Nature Notes #34 (It’s a Long One!)
Most birders become interested in some other aspect of nature as they travel to see birds. They can hardly fail to become more than just a birder when such a richness of other wildlife other than birds, surrounds them. In additional to mammals, I became interested in moths and butterflies at an early stage, then progressed to dabble with dragonflies and plants, and lately with bees, wasps and hoverflies. An expert in none, but a keen enthusiast in all. It makes for some interesting days out and in the event that birds are less than abundant, there’s always something else to look at.
Frodsham Marsh has much more than birds but few people take more than a passing interest. On the first weekend of the Lesser Scaup and Red-necked Grebe, I decided to have a look at other things as the latter went to sleep for yet the hundredth time.
One of my all time favourite plant families is the umbellifers and besides being amazingly constructed, some of them attract insects better than anything else. Their umbels are made up of thousands of florets which together give the impression of the plant having bigger flowers. There are many species in Britain and they are either common, locally common or rare. I grow several species in my garden in Wilmslow. They are graceful and elegant plants and a good source of nectar for insects. I found four species in flower by the Weaver but suspected that there should have been lots of Ground Elder Aegopodium podagraria if I’d looked hard enough and I thought that the last umbellifer by the gate below the old log was a Giant Hogweed Heracleum mantegazzianum, just a single plant.
On Friday, May 30th, I decided to see what was in flower along the River Weaver through Frodsham Marsh and as I have mentioned, I found four species. The commonest was Cow Parsley which was everywhere, the banks and field margins lined with the swaying white tops. They aren’t particularly good at attracting anything insect-wise and their leaves and flowers lack an obvious scent. A week later, most had gone over with few flowers left.Then, flowering slightly later, but just as common, was Hogweed which is quite variable in appearance. Purple or green stems, white or pink flowers, they are named after their strong scent reminiscent of a pig sty.
Cow Parsley Anthriscus sylvestris
The scent of the flowers was attracting bees and hoverflies as I took the path down from the old log. I scanned the tops for insects. The hoverflies were mainly ‘Eristalis’ species with two or three on each flat-topped umbel along with bumblebees. Just as the Cow Parsley had finished, the Hogweeds were everywhere in flower a week later.
Hogweed Heracleum sphondylium
As I walked along the bank towards the I.C.I tank I noticed two more species of umbellifer. Garden Angelica and Hemlock Water Dropwort. I scanned them with bins. Insects. Lots of insects. I ploughed my way down the bank towards the water and a large clump of Garden Angelica. It’s big globes of lemon-yellow flowers, purple stems and bright green leaves made it look really attractive against the grey of the water. The flowers were covered in Bumble Bees, mostly White-tailed and Buff-tailed with the odd Red-tailed, the latter species seemed to prefer the Oilseed Rape nearby. There were other insects and I spent some time looking for anything interesting but it was mainly bees, so I moved on.
Garden Angelica Angelica archangelica
The next patch of umbellifers was one of Hemlock Water Dropwort. Now, if you like insects and in particular bees and wasps, then this plant is a must-have. I love it. The two plants I have in my garden have attracted more uncommon hymenoptera than anything else I have. Last year I recorded an uncommon parasitic wasp and this year two different species of Cuckoo-bee, all new for me. So I headed in the direction of the first area and dumped the tripod, got the camera out and stood still and watched. I wasn’t disappointed. This magic plant is a magnet for creepy crawlies and the umbels were covered. I didn’t recognise many of them but just knew that I hadn’t knowingly seen them before. Hemlock Water Dropwort is also one of the most poisonous, if not the most poisonous, plants in Britain and it can make humans very ill if care isn’t taken when around it.
There were lots of beetles. Orange, red and metallic green ones, black and white weevils and lots of different flies. There were also a great many larvae that were in many stages of development in their silken webs. I snapped away not knowing if they were a moth species, perhaps a sawfly species or some other insect.
An Avocet noisily mobbed a male Marsh Harrier overhead and I paused to look up. I was enjoying myself.
I worked my way along the bank next to the waters edge, visiting the numerous anglicas and dropworts. Each plant held new insects, and a couple of hours flew past without me realising it. As I stumbled over the jetsam lining the shore, spiders scattered in all directions in dozens. I’d always seen them on the marsh but had never known what they were, so took a few snaps. What I photographed was unexpected!
So, once home I started trying to identify the insects in the pictures. Now…a word of caution. I am no insect expert and I haven’t got the time to spend on blogs and forums although I did begin to try and found them unhelpful, so I’ve tentatively identified the ones below, but they could be similar species. If you know that they are incorrect, I’d appreciate a comment on the Frodsham Marsh birdblog (comments at bottom of this post). Identified correctly or not, there are some cracking insects out there.
Also, as a footnote, I visited the Manchester Ship Canal near No.4 tank on May 31st. There were lots of butterflies including Large Skipper Ochlodes venatus, Peacock Inachis io, Small Tortoishell Aglais urticae, Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta and Green-veined White Artogeia napi and a couple of damselflies, Blue-tailed and Azure, Ischnura elegans and Coenagrion puella. I’ve included a picture of Azure Damselflies from that walk.
So….Let’s try with the ‘easy’ ones first… Ladybirds.
The three generalist species, to be found in a wide range of habitats were present. 2-spot, 7-spot and 14-spot Ladybirds
There were a lot of bumblebees on the umbellifers and the majority were White-tailed and Buff-tailed with fewer Red-tailed, these preferring the Oilseed Rape flowers, perhaps due to their tongue length. Most White-tailed and Buff-tailed had to be left indeterminate as I couldn’t make my mind up as to what shade of yellow their bands were or whether their tails were white or buff. There were also quite a lot of Honey Bees which were quite nice to see due to the bad press recently concerning the reduction in their numbers nationally. Surprisingly I didn’t see any Common Carder Bees Bombus pascuorum or Tree Bumblebees Bombus hypnorum, both of which are really very common nowadays.
Honey Bee Apis mellifera
I disturbed very few moths whilst I pottered up and down the grassland. The easiest to identify were the Cinnabars, commonest on No.4 tank, but obvious elsewhere also. I had one Silver-Y but it didn’t pose for a photo. Two ‘micro’ moths did settle long enough to take record shots. The first was Hysterophora maculosana which is a Bluebell feeder with less than twenty county records and new for SJ57. (S.Hind). The other was common, Bramble Shoot Moth Notocelia uddmanniana. The flowers of the Hemlock Water Dropwort were covered in silky webs with lots of caterpillars in different stages of maturity. I had no idea if they were even moths or if they could be sawfly larvae. They actually turned out to be another micro moth, Depressaria daucella which was also new for SJ57 and commoner in West Cheshire than East Cheshire. (S.Hind) One larvae even had a fly on its head which I wondered whether it was a parasitic species of some sort…
Larvae of Depressaria daucella
Now for the trickier ones…the Spiders
The two that caught my eye were one that was easy to see and one that was a master of camouflage. The easy to see one was everywhere where there was driftwood and rubbish piled up on the river’s edge. Everywhere I walked there were dozens scurrying off in all directions, some which were brown with big pale spheres on them and others that were black. A quick look in Chinery’s insect guide identified them as Wolf Spiders, possibly Pardosa amentata, although there are many similar species. The big pale spheres which I initially took as part of the insects were actually egg cases that the female carries about. So, the black ones could have been males. Then the other one…. I was watching a small ichneumon wasp when it suddenly began to struggle with an invisible enemy. When I looked closer, there was a brilliant green spider fighting with it and wrapping it up in silk. Against the green of the Hemlock Water Dropwort flower stalks it was indeed virtually invisible. It was probably one of two Araniella species, similar very small orb-web spiders.
Wolf Spider sp Pardosa sp
Flies... As I looked at the umbellifers there were lots of flies. Mostly non-descript to me. Three of the bigger ones caught my eye. A common species, one which landed on my tripod was a Snipe Fly, probably Rhagio scolopaceus. It looked intimidating, reminiscent of a Deer Fly, a nasty biter, but it flew off harmlessly. The second was, I think, a Yellow Dung-fly Scathophaga stercoraria, another very common species and present on many of the umbels. The third isn’t easy. I’ve put it on the web site called i-Spot and not got any suggestions other than it may be a Robber Fly, Asilidae, but I haven’t found an exact match anywhere. However it was equally numerous like the previous two.
Beetles…There were a few really nice ones which on the face of it are simple to identify. However, insects are never that straight forward and I dare say that there are many closely related, similar looking species, so the names are a best guess. The nicest was a bright emerald-green beetle, and I saw many on the flowers. I think they were one of the Thick-legged Beetles, Oedemara nobilis. The green was a bright iridescent bluey-emerald. Beautiful. Another was a glowing orange colour with black antlers, probably a Cardinal Beetle Pyrochroa serraticornis. Lastly, another one was a dull orange with a black heart on its thorax, a Soldier Beetle Cantharis rustica.
I saw several species but only photographed two. One looked very obvious and its black and orange colouration should have made identification simple but it took a lot of sorting out nonetheless. It was the reed and bulrush specialist Tropidia scita…I think. The other was all black and I think it was in the Cheilosia tribe. There are many that require close examination to identify them, so it will have to remain unidentified. I like hoverflies and I’m trying to get into them, but it’s an uphill struggle…
And then there are the left-overs… Okay, a pair of mating Weevils, a striking blackish grey and white colouration. Are they a Cionus sp? Then there was a really nice Sawfly which I think is either Tenthredinidae sordida or a similar species. Like the next family, the Ichneumons, sawflies are notoriously difficult to identify.
The blogs and forums are full of unidentified insects…Lastly, a spectacular Ichneumon Wasp, possibly Amblyteles armatorius, but it’s a guess. A cracking looking thing which hunts down moth or butterfly larvae to lay a single egg inside.
Fungal Infections… When I was looking at the flower tops I came across a bizarre looking insect, obviously dead, its wings outstretched and its body enveloped in a whitish substance. I took a picture and carried on. Purely by accident I came across a reference to a fungus called Entomophaga which infects flies like Dung-flies and consumes it from the inside. Just before the fly dies, it climbs to the top of a plant and succumbs. In this way, the fungus gains a high position for its spores to be spread by the air currents.
So, there you have a walk under the umbellifers with me and perhaps you know what some of the insects are. As I’ve said, please feel free to suggest identifications and leave a comment in the comments box at the bottom of this post…. When the birds are quiet, pause and look around you, there’s lots of other interesting things to look at.
Tony Broome (words and images)
As a footnote Frank Duff photographed a butterfly on the southern banks of the track by the old/disused I.C.I tank on 14.06.14. which was a Ringlet. This is potentially a first record for the marsh and a rarity for N Cheshire. Eds.