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.

 

Great Expectations and Small Surprises

I was not at Blashford for most of yesterday, a site meeting at Fishlake to look at the upgrade work to the canal footpath, followed by a meeting about tern conservation meant that it was mid-afternoon before I arrived.

I was at Fishlake a little early so had a quick look over the reserve, the only bird of any note was a great white egret, although these are now more or less in the “expected” category these days.

The tern meeting was interesting, if a little depressing. Our terns are declining,  in almost every year for the last three decades or more they have failed to produce sufficient young to maintain the population. Problems are many, but sea level rise is major among them, there are fewer places to nest and these are being competed over by gulls, terns and shore nesting waders. Added to this, even some of the remaining areas that are available are visited too often by people for the bird to feel safe.

There are lots of local initiatives aimed at arresting the decline, involving building shingle banks, putting up electric fencing and wardening. But it is all small scale and local gains cannot address the overall decline. It epitomises the problem that those of us working in conservation have, however “successful” we are with nature reserves we are all too often not doing more than delaying the inevitable for many species. Reserves can act as refuges but unless the chance is there for species to spread out from them they will eventually be lost. A nature reserve is just to small, too isolated to be able to provide a genuinely viable home for most species in the long term.

When I did eventually get to Blashford and got over to Tern hide I was surprised to see an adult little gull, then even more surprised to see two, then three and finally four. They were sometimes dipping after insects on the lake’s surface right in front of the hide, a magical sight.

Recent night shave been especially mild and quite good for moths, combined with some southerly winds this is a recipe for catching migrants. There have been some rarities around but the best I have caught was a vestal on Sunday.

vestal

vestal

Today’s catch was pretty good as well and included sallow, pink-barred sallow, red-line Quaker, satellite, straw dot, white-point, chestnut, snout, large wainscot, beaded chestnut, barred sallow, canary-shouldered thorn, black rustic, lunar underwing, lesser yellow underwing, large yellow underwing, frosted orange, feathered thorn, several Epirrita (a group of hard to identify moths including autumnal moth, and the two November moths), Hysopygia glaucinalis (a Pyralid moth) and the pick of the bunch a Clifden nonpareil.

Clifden nonpareil

Clifden nonpareil, also known as blue underwing

The Clifden nonpareil used to be a rare migrant, but is evidently established locally in southern England now, as it used to be before it died out. It is a close relative of the more familiar red underwing, but is larger and with a blue and black hind wing. I did catch a red underwing the other night too.

red underwing

red underwing

The Red and Yellow and the Tufted.

The cloud last night meant that the night started warm, making it good for moths, at least until the heavy rain set in. The catch in the moth trap was large in number, although with no particular rarities. The most spectacular species did not even make it into the trap, it was a red underwing that was resting on the wall of the Education Centre.

red underwing

red underwing

I know it does not look that spectacular, but it is a very big moth and when it flies about it shows red and black hind-wings, which you cannot see here as they are covered when it lands.

The brightest sighting of the day was a group of sulphur polyphore brackets on a felled log, this is an especially spectacular species and large with it.

sulphur polyphore

sulphur polyphore

A look out over Ibsley Water showed that there are still lots of coot and a fair variety of other wildfowl, including a teal, 2 pochard and several families of tufted duck. These typically don’t appear until after mid-summer, unlike mallard which often have duckling even before winter is completely out. The family int he picture was resting on the shore outside the Tern hide this afternoon.

tufted duck family

tufted duck family

The only other sighting of any note that I made was of a single green sandpiper, also on Ibsley Water.

 

A Spectacle(ular), SilyerY Sunday and Migrant(ory) Monday

The numbers of human visitors to the reserve are often difficult to predict and Bank Holiday weekends are no exception.  Animal visitors, on the other hand, are almost impossible to predict as the flow of the seasons moves on.  For some it is late summer and to others its early autumn.

On the bird front there have been many sightings of kingfisher and the numbers of waterfowl are starting to build steadily, in number, if not in range of species.  Small numbers of migrant waders are starting to appear including common sandpiper and green sandpiper. Perhaps the most notable bird of the two days was/ has been a black tern, reported yesterday and which we saw, appropriately from the Tern Hide, as we closed the reserve. So far no reports today.

Jim had set up the light trap overnight on Saturday, but the slightly damp and cooler conditions didn’t produce  a huge range  of moths.  the most spectacular was a Red Underwing, which unfortunately took flight almost as soon as it was found – so no picture.  The most populous species in the trap were Silver Y (8) and Spectacle (7).  Later in the day one of the Silver Y moths, so named for the ‘y’ shaped marking,  settled on my car .

Silver Y moth on car - yes i kow it needs a wash!

Silver Y moth on car – yes i know it needs a wash!

The Spectacle moth’s name is less obvious when seen side on.

Not obviously spectacular

Not obviously spectacular

but quite understandable when viewed head on –

The name 'Spectacle' seems more obvious now.

The name ‘Spectacle’ seems more obvious now.

A number of times when I’ve been  going through, sorting out the various moths in the light trap, I’ve been asked about the differences between moths and butterflies. i don’t pretend to be an expert, but the following may help.

Butterflies and moths comprise the order lepidoptera (from the ancient Greek for  ‘scale’ and  wing’ ) and in the U.K. includes butterflies  ( 50 + species), macro moths (the larger ones 800+ species) and micro moths (several thousand species).  There is a tendency to think that day flying species are butterflies and nocturnal ones are moths, but there are a large number of moths species (more than all the butterflies) that fly during the day. Mostly they are micro moths and easily overlooked, but include some macro moths, like  Silver Y and Humming-bird Hawkmoth (see last week’s blog).  To add to the confusion some butterflies must be on the move overnight  as they are regularly caught in overnight  light traps, I’ve seen Peacock, Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell.  I seem to remember that the strict technical definition of a butterfly is the possession of club-shaped antennae, as on this Red Admiral.

Red Admiral

Red Admiral

   whereas moths have feathery or straight antennae like this Small Phoenix.

Small Phoenix - note the straight antenae, typical of moth species

Small Phoenix – note the straight antennae, typical of moth species

The differentiation between macro and micro moths can be even more confusing as it ultimately seems to depend in which family group the moth belongs . Size isn’t everything, there are some quite small macro moths and some fairly large micro moths, like this Mother of Pearl – a micro moth – which is about the same size or larger than the Small Phoenix – a macro moth.

The wonderfully lustrous sheen of the Mother of Pearl

The wonderfully lustrous sheen of the Mother of Pearl

Incidently the Mother of Pearl illustrates quite clearly the facet of the ‘scaly wing’ nature of lepidoptera. Although the picture doesn’t show it too clearly, the subtle silvery iridescent, almost translucent, colouring on the wings is caused by interference patterns of the light on the tiny scales.  This gives them a shimmering effect as the colour changes depending on which angle you see them from. I’ve read somewhere that this effect was the inspiration behind the development of the compact disc (CD and presumably DVD’s) as it was realised that this could be used to store huge amounts of information in a small space and could be written to and read by laser light.  

The elevated temperatures have kept any dragonflies and damselflies quite mobile, but a Migrant Hawker was kind enough to perch up on the buddleia and stayed there long enough to have its  picture taken.

Migrant Hawker

Migrant Hawker