Counting butterflies and moths…

For the past few years we have taken part in Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count, usually incorporating it into our July Young Naturalists session. We’ve missed doing it as a group this year, for obvious reasons, although I have reminded the group about the survey and hopefully some of them will be able to take part before it finishes on Sunday 9th.

Given the sun has been shining today and you only need 15 minutes to spare, I thought I would spend a bit of time by the Education Centre ponds after lunch and see what I could spot. We have counted at this spot before, but last year we went to our wild play area where we do den building and campfire activities, so if I get the chance I might try there later on in the week.

There was an abundance of gatekeepers, I counted nine in the 15 minutes, but given they are the most abundant around the whole reserve at present that was not too surprising, and two small whites. Perhaps not the most exciting count, but all records are useful and help to build up a bigger picture. In comparison, albeit in a different location on the reserve, last year we managed 15 butterflies altogether and five species, compared to today’s 11 butterflies and two species.

I didn’t take any photos at the time, as I was obviously focused on spotting, counting and recording, but the survey does include some day flying moths and in looking closely at the wild marjoram in search of the mint moths you can quite often see, I spotted a clearwing moth. On closer inspection it was a red-tipped clearwing:

Red-tipped clearwing (4)

Red-tipped clearwing

Red-tipped clearwing (3)

Red-tipped clearwing

I have only ever seen clearwing moths attracted to pheromone lures before, so spotting one nectaring on the marjoram was very exciting (and a complete distraction from the butterfly counting) and although it didn’t stay still for long I was pleased to get a couple of photos.

I did also spot a couple of mint moths:

There is still time to sit back and count butterflies, all you need is 15 minutes and a sunny spot, so if you get the chance between now and Sunday 9th August it is well worth it, you never know what you might see. Details can be found on their website, along with a downloadable chart and you can also use smartphone apps which make recording your sightings even easier.

As well as watching the butterflies and moths, there were lots of bees enjoying the marjoram and I noticed a shield bug on the buddleia. After taking a photo and looking it up, it is I think a hairy shieldbug.

Hairy shieldbug (4)

Hairy shieldbug

Hairy shieldbug (3)

Hairy shieldbug

Yesterday morning I decided to check Goosander Hide was still secure, so headed over the road first thing. Calling in at Tern Hide, there was a lapwing on the shoreline and large numbers of Egyptian geese out on the water. Coot numbers on Ibsley water also seem to be increasing, and I saw a number of mute swans and grey herons. There were also pochard, cormorant, tufted duck and great crested grebe present.

Walking the closed footpath through the old Hanson concrete site I saw a grass snake basking on the path. I didn’t notice it until I was almost on top of it, so was too slow to get a photo as it disappeared quickly into the vegetation. A little further on I had my second grass snake sighting, this time of one swimming along the edge of the Clearwater Pond. Too distant for a photo, I watched it through my binoculars until it was out of sight.

From Goosander Hide I watched the remaining sand martins flying overhead, every so often swooping low over the water and into the nesting holes in the sand martin bank. After a few minutes a kingfisher appeared, first settling further away on the trees that have been felled into the lake, before flying closer and resting on a perch. Every so often it flew down in front of the bank, hovered in front of the holes as though it was investigating them, then returned to the perch. After doing this a few times it flew closer and perched just below the hide window, which took me by surprise and I managed to get a couple of closer photos:

Kingfisher

Kingfisher in front of Goosander Hide

Kingfisher (2)

Kingfisher in front of Goosander Hide

After visiting Goosander Hide I headed back to the Centre, feeling I had been out for long enough and we were potentially going to be busy, and the rest of the day was spent working from the Welcome Hut and chatting to visitors. A very nice office I have to say!

Given I hadn’t made it quite that far yesterday, I decided to head up to Lapwing Hide this morning as the reserve was very quiet first thing. At the hide I was greeted by a very smart red underwing moth, which was happily settled on the door. You can just see a hint of the red underwings that give this moth its name in the photo below:

Red underwing (2)

Red underwing

From the hide I saw Canada geese, three little grebe and a number of black-headed gulls. The reedbed just past the hide was looking lovely in the sunshine:

P1200095

Reedbed near Lapwing Hide

On my way back I followed a fox cub along the path; a really nice encounter, it would run ahead, round a corner, turn then on seeing me approach run off again. I thought it had left the path to the left, but on heading round to Goosander Hide I had a second fox cub encounter, spotting one off to the left of the path sunbathing under some branches. On spotting me it too didn’t hang around, but it was great to watch, albeit briefly.

I had a quick look out of Goosander Hide but didn’t linger, spotting two grey wagtails working their way along the shoreline and a moorhen, then headed back to the Centre again along the closed Hanson footpath.

Along the path I saw a brown argus enjoying the fleabane, the first one I have seen this year and a change to all the gatekeepers I had been spotting:

Brown argus

Brown argus

The moth trap has produced another couple of really nice species recently, including a very smart female oak eggar which was in the trap last Thursday morning, and a dusky thorn which was in there this morning:

Oak eggar

Female oak eggar

Oak eggar (2)

Female oak eggar

Dusky thorn (3)

Dusky thorn

By the new dipping pond this morning there was a pair of mating red-eyed damselflies. I watched them being hounded every time they settled by male common blues, but managed a couple of photos:

Red eyed damselflies (4)

Red-eyed damselflies

Red eyed damselflies (3)

Red-eyed damselflies mating

Finally, and last but not least, here’s a very smart species of digger wasp on one of the planters outside the front of the Centre.:

Digger wasp

Digger wasp sp.

 

Still going wild

On Sunday we had another of our fortnightly Young Naturalist catch ups, and it was great to hear what the group have been getting up to. Will had been down to the Lymington and Keyhaven Marshes and shared some photos from his walk, including one of an avocet with chick.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Thomas and Alex had been for a walk at Iping Common, a Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve, and had seen Silver-studded blue butterflies, a glow worm larva, a bloody-nosed beetle and a pill millipede.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Harry talked to us about the bug hotel in his garden which he built six years ago and is very popular with the spiders and Poppy had also sent me a photo during the week of the female broad-bordered yellow underwing moth which had emerged from a pupa she had found in the garden. Last time we met online she had shown everyone the pupa wriggling and we had guessed at Large yellow underwing, so weren’t far off!

Sadly Saturday night was so windy we didn’t have a huge number of moths to look at, despite Bob running both light traps, but we did have a dozen or so to study under the digital microscope. The group are getting quite good at identifying a few we either catch more regularly or stand out, such as the Spectacle moth or Buff-tip. The most exciting was this lovey Purple thorn, which was very obliging and posed for some time for photos:

Purple thorn (2)

Purple thorn

Nigel had put together another quiz for the group, this time on butterflies, dragonflies, other insects and some spiders they are likely to see whilst out and about and we talked through a presentation on bees, the main reason for all the bee photos I’ve been taking recently!

The group have requested reptiles and amphibians as themes for the next couple of sessions and we will run another in a fortnights time. Grass snake photos will certainly be easy, I spotted one curled up in the vegetation by the Education Centre pond Sunday afternoon:

Grass snake (4)

Grass snake

When I arrived at Blashford yesterday a rather substantial branch had come down by the entrance so I decided to walk the closer footpaths to check everything else was as it should be.

I popped into Ivy South Hide to have a look at the tern rafts and could make out quite a few Common tern chicks, although they were difficult to count especially when an adult came back with food and they all dashed around. Closer to the hide there was a pair of Black-headed gull chicks on one of the life-ring rafts and I watched the smaller one bobbing around in the water before it climbed back on to the raft:

Black-headed gull chicks (2)

Black-headed gull chick

Walking back up the Dockens path I saw another grass snake, this time a young one, basking on the large fallen tree close to the mushroom sculpture. I managed a quick photo before it disappeared over the back of the trunk:

Grass snake (3)

Grass snake

Further along the path I spotted another plant I have not noticed before, identified by Bob today as Tutsan. Tutsan is a deciduous flowering shrub in the Hypericum or St John’s Wort family, and native to western and southern Europe. Its leaves were apparently gathered and burned to ward off evil spirits on the eve of St. John’s Day and it has also been used to treat wounds and inflammation. The name Tutsan comes from the French words “tout” (all) and “sain” (healthy), a reference to the plant’s healing capabilities.

Tutsan

Tutsan

From the river dipping bridge I decided to head over to Tern Hide to have a look at Ibsley Water and see if there were any Ringlets in the area of rough grass between the pedestrian gate and car park height barrier. There were a couple flying about and I also saw my first Gatekeeper of the year, although it did not settle for a photo.

Ringlet (2)

Ringlet

Whilst photographing the Ringlet I noticed a hoverfly, Volucella pellucens, on the bramble flowers. Also called the Pellucid fly or Large Pied-hoverfly, it is one of the largest flies in Britain and has a striking ivory-white band across its middle and large dark spots on its wings. The adults favour bramble flowers and umbellifers whilst the larvae live in the nests of social wasps and bumblebees, eating waste products and bee larvae.

Volucella pellucens

Volucella pellucens

On reaching Tern Hide a movement caught my eye and I noticed a large wasps nest under the roof and to the right of the right hand door. I spent some time watching them flying in and out. Bob did head over there yesterday too to take a look and shared a photo, but here’s another:

Wasps and wasp nest

Wasps and wasp nest

Although we’re not going over there as regularly as we would have done under normal circumstances, I’m surprised neither of us had noticed it sooner given the size!

Yesterday afternoon we had a brief power outage whilst our supply was switched back from a generator to the mains, and as the sun was shining I took the opportunity to linger by the planters outside the Centre, chat to the few visitors that were passing and see which insects were visiting the flowers. Although we’ve shared a few Green-eyed flower bee photos before, they are so smart I couldn’t resist taking a few more photos of them when they either rested on the planter edge or paused for long enough on the vervain.

I also spotted an Alder beetle on the lavender, a bee enjoying the astrantia, a Large white butterfly on the verbena and a mint moth.

The mini meadow by the Welcome Hut is also still really good for insects, with Thick-legged flower beetles, hoverflies and Small skippers enjoying the remaining ox-eye daisies, yarrow and ragged robin. The hoverfly could I think be a male Long hoverfly,  Sphaerophoria scripta, with its narrow body noticeably longer than its wings. The female of this species is broader.

Today has been decidedly soggier, but I did watch a butterfly fly past in the rain and there are plenty of soggy looking damselflies trying to find shelter on the plant stems:

Our Young Naturalists group is kindly funded by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

Print

Here be dragons!

Yesterday we had our second Young Naturalists catch up via Zoom, looking once more at the moths in the light trap using the digital microscope and also at some pond creatures I had caught out of the new dipping pond first thing.

We talked about dragonfly and damselfly nymphs and had another look at an exuvia I had found floating in the pond (the dried outer casing left behind when the nymph finishes the aquatic stage of its lifecycle), looked at lesser and greater waterboatmen and a couple of different diving beetles and a diving beetle larva, talked about what materials cased caddisfly larva use to make their cases (the one I caught was thinner and more streamlined than the one in the photo below, living in a tiny tube made of pieces of reed or leaf), talked about the feathery gills on the baby newts or efts which enable them to breathe underwater and are absorbed as they develop, and watched a whirligig beetle whizzing around on the surface of the water – they definitely have the best name out of all the pond creatures!

I didn’t get round to taking any photos of the creatures as a number were trying to escape whilst I was talking about them, so they were swiftly released back into the pond whilst volunteer Nigel chatted through the moths he had caught in his light trap at home. Here are some photos I took a while ago now, it was quite nice to go pond dipping again!

Nigel had also prepared an A to Z of birds quiz which kept the group entertained, especially as not all of the birds were native to this country. Bonus points were also awarded for additional questions about each bird, so I think the group learnt a thing or two, including where Nigel has been on past holidays!

After a very soggy start to the day the sun came out after lunch so I went for a walk around the reserve. In the meadow I was treated to some great views of a female Black-tailed skimmer, who I had disturbed when passing but seemed content to settle again on the grass:

Female Black-tailed skimmer

Female Black-tailed skimmer

Seeing dragonflies and damselflies at rest is one of the best ways to tell the two apart, dragonflies rest with their wings outstretched, as above, whereas damselflies rest with their wings held together over their abdomen or body:

common blue damselfly

Common blue damselfly at rest

I also found a Mint moth, Pyrausta purpuralis enjoying the ox-eye daisies. Although the grass and flower stems turned brown very quickly with the absence of rain, the flowers themselves are still blooming.

P1180411 (2)

Mint moth, Pyrausta purpuralis

On my way up to Lapwing Hide I saw what I first thought was a bumblebee, but on closer inspection realised it was a bumblebee hoverfly.

Bee mimic hoverfly volucella plumata

Bee mimic hoverfly, Volucella bombylans var. plumata

This hoverfly is an excellent bumblebee mimic. There are two main varieties, Volucella bombylans var. plumata seen above has yellow bands and a white tail, mimicking the Garden, White-tailed and Buff-tailed bumblebees whilst Volucella bombylans var. bombylans is black with a red tail, mimicking the Red-tailed bumblebee.

Mimicry reduces the chances of the fly being predated because it resembles a bee. In addition, the females lays their eggs in the nests of bumblebees and wasps where the larvae feed on the nest debris and occasionally the bee larvae as well.

On my way back to the Education Centre I was lucky enough to spot another female Black-tailed skimmer, who also posed beautifully so I could take a really good look and take some more photos:

Female Black-tailed skimmer 2

Female Black-tailed skimmer

Female Black-tailed skimmer 4

Female Black-tailed skimmer

Female Black-tailed skimmer 3

Female Black-tailed skimmer

Dragonflies have amazing vision, which they use to locate and catch insects whilst on the wing. Like most insects they have have compound eyes: each eye contains several thousand individual facets, with each facet containing a tiny lens. Combining all the images from each lens makes their sight better than most other insects.

Their eyes are holoptic, which means they meet along the middle of the head and take up most of it, wrapping around the head from the side to the front of the face. In comparison a damselflies eyes are also large, but they do not meet and there is always space between them. This is known as dichoptic and can be seen on the Banded demoiselle below:

P1030688 (2)

Banded demoiselle

Our Young Naturalists group is kindly supported by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

Wildlife encounters of the furlough kind

I returned to work on Sunday after eight weeks away from Blashford (it is so green now!) and six weeks on furlough along with around 40% of my Trust colleagues, most of whom are still off. Whilst I’m back to help Bob with the reserve tasks he cannot do by himself and engage with visitors on site from a safe distance, following on from the easing of restrictions last week, we are still closed whilst we look at what we can safely offer in the coming weeks and months. We will keep you updated as and when things begin to change!

A Blashford blog will follow shortly, but I thought I would share what I have been getting up to whilst off.

Spending so much time at home meant I was able to discover what wildlife visits my garden, a bit of a distraction whilst I was supposed to still be working, but it was really nice to be there during the day and have more time to appreciate my outside space. My garden is only small, with two patio areas which contain a number of plants in pots and a lawn which has struggled as a lawn and now has a few flowers planted into the patchier bits as I slowly tun it into a much wilder space. I have lived there for a couple of years, and this year the garden really seems to have come to life with birds and insects, which has been really nice to see.

Whilst at home I had blue tits, wood pigeons, dunnocks and blackbirds frequently visiting the garden along with a wren, great tits and a goldfinch. I have a willow bird table and the blackbirds seem to really like this, launching themselves onto it from the hedge and swinging around whilst they fed.

I have two hedges in the garden and this year the blackbirds successfully nested in one (I did a fair amount of cat chasing whilst off, if they have another brood they’re on their own!) which was lovely to watch. I saw four fledglings at the same time, two sunning themselves in one hedge and two in the other and both adults worked really hard to feed them with the male bringing back huge beak fulls, including a garden centipede in the photo below:

Blackbird 2

Male blackbird with a beak full

They fledged last Thursday so I was able to enjoy their company for a few days, with one of the young staying in the garden until Sunday morning. It was very amusing to see it sat swinging on the bird table calling mum for food.

I had written a rather long list of things to do to keep me busy, and one of those things was to dig a pond. Digging a pond was definitely more exciting than decorating the bathroom, re-pointing some dodgy brickwork to hopefully solve a damp issue in the kitchen and damp proofing and repainting the kitchen wall, so it was one of the first things I did and it’s been really nice to see it change over just a few weeks. The less exciting jobs were left until last week when I knew I was returning to work…

The photos below show the garden before and after, then the pond full of mud as the female blackbird decided the moss I had placed round the edge would make really nice nest building material (she had ignored it the entire time it was elsewhere in the garden) and later on with some plant additions (all native) I had been able to order online.

Whilst digging the pond I unearthed the snake millipede below, along with centipedes that were too fast for a photo, and the stones placed around the edge quickly became resting spots for hoverflies:

The blackbirds had been using a bucket of water with some willow sticks in to drink from and bathe in, but they now both use the pond which is really nice to watch. The female didn’t mind me being around at all but the male was a lot more wary of me to begin with and would fly off even if I was watching from the window, but now he is quite happy for me to be out in the garden whilst he’s there feeding.

As well as the birds it was great to see which insects were visiting the flowers and which flowers were growing really well, the ragged robin in particular has seeded so well from one plant in a pot last year I was able to plant it out in different places in the grass.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I live on the edge of Salisbury so on my daily walks I walked my dog from home to either a little stretch of the River Bourne in Laverstock or up to the Laverstock Downs, enjoying the fact there were fewer cars on the road.

These photos were taken in the little patch of woodland down by the river:

I had hoped to see some bluebells on my wanders but sadly all those I did see were garden escapees.

I spent a lot more time up on the Downs as although they were further to walk to, it was much easier to practice social distancing up here than it was down by the river which tended to be busier with people and had a stretch of boardwalk to contend with.

It was a great spot for bird watching and I had some brilliant views of both blackcap and common whitethroat, especially early spring when the whitethroats were displaying and establishing territories.

I managed a total of 47 bird species whilst off, either in my garden, flying over my garden or on my daily walks: blackbird, blue tit, dunnock, wren, great tit, wood pigeon, collared dove, jackdaw, starling, long-tailed tit, yellowhammer, carrion crow, buzzard, pheasant, song thrush, chaffinch, chiffchaff, red kite, blackcap, common whitethroat, swallow, linnet, goldfinch, red-legged partridge, little egret, mallard, shoveler, kingfisher, magpie, skylark, great spotted woodpecker, robin, Canada goose, mute swan, raven, sparrowhawk, rook, bullfinch, house sparrow, Cetti’s warbler, grey heron, moorhen, mistle thrush, swift, house martin, peregrine falcon and mandarin duck. They were quite a good mix!

The Downs were also a great spot for butterflies, with orange tips, brimstones, small tortoiseshells, green-veined whites, small heaths, peacocks and dingy skippers all on the wing. I also found lots of green-veined orchids and other flowers on the chalk grassland.

The most exciting spot though was probably to see glow worm larvae on three separate occasions, so I must go up there over the summer in search of glow worms.

Glow worm larvae

Glow worm larvae

I was very lucky to have my garden to enjoy and also have some lovely spaces within walking distance to explore (it was also quite nice to use my car less!), so I had plenty of nature to keep me company during the pandemic, whilst a list of house and craft projects also kept me busy. I might be heading back up to the Downs at the weekend…