30 Days Wild – Day 4: A Day for Orchids

After working in the morning with the Sunday volunteer team path trimming, I got out on site for an hour or so in the afternoon. This is peak orchid flowering time, we don’t get many at Blashford and this year’s dry spring seems to have done them no favours, however I did see four species. First was a small group of bee orchid near the Goosander hide.

bee orchid

bee orchid flower

The packet of pollen, known as pollinia can be seen hanging down in the centre, there would have been two, so one has probably been carried away by a visiting insect.

I also found single specimens of common spotted orchid

common spotted orchid

common spotted orchid

and also a southern marsh orchid.

marsh orchid

southern marsh orchid

I also came across a common twayblade, but it was too dark for a picture.

The sunshine was a bit on and off, even with a brief shower at one point, but in the sunnier periods there were quite good numbers of insects out and about. My best picture of an insect today was of a hoverfly Xylota sylvarum, a very fine species with a golden-haired tip to the abdomen.

Xylota sylvarum

Xylota sylvarum, doing a bit of wing cleaning.

My last thing to do for the day was to clean out and feed the puss moth caterpillars, hatched from some eggs laid by a female I caught in the trap. Rearing caterpillars is one of those things I enjoy doing each year, the species vary according to what we come across, in recent years we have reared lime hawk-moth, eyed hawk-moth, iron prominent and alder moth amongst others.

puss moth young caterpillar

A young puss moth caterpillar, they get very impressive when they are fully grown.

 

 

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Chalk downland extravaganza!

On Sunday twelve Young Naturalists joined us for a trip to Martin Down National Nature Reserve, one of the largest areas of uninterrupted chalk downland in Britain. Jointly owned and managed by Natural England and Hampshire Country Council, the reserve is home to a fantastic variety of plants and animals associated with chalk downland and scrub habitats.

Regular readers of the blog will know that part of Martin Down National Nature Reserve, Kitts Grave, belongs to Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. This site is managed as part of the wider reserve by Natural England, but our volunteers do a couple of tasks there each winter – we did not visit this part of the reserve so as to avoid a busy road crossing and the car park height barrier, parking instead at the end of Sillens Lane and exploring the Down between here and the Second World War rifle range.

Martin Down resized

Martin Down

The weather was in our favour and we got off to a great start, spotting brown hare in a field close to where we had parked the minibus. We headed off in the direction of the rifle range, keeping our eyes peeled for butterflies and listening out for the distinctive purring of turtle dove. This stretch kept us busy with our cameras and binoculars as we saw yellowhammer, skylark, red-legged partridge, jackdaw and chiff chaff.

The butterflies also didn’t disappoint, with specked wood, common blue and large skipper settling close by for photos. We also spotted a red and black froghopper and a fabulous caterpillar, later identified as that of a drinker moth.

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As we left the edge of the tree line and headed into more open downland, we saw small blue, orange-tip, small heath, brimstone, large white and Adonis blue butterflies, along with a cinnabar moth. We also spotted a number of stunning golden bloomed grey longhorn beetles, with their fantastic long and stripy antennae.

The butterfly highlight of the day though was possibly this beautiful Marsh fritillary, which was in no hurry to fly away:

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Marsh fritillary

Geoff took a photo of this caterpillar, which we think is that of a six-spot burnet moth.

Six-spot Burnet caterpillar by Geoff Knott

Six-spot burnet moth caterpillar by Geoff Knott

We also stumbled across lots of tent caterpillars, so grouped because of their ability to build conspicuous silk tents in the branches of host trees. They are sociable, with many grouping together in one spot and we believe most of those we saw are larvae of the small eggar moth – the second photo may show a different species or an older instar, I’m not completely sure!

We also scoured the tops of small trees and bushes in the hope of spotting a Corn bunting amongst all the signing skylarks, a bird I’d been hoping to see! We were in luck, watching one for some time before it flew off to perch further away on another bush.

Corn bunting by Nigel Owen

Corn bunting by Nigel Owen

We paused for lunch at the rifle range, an excellent spot as it turned out as whilst sat on the top we watched a female cuckoo fly from bush to bush below us, sitting on the top of one for a few moments before flying back into the scrub and out of sight.

We then followed the Neolithic Bokerley Ditch which snakes along the western edge of Martin Down, defining the Dorset and Hampshire border. Possibly built as a boundary in the Iron Age, it was fortified in the 5th or 6th centuries AD against invading Saxons. We were now in search of orchids, spotting plenty of common spotted orchids and finding the beautiful burnt tip orchids.

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Burnt tip orchids by David Felstead

Orchid hunting resized

Orchid hunting

The other wild flowers did not disappoint either and we identified yellow rattle, kidney vetch, horseshoe vetch, meadowsweet and wild or yellow mignonette amongst others. We also saw and heard stonechat, more yellowhammer, a roe doe and two brown argus butterflies.

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We decided we had just enough energy and time left for one last slope in the sunshine so headed uphill, in search of a greater butterfly orchid. At the top of the slope we found these along with fragrant orchid and also spotted a five spot burnet moth.

Butterfly orchid resized

Greater butterfly orchid

Fragrant orchid resized

Fragrant orchid

Five spot burnet resized

Five spot burnet

It was then time to head back to the minibus before the showers started and we almost made it! We had unfortunately run out of time to linger for long by any of the scrub for the sound of turtle doves and the rain shower although very refreshing began to get heavier, but Geoff who was walking at the back of the group did manage to pick out their distinctive call.

We had a brilliant day, it was definitely hotter and sunnier than we had been expecting which bought out a great variety of butterflies including Adonis blue, brown argus and the beautiful marsh fritillary. We also had great views of brown hare, corn bunting, yellowhammer and cuckoo. Martin Down is a brilliant site for downland species and definitely worth a visit on a sunny day!

Back at Blashford, the two oystercatcher chicks were again showing nicely in front of Tern Hide with both adult birds also present and continuing to be very attentive. The light trap has been revealing more moth species now the nights are warmer, with highlights on Sunday including a chocolate-tip (sadly no photo as my camera seems to have momentarily malfunctioned!) and scorched wing and yesterday we had lots of light emeralds and a lovely privet hawk-moth.

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Our Young Naturalists group is supported by the Cameron Bespolka Trust. Thank you to volunteers Nigel, Geoff, Emily, Kate and Roma for your help on Sunday!

30 Days Wild – Day 15

Up hideously early and out to do a breeding bird survey, luckily the weather was fine, although I could have done without it having rained overnight as the trees were dripping and the tall grass very wet. Still it was calm and sunny and, for mid June, a good few birds were singing. As well as the birds I saw my first meadow brown of the year, actually lots of them and also a few common spotted and southern marsh orchid and a single Mother Shipton moth. 

common spotted orchid or hybrid

common spotted orchid, or possibly a hybrid as the leaves were unspotted. (I have just spotted the 7-spot ladybird in this shot!)

I arrived at Blashford by ten o’clock and had a quick check of the moth trap, rather few moths but very fresh individuals of small angle shades and lime hawkmoth. However it was the trays of creatures laid out for the school pond-dipping session that caught my eye, in particular one containing a water stick insect nymph.

water stick insect nymph

water stick insect nymph

The sun came out briefly at lunchtime so I went out for a break from the desk and nectaring on a hemlock water-dropwort plant was a very fresh red admiral.

red admiral 2

red admiral

There are quite good numbers of migrant insects about just now, there have been modest arrivals of red admiral and painted lady butterflies and huge numbers of the tiny diamond-back moth, so many that they have made the national news and it is not often a micro-moth does that! There are also lots of the marmalade hoverfly and silver Y moths, if you have flowers out in the garden you will almost certainly be able to see them nectaring at dusk.

My afternoon was spent in a meeting, but as it was still sunny when I got home I took a look in the garden and found this swollen-thighed beetle (Oedemera nobilis) feeding on an ox-eye daisy in our mini-meadow.

beetle on ox eye daisy

male swollen-thighed beetle on ox-eye daisy

30 Days Wild – Day 14

Some days are wilder than others, even when you work on a nature reserve. Today was not one of the wildest, the morning was spent in a meeting, where wildlife was a topic rather than present and the afternoon was largely taken up with trimming paths with the help of our volunteers. During path trimming we saw a few common spotted orchid and broad-leaved helleborine, I looked for twayblade and southern marsh orchid, both of which I have seen in the same area before but without success.

It was warming up as we finished and on the way back to the Centre we saw a red admiral and a male large white. Butterflies are very few and far between at present, but soon the browns will be out and this should change.

As I went to lock up the sun was almost out and near the Woodland hide the orange-tip caterpillars were doing their best to look like the garlic mustard seedpods upon which they feed.

orange tip caterpillar

orange-tip caterpillar

When I first saw these I discounted them as orange-tip, because they were not green, forgetting that they look quite different in their first few instars.

On the way down to the Ivy South hide is found a tree bumblebee sunning itself on a bramble leaf. This is a species that ha sonly colonised this country in this century, but is already common throughout most of England. It is similar to the common carder bee but the white tail gives it away.

tree bumblebee

tree bumblebee

Finally caught up, I just have to keep going to the end of the month now!