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Recent sightings

  • 23 August 2014

    Recent Sightings: Up in the air

    If the RSPB had existed a few hundred million years ago, the only flying creatures we’d have been able to protect would have been insects!

    They were the first creatures to take to the air around 350 million years ago, and dominated the skies until birds came along. Back then some dragonflies had wingspans of up to 2 feet long! Nowadays they are a lot smaller, but by no means less beautiful.


    Brown Hawker:

    Hawkers are some of the largest and fastest flying dragonflies in the UK (hence the name). The brown hawker is a large species that can be found flying from the end of June through till September. It is a widespread dragonfly in the UK, and has been spotted a number of times here at Coombes, with woodland rides being a favourite hunting spot.

    They can be easily identified, even in flight, by their entirely brown body with little yellow and blue markings. The wings are golden-orange in colour and the male has a distinct ‘waist’ that the female lacks.


    Golden Ringed Dragonfly:

    This is the longest species of dragonfly in Britain, with females (the larger of the sexes) growing up to 84mm! This is because of her long ‘ovipositor’- used to lay her eggs under the water.

    Golden rings can be found flying around between May and September, one was spotted at the first bridge only a couple of weeks ago. They are easily recognisable with their yellow and black rings along their abdomen, which no other dragonfly has.

    Peacock, taken by Genevieve Leaper

    Peacock:

    Out on butterfly transect surveys over the past few months, there have been distinct fluctuations in sightings of Peacock butterflies. There were large numbers around April/May time, but then there was an obvious dip. At the end of July the numbers started to pick up again; this is due to the second generation of caterpillars pupating and emerging as adults.

    Peacocks are some of our most colourful species of butterfly, with their eye spots making them easily recognisable. They are particularly widespread, and can be found in a wide range of habitats.


    Small copper, taken by Richard Revels

    Small Copper:

    Small coppers are fast flying and can be hard to spot, especially because of their size. However, if you manage to catch a glimpse of them resting on the ground in the sun, you will instantly know what you are looking at, as their bright ‘copper’ or orange wings make them easily recognisable.

    Like peacocks, populations will have multiple generations in year, sometimes having up to four in a good year! Caterpillars mainly feed on common or sheep’s sorrel as well as broad-leaved dock, and adults feed on a range of nectaring plants, including buttercups, daisy and dandelion.

    Large yellow underwing, taken by Chris Shields.

    Large Yellow Underwing:

    This has been a common occurrence in our moth trap, frequently we find a hundred or so in the morning! This moth’s name is pretty self explanatory; it’s one of our larger species of moth, and it’s hindwing (or underwing) is bright yellow.

    They are found all over the UK and are relatively common, hence the large numbers in our trap! They are night flyers and rest during the day, but are often disturbed from the undergrowth by people or animals, and will flash their yellow hindwings to startle any potential attackers.

    August thorn, taken by Richard Revel

    August Thorn:

    This appropriately named moth has also been caught a number of times in our moth trap over the past month, and flies during August and September. A number of similar ‘Thorn’ species that have been caught in our trap recently (early thorn, purple thorn, canary shouldered thorn), can be hard to distinguish between.

    The august thorn can be told apart from its cousins by the shape of the cross-lines on its forewing. The inner line has a distinct curve, whilst the outer line kinks where it joins the wings leading edge. Caterpillars of this species feed on oak and beech, of which there is an abundance of at Coombes!

    If you'd like to see some of our moths, ask at the Information Centre in the early part of the morning - if the moth traps been on overnight - we'd be more than happy to show you.  Wander our meadows and trackways - to discover our other insect delights.   

    Posted by Sally G

  • 14 August 2014

    Nothing to whine about: A delicious way to moth trap at home

    It’s not all hard work here at RSPB Coombes Valley. We occasionally let our hair down - just last week we let a few of our residents kick back with a bottle of wine in the top meadow.

    They weren’t our residential volunteers taking in the stunning views with a glass of vino though, they were some of our moths feeding on wine ropes!

    Wine ropes are a very simple way of attracting moths so you can get a look at them up close, and they are exactly what they sound like; pieces of rope dipped in a solution of wine and sugar.

    Hang them outside and moths will be attracted to the sweet scent. To them it‘s very similar to their natural food sources of nectar and rotting fruit. Mmmmm too good to resist!

    Once they’re enraptured by the wine ropes, torch light allows you to see them busily feeding away.

    If you would like to try this for yourselves, here is the recipe we used.

    1 bottle of wine (the moths don’t mind the cheap stuff)

    1Kg of brown sugar

    1 tin (450g) of black treacle

    Several pieces of string

    It might be best to find an old pan for this, just in case it stains. Children will certainly need the help of an adult; just don’t let them drink all the wine!

    Empty the wine into the pan and dissolve in the sugar and treacle over a low heat. Be very careful though, the solution does get incredibly hot.

    When your concoction has cooled, pour it into empty bottles. With all that sugar in, it won’t all fit back into the  wine bottle, so you will need to find an extra one somewhere...I think an adult could help with this bit too!

    Wait until dusk and dip the pieces of string (we used shoe laces) into the mixture and peg them out in the garden. You can peg them from the washing line, just don’t get the mixture on there though, it WILL stain you’re clothes when you next do some washing! Alternatively, you can peg them from low tree branches.

    Then simply check your wine ropes through the night to see any moths that have come for a free feast. Take the ropes down in the morning and give them a wash, ready to be used again.

    Results may vary depending on a variety of factors: other available food sources, type of wine used, weather conditions, etc. So don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t work too well, just try it again on another night - one batch makes more than enough for several attempts.

    If you have a go at wine ropes, please share your stories and pictures on our Facebook page. We would love to see how you got on.

    You can also see our wine ropes in action again on our next Bat and Moth guided walk, happening on Friday 22nd August. Click the link for more details http://www.rspb.org.uk/events/details.aspx?id=tcm:9-380002

    Posted by Sally G

  • 7 August 2014

    Beetlemania

    Forget Paul, John, George and Ringo, the true superstars of Coombes Valley have six legs, a hard exoskeleton and can be quite fearsome predators: THE BEETLES.

    With over 4000 beetle species in the UK, you might be thinking, “Help!” when you want to find out what beetle species you’ve found. However, with a little help from my friends here at Coombes Valley, I’ve compiled a list of some info about the most common, and most funky, beetles you're likely come across on the reserve.

    Great diving beetle and great diving beetle larva

    The Great Diving Beetle

    This giant of the pond can grow up to 3.5cm as an adult, and as larvae, can be up to 6cm long! The diving beetle is a ferocious predator in ponds, and will prey on most invertebrate pond life. The more adventurous among them have been known to dine on small fish!

    Luckily, you don’t need a yellow submarine to see these underwater monsters. You may spot their olive-green body popping up to the surface every now and again in ponds, or slow moving rivers. They do this in order to trap air bubbles under their wing case, which they use like a SCUBA suit, allowing them to spend more time hunting underwater.

    Great diving beetles can also fly, and will use the reflection of moonlight on ponds to find new habitats. Unfortunately, this means they sometimes find themselves stranded after mistakenly landing on wet pavements and roads. Talk about a hard day’s night!

    Violet ground beetle, taken by Steve Brown

    Common Black Ground Beetle

    There are roughly 350 species of ground beetle in the UK, and most look quite similar; black body, head and legs, and a liking for dead wood and leaf litter. The common black ground beetle is one of these many species. Its reddish-brown legs and grooved wing case are the main clues when trying to identify it.

    Ground beetles are often flightless, and instead use their wing casings as body armour, the thick exoskeleton covering their vulnerable body. Most ground beetles are nocturnal, and spend the nights hunting aphids, slugs, and snails.

    When dawn comes around, and the beetles are thinking “here comes the sun”, they find somewhere dark to spend the day. There they keep out of danger from predators such as toads, shrews, and of course, the blackbird.

     

    Devil's coach horse beetle, taken by Richard Revels

    Devils Coach Horse Beetle

    Just in case the name of this beetle isn't enough to make you get back, the devils coach horse beetle has a couple of tricks up its sleeve to make sure you let it be.

    At the front, their vicious pair of mandibles can give a painful bite both to its prey, as well as any potential predators. And at the back, it can raise its abdomen to a scorpion-esque pose, before emitting a foul-smelling fluid from its back end, putting the would-be predators off their meal.

    Like the common black ground beetle, the devils coach horse is a nocturnal hunter, and spend their days hiding under dead wood. However, the devils coach horse looks more like an earwig than a ground beetle. There are many myths and superstitions regarding the devils coach horse including the idea that it can curse people by pointing their upraised body in their direction.

    Building a Den on a Woodland explorer afternoon, taken by Lucy

    A great way to show kids all the different beetles Coombes Valley is home to is to bring them along to the woodland explorers afternoon every Tuesday in August, for pond-dipping, mini-beast hunting and den building. Busy Tuesdays? You can also come pond-dipping any time, its on eight days a week! For more details about both, check our website on http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/c/coombeschurnet/events.aspx

    So for now, Hello, and goodbye!

    Posted by Sally G

  • 31 July 2014

    An evening in the wild flower meadow

    Wild flower meadows are very busy places. I learned a long time ago that it’s important to watch where your feet fall to keep from crushing any little creatures. Fortunately, you don’t need to be an expert to discover the variety of life, just a sharp pair of eyes.

    Last of the common spotted orchids

    Although, that can be said of many places; just this morning as I peddled my way to work I had to stop to move a slow worm off the road.  I safely relocated it in some grass nearby to avoid any accidents.

    A word or advice though, if you do the same maybe check before you slam on the brakes...the rider following me nearly ran up my back. Unfortunately in all the excitement I neglected to take any photos. This blog is the only record of my heroics!

    After spending the rest of the day at work, the bank of wild flowers outside the window decided me on a visit to Coombes Valley.

    With only an hour to spare I spent it in the meadow amongst the hustle and bustle of busy insects, the sun was shining and there were butterflies and moths a plenty.

    Small skipper

    Now, when it comes to identifying creatures I am reasonable with birds and can recognise a few well known butterflies and moths. I’m even fairly knowledgeable when it comes to steam engines. Useful down the road at the Churnet Valley railway but not hugely helpful when it comes to wild flowers and insects. Thank heavens for Google!

    Bumble bee on Betony

    There were plenty of bees amongst the betony and I’ve been scratching my head over this one. I think it’s a tree bumble bee but I’m definitely not sure, so if you can offer a better identification please do!

    Casting my camera lens around, I took this quick snap of a hoverfly also on some betony. There are so many species of fly that the variety never ceases to amaze me and I can only hazard a guess at the identity of this one.

    Hover fly on betony

    There were many butterflies and moths and meadow browns and small skippers flitted through the flowers and grasses.

      

    Meadow brown

    I had a go at identifying the two spiders below but I know absolutely nothing about arachnids. I think they’re fascinating creatures and there were so many but because they are masters of lying low and sneaking through the grass. It makes taking a clear shot with a macro lens a bit of a challenge.

    Daddy long legs

    Coelotes atropos (possibly)

    Talking of difficult-to-spot camouflaged creatures, the photo below is a prime example.

    Spot the moth

    Below is a photograph of an antler moth. For those interested I used a Tamron 70-300mm F/4-5.6 DI LD Macro 1:2. I’ve had it a few years now and it enables me to take photographs from a distance so as to not intrude on the subject, and at an affordable price.

    Antler moth - cerapteryx graminis

    Finally, a view towards the gate opening into the wild orchid meadow from the path to the valley view point.

    Another great visit to Coombes valley, hopefully back again in the autumn.

     

    Ben

    Posted by Sally G

  • 13 July 2014

    Recent Sightings: A Moth Diaries Update

     

    Large emerald moth, taken by Sally Granger

    Large emerald

    This beautiful, unmistakable moth made its first appearance in the moth trap on Thursday night; definitely an exciting find. Common throughout most of the UK, the large emerald is found between June and August.

     

    Cinnabar moth, taken by Sally Granger

    Cinnabar moth

    Named after the red mineral of the same name, this brightly coloured moth is often found during the day. As a caterpillar it feeds on the poisonous leaves of ragwort, from which it absorbs the toxins, these remain in the body of the adult moth and leave a bitter taste in the mouth of any predators not deterred by its bright warning colours.

     

    Buff tip moth, taken by David Osborn

    Buff tip

    The ‘buff tip’ on the wing of this moth makes it striking as it clearly bears remarkable resemblance to a broken twig. These moths are relatively common and have been a frequent feature in the moth trap in recent weeks.

     

    Hummingbird hawk-moth, taken by Richard Revels

    Hummingbird hawk-moth

    Spotted this week on the planted tub just outside the visitor centre, this is a day-flying moth with a wingspan of around two inches. Its long proboscis and rapid, humming wing beat as it hovers and flits from one plant to another make it easily mistakable as a true hummingbird. It is resident throughout Europe and North Africa and is most commonly seen in the UK in August.

     

    The reserve is filled with wildflowers and butterflies at the moment, but join us on a sunny day and you’ll more than likely spot a few beautiful day-flying moths too!

    If you'd like to learn more about moths and other creatures of the night, join us for our Bats and Moths Guided Walk on Friday 1st August, http://www.rspb.org.uk/events/details.aspx?id=tcm:9-372083

    Posted by Sally G

  • 4 July 2014

    The Orchids are Alright: Make sure you don't miss them!

     

    We love the orchids, the team can't stop waxing lyrical about them! Here is Adam with a little more info on these beautiful, short lived flowers.

     Common spotted orchid, taken by Becca Bratt

    It’s orchid time here at RSPB Coombes Valley and actually, the orchids aren’t alright. They’re AMAZING!!

    The common spotted orchids look to be having a bumper year, with swathes of them in flower at the moment. These are interspersed with our true star of the show, the greater butterfly orchid, which are also doing incredibly well. In fact, it might just be the best orchid display I’ve ever seen here at Coombes Valley. Recent tweaks to our grazing regime seem to be having the desired effect. The orchids have gone from strength to strength in recent years, with numbers building steadily upwards.

    I highly recommend you come and see the orchids for yourself. But, how will you know what you’re looking for unless you’re a professional botanist? Well, along with our helpful visitor centre team who will no doubt help you out, here are our top tips for recognising our orchids.

     

    Greater butterfly orchid, taken by Becca Bratt

    Common spotted orchid. These are by far the most numerous orchids we get here. Their small white-purple flower spikes are easy to pick out amongst the other vegetation. When you start to see them just standstill, and take in how abundant they are. It’s a real WOW moment to see so many rare flowers all in one go. Once you get up close, carefully look at the leaves at the base of the plant. The dark oval spots are the giveaway sign it is a common spotted orchid. These spots are also the basis of the name for this stunning plant.

    Greater butterfly orchid. With tall spikes of white-green flowers, rising up from the surrounding grass, these are incredibly beautiful plants. Nothing else on site looks like these, so no worries about confusing them with something else. The flowers are said to look like butterflies, hence the name. They were once called night violets, due to their scent being strongest through the night. This suggests that they are pollinated by nocturnal insects such as moths. Luckily, the unimproved grassland these are found in are also home to a real diversity of moth species; making pollination no problem at all. If you want to find out more about the moths here at Coombes, check out some of our previous blogs

    http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/placestovisit/coombeschurnet/b/coombeschurnet-blog/archive/2014/05/31/recent-sightings-the-monsters-of-the-moth-world-descend.aspx

    Common spotted and greater butterfly orchids, taken by Becca Bratt

    I think one of the best things about the orchids here are how accessible they are. They’re literally two minutes walk from the car park, and not up or down hill either! Perfect for everyone to come and see.

    If you want to see the orchids, pop in to the visitor centre and a member of our team will give you directions to them. Any photos you manage to grab would be very welcome on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

    Posted by Sally G

  • 29 June 2014

    Little Things that Bite: Horse Flies

    Becca is back for seconds this week, see what she thinks of the much maligned horse fly!

    We’ve been experiencing an exceptionally warm, sunny June so far – great for walking on the reserve, enjoying the wild flowers, birds and butterflies. However, those conditions are also ideal for a less welcome resident – the horse fly!

    As the RSPB is an all nature conservation organisation, this week I set out to try to convince the rest of the team that horse flies are in fact very interesting insects with (a few) redeeming qualities.

    Horse Fly, taken by Jeroen Shel RSPB Images

    If you hear a horse fly buzzing around, it’s likely to be a harmless male. They lack the scissor-like mouth parts of the female so won’t bite you. As is often the case in nature, it’s the female of the species that you need to be wary of! Her flight is silent, so often you will only notice her after you’ve been bitten.

    Ouch! So why do they bite? Although it can be painful for us, they do have a reason... it is believed that the females need a ‘blood meal’ before they lay their eggs to enable them to develop successfully. As well as humans, most mammals, some reptiles and even amphibians can be the unwitting providers for a horse fly snack.

    I must get to those redeeming features...

    If you’ve ever seen pictures of a horse fly close up, you’ll notice that they have the most amazing, iridescent eyes. It is possible to identify certain species of horse fly by the stripes and patterns of their eyes.  It’s also possible to distinguish between the sexes; the eyes of the male touch in the middle whereas female eyes are separated by a gap in between.

    Horse fly, taken by Phil Cutt RSPB Images 

    Males are important pollinators and some species possess a long proboscis adapted to drink the nectar of specific flowers.

    Horse fly, taken by Ernie Janes RSPB Images 

    Female horse flies are very agile and are able to perform the ‘Immelman Turn’ (an aerial manoeuvre named after a German WWI pilot). This involves a vertical U-turn as shown in the diagram below and enables the fly to reposition and attempt a second attack very quickly.

     

    Diagram credited to R/C Airplane World 

    However much they are disliked, horse flies still have an important place in the food web here at Coombes Valley, providing small birds such as blue tits and fly catchers with the nourishment they need to raise their chicks successfully.

    Healthy numbers of insects means healthy numbers of food prey for predators at the top of the food chain such as the sparrowhawk. This bird of prey was once so badly persecuted that their numbers were in rapid decline. Fortunately today, they are thriving and healthy numbers of top predators is a sign of stable ecosystem.

    If we are giving nature a home, then that also includes the unpopular, but fascinating horse fly.

    Posted by Sally G

  • 23 June 2014

    Orchids Galore: A Window of Opportunity

    The greater butterly orchids are out in the meadows of Coombes and today our lovely volunteer Becca is here to tell you why you shouldn't miss out. They're only fleeting, so find a spare hour to pop down and see us! 

     

     

    Greater butterfly orchid, taken by Becca Bratt

     

    I'm just starting week two of a three week work placement here at Coombes Valley. Luckily enough it is at a time when the reserve is full of new life, busy sounds and vibrant colour. I already feel that I have a greater understanding of how much hard work goes into managing a reserve, not only for the benefit of wildlife but in order for people to enjoy it too.

     

    One of my first tasks last week was to count the greater butterfly orchids in the meadow near the visitor centre. I met a couple admiring the variety of flowers down there and they suggested perhaps this task was a practical joke to keep the newbie occupied! However, it was a genuine request and an important one; by comparing orchid numbers from previous years their success can be monitored.

     

     

    Greater butterfly orchid and common spotted orchid, taken by Becca Bratt

     

    Declining numbers make greater butterfly orchids a target species at Coombes. They are only able to grow successfully in ‘unimproved’ hay meadows – fields which have escaped intensive practices, such as fertiliser and pesticide use, and high stocking densities of cattle or sheep which may cause overgrazing or trampling of vegetation. The flower meadows at Coombes are carefully managed to encourage a range of what were once widespread flowers and grasses.

     

     

    View over Coombes Meadow

     

    To be able to increase their numbers effectively, orchids have evolved sneaky tactics to get insects to spread their pollen. They often mimick the scents of female insects to attract the pollinating males and copy the appearance of pollinators with their petals.

     

    In the case of the greater butterfly orchid, the insects that are responsible for their pollination are night flying moths. The common spotted orchid is less fussy about what creatures spread its pollen - hoverflies, bumblebees and the Dascillus cervinis beetle are all welcome.

     

    Coommon spotted orchid, taken by Becca Bratt

     

    It took me a little longer than I thought to complete my count, as the orchids seem to be doing very well in the meadows at Coombes this year! If my numbers are correct, a total of 239 greater butterfly orchids wait to be admired, with plenty more yet to burst into flower. The common spotted orchid is also putting on a great show, with beautiful pink blooms visible in even greater numbers than the greater butterfly orchid. A sight definitely not to be missed in the June sunshine, so get down to Coombes in the next week because you really don't want to miss out.

     

    If you’d like to find out more about orchids and other plants and wildflowers, join us for our Plants Tell Stories guided walk on Sunday 29th June http://www.rspb.org.uk/events/details.aspx?id=tcm:9-370397

    Posted by Sally G

  • 11 June 2014

    Recent Sightings: A Butterfly Transect

     To monitor the butterfly life at Coombes there is a weekly butterfly transect. Our lucky wardens walk a set, hour long route through the reserve and count what they see. What an onerous job! So, what is about this week?

     

    Green-veined white, taken by Simon Gray

    Green-veined white

    A wide-spread and beautiful butterfly, the green-veined white is common across the country in a variety of habitats. It has a wide range of foodplants to choose from as both a larvae and a butterfly, including garlic mustard, cuckooflower and bluebells.

     

    Orange tip, taken by David Tolliday

    Orange tip

    Again, the orange tip is common throughout the country. The flash of orange makes it very distinctive and they are one of the first butterflies to emerge each spring. However, the obvious markings which give it its name are only present on the males; the plain white females are often mistaken for the green-veined white or small white.

     

    Small copper, taken by Simon Gray

    Small copper

    A fast, brightly coloured butterfly found in most areas of the UK. It can be found mainly in open spaces such as grasslands, woodland rides and heathland. As larvae it feeds on common sorrel, sheep’s sorrel and broad-leaved dock. The adult butterfly feeds on a range of wildflowers and is often found at rest while it absorbs the sun’s rays.

     

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    Speckled wood, taken by Steve Brown

    Speckled wood

    So named, the speckled wood butterfly is commonly found in woodland. Unlike other butterflies it favours the shade and is more likely to be seen in overcast conditions than many other species. Although the adults prefer to feed from honeydew plants, when scarce they will take nectar from others sources such as cuckoo flower and dandelions.

     

    We’re keeping track of the weekly butterfly count in the visitor centre, pop in a take a look at the board to see what’s about on the reserve.

    Posted by Sally G

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Grid reference: SK0053 (+2km)

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  • Lat/lng: 53.07781,-1.98803
  • Grid reference: SK009534
  • Nearest town: Leek, Staffordshire
  • County: Staffordshire
  • Country: England

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