Friday, April 29, 2011

“My, my, my,” said the spider to the fly....

The words of a nursery rhyme get things under way today. Apt for two main reasons, firstly, this post (and please don't let this 'creep you out') contains both spiders & flies & secondly children, or at least young adults, have a part to play in this tale as well.

O.K. so let's tackle the "I hate spiders, I can't even look at pictures of them" thing first shall we? C'mon, you know it's you I'm aiming this at?

We have an irrational fear of spiders here in the U.K.and elsewhere too I'd guess. When was the last time somebody was bitten by an indigenous spider? 
If we got together all the folks bitten by spiders, we could probably get them all in the back-room of a pub.
Then let's have a commitee formed of all those who have suffered pain and inconvenience, to meet in the kitchen, should be plenty of room there.
Later we could have a meeting of all the people who have been seriously inconvenienced by spider bites? I reckon a phone box would do for that!
No, it can't be a fear of getting bitten. It therefore must revolve around the 
look of spiders and how fast they move?

"Ooooh! They just give me the creeps, I hate them" That's the usual response when arachnids are even mentioned.
Well I hate politicians, they give me the creeps, but I don't want to stamp on them and kill them at first glance!................................ O.K. Bad example, but you know what I'm saying?

I'm sounding here like one of those oh,so annoying people who have just given up smoking and now preach to everyone else in some self-righteous, pious way about the evils of nicotine. For I too was paranoid about spiders, my fear was bred into me by my mother's hatred of them. She would scream at any sighting of spiders, real or otherwise. She would often say to me "There's one in here somewhere, I can hear it" 
"Yes" I'd jokingly reply, "It's over in the corner there, taking off it's boots before having a shave" But her fear was genuine, comedy was never going to help and anyhow, I didn't know any.
However, since photographing them and getting to know more about the little things (and most of ours are little) I am much better now thank-you doctor!
What I would like is for you to give them a chance. I'm not expecting you to love them right away, or even rave about their beauty (although I have and constantly do) just respect them for what they are. They have as much right to be here as we do.They were here long before we arrived and what have they done to half-destroy our planet? .They don't hate us, they fear us, so let's try and live in harmony?  

There, didn't frighten you did it? This little lady is a crab spider (Misumena vatia) This particular one has the ability to change colour to match the flower it's sitting on. Quite why they have the different colour eyes I don't know. 

I wanted to start with a spider photograph because I was photographing one (not this one as it happens) when I was aware of children playing near by in the woodland that I had been walking in.
I think, being a holiday weekend, two young lads were being treated to a day out in the woods by their father. Anyhow,our paths crossed several times and the two boys seemed to be more and more interested in just what the strange man with a camera was doing rummaging around in the undergrowth.
Each time they sauntered past me, I seemed to have assumed a different yoga position in order to get the best angle on whatever it was had attracted my attention and there was a good deal of gesticulating at my genuflecting!

After a while, curiosity must have got the better of them and the father came over and spoke to me.
"The boys have been wondering just what you are taking pictures of" was his opening gambit.
A long conversation between myself, the father and the boys followed. I'll abridge it here to save you the detail but it was along the lines of how interested the two boys were becoming in my antics. Once I'd showed them some of the images on my camera, the questions began to flow.The one that sticks in my mind is "Do you kill them after you have photographed them?"

Me: "No! Why would I do that? You mustn't kill anything boys" Boy: "Well, they could sting you and hurt you"

"Daddy" said Thomas, the elder boy. "Could we do that on the way home?" 
"Well, we could" replied father. "But unless this man comes with us, it won't be much fun because we won't know what what we've found, we won't be able to identify anything much"

James, the younger boy thought for a while, then..."We could guess Daddy. If we see something that looks a bit like a bee, we could say, that's a bee".
Now, my education may not have been to the required standard for becoming one of those much hated MPs, but that sounded like quite a logical plan of action to me.
Dad wasn't impressed. He suggested what they needed was perhaps a book and then they could return at a later date, book in hand and have their own little nature walk.
I suggested a likely publication and it was agreed. It made my day to see these little ones so engrossed in nature to the extent they obviously were. In this age of computer games et al, it gave me a real lift to think that just maybe, in my own small way I'd fired something in their imaginations that could lead who knows where.


In my last blog entry, I mentioned scorpion flies, saying that they'd be along any-time now. Well, the wait is over. If you have not seen these strange looking flies before (and I'd suggest that most folks haven't) then take a look, as flies go, they're one of the stranger looking British diptera.

A Scorpion Fly (male)

Common scorpionflies (Panorpidae). These are the only  family that have the upturned scorpion-like genitalia or 'tail' that gives the order its name. They are brownish yellow and black insects with mottled wings and are found amongst shaded vegetation and in hedgerows.
They feed on dead or dying insects (including any they might spot in a spider's web) and are also partial to ripe fruit and, when it's available, human sweat!
Although they look quite frightening, they are actually harmless.

Sawflies (Symphyta) These can be identified by the lack of a 'waist' between the thorax and abdomen.The females also have a saw-like ovipositor.
Most species fly by day. The larvae resemble the caterpillars of some butterflies and moths but have more legs. There are over 400 British species.

A Sawfly

This particular sawfly was a find on one of my walks around local lakes. I've not been able to get an exact identity as yet. The following photograph of a sawfly larva was discovered on the same walk that I met the young boys on.

A Sawfly larva

Now that the season is well and truly under-way, my bug-hunting has changed from the winter norm of, let's say a 2 hour walk that if I was lucky would perhaps reveal a matching amount of inverts to photograph, to having to be sensible about choosing which to photograph as there are so many now.

Of course, here in Kent, we are spoiled for beautiful countryside to ramble in. I keep a diary from year to year of where I find certain things and then can re-visit the following year to check how a species is doing. That's if I can find the car keys.(What is it about getting older that makes you forget?) I used to know the answer to that but....

For instance, I know only to well that a favourite species of butterfly will never be sighted locally but still within the county, about an hours drive away, come June there will be plenty to photograph. That means a visit to a town that I love anyway, Canterbury will be a priority.
Pictured right is a Canterbury sunrise from one of the former visits.

To return to spiders then (yes,we do have to) Larinioides cornutus an Orb Weaver spider has some striking markings and to my eye is attractive. I don't expect you'll agree dear reader but I'm working on the premise that if I keep drip-feeding you photos and stories of spiders, eventually by the process of osmosis, you'll find something in what I say? These ones are to be found for the most part in damper areas, in particular waterside.
They are of a reasonable size and without any prompting at all, will jump from their untidy web directly onto your face and proceed to crawl into your ears!
Damn!...why do I do it? Why make up such rubbish and undo all my previous efforts to get you onside? 
I'll leave you for now with a photograph of the spider in question. If when I return in a few days time with a fresh blog entry, I'm greeted by the sight of you still comatose on the floor, I'll probably take that as a sign of failure.

Until the next time then...

An Orb Weaver Spider 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Should I flash or just go au naturel?

Yet another superb Kentish spring day heralded the early arrival of a very strange beetle, the  HAZEL LEAF ROLLER WEEVIL (Apoderus coryli) 
May-June is the expected time for these and so I was very pleased to find a couple today, just a little more than a week after the hazel leaves themselves appeared and before hearing the first cuckoo of the year.

Apoderus coryli (A Leaf-rolling Weevil)

Overwintering adults emerge in spring to feed on the leaves of the host plant. Eggs are laid in May-June, usually in or near the mid-rib of a leaf.
The weevil then cuts a section of leaf that rolls around the eggs and hangs from the mid-rib in a cigar-like shape.
The larvae develop within this leaf roll and then pupate, with new adults then appearing by late July(ish).

I'll try and remember to look out for a leaf-roll and larva a little later on in spring, if I do find them, I'll post photos here.

What, if anything I hear you ask, has this to do with the blog title? (I did hear you ask didn't I?)
As a keen macro photographer, I find I'm tormented by one thing above all else.
The lack of light? The lack of DoF? The huge expense of macro equipment? The constant stares from bewildered by-passers who  have no idea why I am on my hands and knees in the middle of a patch of stinging nettles? 

No...none of these things (although, anyone who is similarly afflicted by the macro-bug, will no doubt identify with all or most of these) I am by the way, aware that perhaps using 'macro-bug' is verging on word play, but it wasn't intended for humorous effect.
I've lost my thread now! Erm, Oh torment, should I concentrate on flash photography that yields by far the best quality and detail for my invertebrate shots? Or should I follow my heart and use natural light?

The above shot was taken using an off camera flash unit, as was the photograph of another species of weevil below, the Nut Weevil.

Curculio nucum (A Nut Weevil)
Compare these two photos with the next one and I think the differences will become obvious to you. This one (below) was the same species of weevil as above and taken at the same time but utilising just ambient light.

Nut Weevil (female)

You can see how the light is much softer here. There is however a loss of detail, especially in the eye of the weevil. It's detail of course that the naked eye wouldn't ordinarily see anyhow, but, having been spoilt by the amount of minute detail flash shots can reveal, it's always hard not to compare the two mediums like for like.

There are other associated problems around natural light macro work,probably more so than using flash, the main one being the issue of light.
I don't intend to get into the techy stuff in this particular blog entry but perhaps, somewhere along the line I'll return to the subject.

For now I'm quite happy continuing to experiment with both flash and natural photos. There are times when either one can be the best suited approach. Flash will always win out over natural for detail (unless you are lucky enough to have some top-drawer kit and don't mind lugging around tripods et al) and even then, to get the very best out of the medium becomes kinda impractical in the field.

Natural light macros will always have more appeal to me aesthetically. I personally find the softer light and fantastic backgrounds that it can achieve, so much easier on the eye. Bokeh is often missing from flash shots due to the light fall off.

Having affirmed my preference for the latter technique, I'll stick with it for the remainder of this blog entry.

Lacewings (Chrysopidaeare delicate little insects with a wingspan of up to around 65mm. 
A little known and fascinating fact is that they have hearing organs (a kind of membrane) in their fore-wings that allows them to hear well.

It's usually the green variety that I see and even that's not a regular sight, these are nocturnal, or more correctly 'Crepuscular' meaning primarily active during  twilight hours.They can been seen also on moonlit nights but rarely are they about daytime.

Micromus angulatus is one of several rather small and similar brown lacewings. Flying May-October in well vegetated habitats but it is not a common species.
A double treat today then, firstly it's still April and so once again an early sighting. Secondly, it's not one I've ever seen before.
Micromus angulatus (A Lacewing)

It's not a huge leap from Lacewings to Alderflies (Sialidae) not to be confused by the way with salticidae, which are a species of spider. Alderflies are weak-flying insects that rarely move far from water. The species that I spotted today was perched on the edge of a local pond that I've been inspecting for signs of emerging damselfies.

It's location tells me that it's probably our most common species as this is the one that prefers still, muddy water. The other two species preferring running water.

Sialis lutaria (An Alderfly)

Snakeflies (Raphidiidae) are probably the strangest of all from this little group of insects.I've only ever been fortunate enough to see one of these intriquing insects 
There are only 4 species here in the U.K. I managed a shot of one a couple of years ago and include it here as the likelihood of coming across another is slight.

A Snakefly (Flash photo)

Logically next in line would be Scorpion Flies. These will be along any-time now though, and so I'll refrain from adding photos until I can use an up to date shot.

Weevils are a great favourite of mine and I've been considering devoting a blog entry entirely  to this huge group of beetles.
There are 60,000 weevil species world-wide, in several families. I began this entry with a photograph of one and it only seems right to end it with another.

It can be really tricky to pin down an exact identity for some of these weevils. Especially for an amateur like myself. My last offering today I belive to be Phyllobius species and possibly P.maculicornis but I wouldn't like to gamble my life on that being correct.

P.maculicornis (A Weevil)

Well friends, that's another entry done and dusted. I hope you've found something of interest or perhaps learned something about the fabulous wildlife that surrounds us all but we give little thought to for the most part?

Right now is just the best time of year for me. So much going on, so much change and everything to look forward too.
 My photography and my invertebrates are my salvation and time spent out and about in this fantastic county is totally absorbing. Every day something new. A friend of mine who lives in London town once asked me "Aren't bugs just bugs, wherever you find them"? He couldn't have been more wrong.There are so many (estimates vary from 750000 to one million) and that's just insects.
There is so much diversity in, and even within species that it'll always be a wonderland for me to explore and marvel at. I shan't live long enough to even see more than a few, let alone identify or photograph them.

But.... I'm doing my best!

Until the next time then.

As a postscript to this entry, and in particular, weevils. If you've been wondering why you haven't seen any yourself. Here's an idea of how they appear size-wise to the naked eye.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Steam trains, herbs and stinging nettle eating...

Tenterden St. Michael's steam railway station was opened in 1912 to serve the local community of St.Michael's on the outskirts of Tenterden in Kent.

The station was little more than a halt station (a small station, usually unstaffed with few or no facilities).
By 1938 the ticket office had already closed, and passengers had to purchase a ticket on-board the train.
By 1953 it had fallen into 'a dangerous and decrepit state' with the platform sleepers having seriously deteriorated.

Regular passenger services were withdrawn on the line on Saturday 2nd January 1954 and the 40 year 'reign of the train' was over.

The line today. The station was once on left of picture.

As the picture above shows, today there is no trace of the railway and it's now a footpath and cycleway.
The old rusting rails and rotting railway sleepers have long gone, and have been replaced with tarmacadam. Nature has begun to reclaim the site too and now the track is lined with all manner of wild flowers and plants.

That also provides me with a terrific habitat for seeking out bugs and insects.
At this time of year (mid-April) the promise of things to come is a joy. Already I've spotted wild red campion, mullein, early orchids, bluebells, ragwort, scabious etc. With the first flush of flowering shrubs and plants has come the butterflies and moths, as well as hoverflies, bees and beetles.

This walk will become a regular haunt as the year and seasons progress with new species appearing all the time.

In places, the course of the old railway line is surprisingly diverse regards both elevation and route and has had me wondering if the Victorian/Edwardian workmen that built this line had been imbibing moonshine or something similar? Perhaps more likely, home made dandelion wine?

A fledgling robin was not something I was expecting to see today. I know robins can nest as early as January but I've not seen any youngsters before at least May until now.

The little bird that I spotted today must have been around 2 weeks old at a guess. I wouldn't have expected to find it on the ground before reaching that age, and it was reasonably adept at flying too, so that tells me it probably wasn't pushed or had fallen out of it's nest.

Incubation period is around a fortnight as well and so that means that this family was probably started back in March.

Young Robin

It's a sad fact of nature that nearly three-quarters of young robins die before they are one year old, most of them being caught by predators. The ones lucky enough to survive will establish their own territories before winter.

Stinging nettle has been used for hundreds of years to treat painful muscles and joints, eczema arthritis, gout, and anaemia.
It seems that nettles release a chemical that irritates the skin on contact but if they come into contact with a painful area, they can actually ease the pain.

In June of this year the Annual World Nettle- Eating Championships take place in Dorset U.K.

What's all this pre-amble leading too?
Well, I'm not considering becoming a contestant in said competition, in case you were wondering. No, it's nothing more than a blatant attempt to keep you interested by 'bigging-up' the humble nettle. What I really wanted to convey is just that this little, prolific garden weed, is host to hundreds of bugs throughout the summer months and is exactly where I found the next tiny specimen.

Having gone to the trouble of inserting all of this extra and interesting information regards nettles, I have to report that by the time I'd made enough noise to waken the dead by setting myself in a suitable place to take a photograph, the bug had vacated its sunny spot on nettle, and transferred to a blade of grass.

To which 'bug' do I refer? Why the Dark Bush Cricket (Pholidoptera griseoaptera)
of course!
To be more accurate a dark bush cricket nymph. There are no adults around as yet. They will appear around July time and be with us until winter.

These are a native British species but do seem to be confined to the bottom half of the country, unless they fall in to the familiar 'under-recorded' section.

Bush Cricket nymph (4mm)

Another native plant that I forgot to include in my original list is Jack-By-The-Hedge (Alliaria petiolata) also known as Garlic Mustard because the leaves smell of garlic if rubbed or crushed,can be used as a sandwich-filler and the seed pods can be eaten as a snack.
It was to be seen in all stages of development today, from just emerging shoots, to fully flowering plants. This plant plays host to some small shield bugs that can correctly be referred to as any of the following:Rape Bug-Crucifer Shield Bug-Cabbage Bug, or as I prefer to call them, Brassica Bugs.

These are around 5-7mm long and of a metallic appearance. They over-winter in leaf litter and re-emerge in the spring.There is one generation in the north and two in the warmer south.
white to red depending on age/maturity.

As with all of the reflective or metallic looking bugs and insects, they represent something of a challenge to the macro photographer. Reflections being the main problem.
A flash diffuser helps, unless you do as I did today and drop your diffuser without noticing whilst loading the car! Then you're forced to use the rather harsh, on-board flash as a poor substitute.
That's how the photo below was taken and because of my stupidity over the 'proper' diffuser, the quality of the shot isn't as it should be, or at least, as I would wish it to be.

Brassica Bug

The 'red' version

And finally, as they say on all of the best T.V. News broadcasts...

There's a plant that we all know (by 'we' I mean, those of us here in the U.K. I'm unsure if this occurs outside of our country) this one, as with most others has it's fair share (or more) of pseudo names that include: Clivers, Goosegrass, Stickywilly,Stickyjack, Stickyweed, Stickyleaf, Catchweed, Robin-run-the-hedge and Coachweed.

I however,like to call it Cleavers. I don't go out of my way to be different. That's just the name I've always known it by.
Most folks will know it for the little, fine hairs tipped with hooks that make it cling so annoyingly to clothes and fur, like a kind of natural velcro.

As an ardent coffee nut (no pun intended) I was amused to read when researching the herbaceous annual that when dried & roasted, the fruits can be used to make a 'coffee-like' drink.
Not wishing to segregate tea drinkers in any way, it can also be made into tea.

To get back to the story (who shouted "about time"?) sunning itself on one of these plants was a smallish bee. I'm fairly sure that it was a miner bee of the 'Andrena species' but bees are not my strong point regards identity.

A pretty thing that seemed reluctant to become the next star of one of these blogs and insisted on hiding itself away from view, with just it's head protruding over the leaf it was on, no matter how I tried to encourage it otherwise.

And so, to paraphrase Walt Disney, "That's all folks" or as veteran radio broadcaster Brain Matthew would say..."That's your lot for this week, see you next week"
I'm hoping that it won't be as long as a week before my next posting, then again I recall saying that many times in the past but somehow time always beats me.

Until the next time then...