Fens 2 Wicken Fen

Our exploration of the Fens continues from Fens 1.

Next day we drive south, circle around Ely, and across to Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve – the National Trust’s first nature reserve, established in 1899. With some of the largest unspoilt areas of Fenland, this seems a good place to begin our explorations. The site is well marked, with a good range of information boards on wildlife and Fen history.

Unspoilt fen

We learn a lot about fen life – the great abundance of eels as a staple food, the techniques of mass murder used to capture much of the then-abundant birdlife; plover netting and a huge shotgun called a punt gun, both of which could kill or capture many birds in one go. They must have seemed wonderful wheezes, but of course this was never going to be sustainable.

The edge-of-fen area around Wicken is criss crossed by manmade watercourses called lodes, created during the Middle Ages primarily to prevent flooding, all draining into the River Cam.

Fen Cottage, a pretty, historic cottage and garden, suggest a glamour to the Fen life that I’m sure wasn’t always there. Information boards are more realistic about what life was really like in the Fens. After all, they were living in a large bog. But there was always lots of wildlife providing free food to those who could catch it.

The boardwalk (featured image) around the large reedbed is not accessible to dogs, so we take turns. But there are miles of other walks for dogs on stone tracks. Immersed in nature, we see a dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies and birds, and listen to invisible warblers.

In the 18C the Fens were for some years drained by windpumps, inspired by Dutch experience; one of the few remaining specimens is here at Wicken Fen.

Back at base, the greylag family has enlarged, and the dog enjoys trying to chase geese, goslings and ducks, prevented by a short leash.

Finally, another fen sunset.

Lime Hawk Moth

I just rediscovered photos from May of this large moth on the drive, maybe 1-2in long.

I think it is probably a lime hawk moth. The colouring, shape, time of year and location near a birch tree are all right. although the markings are not quite as in the examples on the web. Attractive pattern anyway!

Darter, common

The next day after the previous post, another dragonfly appears in the vicinity of the garden pond, and stays still on the crocosmia, presumably waiting for its wings to develop after emerging. This was maybe between one inch and an inch and a half long.

Reference to the British Dragonfly Society website suggests this is a common darter, colours not yet matured into red.

It seems to me that this demonstrates one of the many benefits of a garden pond in providing for a diversity of wildlife. Unfortunately, garden ponds are no longer as popular in UK as they were in my memory, probably due to the work involved in maintaining them. It’s so much easier to mow a lawn, put down plastic grass, or tarmac it over.

Hawker, common

You know how dragonflies are always on the move, usually continuously patrolling their territory. So it was a surpise to see this large one just basking on a loganberry stem in the garden. The insect was probably a couple of inches long.

The British Dragonfly Identification Guide suggests that this is a common hawker. We realised that this was probably newly emerged, maybe from our garden pond, waiting for its wings to fully develop.

Another revelation was the following zoom closeup taken with my Samsung Galaxy S22 smartphone, confirming that high-end modern smartphone cameras have caught up with many of the capabilities of my previously favoured compact superzooms Panasonic TZ80/TZ200. And this shot has been reduced to 2500px width.

Big eyes!

A couple of Texas beetles

These 6-spotted green tiger beetles were at the Audubon Centre in Houston (Edith L. Moore Reserve).

Size is around half an inch, and the colouring is a remarkable iridescent green, with touches of blue. You can see the six spots.

Completely different and smaller is this blue/black and red flea beetle seen at Seguin, Texas.

Apparently, they hop to propel themselves and fly away when threatened.

It is good to research and name these unknown (to me) species, although there is also a good argument to just be in, look and marvel at nature – rather than compulsively needing to name everything. Left and right brain – best to engage both!

Common buckeye

This common buckeye butterfly at Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza Park in Houston was being quite coy, just revealing one of the three ‘eyes’ on its upper wing.

These are said to be common in North America. They migrate north in the spring, so we probably just caught this one (March) before that event. This really is a rather beautiful butterfly!

Carpenter bee 2

It took a beautiful sunny day after a cloudy period, and out came the carpenter bees that had apparently disappeared in one of our favourite haunts, in the Dordogne region of France.

Because of their short mouth parts, these bees are most suited to quite open flowers.

What a wonderful contrast to these bright red flowers, and I never ceased to be amazed at just how furry are the bodies of many insects.

Elephant Hawkmoth Caterpillar

The girls playing out on the cul de sac on a September evening were huddled together, excited. One of them had found this enormous caterpillar crossing the road – around two inches long. it was the biggest caterpillar any of us had ever seen, even the parents.

What on earth was it? It took some time to identify as the caterpillar of the Elephant Hawkmoth, which received its name courtesy of the characteristics of its caterpillar phase. The fake eyes are said to frighten predators off.

This picture from Wikimedia Commons shows what the adult looks like.

Photo of adult elephant hawkmoth by Gail Hampshire, via Wikimedia Commons

Small tortoiseshell 3

It’s getting towards late summer in England,and the small tortoiseshell butterflies have arrived in our garden, at much the same time as they did last year. One sunny morning, the first after a period of rain, there were an incredible 12 basking on our awning and roof, probably newly hatched. They really are rather pretty butterflies.

On white buddleia.
And incredibly hairy.

The feeding proboscis is particularly evident in the following.

Click to see more detail.

Populations are said to be declining, possibly related to habitat loss, pesticides, global warming…

Emperor dragonfly

This beautiful emperor dragonfly was ceaselessly patrolling the pond at Denzell Gardens, Altrincham. He never stopped for an instant, but hovered from time to time at a particular corner. The only photography option was to shoot him in flight, a challenge for my Panasonic ZX200 superzoom.

According the the British Dragonfly Society, they rarely settle, but there is a stunning photograph on their website. The blue abdomen indicates a male.

These are Britain’s bulkiest dragonflies, common in southern England, but their range is said to be moving northward, probably due to global warming.

Gatekeeper

During a recent short, sun-blessed visit to the Wales/Shropshire/Cheshire border area near Whitchurch, we saw lots of gatekeeper butterflies. Although typified as ‘browns’, and with the alternative name of ‘hedge brown’, the upper wings include a colourful orange.

Gatekeepers are more typically associated with southern England, but their range is extending northward, no doubt related to climate change.

Banded Demoiselle

Last week’s hot spell gave me the gift of quite a few minutes spent watching and photographing these magical banded demoiselle damselflies, by the lake outflow stream in Tatton Park. These are larger than the average damselfly, almost of a size more typical of dragonflies.

Click to see closer.

Their colours are startling blues and greens in bright sunlight. According to the British Dragonfly Society, the two genders are distinguished as follows:

  • Male: metallic blue body with broad dark blue-black spots across outer parts of wings.
  • Female: metallic green body with translucent pale green wings. (Wikipedia suggests there may also be a white patch near the tip of the female’s wings).

Most of these are pobably males, or maybe not?

Small Skipper 3

At first I thought this tiny insect flapping through the garden was some sort of moth. When it tarried a short while on the lavender, it became clear that it was a small skipper butterfly.

The lavender flower gives an idea of size, less than 2cm long. These butterflies mostly appear in UK at the height of summer, mid-June to mid-August.

This photo from a previous post shows the small skipper on thistle flower, with wings extended.

2019

And here’s one on buddleia in typical half-open pose.

2017

Ringlet

We haven’t seen many butterflies so far this summer, but there were plenty of these brown ringlets in the woodland during our recent visit to the National Trust’s Bodnant Garden, North Wales. Fortuitously, one paused on a neaby leaf allowing this shot.

The two eyespots at the bottom are characteristic; there may be one, two or three eyespots on each of the outer wings.

According to the Woodland Trust, the ringlet is not a threatened species and is on the increase in many areas.

Green darner dragonfly

UK dragonflies tend to be so active that they are difficult to photograph. But these North American green darners at Brazos Bend State Park in Texas, March 2019, were just basking on the footpath in the sun.

Green darner male

They are so-called because of the supposed resemblance to a darning needle. Any young readers will probably say ‘What the heck is that?’.

The female has a blue tail.

Just look at those amazingly transparent wings!

Common green shieldbug

Here’s another green/brown shieldbug I came across in the garden, lurking in a corner, possibly looking for somewhere to hibernate. This is the common green shieldbug.

According to the Wildlife Trusts, the black dots distinguish this from the southern green shieldbug. The common green was once restricted to Southern England, but has recently become widespread across much of England and Wales, due to the effects of climate change. Nature really is on the move because of the changing climate.

I found it upside down, as in the featured image. The crazy world of insects doesn’t bother much about gravity.

They’re also called stink bugs because of their reaction to being disturbed. I’ve never come across this feature.