Back Down to Daneway

As we were still technically on our holiday that never happened/staycation at the weekend, we decided to head out again for another butterfly day. Not a new species this time, but back down to Daneway Banks in Gloucestershire to see the Large Blues that we had only seen once before.

As we entered the reserve, the air was positively buzzing with the sound of grasshoppers. I think they were Meadow Grasshoppers and they were everywhere, pinging away from us as we walked across the grass.

The commonest butterflies by far were the Marbled Whites and Meadow Browns.

The Marbled Whites in particular were very fresh looking and quite stunning in the sunshine.

We even managed to find a mating pair; the female is the one at the top with the browner looking markings on the underwings.

It was a bit cloudy when we first arrived, so the Large Blues weren’t flying much, but as the sun started to come out we spotted a couple. On our previous visit we had only managed to get photos of a mating pair of Large Blues – most unusual for that to be our only shots, but it meant they had their wings closed. So this time we were keen to get one with its wings open. Fortunately the first one was fairly relaxed and let us take a few photos.

A very helpful reserve warden then pointed us in the direction of a “hot spot” for them, further into the reserve. This coincided with the sun really coming out, which made them much flightier. So although we probably saw about 10 more, we couldn’t get as close again to get better photos.

The final individual we saw was another raggedy one, who was perhaps to worn out to be bothered flying off, so allowed us a photo of the underside of what was left of his wings.

We’d seen a few skippers about during the day, but they are so fast it is often hard to tell which species until we can download the photos. Turns out these ones were Small Skippers, our first of the year.

The final butterfly species appeared just as we were leaving the reserve – a Small Heath, again the first of these we’d seen this year.

Once again I failed to get decent shots of a couple of birds. This woodpecker sat on a fence post for ages as I crept closer trying to get a photo, then of course just as I was getting within reasonable focal distance he flew off.

Most unusually a swallow landed on the ground only a few metres away from me. I was so surprised that I didn’t react quick enough to get a photo of it on the ground, only this blurry one as it took off again. I’d always thought they stayed on the wing almost permanently apart from egg time, but clearly this one had other ideas.

As we were about to leave the same helpful warden suggested that we might want to nip across the road on our way back to the car and have a quick look in Siccaridge Wood. It is an ancient coppiced woodland and there was apparently a Greater Butterfly-Orchid just 30 yards in. Never having heard of this, let alone seen one, it seemed worth a small detour. Sure enough, exactly as described was the tallest British orchid we’ve ever seen; it must have been at least 50cm tall. With hindsight I should have got Chris to take a photo of me next to it for scale (I stand a majestic 1.5m tall).

I can’t say the flowers looked particularly butterfly like to us, but it was certainly an impressive plant.

On our previous trip to Daneway we had finished up at the very nice Daneway Inn, but sadly of course that wasn’t possible this time. Daneway Banks is a fantastic site and a real success story for the Large Blue butterfly, which had gone extinct in the UK before the heroic efforts to bring it back. The perfect way to round off our non-holiday.

Butterflies Old and New

2020 has certainly been a most unusual (and hopefully never to be repeated) year for all of us, but finding solace in nature has been a great help getting through these strange times. At the height of the lockdown, we felt very lucky to have a garden full of wildlife that we could enjoy. We have spent an awful lot of time watching the wildlife emerge as the weeks went by and have particularly enjoyed seeing how the new pond developed. But after a while you do start to go a little stir crazy and we were longing to get out and see things beyond the confines of our garden. So as things began to ease a couple of weeks ago and nature reserves started to reopen, we made our first tentative ventures out, first to a local one and then to one a bit further afield.

First stop was Monkwood, just a few miles away and a lovely reserve that we’ve been to quite a few times before. First delight was that we heard a cuckoo calling on and off the whole time we were there – our first cuckoo of the year.  It was the end of May and the Wood White butterflies were out in abundance. They had only been reintroduced to Monkwood a few years ago, but are clearly doing really well. They are small delicate little butterflies, not as showy as say the fritillaries, but really delightful to watch and very pretty in their own subtle way.

Several other butterfly species were out, but it was particularly nice to see some Large Skippers, our first of the year.

We also saw several small and non-descript moths flitting about. Despite me chasing them around, the best photo I could manage was this blurry specimen. Turns out that they were Drab Loopers, not perhaps the most attractive of names for the poor things. They are generally a bit of a rarity though and Monkwood is a stronghold for them.

Next up was a splendid large caterpillar of the Drinker moth. The Drinker is supposedly fairly common in the West Midlands, but we’ve never seen the adult moth; so it was nice at least to see junior here trundling across the path.

On a patch of Guelder Rose, we saw loads of what looked like caterpillars, completely destroying the rose leaves. Turns out (thanks to the good people of iSpot) that it was in fact the larvae of the Viburnum Leaf Beetle, so another new one for us.

Finally for Monkwood, it was great to see my perennial favourite, the Swollen-thighed Beetle.

This week as the lockdown measures relaxed a bit more, we decided to venture further afield. This was the week that we were supposed to be going on holiday to Norfolk, where we’d hoped to see our 51st British butterfly species – the Swallowtail. Obviously all holidays were cancelled, but we came up with a plan B to at least see a 51st species. The Black Hairstreak was on our yet-to-see list and the nearest sites were about 2 hours away in Northamptonshire – just about doable in a day trip. So we set off at the crack of dawn (well a bit later than that to be honest) and headed to Glapthorn Cow Pastures.

The name might suggest it was more of a meadow and indeed it did used to be grazed by cows. But now it is managed as a mix of woodland and blackthorn scrub – ideal habitat for the rare Black Hairstreak. We got there about 09:30 just as another keen butterfly spotter arrived. Funnily enough we heard a cuckoo calling here too as we got out of the car – a good omen perhaps? We’d had tips from kind people on Facebook as to where to look, but still finding a small butterfly in a big wood did feel a bit like a needle in a haystack job. We wandered around for a bit until we met up with the other traveller again who had found a local who knew where to look and consequently found the butterfly too!

We saw at least 2 Black Hairstreaks while we were there. The first was a perfect looking specimen, but rather flighty. So apologies that all the photos are either a bit blurry or it’s got its head stuck in a bramble. But it is at least recognisably a Black Hairstreak with the black spots on an orange background around the edge of the wings and the little tail.

The second individual has unfortunately lost his tail and half his black spots (the best bits of a hairstreak) and we nick-named him Raggedy.

Raggedy was however quite obliging and hung around long after the more perfect one had disappeared. He was so keen to be seen in fact that as more people arrived we could point him out to the newcomers. Glapthorn is clearly a popular spot; by the time we left there were 9 people all trying to see the hairstreaks (Raggedy’s moment to shine) – all trying to socially distance themselves at the same time of course.

It was a lovely hot day and plenty of other butterflies around – skippers, speckled woods, red admirals, lots of meadow browns, whites (too fast to determine which) and a small tortoiseshell. There were also quite a few of these stunning black and yellow longhorn beetles (Rutpela maculata) enjoying the flowering brambles.

Having come so far, we had a walk around the rest of the wood to make the most of the day.  There were lots of very pretty orchids in full bloom (possibly Common Spotted Orchids although I’m not sure).

The sounds of the cuckoo had given way to the calls of a woodpecker. We saw a couple of them flying high in the trees and managed a couple of distant shots – looks like we had both Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers.

So that’s it, our 51st butterfly seen and photographed and a couple of lovely days out to quench our thirst for wildlife. It would have been great to have been in Norfolk this week for our holiday, but hopefully we can do that next year instead. In the meantime we are very grateful not only to have such wonderful nature close by, but also that we have been very lucky to have stayed safe and well during these unprecedented times. Stay safe everyone. xx

 

Pond Arrivals

Never has the old adage “Build it and they will come” been more true of anything than of building a pond. Our new pond went in at the beginning of February – seems a world away now, given everything that has gone on in the world since then. The human world may be in chaos and despair, but for everything else life goes on and a new pond is a beacon attracting wildlife from all around. Every week if not every day something new finds its way to our pond. We’ve not been able to finish all the landscaping or get all the plants I would like to have got due to various restrictions, but it seems the wildlife doesn’t mind at all.

Quite a wide variety of insects have already found their way to the pond. A few tiny beetles whizzing around were the first we spotted, followed shortly by a lone water boatman. We suspect there are now more water boatmen, but since we only every see one at a time we can’t be sure. Both of the above have so far proved too fast to photograph.

Of course small flies and mosquitos were soon flitting over the surface of the water laying eggs, which soon hatched in large numbers into wriggling larvae. These will hopefully provide plenty of food for larger animals further up the food chain, so are a very welcome addition to the pond.

Within a couple of weeks our first pond skater arrived, followed by several of its friends! These insects are great to watch scooting across the surface of the pond in search of food. They regularly battle each other, that or they get very frisky, we’re not sure which. Apparently they use the middle legs for propulsion, the back legs to steer and the front ones for grabbing their prey.

Next insect to appear was this diving beetle which flew in and plopped into the pond while we were sitting watching. These diving beetles come to the surface and collect a bubble of air to breathe, so he or she pops up to the surface quite often.

Since then we have spotted numerous medium sized beetles whizzing around the pond, all adding to the food chain.

The biggest excitement though was the arrival of our first damselfly – a Large Red Damselfly to be precise. Hopefully this will be the first of many damselfly and dragonfly species to use the pond and I can do a full post on them soon. In the meantime here is our first one.

Other insects have been using the pond in other ways; a Holly Blue caught drinking from the pond, an Orange Tip butterfly nectaring off the cuckooflower and this snazzily striped hoverfly buzzing all over the place. The hoverflies have clearly been making whoopee as we’ve already started finding their larvae – the delightfully named rat-tailed maggots in the pond. Wriggling and semi-transparent these are very difficult to photograph, the best I could do was this short video.

Spiders have also moved in amongst the stones at the side of the pond, nipping in and out to catch unsuspecting insects.

The birds have of course continued to make good use of the pond (drinking, bathing, catching insects), to the point I feel they are annoyed with me for hogging it by sitting there for so long. My favourites so far are this pair of young magpies, exploring the world for the first time. They go everywhere together and particularly like the pond, squabbling one minute and then looking to each other for reassurance the next – a typical pair of siblings.

Sadly all the frog activity we saw in March came to nothing and we didn’t get any frog spawn this year. It’s not too surprising as the pond had literally only been in for a couple of weeks before their mating season. We’ve yet to see a toad around the pond either, but the newts have come up trumps. The first newt (they are Smooth Newts) arrived early April and since then there seems to have been more each day. I shall do a full newt blog soon as they’ve provided lots of photo and video opportunities, but here’s a taster.

Sometimes the things you don’t get to see in person can be the best though. Our hedgehogs have been making good use of the pond, carefully tiptoeing down the sloping beach that was put in specifically for them to access the pond. Obviously we rarely see them directly, but the night cameras pick them up regularly. This video shows 7 separate visits to the pond by at least 3 different hedgehogs over the course of one night. Shows the value of providing a drinking source for your hedgehogs, especially in hot weather.

 

I am so glad that we got to make the pond before the world went into lock-down. It has provided interest, relaxation, welcome distraction and so much more – we have spent an awful lot of time in the last 3 months gazing into the pond, grateful for having a garden we can sit in while staying home and staying safe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nesting Update

Back in February, I blogged about my hopes of finally getting a blue tit nesting in the bird box with the camera. A male blue tit seemed to have taken to roosting every night in the box and I started to get my hopes up. In March things were progressing well and he had a lady friend who would pop in, albeit it briefly, to inspect his choice of nest site. Her visits were generally so fleeting at this stage that most of the time they barely registered on the video feed, so here are a couple of stills taken from the video and a very brief video clip.

 

This carried on for quite a while; the male roosting at night and occasionally his lady friend popping in during the day to inspect. Then on 17th March, bits of moss started appearing in the box. My hopes continued to rise.

For the last few years I have tried to help the birds along by putting out nesting material. I use two hanging baskets tied together to make a sphere and stuff it with moss and grass. The blue tits are always very quick to find the sphere and make good use of it. The female was soon taking the moss, sorting through my offerings to find the bits that were just right. I can see the ball of nesting material from our window and for a while everything was going swimmingly. I could watch her take a beak full of nesting material and fly off with it towards the nest box. Seconds later she would appear inside the nest box and I could view it on the camera.

 

So everything was going well and I was getting excited at the prospect of blue tit eggs, when sometime around the beginning of April they decided the nest box wasn’t really suitable after all. I have an old nest box on the apple tree near the moss ball and for a while they seemed to be trying that out, before abandoning that too. She was still coming for the moss, but was then flying off and out of our garden with it. One of our neighbours has probably got a very lovely blue tit nest in! Here’s a compilation of some of her nest collecting activities.

 

For the last 2 years I have also added some dog hair. My sister’s yorkie-poo Pip very generously donates his hair trimmings to the cause. He has lovely soft hair (that’s not been treated with any chemicals for fleas etc.), ideal for lining a nest.

Blue tits apparently make their nest with moss and straw etc. first then line it with softer stuff like hair and spiders’ webs afterwards. So initially the blue tit ignored Pip’s hair and just went for the moss. The jackdaws had no such qualms; they went straight in for the nice soft hair. Somewhere there is a very cosy jackdaw nest.

Although the blue tits weren’t nesting in our garden, she did eventually deign to take the dog hair too. Here’s a brief clip of her getting a beak full of the good stuff.

 

So it seems my hopes that Peter the blue tit and his mate were going to nest in our nest box have come to nought; I must console myself knowing that they are at least nesting somewhere and that is what is important. Once again they are using our garden as a supply stop – good for food and nesting material but apparently not residentially appealing. The same seems to be said for many of our other birds. We’ve seen robins pairing up and feeding each other in their courtships. Dunnocks have been flirting with each other and lots of birds have been helping themselves to the nesting material, but they all seem to do their actual nesting elsewhere. I think it must be because we don’t have the large trees they like.

So I had just about given up hope of finding a nest in the garden, when I became aware of a lot of rustling in the bay tree at the front of the house. Closer inspection revealed a pigeon’s nest. I would probably rather have had a robin or a blackbird, but beggars can’t be choosers and I am now very happy with our pigeon nest. Here is the proud mother pigeon watching my GoPro watching her.

So far the parents have sat steadfastly on the nest and I have been unable to see any eggs, but I assume there are some there. Hopefully once the chicks hatch I might get a glimpse of baby pigeons. Apparently there’s an internet thing where people query that you never see baby pigeons – well finally I might get to do so.

The birds may be refusing me nesting viewing opportunities, but I can always count on my hedgehogs for interest. They have all emerged from hibernation and are back romping round the garden again. Thankfully they are not as awkward as the birds and are quite happy to use the hedgehog house with the camera in it. I’ll do a full hedgehog update soon, but in the meantime here’s a short clip of Freda, last year’s rescue hog, having a bit of a yawn in the hedgehog house. Enjoy!

 

Pond Update

It’s the first day of Spring and it’s been about 6 weeks since our new pond went in. Although there is still work to be done on it, the wildlife has already started to move in. The pond still needs more plants and those that are there need to grow a bit to provide more cover. It’s a bit early in the season for many of the pond plant suppliers to have much stock. So as an emergency measure I’ve been chucking in bags of organic watercress from the supermarket! I also need to replant the area around the pond as it’s looking a bit bare at the moment. Hopefully this will all come together as spring gets going and we (finally) get a bit of sunshine. But in the meantime, here’s how the pond is looking now.

The birds were the first to really start making use of the pond. They love the shallow “beach” for drinking and bathing. The blackbirds and sparrows in particular have really taken to it, although we’ve also seen pigeons, robins, blue tits, starlings and magpies making use of it. The sparrows seem to like having a bit of a wash then jumping onto the big rock at the edge to dry off. Here’s a video of some of them enjoying their new splash pool.

The frogs soon found the pond and I got very excited that we might get some frog spawn. But despite a lot of croaking there’s no sign of any spawn yet. Maybe there isn’t enough plant cover to tempt them yet and we’ll have to wait until next year.  I’m never very good at night-time photography so the best I’ve managed is this grainy shot of a couple of them.

I have created “Toad Hall” using some old roof tiles buried into the soil that was excavated for the pond. Eventually it will be completely covered in branches and planted up. Hopefully it will appeal to some of our amphibian friends as a suitable home with en suite pond.

We may have drawn a blank with getting frog spawn in the new pond, but the old pond on the allotment has produced the goods. It may be a tiny pond, but it has been stuffed with frog spawn this spring. They are now starting to develop and a few tadpoles are even hatching. Here’s a short video from earlier this week:

Of course it wasn’t just amphibians we hoped to attract to the pond, any animals would be very welcome. So we were very pleased to get a fox checking the pond out within a few weeks of it being dug. So far we’ve only caught it circling round the pond, but hopefully soon it will view it as a suitable watering hole and take a drink.

The highlight for me so far has been this next video though. As spring slowly creeps in, hedgehogs are starting to emerge from hibernation. So I was really thrilled that this one has already incorporated the pond on his nightly meanderings. The gravel beach was put in specifically with hedgehogs in mind – easy access to the water and a means of getting out should they fall in. And this one seems to have got the message.

The final feature added to the pond is an indulgence for us rather than the wildlife. It’s the old bench from my grandfather’s pub, recently renovated by our ever-useful friend Gwyndaf. The perfect place to watch the wildlife in the pond while perhaps sipping a glass of something chilled. Roll on summer!

National Nest Box Week 2020

It’s National Nest Box Week again, a time to encourage everyone to put up nest boxes in their gardens if they can. You can find out more and get lots of useful tips at: https://www.nestboxweek.com/

We have several nest boxes in the garden, although they don’t seem to get used much sadly. Knowing it was National Nest Box Week coming up, I decided to plug in the camera we have in one (so far unused) blue tit box. I hadn’t checked this particular box for a while as nothing ever seemed to happen in it. So I was thrilled when I connected the camera one evening last week and got this:

A blue tit was using the box as a night time roost. We thought maybe it would just turn out to be a one-off event, but he or she has been back every night since, which is fantastic. Every night it arrives around 5pm just before it gets dark. The camera trigger is too slow to capture it actually coming in through the hole, but it catches it settling in for the night. Initially there’s always a bit of bobbing up and down and checking round the box, presumably as it decides whether it is still a safe place for the night.

The nights themselves aren’t as restful as I imagined they would be. There is an awful lot of fidgeting about and preening, but I suppose it’s a safe time and place to be doing that.

In the morning there is always a bit of stretching and bobbing up and down. It looks as if it’s trying to peer out of the hole to see if it is safe or perhaps just listening for any threats, before it hops up, has a final look around then flies off for the day.

The nights are still pretty cold for a small bird in an uninsulated box. The blue tit copes by fluffing up its feathers to create insulating air pockets. When the bird arrives in the box each night it starts of looking fairly sleek with feathers smooth against its body. As it settles down it fluffs up its downy under feathers – in the next video you can pretty well see it increasing in size as it fluffs up until it is an almost round ball of feathers. Another trick to keep warm is that it then tucks its head under a wing while it sleeps.

So of course now our Blue Tit (we’re calling him Peter after Blue Peter) is visiting regularly, we’re getting our hopes up that perhaps this will finally be the year we capture nesting action on video. We live in hope, but at least if nothing else we have provided a safe roosting space by putting up the nest box.

We’ve got a couple of new nest boxes to put up this year thanks to our lovely gardener Gwyndaf. One has a small hole in a solid front for blue tits or similar and the other is more open fronted – ideal for robins. Just need to find suitable spots to put them out of reach of the neighbours’ cats.

Further afield we are once again sponsoring a nest box through Worcestershire Wildlife Trust’s Rent-a-Nest scheme. We’ve been sponsoring the same nest for a couple of years now. The first year it had a family of blue tits that successfully fledged. Last year it was empty, but at least the money went to support the reserve it’s on (Knapp & Papermill Reserve) so still worth it. Fingers crossed it gets used this year though.

Although National Nest Box Week is primarily aimed at birds, I see no reason not to include other types of nest box – hedgehogs of course! If you’ve got space in your garden why not consider putting in a hedgehog house. Provide a safe dry house for them to build their nests in.

You can buy ready-made hedgehog houses (lots of online options or larger pet shops) or you can build your own. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society has an excellent leaflet with designs for building your own:

Hedgehog Homes

Watching a hedgehog making use of a home you’ve put out for it has to be one of the most rewarding things to do in your garden.

2019 – The Year of the Moth

2019 seemed to flash by in the blink of an eye; but then it probably says something about my age that the whole twenty tens decade seems to have whizzed by too. So before my 2020 year’s wildlife adventures kick off, here’s a bit of a review of some highlights of 2019.

As usual the moth trap has been out most weeks for the Garden Moth Scheme and National Moth night and often just for the hell of it. Over 220 moth species graced our Malvern garden with their presence this year. This included over 30 new ones, bringing the total number of moth species recorded in our garden, since we started trapping, up to 368 species! Even better some of the new ones were ones I’ve been wanting to see for a while – Antler Moth, December Moth, The Playboy Bunny Moth (yes really – Ypsolopha sequella) and a Lobster Moth. But best of all, and possibly my best moth find ever – a Bedstraw Hawkmoth. And I was not alone getting excited by this moth – 4 moth watchers came over to the house just to see it. I doubt I’ll ever top this, hence 2019 being the Year of the Moth!

Continuing on the mothy theme, a couple of individuals laid eggs while I was photographing them. An Eyed Hawkmoth laid 2 eggs, one of which I managed to successfully rear to pupation. The chrysalis is now dormant and I’m hopeful that an adult moth will emerge in the spring.

The cameras have of course been out in the garden (and the allotment) throughout the year, recording mammals, birds and amphibians. As always hedgehogs stole the show (and my heart) with plenty of drama. We’ve had the highs of successful releases and hoggy courtship and  the lows of underweight and injured ones needing rescued. We’ve got a new hedgehog house with built in camera, which gave us great views until a hog packed the house so full of nesting material that it blocked the camera! We’ve also got a new illuminated feeder outside the patio doors so we can watch them come to feed from the comfort of the sofa.

 

A fox has also become a semi-regular visitor to the garden – thankfully there is enough food that it hasn’t bothered the hedgehogs. On the allotment, I was thrilled to get a badger drinking from the pond. The pond was also crammed full of frogspawn in the spring with plenty of newt and frog action throughout the year.

 

Beyond the garden, we’ve been out and about with the cameras. Back in April we finally managed to get over to the Lugg Meadows near Hereford to see the Snakes Head Fritillaries. Beautifully little flowers bobbing about on a blustery day.

We had a lovely week’s holiday down on Exmoor in the summer and between that and a trip to Wales, we’ve managed to “bag” three more butterfly species – The Marsh (shown below), Heath and High Brown Fritillaries.

A poignant event for me last year was that we had to sell my Dad’s house in Herefordshire. It was the house my sister and I grew up in and it was a sad day to see it go, but needs must. It had a large garden full of wildlife – not because Dad was a wildlife enthusiast, more because it was pretty much untouched (this is may be where the Too Lazy to Weed mentality came from). The remains of an old orchard, a stream running by and swathes of unmown grass. We left the new owners with a hedgehog house as a welcome gift and instructions to “be careful” when mowing. I shall miss this garden very much.

So every year I make some wildlife oriented New Year’s Resolutions and every year I manage to fail on most of them. 2019 was no exception. So here were last year’s targets:

  • The Red Kites at Gigrin in Wales – success with this one. We finally got round to going last January and it was spectacular.
  •  See 3 new butterfly species – success again, with Heath, High Brown and Marsh Fritillaries.
  •  Visit 5 new nature reserves – I think we succeeded although not with the local ones we’d planned. We did go to a few down in Exmoor and one in Wales and found a new walk in Malvern. But could definitely do better next year.
  •  Video some rock pools using the GoPro camera – failed on this one but not for want of trying. We visited the North Devon seaside, but picked a stretch with no decent rockpools. Did get some nice footage of fish in the River Barle though.
  • Garden pond – still not done it although we have started clearing a space for it. When I say “we” I actually mean our eco-friendly Cycling Gardener – Gwyndaf.
  • Moth tattoo – epic fail again, although the Bedstraw Hawkmoth is looking like a likely contender if I ever do get round to it.

So now to 2020s possibly unrealistic resolutions:

  • The pond – absolutely determined to put a new pond in the garden this year!
  • Create a Moon Garden. We do pretty well for moths as it is, but I’ve decided to create a Moon Garden with even more moth-attracting night scented flowers.
  • See 2 more species of British Butterfly. We’ve now seen 50 of the 58 species, but the last ones will be getting harder, so only aiming for 2 this year.
  • Visit 5 new nature reserves.
  • Rockpooling.
  • Go and see some wild Ospreys.
  • The moth tattoo!

 

 

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!