The Marsh Fritillary – Butterfly No. 49.

Our final blog post from our holiday in Somerset/Devon and we set out to see and hopefully photograph our next butterfly species – the Marsh Fritillary. From our base on Exmoor we headed across north Devon to the Dunsdon National Nature Reserve. We were reliably informed by the local Wildlife Trust that this would be a good place to see the Marsh Fritillaries and with the weather forecast looking better than it had all week, we set off. The reserve took a bit of finding as it is tucked away, but it was well worth the visit. There was only one other couple there – also keen butterfly spotters, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

The marsh fritillary likes damp grassland and given the weather we’ve been having recently there was certainly plenty of the damp element around. We left the car and followed the boardwalk through the trees until we got to the first field. Within yards we’d spotted our first ever Marsh Fritillary – our 49th species was ticked off the list!

We managed a few photos before it started pouring with rain again and we retreated to the car. Thankfully the rain didn’t last too long, so we headed back out again and were rewarded with plenty of butterflies. We must have seen at least a dozen fritillaries during our visit. The first few we saw were all sitting with their wings open to reveal their beautifully patterned uppersides. Here are some of our better photos.


Of course having got the upper view, we wanted some side on shots. Luckily we found a few feeding on thistles, nicely displaying their gorgeous undersides.

Most of the fritillaries we saw were settled on the thistles or amongst the grass, but we did see a few in flight, dancing over the meadow – a really lovely sight.

The marsh fritillaries may have been our main focus, but other insects kept side-tracking us as well. I can never resist a moth and spent a large part of the visit chasing a particular species around until I could get close enough to identify it – a Burnet Companion as it turns out.

We had hoped for some dragonfly action, but apart from a brief glimpse of an impressive dragonfly in the distance, the only one we got close enough to was this female large red damselfly.

Scorpion flies always fascinate me, so after a bit of the usual chasing I managed to get a photo of this one. I think it must have been a female, as there wasn’t much sign of the scorpion like tail.

We do try to enjoy any interesting plants we see too and not focus solely on the insect life. Dunsdon reserve also had some lovely spotted orchids. No idea what species they were, but guessing they were not the same as the Heath Spotted Orchids we’d seen the day before as the habitat was different.

The reserve had a fair number of dainty Ragged Robin flowers which prefer damp meadows like this. Not only are they gorgeous little flowers, they are great for wildlife too.


But my favourite remains the Forget-me-not. I’ve loved these flowers since I was a child and the holiday cottage we stayed at had a whole meadow of these gorgeous sunny blue flowers. The image has stuck with me for over 40 years and I still love the sight of them today.


So that’s the final blog post from our trip down south and our 49th species of butterfly photographed. Only 9 to go now (10 if we decide to include the Cryptic Wood White in Northern Ireland). We’ve got one more species we are hoping to see this year – the High Brown Fritillary – watch this space!

 

Heath, heath, heath!

On our recent trip to Somerset, we had a bit of a mission going on – to see 2 more species of butterfly, namely the Heath Fritillary and the Marsh Fritillary. We went for the Heath Fritillary first, having discovered a site at Haddon Hill that was supposed to have a population of them. Haddon Hill is at the edge of Exmoor and overlooks the delightfully named Wimbleball Lake. Unfortunately having researched enough to find the hill had a population, we didn’t dig deep enough to find out exactly where on the hill to look. So we ended up spending about 3 hours wandering round the hill on a walk that was only supposed to take an hour! Not a glimpse of a fritillary, but we did see a Small Heath at least – not the heath we wanted, but after 3 hours we were just grateful to see a butterfly – any butterfly!

The hill did however have its fair share of bird life, including lots of Meadow Pipits, who seemed to fly up repeatedly to get a better view of us trudging in circles.

We also saw several of the famous Exmoor ponies – much easier to spot than the butterflies. They are native breed of pony and were recorded on Exmoor as far back as the Domesday book and have probably been there for thousands of years.

Fortunately having drawn a blank on Haddon Hill, we had a plan B when it came to the Heath Fritillary. We had booked ourselves onto a guided walk by Butterfly Conservation and the National Trust around Halse Combe the following day. The weather wasn’t promising with rain forecast, but at least we were with people this time who knew where they were going!

So we headed up the combe until we reached a sunny(ish) open slope. Almost immediately someone spotted a Heath Fritillary, basking in what little sunshine there was on some bracken. It was smaller than we had expected and much browner than the other fritillaries we have seen, but a real beauty. We waited our turn while everyone in the group had a go at photographing the first one – so here it is, our first heath fritillary:

After that the group fanned out across the slope looking for more butterflies and being very careful not to stand on any! It being a bit of a cold damp day actually helped with the photographs as the butterflies weren’t in the mood for flying. So once you found one, it was relatively easy to get a photo. The Heath Fritillaries are beautiful on their uppersides, but their wings are even more stunning when the undersides are visible; like miniature stained glass windows. So here are a few of our favourite shots from the day.

We spent a very happy half hour or so photographing the butterflies before the heavens opened and it really did start raining quite heavily. We took shelter under some trees, until it became obvious that the rain wasn’t going to stop and we headed back down hill. On the way, one of our guides showed us some of these pretty little Heath Spotted Orchids.

We returned to the carpark, slightly soggy, but very happy to have seen our 48th species of butterfly. Thank you to Meghan from Butterfly Conservation and Basil from the National Trust to leading us straight to these elusive butterflies and giving us an excellent and informative guided walk. So we went looking for a Heath Fritillary and ended up getting a Small Heath and a Heath Spotted Orchid too – 3 for the price of 1, can’t be bad!

 

Bees, Bats, Butterflies and Birds at Bridge Cottage

We’re just back from a holiday in Exmoor and as usual have returned with hundreds of wildlife photos, having spent the week in our usual glamorous manner. Most people probably take swimming costumes, flip flops and suncream on holiday; we took a moth traps, bat detector,  underwater camera and trail cameras! We stayed at a lovely cottage by the River Barle in Withypool, Somerset – an absolutely idyllic location, with plenty of wildlife potential.

Our holiday coincided with the start of 30 Days Wild, so the perfect excuse for wildlife watching, not that we ever need an excuse. The cottage had loads of bird life including sparrows nesting around the guttering. A pair of blue tits were nesting in the apex of the shed. They were really devoted parents bringing food constantly despite the rain (hence dishevelled photo below) and removing the faecal sacs to keep the nest clean.

There were plenty of mayflies hatching while we were there and the swifts made good use of them flying low over the water and snatching them out of the air. Best of all we could hear a cuckoo calling every morning around dawn. The sound of a cuckoo combined with the sound of the river is a great way to wake up in the morning.

Not surprisingly the abundant insect life attracted bats too. We got the bat detector going and were rewarded with clicks and chirp noises that sounded different to our usual Pipistrelle bats at home. The clicks were closer to the 47-48kHz frequency than the 45kHz we get at home, so perhaps these bats were either Daubenton’s or Natterers? Unfortunately we didn’t manage to record the noises to be sure and it was too dark to actually see the bats.

The first day we arrived at the cottage we had glorious sunshine and a warm night – perfect conditions for an evening glass of wine in the garden and to put the moth trap out! We couldn’t believe the abundance of moths we got in the morning. Many of the moths we caught were species we’d seen before but never in such numbers – buff tips, white ermines, brown silver lines – all species which we see occasionally in Malvern, but rarely more than single individuals. There were 2 species though that we’ve never seen before – Nut Tree Tussock and Campion – nice to add to our life lists of species.

As usual an Elephant Hawkmoth stole the show, but it did have competition from this stunning Puss Moth!

The River Barle which ran past the garden had sparkling clear water (every day except the last day when heavy rain had clouded it).  One of the first things we noticed were several dead Signal Crayfish both in the water and on the river bank.

These are an introduced species and are causing serious problems by outcompeting the native crayfish and by tunnelling into river banks leading to erosion. There are projects to actively remove them from rivers like the Barle, so it could be the dead crayfish we saw were part of this.

On a cheerier note, there were lots of presumably native minnows swimming in shoals near the river bank. So armed with our waterproof GoPro camera, I heroically waded in with my wellies. A slight miscalculation between height of wellies and depth of water, led to some wet feet, but at least I managed to video the minnows!

The river also had numerous tadpoles, who remained hidden in the plants near the bank during the day, but emerged into a sheltered inlet in the evenings. They were much darker than the tadpoles we get back home in the pond, so they may be toad tadpoles rather than frogs.

 

The cottage garden was well planted with plenty of shrubs and flowers for wildlife, including some gorgeous lupins that the bees absolutely loved.



One even got so carried away it forgot where it was and landed on my hand.

We saw a few butterflies in the garden, including our first Painted Lady of the year, but the highlight had to be this – a Green Hairstreak. To see these little beauties previously we’ve had to travel to nature reserves, so to have one virtually fly up to us in the garden was amazing. So amazing that I fumbled with the camera and only managed one rubbish photo – but it is just about recognisable as a green butterfly!

So we can highly recommend a stay at Bridge Cottage in Withypool for anyone interested in wildlife – there’s certainly plenty of it. The village itself was charming with a pub, shop and café – what more could you want from a holiday?

We did of course venture out while we were in the Exmoor area in search of more butterflies, but I’ll cover those in subsequent blog posts – watch this space!