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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

 

 

The Tern and the Turtle

 

About ten days ago we put out the first two tern rafts in the hope that the twenty or so terns present then would quickly occupy them. We kept two back to go out after the first had attracted a core group. The idea of leaving it late to put them is to give the best chance against the black-headed gulls, which start nesting earlier so would get in before the terns arrive. The plan does not seem to have worked this year, although common terns were the first to land on the rafts they were quickly replaced by gulls, at least keeping two rafts in reserve allows us to try again with unoccupied nesting sites, we will see if the gulls take over ahead of the terns. A lot of the gulls are probably first time breeders, they mess about a lot, make nests but don’t necessarily ever lay or if they do, they don’t know what they are really supposed to do, they do keep the terns off though!

tern rafts

tern rafts

There were a few terns around as we towed the rafts out and a few gulls as well.

gulls and terns

gulls and terns

We put the rafts out first thing in the morning and a s I walked back to the Centre the sun was getting really warm along the path beside Rockford Lake, with the west wind the blowing the path was really sheltered and there were swarms of recently emerged common blue damselflies. They take a few days to get the intense blue colouration.

common blue damselfly uncoloured

common blue damselfly uncoloured

The male above will be brilliant blue in a couple of days, a few slightly older ones were also about, but in the sun they were hard to get close to without them flying away.

common blue damselfly. male

common blue damselfly, male

Despite the sun I only saw one other Odonata species, large red damselfly and not very many of them.

large red damselfly, male

large red damselfly, male

Ed and I went up to Kitts Grave later in the morning to take a look a the work done in the winter clearing scrub. The site is a mosaic of grassland, scrub with some true woodland, all the these elements are rich habitats in their own right, but the scrub has been spreading at the expense of the grassland in recent years. As we arrived at the gate we spotted a small blue, the first I had seen this year.

small blue

small blue

It was a morning of sunshine and sharp showers are we dodged in and out of the trees trying to keep dry. Along the way we saw good numbers of common spotted orchid and twayblade, although both were a couple of weeks or so from flowering, unlike the early purple orchid which were just about at their peak.

early purple orchid

early purple orchid

The area of scrub we cleared in the winter now looks green and there are remarkably few areas of bare ground.

Kitts Grave area cleared by volunteers last winter

Kitts Grave area cleared by volunteers last winter

When the sun came out it was very warm and we saw a fair few butterflies, including  a lot of brimstone, orange tip, green-veined white and a few peacock. We also saw there or four dingy skipper, although I did not manage to get a picture of any of them as they were much too fast for me. A bit easier was the scarlet tiger moth caterpillar that we came across.

scarlet tiger caterpillar

scarlet tiger caterpillar

As we headed back to the car park that once common and so evocative summer sound, the purring of turtle dove. It is extraordinary and very frightening how the status of these beautiful birds has changed in my lifetime. They were genuinely common birds in hedgerows and copse edges and now it needs a special trip for even the chance of hearing one. We also saw a fair few yellowhammer, another bird so familiar thirty years ago that everyone knew them as the bird that sang “A little bit of bread and no cheese”, one of the most familiar sounds of the countryside then.

Obviously there have been gains, with some species colonising over the same period, but the declines in some species that were so common that they were generally known to anyone who ventured out into the countryside to a condition of scarcity, or even rarity, is a warning to us all.

Eventually we retreated as a particularly heavy squall approached and headed back to Blashford.

storm clouds gathering

storm clouds gathering

The loss of once common and widespread species tells of the limitations of relying on nature reserves to look after wildlife, reserves can do valuable work but it is the way we live in and use the country that really determines what our future wildlife will be like and how many species will be common enough for the next generation to just take them for granted, as I did the turtle dove and yellowhammer.