Golden swimmer in Tang Hall Beck, butterflies in November, a galling season and a big “charm”!
Autumn weather for Wildwatchers included two completely sunny calm mornings, but was otherwise mostly dull and cloudy with a few sunny spells. There was little or no rain on our walks, and windy days were rare. These mainly overcast conditions meant that few autumn butterflies were flying, although Red Admirals were spotted almost every week until the last sighting on 8th November.
Autumn is change over time for birds. Summer visitors are moving out and Winter visitors are moving in.
The last two Chiffchaffs were recorded on 18th October, the last of our Summer visitors, and the only ones recorded in September to November, having been seen or heard from 6th September on five or six of the Wildwatch Wednesdays.
The first Winter visitors were 30 Pink-footed Geese flying over the reserve on 27th September. These breed in Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard and winter in the UK and Western Europe. Next up were three Redwings on 18th October, followed by three Siskins on 8th November (and also on 15th and 22nd), with six Fieldfares on 15th November.
Many of the bird species that we think of as “our” birds are supplemented in the winter by arrivals from continental Europe, such as Blackbirds and Robins. Both of these species were recorded on all Wildwatch Wednesdays. And other species are also boosted in numbers during the Autumn, such as Goldfinches (a “charm” – flock) of 40 seen on 26th October and the Winter-feeding tit flocks, which feed together – Long-tailed (20 seen on 8th November), Coal (four sightings of this diminutive bird), Blue and Great Tits, seen on most days. Associated with these feeding tit flocks are Goldcrests (seen on 26th October – 3 birds, 1st November – 2 birds and one on 8th November) and Treecreepers (on 18th and 25th October).
So, in the coming Winter months, it’s worth checking out these feeding tit flocks to see which other birds are associating with the more common tit species.
Other notable sightings in the Autumn were a Peregrine on 18th October (they have been breeding on York Minster, a mile away), Great Spotted Woodpecker on 27th September, 25th October (2 sightings) and 8th November, Kingfisher on 20th September, 1st and 26th October and 1st November.
Gulls seen flying over the reserve included Common Gull – five records from 18th October to 22nd November – and four records of Lesser Black-backed Gull.
Please note: bird photos for this period are somewhat restricted because the “Wildwatcher With The Big Zoom Lens” wasn’t present for many of the Wildwatch Wednesdays!
Mostly overcast Wildwatch mornings at St Nicks during the autumn suppressed late butterfly sightings except for Red Admirals, which have been nationally abundant during 2017. Large, Small and Green-veined White butterflies were all recorded for the last time on September 6th, with the last Commas and Speckled Woods on September 20th, but Red Admirals were on the wing right up to November 8th. Day-flying moths were rather scarce, with just Common Plume, Nettle Tap (normally frequently seen at St Nicks from spring to autumn but surprisingly absent until now) and the larva of a Dot Moth. There was one new record for the reserve – Light Brown Apple Moth Epiphyas postvittana. This was found on September 6th, the same day that the last dragonflies of the year were recorded – singles of Common Darter and Southern Hawker. An attractive adult Caddis Fly Limnephilus lunatus was found along Tang Hall Beck in early October.
Species of grasshopper and related families are only occasionally seen on the reserve, but September 6th surprised us with two Field Grasshoppers Chorthippus brunneus and then a new record for St Nicks – a Slender Ground-hopper Tetrix subulata. Hoverfly numbers declined quickly after the end of September, but with several new sightings this year our all-time total of hoverfly species for the reserve is now 49. True Bugs showed well until late November, especially shieldbugs of which eight species were recorded during the autumn: Birch, Common Green, Gorse, Hairy, Hawthorn, Parent, Red-legged and Spiked. The last sightings were two Hawthorn Shieldbugs on November 15th. A number of other plant bugs and leafhoppers were found including Tree Damselbug Himacerus apterus, Birch Catkin Bug Kleidocerys resedae and the pictured plant bug Pantilius tunicatus with its lovely mahogany-patterned wing cases – a new record for the reserve.
Beetles included 7-spot (most weeks), 10-spot and 22-spot Ladybirds. Harlequin Ladybirds were found in sometimes large numbers during every Wildwatch walk. A few other late beetles were seen, perhaps the most striking being up to 10 purple-and- green striped Rosemary Beetles Chrysolina americana which took up residence for several weeks in the Rosemary bush in the Environment Centre compound. This is the second time in recent years they have been found there. Another beetle to put on a good show was the tiny red-headed, green-bodied Willow Flea Beetle Crepidodera aurata found most weeks until mid-November on vegetation near some of the reserve’s many willow trees. A first record for the reserve was a Pea Leaf Weevil Sitona lineatus.
Of the spiders and harvestmen, Garden Spiders Araneus diadematus and their webs were as usual abundant, but there were also a few sightings of the Four-spotted Orb Web Araneus quadratus, a number of Wolf Spiders of the Pardosa species – probably amentata – and frequent sightings of Nursery Web Spiders Pisaura mirabilis, a common species on the reserve from early spring to late autumn. Sheetweb Spiders of the Linyphia group and also Floronia bucculenta were frequently seen. Our usual common harvestman species were seen, plus one found only once before on the reserve (August 2014) – the colonist Dicranopalpus ramosus. The first British sighting was in 1957 at Bournemouth, and the species slowly spread northwards until it reached Scotland in the year 2000. It is easily identified by the way its eight very long legs are spreadeagled in parallel lines, four on each side of its body. Several pretty Red Velvet Mites Trombidium holosericeum were also found.
Most invertebrate life has settled down for the winter now with a wide variety of hibernation patterns, spending the winter concealed as eggs, larvae, pupae or adults. Of one thing we can be sure: those hardy Gorse Shieldbugs will emerge on their food plant whenever the sun shines, even if there is snow on the ground or frost in the air. Recorded in every month of the year, we have so far missed seeing them in only one month since they were first spotted in March 2014.
A quarterly report on birds and invertebrates has an obvious interest. The new role of the plant section is a bit less clear. Do we state the blindingly obvious – there were far more plants in flower at the beginning of September than there were at the end of November – or give you all the detail reduced to a fairly mundane list? If any of our readers would appreciate a particular approach, please do let us know!
At the beginning of September, autumn seemed to have set in early. People were already picking blackberries and small plums, squirrels were raiding the ripening hazelnuts and the leaves were starting to colour. We noted an unusually good crop of hawthorn berries and plenty of fat green alder seed heads. The leaves then hung on into November, giving some fantastic views in the low winter sunlight. By now finch flocks are feasting in the alders and most of the haws have already been eaten.
The general trend of herbaceous plants is entirely predictable: midsummer flowerers with a fairly fixed season, including most of the Willow-herbs, Legumes, Mallows, Thistles, Knapweed and Tansy, gradually fade out, finishing by mid-October at the very latest. A select group including Field Scabious, the Bindweeds, Wood Avens, Herb Robert and Yarrow carry on flowering until frost or tidy-minded volunteer groups cut them back. There are always exceptions and many of these species can produce an unseasonal flower or two for another month. This year we watched with interest as path edge work cut back lush vegetation to give Dove’s Foot and Cut-leaved Cranesbills, Ivy-leaved and Common Field Speedwells and a lone Cowslip the chance of a second season. Some of the patches seeded in 2016 germinated late, providing beautiful autumn displays, with Corn Marigolds and Wild Chamomile improbably lasting through most of November. Then there were a few unexpected finds. Great Mullein has disappeared from its stronghold at the West end of the reserve, but popped up in a cleared area along the lime-tree path. The Agrimony we reported at the Dragon Stones in August only had a short flowering period but the seed-heads found in September were if anything even more attractive. Just as we’d given up looking nearby for Scarlet Pimpernel, we chanced upon a thriving specimen more or less opposite the Mullein. And then along the Tang Hall Beck path at the very end of October we spotted a small, stunted Black Nightshade. This infuriating plant ought to be carrying its white potato-like flowers and black berries to a height of about 60 cm from July to September, but it invariably shows up at St Nicks in October barely a quarter the normal size, and has never yet appeared twice in the same place. An annual, it needs time to ripen its berries and re-seed itself, and October’s a bit late to start.
If you’re visiting the reserve now, the Gorse began its long winter season at the start of October, and will continue flowering in all but the very worst conditions, and probably even then. Dandelions, Daisies and Hogweed will take advantage of mild spells, and White Dead-nettle is bound to be flowering somewhere. Then there are the signs of spring: Hazel, Alder and Willow catkins ready to open, Horse Chestnut buds shining sticky in winter sunlight, and any time now the first shoots of Snowdrops and Daffodils growing clear of their protective leaf-litter.
It was an unusually productive season for wasp-induced Oak galls. Silk Buttons (Neuroterus numismalis) were more abundant and widespread than usual, alongside more familiar Knoppers (Andricus quercuscalicis) and Common Spangles (Neuroterus quercusbaccarum). Artichoke (Andricus foecundatrix), Cola-nut (Andricus lignicolus) and Marble (Andricus kollari) galls are more scarce but we found a few nice specimens. A new record for the reserve was tentatively identified as one induced by the gall wasp Andricus grossulariae. Two more wasp-induced galls were recorded on Dog Rose: Bedeguar (Robin’s Pincushion, Diplolepis rosae) and sputnik-shaped Spiked Pea galls (Diplolepis nervosa). Mite-induced galls on Wood Avens (Cecidophyes nudus) and Stinging Nettles (Dasineura urticae) show themselves as interesting swellings and puckerings on leaves. The mite Phytoptus avellanae causes swollen buds – a potential problem for squirrels if female flower buds are affected as well as leaf buds. A gall found on male hazel catkins is likely to be caused by yet another mite gall – Phyllocoptruta coryli – though a very similar midge-induced gall is a possibility. We would need to find and identify the larvae to be certain.
It’s not labelled “Mammals” this time because an unusual sighting of a Goldfish species was recorded swimming in Tang Hall Beck on 22nd November!
Other vertebrates were, of course, Grey Squirrel, seen on most of the Wildwatch Wednesdays (with four on 27th September) and Rabbit, seen on seven days.
Please note that from this post onwards the Wildwatch blog will be published on a quarterly rather than monthly basis. Look out for the next one in 2018.