Springtime Woodland Wonders

It is a beautiful time of year and in the wood the primroses have now been joined by bluebells, just as the trees are beginning to unfurl their fresh green leaves. One evening I was walking around the wood collecting cameras, with half an ear listening out for nightingales which had been heard in the larger wood last year. I didn’t hear a nightingale, but something else rather wonderful happened. Standing close by the old cherry tree where woodpeckers have traditionally nested, a green woodpecker reversed out of a chest-high hole just a couple of feet away from me. It emerged looking dishevelled as though it had just come through a hedge backwards and I am not sure which of us was more surprised. Before I left the wood that evening I had moved a trail camera across to look at the hole:

We think that this hole is new and so presume that the green woodpeckers have drilled it themselves. In previous years they have reused an old great-spotted woodpecker hole – green woodpeckers have softer beaks than other woodpeckers and will choose to adopt an existing hole if they can
A confrontation with a squirrel

I might not have heard a nightingale in our wood yet but John, the bird ringer, photographed one this week at Stodmarsh, a nature reserve near Canterbury:

Every year the number of bluebells in our part of the wood is increasing. The British native bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, has lovely arching stems from which the flowers dangle:

Hyacinthoides non-scripta, our native bluebell

Looking up into the bell of the flowers, the pollen is white:

Hyacinthoides non-scripta

The bell shape of the flowers suggests that it is a long tongued insect that pollinates them and, indeed, from my reading I learn that it is mainly bumblebees that perform this job. But standing surrounded by a sea of countless thousands of bluebells this week, there is only a drone of a single bee that I can hear – there cannot be much pollination going on. The plants do also produce bulbs asexually and my guess is that this is how they mainly reproduce, rather than by producing seed.

There are no native bluebells in our garden but a previous owner had planted Spanish bluebells, Hyacinthoides hispanica. A native of the Iberian Penninsula, these bluebells are more vigorous plants and have thicker, straight stems, broader leaves and paler flowers, which are attached all around the stem rather than dangling down on just one side:

Hyacinthoides hispanica in the garden

These Spanish bluebells have blue pollen:

Admittedly these are still beautiful plants, but not a patch on the delicate elegance of our native bluebells to my mind. There is also a problem – the Spanish bluebell has escaped from our gardens and hybridised with our native plants, producing a fertile hybrid. A survey by the charity Plantlife showed that one in six British broad-leafed woodlands had either the Spanish bluebell or the fertile hybrid growing within it which poses a real threat to the genetic make up of our precious native bluebell population. Since the UK’s woodlands are home to more than 50% of the global population of Hyacinthoides non-scripta, this is a big concern and we are advised not to grow Spanish bluebells in rural gardens and to dispose of Spanish bluebell bulbs and cuttings very carefully.

There is a clearing in the wood where marjoram grows strongly and, when this comes into flower later in the summer, the place becomes a butterfly wonderland. But, at this time of year, it is the blue spires of bugle that are pulling in the pollinating punters and the whole space is alive with insects when the sun shines:

I feel that bugle is very underrated plant
Dark-edged bee-fly drinking from the bugle flowers
Bee-flies have now gone for this year from the meadows but they are still holding on in the wood. This is a dotted bee-fly with spotted wings and the white dots down the abdomen that tell us that this is a female
Here she is again, not quite in focus as usual, but showing her white spots well as she visits a speedwell flower

As I was standing in the patch of bugle, I saw a bee that I didn’t recognise:

Yet again, not in focus but she just wouldn’t stop moving

She is a hairy-footed flower bee.These are solitary bees with no social structure but they often nest together in groups in the soft mortar of walls or in exposed soil on banks. This female is mostly black other than orange hairs on her hind legs and she is busy gathering pollen from the bugle to take back to her nest.

I wanted to get a better photo of a hairy-footed flower bee – one that was in focus at least – and sat on a tree trunk surrounded by the bugle and waited. This time I didn’t see a flower bee but I found something even more amazing. All around me there were red-bottomed bees that flew low, landed on the short-cropped vegetation and immediately disappeared as they moved down beneath the leaves – they were very difficult to photograph but eventually one landed in the open and paused long enough to give me a chance:

Very bright orange abdomen and legs
Really a very bright orange

I then realised that these bees were picking up sticks and flying around with them and often these pieces of stick were several times longer than the bee herself. It was an entrancing spectacle but one that I was far too slow to capture photographically. This was the best that I achieved:

This bee had just landed having been flying around with the stick that is under her

I didn’t know what bee made a nest out of this sort of material but, once I got home, I quickly identified her as a two-coloured mason bee (Osmium bicolor). Interestingly, these bees make their nests in empty snail shells. Depending on the size of the shell, she makes up to five nest cells within it, divided from each other by walls of chewed-up leaf. The shell is then camouflaged under grass, leaves and sticks.

I never did get a clearer photo of the hairy-footed flower bee, but I had discovered something very special instead.

A comma sunbathing on the woodland floor
One of the thirty species of nomad bees in the UK that are often tricky to identify. Nomad bees are cleptoparasites on Andrena mining bees – they are looking to lay their eggs on the stocks of pollen that their mining bee hosts have collected for their own young
Sweet little fox cubs are now turning up on trail cameras throughout the wood

I have had a camera on a hole in the ground for a couple of weeks and have seen foxes, badgers, squirrels, jays and rabbits looking in it:

There are plenty of small rodents in and around the hole as well:

And this was probably what interested this tawny owl to also peer down the hole one night this week:

There is very little activity at the tawny owl nest box and I believe that the owls are quietly sitting on eggs in there still:

An adult owl going into the box

Two large owlets were ringed in this box on 2nd May last year. Tawny owls usually lay two eggs and can it be that neither of these eggs has even hatched by the same time this year? The bird ringers, John and John, have been discussing strategy and I think that they have decided to look in the box towards the end of next week and see what is inside. Will there still be eggs and an adult inside, or will there be chicks? Or have I got it completely wrong and will there be squirrels? There is not long to wait now until we find out.

One thought on “Springtime Woodland Wonders

  1. Hoping to go somewhere where there are lots of bluebells next weekend, fingers crossed. Bugles are indeed lovely too. 🙂

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