30 Days Wild – Day 19

TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_19It’s very appropriate that the Day 19 graphic on the left here has butterflies, as that is exactly what we went looking for this afternoon – the Silver Studded Blue to be precise.  This is a butterfly neither of us had ever seen before and there is only one place in the West Midlands where you can still find them – Prees Heath in Shropshire.  At first sight it’s not the most promising site, being sandwiched between two A roads, but looks can be deceiving. Butterfly Conservation have been working on it to improve the heathland and grassland for the benefit of the wildlife and it has obviously paid off.

Heath

The Silver Studded Blue caterpillars feed mainly on heather and Bird’s Foot Trefoil, both of which we saw in abundance today.

Heather

Birds Foot Trefoil

It was a dull and cloudy day, so we were a bit sceptical that we’d see any – so were thrilled when we saw first one and eventually probably a dozen or more of these little beauties. The “silver studs” are actually more of a shiny blue, but they are still absolutely gorgeous little butterflies. Whether it was the dull weather, or just their nature, but the ones we saw were surprisingly docile and let us get really close up for photos.

Silver studded Blue

Silver studded Blue 2

It was a bit of a windy day and the butterflies were blowing about a bit on their heather stems for photography. I did try to video one – here is a very short clip below.

It took a bit longer to get a photo of one with its wings open, but eventually one obliged.

Silver studded Blue open

The Silver Studded Blues have an interesting life cycle that involves their caterpillars being taken into ants nests by the ants and tended to by their hosts, who in turn get a sugary solution from the caterpillars. The female butterflies deliberately choose sites near the ants to lay their eggs. Not sure if the photo below is the right kind of ant nest, but there were certainly plenty of them about.

Ant nest

We only saw two non-blue butterflies the whole time we were there. We got a few non-brilliant photos of them and I’d assumed at the time that they were Meadow Browns. But when we got home and looked at the photos properly, I started to get excited that they might be Small Heaths, a butterfly we’d never knowingly seen before. Thanks once more to the good people of the Facebook butterfly group, this has now been confirmed. This means we ticked off two brand new species for our butterfly checklist today – fantastic!

Small Heath

Once we’d had our fill of taking photos of the blue butterflies (several hundred photos later!) we could take in some of the other wildlife around us. Prees Heath is known to have Skylarks and we could hear lots of what we think were these increasingly rare birds all around us. We saw them a few times high in the sky above the heather, singing their hearts out. Mostly they were way too high to get a photo of, but I did manage this poor shot of one hovering – at least I think it’s a skylark!

Sky Lark

There were lots of thrushes also singing away beautifully. Again we’re not sure, but we think this is a Song Thrush.

Thrush

The area was full of large black birds – I think Crows. They let me get quite close, probably because they were big enough and tough enough not to be bothered by a little woman like me!

Crow

The whole heath is riddled with rabbit burrows – you have to be quite careful where you walk not to twist an ankle. The rabbits of course were not as bold as the crows, but I did eventually get one bunny to sit still long enough to get his portrait taken.

Rabbit

So our trip today was not only a triumph, but double the success we had hoped for – two brand new species for the price of one – Silver Studded Blue and Small Heath! I doubt we’ll have many butterfly expeditions that will be this successful.

Hawkweed 30 WEEDSAnd finally today’s weed for 30 Lazy Weeds from our garden – the dandelion look alike. I think it’s either a Catsear or a Hawkweed. Whichever it is, it is clearly very popular with the garden flies. Flies may not be the most charismatic of our garden insects, but they are all food for something, so fine by me. The yellow Catsear or Hawkweed is brightening up the un-mowed areas of our so called lawn and if the flies are happy with it, so are we.

 

 

Out and About – Haugh Wood

Yesterday’s expedition produced not only the result we’d set out for, but a completely unexpected bonus. We’d set out in search of Wood White butterflies – a species neither of us had ever seen before, so one on our hit list to “bag” this year. The new Butterflies of the West Midlands book suggested a walk in Haugh Wood, Herefordshire so we ventured forth once again – it’s becoming a bit of a weekend habit this abandonment of our sofas!

Haugh Woods (there seems to be some debate as to whether it is pronounced Haugh as in Laugh or Hoff as in The Hoff!) is run by the Forestry Commission and is a nationally important wood for butterflies – in particular the Wood White. The Wood White is a nationally vulnerable species, so we’re lucky to have a colony close enough to visit.

The first white butterfly to show its wings though was a Green Veined White. Of course it took a bit of chasing around to confirm that it wasn’t a Wood White – we didn’t discover how small the Woodies were until later on. Still the Green Veined was lovely to see, even if it refused to pose its wings properly upright to see the veins.

Green veined white

DSC_2638

It wasn’t long though before another much smaller white flapped by – again it took a bit of chasing around until it stopped long enough to confirm a Wood White. They’re really much smaller than I’d expected and not the most energetic of butterflies, which was good news for us pursuing them!

Wood White

We eventually saw several more once the showers passed and the sun came out again. I think both these photos are of males, which apparently have a white spot near the inside end of their antennae.

Wood White 2

Near the end of our walk a third white species showed up – a female Orange Tip. We didn’t spot any males, but there must have been at least one around, as evidenced by the fact that she was laying eggs! The female lays one egg at a time and if you look carefully you can just about see the egg here on the underside of the more or less horizontal stem at the point where it meets the more or less vertical stem. At least we think that’s an egg! They’re pale green to start with then go orange.

Orange Tip laying eggs

Throughout the wood we’d also been seeing Speckled Yellow moths flitting about. They are notoriously difficult to photograph, but we finally chased one down back near the carpark.

Speckled Yellow

The wood was full of ants, in places forming huge ants nests. Chris managed to get this really good shot of a couple of ants on spurge. Only trouble is we’ve no idea of the species, so if anyone can ID these, it would be much appreciated.

Ant

The real bonus of the trip though was something we only discovered we’d seen when we got back home and downloaded the photos. Chris had spotted what we thought was a caterpillar trundling across the path, so we’d taken a few snaps and then moved it to safety (probably a good job we moved it, as we had to double back down the path a few minutes later having got lost despite the very clear path markers – I’d hate to  have trodden on it!)

Glow worm

Looking at the photos properly back home, it didn’t look like a caterpillar at all. A quick google combined with a plea for help on Facebook and iSpot, confirmed we’d found a Glow Worm larva. It is principally the adult females that glow, although the larvae do glow a bit, but obviously not at 11:30 on a Sunday morning while tootling along a path! So it was hardly a bioluminescent spectacle (like the recent, excellent David Attenborough programme on the phenomenon), but we can still say we’ve seen a glow worm, so I’m happy with that. I feel a trip back to Haugh Woods in the dark may be coming up some time soon though!

 

Out and About – Wyre Forest

The sun was still shining on the righteous at the weekend, so we decided to make the most of it and headed up to the Wyre Forest in search of the Pearl Bordered Fritillaries. We took a slightly circuitous route, via one of our favourite pubs – The Live and Let Live on Bringsty Common. Fabulous pub with great food and lots of wildlife around. Lots of bees and butterflies (Small Copper, Orange Tip, fast flying and therefore unidentifiable whites!) and birds, but only this little wren paused long enough to get its photo taken.

Live & Let Live

Wren at Live & Let Live2 Wren at Live & Let Live1

Suitably fuelled we headed off to the Wyre Forest. The Pearly Bordered Fritillaries were our main butterfly target of the day as the Wyre Forest is one of their strongholds in the West Midlands. The Wyre is managed by the Forestry Commission and Butterfly Conservation to restore a diverse woodland environment, providing the right habitats for many butterflies. It’s not only good for butterflies, but is a lovely place to just go for a walk.

Within minutes walking along the old railway track, we’d reached a gateway to a more open area where we’d seen the fritillaries last year. Sure enough, just yards from the gate we spotted our first one.

PB Fritillary

Needless to say it didn’t hang around to get many photos, so we went back to the track and headed along to an area with sunny sheltered banks. Here there were numerous Pearl Bordered Fritillaries fluttering in the sunshine. We were really chuffed initially to get these distant shots of a pair getting down to business.

Pearl Bordered Fritillaries (6) Pearl Bordered Fritillaries (5) Pearl Bordered Fritillaries (2)

But then Chris spotted a pair clearly too engrossed in what they were about to be bothered by us taking photos! He managed to get a whole series of them together. In the photos you can clearly see how pearlescent the central white spot in particular is. I love the underside of their wings – like beautiful stained glass windows.

Pearl Bordered Fritillary mating

Pearl Bordered Fritillary mating 2

Of course although the fritillaries were the highlight, there was lots to see besides the butterflies. Spring flowers were abundant, attracting a variety of insects. I’m not too hot on wildflower ID, but I’m fairly sure the following are Greater Stitchwort, Jack-by-the-Hedge (aka Garlic Mustard) and Yellow Deadnettle.

Greater stitchwort

Jack by the hedge

Yellow Deadnettle

There were also a few day flying moths about, two of which we’d not seen before. The Small Purple-barred (Phytometra viridaria) was a new one, but was thankfully easy to identify.

Small Purple-barred

The other two required help from the good people of the Facebook West Midlands Butterfly (and moth obviously) Group. The Common Carpet (Epirrhoe alternata) I had seen before, but never holding its wings at this angle, which flummoxed my attempts at ID.

Common Carpet (1)

The final moth was just too darn small for my puny ID skills, but is apparently Micropterix calthella (not sure if it’s got a common name) and unusually for a moth, feeds on pollen.

Micropterix calthella (1)

So all in all a very good day out. The Wyre Forest is definitely worth a visit for anyone wanting to see the beautiful Pearl Bordered Fritillaries.

Pearl Bordered Fritillaries (10)

 

 

 

Out and About – Penny Hill Bank

You know how it is, you wait a lifetime to see a Green Hairstreak, then see them two days in a row! Flushed with success of finding them at Cannock Chase the day before, we ventured forth once more – this time to a small reserve in Worcestershire – Penny Hill Bank.

Penny Hill Sign

Penny Hill is an area of grassland that has apparently never had pesticides on it, so has a very diverse flora, including several types of orchid. We were probably there a bit early in the year to see many of them, but we did spot this Common Twayblade orchid (Listera ovata) and there were lots of pretty blue Bugle (Ajuga reptans) flowers.

Common Twayblade orchid (1)

Bugle (2)

The diverse flora of course in turn attracts a wide variety of insects, particularly butterflies. We’d only been there a couple of minutes before Chris spotted a Green Hairstreak. Perhaps now, having got our eye in with them at Cannock Chase, we’ll be finding them everywhere!

Green Hairstreak Penny Hill Bank

This was soon followed by another relatively unusual butterfly, the unfortunately named Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages). The skippers look a bit more like moths than butterflies, but have the typical butterfly antennae – smooth with a slightly bulbous tip. The Dingy Skippers are actually quite pretty in a subtle kind of way. They were also quite flighty, so not easy to photograph – this was the best we could do.

Dingy Skipper

We saw several other species of butterfly – Orange Tip, Green Veined White, and a possibly Large White, but none of them stopped long enough to get a photo. A Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula) was however much more obliging.

Large red damselfly

The field was generally very tidy, with thankfully no rubbish, but there were a few old bits of farm debris lying around, so we checked underneath them. The first revealed a newt, but the highlight of our day though was finding another lifetime first – a slow worm! Neither of us had ever seen one, so we were both squealing with excitement (even Chris although he probably won’t admit that!) when we lifted an old metal sheet and found the slow worm underneath.

Slow worm

We hurriedly took a few photos, before carefully lowering his “roof” back down. As we’d been walking around Penny Hill, it had seemed like possibly adder territory, but the slow worm was a complete surprise. Penny Hill is also home to glow worms – so we may be back there one night in the hope of bagging another first!

The views from Penny Hill Bank were stunning, you could see for miles across Worcestershire. The photo below doesn’t really do it justice. It’s a small site tucked away off the beaten track and not that easy to find (thanks go to a local who pointed us in the right direction), but it’s a lovely, peaceful place to just sit and enjoy the view, whether you’re interested in plants and animals or not.

Penny Hill View

Chasing Butterflies

We went further afield this weekend chasing elusive butterflies – Cannock Chase for Green Hairstreaks (Callophrys rubi) to be precise. Cannock Chase is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) with large areas of heathland and woodland. Several areas within it are protected further as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Cannock Chase

We follow the West Midlands Branch of Butterfly Conservation on Facebook and had been jealously viewing lots of stunning photos on there of Green Hairstreak butterflies – a species that was on our “hit list” of ones to see for the first time. Many of these photos on Facebook had been taken on Cannock Chase, so we decided to stop off there on the way home from Chris’s Mum in Staffordshire. Clues gleaned from Facebook and Butterfly Conservation’s booklet on Butterflies of the West Midlands indicated that the carpark near the Glacial Boulder (seen below) would be a good place to start.

Glacial Boulder

So we headed out in hope and expectation, starting at the carpark just a few metres from the boulder. About a minute’s walk from the boulder we found this overgrown ditch which was warm and sheltered – an ideal spot for both us and the butterflies we hoped to see.

Hairstreak alley

Almost immediately I spotted one, then another and  we realised we’d hit gold – or perhaps green! There were maybe half a dozen Green Hairstreaks flitting around the bilberry bushes. Some pairs were chasing up into the air – presumably mating couples. The Green Hairstreaks are really small with green undersides with a white streak on. The uppersides of the wings are brown, but we only saw those in flight as they never settle with their wings open. In butterfly heaven we took loads (and I mean loads – thank god for the delete option with digital). So here are a selection of the best of our efforts – all Chris’s photos actually as he had the macro lens and also a much steadier hand!

Green Hairstreak 4

Green Hairstreak

Green Hairstreak 7

Green Hairstreak 6

Green Hairstreak 5

Green Hairstreak 3

Whilst happily snapping away at our prize butterflies, we met the very man (Terry) who had posted the photos on Facebook in the first place! He was extremely helpful (as have been all the butterfly enthusiasts we’ve met on our walks) and gave us tips as to what else we might see. Thanks to Terry we found a pond we would never otherwise have seen and subsequently spotted a new (for us) bird species too – a Reed Bunting. Apologies for rubbish photo, but they kept their distance, so this was the best I could manage. They looked like large sparrows with a white collar and were grabbing insects out of the air over the reeds.

Reed Bunting

Chris even spotted an adder, although it was too fast to get a photo – needless to say I missed it altogether!

All in all a very successful trip to Cannock Chase – far better than we’d dared hope for. The Green Hairstreaks are absolutely gorgeous little butterflies and well worth going that extra mile to see.

 

Citizen Science

With the Big Garden Birdwatch coming up this weekend, it got me thinking about the other forms of Citizen Science (Citizen Smith’s nerdy cousin!) that the other half and I get involved with from the comfort of our own garden.  For amateur biologists like us, these projects are a great way of indulging our hobbies and hopefully contributing something useful with the information at the same time. Most of the ones we participate in require no specialist knowledge (phew!), no specialist equipment and often very little time. Yet when enough people contribute, they can provide significant amounts of information that the scientists couldn’t get any other way.

BlackbirdThe Big Garden Birdwatch is one of the oldest projects and has been going for over 30 years, allowing the RSPB to monitor long term trends in our garden bird populations.  You just need to watch the birds in your garden for an hour and count the maximum number of each species you see. For more information go to: https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/discoverandlearn/birdwatch

Small CopperThe Big Butterfly Count is a relative newcomer, having only started in 2010, but already it’s become the biggest butterfly survey in the world. Last year over half a million butterflies were recorded in over 50,000 counts – you couldn’t pay for that amount of data!  For this project all you need to do is record the maximum number of each of the target species you see in just 15 minutes during the 3 weeks the project runs each summer. For more information go to: http://www.bigbutterflycount.org/

I’ve been monitoring the moths in our garden for a while now and last year took part in Moth Night in September.  Moth night runs for a different weekend each year with a different theme each time (this year it will be Hawk-moths). You can either run a moth trap in  your own garden or go to one of their public events. For more information go to: http://www.mothnight.info/www/ This year I’ve decided to go one step further and joined the Garden Moth Scheme. This project gets volunteers to put out moth traps in the garden once a week over the summer months and log their findings. Since I’ve been more or less doing this anyway, joining the scheme seemed like the logical thing to do. For more information go to: http://www.gardenmoths.org.uk/

Painted LadyIf you don’t want to get involved in anything too formal, some schemes just require you to log certain species as and when you see them. Butterfly Conservation runs a Migrant Watch for Painted Lady butterflies and Hummingbird Hawk-moths. These species are becoming increasingly common in the UK and may be indicative of climate change. You can help monitor this by simply logging any sightings of them (at home, work wherever you see them). Humming Bird Hawkmoth 3For more information go to: http://butterfly-conservation.org/612/migrant-watch.html

 

 

 

Azure DamselflyThere are schemes for all sorts of species – we’ve logged dragonflies and damselflies at http://www.british-dragonflies.org.uk/ and reptiles and lizards at http://www.recordpool.org.uk/index.php You name it there is probably a recording scheme for it somewhere.

Although I’ve always been interested in encouraging wildlife into the garden (hence the abundance of wilderness areas – honest that’s the reason!), it was taking part in a Garden Bioblitz a few years ago that really fired my enthusiasm. In a Garden Bioblitz you simply record all the species (plants and animals) you can find in your garden over a 24 hour period.  The first time we did it, the other half and I recorded 119 species – and that was before we had a moth trap! Hopefully this year we can improve on that. If you fancy having a go – http://www.gardenbioblitz.org/

In short (after rambling on longer than I meant to), if you’re interested in wildlife and observing it anyway, why not put those observations to good use and submit them to one of these schemes?

Bug of the Month

LacewingBug of the Month is a phrase you just don’t get to use often enough! But the brilliant Buglife charity have launched a new feature entitled just that, in which they will showcase a different invertebrate each month. August’s “bug” is the beautiful Common Green Lacewing (Chrysoperla carnea). As luck would have it, I caught one of these little beauties in the moth trap this month. Buglife’s webpage has a beautiful image of the lacewing, so I fondly imagined I would take a similarly aesthetic photo. It seems however that my particular lacewing had different ideas – I got this one fairly grotty snap of it as I opened the pot, then it was off over the fence, presumably to find a garden with fewer paparazzi. If you’d like to see a much better photo or read more about these beautiful insects, have a look at the Buglife website: https://www.buglife.org.uk/bugs-and-habitats/bug-month

With a bit of luck, I’ll find future Bugs of the Month in our backyard too, unless they go for ones that require a tidy garden or for very rare ones like the lesser spotted dweeb beetle (I may have made that one up!)

If you’ve never heard of Buglife, they are a fantastic charity that champion Britain’s 40,000+ invertebrate species. The tiny animals they support may not have the “cute factor” of some of the more high profile conservation stories, but are just as important if not more so.

Big Butterfly Count

Silver Washed Fritillary & Meadow Brown.jpgThe annual Big Butterfly Count starts tomorrow. It’s a chance for everyone to get involved counting butterflies (and a few moths) to improve our knowledge of their populations. This in turn helps the conservationists plan how best to protect our British butterflies. All it takes is 15 minutes of your time. You can do your count anywhere – at home, at work, out on a walk, at the pub, wherever you fancy. Full details can be found at: http://www.bigbutterflycount.org/

I’ll aim to do several counts in the garden here over the coming weeks and hopefully post a few photos – assuming some butterflies make an appearance!