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!