Bramble or blackberry?

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First, the glorious flowers: some look like crushed paper tissue, others like crinkled pieces of silk. They range in colour from bleached white through parchment with the merest blush of pink to a pink that reminds me of the sticky candyfloss I ate as a child at the local fair.

Once the busy little pollinators have done their work, the fruit begins to develop and my taste buds start to stir as I look forward to the delicious juicy treats to come. First, the clusters of little green globes and then, as they ripen in the summer sun, the tinges of red appear, hinting at the lusciousness to come.

And then one day, when I’m out on one of my wanders, I spot it, the very first black berry. Will it still be a little sour and will it flood my mouth with those delectable full fruit flavours of perfect ripeness?

160826 Rubus fruticosus agg (9)

Here in Britain they are called brambles, in my New Zealand homeland we called them blackberries and, in scientific terms, they are all grouped together under the unprepossessing name of Rubus fruticosus agg. Agg stands for aggregate, as in a grouping together of a range of very closely related biological organisms, because Rubus fruticosus includes a myriad of hybridisations. But, whatever you call them, for me they are one of the things I most love about late summer and, yes, I have already eaten my first yummy blackberries of 2016.

The Spotted longhorn beetle

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Let me introduce you to Rutpela maculata. It’s called a longhorn beetle, but really I would say it has long antennae rather than long horns, and its common name is the Spotted longhorn, but really it has spots and stripes, so its other common name of Black and Yellow longhorn seems more appropriate. Its colours and patterns roughly mimic those of wasps which, in theory, gives it protection from predators like birds.

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I was a little surprised, and somewhat saddened, to learn that the adult beetles have a very short life, of just two to four weeks, but this is actually quite common amongst insects. Most spend the majority of their lives as larvae.

The adult longhorn beetles grow to between 13 and 20mm long, and can be seen any time from May to August, frequenting hedgerows and the edges of woodland trails, often enjoying a feed of pollen or nectar on umbellifers. I’ve only seen two so far, both pictured here, and you can see that the markings and colouration vary from beetle to beetle.

160825 Longhorn beetle (5)

Meeting the Maasai cattle

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Herding cattle, sheep and goats, sleeping in a boma, getting blessed by the chief, making bead jewellery and dancing – all in a day’s work when you spend time with the Maasai!

160824 Maasai cattle (1)

After writing about Cambodia cattle for last Wednesday’s world wildlife post, I just had to show you some Maasai cattle (and people) images this week. In October 2014 I was privileged to spend 3 days and a night in a Maasai village in Tanzania, and it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

In this and the surrounding villages controlled by chief Meshuku Mappi, the Maasai own approximately 170,000 cattle, sheep and goats. That number seems almost incredible but, after watching huge herds of beasts being driven home to their overnight corrals by the men of the tribe, I can definitely believe it.

160824 Maasai cattle (5)160824 Maasai cattle (4)

It was the perfect photo opportunity – cloven hooves churned up dust from the bone dry ground, statuesque baobob trees punctuated the landscape like frozen giants, and the bright reds and blues of the men’s clothing popped against the browns of the landscape and the animals.

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And, after an overnight stay in one of the village bomas (mud huts), we were up early next morning to catch the sun rise over the nearby hills and to watch the men driving the animals out for the day’s grazing. Life for the Maasai revolves around their animals – their cows are their primary source of food, and their wealth and status are measured in cattle. The Maasai are very special people and it was a huge privilege to spend time with them and get a glimpse of their daily lives.

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Camouflage

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On the positive side … this Sawfly larva has its colour co-ordination working very well, though maybe needs to work on its choreography.

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On the negative side … or positive side, depending on whether you’re identifying with the Crab spider (probably Misumena vatia) using the large white Bindweed flower as its lair, or the spider’s victim, a hoverfly (probably Eupeodes corollae).

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Horseflies love me

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And I really wish they didn’t!

160822 Horsefly Haematopota sp (2)

It’s the female Horseflies that are the problem – they’re the biters, of humans, horses and other animals, to get the blood they need to aid egg production and, for some reason, they can smell my blood coming a mile away. I got several bites on my face during a recent fungi foray and had a nasty allergic reaction, was swollen and looked like I had some kind of infectious disease. Antihistamine meds don’t really agree with me, so I retreated from the world for a week till the worst of the swelling had gone down. (I got the bite in my photo four days ago. Luckily, Ms Horsefly was only on me for a second or two, before I noticed and flicked her off.)

The trouble for me is that Horseflies (a large and diverse group called the Tabanidae family, and also known by the common name of Cleg) are rather lovely creatures and they have the most incredible eyes, so I’m driven to capture photos of them (perhaps I’m a masochist!). The Horsefly in my photos is one of the Haematopota species. They have compound eyes that appear brightly coloured and have incredible patterns – from other photos I’ve seen, each creature seems to have a different pattern, much like fingerprints or retina patterns. So, I will continue to seek them out, just as they continue to seek me out!

160822 Horsefly Haematopota sp (4)

Bugs in the meadows

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Look closely at the wildflowers and grasses in a meadow during the summer months and you might be surprised at how much life is thriving below the casual gaze of human passers-by. If you live in Britain, Europe or North America (where these critters were accidentally introduced in the 1830s), one of the bugs you are quite likely to see is this aptly named Meadow plant bug (Leptopterna dolabrata).

It’s tiny, only about ⅓ inch (8mm) long, and rather well camouflaged amongst the plant stems and leaves. As you might expect from the name plant bug, it feeds on plants. In fact, it’s an expert sucker, using its stylet (piercing mouthpart) to inject into the plant stem an enzyme-rich saliva, which begins to break down the plant tissues even before the bug sucks out the resulting plant soup.

Leptopterna dolabrata is sexually dimorphic so the males and females have slightly different colouring, plus the males are fully winged whereas the females are usually only partly winged. You can see the differences in the mating pair shown above. And below is a plant bug nymph, probably one of their offspring – I say probably because many of the nymphs look alike so it’s difficult to tell exactly which species they are.

160820 Leptopterna sp nymph (5)

From photograph to painting

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A few days ago I posted a photo of a Southern hawker dragonfly on the UK Dragonflies & Damselflies page on Facebook, just to be sure of my identification of this beautiful creature.

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Julie Horner was one of the people who liked my photo and she also commented, asking my permission to paint the dragonfly. I said yes, if she would give me permission to share her painting here on the blog. A deal was struck and I emailed Julie the images I shared on my Southern Hawker blog post last week.

160820 Souther Hawker Julie Horner painting

Yesterday, Julie completed the painting and I am really delighted to be able to share her work with you. I love how she has simplified the subject matter – the iris is the perfect flower for the dragonfly to perch on, I think, and I also admire how well she has captured the detail in the wings. I’m sure you’ll agree that Julie is a really talented artist and I’m thrilled at what this impromptu collaboration has produced. You can check out more of Julie’s gorgeous paintings on her Facebook page, Horner Art Studio, and on her Etsy page.

A wealth of wildflowers

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It’s Friday! It’s Floral Friday! It must be time for more wildflowers. Here’s the latest selection from my wanderings around parks, meadows and reserves:

Creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), Devil’s-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis), Dock (Rumex sp), Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), Narrow-leaved everlasting pea (Lathyrus sylvestris), Ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi), Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata), Rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium), Sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica) and Tall Melilot (Melilotus altissimus).

Parc Slip Reptile ramble

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Partly as a training exercise in wildlife identification, partly as a reward for all our hard work to date, and partly as a fun way for our team to get together, our Mary Gillham Archive Project volunteers were treated to a reptile ramble at Parc Slip Nature Reserve yesterday. And it was fantastic!

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Led by friendly and knowledgeable Wildlife Trust officer Lorna, we explored the research and conservation areas where members of the public don’t normally get to wander. With the excitement palpable and a huge sense of anticipation from us onlookers, Lorna used her trusty snake stick to lift up the reptile refugia (sheets of corrugated iron or heavy plastic under which the reptiles frequently shelter) to see what we could find. Though her initial efforts proved unsuccessful, we did eventually get lucky and were very excited to see one very small, young Common lizard (which scuttled away far too quickly for a photo so my lizard photo here is from another day), a Grass snake (which also slithered away far too quickly to photograph), an Adder and 4 Slow-worms. Success! And a great day out, thanks to the conservation efforts of the wonderful folks who work and volunteer at the Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales.

Cattle in Cambodia

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World wildlife Wednesday has rolled around again, and I was stuck for an idea this week until my friend Viv, who lives in Thailand, posted a photo of one of her local water buffalo.

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My photos, however, were not taken in Thailand but in Cambodia, where I lived and worked for seven months back in 2013. Both water buffalo and the local cattle are common sights there, pulling wagons and ploughs, and wallowing in muddy watering holes. These valuable, well-tended beasts of burden are also farmed for their dairy products, and cow dung has long been used both as fertiliser and as fuel in impoverished countries like Cambodia. Cattle also feature in their ancient religions, and representations can be seen in the stone statues and sculptured reliefs that adorn the world-famous temples of Angkor Wat and the local pagodas. So, today we have a celebration of ‘bovinity’!

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