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.

 

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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.

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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

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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.

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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!

A Grave Day Out

Yesterday (Thursday) we headed up to Kitt’s Grave with the volunteers. Kitt’s Grave is one of Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust’s newest reserves, although it is managed as part of the much larger Martin Down National Nature Reserve. Martin Down is one of the finest downland sites in the country and is owned jointly by Natural England, Hampshire County Council and the Wildlife Trust, a great example of how cooperation can build a site that is “Bigger, better and more joined up”. We do not do a lot of management work there, perhaps two or three days work scrub clearing each winter, but it is always good to go back in the summer to see how the cleared areas have developed and it makes a great day out for the volunteers.

Thursday was a good choice of day, warm and sunny and a great day for the butterflies and other insects. In Kitt’s Grave we saw lots of insects in the sheltered rides and grasslands between the scrub patches. In all there were twelve of us, mostly volunteers from the Thursday and Sunday groups, but also two placement students and of course Ed and myself.

The team

The team

Although mainly known for butterflies, it is also great for lots of other wildlife, including a wide variety of insects., one that we saw a lot was the sawfly Tenthredo mesomela.

Tenthredo mesomela

Tenthredo mesomela

The area is also great for birds, we saw  a lot of yellowhammer, a good few corn bunting, 2 raven and many others, we failed to see any turtle dove, which was a little disappointing. The chalk downland is very good for plants, indeed downland can have the highest density of plant species of any habitat in the UK. However probably the plant highlight of the day was actually seen in the small area of old woodland at the top of Kitt’s Grave, where we saw several bird’s nest orchid.

bird's nest orchid

bird’s nest orchid

These plants have very little chlorophyll and no true leaves, gaining their nutrients from a fungus partner. One of the reasons for visiting was to see the areas we cleared during the last couple of winters, the good news is they are developing very well.

cleared area in Kitt's Grave

cleared area in Kitt’s Grave

Plants growing where there had been dense scrub now include aquilegia and milkwort.

Aqualegia

Aquilegia

milkwort

milkwort

Although we saw lots of other wildlife the undoubted focus was on the butterflies and we saw a good range of species. Including several blues, including holly blue, common blue and the much rarer chalk grassland specialists Adonis blue and small blue.

Adonis blue

Adonis blue

Adonis blue has distinctive black dash marks that cut through the white edges of the blue wings, unlike the continuous white margin of a common blue. In places several were gathered to drink moisture from damp ground.

adonis blues

Adonis blues

Later we found a group of small blue that were “drinking” from an even more unsavoury source, it is all  a result of their desire for vital salts.

small blues

small blues

The blues were joined briefly by a dingy skipper, the skippers are small and have a darting flight that is hard to follow and much effort was expended trying to see and photograph them, I managed one shot of the smaller grizzled skipper.

grizzled skipper

grizzled skipper

An additional problem for skipper hunters were the day-flying moths, the burnet companion and mother Shipton.

Mother Shipton

Mother Shipton

Our final quest was to see marsh fritillary, it is getting on in the season now, but we thought there should be some and eventually, we were proved correct.

marsh fritillary

marsh fritillary