Tuesday, 18 April 2017

17th April - Noar Hill, Hampshire

Easter Monday, traditionally a day of expectation, a day when all the local tourist businesses bank on their season starting, and a day when the weather forecasters always disappoint.  This year was not much different, cold north westerly winds, maybe the odd spell of sunshine but don't be surprised if there are slow moving showers, they only left out the threat of snow, but I believe that is due in the north later in the week.  I spent the morning catching up on jobs around the house and in the garden , and by lunchtime we were enjoying some of those odd spells of sunshine.  The odd spell looked like it might last as the skies cleared, so we decided to take the short trip to Noar Hill.  This small reserve is managed by the Hampshire Wildlife Trust, the land owned by the Rotherfield farms Estate (the same estate that owns most of the land within my patch at Four Marks).

Noar Hill was once the site of medieval chalk workings but is now covered with flowering plants growing on the chalk. The ridges, banks and hollows here provide a variety of niches that allow many different species to grow, and also provides plenty of shelter for insects, and hopefully for us this afternoon, butterflies.

We parked at the bottom of the hill just on the verge, and walked up the track and into the reserve.  On our left was the chalk pit, a small quarry, but we passed this and took another path up into a hollow with Juniper bushes on either side.  The Juniper is a good place to look for Green Hairstreak, and I headed for it as Helen lagged behind.  This turned out to be a good thing as Helen found a small chequered butterfly, our first of the day, and the one I had come to see, the Duke of Burgundy.  It settled on the grass.

Small and orange and brown, like a tiny fritillary, the undersides of hind wings have rows of white spots, which you can just make out in the above picture.  Although like a fritillary it isn't actually one, it is the sole representative in the UK of a subfamily known as the "metalmarks" since some of its cousins, particularly those found in south America, have a metallic appearance. A curious characteristic of this subfamily is that the female has six fully-functional legs, whereas the male has only four, the forelegs being greatly reduced.  It is not possible to count the legs here, but as this is quite early in the season I would suspect this is a male.

It then fortunately flew a little further and settled on the grass out in the open and away from any offending stalks of grass.

Then it was off, away over the grass and past the many flowering cowslips that it likes to nectar on.

This wasn't to a walk as such, more a wander through the cowslips that covered the small hills and ridges, denser in areas where there was shelter and the aspect faced south.   Bumblebees moved from cowslip to cowslip, and Bee Flies could also be seen around the small ant hills prospecting for suitable sites to lay their eggs.

With the "Duke" found so early the pressure was off, so we turned our attention to the juniper in the hope of finding another of the specialty butterflies to be found here, the Green Hairstreak.

The sun was still out and with the shelter from the hollows, and the surrounding bushes it was very warm in the sunshine.  I stood in front of a juniper bush, and beyond it was a Holly tree.  Immediately in front of me two Green Hairstreaks appeared "dueling" which involved them spinning around each other, spiraling up into the sky in an amazing dance.  They would move across the tops of the bushes like spinning sycamore seeds before breaking away, usually at the interference of a bee or fly.  Keeping track of them against the green

foliage was difficult, and when they landed they would almost immediately be hidden as the turned the closed wings towards the sun to recharge after their exertions.

The hairstreaks were not alone, as with them were at least two Holly Blues.  Any blue butterfly at this time of year will be a Holly Blue as they are the first of the "Blue" butterflies to emerge.  Another difference is that they tend to fly quite high around the trees and bushes, while the other blues will stay low over grasslandIt is much the commonest blue to be found in parks and gardens where it tends tp congregate around Holly (in spring) and Ivy (in late summer).  While it is quite common in the south of the UK, the numbers locally do fluctuate year on year.

These fluctuations are believed to be caused by parasitism from the wasp Listrodomus nycthemerus whose sole host is the Holly Blue. The wasp lays its eggs in Holly Blue larvae, with a single adult wasp eventually emerging from the Holly Blue pupa.  So far this year I have seen several locally the first time since 2012, this would follow the predictions of a five year cycle

The two here were annoying the hairstreaks and as they passed both would chase the other off.  Fortunately one of these interactions found one Holly Blue settling quite close so I was able to get some good shots.

 With our eyes now tuned to the butterflies we were able to pick the Green hairstreaks up easily on the leaves of the holly tree.

 They would slowly turn, while settled on the holly leaves, to allow the sun to warm up their bodies, using the wings to direct the warmth.

We counted at least four Green Hairstreaks and two Holly Blues.  the hairstreaks were the most active engaging in more "duels" before settling back on the leaves, the dark background of the tree helping to accentuate the greens.

 This one away from the Holly and into the Bramble where you can see the black and white hoops on the legs like old school football socks.

The sun decided to hide behind the clouds so we wandered on, enjoying some of the views away to the north over Selborne Hanger.

Down amongst the Cowslips the Bumblebees were still busy inspecting all the flutes.

At the far end of the reserve is an open, but sheltered hollow and is usually a good spot to find more Duke of Burgundys, but there were no more showing.  We saw two mobile Orange Tips, and a single Red Admiral, but that was all.  As we walked slowly through the cowslips in the hope of disturbing something we came across some Early Purple Orchids just coming into flower.

The purple contrasting nicely with the yellow of the cowslips in the background.

A raised bank was covered in Cowslips allowing a different aspect and the chance to photograph them and ground level.

The sun was returning so we wandered back to the sheltered spot with the Holly trees where we had seen the butterflies earlier.  Sure enough with the sun back out the butterflies were active. This time though with more Holly Blues, we could now see at least five.

As we watched the butterflies we were joined by a Chiffchaff that was busy creeping through the leaves catching flies that were now out in force around all the trees in the sunshine.

As well as the Chiffchaffs there were singing Blackcaps, but these preferred to stay hidden well inside the many bushes.  The Chiffchaff though seemed determined to take our attention away from the butterflies as it chased the flies around the leaves.

Leaping up to catch them as they attempted to escape.

Time to watch one more Holly Blue before the sun left us, sitting on the holly leaf.

 Away to the west the clouds looked dark, but there was never any real threat of rain, patches of blue provided reassurance of that.  We decided though that we had seen the best on offer and started to make our way back to the car.  An old dead tree on one of the ridges stood out as if it was part of a wiley windy moor, when in fact it was on a chalk down in Hampshire.

 As we walked back to a car we passed at the entrance a bush with a Garden Warbler singing in it.  It was there last year, but this time I wasn't able to get a glimpse.

It had been a very enjoyable way to spend an Easter Monday afternoon, we had sun, some wildlife and we only had to travel 10 minutes from home to reach it.  What do these weather forecasters know. 

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