About a month ago I was bemoaning the mildewy state of our courgette plants when I noticed a brilliant yellow speck moving about in the foliage. Upon taking a closer look I was happy to find this pair of 22 spot ladybirds taking advantage of the sunny weather by mating vigorously (and for ages!) on the chewed and greying leaves.
It was impossible to get a better photo without disturbing them, but as these ladybirds are tiny – only 3 to 5 mm long, I was pleased to get any picture at all. All ladybirds are welcome in our garden – they are wonderful pest control – but I only found out how pleased I should have been on behalf of our courgettes yesterday when I read this post about ladybirds in Hagbourne Wildlife, which told me that the 22 spot eats mildew! I had no idea that there were any non-carnivorous ladybirds so I did a little bit of research.
Native to Europe, their latin name is Psyllobora vigintiduopunctata, often abbreviated to Psyllobora 22-punctata, and they can reliably be identified from their small size and uniformity of markings. Each wing case has 11 evenly spaced black spots. The pronotum (the section between the head and the abdomen) also has 5 black spots, which don’t seem to have been counted when this insect was given it’s name. You’ll find them on low growing mildewed (mouldy) plants, and a quick scout around wildlife forums also revealed fun informal accounts of them coming into utility rooms or living in house plant pots where the compost has become mouldy.
Alas my yellow spotted friends could do little for the courgettes – even if they bred a 22 spot army the mildew had already well and truly taken hold. I still like to think of their larvae munching bravely away – at least they won’t go hungry.
At the risk of being corny, I’m amazed at how time flies. Two weekends ago (it seems a lot longer somehow) I spent a perfect summer afternoon investigating a small bramble hedge in the middle of Hampshire. Who knows how long I spent there; I was utterly absorbed, but I do know that I could barely see past the butterflies. There were clouds of them! I was astonished at how intently they foraged, as many fiercely territorial species sat calmly together and drank deeply from the bramble flowers. Perhaps it was the heat, perhaps it was the end of the breeding season; maybe it was just that they were getting drunk on good nectar, but I’ve never had so many butterflies sit so patiently for me.
First up was Polygonia c-album, or the Comma, a lovely amber coloured creature with attractively raggedy wings. Wondering how it got that name? Look at the bright marking on the underwing in the picture below – you should be able to tell!
At first I thought this Argynnis paphia, or Silver Washed Fritillary was a Comma too, but its larger size and calligraphic markings gave it away. Although this particular individual is very much past its best you can still see what an impressive and beautiful creature it is.
Let’s take a closer look at its wonderful green and orange furred body and spotted eyes
A little further along I found a Pyronia tithonus, or Gatekeeper – these sprightly butterflies were very active and though I saw many in the hedgerow this was the only one that would sit for me. I think it’s a female.
Time passed, and I realised that most butterflies had drunk their fill and moved on. I stalked the perimeter of the field and found nothing else that would sit still for me. Time to try the garden (we were staying at R’s parents house) which has many plants beloved of butterflies. Sure enough, there was an Aglais urticae, or Small Tortoiseshell on the lavender.
And the Gonepteryx rhamni, or Brimstone butterfly looked well on this striking blue flowered shrub. They particularly liked this plant, which seemed quite poetic given how the fizzy yellow of the butterfly looked against the improbably blue flower.
I had been anxiously hoping to find some Inachis io, or Peacock butterflies, having seen a colony of their caterpillars on nettles much earlier in the summer. They couldn’t all have been killed, surely? It seemed wrong that I hadn’t found an adult yet. Then, on a trespassing bramble I saw this…
What a showstopper! It was worth a bit of mild anxiety just to see this glorious insect – a male, fresh and glossy and presumably just emerged from its pupa. I intend to write a little more about peacock butterflies, but I’ll leave that till another time.
Summer is moving on apace and as I don’t want to waste a single sunny day when it crops up, I grabbed my camera and binoculars and cycled up the River Lee after the first good forecast this week. The idea was to go dragonfly spotting, something I’ve been aching to give a whole day to, but the day itself had other plans for me.
I had a particular spot in mind, Gunpowder Park, near Waltham Abbey. I’d been there many years ago and had a vague memory of myriads of dancing insects, so having for once a specific destination in mind I set off at a brisk pace.
The towpath was deserted, surprisingly so for such a lovely day. I usually cycle the towpath slowly, mindful of pedestrians and dogs, but on this occasion there was not another soul to be seen, and I sped along. Due to my haste I will have missed a lot – I know it – just from the tantalising things that I only glimpsed like the plums glossy and ripe and good spilled across the gravel as windfall, the skulking herons, the bright flash of wildflowers. The horse meadow with it’s bright garlanded hedgerow coaxed me to pull up and drink in it’s beauty, the scent of buddlea and wild sweet peas heady and intoxicating.
Usually I’d stop alongside those pylons to search for Little Owls (at one point I was seeing so many and so regularly there that I just called them “pylon birds”) but this time I was on a mission, and thinking that I could easily stop there on the way home I hurried by. A bank of honeysuckle flowers tempted me to pause, but I was uncharacteristically hasty in getting back in the saddle.
Ever feel like you’ve jinxed yourself? All those things I told myself I’d stop and look at properly on the way back never did get looked at after all, which proves to me that being in a hurry to get anywhere is just a great big waste of NOW. Hurrying discourages curiosity, blinkers us to the unexpected. And on I sped, intoxicated with the swift breeze and the scrunch of gravel under my tyres. The towpath finally emerged from beneath the roaring M25, ducked under one more road and rolled out into parkland. Was this Gunpowder Park? I wasn’t sure, and a quick rummage in my saddlebag confirmed that I’d forgotten to bring a map. No problem! It would surely be signposted and besides, I could always ask for directions.
I got off the bike and strolled slowly along the riverbank in hope of spotting a dragonfly or two, but the wind was strong and I could not find the sheltered places where the dragons and damsels would be patrolling. Still, the river was beautiful, a slow, sinuous dancing river, and the weeds under the water swayed slowly like mermaids tresses. So many wildflowers I did not recognise! I got down on my belly to take pictures, to the mild alarm of strolling families who couldn’t see anything special about the clump of weeds I was prostrated by. I’m truly glad I spent a bit of slow time here, because when I got up and got back on my bike in search of Gunpowder Park and dragonflies, I realised something wasn’t quite right. Oh no – no WAY. I had a puncture. Normally this would not be an issue but I think you can guess what else I’d forgotten. That’s right - I’d set out to cycle miles out of London over relatively rough ground and not even brought a pump with me. And as I’d forgotten my map, I had no idea where the nearest train station was. Where was everybody? Now that I needed to ask directions the park seemed suddenly deserted. In search of directions or even a sign I followed the nearest road and stumbled upon a very unfriendly looking gated community on the edge of town; big ugly houses with big ugly cars parked in all the drives, completely sterile and unhelpfully deserted. But here I found a genuine and lovely surprise.
A flowering ornamental shrub was by some magic growing wild at the side of the path, and on it’s flowers danced an astonishing number of Painted Lady butterflies. The nectar laden flower heads tossed in the strong breeze and the insects clung to the blossoms determinedly, everything moving back and forth as if being pulled by a tide. Bees hummed industriously between the butterflies – everything was so intensely involving that the mystery of how I was ever going to get home seemed very far away.
I know most people in the UK have been seeing these lovely butterflies in great numbers since their mass migration here earlier this spring, but I’ve been singularly unlucky and seen hardly any. To find dozens of them all in one place was plenty consolation for the lack of dragonflies and the long, hot, unpleasant slog home.
Yesterday was fine and sunny, so I thought I’d try my luck dragonfly hunting on Coppermill Lane. I had a tiny hope that I’d find the beautiful Libellula Depressa, or Broad Bodied Chaser I had seen there not so long ago; whether I did or not I couldn’t fail to enjoy myself on a glorious midsummer day like this.
Under the little bridges behind Springfield Marina this Mute Swan has been incubating her eggs for what seems an age. It looks nice and cool there doesn’t it? But when the sun swings westward the shade vanishes and she’s left exposed in the harsh sun; then she is forced to keep her eggs cool under her downy body. I’ve seen her gaping dejectedly in the punishing heat, struggling to reach the water for a drink without getting up from the nest. She drove a coot off that nesting spot earlier in the spring, and I wonder if, in her small and pugnacious brain, there is ever the vaguest sense of regret.
Further along Coppermill Lane I realised I wasn’t going to see any dragonflies or damselflies. Council gardeners had been at work with strimmers and mowers and cut back the long vegetation fringing the edges of the tracks and the towpath for miles and miles. The water was spattered with shredded grass and the longer vegetation which served as territorial perches for the dragonflies had been destroyed. I guessed the insects had dispersed into the marshes while the cutting was being done, and after a brief scout around revealed nothing I sadly got back on my bike and resolved to go up to Tottenham Marshes in search of bee orchids. I remembered the new pond and decided to enter the marshes via the pond track. That was the best thing I did all day! Nearing the water I saw a man with a camera around his neck who was clearly watching something. I asked him what he’d seen, and he pointed to this…
A male Broad Bodied Chaser, perched like an improbably beautiful mechanical toy on a stick poked into the pond mud. The photographer had placed the stick there in the hope of attracting a dragonfly and within moments this beauty had claimed the tailor made perch. I couldn’t have been more thrilled and started gabbling about how this was the only dragonfly I could recognise for sure and that I’d tried and failed to photograph one a couple of weeks before. At last, success! As I snapped away I noticed just how well…serious a camera my new friend had, and had to comment. Turns out that I’d bumped into David Cottridge, an award winning wildlife photographer who encouraged me to take my time and get the shot just right as I stood at the waters edge with my undistinguished point ‘n’ shoot. We discussed the various quirks of cheap cameras and the fabulousness of state of the art ones, and I picked up so many hints about the wonderful things to be found on the marshes, the best parts of the river and marshes in which to see dragonflies and damselflies (I didn’t realise that the River Lee which runs through the marshes is the best place in the UK for dragonflies!) and just kept on looking at that gorgeous powder blue insect.
While discussing the wildlife of the marshes it was only a matter of time before the subject of Bee Orchids came up. As I was talking to a man who knows Tottenham Marshes like the back of his hand I shouldn’t have been surprised when he casually offered to show me where they were, so I excitedly grabbed my bike and he shouldered a rucksack crammed with field guides, and off we went.
PS:- David, if by any chance you ever actually read this, thanks again for sharing your knowledge. I am sure I must have appeared slightly bonkers. I was so thrilled to find exactly what I had set out to see that day, and to have bumped into just the person who could help me was extraordinary good luck. No wonder my snake/tree identification skills, rudimentary at best, went right out of the window
Often when I go into the garden even for the shortest of times I’ll be amazed at the wildlife that inhabits our tiny patch of London soil. Just this afternoon as I hung out my washing to dry I was surprised by a comma butterfly landing on the laundry pile, briefly sunning itself then with a jaunty flick of its distinctive ragged wings moving on to a neighbours nettle patch. Any time you step outside at this time of year you may be witness to some fleeting wonder. Gardening gets you closer to the small things, and on a sunny day this week, tending our broad bean plants I felt I was on a mini safari.
The striking broad bean flowers are a favourite of bumble bees, and along with the Comfrey flowers they keep our garden buzzing. It was almost hard to work around them there were so many bees, but they are docile creatures and don’t seem to care much what humans are up to.
Miniature dramas revealed themselves one by one as we examined the plants. A large spider had made a loose tent in the leaves to protect herself and the silken egg case which she carried beneath her body.
She had picked a good place – when the spiderlings hatch they will wreak havoc on the many tiny pests our plants are host to, and so she is most welcome here. The tightly packed top leaves of the plants hid an astonishing multitude of earwigs, and ants scurried up and down the long stalks looking harassed. Wherever I looked it seemed something was crawling, flying or trying to hide amongst the leaves and stems. A male Oedemera nobilis, or Thick Legged Flower Beetle waved his antennae vaguely while I admired the brilliant iridescent green of his body. Only the male has those bulbous back legs!
I was probably out in the garden for ten minutes at most, and yet the small task of weeding gave me the chance to learn of a new creature (that beetle and his gorgeous gold/green tailcoat). Most importantly, it impressed upon me the truth that wherever you go there are small wonders thriving and living out their dramas, as extraordinary and worthy of our notice as any creature of the African plains.