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!

Moth Breakfast & Butterfly Brunch

Yesterday we had the perfect start to a Sunday – a Moth Breakfast, followed by a brunchtime stroll for butterflies. Thankfully the Moth Breakfast was not as insectivorous as it sounds – we simply looked at moths while actually eating bacon butties!  The event was organised by the West Midlands Branch of Butterfly Conservation and took place as one of our favourite places – Monkwood. The moth traps had been put out the night before and all we had to do was turn up to see what had been caught. The great thing about an event like this is that we got to see moth species that we just don’t get in our garden. So amongst many others we saw woodland moths such as – Blotched Emerald, Large Emerald, Peach Blossom and Rosy Footman – all species that I have been dying to see for ages. So here they are:

Blotched Emerald.

Large Emerald.

Peach Blossom

Rosy Footman

Another bonus of going to this kind of event, is getting to meet a load of like minded people. It’s not often I get the chance to discuss with enthusiasm the differences between a blotched and a large emerald, or a Fan Foot versus a Small Fan Foot. I’m more used to amused tolerance rather than eager enthusiasm when waxing lyrical about the beauty of moths! So it was lovely to chat to some new people.

After we’d had our fill of moths (and bacon butties) we headed off for a mid morning walk around the wood. Monkwood is run by Butterfly Conservation and as such is brimming with butterflies. The very first time we went to Monkwood we were amazed to see White Admirals flitting around as we got out of the car. This time it was Purple Hairstreaks – there were at least 3 or 4 (and possibly many more) fluttering around the tops of the trees around the carpark. Sadly none came down low enough to get a decent photo, so this was the best distant shot I managed.

The White Admirals though were much more obliging and appeared along the path almost as soon as we left the carpark. The uppersides of their wings might not be as showy as their Red Admiral cousins, but the undersides more than make up for it. They are fast flying butterflies, but thankfully a few settled long enough to get some pics.

We also saw our first Meadow Browns and Ringlets – common enough butterflies, but still always nice to see your first ones for the year.

A couple of Silver Washed Fritillaries bombed passed us but didn’t hang around long enough to get their photos taken. Same story with a Comma and a White of some description which didn’t even slow down enough for me to tell if it was Large or Green-Veined.

By far the most common butterfly we saw was the Large Skipper. As always I love these cheery little orange butterflies, not least because they pose so nicely for photos.

Butterfly highlight of the morning though has to be the Wood White. We have seen Wood Whites once before (at Haugh Wood in Herefordshire), but it was nice to see these delightful little butterflies again. Their renewed presence in Monkwood is a relatively new thing and is all down to the hard work that Butterfly Conservation have put in. We were at the tail-end of the Wood White season, so there were only a couple around, but there had apparently been plenty of them earlier in the month. A good news story!

The Wood Whites are such ethereal little butterflies. This last photo in particular reminds me of how I imagined fairies to be when I was little – long before I’d even heard of Wood Whites.

Monkwood has plenty of other insect life to offer too. There are a few small ponds, so dragonflies and damselflies were abundant in those areas. We are used to seeing the red and various blue damselflies, but this Emerald one was a new one for us I think.

We saw quite a few beetles, including several of this splendid Black & Yellow Longhorn Beetle.

Chris managed to find our first Speckled Bush Cricket of the year,

whilst I got a male Scorpion Fly showing off his strange scorpion-like rear end and his even stranger proboscis.

Final interest for the day was this pair of mating Dock Bugs, who for some reason had chosen a spot of bird poo for the site of their nuptials, all watched it seems by a curious fly.

So many thanks to Butterfly Conservation West Midlands for getting us out of bed on a Sunday for a most enjoyable morning.

 

 

 

A Lot Going on at the Allotment

We’re well over half way through 30 Days Wild already, but I’ve not had chance to blog much this month. This certainly hasn’t been due to a shortage of wildlife though. The allotment is particularly busy at this time of year with everything (especially the weeds) springing into life. A neighbouring plot has regular slow worm sightings, which I view with great envy. For some reason we can’t tempt them onto our plot even though it is just a few metres away. But I sneaked a peak into said neighbour’s compost bin the other day and was delighted to spot a lovely large slow worm happily sitting on top of the compost.

Unfortunately the compost bin was too high and I was too short to be able to hold the camera high enough to get the whole reptile in focus, which was a bit annoying. So I went back the next day with my GoPro camera on a stick and did a short video to fit it all in. The slow worm didn’t move so it’s not exactly an action packed sequence, but at least you can see the whole animal.

Slow worm on allotment

 

A few sunny June days have also allowed me to try out my latest moth pheromone lure – this time trying to attract the currant clearwing. We have plenty of currant bushes down on the allotment, so it seemed a reasonable assumption that we’d get the moths, but I was still amazed how quickly they came. No sooner had I put the lure out and turned round to get the camera when there was already a hopeful moth buzzing round the trap. Within minutes I had about half a dozen. They were smaller than I expected and are most unusual looking insects. If I didn’t know they were moths I don’t think I would ever have guessed. See-through wings on a body striped a bit like a wasp with a strange pompom tail. They were of course all males having been fooled into thinking my lure was an attractive female.

I did try the lure out at home later – we don’t have any currant bushes there, but I was just curious. Surprisingly I got even more moths in the garden than I did on the allotment. The currant clearwing moths are obviously reasonably abundant in our area and yet I’ve never even glimpsed one without the lure.

Next insect of interest was a large red damselfly laying eggs in the allotment pond.

I didn’t see the male, but there obviously must have been one, because the female was very busy ovipositing in the pond. You can see her in the next photo curving her abdomen round to place each egg carefully in position.

I did try and video her laying the eggs, but she managed to position herself at an awkward angle to film, so apologies for the blurry (and shaky) camera work, but you can hopefully see how carefully she positions her abdomen, delicately probing to find the right spot.

Damselfly ovipositing

The other really interesting insects we’ve been getting at the pond are signal or semaphore flies – small long legged flies with the grand name of Poecilobothrus nobilitatus. The males have white tips to their wings which they wave about like semaphore flags to signal to each other and to females. I’ve spent ages trying to film their displays, but they are so small and so quick it is very difficult to focus on the right bit of the pond at the right time! But in this first shaky video below a male can just about be seen energetically trying to see off another male with his assertive wing display.

signal flies males

In this second shaky video a male (on the right) is trying to woo a female (on left) with his hopefully impressive courtship display. Not sure how convinced she was!

signal flies male and female

But the big excitement for me is the development of our tadpoles into mini frogs. We’ve been anxiously watching over them since March and spotted our first mini frogs in early June. I’ll do a full froggy update soon hopefully, but here are a few photos for now. We seem to have them in all stages of development still – many are still just tadpoles, some now have back legs only, some are starting to show front legs and some like this one below are virtually there apart from the remains of a tail.

The froglets are generally only about the size of a fingernail, but they are perfectly formed – frogs in miniature.

They can of course breathe in the air now, and some are already starting to explore beyond the confines of the pond. We have to be very careful where we tread as the grass is now full of tiny froglets.

So plenty going on down the allotment and that’s without even looking at the bees, the birds, the hoverflies and butterflies that we see regularly too. Not all the plots on our allotment site are gardened organically, but ours is and I feel we reap the benefits. So what if we loose the odd vegetable or some fruit to caterpillars or slugs or pigeons – the rewards of a plot full of wildlife far outweighs the losses. I can live without the odd lettuce or raspberry, but I wouldn’t want to miss out on mini frogs and semaphore flies!

 

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!

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!

Grafton Wood

Lovely day yesterday out and about at Grafton Wood, one of our favourite butterfly hunting spots. Forecast was for sunny spells in the morning so we headed over, hopeful of a good day’s butterfly spotting. The sunny spells were slow to materialise and for the first hour we hardly saw a butterfly. Nor did we see anyone else, it was as if everyone else knew the butterflies were having a day off! Eventually though the butterflies started to appear – a slightly dopey Common Blue was the first to pose for us.

After the initial dozy one, more blues arrived plus Green-Veined Whites and our first Painted Lady of the year.  All in all we tallied up 11 species – not bad after such an unpromising start.

The one butterfly we’d particularly hoped to see though, the Brown Hairstreak, eluded us. They are notoriously tricky to find and we’ve only ever seen one, right here at Grafton Wood in 2015. So it was no great surprise not to find one yesterday. We did however meet  a very helpful gentleman who gave us some top tips for spotting them and showed us some new areas of the wood to look for them in future.  So butterfly-wise we were very happy.

But Grafton Wood is buzzing with more than just butterflies, there are plenty of other insects to enjoy. We kept seeing beautiful big hornets – either Grafton has lots of them or we were being stalked by the same one everywhere we went.

There were lots of small moths flying about in the grass, but the mothy highlight was spotting a group of Buff Tip moth caterpillars that had almost stripped a young tree bare.

We also saw a few shieldbugs, including this nice specimen of a Forest Bug (Pentatoma rufipes).

In the sunnier periods we could hear crickets chirruping in the grass. We saw several of these particularly large ones, which turned out to be a new species for us  – the Long-winged Conehead (Conocephalus discolour).

Grafton is also a great place to go for dragonflies and damselflies. Darters (like this female Common Darter (thanks to Neil for ID)) were reasonably common all over the wood.

We also saw several of the much larger Southern Hawker dragonflies, particularly around the small pond. They seemed to be inexhaustible though and never once did we see one land. Both of us spent ages trying to get a photo of one in flight over the pond; this blurry shot was the best we managed.

Damselflies were also common around the pond – again another new species for us – the White-legged Damselfly (Platycnemis pennipes), which has, as the name suggests, white legs! (although to be honest the legs look more like pale blue to me)

I found one individual sitting on a flower, seemingly staring straight at me. It stayed so long and I spent so long trying to get the perfect photo, it ended up feeling like we were having a bit of a staring contest – if we were then he won!

One insect we’d been trying to get a photo of all summer, was a scorpion fly.  These are seriously weird looking insects, with a long beak like structure on the head and a scorpion style tail on the males. We’d seen lots of them at Trench Wood a few months ago, but then only the females which don’t have the scorpion bit. Grafton Wood however was buzzing with males. It still wasn’t easy to get a photo of the tail as the wings kept getting in the way, but here are our best efforts.

Final surprise of the day was a cheeky little deer face, peeking at us over the wheat field as we walked back to the car.

Grafton Wood has never disappointed us and this weekend was no exception.

Out and About – Lea Quarry, Wenlock Edge

One of the goals for 2017 was to see some new butterfly species. So yesterday we set out for Lea Quarry at Wenlock Edge, in search of the Wall butterfly. The excellent “Butterflies of the West Midlands” book recommended Lea Quarry as a hotspot for Walls in August, so off we went. As usual we nearly managed to get lost as soon as we left the carpark, thanks to someone removing an arrow sign from the path trail! Fortunately while we puzzled over which way to go, a very helpful butterfly spotter Roger (and his gorgeous Malamut dog), showed us the correct path and in fact led us straight to our targets.

Wenlock Edge is a narrow limestone escarpment and Lea Quarry is just as it sounds – a quarry.  From the path there are lovely views out over the Shropshire countryside.

The path runs along the Edge with the quarry to one side.

The butterflies congregated on a small rocky slope at the side of the path. The area may not have been very big, but it was full of butterflies – we counted 11 species. Most were common ones like Gatekeepers, Speckled Wood, Comma, Holly Blue, Meadow Browns and Whites.

There were a couple of large and fresh looking Peacocks which were jostling for position over the same flowers.

There was also one Small Heath, which was more unusual to us. It skulked about in the undergrowth a bit though and looked generally a bit tired, so we only managed this poor photo.

A Small Skipper was much more obliging, posing happily right in front of us.

Common Blues were reasonably common and the males were very blue! The poor female is of course the dowdier of the pair, but still very beautiful.

But the main attraction were the Walls. They’re medium sized butterflies and quite strikingly marked, yet were surprisingly difficult to spot unless they took off. They fly most when it’s sunny, so we were lucky the weather was kind to us and the sun shone down on the righteous! Roger pointed out our first ever one, but after that we were up and running.

We saw several basking on the bare rocks. Unfortunately they do have a tendency to take off as soon as you approach with a camera, but we did eventually get a few decent shots of them like this.

I did eventually manage to get a few photos of a Wall on a flower – only because I was trying to photograph something else and the Wall landed on the flower right next to me though – but hey, you take what you can get! I didn’t realise until I looked back at the photos, just how beautiful the undersides of the wings are too.

The stony bank was busy with insects of all kinds besides the butterflies. Common Blue damselflies were drifting about all over the place – even photobombing one of our Wall photos.

Chris also spotted this much larger Darter dragonfly (Common or Ruddy – I can never remember which is which?)

Bees and hoverflies were making the most of the summer flowers. The hoverflies were particularly numerous and included this striking Large Pied Hoverfly (Volucella pellucens).

We could hear grasshoppers/crickets almost constantly – chirruping away enthusiastically in the sunshine. It was towards the end of our visit though before we actually saw one, when it hopped out onto the path. The relatively short and thick antennae indicate it was a grasshopper rather than a cricket, and that’s about as far as my ID got. But thanks to Neil, it has now been identified as a male Meadow Grasshopper.

So the Wall takes our lifetime tally of butterflies to 43! Very happy with that, but already looking forward to adding to this. We’re probably too late to bag any other new ones this year, as we’d need to travel serious distances probably. But with a bit of luck next summer, we might manage to creep a bit closer to the magic total of 59 – the generally recognised number of British species. It’s almost certainly going to get harder and we’ll have to travel further, but it’s nice to have a goal and a great way to get out and about, so we’re not complaining.

30 Days Wild – Day 20 – Chasing Admirals

It’s Day 20 of 30 Days Wild and the day started early and hot. I got up at the crack of dawn to empty the moth trap and the temperature had only dropped to 18.3C – at 4 o’clock in the morning! Not surprisingly it had been a great night for moths and the trap was stuffed with them including 7 elephant hawkmoths! Prize for me though were these 3 gorgeous Scarlet Tigers (hawkmoths were so last week!).

Next surprise was a racing or homing pigeon, which turned up outside the patio doors, while I was planning what to do for the day. It had rings on its legs, which I presume would be traceable. It didn’t seem injured or unduly bothered and eventually flew off, although it returned in the afternoon.  If it reappears, I’ll maybe see how you go about reporting a stray homing pigeon.

Anyway, clearly having learnt nothing about how hot it was from yesterday’s trip, I headed out again – this time to Monkwood Nature Reserve near Worcester. Chris and I went there a couple of years ago and saw our first ever White Admirals, so I hoped for a repeat performance.

As on the previous trip I was amazed to spot some White Admirals as I got out of the car. There were a couple flying high in the trees around the carpark, too far away to get a photo though – this turned out to be how they behaved all morning. The butterflies of all species were very flighty in the heat (unlike myself!) The only White Admiral I saw land was this one, which flew off before I could get any closer.

So in a kind of “this is what you could have won” way – here’s the photo I’d hoped to take – one from 2 years ago!

I had a bit more luck with a Red Admiral that landed delightfully on  a dog poo.

There were lots of Skippers about, I had thought I’d seen both Large and Small ones, but on examining the photos at home, I decided they were all Large ones.

The skippers even photobombed my attempt at a Meadow Brown.

I saw several other species, none of which would stop for photos – Speckled Wood, Ringlet, Silver Washed Fritillary and Commas.

The guide book said to look out for the ponds and seeing as I seem to be getting a bit obsessed with dragonflies lately, I checked them out. They were full of dragonflies, but also lots of these adorable water boatman – flapping through the water with their built in paddles. Best spot of the day though was this Broad Bodied Chaser, which was hunting over a pond, but kept coming back to this twig to rest.

There was another large dragonfly buzzing over the pond. It refused to settle for a photo, but kept dipping its abdomen in the water – I can only assume it was a female laying eggs, but if anyone can correct me, please do. The best I could manage was one of my short shaky videos.

Dragonfly at Monkwood

Final photo of the day is this Large Red Damselfly. I’d never realised before just how red their eyes are.

I could have spent longer in Monkwood and on a cooler day, I would have been happy to do so. It is a beautiful wood and full of butterflies; birds too no doubt if butterflies aren’t your bag! We are very lucky living in Malvern to have beautiful woods like this, the Wyre Forest, Grafton and Trench Wood, all within an hour’s drive.