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.

 

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A Trip to Kitts

A quick bit of catch-up. On Thursday we did not do a volunteer task, but instead went up to Kitts Grave, the part of the Martin Down National Nature Reserve that belongs to the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. The site is managed as part of the wider reserve by Natural England, but we do a couple of tasks there each winter and it is always good to go an see how the habitat is developing. We have been helping with scrub clearance there to reinstate chalk grassland patches and rides within the scrub. It seems to be working well and the area is fabulous for a wide range of insects. Unfortunately Thursday was mostly dull but luckily warm enough for some insects to be about. Very obvious, as they sat around on the foliage in full view, were several scarlet tiger moth.

scarlet tiger

scarlet tiger moth

The mix of scrub and grassland is very good for ringlet and they don’t mind flying even in very overcast conditions.

ringlet

ringlet

As the grassland area grows we will no doubt be seeing more and more marbled white, the dull conditions meant they were basking with their wings wide open, something they rarely do in sunshine.

marbled white on creeping thistle

marble white on creeping thistle

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

 

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.