankles occasionally disappearing up to our knees through several areas of bog, my socks soaking up water like sphagnum moss didn't help. Anyone who has not experienced the wonderful feeling of walking in water-logged boots has not missed anything, but I kept telling myself this is the right time of the year, also being sunny is when the male leaves his burrow to go in search of a female. We did eventually arrive at the location where the spider had previously been seen but after five hours of searching, I was about to give up and call it a day, I had become hot, sweaty, and tired and in urgent need of a bath when one of my friends called out "I have found one". I thought, a wind up right now is all I need to complete the day, I instantly replied "Only one" in a sarcastic voice, he replied "I am not joking, come and see for yourself". Well, I couldn't get there quick enough, all signs of tiredness suddenly disappeared, I was there in seconds and there on the ground before my eyes was this beautiful wandering scarlet gem. I cannot explain the emotion I felt as I gazed at its beauty, I felt tears starting to make my eyes blurry and found it very hard to focus and hold the camera still, my hands were shaking with excitement, believe me when I say that this spider has to be one of God's finest creations in miniature is no exaggeration. By lying on the ground with my elbows acting as a tripod I managed to get a couple of shots of it before it disappeared into some heather. Some of you are probably thinking my god all this trouble and excitement over a tiny spider, but you would have to see it for yourself to understand such emotion. The late Gerald Durrell said of this spider in his book The Garden of the Gods "I saw something so startlingly beautiful that I could hardly believe my eyes, it was a tiny spider the size of a pea and at first glance it looked like an animated ruby or a moving drop of blood", the perfect description. I feel very privileged to have seen and photographed this very rare spider, it will be a moment that will remain with me always, and I will never forget it.
April 22nd While doing an early morning walk in the recreation ground my wife and I came across a dozen or so Adela viridella, commonly known as fairy longhorn moths, these small day flying moths have a wingspan 14-18mm the upper wings are a metallic green and the under wings a metallic bronze, the males have wonderful long white antennae. As we watched these small insects dancing together in dappled sunlight it was easy to understand why Victorian children thought they were fairies.
April 27th I put out my moth trap for the first time this year and the species taken were: 1 Angle Shades, 1 Pebble Hook Tip, 1 Nut Tree Tussock, 1 Iron Prominent, 2 early Shuttle Shaped Dart, 1 Knot Grass, and 1 Orange Footman, not many for late April but the night was quite cool.
May 7th I visited Dunyeats Hill pond to see what early Dragonflies/Damselflies had made an appearance hoping that I might see a Vagrant Emperor (Anax ephippiger). This dragonfly has invaded the country recently from the Sahara Desert after their ponds had dried up. The male is brown but can be identified by a bright blue spot/segment at the base of the abdomen, sightings of this dragonfly in 2011 have been recorded in Christchurch on April 28th and Weymouth on May 2nd but on arrival the usual Large Red damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula) was on the wing in tandem, the female laying eggs in the submerged vegetation. An early male Broad-Bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa) dragonfly was resting on a dead stem of Reed mace and a Hairy dragonfly (Brachytron pratense) was constantly on the move.
A week later while surveying the heath for reptiles I sighted a Four-Spotted Chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata) laying eggs and several male Broad-Bodied Chasers aggressively defending their territories, also an early male Black-Tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum) made an appearance flying back and forth skimming the surface searching for food. After two years of living amongst rotting leaves and debris at the bottom of the pond as a larvae the time comes when they climb to the surface on a reed or other water plant stem where metamorphosis takes place and, from an ugly alien that looks like something from a science fiction film, emerges a beautiful superb flying machine. The blue pruinescence on the abdomen appears once the insect has become mature, then living for approx four months if it is lucky enough not to have been eaten by a bird or reptile.
While surveying I also found six new plants to be added to my flora list of Dunyeats Hill: the Hairy Tare (Vicia hirsute), Black Medick (Medicago lupulina), Narrow-leaved Vetch (Vicia augustifolia), Star Sedge (Carex echinata), Clustered mouse ear (Ceratium glomeratum) and Lesser stichwort (Stellaria graminea). On making my way back home I observed two male linnets but no Dartford warblers, where have they gone? And under one of several refugia surveyed I found my first Smooth snake of 2011.
At home I have a small area at the back of my garden devoted to wild flowers or weeds whatever you want to call them, among these I grow (Alliaria petiolata), commonly known as Jack-by-the-hedge or Garlic mustard. This hairless plant when crushed smells of garlic and flowers from April-July, I grow it for the Orange tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines) hoping she will lay her eggs on the small flowers. Once they have hatched the tiny caterpillars make their way to feed on the developing seed pods and at first are hard to find being tiny and the same colour as the pods. I am always looking for them and this morning I found several tiny green caterpillars, now the question is are they orange tip or sawfly larvae? I shall have to wait and see how they develop. Caterpillars have four/five pairs of abdominal prolegs, Sawfly larvae always have more. A week after making the discovery of these tiny green caterpillars I can definitely say they are orange tip, but I shall watch them closely being that they are a noted cannibal. Isn't nature wonderful!
Keith Clements - Parks, Nature Reserves & Heathland