Basking in the park

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Myathropa florea (c) Duncan Hutt

A quick call in to Ponteland Park on the way home from work proved to be a great opportunity for a bit of hoverfly spotting.  The early evening sun was warming up the trees along the edges of two woodland glades and the sunny leaves were a magnet for basking flies of all types.  Hoverflies are tough to identify, other flies are even worse so anything that wasn’t a hoverfly (or butterfly) had to remain unnamed.  As it was some of the more tricky hoverflies were not tackled but even one common species proved to be awkward.  It’s partly the result of a new season that I had forgotten the key features to check out and while the photos were clear the colour of the hind femur was not visible so the exact species of Syrphus will remain unknown for now.

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Epistrope eligans (c) Duncan Hutt

Another hoverfly was more easily identified.  It has a particularly distinctive ‘batman’ shape on the thorax.  It falls into the Eristalis family which can be partially determined by the large downward loop in the vein down the middle of the wing but is actually Myathropa florea.  Another species that could have been confused with a small Eristalis did not have the looped vein and had a distinctly bronze colour making it Epistrope eligans, a spring species of woodland rides and glades.  It’s less common the further north you go but likes a warm spring – it would have been a dubious claim this year until a week ago.

Other species spotted included an Eristalis pertinax, some Melanostoma scalare, a couple of Platycheirus albimanus and a Rhingia campestris but there must have been others that remained unseen.

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A peaceful calm

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Kielder Water and Forest from Elf Kirk viewpoint (c) Duncan Hutt

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Hoverfly (Melangyna lasiophthalma) (c) Duncan Hutt

It was a rare morning of complete calm at Kielder – the mirrored surface of the reservoir reflecting the forest and hills to the north.  It only lasted for a few hours before a chilly breeze got up cancelling out the warmth of the unbroken sunshine.  Out of the wind the flowers of the willow trees provided useful early season food for bumble bees and hoverflies.  Spring specialists such as the hoverfly Melangyna lasiophthalma (no English name to make it easier!) frequented these trees alongside a range of bumblebees and some unidentified flies.

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Ashy or grey mining bee (Andrena cineraria) (c) Duncan Hutt

On a sheltered bank little mounds of mined soil with an adjacent tiny hole indicated the presence of some burrowing insects.  One bee dug itself underground before any identification was possible but a few others hung around, basking on sun warmed stones.  Amongst them were a few ashy or grey mining bees (Andrena cineraria) with their distinctive grey hairs and black abdomen.  These bees are solitary in that they each have their own burrow although they do often nest close to one another. Like the hoverfly it is a species of spring most usually seen between April and June.

All this activity was going on adjacent to well used paths but rarely noticed by those who pass by.

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Waiting for spring

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Holystone woodland canopy (c) Duncan Hutt

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Wood sorrel leaf (c) Duncan Hutt

It hasn’t been a cold winter but spring is still struggling to arrive.  In the oak woods at Holystone there are a few leaves emerging on the smaller trees like willow and an odd birch.  Primroses were in bloom along with an occasional violet but plants such as wood sorrel are only just pushing up a few tentative leaves.  The weather wasn’t promising much in the way of spring; the air was cold with sleet and snow showers and while the sun did shine it had limited warming effect.

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Thuidium tamariscinum (c) Duncan Hutt

 

On the woodland floor the brown of last year’s oak leaves was mottled with the green of mosses such as Thuidium tamariscinum which picked out the shapes of stones and fallen branches.

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A church by a castle by a viaduct

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Edlingham Castle (c) Duncan Hutt

In over 20 years in Northumberland we had never managed to stop at and look around the church and castle at Edlingham.  The church has the oldest beginnings in the 11th century (or possibly earlier) while the castle dates from the 13th century.  The viaduct was part of the Alnwick to Cornhill railway line which opened in 1887 and closed in the early 1950s.

The castle is somewhat ruinous with an interestingly leaning section of wall tied in to the adjacent vertical section.  The tower itself was a mid 14th century addition to the already fortified house adding space and security.  The castle was abandoned in around 1600 and, as is normal in such cases, stone was stolen to help build other local properties.

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Railway viaduct (c) Duncan Hutt

The church too was open – a small simple building with a solid tower which, like other local churches, could be defended from raiders.  The church is dedicated to St John the Baptist and there is little point repeating the history here which is covered well by ‘Northumberland Tales‘.

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St John the Baptist Church (c) Sally Hutt

 

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No one said it would be easy

Female Eristalis tenax (c) Duncan Hutt

Female Eristalis tenax (c) Duncan Hutt

Hoverflies are a rather daunting group of insects to get to grips with.  With 281 British species to learn you have to start somewhere. So far with 13 species recorded this year it’s not even 5% of those it’s possible to find though, of course, some are very rare and not found in Northumberland at all.

Anyway the flowering privet provided a sheltered sunny spot for a number of hoverflies to feed on the abundance of pollen, both in the flowers but also scattered across the leaves.  Some hoverflies feed by picking up dropped pollen from leaves but most do venture into flowers.

Male Eristalis tenax on privet (c) Duncan Hutt

Male Eristalis tenax on privet (c) Duncan Hutt

A number of hoverflies were, like most hoverflies, trying to be something else, that is they mimic other species.  This large bee-mimic may not be a perfect match but must be good enough for its purposes.  It’s an Eristalis, a fairly complicated group of species that look very similar but this has a few distinctive features.  The hind tibia is large, curved and hairy, it has a broad dark face stripe and, perhaps most oddly, has a vertical stripe of dark hairs down the eye.  Like other hoverflies the male’s eyes touch while those of the female do not.  These features make it Eristalis tenax, a widespread species across the UK (and indeed the world) which has a peak of activity in August.

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An Airport Built on Sand

Barra Airport terminal building (c) Duncan Hutt

Barra Airport terminal building (c) Duncan Hutt

Twin Otter waits on the beach for the next flight (c) Duncan Hutt

The Twin Otter waits on the beach for the next flight (c) Duncan Hutt

Barra Airport is quite literally built on sand; the terminal building is in the dunes and the runway is the beach.  The little Twin Otter plane provides the air link to Glasgow and while it is somewhat more expensive than the ferry it’s an amazing trip, on a fine day at least.

Dark green fritillary (c) Duncan Hutt

Dark green fritillary (c) Duncan Hutt

There can be few airports where you can take a walk over the dunes and along a virtually deserted beach while waiting for your flight.  You can walk on the airport beach too but not while the windsocks are flying as a flight is due!  Despite the weather the insect life was again tricky to spot although a dark green fritillary did provide a colourful highlight and the antler moths on the heads of ragwort were there to be seen too.  Of the plants, pyramidal orchids were in surprising abundance although mostly just a little past their best.

A vew back towards the airport (c) Fraser Hutt

A vew back towards the airport (c) Fraser Hutt

The flight itself provided for great views back down on Barra and its unusual airport.  From there we flew low over Coll, the Treshnish Isles, Mull, Iona and Jura.  Then over Knapdale and Cowal and down to Dunoon and then up the Clyde.  Like it had been from the ferry it was still possible to spot the odd gannet flying over the sea below!

Iona Abbey from the air (c) Duncan Hutt

Iona Abbey from the air (c) Duncan Hutt

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Barra and Vatersay

View south from Heaval (c) Duncan Hutt

View south from Heaval (c) Duncan Hutt

A hoverfly, Eristalis horticola (c) Duncan Hutt

A hoverfly, Eristalis horticola (c) Duncan Hutt

Barra and its smaller sister island, Vatersay, are the southernmost of the inhabited Outer Hebrides.  Further to the south, and visible from Barra’s highest hill, are the once inhabited islands of Pabbay, Mingulay and Berneray but these have now been abandoned.  The same fate nearly came to Vatersay but the construction of the causeway provided the means to maintain the communities there.

Heaval is Barra’s highest point at 384m and is a steep climb out of Castlebay.  From its summit the views are to the islands to the south and Uist, Skye, Mull and Coll as well as down on the castle in the bay below.

Grayling on bell heather (c) Duncan Hutt

Grayling on bell heather (c) Duncan Hutt

While the day was bright it was also breezy meaning that it was less than ideal for looking out for insects.  However a few butterflies did brave the weather with common blue, grayling and meadow brown spotted.  A very few hoverflies were also seen in more sheltered spots and on the flanks of Heaval were a few hardy six-spot burnet moths and a common green grasshopper.

Wild carrot (Daucus carota) (c) Duncan Hutt

Wild carrot (Daucus carota) (c) Duncan Hutt

Common blue on Vatersay (c) Duncan Hutt

Common blue on Vatersay (c) Duncan Hutt

The following day was calmer but wetter, again not an ideal day for insect spotting.  We took the bus down to Vatersay for a wander on the quiet sandy beaches and through areas of machair, with their bright mix of wild flowers on the grasslands behind the dunes.  Here the wild carrot, dwarfed by the conditions, provided bright circles of white flower clusters with a tiny spot on pink at the centre of each head.  A few common blues braved the weather but otherwise the swathes of flowers were largely devoid of pollinating insects.

While the beaches are remote and often empty it’s depressing to see so much plastic waste on the beach, particularly on the Atlantic side.

Taigh Siar on Vatersay (c) Duncan Hutt

Taigh Siar on Vatersay (c) Duncan Hutt

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