30 Days Wild – Day 24 – Up on the Downs and Down by the Sea

We travelled up to Martin Down in the morning, specifically Kitts Grave the part of the reserve that belongs to the Wildlife Trust. This area of the reserve is a patchwork of chalk grassland and scrub, this type of diverse, herb rich habitat with lots of shelter is preferred by lots of insects, it offers lots of possibilities.

musk thistle with marbled white 2

musk thistle and marbled white

Plants like thistles and knapweeds are very good nectar sources used by lots of insects.

greater knapweed

greater knapweed

The scrub offers both shelter and an additional variety of flowers, bramble being very important and popular. I found the large hoverfly Volucella inflata feeding on a bramble flower.

Volucella inflata

Volucella inflata (female)

As I was photographing it a male flew in and mating took place.

Volucella inflata pair mating

Volucella inflata pair mating

A few years ago when at Old Winchester Hill I found a rare bee-fly, the downland villa Villa cingulata , at the time it was only the second Hampshire record in recent times. It appears it has been spreading as I found several, easily five or more, egg-laying females at Kitts Grave, I am not sure if they are recorded from there before.

Downland Villa

Downland Villa Villa cingulata

We saw a good range of butterflies including very recently emerged silver-washed fritillary and white admiral.

We retired home during the heat of the afternoon so I was briefly in the garden….

What’s in My Meadow Today?

One plant I was keen to establish was lady’s bedstraw, it has tiny yellow flowers unlike most of our bedstraws which have white flowers. It grows on dry chalk soils mainly but also turns up on dry sandy areas even in acid areas.

lady's bedstraw

lady’s bedstraw

I seem to have only got one plant to establish but it is spreading to form quiet a significant patch.

Once the day started to cool we ventured down to the coast to Lepe Country Park. Years ago I established another meadow area at this site, although in this case it was from a deep ploughed cereal field, it is now a SINC (Site of Importance for Nature Conservation) for its wildflower community. Creating grasslands of real wildlife value is relatively easy and gets quick results, helping to redress the massive loss of these habitats. Planting trees is much more popular, despite the fact that it will probably take hundreds of years for them to achieve significant value for wildlife. As anyone who manages open habitat will know trees will colonise and grow quite happily without encouragement. In fact colonising trees are one of the threats to herb-rich grasslands.

However we were on the beach, looking at beach species. Stabilised sand and shingle has its own specialist plants, one of which is sea spurge.

sea spurge

sea spurge

Rather more attractive is the yellow-horned poppy.

yellow-horned poppy

yellow-horned poppy

The long pods which give this poppy its name can be seen in this shot.

It was getting late and there were lots of small moths flying about, in the end I managed to get a picture of one, it was a Pyralid moth, quite a common one found in a variety of dry habitats, called Homoeosoma sinuella.

Homoeosoma sinuella

Homoeosoma sinuella

Off the beach an adult gannet was flying about, quite a regular sight in The Solent these days.

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30 Days Wild – Day 28

As I get to the end of the 30 Days it is clear that they have been far from typical and that a lot of things we took for granted at the start we can no longer rely upon. Quite what the changes to come will mean for wildlife habitats, the environment our landscape and nature conservation is hard to predict. One thing is for sure, we will continue to hold our wildlife and countryside in high regard and will remain home to many of the world’s finest naturalists.

Britain is characterised by a varied landscape and the diversity of wildlife that produces. Locally we have the New Forest, the downlands of the inland chalk and the Island, the chalk streams and the Solent coast, all uniquely characteristic of their place, fashioned by geography and human history. In various ways they have benefited from EU money and protection, with this going we will need to ensure that remain cherished landscapes with improving habitat quality and rich in wildlife, it will be a time of change but must not be a time of loss.

Whilst we ponder the future there are still all the usual things to get on with in the moment. Day 28 was a Tuesday, so we had a volunteer team working at Blashford, we continued work to improve the grassland along the western shore of Ibsley Water, removing bramble regrowth. The lakeshore is grazed by New Forest ponies and I was wondering if they might have been there today as they are due any time now. Many things have been reduced in recent days but the size of this pony still came as a shock!

pony

tiny pony!

I have absolutely no idea how a small plastic pony had found its was half way up the shore of Ibsley Water.

The sunny weather of the morning gave way to rain in the afternoon, so the grass snake that was happily basking outside the Ivy South hide when I opened up was long gone when I closed up.

grass snake

basking grass snake

Looking towards the common tern rafts it is clear that there are lots of chicks out there growing fast. I decided to take a few minutes to see what the brood sizes were. I can do this easily for the rafts with just one or two pairs, the answer for these was that each of the three pairs had three young, or put another way 100% chick survival since hatching, as they only lay three eggs. I then watched as adult terns came in with fish, once the young no longer need brooding they gather in small groups but when their parent arrives they run towards it for food, allowing the brood size to be determined. I watched as seven different broods were fed and again all had three chicks. Although this was only a sample of ten pairs, it seems clear that it would be fair to say “So far so good”. I do know that one pair that made an attempt on a shingle island in Ibsley Water last week have failed, but all the others seems to be going well.

 

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)

 

 

A Trip To Kitt’s

At last the weather has turned to spring and, although I should perhaps have been working in my garden, I took the opportunity to go up to Kitt’s Grave. I have never really had a look round there at this time of year, like most people I go up to Martin Down in the summer to see the butterflies. The opening up of the habitat on Kitt’s grave has continued this winter and it is beginning to look more like grassland with scrub rather than scrubland with trees.Kitt's Grave showing clearance work

The area above should develop into grassland over the next couple of seasons and if we are able to graze it as well it should stay that way, providing a lot more habitat for the plants and insects the site is so famous for. There will still be large blocks of dense scrub, valuable as shelter and for nesting turtle dove and other birds.

We did not see a lot of wildlife, several bullfinch were nice and the sun had brought out a few common lizard.

common lizard

We also found a blood-nosed beetle, I confess that until I looked it up when I got home I had not appreciated that these can be found as adults at any time of the year.bloody-nosed beetle

They the largest species of a group known as “Leaf-beetles” and eat bedstraws growing in open habitats, so it is easy to see why downland is a favourite area to find them in. They have particularly wonderful feet and a very deliberate way of walking. The elytra are fused along the midline so unlike most beetles they cannot fly. The elytra are the two halves of the “back” and are actually modified fore-wings, the wings other beetles use to fly with are the other of their two pairs.

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