Royal Botanic Garden, Madrid

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Three years ago I was fortunate to enjoy a short break in the Spanish city of Madrid – and what a beautiful city it is! One of the highlights for me (as well as the fact that King Felipe was kind enough to synchronise his coronation with my visit) was the time I spent wandering in the Royal Botanic Garden. It is situated right next to the incredible Prado Museum and is the perfect dessert to the museum’s main course of artistic masterpieces.

170517 Royal Botanic Garden Madrid (9)

Established by King Charles III in 1781, the Garden is not meant as a park but is rather a museum collection of live plants, a centre for research into historic plants and for the study of plant life, for the preservation of plant species and for the encouragement of the botanical sciences. It is also a feast for the senses!

The Cuckoos of the bee world

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You’ve no doubt heard of the Cuckoo bird that lays its eggs in the nests of other birds to get them to do all the hard work of feeding and raising their chicks but have you heard of the Cuckoo bees? These are the Nomada species, a huge group of bees with over 850 species worldwide, though only about 30 of these can be found in Britain. Even so, it is extremely difficult to tell those 30 species apart so I’m not even going to attempt to identify those in my photos.

170509 Nomada sp Cuckoo bees (3)

As you may have guessed, these bees lay their eggs in the nests of other bee species, primarily the Andrena species. When they hatch, the Cuckoo bee larvae eat the eggs of their host and then consume the food the Andrena had gathered for their own young. It’s very cunning if rather nasty behaviour.

Herb-Paris

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Paris quadrifolia is its scientific name and you’d think quadrifolia would mean this plant had four leaves but no one told the plant that! Herb-Paris, as it’s more commonly known, can actually have between 4 and 8 leaves. It’s not its leaves that Herb-Paris is most admired for though, it’s its stunning solitary flower, a true masterpiece of Nature.

170508 Herb-Paris (1)

Herb-Paris is a perennial plant and can be found in both cool and temperate areas of Europe. In Britain you’re most likely to find it in the damp shade of ancient woodlands on calcareous soils, though sadly it has declined significantly over the last century due to the destruction of many broad-leaved woodlands in favour of conifer plantations. As Herb-Paris has proven to be very slow at colonising replanted woodlands, the only hope for its survival is the conservation of those ancient woodlands that still exist.

Though all parts of this plant are considered poisonous, it was used in various ways in traditional medicine: it was considered to be an antidote for mercury and arsenic poisoning, its root was used as an emetic, and the juice of its berry as a treatment for inflammation of the eyes. I think I’ll stick to conventional medicine and leave this beautiful herb to be admired by all who are lucky enough to see it.

170508 Herb-Paris (4)

A bumper day for butterflies, and a moth

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Blue skies, warm temperatures, wildflowers in bloom – what more could a butterfly want? Not much it seems as they were out in force at Cosmeston Lakes Country Park and I spent several happy hours following them around, trying to get photographs but also just intrigued by their flight patterns, the food plants they were choosing and their general behaviour. The Whites, large and small, eluded my lens, as did several Orange-tips and one Red Admiral but I did manage to snap these six.

The first is a Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni), not to be confused with the moth of the same name. I saw two flying together, land together and then the male heading purposefully towards the female. Turns out though that her spreading her wings and raising her abdomen in the air was not a ‘come hither’ signal but rather the opposite. She was indicating that she had already mated and was rebuffing the male. I saw several Common blues (Polyommatus icarus), also easily confused with other very similar small blue butterflies. They are so vibrant! And seeing a Peacock (Aglais io) is always a treat, though this one was looking a little battered.

Speckled woods (Pararge aegeria) seem to be the butterflies I see most often wherever I go but I love their pretty dappling of brown and cream. The next was a new one for me and I saw two of them – it’s a Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages), a butterfly whose caterpillars feed on Bird’s-foot trefoil so it’s often found on the short impoverished grasslands of former coal tips, rubbish tips and quarries. I’ve just learnt that it’s called Dingy because ‘it loses scales alarmingly as it get older so looks, well, dingy’ (thanks, Steven). The last is not a butterfly but a moth and rather a special moth, The Mocha (Cyclophora annularia). This moth is nationally scarce but more frequent in the woodlands of southern Britain so I was well pleased with this sighting.

Primrose x Cowslip = False Oxlip

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Where Primroses (Primula vulgaris) and Cowslips (Primula veris) grow in close proximity they will occasionally hybridise to produce the False Oxlip (Primula vulgaris x veris = P. x polyantha). Though this is not really clear from my images, the hybrid is usually a larger plant than the Cowslip, and I think it combines the prettiest traits of both parents to produce a real stunner!

Good things come in small packages

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They say ‘Good things come in small packages’ and you couldn’t get much smaller than these tiny packages, the eggs of the Gorse shieldbug (Piezodorus lituratus) sitting on a gorse flower in Lavernock Reserve. I’ll be heading back soon to try to find the hatchlings.

170511 Gorse shieldbug eggs

Whistling a merry tune?

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You might be forgiven for thinking that a bird with the name Lesser whistling duck (Dendrocygna javanica) could sing a merry tune but apparently its song is only a two-note wheezy call. Instead, and rather remarkably, its outermost primary wing feather has a rather unusual shape and is said to produce a prominent whistling sound when the bird is flying. As I only saw this duck looking rather drowsy and sitting perfectly still, I can neither confirm nor deny its musicality.

170510 Lesser whistling duck

Lesser whistling ducks can be found throughout the wetlands of Southeast Asia and lowland parts of the Indian subcontinent. I photographed this one in Cambodia, at the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity about 60 kilometres outside Siem Reap. (You can read more about the conservation, rescue, rehabilitation and educational work of the ACCB here.)

More from Merthyr Mawr

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As I wrote yesterday, with very little fungi to be found our Glamorgan Fungus Group foray on Saturday developed into a more general nature ramble. I’m afraid I wasn’t writing down the names of all the various critters and plants we saw so I can’t identify everything in these photos but I can name some.

The first is a Red-headed cardinal beetle (Pyrochroa serraticornis), a very pretty beetle though this one wouldn’t keep still for me. The centipede was the same and I’m afraid I don’t remember its name, though I was told it’s not particularly common. It tickled! I think the little yellow dots are the eggs of the Green dock beetle (Gastrophysa viridula) as we saw a pair mating nearby. The tiny moths on the buttercup flower are Micropterix calthella. The plant with the pink flower is one I actually remembered from my botany walk on Thursday – a miracle! It’s Common Stork’s-bill (Erodium cicutarium). Then we have two different species of snail cosying up together. Once again, I was told the names but didn’t write them down and have forgotten (must do better next time!). This very pretty plant was a new one for me and it has two common names, so you might know it either as Wall pennywort or Navelwort (scientific name Umbilicus rupestris). Next is another beetle, this time a Poplar leaf beetle (Chrysomela populi). It was a gorgeous wee thing, with metallic green thorax and dark red body, almost like an oversized ladybird. And, last but not least, was this rather angry Blood bee (Sphecodes sp.). It was trying to lay its eggs in the holes of mining bees when it was netted and potted up for a quick close-up look.

170509 (1) Millipede Pill bug Slug

My favourite moment of the day, though, was when I turned over this log. I particularly loved the little grouping of millipede, pill-bug and slug but these were only a few of the various creatures to be seen. It was just nice to see such biodiversity co-existing happily together. A lesson for us all, I think.