Fox cubs are almost fully grown by now but still full of that playful exuberance that we associate with youngsters. The cubs will be spending less and less time in and around the earth, preferring to lie-up in nearby cover. The parents will still be hunting to provide food for the cubs, but life will be getting increasingly tough, with mum and dad less easily persuaded to hand over their catch. The cold shoulder from their folks drives the cubs to start catching some of their own food, which at this stage is largely insects and earthworms found close to the earth. Badger cubs are still playful too, and can be found frolicking close to the sett in the evening and early morning; as with fox cubs, they will now be finding much of their own food, in the form of earthworms. Hedgehogs are also out and about looking for earthworms and, perhaps more importantly, prospective mates, as we’re well into the hog breeding season. These three species, all heavily reliant on soil invertebrates at this time of year, can struggle during prolonged hot and dry spells, so please leave a bowl of fresh water out in your garden if you can – it can quite literally be a lifesaver.
Deer kids, calves and fawns are growing fast and many are up and about following their mothers. I find early morning and late evening to be the best times to go deer watching at the moment, particularly if the weather is hot. Despite most young deer being mobile by now, the calving season is protracted for many species so I will reiterate last month’s plea that if you do come across a baby deer curled up in the long grass, bracken, etc., please don’t touch it. It has been left there by its mum, who knows where it is and will return to feed it; it has not been abandoned and, unless it is in immediate danger, it does not need rescuing. Elsewhere in the deer world, you may start to hear barking in the woods and fields towards the end of the month as July marks the start of the roe deer rut (breeding season) and the bucks bark both to ward off competition and to attract does (see August).
Britain plays host to some 40% of Europe’s common seal population, and many females will have pups at the moment. The small mammal breeding season is at its peak, making July a good month to see mice, voles and shrews. Watch out for young rabbits and stoat kits this month, too.
Now is a good time to go out looking for owls, because many owlets will be in the final stages of fledging and increasingly mobile. The downside to this time of year is that dense foliage may obscure your view. Nonetheless, in my local woods there has been a lot of calling by recently fledged tawny owlets, which is helpful for tracking them down.
The fledgling birds in the garden now have lost most of their juvenile plumage and are starting to look more like small adults, and some species (particularly blackbirds and robins) may be tending their second brood by now. Dartford warbler activity should be picking up on heathland this month and it’s a good time to go out after dark to listen for nightjars. About 4,500 nightjars migrate from west and south-east Africa to breed in the UK, arriving during May and leaving during August or September. Warm, still nights are best to head out and brave the midges to take in the rising and falling bubbling churr (audio clip below) of the male of this nocturnal summer migrant.
A European nightjar (_Caprimulgus europaeus_) calling on the New Forest. - Credit: Marc Baldwin
The stonechats are still very visible, if quieter than of late, and the song of the easily-overlooked corn bunting, which sounds like the “clacking” of a bicycle wheel, can be heard on downland. Winchat, wheatears and yellowhammers are also prominent on heathland during July, and there are plenty of ducklings and goslings still about. Most raptor chicks will either have fledged by now or be well on their way. Listen out for the ringing, whining attention-seeking call of newly-fledged buzzards.
Finally, one of the “sounds of summer” stops this month as swifts return to Africa.
Reptiles & amphibians
Observing reptiles is more difficult at this time of year, particularly when overnight temperatures don’t drop far, because activity can continue after dark and the snakes and lizards hardly need to bask. When temperatures do drop overnight, however, an early trip out just after sunrise can be rewarding – remember to tread lightly as reptiles respond to vibrations in the ground more than those in the air. They don’t much care if you’re chatting, but they will scarper if they feel you stomping around.
The amphibian world is also busy at the moment, with many frog and toad tadpoles having metamorphosed and left the pond. Nonetheless, in our pond we usually end up with a vast range of sizes of common frog tadpoles come mid-July. Some are no more than a centimetre long, others are chunky beasts with well-developed back legs, and there are a few tiny froglets around too. If you have a pond in your garden, or even if there’s one in your neighbour’s garden, please take extra care when mowing the lawn as the newly metamorphosed froglets and toadlets will often hang out in long grass during the day. Indeed, if you can leave an area of your lawn with longer grass, this will benefit adult and juvenile amphibians alike.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on your pond and removing excessive blanket weed if you can. Very warm and sunny conditions can result in a blanket weed boom, particularly if you’ve had to top your pond up with tap water. I’m told blanket weed can entangle and drown froglets and it can certainly deplete the oxygen levels in the pond water. This is even more of an issue in hot weather when the water is already low in oxygen. If you don’t have a pond in your garden, or if your pond doesn’t have tadpoles, and you want to see some froglets, head out to your local pond after dark with a torch. Warm, damp nights offer the greatest prospects of finding these miniature frogs and toads.
July is usually a good month for bees, wasps, flies and hoverflies. Check out firm, dry, exposed sandy areas of your local heathland and you’re likely to find a series of small excavations – watch for a while and you’ll be treated to a brief glimpse into the working endeavours of our mining bees and sand wasps. Sand wasps dig out a burrow in sandy soil in which to entomb caterpillars. The caterpillar is paralysed before being pushed into the burrow along with one of the wasp’s eggs; when the grub hatches, it consumes the caterpillar to fuel its development.
Many of the small brown wolf spiders that were carrying around their white or pale blue egg sacs last month are now carrying spiderlings on their abdomens. The female wolf spider spins a soft silk platform onto which she deposits a droplet of water into which she injects her fertilised eggs. She then spins a tougher silk over the top to protect the eggs, cuts it loose and crimps the edges of the top and bottom sheets together. She then covers the whole thing with a waterproof silk and carries it around until the spiderlings hatch out a few weeks later. The spiderlings live off the yolk from their egg until fully grown, when they disperse.
There are also some stag beetles to be found, although the mating season is winding down now with females looking for suitable places to lay their eggs. Once stag beetles have mated they separate; males may go in search of other mates, or may die shortly after the mating, while mated females tend to return to the spot where they emerged. When the female arrives at her emergence site, she will assess whether there is sufficient decaying wood available and, if there isn’t, she may look for an alternative location to lay her eggs. Once a suitable location has been found, she’ll dig down (maybe 50cm/20in) and lay her eggs either in the rotting wood or nearby in the soil. On average, a female will lay about 24 eggs – although she may lay between 15 to 36 eggs depending on her size – that will develop in the soil for about a month before the larvae hatch and begin feeding on the decaying wood.
Stag beetles spend most of their lives in larval form – on average they spend four years as a larva, but it may be up to seven. The reason for this prolonged larval stage is that wood is difficult to digest and poor in nutriment, so it takes the larva a long time to gain sufficient condition to be in a position to pupate into an adult. Recently, there has been debate among entomologists (people who study insects) as to whether there are three or five distinct stages (called instars) to the stag beetle’s larval period. The general consensus was that there were only three instars, with the third being the longest.
There are still glowworms out and about; the females being the ones that glow, crawling to the top of tall grass to flash their beacons and attract passing males. Males and females favour the same types of habitat: damp areas with tall grass. Consequently, glowworms tend to be encountered in meadows, on commons, in orchards, roadside verges, railway embankments and even on some garden lawns with low-growing vegetation. There are records of glowworms on woodland rides, cliffs, heathland and even in the valleys of Wales and Scotland, although these appear to be outliers. The type of habitat glowworms favour means that they are most likely to be found on the chalk grassland/downland in southern England and coastal Wales. Despite a couple of unverified reports, glowworms are believed to be absent from Ireland and the Isle of Man.
This is typically a good mothing/butterflying month with plenty of large, showy hawk moths around and, if you’re very lucky, you may even find a grand purple emperor. These stunning but elusive butterflies are restricted to oak woodland in central and southern England, from about Nottinghamshire in the north to Hampshire in the south. Apparently, various putrid substances (including dog mess, fox scat, decaying rabbits and urine) can be used to tempt them down from the treetops. Other Lepidoptera to watch out for are the beautiful day-flying yellow underwing, the pale shiny-scaled silver-studded blue, and the ethereal blue-winged chalkhill blue.
During July, I often see people post on Facebook, particularly to the BBC Springwatch page, asking for identification of red and black moths they’ve found while out walking: black wings and red spots are six-spot burnet moths, and black wings with a red stripe and two red spots at the base of each wing are cinnabar moths. Cinnabars will have laid their eggs now and these hatch out into small black and orange caterpillars that can be found smothering their main food plant, hawkweed. (In our garden, when the hawkweed is overcrowded, the caterpillars have also moved onto contiguous stems of lavender and grass.) Many species of grasshopper, cricket, damselfly and dragonfly can also be found during this month, so pretty much wherever you choose to walk you’re likely to find something.
Finally, July (sometimes August; sometimes both) tends to be when we see “flying ant day” in Britain. This annual event, coinciding with a spell of warm and humid weather, marks the take-off of millions of ants. Despite the name, there isn't actually a single day when all the ants in the country take to the air; rather colonies in different areas leave at different times within a period that can run from June to September. As summer wears on, colonies of the black garden ant (Lasius niger) start to fill up and the queen switches from producing workers to making winged progeny, males (drones) and virgin queens (princesses), which leave and start colonies elsewhere. Typically, local colonies will synchronise their flight days, allowing the ants to mingle and mate, thereby preventing inbreeding within their relatives. The males die after mating, while the pregnant females shed their wings and search for a place to start a new colony.
Plants & fungi
There are still some bluebells in flower next to the cow parsley and campion in the roadside banks. July is the peak flowering month for gorse and heather, while soggy areas are awash with the bright yellow of bog asphodel and red of carnivorous sundew. July is also a good month for orchid-spotting, with the southern marsh in flower on grassland, heath spotted orchids found on acid heathland, and common spotted orchids on chalk downland.
The common daisy is in abundance on lawns across the country this month. The yellow centre of this often overlooked flower is a collection of tiny flower heads known as florets that offer nectar and resting sites to a host of insects. The superficially similar but much larger - up to a metre (3ft) tall and with flower heads spanning 6cm (almost 2.5 in.) - oxeye daisy tend to bloom in grassy habitats around the solstice. The name “daisy” is derived from “days eye”, an allusion to the flower’s habit of closing its petals (its yellow “eye”) at night and opening it again the next morning. Another common lawn resident, the common dandelion, is also looking resplendent in the summer sun now; its name derives from the French dent de lion, “lion’s tooth”, in reference to its serrated leaves.
Fungi-wise there is some chicken of the woods and Russula to be found this month, as well as the large white caps of Agaricus macrospores, which start appearing on lawns and in pasture now. The bright yellow and slightly apricot-scented chanterelle can be found in most types of woodland and July is also a good time to check lawns, pastures and commons for the large white fruiting bodies of puffballs.