Saturday, January 29, 2011

Some days are diamonds, some days are rocks..

Tom Petty sums up today's find.(link)

The unexpected somehow eclipses everything else that I find & today couldn't have been more of a surprise if the surprise fairy had flown into my ear and shouted surprise as loud as the little mythical creature could!

Wandering about amongst the ancient woodland on farmland close to home, trying to keep the cold from my fingertips with a degree of efficiency that rivalled 'Eddie The Eagle's attempts at ski jumping. Head down against the chill wind, I noticed a fallen tree that I'd not seen before and was struck by the amount of bark that seemed to be parting company with the trunk.

Knowing from experience that all manner of creatures spend the winter tucked away in such places I decided to investigate one of the looser pieces, more in hope over expectation really but as I'm always telling myself "You never know"

I'd only lifted one little section when I spied something that I thought could be of interest. Little did I know that it would actually turn into probably my best find of the winter.
Further examination confirmed my first thought that it was indeed the rarely seen leafhopper 'Ledra aurita' and that what I'd actually found was an over-wintering larva or nymph of this strange critter.

Ledra aurita or Horned Leafhopper as I've read it described as is distributed worldwide but primarily in the tropics and Australia.
It is found locally across southern Britain but is seen very rarely due to it's superb camouflage.
It's the only member of the Ledrinae to occur in Europe.

This is the first sighting of one of these nymphs during winter, I've seen a couple during late summer but that's it. In the whole time I've been bug-hunting I've only ever seen these nymphs and one adult. I know somebody that spends most of his time looking for insects and bugs as an entomologist and yet he's only ever seen one example that was beaten from a tree.

It's thought that these bugs are dormant over winter, not feeding at all and that development to an adult takes 2 years.
I've also read that they are hermaphrodites but just how reliable that information is I couldn't say, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of information available.

Most Ledrinae exhibit some measure of crypsis mimicking in form or texture the food plant (these hoppers are plant feeders) often they are green or brown with dorsal surfaces resembling that of bark or lichen or leaves.

Strangely prehistoric in appearance, looking as though there's not been much in the way of evolution taken place here there seems to be some doubt as to whether these bugs originate from one single descendant or mixed.
I think the correct terms are:Monophyletic or Polyphyletic as always though I'm willing to be corrected.

And so a day that seemed to hold little promise of any significant finds actually became quite exciting (well that's if you get excited at such things) personally I do but then I've had to cling on to the old adage of 'Sticks & stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me' many a time when being labelled as a 'Nerd' or 'Sad' for finding such things of interest! Oh well, each to his own eh?

An adult specimen from 2009

Monday, January 24, 2011

Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree...

 Well that's how  Alfred Joyce Kilmer   saw it in 1913. Being of less religious persuasion than the American Poet I  would probably take a more 'Down to earth' approach but I understand the sentiment.

And so today's blog is actually quite topical with all the talk in the media about the government selling off our woodlands because it's all about trees.

Sprivers close to Horsmonden in the heart of the High Weald of Kent is somewhere that I've driven by hundreds of times and probably said almost as many "We really should check-out the walks in there" Today it finally happened.

Owned by The National Trust, the Sprivers family lived here from 1447 to 1704, when it was purchased by the Courthope family. It was willed to The National Trust in the 1960s by the Courthope family.

The WW2 ammunitions dump
 During WW2 the house was used as a military command centre and  Sprivers Wood was used as an ammunitions dump. You can still see 
evidence of the trenches, (pictured here) thought to have been built by the British Army in the run up to the D-Day landings of 1944
Oak from Sprivers was used to help build the Houses of Parliament in 1840 and again 100 years later following bomb damage.

Sprivers looks like another top destination for my walks around the local area and I can't wait to re-visit come the change of seasons, I think it'll be an exciting place to wander around with all that spring and summer offer. Today it was cold and wintery but even so there was lots to see and what amazed me over and above everything else were the trees. I had no idea that the grounds contained so many beautiful old trees. Surely these must rate amongst the oldest and largest in Kent? The largest are Oak & Beech with some I would guess topping out at around 20 metres.

The bark of these large trees is just fantastic in it's variation, colour, movement and texture.

It's impossible to stand in front of these ancient forms without feeling a little humbled and wondering just how much they have witnessed over the ages.
Such a powerful presence and yet at the whim of mankind as to whether they live or die.
Don't underestimate just how important trees are to us all, we need trees for so many reasons.

The walk around Sprivers takes you through areas of ancient woodland, coppiced areas (can't wait to visit these in summer, they are bound to be home to numerous butterflies) open fields,there are ponds (great for dragonflies and damselflies a little later on) and a view of the house and gardens. 

Magical movement.

One of the smaller ancient oaks beside the entrance road

The coppiced area (Bug hunting in waiting)

A less than natural bark.

And so that's Sprivers. Pleasant enough on a cold winter day with the promise of much more in the near future. One to add to my list of local haunts for sure. There's little doubt that I'll be back to spend many more happy hours here very soon.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The extraordinary in the ordinary...

Or to complete the old Celtic philosophy...

"Let the mundane become the edge of glory, and find the extraordinary in the ordinary."

Fine weather today persuaded me to venture outside of Cranbrook again for an afternoon walk in Hemsted Forest. The forest is a nice place for walkers but with the dense fir and pine trees not the best of locations for insects and bugs although it can be a great place for birding.

I made a conscious effort therefore to steer clear of bug hunting and trying to keep the above maxim in mind, look at the winter flora instead with a view to photographing ordinary things in a way that would show them to their best.

On one of the brightest days of the year thus far I actually needed to add the C.P. filter to the camera. I enjoyed the challenge of taking these photos, I hope you get something from the results & can see my vision (or if not humour me).

Backlit chestnut leaves


Reflection of the photographer

Dried seedheads

Rose Bay Willowherb

Trees reflected in the puddles

'Herbie' the terrier enjoying the sun

Monday, January 17, 2011

Bad light stops play...

The photographers curse...bad light!

Every photographer knows the importance of good light and just how frustrating the opposite can be.
This is especially so with macro photography. Whilst flash can be employed and frequently is to add detail and freeze movement, for me there's no substitute for ambient light.

A true macro lens will by default cause some light issues.  As you move closer and closer to your subject you are in effect cutting out light. A slow shutter speed could of course be employed but it's not always feasible to expect your subjects to sit perfectly still whilst you camera does it's work and that's leaving aside things like the wind speed etc.

Wintertime is double-trouble with the best days still hardly getting light enough unless you are lucky enough to be able to afford the top equipment.

And so it was today......a pretty poor day following on from several (or more) pretty poor days. However, always resourceful I found a dead crab spider in the garden and decided to experiment with long exposure shots being as I had a non-moving subject to practice on and all things being equal it'd stand me in good stead for the months to come experience wise.

Today's photo was taken as follows:
Canon 40d- Canon100mm Macro-Microscope objective (50mm)-Tripod-Light tent with diffused angle-poise lamp above
4second exposure @ f9
It's a full frame shot.

A Crab Spider (Thomisidae)
This one is probably Xyticus sp and was about 7-8mm.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Quack Doctor & The Poor Man's Friend...

One of the joys of my regular walks around my home in Kent is the unexpected find. Something different, obtuse, something that you couldn't have envisaged finding!

Today I decided that the water logged fields behind my home would have to do without this walker for one day and so I collected together all the paraphernalia that accompanies me on these jaunts, put the dog into the back of the car and headed for the village of Benenden a short ride away.

As is most times the case I was preoccupied with looking around for signs of invertebrate life when the woodland path I was following took me close to a little stream. Thinking that it'd make a real change to scout around this kind of habitat I diverted from the path ( a la Little Red Riding Hood) and for a while hugged the edge of the stream (not literally you understand) all the time looking downwards for signs of life, either in the water or the undergrowth.

Something caught my eye protruding from the nearside bank just above water level. It was only tiny and on this occasion had nothing at all to do with bugs or insects. I could see it was a vessel of some kind and had printing on the facing side. I got down into the water's edge to investigate and could see it was a very small pot of some description. In the best 'Time Team' manner I carefully extracted it from the muddy bank and was amazed to find it was complete and looked at first sight like a Victorian potion jar.

Having scouted around for any more finds (I did manage a couple more) I wrapped the jar, put it in my camera bag and continued with my planned walk.
On reaching home a couple of hours later I cleaned my bottles and then set about doing some research on them. The little potion jar as expected was my star find and research into this one was relatively easy, there's been quite a lot written on the subject. Reproduced below is a trade advert for the cure-all published in the Exeter Flying Post, 20 July 1826

It seems that this product was first sold to the general public in around 1820 I've seen three examples of this little jar, each one varying a little from the other and it seems that my one is one of the earliest examples making it close to 200 years old.

The Poor Man’s Friend remained available until the mid-20th century, but made the news in 2003 when Bridport Museum bought the secret recipe for £480. Its composition, in the words of the Daily Mail, was ‘nothing more than 95% lard and beeswax’. Nothing, that is, except the other 5% - a fragrant but dangerous concoction of mercurous chloride, sugar of lead, mercuric oxide, zinc oxide, bismuth oxide, red pigments and oils of rose, bergamot and lavender.

Giles Laurence Roberts, proprietor of the Poor Man’s Friend, didn’t have a great start in life. Born in April 1766 in Bridport, Dorset, he contracted smallpox when he was nine months old. Although he recovered, he then got rickets and was unable to walk until the age of five.

His successors describe his physical appearance as follows: He was short in stature, being only about five feet high, dark complexion, a beautiful black eye, and in his younger days long black hair falling on his shoulders. In his dress, and appearance generally, he was singular and original, bearing mostly the character of a Quaker or Friend.

The other bottles I found today beside the little Brook were a stoneware/salt-glazed jar stamped 'Lovett & Lovett Notts Langley Mill'
This one is probably Edwardian as the mill was run under this name between 1900 and the end of the first world war. Quite what it's contents would have been is unknown to me at this stage.

There was also a little Victorian boat shaped ink bottle in glass.
Note in the photo below the indentations into which the old pens were placed. Boat inks occur in a wide range of colours from aqua (common) to cobalt extremely rare .

And so....not what I was expecting from my walk today but a pleasant & interesting find all the same.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Did you know that bugs moult?

Ecdysis is the correct term for the process of moulting during which a young insect (instar) will shed it's coat and grow a new one.
Often the adult insect will show little resemblance to the early instars.
I've only been lucky enough to see this first hand once thus far but it's a fascinating process to watch.

The little bug I found today whilst walking around woodland in my home town of Cranbrook is a Forest Bug (Pentatoma rufipes) and is possibly a third instar. I often see these towards the later stages of winter with the adults appearing around June-November.
The adults feed on fruits and also caterpillars plus other insects.

3rd instar of the Forest Bug

Final instar of the Forest Bug

The emergence (note the pale colour at this stage)

The adult Forest Bug

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The lame sheep of the family...

A distressing sight met me towards the end of my afternoon walk today when a field that contained a small flock of sheep revealed that not all of the occupants were in the rudest of health.

Footrot! Not a nice subject but all too common it seems with sheep that winter outside. At least one of the sheep was so badly afflicted with footrot that the only way it could feed was by kneeling down on its front legs with it being barely able to bear it's own weight on its rear legs, it made for a pitiful sight.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Sometimes we forget that a ladybird is just another beetle....

Alright, ladybirds are amongst the best-known and loved beetles because of their bright colours and infinite variety of pattern. There are 42 British species, although only around half of these are true ladybirds.

The 7-spot (Coccinella 7-punctata) is less variable than most and the 7 spots are rarely fused. The size may vary but is usually 5-8mm.
They are abundant in all kinds of habitat and the ladybird that I see most often in winter.

No surprise then that today as I walked around  Angley Woods  in the winter sunshine there were a fair number to be seen. Always on the lookout for signs of other insects and bugs I failed to spot much today aside from a couple of flies and midges hanging around some of the wetter areas.

The 7-spot (Coccinella 7-punctata) 

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The coldest December since 1890 has affected our local ponds...

A few milder days has allowed one of the local ponds that I pass on my walks around Cranbrook to at last thaw.
However the extreme conditions have taken their toll. The first sign that things weren't right today was a powerful smell as I approached the pond. It was not the normal 'fishy' smell associated with the area but much more pungent and not something I'd ever noticed before.

On closer inspection I found quite a number of dead fish scattered around the pond margins.
I'm no fisherman or fish expert but they looked like pond carp to me (I'm happy to be corrected on this) and it seemed as though all sizes had been affected.

I've read that the problem can be lack of oxygen but also if there has been snow on top of the ice (and there has here for quite an extended period) it won't allow sunlight into the pond.
Fish rely on some warmth in the water to maintain their metabolic rate, if the temperature dips for a long time and they have undigested food in their gut it can rot and create toxins that will poison them.

Dead fish need to be removed as soon as possible to stop further fish deaths from toxins being released into the already oxygen depleted water.

I do see the owner of this pond quite often and will ask if it's possible to do this.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Where do Ladybirds go in the winter?

Another fine and sunny January day here in Kent. It's on days like these that we start to let our imaginations run wild thinking that Spring may be on the way. A chill wind says otherwise though but still, the signs are there already.

So...where do Ladybirds go in the winter?
The answer in the case of the ones I've been seeing over and above any other species this winter is that they hibernate on fenceposts in great numbers.
I have a regular spot where I know I have seen this species hibernate for the past few years and they are there every year and always in the same place.
16-spot ladybird (Tytthaspis 16-punctata) is one of our smaller ladybirds at only 3mm and so is often overlooked.
They feed on pollen, nectar and fungi and as one of these is available throughout winter can be seen on sunnier days feeding. There is a melanic (black) form but it's rare.

As for the other species? Different species hibernate in different places.  Some shelter under tree bark, others sleep under leaf litter etc.

16-spot ladybird (Tytthaspis 16-punctata) 

7-Spot Ladybirds in hibernation.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Beetles have lived on Earth since long before the age of the dinosaurs....

Today we saw some sunshine here in deepest Kent and that encouraged me to walk with the camera for a couple of hours and see what, if anything was about.

The year has started with very quiet weather conditions after hearing on the news that we now know December was the coldest since 1890. We do seem to be making a habit of breaking records of late.

So, to the Beetles, or to be more correct 'Weevils'...

There are over 370,000 known species of beetle. The weevil family is one of the largest in the animal kingdom, with a huge number of species (there are more species of weevils in the UK than birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians combined). All weevils have a snout (known as a ‘rostrum') bearing their mouthparts.

The weevils I found today are tiny at 1.5-2.2mm. I think they are probably 'Protapion fulvipes' This is our most common and widespread species of Apionidae, being found throughout the British Isles.

A congregation of Weevils.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Rosemary gets bad press...

The Rosemary in question here is a Rosemary Beetle.
According to the RHS it is now high in the top ten of garden pests. It came to Britain from Southern Europe in the mid 1990s and has since become widespread in London and East Surrey.

Outside of the London area, the insect has become established in Norwich and a few adult specimens have been found in Leicestershire and South Yorkshire. I can't find any records of the beetle in Kent apart from a sighting in Medway but that may be down to under-recording as is often the case with coleoptera etc.

The rosemary beetle is fond of rosemary and lavender, but is also partial to thyme and sage. The advice is to squash any found but how could anyone destroy such a beautiful thing? Although my sighting is late in the year, these beetles will be out and about on warmer winter days.

(Chrysolina americana)