Spectacular garden creatures

Hummingbird hawkmoth on buddleia - Rowena Millar

Rowena Millar, Cornwall Wildlife Trust's (currently Non-)Roving Wildlife Reporter, continues to show us how to make the best of our gardens for wildlife. From May onwards, all sorts of curious creatures are being born, hatching out or flying/crawling into our gardens. As well as noisily snuffling hedgehogs and colourful birds and butterflies, a variety of other striking and fabulous species have been dropping in. Look out for them as spring turns to summer.

Note for beginner nature watchers: People are handling the creatures in some of the photos. Although touching wildlife improves our knowledge of – and closeness to – the natural world, it is all too easy to harm wildlife (and occasionally ourselves). If and when you come into physical contact with wildlife, be well-informed, alert, careful and respectful. Cause neither damage nor displacement.

Elephant hawkmoth – caterpillar and moth (Deilephila elpenor)

I have been asked more ID questions about this than any other garden creature. It has occasionally been mistaken for a very small snake or lizard. It looks a little like a mini elephant’s trunk and seems to have large eyes (the real head is inconspicuous).

This charismatic caterpillar is found on willowherbs and on fuchsias in gardens, although it also feasts on the abundant bog bean leaves above the surface of our pond. If anyone is thinking of getting rid of this caterpillar to protect their fuchsias, they should realise that it soon becomes a vividly spectacular and exotic-looking moth that will brighten up their day and their garden. I found a dull, anonymous-looking pupa on the pavement one rainy morning and brought it into the greenhouse, where it hatched into this bright pink beauty.

Grass snake (Natrix natrix)

This time it’s a real snake, spectacular due to its length (they can grow to over a metre long) but seen less often than the elephant hawmoth caterpillar. Instead, it might be the white, leathery eggs that you discover in your compost heap. This particular young grass snake was found in the long, damp grass that used to be at the bottom of next door’s garden along the back of our terrace. This species is most noticeable when it swims across a pond in a wonderfully flowing, weaving, sinuous way.

The non-venomous grass snake, with its obvious collar and regular small, black markings (along its side) is quite different in appearance from the shy but venomous zig-zag-backed, shorter and plumper-looking adder, which prefers to bask on dry, sunny heathland up the hill.

Neither snake should be confused with the slow-worm, which makes an occasional appearance in our garden. This grey-brown legless lizard may share the grass snake’s garden habitats (probably not ponds, although they can swim, but possibly sunny spots, long grass and compost heaps). A slow-worm can release its tail if grabbed (after which it looks stumpy for the rest of its life), whereas the grass snake plays dead, hisses and tries to look bigger or exudes a nasty smell if scared.

Grass snake (young)

Grass snake (young)

Cockchafer or May bug (Melolontha melolontha)

I became interested in cockchafers for two reasons: one was that they whirr through the air rather alarmingly, without a great deal of precision or control, crashing into things. This, as well as their size, makes them quite conspicuous. The other was a song by singer-songwriter Reinhard Mey that I heard while studying German at school, ‘Es gibt keine Maikäfer mehr’ (there aren’t any May bugs any more). Although cockchafers are scarab beetles, which conjures up images of exotic Egyptian tombs, their larvae were (and sometimes still are, perhaps) a common agricultural pest, and it seems they were nearly exterminated in Germany. There has been a devastating loss of all sorts of insects throughout Europe, including Britain, over recent decades.

Cockchafer

Cockchafer - Rowena Millar

Broad-bodied chaser (Libellula depressa)

These looked fantastic perched on the Astilbe flowers around my parents’ rather ornamental-looking wildlife pond at their previous house. Along with several of the damselflies, broad-bodied chasers appear relatively early in the year (early May), which is earlier than many of the large dragonflies. They are happy to colonise garden ponds as well as larger bodies of water. Like the cockchafer, the broad-bodied chaser is an impressively conspicuous flier, but unlike the cockchafer, it flies with tremendous precision. Which is more beautiful, the powder-blue male or the golden female?

Bloody-nosed beetle (Timarcha tenebricosa)

I have included this black beetle because it is so easy to spot and has a lovely sheen. It pootles around in an endearingly slow and cumbersome way, unlike the scuttling predatory black ground beetles you might find under sheds. It might be mistaken for the chunky black dor beetle, which is often found on farmland due to its enormous appetite for dung.

The bloody-nosed beetle doesn’t fly away because it can’t actually do so, but it can exude a foul-tasting, off-putting red droplet from its mouth when alarmed.

Bloody-nosed beetle

Bloody-nosed beetle - Rowena Millar

Hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellaratum)

We usually see and hear this whirring day-flying moth in our garden once the buddleia and honeysuckle are in flower, although it may be seen in flight from May through to September. Migrating north from hotter climes, this species may possibly be resident here too.

The hummingbird hawkmoth’s flight is rapid as it whizzes around, pausing to hover momentarily while extending its long tongue into a flower. The orange wings usually appear as a blur and have been recorded moving at 85 beats per second (whereas the wingbeat of a real hummingbird is 50 beats per second).

Similar species are the broad-bordered and narrow-bordered bee hawkmoths, which fly from May to June. The most obvious difference is that the bee hawkmoths have clear wings, more like bumblebees. I would be even more excited to discover bee hawkmoths, as they are localised and scarce in the UK.

These are just a fraction of the spectacular creatures to be found in our gardens, and you will notice more and more spectacular creatures once you get your eye in. I really enjoy finding the many eye-catching varieties and colours of garden spiders, snails, beetles, flies and so much more. Have you seen the spiders that come in brilliant white or vivid green? Take a closer look, and Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Wildlife Information Service can help you identify whatever you discover.

If you report your sightings on ORKS it adds to our collective wildlife knowledge, aiding local and national conservation initiatives. Have a happy and harmless time hunting wildlife at home.