The year’s butterfly showing continued to disappoint, but lots of bugs and hoverflies brighten up Wildwatch mornings… Unusual bird visitors included a Common Snipe and Water Rail… Two new plant gall records.
Wildwatch days in September were disappointingly overcast and often windy, but brightened up for October which gave us a number of dry sunny mornings, if sometimes chilly. In November we were back to overcast weather, often cold, drizzly and sometimes windy.
It was change-over time for the birds at St Nicks, with the last sightings of our summer visitors and the first sightings of our winter visitors over-lapping. The last Blackcap was seen on 10th October, but Chiffchaffs remained until 31st October, with up to three seen or heard on 3rd October. A single Swallow on 19th September was the only record. One Siskin (a winter visitor to St Nicks) on 19th September was the only record this autumn. Two Redwings were seen on 17th October, and a dozen or so Fieldfares flew over the Dragon Stones on 24th October.
Some earlier winters have seen an over-wintering Water Rail, but a brief sighting on Tang Hall Beck on 24th October was the only record this autumn and a Grey Wagtail was also on the beck on the same day. A Common Snipe on Tang Hall Beck on 10th October was a new bird for St Nicks. Also in or over the two becks were Kingfisher, seen on 19th September and 3rd October, Moorhen on nine of the thirteen Wildwatch Wednesdays and Mallards on every Wednesday from 24th October to 28th November.
In the skies, a skein of 24 Canada Geese on 5th September was notable. Over the months, Black-headed, Herring and Common Gulls were seen. A single Sparrowhawk on 24th October was the only autumn record.
Amongst our resident birds, Goldfinches and Bullfinches were recorded on all dates with maximum counts of 20 and 5 respectively. Also present on all dates were Long-tailed Tits and Blue Tits. The mixed tit feeding flocks started to build up during the period, with at least 20 Long-tailed Tits on 26th September. In these flocks were also Great Tits and, on 26th September, a single Goldcrest. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was seen on 17th October and 7th and 28th November.
Members of the crow family are well represented at St Nicks, with Magpies and Carrion Crows seen every week. Jackdaws seem to be seen with increasing regularity, with 16 in the air on 26th September. Rook, a mainly agricultural bird, is scarce at St Nicks, but single birds were seen on 26th September and 31st October.
The reserve’s autumn Butterflies continued this year’s disappointing showing, with only three species (plus a few unidentified whites) recorded. Speckled Wood was seen most weeks until 10th October; Red Admiral showed occasionally until the end of September, while a single Small Tortoiseshell on 24th October was the last butterfly sighting of the year. Day-flying moths were equally scarce with just four common micro-moth species found: Nettle Tap, Common Marble, Dark Fruit Tree Tortrix and Ancylis badiana.
In compensation, other insect orders put on a good show during September and October, and seven new species for St Nicks were found. True Bugs were especially numerous, with between two and six Shieldbug species found every week until mid-November, totalling seven species in all: Birch, Common Green, Gorse, Hairy, Hawthorn, Parent and a new species for the reserve: the strikingly-coloured Blue Shieldbug (see photo) – a single specimen seen only on 26th September.
Continuing with the True Bugs, among a number of leafhopper species (Cicadellidae) seen were two new records for the reserve: on October 3rd Birch Leafhopper Kybos betulicola and on 24th Sage Leafhopper Eupteryx melissae, a number of which were seen on a Sage plant at the Environment Centre every week thereafter until the end of November. Leafhoppers are tiny creatures, 2 to 3 mm long, and look pale and insignificant on the upper- or under-side of leaves. However when magnified through a hand lens or a photograph they show often striking and attractive body patterns (see Nettle Leafhopper photo). Other leafhoppers found this autumn included Edwardsiana rosae and the attractively striped Mocydia crocea plus species found on Bramble (abundant), Nettle, Hazel and Ash.
During September striking red Cinnamon Bugs (one of August’s new species) were found again on several Wildwatch mornings as were Birch Catkin Bugs which were still around in mid-November. A copper-coloured Mirid bug species Pantilius tunicatus was an unusual find, recorded only once before at St Nicks, while Tansy seed heads were host to the Rhopalid Bug Stictopleurus punctatonervosus seen from 26th September until early November, one of this year’s reserve firsts. All in all a good ‘buggy’ autumn at St Nicks.
Only a few beetle species were seen: three ladybirds (7-spot, 10-spot and Harlequin), a late Darkling Beetle species Lagria hirta looking like a miniature kiwi fruit, flower beetles including Olibrus aeneus, and a Thistle Leaf Beetle Sphaeroderma testaceum. Rosemary Beetles were on the Rosemary plant at the Environment Centre every week, while a single Red Dock Weevil was the only other beetle species recorded.
Flies (Diptera) were more in evidence with good numbers of the common species present most weeks until mid-November. Three Crane Flies (‘Daddy Longlegs’) of the Tipula species were identified: T. oleracea, T. pagana and T. paludosa. The late summer Soldier Fly Twin-spot Centurion was frequently seen during September and October, close-up views revealing its tiny white facial spots looking like miniature headlamps (see photo). Hoverflies numbered a particularly good 18 species including a single yellow-eyed Ripponensia splendens not recorded before at St Nicks, bringing our reserve total to 52 fully identified species. The last hoverfly sighting was of our commonest species, the ‘Marmalade’ (Episyrphus balteatus), on 7th November. This migrant hoverfly has had an abundant year at St Nicks.
In contrast bees were not found in any great numbers during the autumn, with only the Common Carder Bumblebee noticeably present on the reserve and just occasional sightings of other bumblebee species. Common social wasps were very much in evidence and a number of parasitic ichneumon wasps were seen including the mainly autumn Pimpla rufipes and a new species for St Nicks found on 7th November: Dyspetes luteomarginatus.
Spiders were not particularly numerous this autumn, the commonest being Garden Spider Araneus diadematus, Nursery Web Pisaura mirabilis and a single Common Cross Araneus quadratus.
A combination of weather conditions and unusually early and thorough tidying up of grass verges meant that we didn’t see the anticipated second flourish of grassland species. Ivy-leaved Speedwell and Feverfew made a comeback in October along the Story Circle path, but these were exceptions.
Among the shrubs, Buddleia lasted into September; one or two bushes of Dogwood and Osier Dogwood flowered again in October; Brambles produced an odd flower here and there through November. Ivy and Gorse came into flower in October – Ivy the last of the 2018 shrubs to bloom; Gorse getting ahead of itself for its 2019 season.
Herbaceous plants faded out very gradually. September saw our last records of Meadow Buttercup, Great Willow-herb, Silverweed, Field Bindweed, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Enchanter’s Nightshade, Hedgerow Cranesbill and Ribwort Plantain. It also saw one new find – Common Toadflax among the grass near the scrapes. It’s a perennial so it will be interesting to see whether it established itself well enough to survive.
We recorded 35 species in flower at the beginning of October – including Creeping Buttercup, an assortment of late Vetches, Thistles, Sow-thistles and Campions. At the Sustrans entrance, a sheltered patch looked almost like a summer meadow with Common Poppy, Ox-eye Daisy and Corn Marigolds. Other plants winding up their autumn flowering included Tansy, Ragwort, Yarrow and Hemp Agrimony.
Flowering species recorded in November dropped from 12 to 5: Red and White Clover, Large and Hedge Bindweed and Red Dead-nettle faded out, though the latter will make a come-back if the winter is mild. By the end of the month, Wood Avens could just about claim to be still in flower, a slightly frost-bitten patch of Red Campion was doing its best, and Hogweed and Herb Robert could be found here and there. The stars of the show were Field Scabious, still flowering at the Dragon Stones into December, and of course the ever-present White Dead-nettle.
As reported in the June-August blog, what had looked like a promising season for plant galls turned out to be a particularly poor one for wasp induced Oak galls. We had to search to find the usually abundant Spangle galls (Neuroterus quercusbaccarum), and after the most prolific year ever in 2017, Silk Buttons (Neuroterus numismalis) were even harder to find. There were a few Oyster (Neuroterus anthracinus) and possible underdeveloped Pea Galls (Cynips divisa) and one or two likewise smaller than usual Marble galls (Andricus kollari), but so far none of last year’s more unusual species. Knopper galls (Andricus quercuscalicis) were the nearest to normal in number.
It’s not clear whether last winter was bad for species overwintering among leaf litter, or whether it was a particularly good year for gall parasites. On the other hand September brought two new records: an intriguing spiral gall on the petioles of Black Poplar, caused by an aphid, Pemphigus spyrothecae. Another new record, probably overlooked in previous years, was a Bramble gall induced by a midge, Dasineura plicatrix – which as the name suggests, results in pleated leaves at the shoot tips. Other galls noted during the autumn included swellings on the leaves of Stinging Nettles induced by the midge Dasineura urticae, rolled edges of Ash leaves associated with the Psyllid Psyllopsis fraxini, and pimples on Sycamore caused by a mite, Aceria cephaloneus.
During a mammal identification workshop on 7th November, clear signs of Field Voles were found in the rough grasses near to the meadow. Grey Squirrels were seen on seven of the Wednesdays, with four on 17th October. Rabbits were only seen on four occasions.
All photos were taken at St Nicks by volunteers during the given period, except for the bird photos which were taken at other times. Text was written by St Nicks Wildwatch members who meet every Wednesday to record wildlife in the nature reserve.