Where are the hoverflies?

It’s mid July and it’s not been a particularly good year so far for hoverflies, at least not in Northumberland.  On a walk around a site on Druridge Bay today only 3 were spotted; one did not stay still long enough for identification; one was a Rhingia campestris and the third was a very distinctive Volucella pellucens.  This is unusual in the hoverfly world in having an English name – great pied hoverfly.  It has a clear white or cream band around the top of the abdomen and is one of the easiest of the British hoverflies to identify as well as being common throughout most of Great Britain.

Volucella pellucens (c) Duncan Hutt

Volucella pellucens (c) Duncan Hutt

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If looks could kill

Wood wasp or greater horntail (Urocerus gigas) (c) Duncan Hutt

Wood wasp or greater horntail (Urocerus gigas) (c) Duncan Hutt

Close up of the greater horntail head (c) Duncan Hutt

Close up of the greater horntail head (c) Duncan Hutt

This fearsome looking beast is a wood wasp, although it isn’t a wasp at all; more specifically it has the name of greater horntail (Urocerus gigas).  The names refer to the long sting like point at the end of the abdomen which is actually an ovipositor, which she uses to drill into damaged (diseased, or dead) conifer wood.  The larvae develop in the wood and can produce a tunnel of about 30cm in the 2-4 years it takes for them to develop before turning into an adult.  This specimen made a surprise visit to the garden, a significant distance away from any suitable conifer woodland habitat.  Despite its looks it is completely harmless!

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Double Dandelion

Double headed dandelion in Stamfordham (c) Duncan Hutt

Double headed dandelion in Stamfordham (c) Duncan Hutt

Double headed dandelion side view (c) Duncan Hutt

Double headed dandelion side view (c) Duncan Hutt

It’s not that uncommon to find plants such as dandelions or daisies with a weird elongated flower.  This effect is termed fascination and is found in other plants too and often results in a flattened stem rather than the normal cylindrical shape.  In extreme cases the flower can become extremely elongated and sinuous.  There seem to be a number of causes for this occurring including bacterial infection, hormonal imbalances and genetic mutation (that could be caused by environmental effects).

Possibly more unusual if less strange-looking is when this fascination is such that multiple but separate flowers form on one dandelion stem.  Obviously many plants do have multiple flowers on each stem but dandelions only have one.

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Odd visitor to the garden

Every so often something in the natural world makes you stop and look twice.  Sometimes it turns out to be something pretty normal, other times it turns out to be a little more unusual.  Today it was the turn of a ‘fly’ to make me stop and look.  It wasn’t a particularly large beastie but it was quite striking nonetheless.  It had the look of something that might bite or sting with features more similar to a wasp than a fly.  Indeed, careful observation showed that it had 4 wings not two, so that ruled it out being a true fly and made it more likely to fit in with the bees and wasps.

Honeysuckle sawfly (Zaraea fascinata)

Honeysuckle sawfly (Zaraea fascinata)

It was narrowed down to being a sawfly and eventually to being a honeysuckle sawfly (Zaraea fasciata); it was sitting by the path directly under a honeysuckle on which the larvae feed.  It appears to be a relatively uncommon species although it could be more a problem of poor recording – invertebrates (apart from butterflies and dragonflies) are generally poorly recorded as they are somewhat tricky to identify accurately!

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Swallows Return

A swallow returns

A swallow returns

Swallow feeding overhead

Swallow feeding overhead

This week saw the return of our local swallows.  They were a bit later than normal but they came back to a wonderful bright evening; their beige tinted fronts turned to a warm brown in the low, late evening sunshine.

The mornings are a little noisier now as they sing their burbling, scratchy song that is oddly melodic.  The wire outside the bedroom window is a favourite place to welcome the new day but it’s a reassuring summer sound that has been missing up to now in our dawn chorus.  We now await the house martins…

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Rediscovering the Coast

Dunstanburgh Castle (c) Duncan Hutt

Dunstanburgh Castle (c) Duncan Hutt

Embleton Bay (c) Duncan Hutt

Embleton Bay (c) Duncan Hutt

For a year we have been climbing hills and in doing so have given little attention to the coast, and coast is something that Northumberland does well.  Yesterday was a day of sunshine and wind; a strong wind blowing offshore driving sand across the beach in mini sandstorms that blasted exposed faces.  The sea wasn’t rough but the waves struggled as they came to shore with their breaking crests blown back out to sea in a swirl of spray that produced mini rainbows.

Sanderlings and purple sandpipers (c) Duncan Hutt

Sanderlings and purple sandpipers (c) Duncan Hutt

Coral weed (Corallina sp) (c) Sally Hutt

Coral weed (Corallina sp) (c) Sally Hutt

The coast between Low Newton and Dunstanburgh Castle is mostly a wide beach of pale sand but on occasions rocky platforms contained a few seaweed strewn rockpools.  A small flock of sanderlings fed in some of these, seemingly oblivious to the constant stream of walkers passing by.  In amongst this flock a few purple sandpipers stuck out, brown and grey against the white of the sandpipers.

Lilburn Tower, Dunstanburgh Castle (c) Duncan Hutt

Lilburn Tower, Dunstanburgh Castle (c) Duncan Hutt

Our walk took us down to Dunstanburgh Castle, a scattered set of ruins perched on a higher chunk of whin sill where it juts out into the sea.  The remains are limited but the location is certainly striking and imposing.  Nearby we encountered toads heading steadily to the ponds that remain on the landward side of the castle.  The plants we found were nearly all yellow: celandine, primrose, dandelion, coltsfoot and an early cowslip, although scurvy grass provided a variation with its white blooms.

Toad (c) Duncan Hutt

Toad (c) Duncan Hutt

Posted in Amphibians, Archaeology, Birds, Flowering Plants, Northumberland | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Impatient for spring

River Pont in Stamfordham (c) Duncan Hutt

River Pont in Stamfordham (c) Duncan Hutt

There are still few signs of spring in the local area. Celandines are out in flower but the cloudy weather meant that most remained closed up, just a few hardy individuals braved opening.  On the arable field edge, left fallow this winter, red deadnettle was in bloom alongside common field speedwell but both of these can be seen in flower all year so their significance was limited.  Common field speedwell is a non-native arable weed, apparently first recorded in the first half of the 19th century.

Red deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)  (c) Duncan Hutt

Red deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)
(c) Duncan Hutt

Our plastic-free challenge has made us even more aware of the litter that can be found on even a very rural walk.  Plastic bottles and (plastic covered) cigarette packets made up most of it although drinks cans were also common.  Most annoying are the dog-poo bags, filled then left in the countryside to remain for years to come.  More positive were the continuing presence of otterspraint under the bridges, a clear indication of their continued presence on our local watercourse.

Common Field Speedwell (Veronica persica) (c) Sally Hutt

Common Field Speedwell (Veronica persica)
(c) Sally Hutt

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