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.