30 Days Wild – Day 5 (The Blues and more)

I was not working on Saturday and, as the sun was shining I wanted to go out, but at the end of half-term week where should I go? The New Forest would be busy, so I headed up onto the chalk, to Broughton Down, which turned out the be a good decision. It was alive with butterflies and especially with blues. Most frequent were common blue.




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There were also rather fewer Adonis blue, you can tell the difference by the little black lines that go through the white wing outline.

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A scatter of small blue gave me the run-around and it took a while to get any sort of picture of one.

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Although not actually blue, the brown argus is closely related to the common blue, in fact small female common blue can easily be confused with it.

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The last of the day’s blues was the holly blue, there were several females egg-laying on dogwood around the reserve.

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Not all the butterflies were blues, although almost all were small and often difficult to keep up with. I find green hairstreak especially difficult to find and follow, their erratic flight and green colouration mean they seem to just disappear. So I was pleased when this one landed right beside me, even if a bit of milkwort was rather in the way.

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Other small fast butterflies are available and skippers are certainly in this category, I saw both bare ground specialist skippers in good numbers, high on the down there were dingy skipper.

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Whilst in the valley there were several grizzled skipper.

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Other butterflies were rather few, with only brimstone frequent, a few speckled wood, green-veined white and a couple of rather late orange-tip finished off the list for the day.

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Not all insects are butterflies of course, there were quite a few green pot beetle.

Hoverflies were not abundant, despite the sunshine but I did see a Sceava pyrastri, typically a migrant species to the UK.

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Quiet a spectacular resident species typical of species rich grassland is Chrysotoxum festivum.

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I had hoped to be able to identify the rather brightly marked craneflies that were quiet abundant, I even got a fair picture of it, but it turns out there are several very, very similar species and a picture is just not enough.

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All of the species so far were ones I had seen before, but when I sat down for a drink I noticed several tiny moths on the germander speedwell flowers, these turned out to be Cauchas fibulella, whose caterpillars feed on…. germander speedwell!

A pretty good Wild Day on a great site, I will be back.

Wildlife encounters of the furlough kind

I returned to work on Sunday after eight weeks away from Blashford (it is so green now!) and six weeks on furlough along with around 40% of my Trust colleagues, most of whom are still off. Whilst I’m back to help Bob with the reserve tasks he cannot do by himself and engage with visitors on site from a safe distance, following on from the easing of restrictions last week, we are still closed whilst we look at what we can safely offer in the coming weeks and months. We will keep you updated as and when things begin to change!

A Blashford blog will follow shortly, but I thought I would share what I have been getting up to whilst off.

Spending so much time at home meant I was able to discover what wildlife visits my garden, a bit of a distraction whilst I was supposed to still be working, but it was really nice to be there during the day and have more time to appreciate my outside space. My garden is only small, with two patio areas which contain a number of plants in pots and a lawn which has struggled as a lawn and now has a few flowers planted into the patchier bits as I slowly tun it into a much wilder space. I have lived there for a couple of years, and this year the garden really seems to have come to life with birds and insects, which has been really nice to see.

Whilst at home I had blue tits, wood pigeons, dunnocks and blackbirds frequently visiting the garden along with a wren, great tits and a goldfinch. I have a willow bird table and the blackbirds seem to really like this, launching themselves onto it from the hedge and swinging around whilst they fed.

I have two hedges in the garden and this year the blackbirds successfully nested in one (I did a fair amount of cat chasing whilst off, if they have another brood they’re on their own!) which was lovely to watch. I saw four fledglings at the same time, two sunning themselves in one hedge and two in the other and both adults worked really hard to feed them with the male bringing back huge beak fulls, including a garden centipede in the photo below:

Blackbird 2

Male blackbird with a beak full

They fledged last Thursday so I was able to enjoy their company for a few days, with one of the young staying in the garden until Sunday morning. It was very amusing to see it sat swinging on the bird table calling mum for food.

I had written a rather long list of things to do to keep me busy, and one of those things was to dig a pond. Digging a pond was definitely more exciting than decorating the bathroom, re-pointing some dodgy brickwork to hopefully solve a damp issue in the kitchen and damp proofing and repainting the kitchen wall, so it was one of the first things I did and it’s been really nice to see it change over just a few weeks. The less exciting jobs were left until last week when I knew I was returning to work…

The photos below show the garden before and after, then the pond full of mud as the female blackbird decided the moss I had placed round the edge would make really nice nest building material (she had ignored it the entire time it was elsewhere in the garden) and later on with some plant additions (all native) I had been able to order online.

Whilst digging the pond I unearthed the snake millipede below, along with centipedes that were too fast for a photo, and the stones placed around the edge quickly became resting spots for hoverflies:

The blackbirds had been using a bucket of water with some willow sticks in to drink from and bathe in, but they now both use the pond which is really nice to watch. The female didn’t mind me being around at all but the male was a lot more wary of me to begin with and would fly off even if I was watching from the window, but now he is quite happy for me to be out in the garden whilst he’s there feeding.

As well as the birds it was great to see which insects were visiting the flowers and which flowers were growing really well, the ragged robin in particular has seeded so well from one plant in a pot last year I was able to plant it out in different places in the grass.

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I live on the edge of Salisbury so on my daily walks I walked my dog from home to either a little stretch of the River Bourne in Laverstock or up to the Laverstock Downs, enjoying the fact there were fewer cars on the road.

These photos were taken in the little patch of woodland down by the river:

I had hoped to see some bluebells on my wanders but sadly all those I did see were garden escapees.

I spent a lot more time up on the Downs as although they were further to walk to, it was much easier to practice social distancing up here than it was down by the river which tended to be busier with people and had a stretch of boardwalk to contend with.

It was a great spot for bird watching and I had some brilliant views of both blackcap and common whitethroat, especially early spring when the whitethroats were displaying and establishing territories.

I managed a total of 47 bird species whilst off, either in my garden, flying over my garden or on my daily walks: blackbird, blue tit, dunnock, wren, great tit, wood pigeon, collared dove, jackdaw, starling, long-tailed tit, yellowhammer, carrion crow, buzzard, pheasant, song thrush, chaffinch, chiffchaff, red kite, blackcap, common whitethroat, swallow, linnet, goldfinch, red-legged partridge, little egret, mallard, shoveler, kingfisher, magpie, skylark, great spotted woodpecker, robin, Canada goose, mute swan, raven, sparrowhawk, rook, bullfinch, house sparrow, Cetti’s warbler, grey heron, moorhen, mistle thrush, swift, house martin, peregrine falcon and mandarin duck. They were quite a good mix!

The Downs were also a great spot for butterflies, with orange tips, brimstones, small tortoiseshells, green-veined whites, small heaths, peacocks and dingy skippers all on the wing. I also found lots of green-veined orchids and other flowers on the chalk grassland.

The most exciting spot though was probably to see glow worm larvae on three separate occasions, so I must go up there over the summer in search of glow worms.

Glow worm larvae

Glow worm larvae

I was very lucky to have my garden to enjoy and also have some lovely spaces within walking distance to explore (it was also quite nice to use my car less!), so I had plenty of nature to keep me company during the pandemic, whilst a list of house and craft projects also kept me busy. I might be heading back up to the Downs at the weekend…

These are the Days

There can be few things better than getting out into the countryside on a fine May day and this is exactly what I did over the weekend. On Sunday I was at Blashford and on Saturday, on something of a busman’s holiday, visiting another Trust reserve at Noar Hill.

Noar Hill is a well known site for  arrange of chalkland butterflies, at this time of year this especially means the Duke of Burgundy fritillary. They did not disappoint, with several dozen seen in fine, warm sunshine. Their caterpillars feed on cowslip and it was easy to see what they like about this site as there must be thousands of cowslip plants all over the hill.

Duke of Burgundy 2

Duke of Burgundy fritillary

There were also a fair few other butterflies, including green hairstreak and dingy skipper.

dingy skipper

dingy skipper

For a single season we had a small colony of these skippers at Blashford, but they have not been seen since.

The weather was still very warm on Sunday and once again the insects were out in numbers. At last I saw some damselflies, in fact three species, the common blue, large red and blue-tailed. I visited the sandy bank where I saw the solitary bees nests a couple of weeks ago. The same species were there again along with some new ones, one of which was a tiny parasitic species, another nomad bee called the little nomad bee, if I have identified it correctly.

little nomad bee

little nomad bee

Elsewhere on the reserve I found a lot of unidentified solitary bees feeding on the flowers of field maple, I had never before realised just how attractive these flowers are to bees.

field maple flowers

flowering field maple

Some other trees have long finished flowering and are now in seed, none more obviously so than the willow, which spread seed on the wind making it fall like snow along the path edges.

willow in seed

seeding willow

The last couple of days have seen a few birds of note. On Saturday a sanderling and a little gull were seen on Ibsley Water and today there were four black tern reported there along with a little gull and a turnstone. On Sunday a hobby spent much of the day over the lake and a female marsh harrier flew north up the valley, whilst red kite and raven have been seen everyday recently. Unfortunately I managed to get pictures of none of these, all I can offer is a stock dove snapped in the shadow at the end of the day from the Woodland hide on Sunday.

stock dove

stock dove on feeder

 

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

 

The Tern and the Turtle

 

About ten days ago we put out the first two tern rafts in the hope that the twenty or so terns present then would quickly occupy them. We kept two back to go out after the first had attracted a core group. The idea of leaving it late to put them is to give the best chance against the black-headed gulls, which start nesting earlier so would get in before the terns arrive. The plan does not seem to have worked this year, although common terns were the first to land on the rafts they were quickly replaced by gulls, at least keeping two rafts in reserve allows us to try again with unoccupied nesting sites, we will see if the gulls take over ahead of the terns. A lot of the gulls are probably first time breeders, they mess about a lot, make nests but don’t necessarily ever lay or if they do, they don’t know what they are really supposed to do, they do keep the terns off though!

tern rafts

tern rafts

There were a few terns around as we towed the rafts out and a few gulls as well.

gulls and terns

gulls and terns

We put the rafts out first thing in the morning and a s I walked back to the Centre the sun was getting really warm along the path beside Rockford Lake, with the west wind the blowing the path was really sheltered and there were swarms of recently emerged common blue damselflies. They take a few days to get the intense blue colouration.

common blue damselfly uncoloured

common blue damselfly uncoloured

The male above will be brilliant blue in a couple of days, a few slightly older ones were also about, but in the sun they were hard to get close to without them flying away.

common blue damselfly. male

common blue damselfly, male

Despite the sun I only saw one other Odonata species, large red damselfly and not very many of them.

large red damselfly, male

large red damselfly, male

Ed and I went up to Kitts Grave later in the morning to take a look a the work done in the winter clearing scrub. The site is a mosaic of grassland, scrub with some true woodland, all the these elements are rich habitats in their own right, but the scrub has been spreading at the expense of the grassland in recent years. As we arrived at the gate we spotted a small blue, the first I had seen this year.

small blue

small blue

It was a morning of sunshine and sharp showers are we dodged in and out of the trees trying to keep dry. Along the way we saw good numbers of common spotted orchid and twayblade, although both were a couple of weeks or so from flowering, unlike the early purple orchid which were just about at their peak.

early purple orchid

early purple orchid

The area of scrub we cleared in the winter now looks green and there are remarkably few areas of bare ground.

Kitts Grave area cleared by volunteers last winter

Kitts Grave area cleared by volunteers last winter

When the sun came out it was very warm and we saw a fair few butterflies, including  a lot of brimstone, orange tip, green-veined white and a few peacock. We also saw there or four dingy skipper, although I did not manage to get a picture of any of them as they were much too fast for me. A bit easier was the scarlet tiger moth caterpillar that we came across.

scarlet tiger caterpillar

scarlet tiger caterpillar

As we headed back to the car park that once common and so evocative summer sound, the purring of turtle dove. It is extraordinary and very frightening how the status of these beautiful birds has changed in my lifetime. They were genuinely common birds in hedgerows and copse edges and now it needs a special trip for even the chance of hearing one. We also saw a fair few yellowhammer, another bird so familiar thirty years ago that everyone knew them as the bird that sang “A little bit of bread and no cheese”, one of the most familiar sounds of the countryside then.

Obviously there have been gains, with some species colonising over the same period, but the declines in some species that were so common that they were generally known to anyone who ventured out into the countryside to a condition of scarcity, or even rarity, is a warning to us all.

Eventually we retreated as a particularly heavy squall approached and headed back to Blashford.

storm clouds gathering

storm clouds gathering

The loss of once common and widespread species tells of the limitations of relying on nature reserves to look after wildlife, reserves can do valuable work but it is the way we live in and use the country that really determines what our future wildlife will be like and how many species will be common enough for the next generation to just take them for granted, as I did the turtle dove and yellowhammer.