Explosions; Swarms, Scents and Parental Care.

June 2018 proved me wrong. Dramatically. After the apparent crash of many species populations here in 2018, which I’d written about last time…

Came the rebound. Or recovery, and an explosion in numbers…

It began with the bumblebees on the first warm day, on June 2nd. Suddenly the terrace garden was filled with busy workers of several species, visiting all our stalwarts for early summer – the Aquilegia, Nectaroscordum sicculum, Geranium macrorrhizum and G. phaeum.

Then I noticed a few honeybees in the garden, though my impression was that they were sluggish in foraging activity compared with the near manic work rate of the bumbles.

The cuckoo kept up its frequent calling until June 15th, and certainly added delight to the scene this year. With warm nights early in June, a massive influx of Silver Y moths arrived. An immigrant species that flies up every year from Europe, they covered the swathe of Sea Campion that reliably flowers profusely and brings the garden right up to the wall of the house. At dusk it was suddenly alive with the blurring, whirring wing beats of these distinctive moths as the watch spring proboscis were uncoiled and probed for nectar.

Looking for other references to this invasion, I came up with this link, click here, on Horticulture week, referencing a big influx in the South West on May 30th recorded by amateur moth-ers, and advising growers to get their insecticides ready…Here we delight in such signs of diversity and at last, perhaps, a greater food supply for other animals. Including the house sparrow, below, which flew down from the eaves and grabbed one I was watching, nectaring on Campanula right outside our front door… As well as the Sea Campion, I’ve noticed the Silver Y’s on G. macrorrhizum, Yellow Rattle in the hay meadow, and even Sweet William which we’ve grown for the first time in quantity.

Not to be out done, our native Garden Chafers then exploded with a swarm type mating display… I’d noticed a few in the hay meadow over the previous few days, but was out there early on the morning of June 4th. The lower East facing slope was being warmed by the rising sun and even at 8.00 am the air temperature was hot as I stood and watched as waves of these insects appeared above the Sweet Vernal grass and Sorrel seed heads.

The individual beetles would clumsily cling to stems, then fly a few metres, before dropping down and disappearing into the lower grassy thatch as a cloud covered the sun and temperatures dropped slightly.

I’ve never seen anything like this before, and neither it seems had our local bird populations, but very quickly robins, sparrows and a jay realised a feast was being laid on and ignored my close presence with the camera to fly down and pick off the beetles as they clattered onto the margins of the meadow where we’d cut and removed a section for hay.

Apparently garden chafers are viewed as pests, not just because of the root eating activities of the grubs, which I wrote about last year, but also because large numbers of adults like those I was witnessing, can damage the surface of developing apples and cause significant wastage to an orchard’s crop. The typical signs are small lesions on the fruitlet’s surface, similar to the image below…

There’s an interesting recent report from Germany about how funnel traps have been developed to catch the adults and prevent such damage in an orchard environment, click here.  One aspect of this study was what the scientists used to bait the traps to attract the chafers – a mix of volatile plant origin chemicals. This introduced me to the word kairomone . I guess many readers will be familiar with the word pheromone, which is a chemical produced by a species, and often used as a signalling chemical to alert other individuals of the same species to the presence of the animal which has produced it. Many male moths, for example, locate females pre-mating by following pheromone scent plumes detected with their ornate branched antennae.

A kairomone is by definition a chemical emitted by one organism, which mediates interactions between different species in a way that benefits an individual of another species which receives it, and harms the emitter. So in the case of the garden chafers, the males apparently locate the females by the “scents” of plant based chemicals which are released by the adult females which have fed on them.

Within 24 hours the weather had changed, cloud cover prevailed and the chafers weren’t obvious. In any event most of the mating had probably taken place by then and eggs will have been laid. Presumably in profusion! It’s very difficult to get impressive still or video clips of this scene – the beetles move fast, and cameras tend to focus on the many grass seed heads and stems. Before my video battery ran out this was the best I could manage…

Given the considerable damage caused last autumn by badgers ripping up turf in this meadow to eat chafer grubs as they matured near the soil surface, I think that I shall have to consider my own form of scent based deterrence of badgers before they come into our meadow this year, or risk even greater turf damage than in 2017…

However a possible benefit of this chafer explosion may be that grasses will be weakened even more over the next 12 months, and allow further flower proliferation in the meadow, already aided by the ongoing presence of Yellow Rattle, and now to a lesser extent, Eyebright…

Within the meadow, I’ve been delighted how our orchid population has also exploded in numbers this year. Every day new flower spikes seem to appear, mainly in clusters around the field though with 3 or 4 dispersed singletons. As I write the numbers have swelled to 82, extending the exponential annual progression to 1,1,4,14,82. At this rate we’ll hope for well over 100 next year? Most seem to be hybrid forms of the Heath spotted-orchid and Common spotted-orchid, (Dactylorhiza maculata and D. fuchsii) and all have individual variations in both flowering time, colour, flower markings and numbers of flowers per spike. So again I was wrong in my earlier prediction that the spotted leaves I’d seen earlier in the year belonged to Early Purple Orchids! There’s a really good identification guide to the more common orchid species, produced by the Natural History Museum, which you can download as a pdf by clicking here. It’s particularly pleasing that my applications of dried seaweed don’t seem to have negatively impacted on their proliferation and that after worrying that the very first orchid I’d spotted 5 years hadn’t appeared this year, eventually it did, and this time with 3 flower spikes!

I couldn’t find any information on how long terrestrial orchids like these will survive, but having a tuberous root system, maybe quite a few years. The above individual is clearly already 5 years old, plus the time spent as a protocorm before its leaves emerged above ground. So given the increase in numbers recorded in this meadow so far, perhaps we can expect thousands in a few more years, which would be a huge delight!

Finally I must mention that during the late evening of the chafer swarm day, with a still very warm and muggy feel, I nipped out last thing and was worried by the high noise level from the ewes and lambs, who by this time are usually completely silent.

Checking things out with a torch, I discovered several were extremely restless and vocal beneath the trees of the green lane and soon discovered why. Clouds of midges, worse than anything I have experienced here descended on me in seconds. The poor sheep, recently shorn, probably had a very miserable few days, before the midges, fed and bred, completed their short life cycle.

With all this talk of recovery and explosion in numbers, so far the slugs are an exception – their numbers have remained exceptionally low, perhaps limited by the unusually dry conditions.

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Leaving the front door early on a sunny June 10th morning clutching my camera, as I often do if the light and views down the valley look promising, I did a double take as I rounded the corner into the yard and saw a small bird clinging onto the barn door. Was it a swallow? We’d already had the pale versions of the juvenile Pied Wagtails, clearly fledged a few days before, bobbing and flitting around the outbuildings, but they don’t tend to sit like this on the barn doors.

In fact the adult Wagtails seem fascinated by watching the swallow flight antics…However once I’d zoomed the lens onto the nearly motionless, door clutching juvenile, a recently fledged swallow chick was confirmed. A great delight and completely unexpected since we’ve only had 3 swallows return to us this year, and possibly because of this, there has been very little of the normal high spirited swallow chatter to enliven life outside. Just the occasional sharp “Look Out, Look Out” alarm calls, which I’d always assumed was directed at something other than myself, since the birds usually adapt very quickly to our regular comings and goings around the barn door which leads to the mud nests high up on the purlins.

I’d been unable to spot any birds actually using one of these nests, so to find a fledgling so early in the season was brilliant. Subsequently, I’ve worked out that this was probably the last of the brood to take proper flight, since we’ve now seen the parents regularly feeding the whole family, youngsters pausing for breath on the electricity wires which cross our flower filled large wet meadow. So total numbers here have jumped to seven and at last their fabulous chatter is frequently heard, particularly at dawn and dusk as they whoosh round the yard and whizz in through the open barn door.

However I discovered early on that one of the parents – probably the male – is responsible for a lot of the alarm calls and even more dramatically actually target dive bombed me as I walked across the yard, hatted and camera clutching, trying to get a better close up of the lone swallow chick. In the end I managed to get to within about 3 yards of it, which explains why with my modest zoom lens I managed such wonderfully detailed photos of the chick, gazing at this strange being, with huge monocular vision and vertically striped plumage.

Appealing though it is, there’s nothing to rival the swallow silhouettes which I always love to snap at this time of the year – aerial acrobats frozen in millisecond forms.

For more insight into swallow numbers in 2018 in the UK, click here, for a site devoted to barn swallows, and if you scan down, do read a wonderful poem  “Swallows Return”, written by a Cornish farmer, Wesley Colwill in 1993.

Also do read here about the roost site at Mount Moreland in Natal, South Africa where many of our swallows will over-winter, and where up to 3 million swallows may gather as they roost at dusk in one location. We’re used to large starling flocks here during winter, but what a thrill it must be to see and hear all these swallows…

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Without the clarity, but still as interesting, a walk around Dinas Island on the nearby Pembrokeshire coastline last week brought sightings of another aerial master – a Peregrine – as it accelerated from the cliff margins just above sea level right in front of us, and quickly gained height and distance heading off due East towards the Preselis. I should in the end have snapped the pile of feathers lying in a field beside the path, which we’d passed 5 minutes earlier, and after which I’d said to Fiona that this was probably the work of a peregrine.

Perhaps pausing to look at the feathers, and a little later to see an unusual metallic green beetle/woodlouse/grub still to be identified ( any ideas anyone?)… delayed us just long enough for me to spot a large swirl in the sea just beyond some inshore lobster pot buoys… Fiona was quicker off the mark than me in realising that we’d spotted our first ever UK dolphin, and for a few minutes we followed its leisurely progress in mirror calm sea, as it surfaced 2 or 3 times in quick succession, before disappearing for a couple of minutes at a time.

It was only after several such breachings that we realised that there were sometimes 2 dorsal fins visible. Clearly a mother and calf. Almost glued together in synchronous swimming. And probably a Bottlenose dolphin.

Cardigan bay is one of the best places in Europe to see Bottlenose dolphins, and it’s reckoned that up to 200 will visit or use the seas in this region every year. Typically these mammals will grow to 4 metres in length and live for up to 50 years. Females will give birth to a calf every 4 years or so, and the youngster will continue to suckle for up to 2 years, though retain a maternal bond for perhaps as long as 6 years. Judging by the fin size, this calf was probably well over a year old.

For more on these wonderful creatures, click here. 

And for 23 different fascinating facts about bottlenose dolphins (including what common pleasureable activity is uniquely enjoyed by just pigs, dolphins and humans), click here.

And finally click here for an interesting article by George Monbiot on how sustainable the Cardigan Bay dolphin population is likely to be in future years after the Welsh government decided to allow scallop dredging in the designated marine conservation areas of Cardigan bay.As well as all this wildlife, butterflies and other birds included…… the scenery of this circular roughly 3 mile walk is spectacular, and well worth a trip to complete. Click here for a simple guide to the route.

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A brief update on the greenhouse this year, where the Tomcot apricots are just beginning to crop, and tomatoes are already producing their fourth flower trusses – and all this after very late seed sowing in early March.

The combination of better spring light levels than in many previous years, and the warmer ambient temperatures – particularly at night, thanks to more insulation on the external glazing and even more water filled bottles internally are probably key factors.

After the first haul of apricots, which always come in a short lived rush, we’re experimenting with dehydrating them as a space efficient means of preservation.

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Much fine weather has meant more cuttings of hay, although some required bringing in early in our big bags, and then manual turning again several times after unexpected rain appeared and required bagging up too soon after cutting. Wonderful healthy exercise…??With the current forecast hinting at another fortnight of dry conditions with stiff breezes, after a lull of a week or so when dank mist and drizzle dominated, more was cut in the last 2 days. We hope we might now manage to complete the year’s harvest by the beginning of July. A uniquely long summer dry period in our permanent residence at Gelli Uchaf…A single very successful day on the Shepherd’s Hut build early in the month saw the temporarily fixed roofing sheets come off, the false ribs and purlins cut, the plywood sheets flexed and temporarily fixed for the barrel ceiling, some roof insulation added and the roof sheets lifted back on and screwed down permanently – all completed with minutes to spare before William knocked off for the day. For once a DIY day which exceeded optimistic expectations.

With daily trips up to the hut to tinker, and now even apply some internal paint, we’re already benefiting from the frequent walks up “Longevity Hill” and the glorious views, including the one below on the longest day of the year…________________

Finally for any readers who live locally, I shall do a quick promotion for an inaugural Plant Fair which our local gardening club, Cothigardeners, is holding in Pumsaint on Sunday July 8th. It will take place in the memorial hall and field behind the hall and include many well known plant nurseries from near and far, as well as craft stalls and refreshments. It runs from 10.00 am to 4 pm and admission is free. Click here for more details, and I hope you might be able to come and enjoy a great day out in North Carmarthenshire.

 

10 thoughts on “Explosions; Swarms, Scents and Parental Care.

  1. We certainly have many more insects about this year than last. The car windscreen can be used in evidence and the gardener getting eaten by midges. No coloured butterflies yet though.

  2. Thanks Julian for all the info in your post and for the wonderful photos in your garden and round about. ! I’ve printed off the walk…it looks a really great one. Can’t make the plant fair as I’m at AG but will pass on the details to others. We had fluttering storm of moths …but all in the house…hope my woollens are still OK in the wardrobe!
    Seeing a dolphin in the sea is a magic moment …we were just sitting on the quay at New Quay when we saw some…let’s hope they’ll stay if the powers that be start allowing scallop dredging! Are you going to serve coffees in your Shepherd’s Hut…what a view!

    • Thanks Marianne – sorry you ca’t make the plant fair, but hope you can spread the word anyway – the walk round Dinas is fabulous, it looks like it will be carpeted with bluebells in spring too.
      When the SH is finished, for any souls brave enough to walk up the hill, there will probably be a Kelly kettle and provisions ( plus H&S warnings about its use!!!)! Either that or a tray and tea cosy to carry up there. But the views are worth the effort of climbing up there…
      best wishes
      Julian

  3. Nature is a big place. It is not easy to assess the performance of any particular specie by observing it within a small part of its range. Even if more thorough observation is possible, their performance fluctuates from season to season. It is like trying to assess climate change based on the records of the past few centuries. Climate is much older than that.

    • Thanks Tony…One of the reasons I write about such things is that even if the UK, which now has great butterfly and bumblebee conservation and monitoring groups, other insects hardly feature. If in years to come we don’t have swallows, or cuckoos here ( and lack of insect food will probably be part of the reason) – and they’ve now gone from large parts of the UK, at least it’ll be a record that we did have them here once…
      best wishes
      Julian

  4. What a splendid mid summer post! I, of course, loved the bee photographs. The swallows are beautiful and make me miss the ones we used to have and photograph in our garden. I must check and see how many years ago that was. The garden looks full of flowers and a paradise to wander through but I have a feeling you don’t have too much time to wander at this time of year :). Amelia

    • Thanks Amelia – very sorry to hear that you don’t have swallows anymore – is that lack of insects round about do you think ? I wonder how long it will be before we lose them – we used to have swifts in the valley, but haven’t had those for years now.
      Even less time to wander round the garden over the last week! We’re in the grip of a drought now worse than any since we’ve owned the place – how one takes rain for granted….until it stops falling! Great for haymaking but…
      Best wishes
      Julian

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