Wednesday, August 26, 2020


Goldfinches must be the most colourful of all the native finches. I have seen then on most walks this year, first as single pairs in spring and, once their breeding season was over, in flocks, often in the company of linnets.

Immaculate breeding plumage, in spring.
This side view shows the beak well - longer and more pointed that most finches, perfect for wheedling seeds out of teasel heads in autumn

In late spring, dandelion seeds are a favourite meal

That pointed beak is also perfect for extracting seeds from ripe larch cones

And later in the year their diet sometimes switches to oilseed rape seeds

Late summer and the breeding season is over. Often in mixed flocks, with linnets on the Durham coast

Late in the summer, knapweed seeds are favourite food

I often see flocks on up to 200 goldfinches on the Durham coast between Hawthorn Dene and Dawdon,  in early autumn

Saturday, August 22, 2020

heather moorland in August

 The moorlands of Weardale are a sea of purple heather at the moment, often stretching all the way to the horizon. Billions of tiny, nectar-rich flowers are in bloom, feeding vast numbers of insects, from minute thrips to butterflies.

The flowering of the heather coincides with the breeding season of these heather Colletes bees (Colletes succinctus), below. They lay their eggs in tunnels excavated in the sandy moorland soil, usually on a south facing patch of bare ground, then provision the egg with heather pollen before sealing the chamber. They're solitary bees, unlike the highly organised, social nests of honeybees and bumblebees, but do aggregate their nests in huge colonies. Yesterday we must have walked past many thousands of them, congregating at the entrance to their tunnels and shuttling backwards and forwards to the heather flowers.

The vast expanse of flowers also attracts butterflies. Yesterday we saw red admirals, small coppers, small tortoiseshells and small heaths. The small coppers breed on dense, transient patches of sorrel that grows quickly on the bare soil after a heather burn.

This 'woolly bear' caterpillar (below) is the larva of the northern race of the oak eggar moth Lasiocampa quercus. It spends two years in the larval stage, overwintering as a larva before emerging to feed again, then pupating over a second winter before it finally emerges as a spectacular moth.

And finally, a rove beetle Platydracus stercorarius, with wings tightly folded under those red wing cases

Tuesday, August 18, 2020


The local lanes and footpaths, that I've walked around so many times this year, are good habitat for bullfinches. In spring they feed on buds of cherry plum, sloe and wild cherry in the hedgerows and copses. In summer I more often catch them feeding on the ground, eating dandelion seeds. It's rare to see a solitary bullfinch; the parents and young stay together right through the winter.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Willow warblers

The willow warblers whose song was so much a part of the soundtrack of our lockdown walks in the lanes around home, in spring and summer, have gone for another year.  Hearing the first one to arrive during the leafless days of early spring was a turning point in the year, a sign that spring had arrived.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Batman Hoverfly

 I first noticed this beautiful golden hoverfly Myatropa florea by the sound it made - a load buzz - when it was hovering close to my head in the garden. 

While I watched it settled on the rim of a flower pot full of rainwater and began laying eggs around the rim. 

This is one of the easier hoverflies to identify because of the distinctive markings on its bluish-grey thorax - that black marking at the rear edge looks like batman's silhouette.

When the eggs hatch they'll develop as rat-tailed maggots like these, with an extendable breathing tube that acts like a snorkel, allowing them to breathe air while submerged.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Meadow pipits

Meadow pipits are so common and widely distributed that they tend to be overlooked, but with their speckled breasts and neatly patterned wings they are attractive birds. 

The two locations where I most often encounter them here in the North East are coastal grasslands and moorland edge. This bird was photographed in near Hawthorn Dene, on the Durham coast.

I encountered this bird on Blanchland moor, just when the bell heather was beginning to bloom. Every time I approached, it rose and flew a little further away, so I suspect it was decoying me away from its nest.

Another bird from the edge of Blanchland moor. This one has no fewer than three grasshoppers in its beak and was about to feed fledglings. When you think about it, that's is pretty impressive hunting, catching the third when you've already got a beak full!