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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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Burnt tip orchids by David Felstead

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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.

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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.

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Greater butterfly orchid

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Fragrant orchid

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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.

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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!

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30 Days Wild – Day 27

Up and out early today to do my final breeding bird survey of the year, in fact not quite as early as I had hoped as it was rather drizzly at dawn, but still in the field by 05:40. I am surveying a site about 40 minutes from home so there is always a risk that conditions are okay at home but not at the site.  As it is now quite late in the season a lot of birds have stopped singing and some have completely finished nesting and are wandering around in flocks. In this regard the rather wet conditions of late are an advantage as this enables many resident species to have an extra brood, species like song thrush and blackbird, will give up in June in a dry season but can often have an extra brood if worms are still easy to come by in a wet season.

I did have quite a few singing thrushes and also a lot of wren and the summer visitors are still mostly singing so chiffchaff and blackcap were in good numbers. I also had several young birds, some being fed by their parents, confirming breeding. The survey involves mapping the location of every bird seen or heard on eight to twelve visits. This can then be analysed to give a fair estimate of the number of territories of each species present. All I have to do now is transfer all the data to species maps and work out how many territories of each species I have found, it could take a while!

For almost the whole of my four hours on site it was grey with low cloud, but just as I finished the sun came out and with it lots of insects. I saw meadow brown, marbled white, large skipper and small tortoiseshell in just a couple of minutes.

small tortoiseshell

small tortoiseshell

Almost next to the butterfly on the same bramble there was a very smart longhorn beetle, with a very long-winded name, it is the golden-bloomed grey longhorn beetle Agapanthia villosoviridescens.

golden-bloomed grey longhorn beetle (Agapanthia villosoviridescens)

golden-bloomed grey longhorn beetle (Agapanthia villosoviridescens)

My afternoon was spent in a meeting at County Hall, Chichester, a pretty wildlife free zone, but as I left the building it was great to hear the cries of the peregrine on the cathedral, probably the young ones after food from their parents. It is amazing to think that about forty years ago these birds were restricted to western cliffs and that they were plagued by the twin ills of egg collectors and pesticides to the point where it seemed we might lose them altogether.