Provençal wildlife roundup

It was really a bit late in the year for the best of the wildlife; many of the classic Mediterranean birds — bee-eaters and what have you — were probably already in Africa, and there weren’t many flowers around. Although the oleander everywhere still looked spectacular.

Not that it was a complete bust on the bird front. It was nice to see lots of black redstarts everywhere; I saw a couple of female pied flycatchers, which are also charming little birds; there were crag martins flying around at the Pont du Gard (above); and I saw dipper at a coffee break on the way back. So no absolute show-stoppers, but some nice things.

Also, to stay on-theme with my recent post, I was pleased to see plenty of hornets around. It’s very much wasp time of year, of course: my mother tells me that the wasps ‘come with the plums’. It’s not strictly true, you see wasps all summer, but there are a lot more in late summer/autumn. That’s because (I learnt recently while reading about hornets), a lone queen starts a new nest every year.* Which makes large wasp nests all the more impressive.

The queen then has to build the nest and gather food for the young on her own until there are enough workers around to do the scut work, and she can concentrate on producing eggs. And they build up the nest until in late autumn they produce a load of reproductive individuals — queens and drones — and those fertilised queens who survive the winter set out and start the cycle again in spring. So a single wasp queen may have generated thousands of individuals by the time the plums are ripe. Or hundreds, for the hornets.

Also pleasing was a praying mantis; we don’t get those up here in northern Europe. I think the species was Mantis religiosa, which I guess was the very first of the mantids to be given a Latin name, presumably by Carl Linnæus personally.

Another curiosity with a great Latin name was a tree with what looked like huge red chiles growing on it. It turns out the tree is a relative of the pistachio called terebinth (another great name, incidentally), and the ‘chile’ is a gall formed by an aphid, Baizongia pistaciae. To which I just have to say: baizongia!

And finally on to the Lepidoptera. Above is a pretty little day-flying moth, related to the burnets, called Zygaena fausta. The flower is Virgin’s-bower, Clematis flammula.

And there were loads of good butterflies, which I mainly don’t have photos of. Clouded Yellow, Cleopatra (the Brimstone’s flashier cousin), Southern White Admiral, some kind of amazing iridescent blue which was probably either Adonis Blue or Turquoise Blue, and the curious-looking Nettle-tree Butterfly or European Beak.

And there was this tiny little fellow, the Geranium Bronze, living up to his slightly inaccurate name by sitting on a pelargonium:

The Geranium Bronze is actually an import from South Africa which apparently arrived on imports of pot plants. Notice the teensy little swallowtails! Cute.

But the most spectacular butterflies were two big species. One, the Great Banded Grayling, is hard to do justice to in photographs because it sits with its wings closed, but this blog post shows one displaying itself properly.

And most remarkable was a huge great fast-flying thing which when you see it properly, looks pretty amazing above and maybe even more spectacular below. Yup, it’s one of Europe’s most exotic-looking butterflies, the Two-tailed Pasha or Foxy Emperor. Woo-hoo.

* or to be more strictly accurate: most European species of social wasp start a new nest each year; your local wasps may vary.

Hornets, and toodle-oo for now

About three weeks ago, I was in the garden and I saw a largeish brown and yellow insect fly past which I thought looked like the right general size, shape and colours for a hornet… but I thought that couldn’t possibly be right, and it must be some kind of hornet mimic — a large hoverfly species, or (more excitingly) a hornet moth or one of the bee hawkmoths. But I almost immediately lost track of it.

And then, ten days ago I was in the local park, standing on the little walkway over the lake looking for dragonflies, and again I saw an insect-that-looked-surprisingly-hornety, and again it didn’t wait around for to get a good look at it. So you can imagine how pleased I was a hundred yards later when I came upon this sign:

I should probably explain at this point, for all you norteamericanos, that I don’t mean something like your bald-faced hornet, which looks like an attractive little beasty but still a fairly typical wasp. No, I mean the one-and-only original, authentic, European hornet. Vespa Crabro. They say: seven stings to kill a horse, three to kill a man and two to kill a child.

This catchy little bit of folk-wisdom turns out to be rubbish, as a lot of folk wisdom does; apparently it’s only a bit more painful than any other wasp sting. But it captures something of the mystique around the hornet. It is, in the end, just a wasp, but it’s a very large wasp; it’s about twice the length of other British social wasp species, a great big bulky brown and yellow thing.

The reason I was so surprised to see them in south London was that I was under the impression that they were uncommon to rare in this country, and certainly unlikely to turn up in suburbia. But increasingly as you get older you find yourself wrong about things not because you learnt them wrong in the first place, or because you misremember them, but because the facts changed when you weren’t paying attention. And apparently hornets, which in the 60s were largely confined to the New Forest, have been spreading gradually for some time and particularly rapidly in the past ten years.

Who knows, maybe it’s global warming; but even if they are a portent of doom, they’re still a great insect and a very pleasing addition to my garden list.

And, fyi, I’m going to France tomorrow. Just for a week. So I probably won’t be posting, although I suppose if the place we’re staying has wifi I might blog from my phone.

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