Friday, 16 May 2014

Arthropods behaving badly at Stodmarsh

This blog post contains graphic images of small arthropods preying on each other. If you're not keen on that kind of thing, I recommend you give this one a miss...

So. Today, warm and sunny, and I met my blogging pal Phil Sharp at West Malling for a trip to Stodmarsh. On the way we called in at Wye Downs NNR in the hope of tracking down a Duke of Burgundy, one of the few British butterflies I've never seen. (The others, for those who are interested, are Chequered Skipper, Large Blue, Large Heath, Scotch Argus, Mountain Ringlet, Marsh Fritillary and High Brown Fritillary. All the rest - in the bag.)

After Phil's satnav guided us around several miles of teeny-tiny lanes though gorgeous rolling downland, we finally pulled up at a Natural England car park, and headed out into the reserve, almost immediately finding this female Brimstone feeding on a bramble flower in a tangled clump, and thinking that we couldn't see her.

The view from up here is astounding - you overlook a very long, steep-sided valley which, the car park sign informed us, is called 'The Devil's Kneading Trough'. I would like to have seen the resultant Devil's Crusty Bloomer. Beyond the valley, the view was more or less uninterrupted greenness, with Ashford handily hidden by a flank of hillside. Sadly I had no short lens for a landscape photo, but it looks like this. Actually, Phil took a photo or two with his bridge camera, so hopefully he'll post that on his blog, which you can see here.

We walked down into the trough, pausing on the way whenever a butterfly chanced past. We saw several Dingy Skippers, including this rather pale and worn individual, a nice fresh Brown Argus or two, and a couple of Green Hairstreaks. Also lots of Speckled Yellow moths, and (I think, they didn't land) some Small Heaths. No D of Bs. The habitat looked perfect with lots of spent Cowslips around, the weather WAS perfect, so I'm not sure where we went wrong. Maybe there aren't many of them here and we were just unlucky. Or maybe their flight season is already coming to an end.

There was a lovely butterfly bonus on the way back to the car though, in the form of several Wall Browns, the first I've seen for YEARS. And since the last time I saw them, the books and guides seem to have dropped the 'Brown' part of their name so they are just The Wall - not too keen on that. Anyway, they looked fabulous in flight, very orange, but on settling they were closing up instantly, so no nice open-wing shots. They were also very flighty - I was lucky with this one as it settled close to me when I was standing still. We also heard a Cuckoo up here, plus Yellowhammer and Whitethroat.

And so we went on to Stodmarsh, parking at the visitor centre, which was unaccountably absolutely packed with cars, so much so that we had a hard time parking, and wondered if there was a twitch on. While Phil unpacked I took a couple of shots of the first of the day's Odonata - yet another Azure, a male not fully coloured up yet.

We walked to the first hide (Reedbed hide I think), which overlooks a smallish reedy lake. Very little was on the water (two Great Crested Grebes, plus a lovely pair of big Common Carp in the shallows), but we were in for a real treat when a Bittern came languidly flapping across. I didn't manage any decent photos, partly because when I saw the big brown thing appear I presumed it would be a Marsh Harrier and decided it wasn't close enough to bother to photograph (as I have many closer Marsh Harrier photos), and so raised bins rather than camera. Then saw it was in fact a Bittern (of which I have no photos, distant or otherwise), so lowered bins, raised camera, but it was even more not close enough by then.

We left the hide when a large group arrived (accounting for at least some of all those cars), and walked towards Lake Tower hide. On the way, we saw at least 12 Hobbies wheeling around very high up, while lower down many gulls and Common Terns were doing the same thing.

It's a fair assumption that the Hobbies were catching flying insects. This not-great photo shows that the terns and gulls were doing the same thing. Phil thought the Hobbies must be hoovering up whatever the gulls and terns missed.

A better tern, looking down its bill at me.

The terns nest on rafts here, but the gulls were all youngsters, too young to be breeding. Most were Black-headed.

But this one wasn't. It's the first first-summer Mediterranean Gull I've ever photographed, not that I noticed at the time. We went on into the Lake Tower hide but actually views of the gulls'n'terns from here were not as good as from the path, though we did add Shoveler to the daylist when a couple flew by across the lake. A Cetti's sang loudly and mockingly from right outside the hide but we couldn't see a trace of it, and so we left the hide and carried on our way.

And now for some gruesomeness.

Phil spotted this scene in the pathside vegetation - a female Scorpionfly dining on the remains of a male damselfly of some kind or another. Knowing that Scorpionflies scavenge rather than hunt, I suspected that she had pulled this damsel out of a spider web, and a closer look proved this to be the case. In fact the spider appeared briefly but decided not to try to retrieve its lunch.

A closer view. The Scorpionfly is contentedly slurping the insides out of the damsel's disarticulated thorax using her drinking-straw mouthparts. Ain't nature horrible. I mean wonderful.

One of the day's poor showings of Marsh Harrier. Along this same path we also heard but didn't see Bearded Tits, and there were Reed Warblers and Reed Buntings singing away but (unusually, for the latter) avoiding detection. Also a few Whitethroats singing.

We paused by a flooded field to watch two Lapwings (both males by the looks of my photos) chasing each other about and giving constant whooping and gravelly-grinding calls.

As the path took us alongside the Stour river, so Banded Demoiselles began to appear.

We'd seen a couple of small dragons too, which we presumed were Hairy Dragonflies (though they were flying against the sky so no detail visible). Then this female landed and we managed to sneak close enough for photos, confirming ID.

The next stretch of the walk was pretty uneventful, though very pleasant. We heard but could not find a singing Turtle Dove at the turn towards the Grove Ferry ramp. We went up to the ramp and had a sit-down, noting a couple more Hobbies on the wing and the day's first Sedge Warbler giving its ecstatically crazy song from somewhere below. Then onwards, and through a field of cows - not my favourite kind of experience, and they were (of course) standing right on the path, but they didn't do anything apart from stare at us with that worryingly steady bovine gaze that seems to say, 'I know you enjoy cheeseburgers'.

It was just after this, or just before this (cow anxiety has affected my memory) that the day's most low-flying Hobby came along, and I got these photos, which needed a lot of brightening up to be useable. The sky wasn't really that white, in fact after a little midday cloud it was becoming very blue again.

We visited Marsh hide, saw hardly anything from there, but the view out was lovely, with a really stunning show of Yellow Flag Irises.
On the last stretch of path, we were passing a stand of tall white umbelliferous something-or-other when I noticed what looked like a white button on one of the flowerheads. It proved to be a lovely Crab Spider, which I think must have eaten recently as it was not in its stretched-arms flycatching stance.

More gruesomeness. Phil spotted a second Crab Spider on the same plant, and this one was mid-feast, sucking the insides out of a fat (but rapidly shrinking) fly.

OK, enough ickyness. Here's a nice and still-alive damsel, a female Variable, found just before the car park. It was by now about 3.30pm and, mindful of the long drive back, we decided to abandon our vague plan to look in at Westbere Lakes on the way home. Some other time...


Penny Taylor said...

I kind of love the gruesomeness!

Warren Baker said...

Some speciel images today Marianne :-) Looks like you had a busy time there!

Terns and hairy dragons feature on my post today too!

Phil said...

Well you certainly captured the day in your post Marianne. A very nice collection of photo's and a Med Gull as well!
Gruesome and gory is great........unless you're the damsel or the fly! Would have been even gorier if the cows had got us!!