30 Days Wild – Day 26

Looking ahead the next few days look poor with rain for at least part of every day, so a sunny morning presented an opportunity to get out and the call of the Downs won over again, this time it was Martin Down. Martin Down is the largest intact downland area in Hampshire and home to significant populations of corn bunting, yellowhammer, grey partridge and turtle dove. It is also now a the heart of the Martin Down Farm Cluster, this is a group of farms that have come together to improve their farms for all of the above species and many more downland specialists. Big though Martin Down is it cannot support viable populations of many species in the long term, so sympathetic management of neighbouring land is essential.

I spent most of my time in the Kitts Grave area, not the classic open grassland downland, but a mosaic of grassland and scrub. Martin Down is a National Nature Reserve and managed by Natural England, Kitts Grave is part of the reserve but is owned by the Wildlife Trust, so I occasionally get to go there in a work capacity as well. The whole reserve is famous for its butterflies and although the day was not completely sunny they were out in some force.

dark green fritillary pair

There were quiet good numbers of marbled white and meadow brown, but most of the blues were looking quite battered by recent weather. The rain does make for lost of growth though, ideal for growing caterpillars, so long as it is not too heavy.

egg-laying large skipper

I did not restrict myself to butterflies as there are so many more insects to look at. Over the last few years the downland villa, Villa cingulata has turned up at lots of new sites, probably benefiting from climate change. I narrowly missed out of finding the first for Hampshire, when I found one at Old Winchester a few years ago as there had been one seen a short while before near Winchester, so mine was the second. I have since seen them at Martin Down and Noar Hill, so they are widespread across the county now.

downland villa fly

This is one of the bee-flies and they scatter their eggs around the nesting areas of solitary bees, the larvae then live as parasites in the nests, so they have probably spread along with an increase their bee hosts.

As well as butterflies there are lots of day-flying moths too, the most striking of which are the burnets moths. There are several species, I am pretty sure this is the narrow-bordered five-spot burnet.

narrow-bordered five-spot burnet

As well as butterflies, moths and flies there were also lots of bees and beetles. This large longhorn beetle was one that stayed still for a picture.

Leptura quadrifasciata

Rather smaller was a tumbling flower beetle, I am not certain of the species yet, but I am pretty sure it is Variimorda villosa as species of ancient broadleaved woodland, so perhaps a surprise to see it on a downland site. However this is one of the delights of Kitts Grave, where the downland merges into a block of ancient woodland.

Variimorda villosa

Species rich habitats are not single entities downland needs to merge into other habitats to be great downland, woodland needs glades and transitions to grassland and scrub, this is what landscape scale conservation is about. Conservation of little islands of “pure” habitat has not long-term future, yet this is what we have largely been left with as nature reserves. Martin Down is huge for a nature reserve at about 350ha, but it is surrounded by 1000s of hectares of mainly arable farmland, unless some of the wildlife can find a way to live alongside modern agriculture it will eventually be lost. This is where the Farm Clusters come in, sympathetic management of field margins can give space for wide ranging species like turtle doves and corridors for smaller species to expand out into the wider countryside, perhaps to recolonise smaller isolated habitat islands. With luck species like yellowhammer, which were almost ubiquitous in farm hedges across the country will find a way back and a “little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese” will mean something again.

yellowhammer

30 Days Wild – Day 17 – Up on the Down

I had a day off and the weather was okay so I headed out for a visit to Broughton Down, a real gem of a reserve, a steep chalk down with a surprising variety of habitat, even the grazed down varies in character as you move around the site. I started at the furthest end of the reserve where the turf is short and covered in an abundance of fragrant orchids.

orchid bank

orchid bank

These come in various shades from quite dark to almost white.fragrant orchid

Although the fragrant orchids were the most abundant there were patches of common spotted orchid, especially in the shade or where the soil was probably a bit deeper or less dry.common spotted orchid

There are other species on site but the only other orchid I was were a few pyramidal.

pyramidal orchid

pyramidal orchid

The other thing that immediately struck me was the super abundance of dark green fritillary, there must have been hundreds, they far outstripped all other species present and I have never seen so many anywhere before.

dark green fritillary

dark green fritillary

Downland is not just about orchids, there are lots of other plants to enjoy, such as greater knapweed, fairy flax, thyme and squinacywort.

sqinancywort

squinancywort

The grassland has a good few anthills and the difference in the flora on these is very obvious, they tend to have thyme and often speedwell too, no doubt they benefit from the deeper soil and good drainage.

anthill

anthill

Thyme is a great nectar source an dis visited by lots of bees and a real favourite for a lot of butterflies too. It can be a good plant to grow if you have a very sunny dry area in the garden and of course it is a culinary herb.

thyme

thyme

The grassland on an unimproved down is the richest in terms of species that you can find anywhere in the UK and I could fill several blogs with flowers from this one visit. Even the plantains, usually a rather drab group of plants, look better on downland.

hoary plantain

hoary plantain

The tall white stems of common valerian stand out well above the generally short vegetation.

common valerian

common valerian

One of the shortest of all the plants is milkwort, common on downland, but also found in lots of other short grasslands, there are several species and forms found in different habitats.

milkwort

milkwort

All these flowers feed lots of insects, including lots of butterflies apart from the fritillaries, one of the other common species was marbled white.

marbled white

marbled white

A question I am sometime asked is what is the difference between butterflies and moths and the answer is that there is no clear answer! Butterflies fly in the daytime, but so do some moths. Although we recognise the general shape of a butterfly, there are moths with the same overall appearance. In fact what we conventionally call butterflies are actually just six of the families of Lepidoptera that we have chose to call butterflies, the rest we call moths.

I did see a few day-flying moths as well as butterflies, the best was a six-belted clearwing a moth that looks like a wasp.

six-belted clearwing

six-belted clearwing

Lots of insects can feed lots of insect predators, some of them also insects, like this robberfly, a chalk downland species in S. England, but with an odd distribution nationally and elsewhere in quite different habitats.

Leptarthrus brevirostris 4x3

Leptarthrus brevirostris with prey

On the way home we stopped to look at a field of poppies and looking at the hedgerow I spotted several tiny soldierflies walking about on the hazel leaves. I decided to try and get some pictures, not easy as they were very small and constantly on the move, but here are my best efforts.

Pachygaster atra

Pachygaster atra

Pachygaster leachii

Pachygaster leachii

Both are common species, but very easily overlooked!

 

 

 

30 Days Wild – Day 1

2020-06-01 BBS site

Farmland survey plot

We’re off, 30 Days Wild 2020 is here! I started with an early morning bird survey of a farmland site on the chalk and what a way to start the 30 Days. Lots of yellowhammer, a few corn bunting and then a barn owl hunting for at least 15 minutes over the fields, a glorious morning. Just when I though tit could get no better a stone curlew flew over the ridge and passed me then alongside the owl, magical.

At Blashford it was hot and sunny, with lots of dragonflies, but still very few butterflies, although a very fresh dark green fritillary was a rare sight for the reserve. It was nectaring on Salvias in the raised beds by the Centre alongside lots of the wonderful little green-eyed flower bee.

I finished my day with a short walk out on the heath, with a distant calling curlew, nightjars aplenty and three species of bat, serotine, common pipistrelle and soprano pipistrelle.

Let’s see what Day 2 brings, it will be hard to live up to Day 1, I have to hope things have not peaked too soon.

 

30 Days Wild is here!

It’s the first of June which can only mean one thing, 30 Days Wild is here… if you didn’t see my last blog, it is a fun, feel-good challenge run annually by The Wildlife Trusts which aims to bring people closer to nature and take small actions on a daily basis that can collectively have a big impact, for their health, wellbeing and for the planet.

You can still sign up to the nature challenge throughout June by visiting the website here.

So, for day one of the challenge (I can’t promise I will blog every day, but between myself and Bob we may manage one most days…) I spent some time appreciating the insect life that is currently enjoying the raised beds outside the front of the centre.

The purple salvia seems to be the biggest draw and it has been covered in lots of green-eyed flower bees for most of the day, a new bee for me! They are quite small and very smart, with lovely green eyes and a noisy, high pitched hovering flight similar to other flower bees.

green-eyed flower bee

Green-eyed flower bee Anthophora bimaculata

I had decided whilst furloughed to try and improve my bee knowledge, spotting hairy-footed flower bees and early bumblebees in the garden, so these are a welcome addition.

Also enjoying the salvia today was a common carder bee:

common carder bee

 

Common carder bee Bombus pascuorum

Damselflies have been swarming over the beds and paving up to the Centre in large numbers all day and an emperor dragonfly has also been hawking overhead. A dark green fritillary also settled for a few minutes, the first I’ve seen this year, so hopefully we’ll get a few more sightings over the coming days.

We still have no news on when the car park will open, but Bob and I have been busy writing signage and putting it up around the reserve to aid with social distancing when we do open. Bob has also adjusted all the latches to the pedestrian kissing gates, bolting them up, so the gates can be pushed open more easily without everyone touching the same parts. Do keep an eye out for these changes when you visit next.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 21

I contrived to have the longest day off this year, the first day of my weekend, so I suppose it will also be the longest weekend, at least for daylight. Remarkably it was not raining so I took the opportunity to visit Broughton Down again, a gem of a site and for most of the time we had it to ourselves. It is proper downland as you imaging it should be, or at least some sections are, some still suffer from scrub encroachment, but a long term program of control is taking effect.

The top of the Down is especially good for fragrant orchid, of which there are literally thousands.

fragrant orchid 2

fragrant orchid

They come in varying shades.

fragrant orchid white

very pale fragrant orchid

Usually as single flowering spikes, but sometimes in groups.

fragrant orchids

fragrant orchids

And to cap it all they are really fragrant too.

There were some other orchids, in the hollows especially, there were common spotted orchid.

spotted orchid

common spotted orchid

And thinly scattered through the fragrant orchid were pyramidal orchid.

pyramidal orchid with hoverfly

pyramidal orchid with hoverfly

There were good numbers of butterflies, perhaps commonest were small heath, impressive as they are seriously reduced in numbers at most sites. Perhaps next most frequent was dark green fritillary, then brimstone, meadow brown, marbled white and common blue. None of which I got pictures of, although as I staked out a group of large scabious flowers I did get a Conopid fly, probably Sicus ferrugineus.

Sicus ferrugineus

Sicus ferrugineus (probably)

My other insect highlight remains unidentified, but is very smart, if anyone recognises it I would love to know.

beetle

Unidentified beetle

Back home in the garden I did manage to get a picture of a meadow brown, one of at least three in our mini-meadow.

meadow brown

meadow brown

I also got a shot of a leafcutter bee on a geranium.

Willughby's Leafcutter Bee

Willughby’s Leafcutter Bee

Exploring the downs

On Sunday we too were up on Martin Down with our Young Naturalists group. The reserve is home to a fantastic variety of plants and animals associated with chalk downland and scrub habitats so makes a nice change to Blashford and the New Forest. Unlike Bob, we avoided the nice shady part of the reserve at Kitt’s Grave and instead opted for the more open part of the site, parking at the end of Sillens Lane. It was rather hot!

Group at Martin Down 2

Young Naturalists at Martin Down

We had last visited Martin Down with the group at the end of May last year, a trip many of them could remember, so we took a different route this time and were interested to see what flora and fauna we would spot that little bit later in the year.

Will got our list of species off to a good start, spotting Bullfinch and Yellowhammer whilst waiting for us to arrive – we didn’t see any more Bullfinch but there were certainly plenty of Yellowhammer to hear and see and we also heard Chiffchaff calling. We were also lucky enough to hear the purring of Turtle doves at a couple of different spots.

The insects also did not disappoint and we soon saw Cinnabar moth (and later Cinnabar caterpillar) along with Meadow brown, Marbled white, Small skipper, Brimstone, Gatekeeper, Small heath, Holly blue, Ringlet, Small white and Small tortoiseshell butterflies.

The butterfly that delighted the group the most and kept them on their toes was the Dark green fritillary. There were a number flying low over the grass, giving the best opportunity for a photo when they landed on knapweed or a thistle.

We also spotted a Brown hare in a neighbouring field, which obliged us with glimpses when it crossed the gap in between taller vegetation and a couple of Roe deer. Sadly both were too distant for a photo. There were also lots of beefly and bees on the flowers, along with a five-spot burnet moth, soldier beetles and thick legged flower beetles.

The group were also intrigued by the tent webs made by the caterpillars of the Small eggar moth and there were a number to spot. After emerging from the egg, the caterpillars immediately construct tents out of silk either at their hatching site or nearby on the same bush. They live and develop in these tents as colonies, repairing and expanding the structure as they develop: the layers of silk fibres form air pockets which insulate the nest and provide resting spaces for the caterpillars inside. The tent is essential to the caterpillar’s survival and they do not abandon the structure until they are ready to pupate.

Whilst a number of the Common spotted orchids were now past their best, there were still plenty of Pyramidal orchids in flower.

We heard the croak of a Raven a few times and had a great view of a Linnet which perched nearby whilst we were eating lunch. Other birds included Buzzard, Skylark, Corn bunting, Stonechat and Swift.

Once back at the Education Centre we had time to look through the moth trap before the session ended, something the group really enjoy doing.

Our Young Naturalists group is supported 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.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 24 (A Dark Day on the Down)

A disappointing day, I had the day off and, on the promise of some sunshine, went up to Martin Down, a very fine downland National Nature Reserve. The chance to wander in such a large and flower-filled space listening to turtle dove and corn bunting was something I felt I needed. It was large and full of flowers and even the turtle dove and corn bunting were doing their thing, but sunny it was not!

Martin Down with black clouds

Dark clouds rolling in over the down

In fact it rained, lightly at first but then with more determination. So plans to look for and photograph insects and plants were shelved. I did get a few shots, the flowers were marvellous and there are thousands of orchids, although low light and a brisk breeze made getting pictures a challenge.

fragrant orchid

fragrant orchid

In the very, very brief sunny spell we also saw a few butterflies including three dark green fritillary, although the sun had gone in again by the time I got this shot.

dark green fritillary

dark green fritillary

Insect of the day though was not a butterfly, but a robberfly, a downland specialist called Leptarthrus brevicornis. it posed well but insisted on perching on the strap of my camera bag, even when I moved it onto a leaf it just flew back! I suspect it was attracted by the black fabric in an effort to warm up.

Leptarthrus brevicornis female

Leptarthrus brevicornis (female)