Wednesday 28 January 2015

Into The Night

Venus - both the "Evening" and the "Morning" Star

One of the great things about winter in the northern hemisphere is that you can observe the creatures of the night in the evening and still get to bed at a reasonable hour so, as it’s relatively mild and the sun is going down, I thought we’d spend an evening on the terrace and let the wildlife come to us. We’ll take a couple of braziers up and cook some of the delicious local sausages to keep us fortified in case it gets chilly later and mull a drop of wine as well for the same reason. I see that the Evening Star is rising in the west to keep us company. A bit of a misnomer as it is not a star at all but the planet Venus. If we were to stay up all night we’d see it rise in the East in the morning when we’d call it by the equally incorrect name of the Morning Star.

Noctuid and two types of Geometer
The terrace lights have been on for a couple of hours now and I see that we’re already beginning to attract quite a few insects. Not surprisingly the majority of these are moths. I’ve found representatives of fourteen families of moths, mostly up here on the terrace, and that doesn’t include all these small fry that you see flitting about that are collectively known as the microlepidoptera. But if you are just starting out on moths then the two biggest families that you are going to come across are the noctuids (Noctuidae) and the geometers (Geometridae). The big hairy one on the left which usually holds its wings back over its body and overlapping each other is a  noctuid. The ones that hold their wings out sideways are geometers, the smaller one underneath (of which you see many) are known as pugs and are part of the Geometer subfamily Larentiinae. There are moths in other families which share similar characteristics (which I’m sure they do just to confuse us) but knowing your noctuids from your geometers is a very good place to begin when trying to identify moths.

Green Lacewing
Now here’s a little insect that you probably won’t see until Spring if you live further north but down here on the southern shores of Crete I see them all the year round. They are called Green Lacewings and they’re from a very small and ancient order of insects called the Neuroptera. They are fascinating little animals not leastly because the female attaches her eggs to the underside of plant leaves on slender stalks. When the larvae hatch they immediately moult then climb up the stalks to the leaf where they become voracious predators of small, soft bodied insects such as aphids, injecting them with digestive juices which dissolve them within minutes. After pupating they emerge as adults and sing to attract mates by vibrating their bodies. Each species has a different song so this fellow here which is probably the Southern European Green Lacewing, Chrysoperla mediterranea, hums a different tune to his more northerly counterpart the Common Green Lacewing Chrysoperla carnea.

Leslie the Prodigal Snail
How are those sausages coming along? Nearly done? Good, because I can hear Maria and her daughter coming up the stairs and I do believe they’re carrying great pots of mashed potato and baked beans. So let us sit down and sup and I’ll update you on our ongoing projects. Firstly, big news on the snail front: Leslie’s back. If you recall Leslie disappeared on the first night and was, so I thought, never to be seen again. But, lo and behold, there was Leslie, large as life on Friday morning, firmly adhered to the outside of the box from which it had started out eleven days ago and there, curled up alongside was Beverley who’d made the gargantuan effort of travelling the five centimetres over the lip of the box where it had been dozing all week. In fairness to Beverley we’ve had no rain this week and none of the other snails have moved much either. Vivian disappeared for a time last night but was back with Ashley and the two Marks when I checked on them this morning. So, Leslie and Ashley are wanderers and they’ve paired up with Vivian and Beverley who are stay-at-homes. Maybe it’s a bit too early to say that in the snail world “opposites attract” but an interesting start to the project nevertheless. Have you had anything similar with your own snail projects? What do you mean: you haven’t started yet? Shame on you – go out and grab a handful of snails tomorrow morning, You’ll have hours of fun.

Black Redstart in its nightly roost
And what of the Sparrows I hear you ask. To be honest I’ve seen very little of Alice, Beatrice and the boys over the past week. A quick nip to the table, grab some food and away and I haven’t seen any of them for the past two days. If you go down the stairs and look above the front door you’ll see a possible reason why. Roosting above the door there is a Black Redstart who comes and stays with us every winter. Now he’s a very territorial bird, a bit of a bully in fact. Although I’ve never seen him physically attack another bird he seems to make his presence felt by sitting on the telephone wire above the table, dropping down on to it (but not eating) and generally careering around the terrace. All of which seems to disturb the sparrows. Another example of his oafish behaviour is his choice of night roost. Between 2005 and 2009 that roost was occupied every winter by a Chiffchaff. Then in the winter of 2010/11 the Black Redstart appeared and began to roost on a nearby arch. Gradually they changed places. During the winter of 2011/12 only the Black Redstart came back to roost and the Chiffchaff hasn’t been back since (in fact I haven’t seen a Chiffchaff locally since February 2012). 

Bird seed - help or hindrance?
Despite the lack of sparrows the bird table has not been totally devoid of interest as I seem to be growing a number of small seedlings. I’ve no idea what these are as yet although the secondary leaves are reminiscent of Loquat leaves, a tree from South East Asia but widely grown in these parts. It does beg the question however: “What plants are we introducing to our local ecosystems with our kind-hearted bird feeding?” I realised I had absolutely no idea. I buy my seed from an open tub at the local pet shop but goodness knows where they come from. As we know, all of nature is interconnected; local birds feed on local seeds and insects that either come from, or are dependent upon, local plants. If we inadvertently introduce invasive plants via our bird feeders then we’ll be depleting the birds’ food supply rather than supplementing it. I shall take a tip from my parents and hang bags under the bird table. It takes a while for the birds to accept this but it catches a lot of scattered seeds (that can be reused), keeps the ground below the table clear of weeds and helps to reduce potential environmental damage.

On that note I think I’ll have another plate of sausage, mash and beans. Is there any of that mulled wine left? Until next week – happy hunting.

Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)

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