Can insects be cute?

Damselfly on vetch

Damselfly on vetch

The phrase “cute” doesn’t usually apply to insects – furry and feathery creatures are often considered cute, but insects?  I think it is a question of how you view them, interact with them, and present them in your pictures.

Damselfly on vetch

It’s MINE – damselfly plays hide and seek, clinging on to vetch flower

Interact with insects?  Obviously, insects will fly off when disturbed, but can you really interact with them?  Certainly with damselflies, I’ve found it possible to play a game of peek-a-boo, the damselfly hiding behind a stem or leaf, and rotating round to try and stay out of sight, while peeking with one eye to see where I am.

Large Skipper

Large Skipper

Butterflies, too, can interact.  Perched on a flower, they may be trying to decide whether or not to trust you.  If you move a bit closer, the fore-wings may extend a bit, ready to take off, and then be tucked away again when you back off.  If they really trust you, they may go on feeding, allowing you to get pictures of their long extending proboscis and tongue.

Meadow brown butterfly on daisy

Meadow brown

Ladybirds are another interactive insect – again, often hiding just out of reach of the camera, stopping to assess the photographer, clean their face, and potter off on their business.

Ladybird peeking over the edge of a leaf

Ladybird peeking over the edge of a leaf

I think insects can be really very cute indeed, and that it is certainly possible to interact with them.  Try taking a closer look – you might be surprised!

Beautiful Dragonflies

Four spotted chaser

Four spotted chaser

Although I have enjoyed wildlife photography for many years, I have been mainly focused upon butterflies and birds.  It is only since we became the owners of Alvecote Wood and put in eleven ponds that my interest in dragonflies and damselflies has been ignited.

Four Spotted Chaser

Four Spotted Chaser

Dragonflies and damselflies are really fascinating insects, belonging to a very ancient order of insects.  They also have a fascinating life cycle, with many species taking years to reach maturity, almost all of that time spent underwater in various stages of nymph, although some can complete a life cycle within a single year.  The adults that we see are thus the culmination of a long period of development, and their life span is rather short – just a few weeks at most.

Broad-bodied Chaser

Broad-bodied Chaser

Although they need wet places, usually ponds, sometimes rivers, streams and canals, to breed, they can be seen a long way from those water bodies, and we often see them resting on leaves, trees, twigs and plants within our main woodland, some distance from the ponds. Most are predatory on smaller insects, worms, grubs and even small fish.

Damselflies ovipositing

Damselflies ovipositing

Our ponds have become home to an increasing range of species, although we have no uncommon species in our woods.  As with birds and butterflies, I take an interest in, and enjoy taking photographs of, the commoner species, as well as the rare ones – they are often surprising, with iridescent colours that glow in differing light, always changing, and always beautiful.  I could happily watch the numerous four-spotted chasers and emperors ranging over our ponds all day, defending their territories from all comers.  Most of them will perch and watch on dead stems of reeds and sedges emerging from the shallow water, although the common darter will also sit on a stick almost anywhere, including the canes that we use to stake our young trees.  The hawkers, too, will range into the woods where you can find hairy dragonfly, migrant hawker, southern hawker and brown hawker at different times of year.

Blue-tailed Damselfly

Blue-tailed Damselfly

Damselflies are much more delicate – they usually sit with wings folded, rather than out to the side, and both wings are similar size, whereas the dragonflies have one large wing and one smaller one on each side, rather like butterflies.  In summer there is a small cloud of little azure and large red damselflies, together with the beautiful and delicate blue-tailed damselflies, hovering over the ponds, mating, and depositing their eggs below the surface on submerged stems.  The larger damselflies such as emerald and the lovely banded demoiselle will range more widely and are often seen perched in the meadows or on twigs and saplings.  The increasing population of dragonflies and damselflies have themselves attracted predators in recent years, including the Hobby, a small falcon that feeds on them.

Four Spotted Chaser

Four Spotted Chaser

Dragonflies and damselflies are worth a closer look.  They are primeval, beautiful and always surprising.

Four Spotted Chaser

Four Spotted Chaser

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Large Red Damselfly

Large Red Damselfly

Banded Demoiselle

Male Banded Demoiselle

 

We did it again – best in England

Oak glade in spring

Oak glade in spring

A year ago, I reported that Alvecote Wood won the Royal Forestry Society competition for the best small woodland in the Midlands and North West of England, something that was honestly beyond anything we had dreamed of when we bought the woods in 2007.

http://alvecotewood.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/alvecote-wood-is-top-of-the-tree/

In 2014, all the previous winners and runners-up were entered into a champion of champions competition to find the Best of England, and we were entered in the small woodland category.  As the judges had visited us last year, we weren’t visited again but other woodlands were visited, to see what they had done in the meantime.  We had not stood still either – this winter we extended our coppice into the edge of Betty’s Wood to revive the hedge, increase light in the lower woodlands, and remove some very large holly that was blocking the light.  All of this should help regeneration in an area previously showing very little.  We also put up a QR code trail in the woodland so that visitors could use smartphones to scan the codes, bring up a web page with information about that location, with links to activities for all the family.

Evening bluebells

Bluebells near our coppice

At the weekend, we heard that we had won, and we are now officially the best small woodland in the whole of England!  We started from very humble beginnings, but tried to take a professional approach to ensuring that the site became as valuable as possible for wildlife, as quickly as possible.  We were novices, and we are still learning all the time.  To be acknowledged by experts in the field is a real surprise, and gives us the confidence to move forward, always with advice and help, to ensure our woodland is a resource for generations to come.

Read more about the Royal Forestry Society competition and this year’s winners using the link below.

http://rfs.org.uk/node/1193

You can also read our story, from the Quarterly Journal of Forestry (pdf) here

Irreplaceable means just that…

alvecotewood:

Yesterday I attended a meeting in London about Biodiversity Offsetting, and the idea that nature can be bought, sold, traded and moved around for the convenience of humans. In particular, the idea that it can be reduced to units that equate large amounts of low quality habitat with smaller amounts of high quality and irreplaceable habitats. The forum was the 2nd Forum on Natural Commons. You can follow it on Twitter under #naturenot4sale.

I wrote this blog last year, and it formed the basis of my presentation to that meeting. It still holds true. Our woods cannot be replaced by anything else, anywhere else. Nor can many other special places. Biodiversity Offsetting is a flawed concept in itself, and even more flawed when we consider how humans can, do and will implement it in practice. Nature will become something from which money is to be made, not something that has intrinsic value and that belongs to everybody. Please do read this again.

Originally posted on Alvecote Wood:

Irreplaceable ancient woodland

Irreplaceable ancient woodland

The Government recently published its paper on Biodiversity Offsetting, a scheme whereby damage caused by development can be offset by creation or improvement of habitat elsewhere.  On the face of it, this seems very reasonable.  You build a supermarket on a meadow, and make another meadow elsewhere.  Simples!

The problem is that habitats are not simple things, and this simple scheme is fraught with hazards for our wonderful wildlife.  Look closely at the document and you will see not all is well with this proposal, which proceeds on the premise that a small amount of high distinctiveness (i.e. high quality) habitat can be replaced by a large amount of poorer distinctiveness habitat, that this can be done in an area remote from the community of people and wildlife affected by the development, that developers can in effect choose the type and location of “offsetting” that they…

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Meadows come to life

Meadow at Sunset

Meadow at Sunset

Meadows are very rich areas for wildlife, particularly if they are managed well.  Most of our meadows have only been in place for a few years, although the main meadow in our woods has been a clearing for a long time.  We are managing all of them to maximise wildflowers and to provide maximum benefit for pollinating insects, as well as to provide food plants for butterfly and moth caterpillars.  In the last couple of weeks, these meadows have really started to come to life with buttercups, purple vetch, red campion and ragged robin appearing in ever-increasing numbers, to add to the cowslips and snakes head fritillaries of early spring.

In the last few days other plants have started to come out – in particular the spectacular southern marsh orchid, which is spreading in the damp areas of Betty’s Wood, and the first ox-eye daisies are starting to bloom.

Evening Buttercup

Evening Buttercup

Southern Marsh Orchid

Southern Marsh Orchid

Ox-Eye Daisy

Ox-Eye Daisy

Ox-Eye Daisy

Ox-Eye Daisy

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

In the ponds, too, the iris are coming into flower, and emergent stems of sedge, spearwort and iris are forming great vantage points for the four spotted and broad bodied chaser dragonflies staking out their territories.  Damselflies are also on the wing, roosting in the long grass, on the thistles and on the trees in the hedgerow.

Brown Argus Butterfly

Brown Argus Butterfly

Small Heath

Small Heath

Small Copper Butterfly

Small Copper Butterfly

Common blue butterfly

Common blue butterfly

With the blooming of the meadows come the first of the summer butterflies – brown argus, small copper, common blue, dingy skipper and small heath are now all on the wing in our meadows, as well as the large and small white, brimstone, green-veined white and the ever-present peacock and small tortoiseshell.

Yellow Rattle

Yellow Rattle

We manage our meadows in a number of ways.  One of the star plants is the yellow rattle, pictured above.  This marvellous plant is semi-parasitic and knocks back the grass, making it possible for more wildflowers to thrive.  We add to this by mowing and removing the hay, which takes fertility out of the soil – wildflowers generally thrive in relatively impoverished soil, and low fertility again keeps the grass in check.  It has taken a while to get the process of improvement started, but we are now seeing the results.

In the next few weeks we are looking forward to seeing large and small skippers, Essex skippers, ringlets and meadow browns.  Then the meadows will truly be in their prime, but for the moment, they are full of promise.

Evening Buttercups

Evening Buttercups

The value of ponds

Four-spotted Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser

If you want to improve the biodiversity of a piece of land, one of the best things you can do is put in a pond.  We are lucky that our woods are damp, there is water flowing through them, and they have a clay soil base which is eminently suitable for ponds.  We started out with one pond that was badly-designed and silted-up.  As part of our programme to improve the site for wildlife, and to rationalise the drainage, we put in three brand new ponds in the upper part of the woods, and divided the old pond into three new ponds, terraced along the ditch.  The first pond is a silt trap and the remaining ponds now keep free from silt, and drain properly back into the ditch.

Broad-bodied chaser

Broad-bodied chaser

Female Banded Demoiselle

Female Banded Demoiselle

When we had the opportunity to buy Betty’s Wood and plant it with trees, we also added ponds – it was a very suitable field, with lots of damp patches and a base of both red and white pottery clay.  There were already some natural ponds formed in tractor ruts, and we added 5 more ponds in a cluster.  This means we have 11 ponds on site, in three clusters.  There is another pond which is more of a pit that gets damp in winter – but these temporary ponds are also very valuable habitat.  All of them were put where a pond would naturally want to form, in areas that were already damp.  None of them are artificially lined – the clay keeps the water in place.  Some of them dry out in the summer, others stay wet.  All are connected so that wildlife has a refuge in the deeper water if needed.

Grass Snake

Grass Snake in our ponds

We were rewarded in the first year with a few dragonflies and damselflies.  As time has gone on, our ponds have brought more life to the woods.  The range of dragonflies and damselflies has increased, helped by the fact that we are adjacent to other pools and ponds, a canal and a river.  Birds regularly come and drink in the ponds.  We have a good population of toads and smooth newts, together with a few frogs.  We have some resident mallard who come back each year although are yet to breed successfully.  Last year we had a pair of lapwing in Betty’s Wood.  We have an increasing population of grass snakes who love to swim in the ponds and bask on their banks.  Swallows swoop down to feed on the insects that breed in the ponds.  Last year we had a Hobby, which likes to feed on dragonflies.  Mammal tracks show that all our resident mammals drink at the ponds – muntjac, badger, foxes, squirrels, rabbits, stoats.  Insects also come to drink at the ponds, particularly butterflies, bees and wasps.

Southern Marsh Orchid

Southern Marsh Orchid

Yellow flag-iris

Yellow flag-iris

Around the ponds are wet areas, in which we get wonderful plants – cowslip, buttercups, snakes head fritillary and a growing area with southern marsh orchid.  As well as the usual sedges, reeds, rushes, flag iris, ragged robin, teasel and figwort.

Ponds bring a place to life, and putting them in was one of the best things we have done for wildlife at the woods.

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser

Hairy Dragonfly

Hairy Dragonfly

Broad-bodied Chaser

Broad-bodied Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser

First Butterflies and Dragonflies and More Bluebells…

Mating pair of orange tip butterflies

Mating pair of orange tip butterflies

Green-veined white

Green-veined white

Female orange tip

Female orange tip

Speckled wood

Speckled wood high in elder bush

With the warmer weather, we have seen the first butterflies emerging in the woods, as well as the first dragonflies and damselflies.  The first spotted on the wing were brimstones, but we now have good numbers of green-veined whites, orange-tip, speckled wood, large white and small white, as well as the rather dusty and ageing peacock, small tortoiseshell and comma which overwintered as adults.

The large red damselflies were the first to emerge, but in the last few days we have also seen azure damselflies coming out, and the first two female broad-bodied chaser dragonflies.

Large red damselfly

Large red damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly (female)

Broad bodied chaser

Broad bodied chaser

We are also delighted to report a good patch of violet growing in the woods, which we hope will be food plants for the caterpillars of silver-washed fritillary – this butterfly is moving our way, and we have ideal habitat for it.  Fingers crossed!

The bluebells are also stunning at the moment – just past their peak, but still putting on a fantastic show.  They look particularly wonderful when growing together with clumps of white stitchwort.  Red campion is now in flower as well as the first ragged robin near our ponds, and the buttercups are just starting to come out.

The woods are in full leaf now, and the acid-green colours of spring are just wonderful to behold.  It all looks quite magical in the evening light.

Evening bluebells

Bluebells near our coppice

Patch of stitchwort

A lovely patch of stitchwort on our boundary

Green, blue and white

Green, blue and white

Oak glade in spring

Oak glade in spring

Evening bluebells

Evening bluebells

Violet

Violet growing in our woods

Down among the bluebells

Down among the bluebells

Blue on Blue – Down among the bluebells

We have the most fantastic display of bluebells at the woods every year, and every year it is a little bit different. This year we didn’t have a cold winter, and so the brambles did not die back in our main bluebell patch. In consequence, the bluebells in that area are not so good, but in other areas they are surprisingly good.

All our bluebells are English native bluebells. There are probably getting on for a million of them at the woods, and it is quite amazing how they differ in form but also in colour, ranging from an extraordinary deep purple-blue, through all shades of blue, some even with a touch of turquoise, to very pale blue. We even have one pink English bluebell, and one or two white English bluebells.

How do we know that they are English bluebells Hyacyinthoides non-scripta and not Spanish? Well, our bluebells all have narrow leaves, most are bent over at the top, rather than standing tall, they have long narrow flowers with recurved petals, and they have white or cream coloured pollen. Spanish bluebells have broader leaves, stand up tall, have wider flowers with non-recurved petals and tend to have blue pollen.

It is difficult to capture the feeling of being in and among the bluebells on camera. Simple images don’t do justice to the intensity of the blueness, nor do they really capture the delicate beauty of these flowers.

There is nothing for it but to get down and get dirty in the mud. I tend to photograph bluebells lying on the ground, where I can get good support for the camera. I try not to disturb other bluebells, and this does limit my ability to get good angles sometimes. I try to use selective depth of field. Depending on how far the subject is from the background, I use f stops somewhere between 4.0 and 8.0, and always my Canon 100mm macro lens. I also try to get a good background clear of clutter – either with bokeh from the light coming through the trees, or a clear dark or light background. Exposure can be anywhere from +2 to -2 stops, and compensation is really important in the dappled light of the woods. Finally, post processing is important to capture the feeling of being among the bluebells – I generally use Lightroom to tweak the curve and get the result I am looking for.

I feel very privileged to have such a wonderful selection of these beautiful flowers to choose from, despite that fact that I am allergic to them and they give me heroic doses of hay fever whenever I try to photograph them! Bluebells are common in Britain, but rare worldwide.

If you would like to help survey bluebells in Britain, and to see the extent to which non-native and hybrid bluebells have spread, please fill in the Natural History Museum survey http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/british-natural-history/survey-bluebells/ – anybody can do this, and it will be of great help.

Down among the bluebells

Down among the bluebells

Vivid Blue bluebells

Vivid Blue

An unusual pale mottled bluebell

An unusual pale mottled bluebell

Down among the bluebells

Down among the bluebells

Down among the bluebells

Down among the bluebells

White English Bluebell

White English Bluebell

Bluebell in a patch of sunlight

Bluebell in a patch of sunlight

Monochrome Bluebell

Monochrome Bluebell

Pink English bluebell

Very rare pink English bluebell

Cute Coots

Tiny coot chick begging for food

Feed me Mum!

We don’t yet have any coots nesting in our ponds, which are a little bit small for them, so I went for a walk around our local lakes in Stonydelph to see if there were any little coots or ducklings to photograph.  I was lucky.  As well as some coot chicks that are a few days old, a very kind lady pointed me in the direction of some chicks that were newly-hatched.  They were so new that they struggled to stand up.  I watched as they fell over, got up again, and struggled to gain the attention of their parents.  I watched them beg for food, and watched both parents feeding the two chicks with their huge, ungainly feet, and very alternative hairstyles!  They were still drying their little winglets, and using them for balance as they ran along.  It was heartrendingly cute, and it was all I could do to keep quiet and just keep taking the photos.

Here are some amazing family moments with these tiny little chicks.

Tiny coot chick chasing after parent

Wait for me!

Tiny coot chick with huge feet

Seriously big feet

Two tiny coot chicks

Two tiny coot chicks

Two tiny coots

Two tiny coots

Coot chick begging for food

Begging for food

Coot chick begging for food from both parents

Coot chick begging for food from both parents

Tiny little coot chick

Tiny little coot chick

Coot chick

Learning to dance!

Open Evenings

Seven-spot ladybird

On the Edge!

During the Summer months our woods are open on Wednesday evenings for visitors between 6 and 8pm.  One of the good things about this is the lovely light that we get across our meadows at this time in the evening.  Indeed, the woods are aligned such that the evening light is much more compelling than the morning light in most places.

Last night we opened for the first time this year, and were really lucky with the light, which was perfect for wildflowers and insects alike.  These are a few photos that I took last night, and also on a couple of other evenings during the week.  We had lots of visitors last night and I am hoping that the open evenings prove to be popular again this year.  We don’t charge for entrance, so if you want to come along, please do!

Cowslip

Cowslip

Red Campion

Red Campion

First Bluebells

First Bluebells

Greater Stitchwort

Greater Stitchwort

Red Campion

Red Campion

Love in the Grass - lily beetles on snakes head fritillary

Love in the Grass – lily beetles on snakes head fritillary

Green-veined whites

Green-veined whites – mating pair

Greater Stitchwort

Greater Stitchwort