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