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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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:

Marsh fritillary resized

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.

20170528-IMG_1391-Edit

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

Advertisements

Remaining Wild

A bit of  a lull for a couple of days due to computer problems, perhaps now sorted? But only time will tell.

Over the last couple of days, and say this quietly, it has been rather more summery. Although it is clearly already moving into late summer as many migrant birds are on the move, starting their southward journeys. On Ibsley Water there are returning common sandpiper, at least two on recent days, also a fine male black-tailed godwit yesterday, returned from trying to breed in Iceland. There have also been large gatherings of sand martin stopping to feed on their was south to Africa for the winter, likewise I suspect that some of the swift are on the move too. The cuckoo have stopped “cuckooing” and most will be gone, just the juveniles left to give us records into autumn. Although the blackcap still sings it is now the late summer song, which is subtly different form their spring one, still recognisably blackcap, but with  a more melancholy sound.

It is not all downbeat though, lots of butterflies are coming out, “Brown season” is in full swing with loads of meadow brown and marbled white (they are browns really, honest) and the first gatekeeper too. It is also getting towards peak horsefly season, okay perhaps not such a cause for celebration, but most species do not bite humans. Today I came across one such species Hybromitra distinguenda, also known as the bright horsefly. It was also a male, so no risk at all of being bitten as it is only the females that bite. He was hovering at about 75cm, swinging from side to side and back and forth, above the track to Ivy South hide as I went to open up. I have seen other Hybomitra species doing this, sometimes as early as 06:00am and often in small groups, I assume it is some sort of display to attract passing females, but I have never seen a female fly in. Here are a couple of pictures I managed to grab.

Hybomitra distinguenda 2

bright horsefly male

Hybomitra distinguenda

bright horsefly male, front view

Horseflies are remarkable creatures, they are probably the fastest of all flies, capable of 30 or 40 kilometres per hour and incredibly manoeuvrable being able to make a 180 degree turn in just a few metres, even at that speed. They have huge eyes that give them close to a 360 degree view of the world and a visual processing speed that makes catching them fantastically difficult unless they are not paying attention.

 

Winging It

We had another busy day with the volunteers at Blashford today, preparing the tern rafts for their deployment, probably sometime toward the end of the month. As though in a reminder to me that we needed to get on with this there were 3 common tern outside Tern Hide this morning when I opened up. Otherwise there was little of note, a single drake pochard, at least 4 wigeon and 6 mute swan were the best I could do. My bird of the day, was my first cuckoo of the year, although this was singing somewhere off to the eats on the edge of the New Forest rather than on the reserve.

It was a good day for insects though, the moth trap was much busier than yesterday, new for the year were early tooth striped and frosted green.

frosted green

Frosted green

There were lots of butterflies enjoying the really warm sunshine. In particular I saw lots of peacock, many in pairs like these two I found getting to know one another on the path to the Goosander hide.

pair of peacock

Peacock pair

There were also lots of drone flies and bumble-bees and several bee-flies, all the same species Bombylius major. These bee-flies hover in front of flowers using their long proboscis to drink nectar to fuel their high octane lifestyle. Their wings move incredibly fast and they use a rotating action to maintain the hover, just like humming-birds. The shots below were taken at 1/4000 sec, but still the wing movement is not stopped.

beefly in flight

beefly in flight 2

When I got to the Woodland hide this morning I was struck by the lack of sound, the brambling which have been very noisy recently were quiet and there were very few siskin. I suspected they had gone overnight, however when I locked up there were still at least 3 male and 6 female brambling at the feeders. So I think I was partly correct, recently males have far outnumbered females and it is the noisy males that I hear each morning, so it seems a lot of the males have gone and perhaps a few females have arrived. This is a typical pattern with migrant birds, the males travel ahead of the females to try and get the best territories, with the females following on to arrive once the weather is a bit better and the males established on territories.

 

A few visitor sightings…

Nothing of particular note to report on the bird front from the last few days other than reports from Matt Hyam of Ellingham Waterski Club of a blackwinged stilt flying overhead above Ellingham Lake at the weekend. We have had some lovely photo’s sent in to us over the last few days though:

Grey heron always descend upon the lakes in large numbers at this time of the year – not sure if it is just a post breeding dispersal, lower water levels that makes fishing easier, combination of both or something entirely different! Either way there has been one particular individual who has been a bit of a regular by Tern Hide, and who posed quite nicely for David on this occasion – joined by an obliging little egret.

Grey heron by David Stanley Ward

Grey heron by David Stanley Ward

Little egret by David Stanley Ward

Little egret by David Stanley Ward

Little ringed plover by Geoff May

Little ringed plover by Geoff May

Freshly fledged cuckoo by Russ Tofts

(Very!) freshly fledged cuckoo (between Goosander and Lapwing Hides by Russ Tofts

Kingfisher by Russ Tofts

Kingfisher by Russ Tofts

On the invertebrate front there is more noteworthy news from Paul Ritchie who sent in this record and photograph of a lesser emperor dragonfly from Ellingham Pound (the small lake behind the water ski club house). Seen on Sunday afternoon and again briefly on Monday morning I think I am right in thinking that this is the third year on the trot that this rare “vagrant” dragonfly has been recorded at Blashford Lakes, with sightings last year of a female actually egg laying outside Ivy South Hide. You can read more about Paul’s excitement at spotting his first lesser emperor dragonfly on his blog (http://hampshiredragonflies.co.uk/wordpress/?p=3617), but here is his picture as a taster!

Lesser Emperor (over Ellingham Pound) by Paul Ritchie

Lesser Emperor (over Ellingham Pound) by Paul Ritchie

Thank you to everyone for their records and photo’s!

As for me, I’m still hoping to see Steve’s common lizard by the pond (see Sundays blog)!

Blashford’s Micro World – Taking a Closer Look

I opened up the hides at Blashford this morning in a fog that meant I could see only a few hazy birds looming in and out of the mist. The sun looked like it might break through, but in fact it took until nearly midday and then we had banks of cloud from time to time. The volunteers tried to do the butterfly transect and just about managed it, although butterflies were few in number.

When the sun did come out at lunchtime I took a walk by the lichen heath, this is a fascinating and very vulnerable bit of habitat, the lichens do not like being walked on, so I kept off the heath proper. The habitat owes its existence to the ultra-poor soil which has just enough nutrients for lichens and mosses and a few very, very small flowering plants. Amongst them two or more species of speedwells.

wall speedwell (I think)

wall speedwell (I think)

Most speedwells are small plants, this one, wall speedwell, is very small with flowers perhaps 2mm across. I also found a patch of blinks, I seem to remember being told that it was the UK’s smallest flowering plant.

blinks

blinks

There are also several forget-me-not species, two of which are especially small.

early forget-me-not

early forget-me-not

This one is early forget-me-not and has flowers about 2mm across, they are a traditional forget-me-not blue, as might be expected. The other tiny species is quite remarkable in that it cannot decide what colour the flowers should be, or rather it has flowers that change colour as the age, it is the aptly named changing forget-me-not.

changing forget-me-not

changing forget-me-not

The heath is also home to a wide range of small insects and other invertebrates, a surprising number of them seem to be either ants or spiders. I came across a number of small mounds of sand, well actually many were more like chimneys, made of sand grains pile dup and with a hole down the centre. They were evidently entrance ways into ant nests as there were ants clearly visible around the entrances. Although I describe them as entrances there did not seem to be many ants coming and going so perhaps, like termites they build them as part of an air circulation system.

ant chimney

ant chimney

My last find of interest out on the heath was a small moth, now I have had trouble identifying it with anything like certainty, I am pretty sure it is a Gelechid  of some sort, my best guess is Aroga velocella, which has larvae that eat sheep’s sorrel.

Gelechid moth

Gelechid moth

Walking round the edge of the heath I passed a Scots pine and noticed it was in flower, the male flowers release huge amounts of wind-blown pollen which fertilise the female comes, each tree is both male and female, as you can see from the picture, the large males flowers are above the smaller female cone.

flowering Scots pine

flowering Scots pine

Looking closely at the flowers I realised that many of them had a spider on them, the same species every time and seemingly only one on each flower cluster, they were also quite well camouflaged. I have failed to identify the species, if anyone can help I would be very pleased.

spider

spider

On my way back to the office I stopped by the handful of ramsons I found the other week, a plant I had not known even grew at Blashford. They are now in flower and I took a couple of pictures and in one I saw that the flowers were being visited by ants, presumably feeding on the nectar.

ants on ramsons flowers

ants on ramsons flowers

Although the sun was not out for long it did feel quite spring-like and warm, a calling cuckoo added to the feel as did 2 swifts which flew over. The 2 or 3 calling Mediterranean gull that circled over made for a rather more seaside feel, but all in all it was very pleasant.

Other birds about today were about 30 common tern, good news as we will be putting out some tern rafts tomorrow and I would like them to be fully occupied as soon as possible to stop the black-headed gulls taking over.

A Couple of Prominent Visitors

Following yesterday’s weather with pleasingly warm spells, which encouraged a few butterflies to grace us with their presence in the garden,  it was a disappointingly overcast scene here at Blashford today.  Birds, however, can’t afford to be put off by a little spell of cooler, damper conditions and the usual chorus of willow warbler, chiffchaff, sedge warbler, reed warbler, Cetti’s warbler, blackcap and garden warbler were all singing brightly whilst we opened the reserve.

Not to be outdone by this vocal opposition, our local cuckoo has continued to call out his name for most of the morning and at least two of out regular visitors caught sight of him and managed to get a few pictures.

Cuckoo - picture courtesy of Nigel and Mara Elliott

Cuckoo – picture courtesy of Nigel and Mara Elliott

Signs of breeding success in the form of a  mallard and five, very small ducklings were seen on the path between Ivy Lake and the settlement pond.

I suspect that the largely more overcast conditions last night might have been responsible for an increase, over yesterday,  in the number and range of moths and other insects, ‘visiting’ our light trap.

Among the other insects there were five of the beetles that Jim referred to yesterday as May bugs, but which I’ve always called cockchafer.  I don’t think I’d ever seen more than one or two of these insects before I started moth trapping, and these had been during camping holidays,often attracted to the lights by the toilet block.  Intrigued by the different naming (Jim’s and mine) I took a look at a well-known on-line encyclopaedia to find out a little more about them. It would seem that there are three different species and at least two of these occur in the U,K, , one common cockchafer associated with open areas and a forest cockchafer found in more wooded areas. I’m guessing it’s the forest type we get here.  Apparently they used to occur in huge numbers before the introduction of chemical pesticides and were a significant pest as their lava , who may spend five to seven years underground, munch their way through the roots of crops. Some years the adults emerged in their millions.

As I said there were a few more moths than on previous nights,   As if to prove that our weather has improved lately, the Dark Sword-grass is an immigrant species presumably taking advantage of southerly winds. Although they have been recorded in the U.K. throughout the year but most frequently from July to October, so the two we found were, perhaps, a little early.

Dark Sword-grass

Dark Sword-grass

Probably the most distinctive moth today was this Nut-tree Tussock, with its striking two-tone livery.

Nut-tree Tussock

Nut-tree Tussock

Not to be outdone were the two individuals who gave rise to the title of this post. Presumably not named for their importance or influence, but because they have raised tufts on their heads, were this Pebble Prominent and Great Prominent.

Pebble Prominent

Pebble Prominent

Great Prominent

Great Prominent

Hare today – Birdtrail tomorrow

Saturday isn’t my normal day to be here but with the Birdtrail event tomorrow Jim will be on duty, so I’m covering his normal Saturday shift.  As Jim mentioned in yesterday’s post, tomorrow morning  there will be a number of groups of young people, parents and volunteers visiting the Reserve for the Birdtrail.

Although most of the work on resurfacing the access road to the Education Centre has ben done, the rain has delayed some aspects and it will now be next week before it’s ready to take traffic

With the reduced parking , due to re-surfacing of the road, other visitors might wish to delay their arrival tomorrow until the afternoon.

The rejuvenated road surface

The rejuvenated road surface

Butterfly wise its just starting to ‘buzz’ (if that’s the right description??) with a number of white butterflies including orange-tip as well green-veined white. Personally I find brief views of white butterflies one of those things that test your identification skills, especially as they seem to be a group that are particularly active and flighty.   Another complicating aspect is the amount of grey/black on the wing tips and that early and later broods of the same species have variable markings. Having said this the male orange tip is unmistakable – with the orange tip to its forewing – but the female can look very similar to other whites.

Male orange-tip

Male orange-tip

Fortunately both male and female orange-tip butterflies have a  magnificent marbled green and white underwing, which marks them out from the rest.

Whilst we’re talking about lepidoptera, the light/moth trap only had one inhabitant present of the species Parus major, not a moth at all, but a great tit.  He/she  had apparently eaten all the moths, although we only found one set of detached wings, so there may not have been many moths anyway as the overnight rain may have deterred them from flying.

Undeterred from nocturnal, and diurnal, flying activity were a great number of small flying insect, which I tend to lump together as midges,  so as well as quite a few in the moth trap there was also a fair number of them bedecking a somewhat dilapidated spider’s web, close to where the light trap had been set-up.

Spiders web with midge decoration

Spiders web with midge decoration

Apart from our voracious great tit and the usual collection of  blue tit, coal tit , greenfinch, chaffinch and goldfinch around the feeders, other birds seen or heard around the reserve include swift and common tern cruising above the Tern Hide when we opened up this morning. Three  little ringed plover  and a pair of dunlin , in breeding plumage, were seen by a couple of visitors and a cuckoo was singing(?) somewhere not too far from the Education Centre.

It’s  the nesting season and although it’s not alway obvious with most of the smaller land based birds, where the nests are, some of our water birds are less than subtle in collecting the necessary material, as was this coot.

P1400122

Coot with nesting material

Some other aspects of bird behaviour can be fascinating as well, especially where it’s not entirely what’s expected, as with this jackdaw which has learned to exploit our seed feeders.  Not content with simply picking up the spillage that the smaller birds leave, it’s found that is can balance itself on the feeder, but being a highly intelligent and resourceful bird it checks out the area first from a suitable vantage point.

P1400102

A suitable vantage point

Here we go.....................!!

Here we go…………………!!

A safe and rewarding landing.

A safe and rewarding landing.

But it’s not only the jackdaw that was taking advantage of our signposts for human visitors…

Great spot for a great spot

Great spot for a great spot

On the mammal front there are plenty of rabbits around the reserve.  Jackie, who regularly assists on a Saturday, spent some time  today walking the paths and cutting back bramble that was threatening to snake across them, and was rewarded for her efforts when she saw a hare not far from the Lapwing Hide.

Although there wasn’t a huge influx of visitors today, none of those we spoke to were reporting much activity near the sand martin nests under the Goosander Hide. It was, therefore,  reassuring as we closed the Tern hide to have over fifty sand martins with a few house martins, swallows and swifts circling around over the car-park.

Pinion and Thorn

More warblers today, with chiffchaff and blackcap firmly established and the Cetti’s warbler( at least two on the Reserve) giving rise to their splendidly piercing song.  Four or more reed warbler, two seen in reeds at southern end of the settlement pond and at least one each by the Ivy North and South Hides.  Although not yet seen  (or reported as seen ,anyway)  cuckoo have been heard at various locations across the reserve as were the songs of willow warbler in two different areas.

One lucky visitor saw a sparrowhawk flash past him and land briefly on the ground, then fly off with a prey item.

Out on Ivy Lake a pair of great-crested grebe were performing their courtship dance with head shaking and bobbing, whilst nearby, on one of the large buoys, a couple of common tern were pariently waiting for our tern rafts to be deployed.  It’s a delicate matter to decide when these rafts are to be put out again  each spring. They need top be there to encourage the terns to stay and breed, but if they are put out too early they’ll be colonised by black-headed gulls. If there are enough terns around they are, collectively, aggressive enough to see-off the gulls.

The ‘catch’ from the moth trap, although still relatively small in number, has started to provide a little more variety, this time in the form of an Early Thorn and a Pale Pinion.

Early Thorn

Early Thorn

Pale Pinion
Pale Pinion

 Fairly quiet in terms of visitor numbers (where are you all?), we took the opportunity to remove and replace a few seed feeders and cleaned them and a couple of niger seed feeders as well.  Not one of the most romantic of tasks, but it needs to be done on a fairly regular basis.

A Good Day Terned

Bird News: Ibsley Waterblack tern 3, bar-tailed godwit 3, black-tailed godwit 1, dunlin 1, swift c60, cuckoo 1.

After an iffy start the day turned out very fine indeed and the waterproofs could be put away for once. I was leading a walk of visitors from the Dorset Wildlife Trust today, which gave me an excuse to have a good look around the reserve. Although Ibsley Water provided the “best” birds of the day in the shape of three fine black terns, a small group of waders including 3 bar-tailed godwit, two of them red males, a dunlin in breeding finery and an elusive black-tailed godwit, there were other birds to enjoy elsewhere. The path between the Woodland hide and Ivy South hide is always a good area for warblers and today we could hear and usually see reed warbler, blackcap, garden warbler, Cetti’s warbler and chiffchaff as well as various resident singers. There was also a very smart male reed bunting singing in the reedbed of the Silt Pond.

We visited the Goosander hide where the sand martin colony is finally getting busy with lots of coming and going. At the Ivy North hide the highlight was an immaculate male grey wagtail, acid yellow contrasting with a jet black throat.

Finishing off at the Tern hide again we were lucky to have a few common tern come in to perch on the posts outside the hide. Initially just resting but as other birds flew in things got more animated until a bout of full display was initiated.

resting common tern

common tern calling

feeling the need to be impressive

and really going for it

In the afternoon I wasted most of the time tracking down some trespassers on Ibsley Water and Mockbeggar Lake that had also parked so that the access gates to the Goosander and Lapwing hide were blocked for disabled visitors and my quad bike. Turned out they were two guys I caught one day last week as well. They were just out for a walk and did not know where they were then as well, what are the chances?! Unfortunately these wanderers are not harmless, they lead to loss of ground nesting birds and general disturbance. Some at least are also the same people who return at night to fish, the prolonged stays on the bank lead to desertion of nests, especially of species like lapwing and little ringed plover. The lakes also suffer from illegal fish movements, these result in fish and potentially diseases being moved between lakes and sometimes alien species being introduced. In my efforts to find the wanderers I did at least finally hear my first cuckoo of the year, this is my latest ever date for my first by some margin, despite an arrival from mid-March!