Nature to spot this summer

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From bee orchids to lapwings, summer is a time to see an abundance of amazing wildlife. Karl Horne, from The Lancashire Wildlife Trust, shares his guide to all the flora and fauna to spot in Britain this season.

Flora to spot this summer

Bee orchid - Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography

Bee orchids

If you’re lucky, you may come across bee orchids on a road verge or playing field near you. These stunning insect-mimic plants have evolved to look and smell like a female bee. This is so they attract male bees to assist the pollination process. However, it’s no longer completely necessary, as British bee orchids have further adapted to be able to self-pollinate in the absence of an appropriate bee species. The lifecycle of these plants is incredible!

Bee orchids may flower for one or even two years. Yet it takes at least five years for windblown seed to find suitable soil conditions, the right type of soil-borne fungi they need to germinate, and to avoid said fungi harming the seed in the process. It’s a complex and precarious process before bee orchids eventually flower on grassland near you.

Common nettles

Nettles-Matthew-Roberts

It’s safe to say they’re not everyone’s cup of (nettle) tea! They’re assertive plants that like to take over small spaces and aren’t afraid to give a sting. Nettles are resilient and successful plants that can cope with challenging conditions. They’re also extremely important plants for wildlife, being associated with the lifecycle of no fewer than 120 invertebrate species, including eight butterfly species and 46 moth species in the UK. Three of our most beautiful butterflies – the comma, peacock and small tortoiseshell – seek out the common nettle to lay their eggs on. Common nettles were once a staple food source for humans and livestock and are still consumed to this day.

Cornfield annuals

Cornfield annuals

Throughout the late spring and summer months, road verges burst into the bright colours of a flowering meadow. These brightly coloured plant species are often referred to as cornfield annuals. They supply invertebrates with pollen and nectar during their flowering period. They also drop significant amounts of seed, which becomes an important autumn food source for birds. As the name suggests, cornfield annuals are very short-lived, flowering, setting seed, and dying in the same year. Look out for a range of these flowers, including the common poppy, cornflower, corn marigold, scentless mayweed and corncockle.

Honeysuckle

Honeysuckle

Honeysuckle (also known as ‘woodbine’) is a climbing plant that likes to grow along the edges of woodland. However, on closer inspection, you may find the honeysuckle plant you’re admiring is actually rooted 6-10 feet further back inside the woodland. This is a strategy to achieve maximum flowering potential. It also means the plants avoid the drought conditions of high summer by keeping their roots within the cool dampness of the woodland. The scent of honeysuckle is said to be the sweetest and most recognisable of any British wildflower. It releases its scent in the evening and attracts a wide array of moth species. They feed on its nectar and leave with a fine dusting of pollen, which they carry to the next honeysuckle flower – pollination in action!

Michaelmas daisies

Michaelmas daisies are common in most habitats across the UK, dispersing across great distances via fluffy, parachute-like seeds. The flowers range from palest blue, to mauve, pink and dark blue. They represent the great, final flourish of the wildflower season, flowering from August to as late as November in mild years. In urban grasslands and brownfield sites across the UK, michaelmas daisies can be seen thronged with the last invertebrate groups of the year. They all busily lap up their last feed of nectar before going into hibernation or dying with the first frosts. For some species of insects that overwinter as adults, this late food source can make the difference between surviving the winter months or perishing before spring arrives.

Ragged-robin

Ragged-robin

As you move into the wetter areas of meadows in early summer, you may happen upon a patch of ragged-robin. In the right conditions, this plant can grow in abundance. It’s a good indicator of marshes, wet grasslands, or fen meadows. The ragged-robin is named for the raggedy, thread-like appearance of its pale pink petals, though sometimes these can also be pure white.

Self-heal

Self-heal

Another plant that grows on woodland edges, meadows, and less highly maintained garden lawns is one of my favourite plants – self-heal. This is an adaptable plant, that’s able to flower at different heights, if mown or grazed. Left alone, self-heal can be found growing to a metre tall on the woodland edge. In garden lawns that are regularly mown, it will adapt by creeping through the grass stems, and will flower at about 1 or 2 inches in height instead. Self-heal is a lovely and resourceful wildflower and, in my view, a star of the lawn.

Fauna to spot this summer

Broad-bodied chasers

Broad-bodied chasers

Summer can be a busy time for dragonflies and damselflies on ponds and lakes in Britain. There are many incredible species for you to go out and find. One of my favourites is the broad-bodied chaser. This species can be found on the margins of bodies of water, from large lakes to small ponds. Broad-bodied chasers are sexually dimorphic, meaning the male and the females have different physical characteristics, not including the differences in their reproductive organs. Males have pale blue bodies and females are gold in colour. The British Dragonfly Society is a great resource for reading more about the species.

Elephant hawk-moths

Elephant hawk-moths

The elephant hawk-moth is the most unmistakable and exotic-looking moth, found nectaring at honeysuckle and other night flowering species in summer. With shades of buff, lime green, and pink, this moth is almost without parallel in the UK. Its mystique is amplified by the fact that – like 90% of other UK moth species – it’s nocturnal, so rarely spotted. It’s a common species found across varying habitats, such as woodlands, field margins, ditches, heaths and waste ground. The species gets its common name from the (quite large!) caterpillar’s ability to withdraw its head and expand its shoulders in a threatening manor to deter predators. Elephant hawk-moths lay their eggs on plants in the bedstraw or willowherb families. Look out for the great willowherb or broadleaved willowherb in gardens, car parks and in waste ground. You might be lucky enough to find an elephant hawk-moth caterpillar hiding on them.

Common whitethroats

Common whitethroats

Each year, common whitethroats leave their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa to make the 3-4,000-mile journey back to the UK to breed in areas of scrub and low vegetation, such as bramble and nettle beds. The males like to perform a song-flight in late spring to early summer, either from a small tree or patch of scrub. They’ll fly jerkily in a loop from their perches, singing a song which is described variously as ‘scratchy’, ‘hoarse’, ‘tetchy’, or ‘gruff’ by bird book authors.

Lapwings

Lapwings

Lapwings were once commonly found on farmland but they’re now more likely to be found on lightly grazed wet meadows, riverside pastures or moorland. The lapwing is a bird with distinctive plumage, broadly rounded wingtips, and a mournful ‘pee-wit’ call. They could once be seen in huge flocks that appeared to change from black to white, as the birds changed direction in flight. Now, due mainly to the intensification of farming practices and the loss of invertebrate food sources, the lapwing is one of our most threatened bird species. You can read more about the lapwing on The Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s website.

Leafcutter bees

leafcutter bee

By mid-summer, it’s time to see leafcutter bees. The UK has 9 species of leafcutter bee, which can often be seen in urban gardens. Some of the more common species, such as patchwork, brown-footed, and Willughby’s leafcutter bees, may sometimes be noticed by the aggressive way they patrol their favourite flowers. They sometimes hold the tip of their abdomen at a slightly upturned angle from the head and thorax and have a partial-to fully orange pollen brush beneath the up-turned abdomen. Male Willughby’s also have a pair of ‘oven gloves’ hair fringes on the front legs. The female leafcutter bees cut (almost) perfectly round holes in the leaves of certain flowers and shrubs, which they then use to form the cigar-like structures in which they lay their eggs inside the nest. This is a fascinating process, which you can read more about on the Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society website.

Swifts

Swifts

There’s still plenty of time to see swifts, before they fly south for winter. They’re remarkable birds, being almost completely aerial throughout their lives. After leaving their nests, young swifts may be constantly on the wing for 2 or 3 years without ever landing. Later, they will find a mate and find a suitable nest site in Britain, usually under the eaves of a house, in gaps in brickwork, in roofing thatch or church towers, but always in close proximity to human habitations. Swifts only ever land at the nest site which, always being elevated on buildings, they drop straight out of and immediately become airborne again. Swifts literally do everything on the wing – eating, drinking, courtship, sleeping, and even mating!

Swifts are a sooty, chocolate brown colour. Look out for their crescent shaped wings and anchor-like outline ‘screaming’ across the rooftops in midsummer. Swift numbers are declining severely, and they really need our help to survive. Perhaps you could put up a swift nestbox and caller on your property? A caller is a mini amplifier and small speaker that plays a recording of a swift, to encourage them to make homes in nest boxes. You can read more about swifts and how to help them on the Action for Swifts website and by following #SaveOurSwifts on social media.

Volucella hoverflies

Volucella hoverflies

The insect world is full of mimicry, and some of the Britain’s best mimics are hoverflies. Volucella inanis and Volucella zonaria are two of the largest hoverfly species in the UK. They can be seen on the wing from May until September and are common in urban habitats and gardens. Neither have any method of defence, but both have evolved to be mimics of wasps and hornets. This is so that they look more aggressive and, hopefully, deter would-be predators from attacking them. Both species have taken this tactic a step further and are known to lay their eggs inside wasp and hornet nests, where their larvae predate the larvae of their potentially aggressive hosts! You can read more about Volucella, and other hoverfy species at the Hoverfly Recording Scheme.

Karl Horne is a Land Management Project Officer at The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside in Wigan. He was introduced to wildlife as a child when his grandad built him his first bird table. Karl worked in the building, landscaping and horticultural industries before studying countryside management.

Image credits

Header image courtesy of Andrew Parkinson, 2020VISION, image 1 courtesy of Jon Hawkins, Surrey Hills Photography, image 2 courtesy of Matthew Roberts, image 3 courtesy of Paul Hobson, image 4 courtesy of Ross Hoddinott, 2020VISION, image 5 courtesy of Annie Spratt on Unsplash, image 6 courtesy of Paul Lane, image 7 courtesy of Neil Wyatt, image 8 courtesy of Mark Robinson, image 9 courtesy of Richard Burkmarr, image 10 courtesy of Andrew Parkinson, 2020VISION, image 11 courtesy of Jim Higham, image 12 courtesy of Gillian Day, image 13 courtesy of David Tipling, 2020VISION, image 14 courtesy of Jon Hawkins, Surrey Hills Photography