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.


basking ringlet

Some of the butterflies were warm enough to get on with life.


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 23: Priorities

Finally a day when it was cool enough to get out on site with some machinery to get some of the paths trimmed. This is not the most glamorous of reserve management tasks but it has to be done. Managing a nature reserve is full of conflicting demands and dilemmas. No management is without impact and what is positive for one group of species will be negative for others. Trimming the paths often means cutting back nettles, as most will know these are the food plant of peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies, so I try to avoid cutting the patches in full sun which they prefer and to do larger scale cutting only after they caterpillars have finished feeding.


a fresh summer brood small tortoiseshell

The clearance of dense nettlebeds promotes patches of grassland and other herbage which is preferred by a wider range of species such as small skipper, which have just started to fly this year.


small skipper

Over the years I have managed many different sites used for various purposes, ranging from nature reserves, long distance paths, picnic sites and Country Parks and these dilemmas occur at all of them. In truth all land management involves conflicting interests and all land is in multiple use. On a nature reserve wildlife will take precedence over most of the site, but access and safety will be paramount in some areas. I do believe that whatever the land use, it is wrong to deny the multiple interests, land management is about balancing interests not ignoring some entirely. Above all management should be about maintaining and enhancing the possibilities that are available for the future, good management is about increasing potential not applying a full stop.

Following Day 22’s horsefly picture I got another, this time of a male Hybomitra species in flight. This one is Hybomitra distinguenda and they fly very fast indeed, the picture was taken at 1/4000 sec and the wings are still in motion.


Hybomitra distinguenda

It is reputed that a species of this genus, albeit a rather large one from Southern Africa is the fastest flying insect having allegedly been clocked at 90 mph!

I have noted before how Blashford has many species that have come in from elsewhere, often due to the somewhat chequered industrial history. We have a number of coastal species including a very large population of annual beard grass, perhaps the largest in    the county, the natural habitat for it is poached upper saltmarsh, such a scan be found at Farlington Marshes.


Mayweed flower in annual beard grass.




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


3o Days Wild – Day 23

Another Thursday and we decided to tackle what is without doubt the volunteers least favourite task of the year, ragwort control around Ibsley Water. When I first started at the reserve ragwort was the dominant plant around large areas of the shore, often to the exclusion of all other plants. Over the years we have cut and pulled it to try and establish a more mixed and predominantly grassy sward. It has been back breaking work, but it finally seems to be paying off. Walking the eastern shore it is now no more that occasional and forms part of an increasingly varied sward including sedges, bee orchid and much more.

Ragwort is actually a valuable nectar source and present in small amounts in grassland that is not used for hay does not present any real risk to livestock. Although poisonous few animals will eat it when growing. Fortunately at Blashford the grassland has many other nectar sources so loss of some ragwort  probably has minimal impact upon nectaring insects. As we worked we saw a good range of butterflies, despite the overcast conditions including lots of meadow brown.

meadow brown pair

Meadow brown pair mating

I also saw my first small skipper of the year, although a few have been seen on the reserve by others.

small skipper

small skipper

The day was not entirely positive though. Arriving at the reserve and looking out onto Ibsley Water it was clear that the black-headed gull pairs with chicks and single common tern pair that had just started sitting on the small island neat Tern hide had been lost overnight, probably to a predatory mammal. Fox is probably likely, but they often get the blame when others are actually the culprit and I cannot rule out badger, mink or otter.

black-headed gulls

black-headed gull pair

I got a real surprise at the end of the day when I closed up the Tern hide I realised there was a female common scoter floating around with the tufted duck flock. There was also a black-necked grebe reported in the hide diary, although I could not find it.



Of caterpillars and butterflies…

Nothing particularly of note to report from today, other than the fact that after a brief absence there was once more grass snakes on the logs in front of the Ivy South Hide today. I suspect that rather than basking to warm up in the current hot and muggy weather conditions they had sought out a waterside location to try and cool down! A good catch of invertebrates (and baby newts, or efts) was enjoyed by participants in the pond dipping for grown ups event this morning, but it was actually these very small cinnabar moth caterpillars feeding on ragwort by the pond that caught my eye:

Cinnabar moth caterpillars

Cinnabar moth caterpillars

A number of our volunteers have planned and been running a couple of butterfly transacts this summer, one taking in the north of the site, the second the south. Blashford has never really struck me as being a particularly good butterfly site in the past and certainly it isn’t the place to go for a likely encounter with a rarity, but actually the figures when looked at in black and white are leading me to reconsider my thoughts on this, and, as with so much at Blashford, the diversity of habitats within the reserve is reflected by an equally diverse butterfly population, though by far the most common, so far this year at least, is the meadow brown.

More on this (the transects) will follow in later blogs I know, but a chance encounter with one of our regular visitors, Sue Lambert, did educate me on the intricacies of identification between small and Essex skippers the other day. I had always assumed that the small skippers in and around the Ivy North Meadow were just that, small skippers, but it turns out that close inspection of the colour of the tips of the antennae has revealed the presence of both small and Essex skippers. Thanks to Sue for e-mailing the following pictures that illustrate the difference:

Essex skipper by Sue Lambert

Essex skipper by Sue Lambert

Small skipper by Sue Lambert

Small skipper by Sue Lambert

A Close Encounter of the Adder Kind

Two days together as I was too late last night to blog. Wednesday saw the last of my “Get to Know Invertebrates” courses on what was not a very good day for looking for the target groups which were dragonflies, damselflies and grasshoppers and crickets. Despite the less that ideal weather we did find quite a few species. To find dragonflies we resorted to looking for larvae in the Centre pond, we found a large emperor larva, several small hawker larvae, probably southern hawkers and 2 downy emerald larvae, or at least that is what we decided they were anyway, which I had not seen in this pond before.

emperor dragonfly larva

The downy emerald larvae have unusually long antennae for larvae and rather long spidery legs. I had always associated them with larger ponds and lakes surrounded by trees, but the two we caught seemed to be doing well in the little Centre pond.

downy emerald larva

We saw only two adult dragonflies one of which we could not identify on the distant brief views we had, the other was a fresh black-tailed skimmer that we found in the meadow.

black-tailed skimmer

Damselflies were found resting in the rushes but we were luckier with the grasshoppers, it was warm enough for them to be active and we found good numbers of mottled, meadow and field grasshoppers as well a nymphs of speckled bush-cricket and long-winged conehead.

Today was Volunteer Thursday, so despite the similarly iffy forecast, I was pretty confident about the weather and so it proved, although there was one very, very brief shower. We were clearing ragwort (again), but have now all but cleared the eastern shore of Ibsley Water apart from the area with the lapwing chick(s). I started by collecting up some of the heaps from the last two weeks and luckily was paying attentions and did not just grab the pile with the adder sitting on it!


It was sitting in the shelter of the heap so as to be out of the wind and in the sun whenever it came out, obviously it was a good spot as there are several flies perched on the snake , including one on top of her head. It is a female and although mature, not yet fully grown. I also saw at least 3 grass snakes today, including 2 from the Ivy South hide.

The moth trap was a bit disappointing this morning with fewer moths than yesterday. In the bottom of the trap was the evidence of bird activity with the remains of a broad bordered yellow underwing, the colour is very intense and much darker than the large yellow underwing.

broad bordered yellow underwing remains

Closing up at the end of the day I made another record count of mute swan for Ivy Lake, they are now up to at least 65 and I think probably 68.

Some of the 65 (or was it 68?)

I also saw the recently hatched common tern chicks today, this last pair is so far behind the others that I think within a week they will be along as all the rest will have flown. From the Tern hide I saw a fledged redshank chick, possibly the one from the western shore of the lake that I last saw about ten days ago.

In the end it was a much better day than yesterday and especially so for butterflies, I saw meadow brown, gatekeeper, marbled white, large white, small white, red admiral, comma and several small skippers.

small skipper male