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.

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30 Days Wild – Day 18 – On the Road

I ran the moth trap at home overnight, the catch was modest and as follows: barred red 1, heart and dart 8, heart and club 3, Chrysoteuchia culmella 1, Crambus pascuella 1, buff-tip 1, elephant hawk-moth 1, marbled/tawny marbled minor 1, privet hawk-moth 1, willow beauty 1. The two with only Latin names are micro-moths or a type collectively known as “Grass moths” as they are often found in grasslands an sit head -down on grass stems. The “Marbled minor” is lumped with with tawny marbled minor as they cannot reliably be separated by just looking at them.

After this slightly wild start to the day I was off on the road, heading north. As a result wildlife was in relatively short supply but these days heading north from here will inevitably mean seeing red kite. The re-establishment of red kite has been one of the most remarkable changes of fortune of any of our wildlife. I remember seeing them in mid-Wales as a young birder in the 1960’s when they were very rare indeed, perhaps under 20 pairs in all when I saw them and not doing very well. Mid-Wales is relatively unproductive land and the weather can be poor in the mountains, even in summer and  in those days there were still numbers of active egg-collectors around as well.

Establishing a population in the more productive lowland farmland around Oxford quite quickly showed that this is a species that could do very well in UK conditions when it was allowed to live in more promising habitat. The UK is evidently very good habitat for red kite and their ability to spread and thrive across most of the country has been quiet extraordinary. During my birding lifetime they have gone from supper rarity to an everyday bird  for millions of people across the country, proving that not all conservation stories are one of gloom, doom and extinction.

30 Days Wild – Day 17 – Knights In…

Moth of the day at Blashford was (and yes, you have probably already guessed it) a white satin.

white satin

white satin moth (male)

This is not a rare species, although not common and one I don’t see very often at all. On the face of it Blashford should be a good site as the larvae eat willow, poplar and aspen, all of which we have in some quantity.

Other moths today that I had not recorded so far this year were the delicate.

delicate

delicate

This is typically a migrant species, although it may be able to over-winter in some years. The other”new one” was a clouded brindle, a species that is pretty well camouflaged on the mossy bark, unlike the white satin.

clouded brindle

clouded brindle

After a morning cutting paths and bramble regrowth I had a look around near the Centre at lunchtime and found a batch of small cinnabar caterpillars tucking into the flower heads of a ragwort plant.

cinnabar caterpillars

young cinnabar moth caterpillars

Nearby I found a wasp beetle, this is one of the longhorn beetles with larvae that tunnel into wood.

wasp beetle

wasp beetle

It has similar black and yellow warning colouration to the cinnabar caterpillars, although I am not sure if it is actually poisonous like the caterpillars or just exploiting the fact that many birds will avoid any black and yellow insect as potentially unwise prey.

Although the reserve was pretty quiet today there are a few things to report. I saw my first fledged little ringed plover of the year, two juveniles on the Long Spit on Ibsley Water. There were also a number of flying black-headed gull juveniles too. Near Goosander hide a family of five small coot chicks were just below the sand martin wall. As the drizzle set in during the afternoon the numbers of swift and martin grew until there were at least 250 swift and several hundred martins. There was a report of 3 black-tailed godwit and I saw a redshank.  However the really big news, might actually be from last Friday, written in the Tern hide logbook was a report of a pratincole, with “collared?” written after it. Collared is the most likely, although even that is a very rare bird. Unfortunately the observer did not leave a name or any further details other than that it was on the Long Spit and flew away, not sure when it was seen, by whom or which way it went. If anyone can shed any light on this potentially very interesting record I would be delighted to know.

I returned home in persistent drizzle and took a quick look in the moth trap which I had not managed to do this morning. Three species of hawk-moth, elephant, pine and privet, matched the range,if not species, at Blashford but otherwise there was not much.

Which leaves….

What’s in My Meadow Today?

The yellow-rattle which I featured in flower at the start of the 30 Days, is now going to seed, as the stems dry the seeds will start to rattle in the swollen calyx when shaken.

yellow rattle seedpods

yellow-rattle with developing seed.

30 Days Wild – Day 3 – A Herd of Elephants

I was at Blashford Lakes Nature Reserve today after a couple of days off. We had a volunteer work party in the morning but before we started I checked through the moth trap, although the catch was quiet good there was nothing too surprising, although I was pleased to see my first peach blossom of the year, no picture though as it flew off. There were several hawk-moths including a group of three elephant hawk-moth on one egg box.

a herd of elephant hawks

a herd of elephant hawk-moth

There were also a few species of prominents including a pale prominent, they all get their name from the small raised point on the folded wing, presumably an adaptation to break up their outline and make them look less like moths. For a moth, not looking like a moth is very useful as birds love to eat moths, so lots of moths either hide away or just try to look not like moths. The pale prominent does this rather well.

pale prominent

pale prominent looking like a dead bit of plant stem

Our volunteer tasks were giving the outside of the Education Centre a was down and having a clear-out of the tool store, both much needed tasks, if not exactly conservation work. At least we should be able to find most of the tools and equipment now and the building does look a lot smarter for a wash.

I checked the hemlock water dropwort around the centre pond at lunchtime for visiting insects, the flowers are a very good nectar source. There were lots of hoverflies and a few beetles including a wasp beetle, a yellow-and-black longhorn beetle and a red-headed cardinal beetle.

red-headed cardinal beetle

red-headed cardinal beetle

What’s in My Meadow Today?

By the time I got home most of the meadow in my garden was in shade, but it was still making its presence felt. The grasses are flowering and their pollen is blowing in the wind as every hayfever sufferer will know. Grasses do not rely on insects to carry their pollen from one flower to another to achieve fertilisation, they just release huge clouds of pollen into the air to be carried to another flower. This saves on the need to produce nectar as an inducement to insects, but does mean that a lot of pollen has to be produced.

flowering grasses

flowering grasses – much of it Yorkshire fog

Many trees use the same method, resulting in allergic reactions for many in spring.  Pollen deposited in peat and similar wet habitats has allowed us to look back in time and work out what the dominant vegetation cover was in the distant past. It turns out that although there was rapid colonisation of the UK by tree after the end of the last Ice Age the nature of the cover changed over time. One tree now generally rare, the small-leaved lime, was abundant at one time and it turns out that elm have seen several rises and falls in abundance, perhaps indicating previous outbreaks of “Dutch” elm disease.

The tiny garden pond does not have many plants, but one it does have is lesser reedmace and it is now flowering and also sheds pollen into the wind, the pollen is produced by the male part of the plant, which here is the upper part of the flowering stem.

lesser reedmace flower

lesser reedmace flower

30 Days Wild – Day 22: Punctuated

It was thankfully cooler today which allowed us to do some work along the open western shore of Ibsley Water. As it was Thursday the “us” was the famous Blashford volunteer team. We were trimming brambles and pulling ragwort. I know ragwort is a great nectar source, but in this case we are trying to establish grassland where there has been bramble, willow and nettlebeds, this means mowing, but as we have ponies on site we need to remove the ragwort first. Ponies will rarely eat growing ragwort, but if cut and mixed in grass they will and so can get poisoned.

This shore was dominated by huge beds of ragwort and nettles but years of cutting and light grazing are taking effect and we now have mostly grassland with patches of ox-eye daisy, bird’s foot trefoil and other more desirable species. In turn this is attracting insects such as long-winged conehead.

IMG_1898

long-winged conehead, female nymph

We saw a good few butterflies including good numbers of comma. It seems they are having a very good year and the fresh summer brood emerging now is particularly strong. This generation will breed and produce another generation of adult in the autumn which will them hibernate.

IMG_1916

comma

They get their name from the white comma-shaped marking on the under-wing, which is not visible in this shot. Their ragged wing outline makes them less butterfly-shaped and so harder for predators to find, this is especially so when the wings are closed.

I ran two moth traps last night, only about 50m apart, but one under trees and the other in the open. An illustration of what a difference location makes is seen from the number of hawk-moths caught. The one in the open contained 8 elephant hawk-moth, a pine hawk-moth and 2 poplar hawk-moth, whereas the one under the trees contained just one eyed hawk-moth.

As you will have gathered from this blog, I am a fan of insects in general, even horseflies, although I am less keen on them when they come into the office as this one did today.

IMG_1922

Chrysops relictus female

It is the females that bite, so it would be better if this one went outside again.

 

Hawks and Colour Rings

By the standards of this summer today was a good day, it hardly rained and certainly not enough tot prevent working outside all day. The night was also dry and this resulted in a fair catch of moths including a couple of hawk-moths.

elephant hawk-moth

They are both common species but always a treat to see.

eyed hawk-moth

There were also lots of less flashy species, including a bloodvein.

bloodvein

And  a few are downright tiny.

Caleophora albitarsella

This is one of the most distinctive of a large group of very small moths that make a leaf case to live in as caterpillars, they then move around rather like a snail. The shape of the leaf case is often the easiest way to identify the species as the adult moths look very similar to one another.

We spent the morning path cutting on the far side of Ellingham Lake, I say “we” as I have the assistance of a school student on placement. The chance to get outdoor work done without getting soaked was too good to miss so in the afternoon we weeded a section of the shore in front of the Tern hide to improve the view and see off some of the perennial weeds and small trees that have seeded in there. It was even warm enough for us to see a few butterflies and other insects including this pair of beetles, sometimes known as blood-suckers.

Rhagonycha fulva

The count of mute swan on Ivy Lake continues to rise and I counted at least 42 this evening. On Iblsey Water from the Tern hide as I locked up I saw 2 common sandpiper, a dunlin in very fine summer plumage and a colour-ringed cormorant, I have yet to establish exactly which scheme it is from, but I think it is one from France, hopefully more to follow on this. The combination seems to be blue above white on the right leg and orange over green on the left.

cormorant with colour rings