It's National Insect Week, so it seems only right that this week I turn my attention to one of Minsmere's very special insects. Antlions had only been seen a handful of times in the UK before 1996, when they were discovered nesting alongside the Minsmere visitor centre. They have subsequently spread to other parts of the Suffolk coast, but Minsmere still remans the best place to look for them.
Antlions look like a cross between a lacewing and a dragonfly. Only one species occurs in the UK, but there are several other species around the world. Finding an adult antlion during your visit is very unlikely as they are nocturnal, so most likely to be seen in a moth trap. We do very occasionally find one resting on vegetation during the day, too.
Adult antlion by Pete Etheridge
Luckily, it is easy to find evidence of antlions, enabling you to tick them off your 70 species to spot at Minsmere list, because their larva dig distinctive conical pits in soft sand. These pits are best found on south-facing patches of bare sand, especially under an overhang. The easiest ones to see are immediately behind Minsmere's reception building, but there is a newly discovered colony under Bittern Hide. We even have them nesting in a narrow sandy strip alongside the wardens; office.
An antlion larval pit
The larvae themselves are rarely seen either as they remain hidden beneath the sand, waiting expectantly for an unsuspecting ant to tumble into the pit. When that happens, the trap has been sprung, and the ant's chances of survival are slim. The larva now starts phase two of the hunt, flicking grains of sand at the struggling ant to knock it back into the base of the pit - right into the fearsome pincers of the waiting predator.
An antlion larva with fearsome pincers
The antlions aren't the only insects to look for under your feet either, as the action is really beginning to kick off in Digger Alley. Last week I reported that the sand wasps were active, then over the weekend we found the first green-eyed flower-bees, ornate-tailed wasps and dune chafers of the summer. Ruby-tailed wasps have already been seen too. We're hoping that pantaloon bees and bee wolfs might put in an appearance in time for Suffolk Day on Thursday - especially as the latter are subject of one of the questions in our Minsmere Treasure Trail.
The aerial insects are visible too, with good numbers and variety of dragonflies and damselflies, including the first common darter of the yesterday. Other insects to look out for this week include butterflies, day-flying moths such as cream-spot tiger, cinnabar or silver Y, grasshoppers and crickets and beetles. The latter could include the impressive lesser stag beetle - one flew into the visitor centre window yesterday - as well as the tiny pollen beetles that are attracted in large numbers to yellow and white clothing.
Bigger beasties to look out for include the usual mammalian suspects - red deer, muntjac, rabbit, grey squirrel, water vole, otter and stoat - while a red fox was spotted resting on the field behind the visitor centre on Saturday morning.
Bitterns continue to show well around the reedbed, with several females still feeding young. Marsh harriers, too, are busy feeding chicks, which should be due to start fledging soon, while at least five hobbies can be seen hawking over the reeds. Bearded tits have been a little more visible this week, and reed warblers, sedge warblers and reed buntings continue to sing.
The record breeding season continues for Mediterranean gulls - 46 nesting pairs have been counted this spring - and the black-headed gull chicks are on the verge of fledging. Avocets, common and Sandwich terns and shelducks are still nesting on the Scrape. Several spotted redshanks can be seen on the Scrpae most days - these are south bound migrants returning from the Arctic already, and up to 300 black-tailed godwits are non-breeding Icelandic birds. Other waders include a few dunlins, ringed plovers and curlews, with both greenshank and wood sandpiper reported over the weekend.
Another bird breeding in almost record numbers is sand martin, with an impressive 347 burrows occupied this year - just 19 short of the record season from more than 20 years ago! It's no wonder that so many visitors have been commenting on the sand martins this year - especially given the widely publicised late (or non-) return from Africa of house martins, swallows and swifts in many areas. (Hint: I've just answered question 1 from the Suffolk Day treasure trail, too.)
Sand martin by Russ Sheriff