Nature Watch: August 2017

July 28 2017

Skipping over July we find ourselves racing into August.

Skipping over July we find ourselves racing into August. It feels like the top of summer to us, but the birds have usually completed their breeding cycle by now and, for them, it will already be autumn; time to fatten up for the winter, or for their migration. Swifts are our briefest summer visitors, gone by mid-August, but before they go they put on a great final performance. They gather together and rampage about the sky in hooligan groups, shrieking like banshees. Last August, whilst playing frisbee on the Common, we heard their cries and looked up to see a whirling tornado of swifts, at least 40 together, tearing up the blue. They come together from miles around, this year’s babies already fully grown and holding their own in the melee. I gaze up at them, wishing I could experience that sensation, the rush of air across my wings, the view of the city, flung about me, as I twist and wheel through the air. 

Back to earth and our gardens can start to look a bit hot and bothered in August. Mildew creeps across the courgettes and Michaelmas daisies as they become stressed by water shortages. But the insects march on. This is their time: they bask in the hot sun. Check a flowery herbaceous border or look out for patches of tall herbs such as hogweed and fennel. 

These umbellifers are particularly attractive to many insects: the photo shows a beetle and two micro-moths with a honey bee monster behind them all sharing one flowerhead. Some insects, such as the wool carder bee prefer the snapdragon shape of peas, vetches and toadflax, whilst others such as the patchwork leafcutter bee with its startling neon-orange bottom prefer the flat flowers of large daisies such as Inulas and Heleniums.  And don’t overlook any patch of brambles, they draw all kinds of wildlife. Those patchwork leafcutter bees snip beautiful circles and crescents from the leaves and then use these segments to line their nests. 

Some flies and moth larvae burrow into the leaves leaving tracks and blisters that appear on the leaf surface. The most elegant is the purple-tinted track which looks like a cryptic symbol waiting to be deciphered: it is made by the micro-moth Stigmella aurella, so now you know.  

Nectaring insects love the bramble flowers and of course birds, foxes, badgers and mice (we get house mice and wood mice round here) will all race you to the berry harvest. Even the cut stems of bramble, trimmed back endlessly by the harassed allotment holder (why does my bramble grow so much faster than my produce?) are burrowed into by some solitary bees which over-winter and even nest within. But as I have mentioned before, you don’t even need to leave the streets; just in time to squeeze into this column we found a field grasshopper today, sitting on that well-known wildlife habitat, the bare wall!