30 Days Wild – Day 21

I contrived to have the longest day off this year, the first day of my weekend, so I suppose it will also be the longest weekend, at least for daylight. Remarkably it was not raining so I took the opportunity to visit Broughton Down again, a gem of a site and for most of the time we had it to ourselves. It is proper downland as you imaging it should be, or at least some sections are, some still suffer from scrub encroachment, but a long term program of control is taking effect.

The top of the Down is especially good for fragrant orchid, of which there are literally thousands.

fragrant orchid 2

fragrant orchid

They come in varying shades.

fragrant orchid white

very pale fragrant orchid

Usually as single flowering spikes, but sometimes in groups.

fragrant orchids

fragrant orchids

And to cap it all they are really fragrant too.

There were some other orchids, in the hollows especially, there were common spotted orchid.

spotted orchid

common spotted orchid

And thinly scattered through the fragrant orchid were pyramidal orchid.

pyramidal orchid with hoverfly

pyramidal orchid with hoverfly

There were good numbers of butterflies, perhaps commonest were small heath, impressive as they are seriously reduced in numbers at most sites. Perhaps next most frequent was dark green fritillary, then brimstone, meadow brown, marbled white and common blue. None of which I got pictures of, although as I staked out a group of large scabious flowers I did get a Conopid fly, probably Sicus ferrugineus.

Sicus ferrugineus

Sicus ferrugineus (probably)

My other insect highlight remains unidentified, but is very smart, if anyone recognises it I would love to know.

beetle

Unidentified beetle

Back home in the garden I did manage to get a picture of a meadow brown, one of at least three in our mini-meadow.

meadow brown

meadow brown

I also got a shot of a leafcutter bee on a geranium.

Willughby's Leafcutter Bee

Willughby’s Leafcutter Bee

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30 Days Wild – Day 18

Not an inspiring day, although not as wet as predicted, which meant that working with the volunteers we continued with work on a new raft design. Although it rained a little for most of the time it was warm enough that meadow brown butterflies and my first marbled white of the year were flying. Brown butterflies will often fly in dull or rainy weather so log as it is warm, most other species usually need some sun to get active. Marbled white, despite their name, are actually part of the brown family.

My only picture of the day was of the coot family on Ivy Silt Pond, now down to just the single chick, although it has grown well. Coot will actually kill their chicks to reduce brood size if food gets hard to come by, so as to improve the chance of survival of those that remain. I don’t know what has happened to the lost chicks, but they may have been indirect casualties of the recent poor weather, if their parents felt unable to rear all of the brood.

Coot and chick

The coot pair now have just one chick

30 Days Wild – Day 14 – It’s Not Just Grass!

A day off catching up with domestic tasks, so wildlife watching was largely restricted to the garden. The mini-meadow is looking very fine at present, it may only be 5m by 4m, but it is packed with flowers and has  a very good structure. The term “structure” in relations to grasslands means the variation in height and the layering of the vegetation. A well structured grassland will have vegetation at every level. In mine the lowest level is occupied by lesser stitchwort, mouse-eared hawkweed, cowslip, bugle, bird’s-foot trefoil and white clover. Slightly higher is the yellow rattle, creeping buttercup, dandelion, ribwort plantain, red clover and bloody cranesbill.  Higher still are the ox-eye daisy, hawkbits, field scabious, perforated St John’s wort, meadow buttercup and corky-fruited water-dropwort. The top layer is mostly taken by knapweed. There are several different grass species and a number of other herbs dotted about. 

This structure allows insects to move about all through the area at every level and light can get through to the ground. This is the opposite of an intensive grassland where the objective is a dense even grass sward, these may be fields, but they are really high yield grass crops, with high biomass and low biodiversity. Traditional forage crops were hay, and repeated cropping tended to increase biodiversity and and reduce the biomass. It is easy to see why farmers seeking lots of forage would move to an intensive model, but the result has been a 97% loss of herb rich grasslands in the UK in a lifetime.

“Views over green fields” might be trumpeted by estate agents or implicit in the idea of the “Green Belt”, but green fields are ones that have lost their biodiversity. Similarly green lawns, verges and civic areas are ones that have had their diversity and wildlife stripped away. It is easy to see why agricultural grasslands have been “improved” to increase their productivity, these are businesses seeking to make a profit. Despite this most of the best remaining herb-rich grasslands are on farms and farmers are at the forefront of improving the situation.

So why are local authorities and corporate owners of mown grasslands so set on removing their variety has always been a mystery to me. Many years ago I worked at a Country Park and took to leaving the banks and other areas not walked on to be cut just once a year, mowing the rest as paths and patches around picnic tables. Pretty soon we had meadow brown, common blue and marbled white flying between the picnic places. However I soon got complaints, not from the site users, but from councillors and others who declared it “untidy”, I did not give up but as soon as I moved on they restored the old regime.

P1050731

My mini-meadow, it really is not difficult to have diverse wildlife friendly spaces rather than dewilded grass.

Some land uses demand regular mowing, but it should not be the default approach, we should expect habitats to be managed to maximise their environmental value. Wildlife lives everywhere, given the chance and should do so, we should expect land managers to be properly discharging their responsibility for the land they manage and to be looking to increase biodiversity, not mowing, or worse still, spraying it to oblivion.

meadow brown

Meadow brown in the meadow, hiding from the wind

Bombus lucorum

Bombus lucorum, the white-tailed bumblebee on ox-eye daisy

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.

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.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 19: Too Hot for Walking

I was down to do a guided walk at Blashford in the morning, but it was so hot that two of the walkers cried off and all we managed was a short amble along the Dockens Water to Goosander hide. At least going through the trees by the river was a bit cooler and the Goosander hide was quite busy with a fair few sand martin coming into the nesting wall. There are also now hundreds of greylag and Canada geese on Ibsley Water, come to moult their flight feathers on the relative safety of the open water. Unlike ducks, geese become completely flightless for quite a while when they moult so they have to seek out somewhere safe, but also with accessible food.

On the way to the hide we saw a few bee orchid and several butterflies, including a couple of summer brood comma, my first small skipper of the year and a few marbled white. One of the participants on the walk told me that they are also known as “Half-mourning”, something I had not heard before.

marbled white

marbled white on ox-eye daisy

Sometime ago I posted that we had some puss moth caterpillars, they were quite small then, but now they have grown a lot and today I was dividing them up into three groups to make it easier to keep up with feeding them. They are very fine caterpillars and get ever more so with age.

puss moth caterpillar

puss moth caterpillar

 

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

Remaining Wild

A bit of  a lull for a couple of days due to computer problems, perhaps now sorted? But only time will tell.

Over the last couple of days, and say this quietly, it has been rather more summery. Although it is clearly already moving into late summer as many migrant birds are on the move, starting their southward journeys. On Ibsley Water there are returning common sandpiper, at least two on recent days, also a fine male black-tailed godwit yesterday, returned from trying to breed in Iceland. There have also been large gatherings of sand martin stopping to feed on their was south to Africa for the winter, likewise I suspect that some of the swift are on the move too. The cuckoo have stopped “cuckooing” and most will be gone, just the juveniles left to give us records into autumn. Although the blackcap still sings it is now the late summer song, which is subtly different form their spring one, still recognisably blackcap, but with  a more melancholy sound.

It is not all downbeat though, lots of butterflies are coming out, “Brown season” is in full swing with loads of meadow brown and marbled white (they are browns really, honest) and the first gatekeeper too. It is also getting towards peak horsefly season, okay perhaps not such a cause for celebration, but most species do not bite humans. Today I came across one such species Hybromitra distinguenda, also known as the bright horsefly. It was also a male, so no risk at all of being bitten as it is only the females that bite. He was hovering at about 75cm, swinging from side to side and back and forth, above the track to Ivy South hide as I went to open up. I have seen other Hybomitra species doing this, sometimes as early as 06:00am and often in small groups, I assume it is some sort of display to attract passing females, but I have never seen a female fly in. Here are a couple of pictures I managed to grab.

Hybomitra distinguenda 2

bright horsefly male

Hybomitra distinguenda

bright horsefly male, front view

Horseflies are remarkable creatures, they are probably the fastest of all flies, capable of 30 or 40 kilometres per hour and incredibly manoeuvrable being able to make a 180 degree turn in just a few metres, even at that speed. They have huge eyes that give them close to a 360 degree view of the world and a visual processing speed that makes catching them fantastically difficult unless they are not paying attention.

 

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.

 

Butterflies, Flowers and the Dead

Although today was another mainly dominated by rain and yet more rain, it was also Thursday and so the rain held off until after the volunteers had finished work, as is to be expected. The task was pulling ragwort, yet again, but we will probably only have one more week to go before it starts to seed. In fact when we started work the sun was almost out an there were butterflies flying between the flowers along the lakeshore, they were mostly meadow browns and marbled whites, two species that will fly in dull conditions so long as it is moderately warm.

marbled white

The moth trap was very quiet following a rather cool night and as I was not in yesterday I will report on Tuesday’s catch, which did not make it to the blog. A couple of new species for the year were included, these being barred straw.

barred straw

Barred straw rest with their wings curled at the edges, presumably to try to look less moth-like when amongst appropriately coloured leaves. There was also a very fresh slender brindle.

slender brindle

Normally this time of year is dominated by insects and as a result lots of plants that flower now are rich in nectar to attract them as pollinators. Moths visit lots of flowers and some like honeysuckle attract species such as the long-tongued hawk-moths, such as elephant hawk-moth and the migrant humming-bird hawk-moth.

honeysuckle

Thistles are also very good nectar sources with the tall marsh thistle being especially popular with silver-washed fritillaries.

marsh thistle

Perhaps one of the most visited plant types are the brambles, they provide a good source of food for insects and the many micro species flower at slightly different times meaning they are available for a very long season.

hoverfly on bramble flower

Ragwort is also a very good nectar source for lots of insects and this is always one of the conflicts we face when deciding to remove it. A site like Blashford will always have ragwort, a long history of ground disturbance and as a result a huge store of seed must now be in the soil. We will only ever keep the amount under a degree of control and reduce the risk of spread onto neighbouring land. It is poisonous to stock, although usually they will not eat it when it is growing and there is grass available, in hay it is a different matter. On the way to today’s task we came across a headless linnet lying beside the path, presumably killed by a bird of prey, probably a sparrowhawk, apart from the lack of a head it was in good condition.

headless linnet

The recent rain has resulted in very high flows in the Dockens Water and this has shifted shingle banks and made and damaged various log jams.  I was inspecting one of the log piles when I noticed the wet log on top was covered in black fungi, they were deadman’s fingers, the picture is not great both because it was raining quite hard and due to the very deep shade.

deadman’s fingers

There are still very few birds of note to report, today’s highlights included a duck pochard on Ivy Lake, where there were also at least 47 mute swans. At the end of the day an adult common sandpiper on the small section of cleared shore in front of the Tern hide was pleasing as we spent a couple of hours removing the vegetation there last week.