Sunday, 28 June 2015

27th June - Bentley Wood and Stockbridge Down

A sunny morning with a little bit of cloud and a light wind.  Early summer means more butterflies, so after breakfast Helen and I set off for Bentley Wood a site I had heard about but one I had never visited.  

We arrived and parked in the car park, this is a good place to see Purple Emperor, and there were old B-AN-NANA skins on the notice board to attract them, but there was no sign of any, and it probably is just a little too early yet.

From the car park we headed back down the track and then through to a clearing.  Almost immediately we were surrounded by butterflies, Marbled Whites busy in the grass.

To start with the brown butterflies were Meadow Browns but then a darker version flew by and revealed itself to be my first Ringlet of the year.

It wasn't long before I found the butterflies I was hoping to find here.  A first for us, the Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary.  An exquisitely marked butterfly with chequered black marks on light orange, and lovely creamy white spots at the end of the wings which give it the name pearl bordered.

As quickly as one appeared it was joined by another that sat in a better position for me.

Another orange butterfly flew past, but this time it was a lot smaller and one I have seen before, this was a Large Skipper and it was attracted to the emerging bramble flowers.

It was a lovely open area here, with the main wood away in the distance, this coupled with the sun and blue sky made it a very pleasant wander amongst the grasses and butterflies.

As we walked we could hear bees and the singing crickets, every so often a cricket would launch itself in front of us, and sometimes like this Rosel's Bush-cricket land where we could see it.

A pair of Small White Butterflies were caught in a compromising position.

They would fly together the female, the white butterfly carrying the male as they flew to different flowers.

The Bracken and Bramble was a big attraction to the butterflies, and with the lovely greens created some very nice scenes.

As well as the Bracken and Brambles there was also a lot of Horsetails growing.  They grow in segments sending out spindly leaves, and where these appear the area is marked with darker covers that look like they have been tattooed onto the stem.

We made our way back to the main road, and then walked on past the car park.  The road was flanked on both sides by a wide verge that was covered in more bracken.  An orange butterfly flew past but when it stopped we could see it was a Comma and not the hoped for Fritillary.

Speckled Woods were around in good numbers where the sunshine was dappled on the bracken and grasses.

A large butterfly high in the trees stopped us, but it turned out to be a Red Admiral.

Where we could see through the trees the sunshine filtering through the branches was producing a silvery shimmering look to the bracken growing under the trees.

After realising we had missed the turn, and then realising I hadn't put the sat nav away we walked back to the car park.  Just before we reached it a large orange butterfly appeared once again, but this time it was a Silver-washed Fritillary, but as is often the case with newly emerged large butterflies it would not settle.  We stood and watched it fly around, and around and then finally away over the trees and out of sight.

Having sorted everything out and checked again for the Emperor we set off back down the trail, and then along the right turn.  On the path in front of us was a Small Tortoiseshell.

We were looking to find a spot for White-letter Hairstreak, but to start with we were looking in completely the wrong place.  There was though more Ringlets and Meadow Browns, and Helen saw a Roe Deer with kids.  When we realised that we were in the wrong place we made our way back, but unfortunately there was nothing showing.  The Elms though did look a little worse for wear.

We continued our walk along the track, and stopped a an Ash tree that seemed to be full of Speckled Woods, there was at least fifty of them all displaying and up to no good.

The path wound around through the wood and eventually back onto the main path.  As we passed one of the information signs another Silver-washed Fritillary appeared, at one popint I thought it was going to settle on its picture on the sign, but it just kept going and was soon out of sight.

We made our way back towards the car park, but stopped briefly to visit a small pond.  Here there were several Damselflies about.  These large Red Damselflies were in the process of looking for a suitable site to lay eggs.  Here the male is having to flap its wings to keep the female upright.

While this pair found something to hang on to while they got the job done!

A male Broad-bodied Chaser was circling the pond, pausing on the same stem every so often.

While under my feet Azure Damselflies were searching for a mate.

Another orange butterfly set the heart racing again, but when it settled we could see it was another Comma.

We walked back to the path, and back to the car.  An interesting spot with lots of potential, hopefully we can be back for the Emperors late in the month.

From Bentley we made our way back, but decided to stop at Stockbridge Down.  Last week I missed out on Dark Green Fritillary, but there had been reports of them here in the week.

We crossed from the car park and walked along the bottom of the Down.  There were a few flowers about, predominantly Knapweed, but the dominant plant was the grasses.  As was to be expected the grass was busy with Marbled Whites, and they would seek out the Knapweed flowers.

More Marbled Whites passed us along with Meadow Browns, Ringlets and Large Skippers, then from nowhere an orange butterfly that was flying strongly into the wind.  It was a Dark Green Fritillary.

Unfortunately it didn't stay long, and did not show the lovely green wash on the underneath of the rear wings, but it was still lovely to see this butterfly.

We carried on, and at least three more flew past us, not stopping though.  We also saw a blue butterfly that from size and colour was probably a Common Blue.  There were also Small Skippers about that teased me and avoided the camera.

Where the Knapweed was in good number so were the Marbled Whites, settling on the flower heads.

The path takes you around the boundary of the reserve through a patch of Hawthorn and Blackthorn, and even some small Elm trees.  In one of these spots I saw my first Gatekeeper of the year, and another late Brimstone.

The path heads up hill to a lovely vantage point that has lovely views looking back towards the south.

Having reached the top the path winds its way down, and back towards the car park.  Looking north one of the fields in the distance was blood red from poppies, the first full field of them we have seen this year.

We made our way back to the car with nothing new seen as we walked down the hill.  The mid June doldrums are beginning to come to an end, and hopefully the summer butterflies will be about in some good numbers soon.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

21st June - Magdalen Hill, Hampshire

After yesterdays walk around Martin Down I took the chance to take Helen over to Magdalen Hill.  When I an and I visited there last week I thought it was somewhere she would enjoy, so after brunch with the minions we headed out that way.

There was more sun about today than on Saturday, but there was also a fresher breeze which might  be a problem for some of the butterflies.  We parked in a car park that Ian and I had missed last week, and walked up the hill to the reserve.  As we came out onto the down it was breezy but immediately we came across Marbled Whites, some drifted past us while a few sat in the shelter of the bushes on the leaves.

A walk through the field of wild flowers was lovely in terms of colour and the sight of Bumble and Carder Bees on the Sain Foil, but the wind kept all but the hardy Meadow Browns away.  We walked around to the chalk pit where the shelter turned up a pristine Small Tortoiseshell on the chalk.

At the end of the pit in even greater shelter there were several Small Blues flying.  It never ceases to amaze me at the tenacity of these little butterflies, as a Tortoiseshell flew over they were prepared to take them on flying up to meet them and give chase.

Last week we had seen a few Garden Chaffers but the photographs were not very good.  There was still quite a few about on the parsley flowers.  Smaller than the chafers or May Bugs I have caught in the moth trap, these insects in the larval form can completely destroy a garden lawn as they feed on the roots.  Hence their turning up here where there are lots of grass roots to sustain them.

The chalk pit also turned up a first for the year a Small Skipper

Coming out into the open gives you a wonderful view looking south across fields.  A close look revealed that the poppies flowering in the field has increased from last week.

We headed down the hill to the sheltered spots at the bottom of the south side of the down.  we had seen many Marbled Whites by now, but came across this one that once again had only just emerged and was going through the process of drying the wings.  It was crawling about on the ground between the grass flapping its wings and looking for a suitable grass stem to climb.

With the wind it was difficult to move up the stem, so we gently gave it some assistance.  You could feel the dampness of the butterfly as it crawled over out hands. Finally it managed to find a stem it was happy to climb, and we watched as it made its way up, and then stopped to move about in the breeze

Over the last few days I have seen many Meadow Browns, and already I am beginning to go "only a Meadow Brown", the Woodpigeon of the butterfly world!  So feeling guilty I stopped and photographed one that was showing well.

Yesterday there were orchids everywhere on the down grassland.  Similar conditions here on Magdalen Hill, but there were very few orchids.  We only found this Pyramidal Orchid in amongst the grass and flowers,

We walked the sheltered spots in the hope of finding Brown Argus, but it was just that a hope, we are now right on the extreme range of its flying time, and unfortunately we couldn't find any at all.

The grasses and flowers tough looked lovely as we made our way to the far end of the reserve.

As we reached the far end of the reserve it became more woodland and sheltered.  We found a lesser Whitethroat singing in the hawthorn bushes along with the more commoner Whitethroat.

From a distance I could see a brown orange stem, and as I got closer I thought it was an orchid, maybe a Bird's Nest Orchid.  However when I got back and researched this I found that it is in fact a Knapweed Broomrape.

Similar to the Bird's Nest Orchid it is a parasitic plant, but not on beech like the orchid but on Greater Knapweed, and occasionally it uses members of the Daisy and Ranunculaceae Buttercup families as its hosts, all flowers that can be found here in great numbers.

There is a similarity with the Bird’s-nest Orchid, the Orchid flower heads having a two lobed lip while the Broomrape has three lobed lips.

It grows on short and dry grassland, in thickets and meadows all with alkaline soils and blooms from the beginning of June to the end of July.

We made our way up to the top of the down once more, and were rewarded with more spectacular views across the fields to the south.

One surprise was looking down on to a football field.  At this time of year you can get collections of non-breeding gulls inland on open fields.  But what I didn't expect was to find several Mediterranean Gulls in the field.  This is definitely a record shot but the characteristic black hood is visible on an few and they also appear all white.  There had been a few records of small flocks around Cheriton in the last few weeks so I would think they have hung around.

we walked back towards the middle of the down, pausing again to admire the view this time though looking north.

From here we started to walk back down the hill.  here bushes provided shelter from the wind, and it warmed up in the sunshine.  With the warmth the insects became more active.

As well as the butterflies there were a few day flying moths.  Along with the common Grass Rivulets that would shoot out of the grass as you walked by there were Burnet Companions

And this Four Spotted Moth

There were plenty of Common Blues and large Skippers, and every sop often a Small Skipper that was examined closely to see if there were any black clubs on the end of the antennae that would change the identification.

With there being so many Burnet companions there had to be a few Burnet moths.  There were several Cinabars but I only found one Five Spot Burnet.

Right atthe bottom of the hill I was chasing a Blue butterfly that may have been an Adonis when I noticed a duller on settled on a stem.  A closer look revealed the dull butterfly to be a Green Hairstreak, a big surprise as I thought they were now past their season.

From the bottom of the hill we made our way back to the car, and pondered on why we had never come here before.  Many times we have driven past, not realising what a beautiful spot this is, and while their is the sound of traffic as you walk around the down, as Helen said it makes it special because as those cars zip by they don't know you are there and that you can see this lovely place.

Monday, 22 June 2015

20th June - Martin Down NNR, Hampshire

We had hoped to visit Martin Down last week but the weather changed our minds.  This week though despite an indifferent forecast Ian and I decided to go ahead and meet there regardless.  As I drove through Winchester in quite a heavy rain shower I was a little concerned, but from there it remained dry if overcast.

On arrival in the car park It seemed like the it was brightening, temperature wise it was quite pleasant, and the wind was light.  Ian had arrived earlier and had already heard Turtle Doves calling from the Hawthorn bushes along a track leading from the car park.

We set off down the track, and immediately heard the purr of a Turtle Dove ahead of us.  A little further on we were able to pick out the dove at the top of the bush.

In an effort to get closer the bird flushed from the bush and flew across in front of us.

Settling in an Ash tree where it continued to call.  The name ‘turtle dove’ is not a reference to the tortoiseshell patterning on their plumage, but is a corruption of the French word tourterelle. This is an onomatopoeic description of the song, which is indeed a ‘turrrr turrrr’ sound.

Another bird was also calling beyond this one, and also away to the right.  In total there were definitely four birds present, maybe more.

Turtle doves are in trouble; their population is currently halving in number every six years. They have suffered a 95% UK population decline since 1970 and a 74% decline across Europe since 1980. A bird that was once common across much of England is now retreating year after year into an ever shrinking patch of East Anglia and the South East of England.  At this current rate of change, it is calculated that complete UK extinction as a breeding species will be a real possibility.

Turtle doves form strong pair bonds that may last for years.  Breeding success is currently seen as very low, and the number of breeding attempts per pair halved between the 1960s and the late 1990s: this reduction in reproductive output is sufficient to explain the population decline of UK breeding turtle doves. The problem is that, as yet, we do not know exactly why this is happening.  They feed mainly on the seeds and fruits of weeds and cereals, found mostly on the ground, and it is thought that the availability of this food is not timing with the breeding attempts

Even outside the breeding season, there are serious problems. This is the only migratory dove species in Europe, and each year they will make the long journey to and from their wintering grounds in Africa, around the Sahel desert. On the way, many birds will fly over the Mediterranean. In this area, and especially in Malta, there is a long tradition of shooting them in spring, on their way back to their breeding grounds. 

We walked further around through the hawthorn bushes and found another pair calling again from the top of the trees.

In between purrs the dove was preening, and went through some strange positions.

We decided to leave once the bird looked like it was settled and was not going anywhere.

We walked through the grass heading towards Bockerly Ditch, a large dyke that snakes around the western edge of the down.  As we walked we disturbed many day flying moths, mainly Grass Rivulets but every so often there was a darker brown moth that turned out to be a Burnet Companion.  One of the few day-flying moths, this species gets its English name from the fact that it is often found in company with the Burnet moths that fly at the same time.

There were plenty of Meadow Browns about, normally the first flying butterflies of the day, but then we came across the first Small Heath.  Always a teasing butterfly, a beautiful orange in flight then when it settles the wings are snapped shut.

As we walked the air was full of the song of the skylarks and the Yellowhammers but every so often there was a jangly song coming from the tops of the isolated bushes.  The Corn Bunting yet another open grassland specialist that is severely declining here in the UK.

We could hear at least two birds singing in the area.  Corn Buntings decreased in the seventies and eighties this decline has abated recently but the trend is still down with birds not having second broods that reduces the productivity.

The decline of the corn bunting was first thought to be due to reduced over-winter survival, possibly caused by the decreased availability of stubble fields. However, many of the invertebrates fed to nestling corn buntings, such as caterpillars (of butterflies, moths and sawflies), grasshoppers, harvest-men and ground beetles, have declined in abundance on farmland. This has led to the hypothesis that a general reduction in food availability could have led to a drop in breeding success.

As we walked on we disturbed some of the insects that the Corn Bunting rely on, a Silver Y moth.

And a Spotted Cranefly.

As we approached the ditch we could see a white spike close to the ditch, this was a greater Butterfly Orchid.  The spike was about 50 cm high and covered with creamy white flowers.

The ditch is an excellent site for Orchids, the commonest being the Common Spotted Orchid.

There are many variants in colour and size of this pretty flower all over the grass.  But if you look there are also some slightly different orchid in with them.  Narrower, and with no spots on the petals and long hanging sepals this is the Fragrant Orchid.

The ditch provides plenty of cover and shelter from the wind.  It is thought that it was built as a boundary to an Iron Age fort, and then fortified in the 5th and 6th century AD against the invading Saxons.  We passed many more orchids, but one small bright red orchid caught the eye.

This one is the Burnt or Burnt-tip Orchid.  They are just at the end of their flowering season, and is one of the rarest orchids found here on Martin Down.

We were then treated to the first Marbled White of the year as it flew past us, then I found one on the grass, and as we watched it was clear this was a freshly emerged butterfly, in immaculate condition, and we watched as it slowly climbed a stem of grass as it struggled to get its wings to work.

Gradually it gained control them, spinning around on the grass stem.

Having reached a height above the majority of the grass it flapped, and flew off.  A truly beautiful butterfly.

It was still overcast, but you could feel the radiation of the sun was getting through the cloud, and it was not cold.  Looking North across the grassland was quite spectacular.

And low down the milky white Dropwort dominated the grasses.

In places where hawthorn bushes grew in the middle of the grassland it reminded me of Acacia trees I had seen when looking across the Masai Mara Savannah.  But all we flushed was a pair of Grey Partridges

We came across another small white moth, this time a Grass Veneer.

Then a few more butterflies, the first Common Blue.

The female, slightly darker

And a Small Tortoiseshell, again immaculate probably freshly emerged.

Small insects were everywhere, this thick thighed beetle is known as a False Oil Beetle.  

We reached Grimms Ditch where we came across a group photographing orchids and butterflies.  We were shown this Common Twayblade,  its flower spike carries a very loose cluster of yellow-green flowers that are not as showy as some of the other, more exotic-looking orchids.

And then a true prize, a Bee Orchid.  Only one, and with only a few petals but a lovely looking plant with such exquisite flower markings.

To attract the pollinating bees, the plant has evolved bee-like flowers; drawing them in with the promise of love, the bees are naturally attracted to the flowers and fly in to attempt a mating. As they land on the velvet-textured lip of the flower, the pollen is transferred and the poor bee is left frustrated. Sadly, the right species of bee doesn't occur in the UK, so Bee Orchids are self-pollinated here.

As we sat looking at the Bee Orchid a butterfly flew in, it was a blue, but the colour was electric.  As it settled it closed its wings but this allowed the identification of an Adonis Blue.

Then it flew, and settled with the wings open showing the electric blue colour of the upper wings.

We headed on alongside the ditch and all around there was the song of Skylarks both from the bushes.

And in the air.

Ahead of us the field and sky was full of Rooks and jackdaws, the numbers swelled by the youngsters begging to be fed all the time.

At a sheltered spot we found our one and only Small Blue of the day.

Plus a Large Skipper.

And a Grass Wave Moth, yet another day flying species.

On one of the bushes close to the path we found a web of silk and lots of caterpillars.  It was a similar web to the Gypsy Moth caterpillars I had seen in Pembrokeshire, but these were different caterpillars.  These were Eggar moth caterpillars the adult males are a brown moth with feathery antennae and they fly by day in a zig-zag fashion, particularly in afternoon sunshine from July to August.  

We then had our real serious rain shower, after taking cover for awhile around the old firing ranges we walked on and crossed the road to the northern part of the reserve.  Rather than go into the wood we walked around the outside on the old Roman Road, and in doing so were rewarded with not one but two Hobbys zipping low across the tall grass.  The first took me by surprise and there was no time for the camera.  The second was also a surprise but I did get a record (no prizes for this one!)

A Corn Bunting was calling from a wire crossing the field..  I slowly walked as close as I could get to it.

It was joined on one of the pylons by a bleating Buzzard.

A little further on a Tree Pipit appeared from the woods and parachuted over the field to land on the top of one of the bushes.

The path then turned back towards the A354, and we walked through an area of long grass where Cinnabar and Burnet Moths were disturbed at almost every step.

The Cinnabar has a red stripe down the side of the wing, while the Burnet has visible spots on the dark almost greenish wings.  This is a Five Spot Burnet.

We were now walking on the eastern side of the reserve and there was an area of grazed field where several Lapwing could be seen with chicks.  From the hedgerow there were at least three of four Corn Buntings singing.  In total we counted at least eight singing birds.  This one was in song, throwing the head back with a wide mouth to deliver the jingly jangly song.

Back at the car we decided to have one more walk around.  The dark clouds were edging away and the sun was coming out warming things up once again.  As we set off through the grass following one of the cut trails looking back the view was quite wonderful.

With the sun coming out from behind the clouds it cast different light on the distant fields of wheat contrasting the trees that grow around the fields.

The song of the skylark can be deceptive, you scour the sky looking for the bird that is delivering the notes and struggle to find it.  Today though they were just as happy to sing from the bushes, saving the energy involved in those aerobatics.

In our first walk I had failed to photograph the Pyramidal Orchid, another of the commoner species found on the down.  This was corrected as we walked around again, this was our seventh orchid species of the day.

We stopped again to look at the Bee Orchid, and as we sat there a grey butterfly flew in and settled close by.  It was a Dingy Skipper, but immediately flew off, and evaded the camera.  A little further on we found a male Brimstone and disturbed some small black moths, they would fly around dropping into the shade, but finally I managed to photograph one, and identify it as a Chimney Sweeper.

That other familiar bird of open farm and grass land the Yellowhammer had avoided the camera all day, but finally a male appeared on a bush in front of us as we walked back to the car.

With the cars in sight we were winding down after a great day, but there was to be one final attraction.  A grey bird appeared from the bushes in front of us and flew low over the grass.  It raised a few alarm calls but not because it was a falcon, this was a Cuckoo.  We watched it fly up into a bush, and then a little later it re-appeared on another bush, much to the annoyance of two male Yellowhammers.  It was though quite distant.

It then seemed to go into the tree, and then appear at the far right end of the bush.

A female it may have been looking to lay eggs, but then it was gone and not seen again as we walked back.

The end to a wonderful day in a truly magical place.  The weather had been kind to us, but I think any weather here would provide a dramatic scene.  No Dark Green Fritillaries but then we may have been a little too early for them, never mind there will be other days.  That said, ten species of butterfly, several moths, seven species of orchids and some quality birds in the form of Turtle Dove, Corn Bunting, Hobby and Cuckoo does not a bad make!