Monday, 21 May 2018

19th May - Acres Down, New Forest and Martin Down, Hampshire

There comes a point in the month of May when the focus has to change.  From about the middle of the month the migration season draws to an end, and the birds are starting to think about the serious business of breeding.  Now is the time to mop up a few of the special birds that breed locally, and it was these that had me off to the New Forest just after dawn.  The day was to be one of two halves, birds in the morning, and then off to martin Down in the afternoon, for a few more breeding birds, but mostly for the butterflies.

As I left home there was quite a thick mist about, and the temperature only a few degrees above freezing, and as I drove along the M27, the mist could easily be called thick fog.  I had arranged a meeting time at the Acres Down car park with Ian, but it seemed we were both about twenty minutes early!  From the car park we set off along the main path into the forest.  I had expected to hear Cuckoo on arrival, but the trees around us were very quiet, save for a Song Thrush and a few Blackbirds singing. 

The mist still hung in the air above the trees, but the blue sky was clearly evident beyond.  the sun was up, and slowly burning away the mist, it had all the makings of a glorious day.  We could see a Woodpigeon at the top of a tree, but next to it was a smaller Stock Dove, taking in the morning sunshine probably to warm up as it was still quite fresh, requiring me to have to wear a hat.

A little further along we stopped at hearing the song of one of the birds we were here to see, the Redstart, a New Forest specialty.  It didn't take us long to find the owner of the song, it was perched at the top of a tree on a dead branch.  With the mist still about it was not the best view, and opportunity for photographs, and this were very much a record of the bird.

It continued to sing as we tried to get a better view, but in the end it flew into the tree, and we had to move on.  A few more metres down the path and we heard another song, this time belonging to the Firecrest.

We have been coming here at this time of year for sometime now, it is almost like a pilgrimage at this time of year.  The birds stick pretty much to the same areas, and this Firecrest was no exception.

As it sang it flicked about through branches of the spruce, picking at insects and small spiders.

This was my first for the year, normally I find a few around home, but I haven't been out so much locally this year.  Firecrest numbers in the New Forest must be quite high.  A few years ago we were told around 400 pairs.  On our short walk this morning we came across at least eight individuals singing.

 Rather than clear the mist seemed to be getting a little thicker, the sun not yet having the effect we expected, and the mist clung to the trees as the sun tried to shine through.

As I said we come here every year, and every year we stop and photograph the dead tree at a crossing of paths.  This tree is so distinctive it can be seen on google maps.

Highland Water looked quite low, and a search for Grey Wagtail was not successful.  Another specialty here can be Spotted Flycatcher but we were also unable to find any.  All we were left with was the views of the forest as it woke up.

The sun slowly bringing out the colour.

We stopped for a red bird on the path in front of us, that at first I thought was a Redstart, but turned out to be a male Bullfinch.  Not a bird often seen in the open on the ground, this one seemed to be eating the flower heads of the plants by the side of the track.

Walking along the path, there would be open patches where the bracken was growing, the fronds curling open, and highlighted by the watery sunshine that was still filtering through.

We were now looking to find another forest specialty, the Wood Warbler.  We had already passed a spot where I had seen one last year, and in previous years too.  This time though we were having to walk a little further.  We reached a junction, and after some discussion we decided to turn off the main path.  This was found to be the right decision as a little further along I heard the distinctive song of the Wood Warbler.  In fact as we listened it was clear there were two present.

While there were conifers along the side of the path, a little way off the path there was a boggy area, with birch trees, and it was here that the birds were singing.  The birds were so intent on singing they were easy to approach, and while it was a little gloomy under the canopy they showed very well.

I focused on one bird, while Ian went after the other.  Once again the birds were ringed.  last year I had found out that this was part of a study where the birds were fitted with geo-locators.  That bird was ringed in Boulderwood the previous year, and had a yellow plastic ring.  This was definitely a different bird, with two orange rings on the left leg, and a traditional metal ring and what looks like a grey or white ring on the right leg.  I was just able to make out either a number nine or six on the metal ring.

The song of the Wood Warbler is very much in keeping with the feel of spring, it starts with a high pitched trill that ascends as it sings, the body of the bird appearing to shake as it delivers, then this is followed by a set of descending notes that are much lower.  For me, this and the song of the Willow Warbler is all about spring.

it would move from tree to tree, continuing to deliver the song.

The largest of the phylloscopus warblers found resident in the UK, the other two being Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler, it is a lovely shade of lime green, much brighter in colour than the other two.

I left the Wood Warbler singing away, and made my way back to the path.  The sun had now finally burnt off the mist, and was catching the spiders webs that had been built in the leaves of the Scots Pine.

These were just wound around the pine needles, but some were the more traditional webs created by an orb spider.

We walked back towards the car park, passing singing Firecrest along the way.  The Redstart was still singing in the same spot, and was now a little clearer as the mist had lifted.

With the mist gone the morning sunshine was now bringing out the richness of the green leaves in the oak and beech trees.  Where the path bends there is a small clearing and the trees looked beautiful in the morning light.

Just before the car park we stopped for another Firecrest.  Busy in song and feeding it made its way through a small Holly tree.

As it sang the orange red crest on its head would raise almost as if a further signal of its presence.

From the car park we walked up the hill to the down.  A willow Warbler was in full song in the taller trees by the side of the path.

We took the lower path towards the viewpoint.  A Cuckoo called on and off, but as we came out of the trees it was clear that it was close by, and a couple of small birds mobbing a hidden tree was giving away its location.  I scrambled up the side of the hill to see if I could get a view, only for it to fly off past me, and all I was left with was a photograph of the fly past.

it crossed the valley, and into the distant trees where it continued to call.  We walked around to the view point where we could hear the sound of Snipe drumming over the bog.  It was still early so we decided to walk around the area looking for Tree Pipit and Woodlark.  Tree Pipits were easy to find, singing from the tops of the trees and bushes,a nd this one from an ant hill.

But the Woodlarks were conspicuous by their absence, so we had to make do with Stonechats that were busy feeding young somewhere in the bracken.

Back at the viewpoint the clouds were bubbling up, and there was some movement.  However these were all Common Buzzards, and the hoped for Honey Buzzard never materialised.  A Goshawk appeared in a distant tree, and then on its usual dead branch, but was far to far away for any kind of photography. 

In the end I had to make do with a shot of the stunning view.  In the middle on the horizon is Boulderwood, and yes there is the Goshawk just in the conifers that break the horizon about an inch in from the right!

As I mentioned at the start, our intention was the New Forest in the morning, and then off to Martin Down on the western county border in the afternoon, so we left the viewpoint and walked back to the car park, and set off.  The car park along Sillens Lane was very busy when we arrived at Martin Down, but finally managed to get a spot.  After lunch we headed out, our target to start was Turtle Dove.  They were about but we had been told that they had gone quiet since mid morning.

Walking along the main track, heading south east we found a single Holly Blue butterfly and several Large and Small Whites.  As we passed Down Farm we heard the distinctive purring of a Turtle Dove.  Following the call it became clear there was more than one, and I found one bird at the top of a Hawthorn bush.

last year I had found one in pretty much the same spot, and the only way of watching the bird is to look from the north towards the bushes, it is not possible to view  it from the other side where the light would be better.

Still it was out in the open, and showing well.

Although the light makes it appear washed out.

I decided to see if it was possible to get a better view, but all that excursion yielded was a Speckled Wood in the shady glade.

As i made to return I could hear more purring away to the south eats, and there was the chance that here the light and aspect might be better.  I quickly found one again at the top of a bush.  The light was marginally better.

In my attempt to get a view in better light it flew off., but there were at least two more calling so I carried on, and found another, this time in good light.

It sat purring, and you can see the ruffled feathers on crop as it pushes out the call.

Then it extended the neck as if to look around.

It then became clear as to why the dove had become so alert, a Sparrowhawk glided overhead, being pursued by Rooks.

Leaving the Turtle Dove I found there was one view where the bird was framed by the flowers of the Hawthorn bush.

There were definitely at least six calling birds in the area, and I would not have been surprised if in fact there were more.

When I had moved for a better view, Ian had walked the other way, and we had split up.  He did though catch up with me at the final Turtle Dove view.  While separated he had found several butterflies, so we headed back down to the bushes where he had seen them.

It didn't take long to find the butterflies, first a very smart Grizzled Skipper.

And then what appeared to be a freshly emerged Small Blue, looking immaculate.

The Small Blue was a first for the year, and was quickly followed by another, the Small Heath, one day I will catch one with its wings open!

Small butterflies would pass you, and would then be intercepted by others and they would engage in duels, twisting and spiraling up.  These were either the Grizzled Skippers, or the slightly larger Dingy Skipper, one of which settled on a grass leaf.

 Again these looked like they had just emerged.

There were Common Blues about, and also Green Hairstreak, but these were only showing as they flew from the bush to attack the larger Brimstones as they flew over.  As we stood watching the bush for one to appear a small green caterpillar could be seen hanging from its silk thread.

Ian finally found a sitting Green Hairstreak, and I had my picture for the year.

 And a Common Blue settled on a buttercup, for another first of the year.

While another Grizzled Skipper showed well in the grass.

We left the bushes and climbed the hill to Bokerley Dyke.  From here the view back down across the down was amazing in the glorious sunshine.

The dyke is an earthwork that along with Grim's Ditch forms part of the Hampshire - Dorset border for many miles.  It is thought to have originated in the Bronze Age or Early Iron Age and was an important political and cultural boundary which divided areas showing markedly different patterns of land division. Once established, the dyke continued in use but was remodelled and adapted to suit the needs of later periods: these included the more defensive requirements of the later Iron Age and Roman periods.  These days the dyke is known for its Orchids,and a sheltered spot for many butterflies, hopefully the one were seeking today.

We walked the dyke, but with only several Brimstones,and the odd Common Blue about to start with.  However when we reached the point where the dyke meets the footpath we found the butterfly we were looking for, a Marsh Fritillary.  This was a freshly emerged female, but getting close was difficult as it was being monopolised by a man with tripod and camera.

We carried on along the dyke, and saw at least two more marsh Fritillaries but they would not stop.  Once again the area was dominated by Brimstones that were also not bothering to pause as they cruised the ditch.  Above a pair of Ravens appeared.

They called and flew around each other gradually rising in the sky and drifting away to the west.

If the butterflies had been disappointing then so too had the flowers.  We had hoped for some orchids, but there had not been any sign of any.  Our only hope was the spot where the grass is very short.  Sure enough Ian found the Burnt Tip Orchid, just beginning to flower.

Here was further evidence of the cold spring we have had.  Last year I visited this site on the 13th May, and these Burnt Tips were past their best.  This year a year and one week later they are just starting to flower.

There was still no sign of any more Marsh Fritillaries, but Ian did find yet another Green Hairstreak that settled on the grass and allowed quite close contact.

Another bird specialty of martin Down is the Corn Bunting.  Until now we had not heard the song, but as walked towards the old firing ranges there was one singing from a bush close to the path.

It then flew from the bush, across the dyke and on to the bank where it perched on a small branch.

Corn Buntings have declined over the years and there are only a few spots where they can be found in the county.  Martin Down is a stronghold for what was a much commoner bird in the county, its decline down to farming practice.

It was becoming clear that there were no Marsh Fritillaries in this area of the dyke, so we turned around and made our way back to where we had briefly seen them earlier.  Walking back a fence snaking across the field beyond the dyke caught my eye.

As we got nearer to the site where the fritillaries had been earlier I dropped down into the dyke and walked along the bottom.  This is not an easy walk as there are lots of rabbit holes obscured by the vegetation, and you have to take it slowly.  This approach though did pay off as I disturbed a single Cinnabar Moth, and at last a marsh Fritillary that landed and showed very well.

All the fritillaries are spectacular, but the Marsh Fritillary specially so.  the chequered patterns are much darker and clearly defined.  Ian likens them to a stained glass window, and looking at the patterns you can understand why.

With the lush green background they stood out in the sunshine.

As I walked on I disturbed more, and they would fly up, spiraling together in the typical butterfly duels, finally separating and settling down on the nearby leaves.

They had obviously been present when we came past earlier, but were now showing well, ther was easily a double figure count.

Along with the Marsh Fritillaries there were plenty of Grizzled Skippers, and the odd Dingy, but not all the orange brown insects were butterflies.  This is a Burnet Companion, a common day-flying moth.

Back to the Marsh Fritillaries, this one on Bird's Foot Trefoil.

This one a little lighter than some of the others seen.

Time had moved on, and we had achieved all we had set out for today.  It was time to head back, looking across the down the white splashes of Hawthorn bushes were dotted in amongst the grass.

As we approached the car park, Orange Tip butterflies flew past, and from the top of the hawthorn a Yellowhammer sang its familiar "Little bit of bread and no cheese"

A wonderful day all round, the weather and the wildlife.  On day like these all is well with the world, oh and we never even saw or heard the Royal Wedding!