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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

Advertisements

Meadow marvels

We’ve spent a lot of time in the meadow over the last few weeks, weather permitting! Occasionally we have had to resort to ‘look, but don’t touch’ as the showers have left the grass too damp for sweep netting, but this habitat has certainly come alive with a great range of insects, spiders and bugs.

Today we headed there with our Wildlife Tots, after a crafty caterpillar and butterfly making session in the classroom and a quick look in the light trap. We also had a look at the Lime hawk-moth caterpillars we have been rearing in a tank in the centre, they have certainly grown on their diet of silver birch leaves (more accessible than the lime trees we have on the reserve!) and look even more impressive!

Lime hawk moth caterpillar

Lime hawk-moth caterpillar

On our way to the meadow we were distracted on the lichen heath, finding flowers for our card and pipe cleaner butterflies to nectar on, and discovered these cinnabar moth caterpillars. Once we had our eye in, we found lots of black and yellow caterpillars munching their way through the ragwort:

Cinnabar caterpillar

Cinnabar moth caterpillar

On entering the meadow, we embarked on a still hunt, no mean feat for a group of toddlers! We found a quiet spot on the path so as not to trample the long grass and sat quietly, looking intently at the miniature world going on around us:

still hunt

We’re going on a still hunt…

After being brilliant still hunters, spotting butterflies, damselflies, bumblebees, grasshoppers and beetles, we had a go at catching many of the creatures using a sweep net.

Thanks too to Wendy for sending us this lovely photo of Wildlife Tot Sam with his very impressive sunflower, planted during our March into Spring session back in, yes you’ve guessed it, March! It’s so tall!!

Sam and his sunflower

Sam with his amazingly tall sunflower!!

Carrying on with the meadow theme, this was also the focus of our last Young Naturalists session at the end of June. We were fortunate to have more sun than today, with the butterflies in particular quite happy to let us get close enough for photos.

little skipper

Small skipper butterfly

Common blue butterfly

Common blue butterfly

Meadow brown

Meadow brown butterfly

cricket

Cricket, with super long antennae, longer than the length of its body

Grasshopper by Talia Felstead

Grasshopper, with its antennae shorter than its body

Robber fly

Robber fly

Fairy-ring longhorn beetle

Fairy-ring longhorn beetle, I think!

common blue damselfly

Common blue damselfly

Identifying our catch 2

Identifying our meadow creatures

The moth trap as usual revealed a good selection of moths ready for the group to identify, whilst we also spotted Mullein moth and Orange tip butterfly caterpillars:

Although the meadow was a fitting spot to visit as we met right at the end of National Insect Week, it wasn’t all about the insects and we still found time to visit Ivy South hide in search of a basking grass snake…

Grass snake by Talia Felstead

Grass snake by Talia Felstead

…and spotted this toad whilst carrying out Plantlife’s Bee Scene survey, in search of wildflowers good for bumblebees:

Toad by Talia Felstead

Toad by Talia Felstead

Luckily our wanderings found plenty of wildflowers good for bumblebees, a relief perhaps as we were looking on a nature reserve, but still a worthwhile activity for the group to do, encouraging them to brush up on their plant identification. Of the fifteen Bee Scene flowers we had to look for, we found dandelion, white clover, hedge woundwort, foxglove, bramble, red campion, red clover and thistle throughout the day, luckily spotting a few bumblebees too!

Buff tailed bumble bee by Talia Felstead

Buff tailed bumble bee by Talia Felstead

More details about the survey can be found on Plantlife’s website – all you need is a local green space, which doesn’t have to be a nature reserve, it could be your garden, a park, footpath or school grounds. Happy wildflower hunting!

Red campion by Talia Felstead

Red campion by Talia Felstead

 

Thirty Days Wild – Day 1

I signed up for “Thirty Days Wild” this year, the idea is to try to have some sort of wild experience everyday, that is to get outside and experience something that the natural world has to offer. It could be taking notice of birdsong as you walk to the station, watching bees nectaring at dandelions or going out onto  a heath to marvel at nightjar’s dusk antics.

I confess I try to do 365 Days Wild myself and so try to make an entry into my notebook for everyday, there is always some sort of wildlife to be experienced, that is the great thing about it, you never know what will come along and everyday has possibilities.

So onto Day 1, a little late I know but I was away during the first week, which got me off to a really wild start, but prevented me uploading anything.

Pictures from Day 1 were:

flowery roadside

Flowery Pembrokeshire vergeside

I was staying in West Pembrokeshire and was really struck by the profusion of flowers along the verges, something we don’t get so much in Hampshire. In fact my nearest round about to home is very rich in wildflowers but is mown heavily, usually just as they are starting to flower. The result of lots of flowers was a mass of insects such as this swollen-thigh beetle.

swollen-thighed beetle

swollen-thigh beetle

We finished the day by the sea where the flowery theme continued, with masses of thrift.

trift on rock

Thrift growing on rock by the sea

It is not too late to sign up for Thirty Days Wild (or perhaps 20 Days now) just visit http://www.hiwwt.org.uk  to sign up.