Thursday, September 25, 2014

Ants and Adders

Thursday's Guardian Country Diary is an account of an encounter with ants and adders

This massive wood ant's nest is on the side of a footpath through Hamsterley Forest on the edge of Weardale in County Durham. It's four years since we last followed this path and the nest is now almost a metre tall. There's as much nest below ground as above soil level and it's probably home to well over 250,000 ants.

The nest is thatched with dead pine needles and its surface was covered with ants, either adding more thatch or bringing back honeydew that they'd collected from aphids high in the tree canopy.

These ants attack intruders with great ferocity. This is what happened when I poked a stick into the top of the nest. You can see the powerful jaws biting the stick .....

..... and here you can see how the ant curls its tail underneath, to squirt formic acid at the attacker.

Those jaws are very painful when they grip your flesh, but .....

... not as painful as a bite from this. My wife spotted this female adder sunbathing near the ant's nest. You can see how the snake has flattened herself out to absorb as much of the warmth of the autumn sun as possible.

While I was photographing her I noticed two young adders, about the length of my index finger, slithering away in the grass, too quickly for me to get a photograph. Evidently we were standing in a favourite adder sun-basking spot. At this point the female became more defensive, although it's hard to say whether is was because she was defending her offspring or simply because she was tired of our intrusion in her siesta.

By now the angry ants had caught up with me and were biting myleg, so it was time to leave!

For more on adders click here

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Smart spider

This rather fine garden spider Araneus diadematus (aka cross spider aka diadem spider) has spun its web above our kitchen waste wheely bin, so ensuring that it will have a plentiful supply of flies attracted into its web.

The colour of these spiders is quite variable - here's a grey one, photographed in almost the same place two years ago.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Hairy snail

I found this tiny hairy snail Trochulus hispidus in woodland beside the river Tees near Barnard Castle today. The shell was about 5mm. in diameter.

It's a common species but tends to be confined to damp, shady habitats.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Now you see it, now you don't

I accidentally disturbed this silver Y moth Autographa gamma and watched it fly across the garden and then settle. I thought I had pinpointed the spot where it landed but when I went to have a look I couldn't see it at first. It's camouflage was amazingly effective against a background of dead Anchusa leaves and dead wood. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Lacewing larva

I found this tiny lacewing larva, which was about 3mm. long, on the surface of a pear in our garden. If it hadn't scuttled away when I reached out to pick the pear I would never have spotted it.

Lacewing larvae, equipped with long, needle-sharp jaws, are predators of small insects like greenfly and they have a particularly gruesome habit. When they've sucked all the nutrients from their prey they impale their victim's empty corpse on the hairs on their back.

As the lacewing larva grows larger the pile of corpses grows until the larva is hidden under a coat of dead prey. You can see those lethal jaws a little more clearly in this view ....

.... and here's a more tightly cropped view of the head and jaws.

Useful natural pest control for any garden. Glad to have them around.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Thursday's Guardian Country Diary is a piece about an encounter with this redstart, along the former railway line between Romaldkirk and Mickleton in Teesdale.

I've had brief glimpses of redstarts along this footpath on several occasions over the summer but this was the first really clear view.

This individual, a juvenile I think, led me a merry dance by almost allowing me within camera ranging then flitting to the next fence post.

Lovely little bird, though. 

It's probably on its way to North Africa by now.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Making hay while the sun shines on the Durham Coast

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece for the Guardian Country Diary and posted some pictures here of the exceptionally species-rich Hawthorn Meadows on the Durham coast. The botanical diversity is the result of a late hay cut, which allows the wild flowers to set seed. 

Today, when we walked through the meadow....

....  Durham Wildlife Trust's volunteers were haymaking, on a very warm early autumn day. 

Doing it the traditional way, with wooden rakes and pitchforks, is hard work. The smell of warm, fragrant wild flower hay was wonderful.

A little further up the coast, between Hawthorn Dene and Dawdon, they were haymaking in the National Trust meadows with some labour-saving devices.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A lucky glimpse of an American invader

Just upstream from this point on the river Tees at Barnard Castle they've installed a weir that creates a broad area of calm shallow water at its top. This morning I was leaning over the wall, watching the fish rise and idly peering down into the water, and spotted ..........

..... this - a large American signal crayfish, Pacifastacus leniusculus, identifiable by the pale spot at the base of its claws. This species was introduced into Britain sometime after the 1960s and has been spreading rapidly ever since. It has been largely responsible for the decline of the native white-clawed crayfish, through competition for habitat niches but most of all through the transmission of the fungal disease Aphanomyces astaci, known as crayfish plague, to which the American species is immune.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Courtship amongst the Michaelmas daisies

This little beauty is Metellina segmentata and she's spun her rather untidy web between the developing flower heads of the Michaelmas daisies in our garden. Once the flowers open and start to attract insects she'll have a constant supply of prey in her snare.

And this is her consort, a male Metellina segmentata who also lurks on the edge of her web, keeping close watch on her and the web. When an insect is caught they both rush into the web but he grabs it first, wraps it in silk and presents it to her as a gift.

Yesterday I watched while he presented her with his gift, then while she was preoccupied with her meal he mated with her. He's a smooth operator.

Friday, September 5, 2014

A magnificent veteran beech tree

There are some fine stands of native trees scattered throughout Hamsterley Forest's commercial conifer plantations here in country Durham. None is more impressive than this venerable beech tree, growing next to an old dry stone wall that must have been part of the field system before the forest was planted. 

This is one of the largest and most impressive beeches that I've encountered and it probably benefits from the shelter of the surrounding conifers, although the top of its crown is taller than they are. But it's real glory lies in its magnificent convoluted bole - folded, fissured and branching from low down in a way that suggests that it must have been pollarded or lost its leading shoot earlier in its life. 

Now all those folds and cavities make it an excellent wildlife habitat. Over the last decade or so it has acquired a fine fungal flora, in the form of ......

....... these massive brackets of Ganoderma australe, commonly known as the southern bracket. The fungus is undoubtedly killing the tree very slowly. The crown is still as leafy as I remember it when I first saw it, almost 40 years ago. I would not be in the least surprised it it survives for several more decades.

Ganoderma is a perennial bracket fungus, producing a new hymenial layer (the spore producing tissue) annually over a decade or more. Here you can see this year's fresh white hymenium on the underside of the brackets.

The tan-coloured stain on the trunk is a coating of spores, that are released in billions.

The 'shelf' formed by the upper surface of the old brackets has become carpeted with mosses ......

..... while the upper surfaces of those immediately below becomes covered with a thick layer of spores, like a coating of cocoa powder. The dark area under this bracket is one of several temporary pools formed when rainwater trickles down the trunk and collects in folds and rot-holes. Temporary pools like this are known as phytotelmata and are home to vast numbers of tiny protists and animals. When I took a sample from this one and looked at it under the microscope it was seething with oligochaete worms and tardigrades, feeding on the single-celled protists which in turn were feeding on the soup of fungal spores in the water.