Dormice At Last

Now that the wood is up and running as part of the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme, the fifty dormouse nest boxes are being inspected monthly for signs of dormouse occupation. We did July’s tour of the boxes in the extreme heat of last weekend but, once again, did not find any dormice within. Two or three of the boxes that had been empty last month did now contain a small amount of shredded material and so there was some hope for next time, we felt.

Hot and dehydrated, and having finished our trip round the boxes, we decided to quickly look in a few bird boxes before we went home. Immediately we found a family of dormice.

The dormouse nest was made out of leaves and woven grasses. The beautifully formed entrance is on the left

The hole of the box was plugged with a duster and it was lifted lock, stock and barrel off the tree and put into a large plastic bag. This would contain the dormice once the front was removed – the adult female and two juveniles within the box were moving around very fast indeed.

The two juvenile dormice in their weighing bags. The male weighted 12g and the female 11.5g
The adult female dormouse weighed 18.5g

Once they had been weighed, sexed and generally assessed, the dormice were put safely back into the nest box whilst it was still within the bag and the hole was again stuffed. The box was then put back up onto the tree and the duster removed.

We looked in a second bird nest box and found a second dormouse nest in there as well, although this time it was empty. It appears that the dormice are choosing the heavy ‘woodcrete’ bird boxes over the wooden dormice boxes which are perhaps too hot for them this year.

Although we are yet to find any dormice in the fifty nest boxes that have gone up for them, it is becoming a bit of a tradition to find interesting caterpillars there instead. This time it was a very large and hairy caterpillar inside an otherwise empty box:

It was dark in the box and this photo is not the best but it is just possible to make out that the righthand six spots along the back are oxblood-coloured and the four on the left (the front of the caterpillar) are black. This tells us that it is probably a Gypsy Moth caterpillar.

Gypsy Moths are unfortunately not very good news. The UK did have a population of Gypsy Moths that lived in the fens of East Anglia feeding on bog myrtle and creeping willow, but these became extinct in the early 20th century when their breeding sites were drained. However, in June 1995, a small colony of the mainland European race of Gypsy Moths, able to feed on a wide variety of plants, was discovered in Epping Forest. These moths have now spread to London and parts of the South East of England and they can cause extensive damage, especially to small trees when the caterpillars are present in large densities. We shall just have to wait to see how things progress.

In May we visited the Vercors in France and saw Small Blue butterflies wherever we went – they seem to be doing very well there:

Two Small Blues and a Checkered Skipper in the Vercors

Here in Britain, however, Small Blues are struggling and have suffered worrying declines. Kidney vetch is their sole larval food plant and so they are straight away limited to sites where this grows abundantly. We have a colony of Small Blues here in the meadows and, this year, there is a lot of kidney vetch for them. But that isn’t a given – it is a short-lived perennial plant and I will be collecting seeds in late summer to grow them on, so that I can be sure that there will be plenty again next year as well.

Once mated, female Small Blues spend their time resting and feeding around the kidney vetch

Photos from May in previous years in the meadows

They will also lay their eggs in the flower heads – only a single egg in a flower. The resulting caterpillar will live and grow in the flower, feeding off the seeds, until it is fully grown, when it will descend to the soil to spend the winter as a caterpillar there.

This week I went out into the meadows to search for the caterpillars, which should still be feeding in the kidney vetch flowers at this time of year. I had to look in an awful lot of flowers and, along the way, I saw this bug that I have now identified as a Common Green Caspid bug (Lygocoris panulinus):

Eventually I found what I was looking for, well camouflaged in amongst the seed pods of the flower:

Putting the macro lens on the camera, I got some more detail:

Marjoram is another cherished meadow plant here and is now flowering – an absolute honeypot for butterflies and bees:

Four Marbled Whites on the marjoram

Scabious and knapweed are also high performers at this time of year:

Small Skipper on scabious
Swollen-thighed beetle on scabious

Red valerian is another good one but is starting to go over by now. Hummingbird Hawkmoth are particularly keen on these flowers and we have been seeing one every day recently on the valerian by the allotment. It has an incredibly long ‘tongue’ that it keeps rolled up when not in use.

The individual flower tubes of the red valerian flowers are of considerable length and the nectar is in the spur right at the very bottom, so it is only long-tongued invertebrates that can reach it.

Most invertebrates using the flower will perch on the top of the tube to stick their tongue in but the Hummingbird Hawkmoth doesn’t need to do this and can hover above whilst still reaching that delicious nectar.

Starting to curl its tongue back in as it moves away
Caterpillars of the Large Rose Sawfly, busily defoliating a wild dog rose in the meadows
Gatekeepers are the last butterflies to make an appearance here each year and they emerged this week
Six Spot Burnet Moth
The large Common Drone Fly, Eristalis tenax, a bumblebee mimic, rests on a leaf

I am aware that there are a lot of small summer bees around here that I have never yet attempted to identify. This very tiny bee (about 6mm long) in a bramble flower is one of the ‘mini miners’ – one of many diminutive Andrena mining bee species. It could be a female Hawthorn Mining Bee (Andrea chrysosceles). Little is known about the nesting of this species but it is presumed to nest in the ground on south facing banks and hedgerows – I am amazed about how much there is still to be discovered about the wonderful world of invertebrates.

It has been very, very dry this spring and early summer and the worms will have gone down deep. The blackbirds and song thrushes have no doubt had to find other things to feed to their young and this blackbird has a beakful of grasshoppers and crickets. With their armour plating, these might be difficult for the chicks to digest:

Song thrush with a very meagre offering of something in its beak

Snails are much softer once out of their shells and this innocuous-looking anvil stone has been used by a song thrush to bash snails against to get at the soft flesh within.

An anvil stone surrounded by a sea of broken up snail shells

Magpies and Crows, meanwhile, have been helping themselves to the growing grain in the farmers field alongside the meadows:

Whilst our backs were turned, all our strawberries, cherries, blackcurrants and jostaberries seemed to have mysteriously disappeared from the allotment and garden before we got round to harvesting them. Actually we are pleased to have provided this additional food source for the birds in this dry and difficult year. But, all the same, we were not prepared to take any chances with the gooseberries and these have now been harvested from the bushes.

Gooseberry crumbles in production. These will be going into the freezer to provide glorious pops of summer goodness in the drab depths of winter
Last year we grew sunflowers to provide food for the birds but failed to get round to doing that again this year – although some have self seeded anyway

A sweet visitor to the meadows this week:

It is only in the summer that we get the chance to see the badgers out by day:

When seen in natural light rather than under the infrared of the trail cameras at night, we have realised what differing coloration they have. The badger on the right is distinctly brownish. How interesting that we hadn’t known this before:

Back in the wood, there is a large glade filled with marjoram and we are very excited for it to come into flower to see what butterflies and other invertebrates it will bring in. This hasn’t happened quite yet but, in the meantime, it is the bramble flowers that are pulling in the crowds.

An enormous Hornet Hoverfly, Volucella zonaria, on bramble. At nearly 2cm long, this hoverfly stops you in your tracks. We also saw Silver-washed Fritillaries nectaring up on bramble but failed to get photos

Thistle flowers were also proving popular:

Large Skipper butterfly on thistle

There are a lot of Nursery Web spiders in evidence at the moment. The female carries an egg sac around until the eggs are nearly ready to hatch, at which point she puts it down and builds a web around it to protect the young spiders once they emerge. As an additional security measure, she herself stands guard over it:

A female Nursery Web Spider guarding her web of spiderlings
The spider in more detail
Male Red Long-horned Beetle
A pair of Bullfinches nest in the wood every year. At least I thought it was only one pair, but I wonder now if there are more having seen this photo of two adult males and a female. How lovely
Treecreeper at the pond
Tawny Owl perched near the owl box
Badger out in daylight in the wood as well

The finale for today is from our daughter’s garden in Wye in the North Downs, where they were delighted to see that there has been a new arrival:

A young hedgehog and its parent, at the food and water that is put out for them nightly

In the heat and drought of this year, it feels especially important to leave water out in shallow containers for our garden wildlife. And it would be most appreciated if we could finally have some rain…

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