Monday 30 December 2013

Bee eaters 2013

Bee eaters have been another victim of the poor weather we had for the first 6 months of this year and I’m sure there is going to be quite a list of losers as the figures come in and verify what I have already heard, seen or suspected.

Only 32 couples were recorded nesting in the Vienne department this year, less than half the number we have been seeing in recent years. Only two sites maintained their normal numbers, a quarry and a riverside location.  On the 9 sites that were used there were between 1 and 14 pairs.

Nesting took place extremely late with no young birds visible at the tunnel entrances as late as mid July.  This species was undoubtedly severely affected by the unusually wet and cold weather we experienced even into the month of July resulting in a substantial loss of flying insects or decent weather to hunt for them.

It’s more than likely that this is a situation that has been repeated in much of France this year.

Twenty plume moth - Alucita-hexadactyla

Another house guest for the Christmas holiday fluttering round the room was a tiny 20 plume moth. These micro moths are so hard to see in any detail with the naked eye and I didn't manage to get the best of pictures. The English name of this unusual little moth is something of a misnomer as each wing is separated into 6 'plumes'. The scientific name is more accurate, meaning 'six-fingered'.

Called Ornéode du chèvrefeuille in French due to the fact that the caterpillars of this moth eat the flower buds and leaves of Lonicera - species of honeysuckle. 

The adult moths can be seen throughout the year and are known for overwintering in houses and other buildings.

Eggs are laid in May / June and caterpillars are to be seen mainly in June and July with Pupation taking place in July and August.  

Found throughout Continental Europe, Scandinavia and the UK it is a common species wherever honeysuckle plants are present.


Monday 23 December 2013

Winter work 2013 - 2014

Perhaps understandably many people I meet often have the strange idea that managing land for wildlife means doing nothing, just letting everything go and take its “natural” course. If only that was the case, which I suppose it could be if the objective was to allow everything to revert to woodland, but even there it would require managing in one form or another to maximise its benefits. Anyway there’s no shortage of trees in the general sense here – yet !!!

Where we live certain habitats have all but disappeared in recent years, the final nail in the coffin was the removal in 2008 of the requirement to put 10% of land out of production, a process known in English as “Set Aside”, (to leave fallow / en jachère). This has lead to just about every last piece of land that isn’t woodland and that can be used for cereals to be ploughed up as mentioned elsewhere. Even in 1996 when we purchased our house and three hectares things were bad enough leaving little choice for us but to at least try and create a little oasis of decent habitat and manage the bulk of it, (about 80%), as “rough meadow or natural grassland”. The remaining 20% was already trees or woodland which I have also been slowly changing aided by a couple of serious storms that helped with the thinning process.

This winter I’m trying to catch up on one particular section that has been neglected for a couple of years more than it should have been with a danger of some species being temporarily lost due to brambles, scrub and small trees swamping them.  

In particular there are quite a large number of Greater Butterfly Orchids that started to show after we had been here about 8 or 9 years on this part of the land and it’s a tricky balancing act with them. It’s quite strange that I haven’t found this Orchid anywhere else remotely near our property or the Loose Flowered Orchids that we have a couple of although they must have been around here historically. Bee, Pyramidal and Lizard Orchids that have also popped up on the land are to be seen locally in the area so not a surprise, but it does show what can happen even on land that has been intensively cultivated given a little time.

It’s also an area with a few different species of violet that need to be given a bit of light and space, all common species but important for the Fritillary butterflies we have here that use them - Weavers, Queen of Spain and Silver washed, all fairly common species as well but starting to struggle with the steady reduction of available plants. Many of the violet plants that do manage to survive are often by the roadsides that are constantly cut to the ground giving little chance for any eggs or caterpillars.

Masses of Lung wort, Pulmonaria, flourishes in this section as well and again although a common plant it’s just so important as a long flowering early insect food source, especially for Bumble bees when there is little else around in February. 

More of this later, Chris

Friday 20 December 2013

Mistletoe everywhere

France is quite well known in Europe for its Mistletoe and exports large quantities every year to the UK for the Christmas celebrations, something it has been doing for well over 100 years.  Although its abundance here varies greatly from region to region where it does grow it really grows with a vengeance especially on poplar trees that have grown in the wetlands of France since before the second world war. However they have been planted in increasingly large numbers in recent years as a fast growing crop making use of boggy areas and places that are regularly inundated such as riversides. They are almost exclusively hybrids and there have been trials in France with Genetically Modified varieties, (GM or OGM). 

Environmentally these poplar plantations are a catastrophe destroying wetland habitat on a vast scale with a corresponding loss of species BUT money talks everywhere and nowhere more than in France where leaving a piece of land without it producing something is a cardinal sin.

I suppose, (grudgingly), I would have to concede that they have been a bonus for Golden Oriole that are particularly attracted to them to make their high nests but this doesn't even begin to compensate for the harm done. 

Mistletoe is a parasitic or semi parasitic plant with separate female plants that bear the fruits or berries and male plants that don't. It depends entirely on birds for propagation and I always thought of the Mistle thrush in this respect, never questioned it really, especially with the name association and the fact that it's one of the birds that will eat the seeds. However it seems in reality that the Blackcap is the best bird in this respect.

I found this really good web site all about Mistletoe so rather than crib from it, here's the link.

Saturday 14 December 2013

Freshwater Clams and Mussels

It may be 2013 but here in La France Profonde there are still shops that close for 2 hours or even more at lunch time. Then when they open you may well wonder why you bothered waiting because in many instances they don’t actually have what you want or perhaps they have it but it’s 5 times the price you can buy it for from the UK.

Anyway, before I start moaning the point is that I spent about 45 minutes poking around by the river Charente near to Civray waiting for a shop to open. This wasn’t likely to be exciting in mid December but you never know what may turn up and it’s a lovely river. The alternative for killing time would be to look at Estate Agents windows or wander round LIDL and even I’m not that sad.

It’s a spot near a sluice where there are always one or two Grey Wagtails,  Motacilla cinerea, (note to self to have a look for nesting activity in Spring-time), and sure enough there was one there on the bank-side – always a welcome sight. The river here can be quite varied in nature, extremely fast flowing following heavy or prolonged rainfall or be almost as still as a lake during dry spells. 

Above - looking upstream.

Location of the river site just below the "v" in Civraisien.

On these upper reaches of the River Charente there are numerous weirs / sluices that obstruct the free movement of both boats and fish so I was somewhat surprised to discover large collections of shells in the shallows and some on the land as well. Of course shells in themselves wouldn’t be a particular surprise but these were Corbicula fluminea, the Asian Clam. First detected in France around 1980 they feed primarily on phytoplankton (algae), which they filter from the sandy or muddy bottom of streams, lakes, or canals. They self fertilise and somewhat scarily can produce between 34,500 and 47,500 individuals in a season, hence within 20 years they had colonised most French rivers, some lakes and a large number of canals. Along with various human means of being spread it seems likely they are transported when very small by being stuck to birds’ feet.

They will be taken for food by Musk rats, (another introduced nuisance species), and possibly by some birds although this would be unlikely in most river situations. Musk rats also take native species of freshwater mussels / clams as can be seen by these other shells in the photo below of what I think possibly are Potomida littoralis, Mulette des rivières., one of the more common river mussel species in western France.

The freshwater mussel begins life as a tiny larva, measuring just 0.6 to 0.7 mm long, which is ejected into the water from an adult mussel in a mass along with one to four million others. This remarkable event takes place over just one to two days, sometime between July and September. The larvae, known as glochidia, resemble tiny mussels, but their minute shells are held open until they snap shut on a suitable host. The host of the mussel larvae are juvenile fish. The chances of a larva encountering a suitable fish are very low and most will die. Attached to the gills of a fish, the glochidia live and grow in this oxygen-rich environment until the following May or June, when they drop off. The juvenile must land on clean gravely or sandy substrates if it is to successfully grow. Attached to the substrate, juvenile freshwater mussels typically burrow themselves completely into the sand or gravel, while adults are generally found with a third of their shell exposed. Should they become dislodged, freshwater pearl mussels can rebury themselves, and are also capable of moving slowly across sandy sediments, using their large, muscular foot.

Life cycle freshwater mussels


Mottled Shieldbug

Had another house visitor flying around the room yesterday, a Mottled Shieldbug, Rhaphigaster nebulosa. (La punaise nébuleuse in French).

This little “stink bug” mainly feeds on broadleaved trees, shrubs and plants. It  also usually spends the winter outside deep in thick ivy or perhaps a fissure in a tree or wall. 

Punaise nebuleuse - Mottled sheildbug in France

As is the case with some other Shield bugs, (True bugs), they can be a bit smelly if threatened when they can release a strong-smelling secretion. Young bugs have stink glands on their back; in the case of adults, these are to be found on the underside of the thorax. Their flight is both clumsy and noisy which upsets some people that don’t realise what they are or that they are harmless - unless you count the smell. Then again if people didn’t insist on squishing them the smell could be avoided.

It’s not such a frequent winter house visitor as the usual Green Shield Bug Palomena prasinathe, (Photos below), which can often be found in large numbers in houses, especially those that are left empty over winter. You need a very well sealed building to prevent them sneaking in somewhere. 

Seasonal camouflage.
Above - Summer colours.
Below - Winter colours.


Wednesday 4 December 2013

Spindle trees and a sunny December day.

The sun came out and stayed out today, the cold wind dropped for the first time in weeks, nice enough to take time out from cutting and clearing this afternoon and just have a stroll to see what's about, maybe have a closer look at some of the birds that have been flocking in the last few weeks, many drawn in by the farmers plowing and exposing easy pickings. There are some quite large gatherings of Starlings of a thousand or more which may not seem a lot for this species but it's been many years since I've seen such numbers here. Mixed flocks of finches in the hundreds, predominately chaffinch, with smaller flocks of goldfinch which tend to keep to themselves. Occasional groups of Lapwing and Golden Plover moving around and some good size groups of Skylarks flying up from the wheat and oil seed rape fields. Otherwise nothing of any interest, a handful of Bramling, the usual groups of tits, (Great, Blue and Long tailed), the occasional Stonechat and the resident Buzzards, Wrens and Robins.

This is the time of year to look for the eggs of the Brown Hairstreak butterfly on this years growth of Blackthorn which it uses more or less exclusively. It's a butterfly that is quite common throughout the wider region but isn't that common where I am given there is still a reasonable amount of Blackthorn dotted around but maybe the eggs suffer destruction from the flail or cutters which are used to smash any remaining hedgerows back here in late autumn.

Anyway while I was doing this I caught sight of some Spindle berries catching the sun with the pink outer covers popped open revealing the rich orange seeds - simply stunning and I'm easily distracted !

Spindle trees are prolific where I live and can be found throughout the region wherever there is a bit of native hedgerow left. The wood of the European Spindle Euonymus europaeus is very hard and as the English name implies one of it uses was for making wool spindles in both the UK and France although the French name Le Fusain or Fusain d'Europe translates to "charcoal" another one of its uses and highly regarded by artists.

The caterpillars of the Spindle Ermine moth quite often cause panic for people that don't understand them as they will frequently strip a tree of its leaves in spring. Needless to say the tree recovers and grows new leaves and the following year it all happens again.

The Kidney spot ladybird Chilocorus renipustulatus  or Coccinelle des saules, (Willow ladybird), in French is said to be widespread but not common and today I chanced on half a dozen on the Spindle.  I assume this is because the Spindle tree hosts Black bean aphids in winter which would provide them with nutrition.

Some Hoverfly species are still finding some nutrition when conditions allow, especially on dandelions that we can often find flowering even in the midst of winter. The "Marmalade" hoverfly, Episyrphus balteatus is a common species that overwinters in its adult stage and is relatively abundant this year. It is among the very few species of hoverflies capable of crushing pollen grains and feeding on them which must give it an edge when food is scarce.

A couple of other species I spotted today that overwinter as adults providing they survive were a rather tatty Red Admiral and a Green Shield Bug Palomena prasinathe. It's a species that changes colour in winter to brown and often enter houses and other buildings for shelter. They are completely harmless and feed on tree leaves, this one is on Field Maple. 


Monday 25 November 2013

Stag beetles, Devils Coach horse and a couple of others.

Devil's coach-horse beetles Ocypus olens or Staphylinus olens as they once were classified are still out and about here but with the current cold they will need to be finding winter cover soon, one of the many species that may find a place in our house if they are lucky.

They along with the Stag beetles have had an exceptional 2013 around here and I have never seen so many, at times it has been hard to avoid them and quite large numbers ended up being squashed on the roads. Although they are both common species it seemed worthy of a mention due to their completely different biologies.

In French the Devil's coach-horse is simply called "le diable", the Devil or "le Staphylin odorant" literally smelly staphylin due to the foul odour it emits from a pair of white glands at the end of its abdomen.

They belong to the rove beetle family (Staphylinidae) and are well known for raising their abdomens, and opening their jaws rather like a scorpion when threatened. As predators that hunt mainly at night they will have a go at most other invertebrates dead or alive as will their larvae with the food being repeatedly chewed, swallowed, generally messed around with covered with brown secretions from the foregut, reduced to a liquid and digested.

They only have the one generation a year, egg, larvae, (with 3 instars), pupa and adult, (which can live for two years).

Stag beetles, Lucanus cervusLucane Cerf-volant in French, (Cerf-volant means Kite in English and in this case it refers to the way the males fly), are completely different in just about every respect from the Devils coach horse and never fail to draw attention to themselves, often to their detriment. They can certainly come as a surprise, (along with many other creatures), to people from the UK that have never come across them.  The adult beetle has a short life and doesn't eat as such but does take some liquid sustenance often from fallen fruit. Cherries, plumbs and other soft fruits are particularly favoured as are plant secretions.

They are members of the Lucanidae family with a larval life that can last from between 2 and 6 years which is thought to depend on temperatures - egg, larvae, pupa, adult. This variable long life cycle seems to be quite an evolutionary insurance policy and one that is shared with many other species of beetle and some moths. Over time it should provide both genetic variation and smooth over bad weather years.

Unfortunately for these beetles they both can be thought to either be the Devil or have some connection with the Devil in rural France. This may seem strange to anyone with a modern or scientific mind set but I've actually seen older folk going out specifically to kill them. Fortunately with the way woodlands and copses are managed here, (or not managed as is more the case), Stag Beetles and other woodland beetles and insects are doing OK for now although I had to laugh the other week when my new neighbor who builds wooden "eco" houses and waffles about global warming informed me that leaving fallen trees and such like in the woodland was bad for the environment because it released carbon as it decomposed. Good job that doesn't happen when you put it on the bonfire !!!!!!!!.

I'll slip these photos in here as well.

Carrion beetle eating a dead Stag beetle.

and another eating a crane fly.

Wild life in France Stag beetles

More on Stag beetles, a really informative site.  



Monday 18 November 2013

The tragic decline of the Red Kite in France continues.

I remember back in the early 1990's when we lived in mid Wales being able to regularly see a couple of the UK Red Kites that there were remaining at that time and all very secretive it was, not something to be advertised! Who would have thought then that there would be such a fantastic recovery resulting in the numbers to be seen today in the UK following some introduced reinforcements? A true success story even if there are still some "local issues".

In France, just as in the UK, the Red Kite was just about everywhere in the 17th century, seen equally over "the streets of Paris as over the streets of London". Again just as in the UK the Red Kite in France and other Continental European countries had declined dramatically by the middle of the 20th century. The decline slowed down in France, with population sizes even increasing from the start of the 1970's largely due to the protective measures put in place (with legal protection for all birds of prey in 1972). The Red Kites distribution widened considerably until the end of the 1980's but then started to decrease again in the early 1990's – sadly a trend that continues today despite the efforts of various organisations participating in the national conservation scheme. A 2008 study essentially shows a population decrease of more than 20% between 2002 and 2008 alone.

Faced with the continuing declines the French Ministry of Ecology told the LPO, in January 2012 of the development of a second National Action Plan for the Red Kite. Unfortunately, nearly two years have passed and the document is still not validated which sadly is about par for the course here.

Unlike the UK where the Red Kite population is sedentary,  Red Kites from Germany are fully migratory and French Red Kites are either fully or partially migratory flying mainly to the Massif / Pyrenées area or Spain.

The map gives an idea of the situation. (Hivernant = wintering. Nicheur = nesting).

The causes for the decline aren't entirely due to the situation in France and result from a number of factors however a major cause is the use of anti-coagulant poisons in large quantities to kill voles plus illegal poisoning using banned substances. For the year 2013 alone so far we know of at least 34 dead red kites that have been discovered in France and it's safe to assume that there are others. This is a bird that has gone from being of "least concern" in 2004 to "near threatened" in 2009 according to IUCN Red list and I quote here from them. 
""The most pertinent threat to this species is illegal direct poisoning to kill predators of livestock and game animals (targetting foxes, wolves, corvids etc.) and indirect poisoning from pesticides and secondary poisoning from consumption of poisoned rodents by rodenticides spread on farmland to control vole plagues, particularly in the wintering ranges in France and Spain, where it is driving rapid population declines""

There are other factors, habitat loss, reduced availability of food, illegal destruction and wind-farms play a role and all of these need addressing if we are to avoid taking the Red Kite back to the brink or even possibly extinction given the low population numbers of some 19,000-23,000 pairs across its range.


Friday 15 November 2013

Roe deer in the early morning mist.

Finally I got round to buying a Trail Camera and this is my first capture other than a hardly visible rat scurrying around in the dark and a feral cat that roams around the immediate area.

The model I’ve bought is a NatureView Cam HD Max 119439 and I’m hoping it comes somewhere near their glowing sales pitch! I like the idea of the two close focus lenses 25 and 46cm for use with a bird feeding station and the automatic switch from daylight colour to darkness IR.
Of course there is the small matter of what’s actually around, some of which I’m already aware of from either actual sightings or traces. The Roe deer I see quite often and plenty of Red squirrels when they decide to show themselves. Occasionally I have sightings of Marten and Weasel, (dawn or dusk), but I more often see their excrements although I haven’t seen any for a month or two and I suspect I may have to resort to a bit of “baiting” to try and attract some creatures to a feeding zone. 

Anyway with the hunting season in full swing this male with his three females would do well to stay on our land where hunting isn’t permitted.


Monday 11 November 2013

Three hairy caterpillars and an ichneumon.

I've been coming across three common hairy caterpillars for the last few weeks as I do every year in autumn and although they are widespread and common I thought I'd just pop them on here. Anyway, I often find that caterpillars are prettier than the moth or butterfly they will end up as one day if they make it AND they don't fly away when I want to take a photo!

These three all spend the winter as a caterpillars and pupate in the spring.

The Fox Moth Macrothylacia rubi is called either Anneau du diable  or Bombyx de la ronce in French. They belong to the family of Lasiocampidae and as one of the French names Bombyx de la ronce implies one of its preferred food plants is bramble, (no shortage of that on our land), although they will happily eat a range of food plants including different species of heather. Moth here.

Le Bombyx-de-la-ronce France

The Ruby Tiger Phragmatobia fuliginosa is called Écaille cramoisie in French and belongs to the family ArctiidaeSome preferred caterpillar foods include Ragworts, Plantains, Heather,  Docks, Dandelion, Spindle and Broom, so quite a selection. Moth here.

The Garden Tiger Arctia caja  is called  L' Ecaille martre in French and is from the family Arctiidae. Caterpillar food plants include raspberry, blackberry, viburnum, honeysuckle, heather and broom. This caterpillar really is the most splendid "beast" and the moth isn't bad either. Moth here.

The Ichneumon I've been seeing is both widespread and very common in late summer and autumn, the Yellow Ophion Ophion luteus called Ophion jaune-brun in French. It is from the family of Ichneumonidae which are a family within the order Hymenoptera, (Ants, Bees, Wasps and Sawflies) and these are generally called Ichneumon wasps. It is an endoparasite  of various caterpillars and the female injects a single egg into each of its victims where it then hatches and consumes the caterpillar from the inside, perhaps not the nicest of methods to reproduce but an interesting insect all the same.

Don't forget, all hairy caterpillars can cause itching or rashes on sensitive skin as I remember from my childhood, especially when we used to put them down the back of each others shirts - poor caterpillars!


Friday 8 November 2013

Poor year for wasps and hornets

As far as I can gather this really hasn't been a good year at all for the social wasps including Hornets in much of France. It’s that bad first 6 months to the year again that caused all the problems, cold nights and too wet, especially bad for the ground nesting wasp species.

Now I guess a lot of people will be happy with this as they are a group of insects that people generally love to hate, or if hate’s too strong a word, dislike intensely. Broadly I can understand why, they are known to sting in certain circumstances and very few people actually enjoy pain or the reaction that can sometimes follow, swelling, itching, soreness and so on although in reality most people are rarely stung or experience very strong reactions if they are. 

Of course as usual the media plays a largely negative role with "shock stories" should someone actually die, usually as a result of disturbing a nest and receiving a large number of stings, or perhaps because they are one of the relatively rare people that go into Anaphylactic shock from wasp stings. However when looked at objectively what we find is that wasp stings are just about at the bottom of the list of events likely to cause a serious ongoing health problem or death.

If I take for convenience the official cause of deaths in 2010 for England and Wales which totaled 493,242 registered during the year we find that only five people suffered fatal “contact with hornets, wasps and bees".

BUT a total of more than 3,600 people died in falls, including 50 who slipped on ice or snow.  99 people were killed in falls from beds, 52 in falls from chairs, 655 fell down flights of stairs and 13 died accidentally after falling off a cliff.  

Needless to say you will have gathered by now where I'm going and that I quite like wasps and hornets and I would like to think not without good reason.

Top of the list is that they kill tons and tons of other insects throughout a full season to feed their larvae. The insects chosen will vary according to the species and to what are available but will include lots of aphids and other so called garden pests. Beats using pesticides and promotes balance.

Secondly they are a food source themselves for other creatures. A couple of good examples are the Honey Buzzard, Pernis apivorus,  that will rip apart perhaps a 100 or more wasp nests during the summer months to feed both themselves and their young with the larvae, and the Bee-eater Merops apiaster will also take large numbers of wasps and hornets among other insects to feed themselves and their young.

A lack of wasp nests will lead to Honey Buzzards digging out Bumble bee nests which is something to be avoided if at all possible.

So perhaps wasps and hornets aren't really that bad after all?

Honey Buzzard in France
Bee-eater in France

Monday 28 October 2013

Feeding my bees

Usually I don't need to feed any of my bees before winter but due to the bad weather this year, especially the first 6 months, everything was behind with some colonies swarming as late as July with a corresponding slow build up in colony population strength.

As things worked out it wasn't too bad by the end of August although the honey yield was poor, probably only about a third of what it should have been. Most hives were already well loaded and heavy with honey for the winter leaving all of September remaining to forage the ivy which was abundant this year. Ivy, a much maligned plant, is a great source of nectar and pollen for the bees at the end of the season and plays an important role for a number of species.

However I had half a dozen underweight colonies from late reared Queens and I've been feeding these to boost their population size and hopefully get them up to weight with sufficient honey stores to get them through winter but I'm still left with three that are underweight even now towards the end of October.  

Rremplissage avec du sirop pour les abeilles

The plastic feeder sits over a hole in the top or crown board of the hive enabling the bees to climb up and take the syrup and the clear plastic cap prevents the bees from actually getting in the syrup and drowning. There are many views on what, how and when to feed bees and I make mine with water, sugar, honey plus a small amount of cider vinegar. In an ideal world I wouldn't be feeding any this late in the year and really need to stop before November.

While I was filling the feeders I had a visitor to the hive top, an Asian Hornet. These are still taking bees from the hive entrances even though there are hardly any bees flying now.

Frelon Asiatique sur la couvre cadre

On the good news front an insect that hasn't had a bad year at our place is the Praying Mantis, they go from strength to strength here and every other hive seems have one sitting on it for the last 6 or 7 weeks or so, often right on the hive entrance. Of course Mantis like everything else have to eat and they don't eat many bees really, not enough to worry about.

Mante religieuse sur une des mes ruches