30 Days Wild – Day 17 – Up on the Down

I had a day off and the weather was okay so I headed out for a visit to Broughton Down, a real gem of a reserve, a steep chalk down with a surprising variety of habitat, even the grazed down varies in character as you move around the site. I started at the furthest end of the reserve where the turf is short and covered in an abundance of fragrant orchids.

orchid bank

orchid bank

These come in various shades from quite dark to almost white.fragrant orchid

Although the fragrant orchids were the most abundant there were patches of common spotted orchid, especially in the shade or where the soil was probably a bit deeper or less dry.common spotted orchid

There are other species on site but the only other orchid I was were a few pyramidal.

pyramidal orchid

pyramidal orchid

The other thing that immediately struck me was the super abundance of dark green fritillary, there must have been hundreds, they far outstripped all other species present and I have never seen so many anywhere before.

dark green fritillary

dark green fritillary

Downland is not just about orchids, there are lots of other plants to enjoy, such as greater knapweed, fairy flax, thyme and squinacywort.

sqinancywort

squinancywort

The grassland has a good few anthills and the difference in the flora on these is very obvious, they tend to have thyme and often speedwell too, no doubt they benefit from the deeper soil and good drainage.

anthill

anthill

Thyme is a great nectar source an dis visited by lots of bees and a real favourite for a lot of butterflies too. It can be a good plant to grow if you have a very sunny dry area in the garden and of course it is a culinary herb.

thyme

thyme

The grassland on an unimproved down is the richest in terms of species that you can find anywhere in the UK and I could fill several blogs with flowers from this one visit. Even the plantains, usually a rather drab group of plants, look better on downland.

hoary plantain

hoary plantain

The tall white stems of common valerian stand out well above the generally short vegetation.

common valerian

common valerian

One of the shortest of all the plants is milkwort, common on downland, but also found in lots of other short grasslands, there are several species and forms found in different habitats.

milkwort

milkwort

All these flowers feed lots of insects, including lots of butterflies apart from the fritillaries, one of the other common species was marbled white.

marbled white

marbled white

A question I am sometime asked is what is the difference between butterflies and moths and the answer is that there is no clear answer! Butterflies fly in the daytime, but so do some moths. Although we recognise the general shape of a butterfly, there are moths with the same overall appearance. In fact what we conventionally call butterflies are actually just six of the families of Lepidoptera that we have chose to call butterflies, the rest we call moths.

I did see a few day-flying moths as well as butterflies, the best was a six-belted clearwing a moth that looks like a wasp.

six-belted clearwing

six-belted clearwing

Lots of insects can feed lots of insect predators, some of them also insects, like this robberfly, a chalk downland species in S. England, but with an odd distribution nationally and elsewhere in quite different habitats.

Leptarthrus brevirostris 4x3

Leptarthrus brevirostris with prey

On the way home we stopped to look at a field of poppies and looking at the hedgerow I spotted several tiny soldierflies walking about on the hazel leaves. I decided to try and get some pictures, not easy as they were very small and constantly on the move, but here are my best efforts.

Pachygaster atra

Pachygaster atra

Pachygaster leachii

Pachygaster leachii

Both are common species, but very easily overlooked!

 

 

 

Spring Advances

There have been a lot of consequences of the current coronavirus outbreak that we might not have foreseen. One of these at Blashford are problems for our breeding common terns. The virus and consequent cancellation of all volunteer work parties has meant that the rafts the terns usually nest on cannot be launched. Luckily the very large raft we put out last summer on Ibsley Water was never brought in and the terns seem to be willing to consider it as a nest site.

two tern pairs

Displaying common terns on the “Mega raft”.

The bird to the right has a fish, this will be a male that has caught a fish to bring back to his mate as part of courtship feeding. This behaviour will show a new partner his fishing ability, or just strengthen existing pair bonds, it will also help the female gain condition in readiness for producing the eggs, a huge drain in her resources.

It will be interesting to see how many pairs turn up this year, after years of steady growth the population has fallen in the last couple of years, I think due to poor weather at migration time and more problems competing with nesting black-headed gulls. We also seem to have had very few birds passing through, until this year that is. The other day 68 were counted over Ibsley Water, of course that does not mean they will stay to breed and most have certainly moved on, but at least 14 remain, so perhaps we have a core of seven pairs to build on.

The spring is peak time for birds passing through and as well as common tern we usually see some of their more northern nesting cousins, Arctic terns and occasionally a few of the inland marsh nesting, black tern, although sadly they do not nest in the UK. Black tern and another passage visitor the little gull are probably on their way to nesting around the Baltic Sea area. This spring does seem to have been a good one for little gull, with birds being seen on several days.

P1080400

Little gull, one hatched last year (2cy).

The young birds, hatched last year vary a lot in the amount of dark markings in their wings, this one being fairly typical, but some have almost totally black upper-wings and some much reduced. These birds used to be called “First summer” , although this might seem a little odd as they were hatched last spring, but their actual first summer would have been spent in juvenile plumage, so “First summer” actually described the plumage, not the age of the bird. Things get more confusing with some other species that time their moult differently, so these days you are more likely to hear birders referring to “Second calendar year” (often reduced to 2cy) indicating the age of the bird, rather than the plumage.

As it is spring most of our birds are settling down to nest. As I was having some lunch on Monday a mallard was on the new pond built last year behind the Education Centre, I wondered why it was so reluctant to leave as I sat down nearby. The answer was actually obvious, it had a nest near the pond and when I looked away it flew a short distance into the vegetation and disappeared, no doubt it was just taking a short break from the arduous task of incubation, which is all done by the female.

mallard duck on Centre pond

mallard duck on Centre pond

Blashford Lakes is not an obviously good site for orchids, generally when thinking of these the mind goes to long established chalk downland and these are certainly very good for orchids. However just because Blashford is a recently developed old gravel pit complex this does not mean there are no orchids. In fact we have at least seven species, which might seem surprising, but the secret is that the soils are very nutrient poor, something they have in common with old chalk downland. Our commonest species is probably bee orchid, with scattered groups in various, mostly grassy, places. Next would be southern marsh and common spotted orchids in the damper areas. In deep shade and so probably often overlooked there are common twayblade. On the dry grassland was have a growing population of autumn lady’s tresses and, since it was first found last year a single green-winged orchid. Last years plant was a good tall one, but it got eaten, probably by deer or rabbit. I wondered if it had come up this year so went to have a look yesterday and found it, although a good bit smaller than it was last year, but still flowering.

green-winged orchid

green-winged orchid

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

30 Days Wild – Day 4: A Day for Orchids

After working in the morning with the Sunday volunteer team path trimming, I got out on site for an hour or so in the afternoon. This is peak orchid flowering time, we don’t get many at Blashford and this year’s dry spring seems to have done them no favours, however I did see four species. First was a small group of bee orchid near the Goosander hide.

bee orchid

bee orchid flower

The packet of pollen, known as pollinia can be seen hanging down in the centre, there would have been two, so one has probably been carried away by a visiting insect.

I also found single specimens of common spotted orchid

common spotted orchid

common spotted orchid

and also a southern marsh orchid.

marsh orchid

southern marsh orchid

I also came across a common twayblade, but it was too dark for a picture.

The sunshine was a bit on and off, even with a brief shower at one point, but in the sunnier periods there were quite good numbers of insects out and about. My best picture of an insect today was of a hoverfly Xylota sylvarum, a very fine species with a golden-haired tip to the abdomen.

Xylota sylvarum

Xylota sylvarum, doing a bit of wing cleaning.

My last thing to do for the day was to clean out and feed the puss moth caterpillars, hatched from some eggs laid by a female I caught in the trap. Rearing caterpillars is one of those things I enjoy doing each year, the species vary according to what we come across, in recent years we have reared lime hawk-moth, eyed hawk-moth, iron prominent and alder moth amongst others.

puss moth young caterpillar

A young puss moth caterpillar, they get very impressive when they are fully grown.

 

 

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.

Martin Down resized

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.

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:

Marsh fritillary resized

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.

20170528-IMG_1391-Edit

Burnt tip orchids by David Felstead

Orchid hunting resized

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.

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.

Butterfly orchid resized

Greater butterfly orchid

Fragrant orchid resized

Fragrant orchid

Five spot burnet resized

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.

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!

30 Days Wild – Day 24 (A Dark Day on the Down)

A disappointing day, I had the day off and, on the promise of some sunshine, went up to Martin Down, a very fine downland National Nature Reserve. The chance to wander in such a large and flower-filled space listening to turtle dove and corn bunting was something I felt I needed. It was large and full of flowers and even the turtle dove and corn bunting were doing their thing, but sunny it was not!

Martin Down with black clouds

Dark clouds rolling in over the down

In fact it rained, lightly at first but then with more determination. So plans to look for and photograph insects and plants were shelved. I did get a few shots, the flowers were marvellous and there are thousands of orchids, although low light and a brisk breeze made getting pictures a challenge.

fragrant orchid

fragrant orchid

In the very, very brief sunny spell we also saw a few butterflies including three dark green fritillary, although the sun had gone in again by the time I got this shot.

dark green fritillary

dark green fritillary

Insect of the day though was not a butterfly, but a robberfly, a downland specialist called Leptarthrus brevicornis. it posed well but insisted on perching on the strap of my camera bag, even when I moved it onto a leaf it just flew back! I suspect it was attracted by the black fabric in an effort to warm up.

Leptarthrus brevicornis female

Leptarthrus brevicornis (female)