The native and the more exotic…

This morning I was getting ready for our online Young Naturalists session when I spotted a Large skipper by the pond, the first one I’ve seen this year. It stayed there for some time although I couldn’t see it later on in the day, despite a bit of looking.

They have a pretty faint chequered pattern on the wings, so are easy to tell apart from the similar Small and Essex skippers which fly at the same time.

Large skipper

Large skipper

We have just had our Centre wifi improved enabling us to teach online whilst outside, which is great for our fortnightly Young Naturalists sessions and, although too late for this term, will also allow us to offer virtual sessions to schools as things slowly return to some kind of normal in the autumn.

I tested it out today, running our fortnightly session from the shelter behind the Centre, emptying the moth trap with the group (sadly there weren’t many moths) and showing them the evidence of leaf-cutter bees in the bug hotel.

outdoor classroom

All set up for today’s virtual Young Naturalists session

Whilst outside I also spotted a male blackbird sunbathing on the top of the bug hotel, and managed to take a couple of distant photos:

Blackbird

Blackbird 2

I then watched it bathing in the pond, but wasn’t quite in the right place to get a photo.

For our Young Naturalists session today we were joined by Owain Masters, Public Engagement and Education Officer for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust’s Snakes in the Heather project. The project aims to raise public awareness of the conservation needs of our native reptiles andFinal heathland heritage, helping to promote a better understanding that will safeguard their future. In particular it focuses on the conservation of the smooth snake, Britain’s rarest reptile.

Although not present on the reserve, we are lucky to have them locally on the sandy heaths of Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey.

Owain shared his passion for snakes with the group, talked about the three species native to the UK and tested the group with a fun quiz, ‘snake or fake’, to see what information they had picked up whilst he had been talking. He had been due to join us onsite for a session so it was great he could join us online and hopefully we will be able to reschedule his site visit at some point in the future.

Given our session had a reptile theme, the group’s show and tell was also distinctly reptilian, with Thomas and Harry sharing photos of their pet geckos. Slightly more exotic than our native snakes! Apologies to Alex’s mum… a second gecko may now be on the cards…

The group also shared a few native reptile encounters, with Harry, Thomas and Alex talking about their adder encounters, Cameron and Torey sharing a photo their dad had taken of a grass snake outside the front of Ivy South Hide and Will sharing a photo of a common lizard:

Will also talked about seeing osprey at Fishlake Meadows and watching a collared dove from his bedroom window that was nesting in his garden. He had also seen a large white butterfly, red admiral, scarlet tiger moth and female stag beetle.

Finally, Cameron shared some really lovely landscape photos from a walk around Whitsbury, near Fordingbridge:

Next time we will be chatting a bit more about reptiles and looking at all six species naive to the UK and have our usual rummage through the light trap. It will be interesting to see what wildlife they have all encountered between now and then.

After the session was over I had another look by the pond for the large skipper but had to content myself with this lovely skipper instead, I think a small skipper rather than an Essex skipper.

Small skipper

Small skipper

Finally, towards the end of the day a very kind visitor pointed out a crab spider that was lurking in amongst the buddleia flowers by the pond. After a bit of searching, I think its a goldenrod or flower crab spider. Its pale colouring and purple stripes did help it blend in really well with the flowers, I have no idea how they spotted it!

Goldenrod or flower crab spider Misumena vatia

Goldenrod or flower crab spider, Misumena vatia

Our Young Naturalists group is kindly supported by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

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Young Naturalists catch up

On Sunday we held our first online Young Naturalists meeting using Zoom. It was a great success with eleven young people joining us for two hours. We chatted about what everyone had been up to over the last couple of months, including their wildlife highlights and where they had been on their daily walks, how they had been finding homeschooling and projects they had been doing at home – a lot of lockdown ponds have been created which is lovely to hear!

We were joined by volunteer Nigel who pond dipped his garden pond and shared his catch with the group, shared some of the moths caught in his light trap the night before and talked about some of the butterflies out on the wing at present, using photos to help.

We also used the digital microscope to take a closer look at the moths caught overnight at Blashford. Sadly the trap included the remains of a privet hawk-moth, indicating a bird had managed to get in and have a feast, something that does unfortunately happen on occasion. An easy meal for the bird, not so good for the moths! We had a closer look at what had been left behind, its head and one wing. The head was still wriggling which was slightly disconcerting! By chance, Alex and Thomas who had also run their moth trap at home the night before had caught a privet hawk-moth too, which hadn’t fallen foul of an intruder in the trap, and we were able to have a look at a live one.

We had some great moths in the trap and looked up a couple we didn’t know online using the Hants Moths Flying Tonight webpage.

We also had a closer look at some dragonfly exuvia I had collected from around the pond:

Dragonfly exuvia

Dragonfly exuvia

The larger exuvia is from a emperor dragonfly whilst the smaller one is from a downy emerald. These exuvia are both larger and different in shape to the damselfly one I shared yesterday.

It was great to be able to catch up with the group and we are planning on running sessions fortnightly over the next couple of months. We will be making the most of the moth trap, looking at some of Blashford’s pond and river creatures using the digital microscope, using photos to improve insect identification, create a few quizzes to keep us going and continue to share wildlife sightings and experiences.

When I returned from furlough I got in touch with the group to see what they had all been up to and whether they had any wildlife highlights from their time in lockdown. I hadn’t got round to sharing them sooner, so these are there replies, hopefully a couple more will follow:

Kiera – from an email on the 20th May

Last week we went for a walk at Kings Hat near Beaulieu and we stumbled upon this lizard running through the grass. It’s the first one I have seen in the wild!

lizard

Common lizard by Keira

Amber – from an email on the 18th May

I have been lucky enough to have taken some great nature photos during lockdown. We have been very careful to only walk from home on our dog walks. I have a dachshund called Hagrid.

We’ve recently discovered lots of great walks around Hightown Lakes in Ringwood, some longer than others. In March we came across a mummy duck with absolutely loads of ducklings. Then just last week, we were on our way to the lakes and saw the most wonderful thing, a field of Canada geese, and about 30 gosling’s!! I have never seen so many, they were impossible to count.

The best picture I managed to take was a chicken having a paddle, I didn’t know chickens liked water.

Will A – from an email on 20th May

My dad has built a veggie planter in the front garden and another planter with a wildlife pond and seating area in the back garden. I enjoyed helping build the wildlife pond and have included some pictures of the garden.

Since we only live a ten minute walk away from Stanpit Marsh we have made an effort to get out for a walk most days and I am appreciating things a lot more. I have seen Stanpit spring into life since the end of February. I feel very lucky to have this on my doorstep especially when compared to others. I have also heard from a neighbour that seals have been seen on the beach at Highcliffe.

I’m looking forward to catching up with them again in a couple of weeks to see what else they have been up to.

Our Young Naturalists group is kindly sponsored by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

30 Days Wild – Day 29: A Grave Day

Luckily not as bad as it sounds, in fact actually a “Jolly”. Each year the volunteer team have a day out at Kitt’s Grave, it is part of the Martin Down National Nature Reserve but belongs to the Wildlife Trust. Although it is managed by Natural England we usually go up top do a couple of tasks each winter, although we did not make it last season. We have been assisting in the clearance of scrub to open up glades and ultimately restore areas of chalk grassland. As we have been doing this for some years it is interesting to see how the habitat has been developing, I am pleased to say that the answer is well so far.

Our visits are usually a great chance to see lots of butterflies, but as we left the car park this morning we were wondering if we would see any at all. Luckily we had a good start in other ways, with a turtle dove purring away in the thorns. Crossing the road to Kitt’s Grave we heard a lesser whitethroat and heard and saw yellowhammer and corn bunting. Then a surprise, a ringlet, then more and marbled white, small skipper, meadow brown, small heath and even dark green fritillary. Although it was overcast it was warm enough for insects to be active, but not so warm that they were too flighty, this allowed a great chance to get really good views as they basked in an attempt to get warm.

ringlet

basking ringlet

Some of the butterflies were warm enough to get on with life.

ringlets

ringlet pair mating

The marbled white were especially numerous and lots of the females were egg-laying.

marbled white

marbled white male basking

I noticed one small skipper below a pyramidal orchid flower spike, at first I thought it was sheltering, but it did not look right, then I realised that it was actually in the jaws of a crab spider, ambushed as it was trying to get warm, or maybe feeding. Luckily not all of them had fallen victim to predators.

small skipper

small skipper on scabious

We also saw silver-washed fritillary, but the most surprising butterfly seen was a purple hairstreak, picked up off the path, but which flew off before a picture could be taken. Although we never saw the sun we did see a common lizard, sitting out in the hope of catching a few rays. As we always do and despite unpromising conditions we had a great time and saw a lot of wildlife. Martin Down is a magical place to go and a reminder of what large parts of the southern chalk must once have been like.

 

A Trip To Kitt’s

At last the weather has turned to spring and, although I should perhaps have been working in my garden, I took the opportunity to go up to Kitt’s Grave. I have never really had a look round there at this time of year, like most people I go up to Martin Down in the summer to see the butterflies. The opening up of the habitat on Kitt’s grave has continued this winter and it is beginning to look more like grassland with scrub rather than scrubland with trees.Kitt's Grave showing clearance work

The area above should develop into grassland over the next couple of seasons and if we are able to graze it as well it should stay that way, providing a lot more habitat for the plants and insects the site is so famous for. There will still be large blocks of dense scrub, valuable as shelter and for nesting turtle dove and other birds.

We did not see a lot of wildlife, several bullfinch were nice and the sun had brought out a few common lizard.

common lizard

We also found a blood-nosed beetle, I confess that until I looked it up when I got home I had not appreciated that these can be found as adults at any time of the year.bloody-nosed beetle

They the largest species of a group known as “Leaf-beetles” and eat bedstraws growing in open habitats, so it is easy to see why downland is a favourite area to find them in. They have particularly wonderful feet and a very deliberate way of walking. The elytra are fused along the midline so unlike most beetles they cannot fly. The elytra are the two halves of the “back” and are actually modified fore-wings, the wings other beetles use to fly with are the other of their two pairs.

Pictures from the Purple Patch

It’s often been said, ( although, probably only  by me!) that a lot of the conservation work at Blashford is  ‘ a bit like gardening, but on an industrial scale‘ .  Today I was doing what, to me,  is one of the more pleasant gardening tasks of dead heading the buddleia.   We don’t have much buddleia left on the reserve, it’s a terribly invasive non-native plant and as such doesn’t really belong here so it’s largely being eradicated from the more wild parts of the reserve, with only one plant left near the Centre.  It is, however, a great nectar source for insects and removing the seed heads encourages more flower to form.  So what could be finer on a pleasantly warm day than a little light pruning whilst seeped in a heady fragrance and being constantly visited by comma, small tortoiseshell, green-veined white, silver-washed fritillary and peacock butterflies and also this smart red admiral.

 

Red Admiral

Red Admiral

The rich lilac/purple flowers of the buddleia are mirrored by many other flowers at the moment – indeed the reserve is going through a ‘purple patch; as evidenced by the flower-heads of creeping thistle, teasel and marjoram

creeping thistle

creeping thistle

 

Teasel

Teasel

 

Marjoram

Marjoram

All of which were within about four metres of the buddleia.

In fact I didn’t really need to go more than a few paces to see …

Green-veined white butterflies on marjoram

Green-veined white butterflies on marjoram

Southern hawker dragonfly

Southern hawker dragonfly

Common Lizard playing 'peek-a-boo' on fencing around the pond

Common Lizard playing ‘peek-a-boo’ on fencing around the pond

and perhaps most unexpected this small furry mammal taking advantage of  the largess provided by some spikes of seeds ( sorrel I think) close by the pick-nick benches

mouse or vole

mouse?

After my embarrassing faux-pas over the bee/hoverfly last week ( thanks to those who put me right) I’m reluctant to put a name to this  —  I just know there are really knowledgeable folks out there who can tell us.

And a final flourish was this rather posey small tortoiseshell who insisted on sharing a pick-nick bench with me.

Small tortoiseshell

Small tortoiseshell

As I say all this from, almost, a single position – can’t be bad…