The Large Heath – Butterfly No. 46!

We headed off again on Saturday in search of our next butterfly species – the Large Heath. Whixall Moss is a peat bog on the English/Welsh border and the only place anywhere near us where we might see this increasingly rare butterfly. The bog has the beautiful Llangollen canal running along one side of it. We had to stop and wait for the bridge over the canal to be hand-winched back down as a narrow boat passed through.

We’d seen reports a mere 4 days before of sightings of upwards of 30 Large Heaths at Whixall Moss, so we’d set off with high hopes of nailing this one easily. These hopes were slightly dampened almost as soon as we left the carpark when we met an exhausted looking lady (carrying her even more exhausted little dog) who’d been searching in the scorching heat for 5 hours and not seen a single one. Undeterred (while slightly deterred to be honest) we carried on, following the walk described in the Butterflies of the West Midlands book.

We’d been walking for about an hour and a half and it was starting to look as if we’d draw a blank, although we had seen lots of other lovely wildlife. But then finally, just as we were about to head back, I spotted a butterfly dancing about the path. Initially I wasn’t sure what it was as it didn’t look like I’d expected. Turns out the Large Heath would struggle to pass the trade description law – it is actually really small! It was a raggedy little specimen and it insisted on hiding behind bits of grass, but at least we’d found one. It proved to be the only one we saw that day, but after a 2 hour drive and an hour and a half walk, we were grateful just to have found one. So here it is – our one and only Large Heath.

It looks a bit like a Meadow Brown but smaller and with spots like a Ringlet.

Whixall Moss is also well known for its population of White-faced dragonflies. Despite taking lots of dragonfly photos, none of them turned out to be white-faced. But we did get a new one for us – the Black Darter. Here is a male (top) and female (bottom).

There were blue and red damselflies everywhere and love seemed to be in the air for many of them, including this mating pair of Azure ones.

Aside from the whirring of insect wings in the air, there was the chirping of grasshoppers in the undergrowth. This one hopped obligingly onto the path in front of me.

The final insect of the day was a day flying moth and a new one for me – the Common Heath. As the Large Heath wasn’t particularly large, so the Common Heath didn’t seem to be particularly common, but I did manage to chase one down to get a photo.

As we’d walked along the path, something had scared up a pair of ground nesting birds. They took to the air for a few minutes until the danger had passed. We didn’t know what they were at first, but working on our usual principle of snapping anything that moves, we took some photos. Turned out they were lapwings.

A bit further on and we found more of them – this time looking a bit more relaxed, nesting by a pooled area. Lapwings have suffered major declines in the UK in recent years, so it’s always nice to go somewhere that has them.

So it was a long hot day at Whixall Moss, but the success of seeing the Large Heath and the bonus of the lapwings, made it all worthwhile. Butterfly species no. 46 ticked off the list – only another dozen or so to go!

Isle of Wight – Part 2 Thwarted By Fog

Our first full day on the Isle of Wight coincided with the first day of 30 Days Wild – the Wildlife Trusts’ annual event to get people to engage with nature.  Perfect day then to go looking for our next two species of butterfly – the Glanville Fritillary and the Adonis Blue. Unfortunately the weather had other ideas and a thick blanket of fog seemed to have covered most of the island. No self respecting butterfly was going to fly in that, so our chances of seeing them were virtually nil. We did make a short half-hearted attempt and had a bit of a wander around the chalky slopes on the southern coast. Fortunately we like all sorts of invertebrates besides butterflies and many of these are fog tolerant.

Snails of course don’t mind a bit of damp weather and we found two new (to us) species in the hedgerows. This beautifully coiled one is a Kentish Snail (Monacha cantiana).

This tiny pointy snail is in fact called a Pointed Snail (Cochlicella sp.). It was only about a centimetre long, but still managed to have at least 8 whorls on its shell.

The other group of invertebrates that braved the fog in reasonable numbers were moth caterpillars. We saw several species, but these two were particularly striking. We’ve never seen them before either in caterpillar form, nor as adult moths. The top one is the caterpillar of the Lackey Moth and the bottom one of a Dingy Flat-Body Moth (thank you to the good people of iSpot for identifying the second one for me).

The other notable invertebrate was a cricket – there were large numbers of these Dark Bush Crickets (Pholidoptera griseoaptera) in the undergrowth. We only saw immature stages such as this nymph.

After an hour of enjoyable but butterfly-less searching, we went to Plan B. Isle of Wight is also known for its thriving population of Red Squirrels. Thankfully the grey squirrels haven’t made it across the water yet, so for the time being the reds have free rein over the island. So we headed inland to Borthwood Copse, a small woodland managed to support the red squirrels. The first interesting animal we spotted when we got to the wood, was another insect. This female Scarce Chaser dragonfly (Libellula fulva) is, as its name suggests, fairly scarce, so it was a really nice find. With its yellow veining and dark tips to the wings, it was clearly different to any dragonfly we’d seen before.

The wood was full of birds, all singing their hearts out (or all shouting warnings that we were intruding possibly). We could hear, if not see, lots of species, but the only one we really managed to photograph was this male Great Spotted Woodpecker.

After a lot of dizzying staring up into trees, we eventually spotted our first red squirrel. I think we had both fondly imagined that the squirrels would come down and somehow just sit waiting to be photographed. Needless to say, they did no such thing and remained steadfastly high up in the branches. Over the course of the next hour we spotted a few (or possibly the same one taunting us over and over) and although they were a delight to watch, they never came close enough for any really good photos. But we did eventually get some recognisable red squirrel photos, so here are our best efforts. We watched this one for a while carrying a bundle of nesting material, jumping from branch to branch.

We followed it by eye until it disappeared with its bundle of nesting material into what looked like a denser patch of leaves. It stayed in there for ages, so we wondered whether this might have been a nest or drey? You can just about make out the denser patch in the photo below.

When it eventually emerged it no longer had the nesting material, but decided to sit nearby watching us below. I know the next picture is really dark, but you can see the squirrel staring directly at us.

 

We had a few more sightings after this. In some they were again carrying nesting material, although we lost track of them in the branches so couldn’t see if they took them back to the same place.

The final photo I know is really rubbish, but I just love the way it looks like he’s just dangling there, when obviously we just caught him mid-jump.

So Plan B worked out pretty well in the end. The fog may have stopped us seeing butterflies that day (don’t worry we got there in the end – see next blog post), but there was plenty of other wildlife to enjoy. That’s one of the things about wildlife watching I love, you are never really disappointed, as there is almost always something amazing to see if you look.

 

 

 

 

Isle of Wight – Part 1 Chalet Life

We’ve just got back from a fantastic few days in the Isle of Wight. It was our first visit to the island and our first experience of the Airbnb way of holidaying – and we were very happy with both. We’d decided to go to the Isle of Wight to try and tick off a couple more butterflies on our quest to see all the British species. The Glanville Fritillary can pretty much only be seen on the island and we hoped to spot the Adonis Blue too while we were at it. We picked a self contained chalet on the south side of the island. It proved to be the perfect location – remote and peaceful and surrounded by so much wildlife it almost felt like we didn’t need to go anywhere else. The lovely host even had bird feeders and left us food to put out for them – a real home from home for us. Here’s Chris sitting out on our own private terrace (enjoying a post journey tipple!).

Normal people when they get to a holiday destination probably go about unpacking and then start sight-seeing. We started peering around in the bushes to see what was there. The place was buzzing with bees and lots of butterflies flitted around, but almost immediately this Cardinal Beetle caught my eye. A gorgeous jewel like beetle it spent quite a lot of time around our little terrace and made a great start to our wildlife watching holiday.

We also kept seeing this nice damselfly, although it tended to land a bit too high up for me to get really good photos.

The bird feeders attracted plenty of birds, including what looked like a rock pipit, although it flew off too quickly for me to get a photo. The surrounding hedgerows were full of bird song, one of which proved to be one of my favourites, the wren. It was so busy singing that it didn’t mind Chris getting the camera out (unlike the ones in our own garden which are stubbornly camera shy!).

Normal people  also probably pack sensible things like swimming costumes or holiday guides – I packed my moth trap and moth book! I had hopes of getting something a  bit different to the usual moths in our garden – perhaps some fabulously interesting migrant moth. I may not have got that, but I was amazed by the number of White Ermine moths. I’m usually lucky back in Malvern if I get 1 or 2 of these, but there in the Isle of Wight I got at least a dozen in the trap in one go.

There were also lots of the other usual suspects, but I was most pleased to see my first Elephant Hawkmoth of the year (my top moth if you read my previous blog post).

So our little chalet proved the perfect starting point for our short holiday. I’ll blog more about the butterflies and other animals we saw in the next couple of posts, but the chalet had one more final surprise for us. As we drove off to catch the ferry back on the final day, I spotted a butterfly in the field near the entrance to our site. We stopped and looked closer – it was a Glanville Fritillary – the very butterfly we’d come to see! We had already been lucky enough to see them the previous day on a (very) long walk, but it seems we could probably just have sat on our terrace and waited and the Glanville would have come to us!

Buntings, Warblers and Fishers

Last year for my birthday we had an amazing day at some local Nature Photography Hides. As part of the deal we were entitled to a return visit to one hide this year. So a couple of weeks ago we headed over there for another lovely peaceful day – this time at their reed bed hide. This provided pretty much what it says on the tin – a hide in the middle of a reed bed.

Not knowing much about the ecology of reed beds, we weren’t sure what we would see, but as soon as we got there we could certainly hear plenty. Lots of small birds were clearly hiding in the reeds and singing their socks off. Much more visible and considerably noisier was a small flock of Canada Geese which flew in almost as soon as we got settled in the hide.

They are noisy, boisterous birds and seemed to be constantly squabbling with each other, although there seemed to be plenty of room for everyone. While they jostled for position a lone coot sailed serenely around, unfazed by their kerfuffle.

Another small water bird also emerged periodically from the reeds. We didn’t know what it was at first, but the good people of the iSpot website identified it as a Little Grebe. It was a fairly dumpy little thing, but was clearly very good at diving. Sadly it didn’t ever really come close enough for a very good photo.

Another species which arrived in a small flock was Black Headed Gulls. At least half a dozen of them would appear and hover over the water before diving for small fish. They are beautifully sleek looking gulls, with perfect delineation between their black heads and white bodies – as if the heads had just been dipped in black ink.

Several other species put in fleeting appearances. Swallows skimmed the water for insects, but were way to quick to catch on camera. Buzzards soared above us, but were too high and silhouetted against the pale sky were also too hard to photograph. A heron did flap lazily by a couple of times, flying slow enough to get recognisable shots, but sadly not landing anywhere within sight of the hide.

Aside from the distractions of the larger birds coming and going, the most common birds proved to be the buntings and warblers that we’d heard in the reeds when we first arrived. As usual we took literally hundreds of photos, which I’ve gradually whittled down to a few half decent ones. The willow warblers were singing all around us and often obliged by landing photogenically on reeds near the hides.

While scanning through the warbler photos, I found one that looked a bit different – it had more of a white stripe over its eye. Turns out this one was probably a Sedge Warbler. Shame there was only the one slightly blurred photo.

The reed buntings were as abundant as the willow warblers and also had a penchant for posing photogenically on the reeds. The males are more distinctive with a black head and white collar above a mottled brown body.

The people who run the hide site, supplied us with mealworms to attract the birds. This one is feeding from a tiny pot, camouflaged and stuck to the reeds.

The females are a bit plainer, without the black and white headgear, but beautiful nonetheless. They also seemed a bit bolder than the males, often coming onto wood near the walkway quite close to the hide.

We even got to see one of the female reed buntings gathering nest material, although we never saw a nest.

There is always the hope whenever you visit a hide near water of seeing a kingfisher. The site we were on has a dedicated kingfisher hide and last year we’d spent a very happy couple of hours with amazing views of one right in front of us (see https://toolazytoweed.uk/2017/01/16/wildlife-hides-part-2-the-king-of-fishers/ for last year’s blog post)  After a few hours in our reed bed hide though we hadn’t been so lucky. Chris decided to get up to stretch his legs and as he put his camera down said “this will probably make the kingfisher appear”. Unbelievably as he turned his back on the reeds a kingfisher did just that – flew right past the hide and way up onto the power lines above. Grabbing the camera quickly again he managed to get at least a recognizable shot.

The power lines were a long way up, but incredibly the kingfisher could still look down and focus on the fish in the water below. We watched amazed as it dived straight down to catch them.

After a few dives the kingfisher flew off, so Chris again decided to go stretch his legs. Although my short legs would benefit from stretching, I stayed put and continued trying to get the perfect shot of a reed bunting. I was so focussed on this that I initially missed the fact that the kingfisher had landed on a perch just feet in front of me. I got so flustered when I did see it that I couldn’t focus in time, so only managed this blurred shot of it flying off. But at least it proved to a disbelieving hubby when he returned that I had indeed seen the king again!

So I guess the moral of this story is that once you’re in a hide, never lose sight of what’s in front of you, never leave your chair and never turn your back to the view!

Nest Box No. 15

Way back in February, we took up Worcestershire Wildlife Trust’s Rent-a-Nest scheme. Having failed spectacularly to get anything to nest in our boxes at home, we figured we could at least support one at one of our favourite local nature reserves. So we chose a Knapp & Papermill nest box and were allocated Box No. 15. As part of the lease, we were to get a guided tour of “our” nest box in the spring. So skip forward a few months and a week or so ago, we met up with Garth from Worcestershire WT who led us on a very entertaining and informative walk to see Nest Box No. 15. Amazingly the sun shone down even though it was a bank holiday weekend and the public were out in force enjoying the nature reserve. It was great having Garth point out things on the walk that we would never have known were there – such as a Mandarin duck nesting quite high up in an old tree trunk!

We reached Nest Box No. 15, tucked away from sight and Garth cautiously peered in and confirmed that our box was occupied by a blue tit. I had a very quick look in and could just see a little blue head. Obviously we couldn’t take a photo of the blue tit inside the box as we didn’t want to terrify it with the flash, so all I can offer is a photo of the box itself. The entrance has been reinforced with metal to prevent larger birds getting in to predate the chicks.

We left Garth to carry on his walk and his butterfly count (part of a regular count he does for Butterfly Conservation) and pottered around the reserve on our own for a bit. We’d last been to Knapp & Papermill in the winter when everything was green and white with snow drops. Now, in spring, we had the same colour scheme, but it was wild garlic that carpeted the slopes amongst the trees. The scent was unmistakable, but fortunately we like garlic!

Butterflies were out in good numbers – lots of Orange Tips that were too fast to photograph, but also a few lovely fresh Green-Veined Whites who were a bit easier to track.

The reserve is one of the best sites we know of to see demoiselles, but it was still a bit early for these. But the pond near the reserve entrance provided our first damselfly of the year – a Large Red Damselfly.

So all in all a lovely way to spend a few hours on a bank holiday weekend. There are nest boxes (and bat boxes) all over the reserve, but apparently only about 25% are sponsored. Hopefully we can continue to sponsor a box in years to come. The money helps with the costs of maintaining the reserve and we get the pleasure of seeing a nest box that actually gets used – if only the Knapp blue tits could pass the word on to our own blue tits and get them to use our garden box too!

Luring an Emperor

Having missed most of last week’s sunny spell, (due to the considerable inconvenience of having to work for a living!) we headed out on Sunday to Hartlebury Common. Almost exactly 2 years ago we’d gone to Hartlebury in search of the Emperor Moth – with zero success that time. But this time we had a secret weapon – a pheromone lure!

Male emperor moths fly during the day looking for females. The females fly at night, but during the day they sit in the undergrowth wafting irresistible pheromones out to the males. The males pick up the scent with their feathered antennae and home in on the object of their desire. You can now buy pheromone lures that will fool the poor males into thinking you are a desirable female. This does feel a  bit like cheating and a bit mean to deceive the males this way. But since it was probably the only way we were going to see this beautiful moth, I’m afraid we went for it – although making sure we didn’t leave the pheromone lure out for too long to disrupt their normal behaviour.

So we wandered about for a bit before selecting what seemed a suitable spot to put the lure down. We’d barely got set up when the first male came hurtling over the gorse. It shot over the lure and landed on a gorse bush nearby, where he then stayed. They are big moths, so you’d think they’d be easy to spot, but it was surprisingly difficult even when we knew roughly where he’d landed. When we did find him, he was hanging on a twig with his underside towards us – so here’s one of our first photos.

They are really quite furry/hairy moths with very impressive big eye spots on the wings. The males’ antennae are very large and feathery to pick up the female pheromones. Not easy to focus on, but here’s my best effort.

Almost immediately a second male came bombing in towards the lure. This one however refused to settle. It seemed (not surprisingly) confused by the lure and flew around excitedly looking for a female. This blurry image is him circling the lure.

While he hovered around the lure looking for the female, I hovered around him trying to get a decent photo. As he didn’t settle, the best I managed of him was this flying shot. Not great, but at least you can see the lovely yellow underwings and all four peacock-like eyespots.

This second male eventually gave up and disappeared back into the gorse. The original male though eventually shifted position, so that we could now see his other side. So we finally got the classic Emperor moth shots we were looking for.

Having got the photos we wanted, we packed up to leave the males in peace to pursue genuine females. The moths weren’t the only animals with love on their minds though – these bloody-nosed beetles were clearly feeling spring in the air.

Hartlebury Common is very busy with birds. Last year we’d seen a small bird that was new to us and had identified it as either a Chiffchaff or a Willow Warbler. They are only distinguishable by their song and since we didn’t know to pay attention to this until it was too late, we couldn’t identify the bird. But this year we were definitely hearing Chiffchaffs all around us, so I’m reasonably confident that this one is a Chiffchaff (and probably the previous one was too).

The most obvious animals on the common were these cows with their resplendent horns. No idea of the breed, but they were pretty impressive. They appeared to be free to roam, so were presumably used to maintain the status quo of the vegetation.

So all in all we were very happy with our latest trip to Hartlebury. The pheromone lure worked a treat and the moths were every bit as stunning as we’d hoped. I’ve also bought the pheromone for the currant clearwing moth. These moths won’t come to regular moth traps, but like the emperors, the males are attracted to pheromones. So I’m hoping in the summer to try this out around our currant bushes on the allotment. Fingers crossed.

Spring Is In The Air (and in the Pond)

It is now a couple of weeks since the official start of spring, but it’s felt like it’s been a bit slow actually happening. But having looked at some of the animals we’ve seen in the last few weeks, maybe spring is slowly, tentatively, making itself known after all.

So first up, one of my all time favourites and the first bee of the year – the Hairy Footed Flower Bee. As is so often the case with these, I heard it before I saw it – a male buzzing energetically around the primroses. No sign of any females yet, I think they emerge slightly later.

March also sees the start of the annual Garden Moth Scheme. It’s been a particularly cold and wet start so I’ve not had a huge variety, but numbers are slowly picking up. Here’s a nice trio of the Orthosia genus – a Common Quaker, Clouded Drab & Twin-spotted Quaker.

The moths may be trickling in, but the butterflies have been very slow – not seen a single one in the garden yet this year. But we went for a walk in nearby Priory Gardens a week or so ago and spotted quite a few. A bright yellow Brimstone (way too fast to get a photo), several Commas and at least half a dozen Small Tortoiseshells – all basking in the sunshine.

One thing I’ve been particularly looking forward to is the arrival of frog spawn in our allotment pond. We put the pond in too late last year to get spawn laid, but this year we were good to go and the frogs didn’t disappoint. Here’s a quick video using the new GoPro camera. More froggy updates to follow in the next blog post as the tadpoles develop.

Frog Spawn

 

We didn’t see any frog spawn in the ponds at Priory Gardens, but there was plenty of bird activity. A couple of moorhens and lots of ducks, including this splendid looking mallard. There’s something about watching ducks on a pond in the sunshine that is not only really relaxing, but feels very spring-like to me.

The previous blog post was all about the peregrines up on the hill, but they weren’t the only birds we saw that day. This male bullfinch looked to be enjoying the spring sunshine sitting on a wild cherry tree (cherry blossom buds being one of their favourite foods apparently).

We also spotted jackdaws that had found some crevices in the rock face to nest in. The hole didn’t look that big, but they were taking quite sizeable twigs in there, so perhaps it opened out inside.

I don’t know if this dunnock was sensing spring or just feeling a bit odd, but it was behaving very strangely. It spent about 10 minutes sitting on top of the hedgehog house (not a safe spot since the neighbour’s cat often sits there), fluffing up its feathers repeatedly and shuffling about. It looked almost as if it was incubating eggs but there was no nest there (I did check it hadn’t laid anything). It stretched its neck out a few times and gaped its beak as well. I know dunnocks have some weird mating habits, but there didn’t seem to be another dunnock around for it to impress with the behaviour. Whatever it was doing it got fed up eventually and flew off into the bushes quite normally. If anyone can shed any light on the behaviour, it would be very much appreciated.

The dunnock may have been behaving strangely, but it was perfectly obvious what this blue tit was up to – gathering nest material. I saw someone suggest recently that you could provide nesting material by tying two hanging basket frames together to form a rough ball and filling them with moss and the like. Apologies to whoever’s idea it was, as I can’t remember where I saw it to be able to credit them properly – but it was a great idea, thank you. We had some old hanging baskets kicking around the garage and the “lawn” is full of moss,  so this was an easy idea to achieve. And the blue tits seem to appreciate it as almost immediately they started taking great beakfuls of moss and flying off with it.

Once it had got a beak’s worth of moss it would then stop on a twig to rearrange the moss a bit more tidily (presumably so it could see where it was flying), before taking off.

Blue Tit gathering nesting material

If only these blue tits had taken the moss back to the lovely nesting box with camera in that we’ve now had up for 2 years in exactly the spot where they used to nest! But no, they must be nesting elsewhere and all we’ve got on the nestcam is a spider’s web! Still at least we know they are nesting somewhere and that we’ve helped a little bit.

And finally spring must surely be on its way because our hedgehog is back! Whether it is Fat Sam from last year emerged from hibernation or a completely different hog, I have no idea. But it looks big and healthy and has a good appetite.

First hedgehog of 2018

None of these signs of spring maybe big newsworthy events,  but sometimes it’s spotting the small things in life that gives the most pleasure. And we’re certainly very happy that spring is finally on its way to Malvern.

 

Easter Peregrines

We woke up this morning to a surprise – the sun was actually shining! We hadn’t been expecting to do much wildlife watching today, but headed up the Malverns as quickly as we could, before the weather could change its mind. We’ve been wanting to head up the hill for a week or so now, since a fellow Malvern resident (Jude thank you so much) mentioned Peregrine Falcons, but the hills have tended to be shrouded in mist. Not ideal for bird watching, so we grabbed the chance today.

So we headed up to what we hoped was roughly the right area. A friendly dog-walker assured us that yes, he heard them almost every day, then paused and said “but not today”! Undeterred we carried on and almost immediately heard the distinctive calls. Chris then spotted this one circling above us.

We would have been perfectly happy with this outcome – one falcon seen and heard, but then it got even better. High up in a tree we saw it land and there were two! (You wait all your life to see one peregrine then two come along!) Not only two, but judging by their next activities they were clearly a male and a female. We were a long way away and really at the limit of our lenses, but Chris caught “the action” on camera.

It didn’t last very long then the male perched on a branch above her. The female looked a bit rumpled by all the activity.

Since we were such a long way away, we found another path and headed further up the hill. Chris left me puffing and panting in his wake as he sprinted (a bit of artistic licence there) up and found a better vantage point. The pair were still sitting in the same tree – I think the female is the one on the left and the male is on the right with his back to us – but happy to be corrected on this.

They stayed there for another 10 minutes or so, allowing Chris to get some half decent shots of the one facing us. You can really see the size of those talons!

So a lovely surprise on a Sunday morning – two gorgeous falcons almost on our doorstep. Now we know to look for them, I think this will be the first of many trips to see them. Fingers crossed, given today’s activities, that they build a nest and produce eggs in the near future.