Out and About – Hollybed Farm Meadows

HollybedA sunny, if cold, Easter weekend and we took advantage of the lockdown easing to get out and about for the first time this year. So we headed out to find a small nature reserve that we’d not been to before – Hollybed Farm Meadows. We drove past hordes of people heading for the Malvern Hills, but fortunately Hollybed Meadows were virtually deserted and it felt like we had the reserve to ourselves. The meadows may not be at their best until the summer probably, but now we know how to get there, we will definitely go back later in the year.

The hedgerows were full of blossom; I think this is Blackthorn although I wouldn’t argue if someone says it’s Hawthorn. It was lovely whatever it was.

blackthorn

There were plenty of early spring bees enjoying the blossom, plus one of our favourites – the Dark-edged Bee-fly.

beefly 2

Besides the blossom in the hedgerows, the margins of the field were scattered with a variety of spring flowers (there may have been flowers all over the fields, but we were sticking to the footpaths around the edges).  We (tentatively) identified Wood Anemones, Violets (violet and white ones), Cowslips, Celandine and Dead-nettles.

wood anemone

Violets

cowslips

celandine

dead nettle

The floral highlight was probably spotting the first bluebells of the year, reminding us to go out later this month and see the carpets of bluebells on the Malverns.

bluebell

At the far side of the meadows, we went down a bank and were rewarded with the sounds of Chiffchaffs and woodpeckers. We also got lucky with sightings of our first Speckled Woods and Orange Tip butterflies of the year.

Orange Tip

Across a small stream we could see a field full of what we assumed to be wild daffodils. I don’t think it was part of the reserve, so we didn’t venture in, but it felt like a field full of spring!

field of daffodils

An orchard area was being grazed by the cutest, but scruffiest goats ever.

young goatGoat

As we headed back we were treated to a lovely sunny view of the Malvern Hills. We see the hills every day from our garden, but it was really nice to see them from a different perspective. All in all a very pleasant couple of hours and a taste of freedom!

Malvern hills

 

 

Spring Has Sprung

It was the Spring Equinox at the weekend – 20th March according to Google or 21st March according to my Dad whose birthday it was yesterday and he always said he was born on the first day of spring! Whichever day it was, the garden seems to be responding and there are signs of life everywhere after the long winter (and lockdown). 

Spring was ushered in a bit early back in February with the appearance of a new moth for the garden – the Spring Usher; an attractive moth and one that I’d been hoping to see for some years.

Spring Usher 1

Other insects have started to appear too. The garden has been graced with visits from both a Comma and a Brimstone butterfly – sadly both too fast and fleeting to get a decent photo of, but joys to see nonetheless. Pond skaters have popped up on the pond again. They were the first insects to move into the new pond last year so it’s nice to see them back again.

The first bees have emerged too. My perennial favourites the Hairy Footed Flower Bees are back buzzing round the garden. I’ve only seen males so far, but I think they do tend to appear before the females.

Hairy footed flower bee

I’ve not seen any active Red Mason Bees yet, but they can’t be far off. I collected the cocoons from some of the tubes in the bee houses last year and they are now safely back out waiting for them to hatch. Again I think the males may hatch first.

red mason cocoons

Another favourite – the Dark-edged Beefly appeared just at the weekend. I don’t know why, but I’ve always found them to be cheery little insects and for me they really signal that spring is on its way.

beefly

The spring flowers are out in force now – good news for the bees hopefully. We’ve got lots of self-seeded primroses all over the place and the occasion violet too.

primroses

Violet

A surprise this year was to find that we have a Hazel tree. The little sapling has just appeared amongst the bushes – we can only guess that perhaps the squirrel buried a nut and then forgot about it. Having never known anything about catkins, I discovered that the trailing flowers I was familiar with were just the males and that there were much smaller red flowers that were the females. I had to go back out and search over our tiny tree, but sure enough there were female flowers too – you learn something new every day! The red female flowers are tiny in comparison and barely noticeable. 

Hazel male catkins (1)

 

Hazel female flower

The pond has been attracting a fair amount of non-insect life too. The birds as always using it for drinking and bathing – I was particularly pleased that our resident wren got caught on camera even if it was for just a second.

A couple of our hedgehogs have emerged early from hibernation and have been seen drinking from the pond most nights. It’s always a relief to know they have survived the winter.

But the BIG news is that we have frog spawn! The first spawn appeared on 20th February, followed by another clump the next day, then 2 more clumps three weeks later. Here’s the first beautiful batch. Frog spawn day 1

I’ll do a full froggy post soon, as I’ve taken too many photos and videos to include in this one. So despite what Google and my Dad said, for me spring began on 20th February with the glistening sight of our first frog spawn.

Blowing in the Wind

At the weekend, we finally got to go and see the Snake’s Head Fritillaries at Lugg Meadows near Hereford. I’ve been wanting to see these for ages now, but something always seems to crop up to stop us (last year the meadows were flooded for a start). So this year we booked on a guided walk with Herefordshire Wildlife Trust to go in search of these nationally scarce plants. Lugg Meadows are part of a very old system called Lammas Meadows, where the meadows are left through the summer to grow hay, which is then cut in late July (in time for Lammas Day 1st August), then animals allowed on to graze until the following year. In places like the Lugg Meadows, this practice has been going on for hundreds of years, possibly back to Roman times. So the history of these meadows predates Hereford Cathedral itself; they were even recorded in the Domesday Book.

Lammas Meadows were once much more common, but now very few remain in as good a condition as those by the river Lugg. The meadows were divided into strips of land, the hay from which would then be harvested by different people. These strips were marked by “dole stones” like the one below.

Our guide Peter was very entertaining and knowledgeable and despite the efforts of Storm Hannah trying to blow us over, took us straight to the relevant patch of the meadow to see the Snake’s Head Fritillaries. The meadows flood regularly, resulting in a rich soil and diverse flora. The fritillaries are nationally scarce, but are still doing well here. In most other similar sites, the Snake’s Head Fritillaries tend to be predominately purple, with just a few white ones. For some reason in the Lugg Meadows it is the other way around – the white flowers dominate with just a few purple ones.

With Storm Hannah blowing, it was perhaps not ideal conditions for taking photos of delicate flowers that were literally blowing in the wind, but we did our best.

The Latin name for the fritillaries Fritillaria meleagris apparently refers to the chequerboard pattern of spots on the normal purple variety.

I made a brief video clip to show how much the wind was making life difficult for steady photography.

Once we got our eye in, there were actually quite a few of the flowers nodding around in the wind. Apparently they had peaked a week or two before, but since the walk was pre-booked for today, we were happy to catch them at all.

While we oohed and ahhed over the flowers, we heard our first cuckoo of the year, which was a nice surprise. We couldn’t actually see the cuckoo, it was behind us somewhere in the trees. But we did see lots of these cuckoo flowers – one of the favourite food plants of the Orange-Tip butterfly – not that any butterflies were flying while the wind battered the meadows.

We returned to the car by crossing the meadows and walking alongside the river. We got the very briefest glimpse of a kingfisher as we walked. Such a brief glimpse, I’ve had to blow up the section of the photo just to prove there was really one there!

Herefordshire Wildlife Trust do a great job of managing these meadows. There is an area that has curlews nesting – access to this is restricted during the breeding season to try and help this struggling species. So all in all a very pleasant way of spending a Saturday afternoon.  Next year we can maybe go back under our own steam, now that we know the right area to look for the fritillaries and we can hopefully pick a weekend without a storm blowing!

Scilly Isles – Tresco

Here’s the second bloggy instalment from our recent trip to the Scilly Isles – this time covering Tresco. Tresco is the second largest of the islands and was just a short boat ride away from where we were staying on St Mary’s. As with all the Scilly Isles, you can’t really move for beautiful beaches and stunning views.

I particularly liked some of the rock formations which looked like they’d come out of a Flintstone movie!

Tresco is perhaps the most touristy of the “off islands”, but within minutes of getting off the boat we were all by ourselves on a butterfly filled lane crossing the island. I’d visited the Scillies as a child with my parents and one of the things I remember most vividly was the abundance of butterflies (of course there were generally many more butterflies around everywhere back then in the 1970s).  So it was a delight to walk down lanes and be surrounded by them again. Meadow Browns were by far the most common species.

We saw lots of Red Admirals all over the Scilly Isles – far more than we ever see in Malvern. This is probably because most of them are migrants that get blown or fly over to Scilly from mainland Europe.

The lanes had plenty of the other common species too like Speckled Woods, Large Whites and Holly Blues.

My favourites though on Tresco were the Small Coppers and Common Blues – both small jewel like butterflies. It was blue butterflies in particular that I remember from childhood, so seeing those here was lovely.

Tresco also supplied us with another new bird species – the stonechat (thanks to Neil for the identification). We saw lots of these little birds and heard even more.

Tresco has a very tropical feel to it, with lush vegetation pretty much everywhere. There were loads of these absolutely massive Echium plants – many of them at least twice as tall as me, although admittedly I am only about 5 foot 1!

Many of the stone walls were covered in large succulent plants, like something off an alien movie. They are Aeonium plants and there were several different varieties around the Scillies.

Tresco seemed to have far more of these bright yellowy orange flowers  (Gazania – thanks Neil!) than the other islands.

Blue (and white) agapanthus were common everywhere; whether in gardens and verges like this,

or seemingly naturalised on open ground.

The areas further from habitation tended to have more natural, as in more British looking flora. Lots of the island was covered in gorgeous purple heather which was teeming with insects.

Bees were abundant everywhere – Tresco and indeed all the Scilly Isles must be bee paradise with all those flowers. Most of the ones I saw looked fairly familiar, but Tresco had a lot of these ones which seemed a bit different. The good people of the Facebook bee group suggested they might be Cliff Mining Bees (Andrena thoracica), although apparently we can’t be sure about this one as it had collected so much pollen it has obscured the vital bits for identification!

Tresco is famous for its tropical Abbey Gardens. Unfortunately we spent so much time dawdling around the island looking at butterflies (and admittedly eating a very good lunch at the Ruin Beach Café) that by the time we got to the Gardens there wasn’t really time to go in. So the entrance below is as close as we got.

Although it would no doubt have been nice to look round the gardens, there was so much tropical plant life all over Tresco that I don’t feel we missed out too much. And it’s always nice to leave something new for the next visit!

 

 

Scilly Isles – St Mary’s

After the rush of 30 Days Wild in June, I thought July would be a quiet month and I’d be able to blog at a leisurely pace. Somehow that doesn’t seem to have happened and we are now two thirds through the month! The good news is that we managed to squeeze in a fantastic holiday in the beautiful Scilly Isles. We took so many photos (over 2000!) that I’ll split them (not all of them obviously!) into blog posts for the different islands we visited.

So first up are some of the many things we saw on the main island – St Mary’s. We were staying on St Mary’s, so spent our first full day getting to know it (via some crazy golf buggy driving thanks to my brother-in-law), before taking boat trips to the other islands later in the week.

The Scilly Isles are off the southern tip of Cornwall and have a much more tropical climate than we get back home in Malvern. This was immediately apparent from the lush vegetation – palm trees, giant Echiums and Agapanthus everywhere.

The rocky walls were generally covered in all manner of stunning flowers and the hedgerows were overflowing.

No idea what these massive yellow and orange flowers were, but they were like pina coladas hanging everywhere. (now known to be Angel’s Trumpets or Brugmansia sanguinea, thanks to Neil Anderson and Jo at Me and My Hats)

As we trundled around St Mary’s at the breakneck speed of 12mph on the buggy, the views were pretty much stunning from all angles. Beautiful beaches and some amazing rock formations.

I tried one of my usual shaky videos to give some idea of the panorama of islands all around us:

Normally Chris and I focus on the natural history, but the Scilly Isles have been inhabited since Neolithic times, so it would have been rude not to pay a visit to at least one site.  This is Halangy Down; a village inhabited from the Iron Age through to the early Medieval period when it was abandoned as the area got buried in sand.

And this is me inside Bant’s Carn – a 4000 year old burial chamber, just up the hill from the ancient village.

Fascinating as the ancient history is, Chris and I always end up looking for the wildlife. The islands are of course full of birds, who have not only adapted to island life but to tourist life as well. The sparrows in particular had learnt that tourists were easy picking and wherever we went to eat they were there – greedy opportunists, making the most of us greedy visitors. So here I am doing my sparrow whispering bit – sacrificing a bit of my lunch to my new friends. If only I could get the robin on our allotment to do the same, I’d be very happy.

Of course we saw lots of other birds besides the sparrows. First new species for us was this Rock Pipit seen down on the shore near the Old Town area – please someone tell me if this is actually just another sparrow!

We saw lots of our perennial favourites – oystercatchers. I’m not sure I’d ever noticed before how disproportionately long their beaks are – although they are clearly well evolved to successfully fill the biological niche that would require such a beak!

We got this one fleeting glimpse of a gannet, although they do occur all round the islands.

I always struggle to tell cormorants from shags, but apparently the latter are much more common on the Scillies. Having said that I think this one seen bobbing about in the water just out of decent camera range was a cormorant.

Gulls were of course present pretty much everywhere. This I think is a Great Black-Backed Gull – the largest gull in the world. The Scilly Isles have over 10% of the UK’s breeding population of this gull. Apparently they can swallow puffins whole, but this one was making do with pecking at a crab shell it had probably nicked from a local restaurant.

Birds may be great, but we can’t go anywhere without looking for insects. Possibly the most interesting ones we saw on St Mary’s were these Ichneumon wasps (Heteropelma amictum – thanks to Bob on Twitter for the ID) – which were fairly common lumbering around the bracken with their yellow back legs dangling behind them.

I had been tempted to take the moth trap to the Scillies, but common sense prevailed and I was reduced to looking for day flying ones. Fortunately six spot burnett moths were sufficiently common around the islands to satisfy the mothy nerd in me.

As St Mary’s is the main island and therefore the most populous, we hadn’t really expected to see too much wildlife. We thought St Mary’s would be our foodie base and we’d use the outer islands for serious wildlife watching. But without really looking we stumbled upon loads of plants and animals that caught our interest – most of which was accessible from a golf buggy. Who knows what we might have seen if we’d got out and explored on foot!

More soon, when I’ve ploughed through the next 500 or so photos from our trip to the Scilly Isles! xx

30 Days Wild – Day 29 – Fine Crop of Flowers on the Lottie

It’s Day 29 of 30 Days Wild and since I didn’t get home until quite late and it was raining when I did, the choices for today’s “wild thing” were a bit limited. Fortunately my friend was still staying and I’d promised to show her the lottie, so we headed up there to see what we can find. Although not everyone at the allotment site gardens organically, enough do that there are plenty of wildflowers to see amongst the deliberately planted plants.

First thing we spotted was Pineapple Weed (Matricaria discoidea). I’d never noticed it before but my friend identified it and got me to crush a flower – it really does smell like pineapples! Does what it says on the tin!

Next up was Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), a pretty wild version of Geraniums.

Another new one for me was a member of the Bistort family, possibly Redshank, but my dodgy rainy photo wasn’t good enough to be sure.

Next one we were a bit more confident about – Green Alkanet. The blue flowers were almost glowing in the rain. All these plants (weeds in some people’s books) were growing along the path as we walked down to our plot.

These pretty daisy-like flowers were actually Feverfew. As the name suggests, this plant has been used in traditional medicine to cure all manner of things. Like the bindweed photobombing in the corner!

Another medicinal herb growing around the plots was this St John’s Wort.

It had been a few days since I’d been down to the allotment, so it was really nice to see how some of the deliberate plantings had come along. The runner beans were going great guns – hopefully we’ll get a good crop.

Really chuffed to see one of our sunflowers was out despite the complete lack of sun today.

As is so often the case we had a surprise on today’s walk – we found 3 huge puffballs. Thought at first they were footballs, but they were way better than that – giant fungi. Seen here with a foot for size comparison! If it hadn’t been so wet we might have been tempted to take it back to try fried puffball steaks.

So even on a unpromising wet work night, there was still plenty to see and enjoy if you get out and about. Get your wellies on and get out there!

 

 

 

30 Days Wild – Day 17 – Blue is the Colour!

It’s Day 17 of 30 Days Wild and with blue skies above we went in search of the Large Blue Butterfly. The Large Blue is probably Britain’s rarest butterfly. It actually went extinct here in the 1970s, but thanks to great efforts by conservation bodies, it was reintroduced to a few sites in 1984. One of these sites is Daneway Banks in Gloucestershire and that’s where we headed today. Butterfly Conservation’s Gloucestershire Branch had an organised walk on and very kindly let us tag along.

Large Blues have a really intriguing life cycle. The eggs are laid on wild thyme or marjoram. The tiny caterpillars hatch and secret a substance that attracts a particular species of red ant. The ants carry them to their nests, where the caterpillars feed on the ant grubs. Eventually the new adults emerge and have to crawl out of the ants’ nests before they can open their wings!

Daneway Banks consists of limestone grassland that is carefully managed by the Wildlife Trusts, to support the Large Blue butterfly, which of course has the side effect of supporting lots of other wildlife too. It is up a steep bank and looked stunning today in the sunshine, with wildflowers and butterflies galore!

Apart from the chatter of excited would-be Large Blue spotters, the predominant sound for me was the chirruping of grasshoppers. There must be hundreds there judging by the noise, which I love – it is one of the true sounds of summer for me.

So two whole posses of us set off in search of the Large Blue. There is quite a camaraderie about going out with a bunch of people all interested in seeing the same thing! Over the day we saw about 13 species in total, but initially the Large Blue remained elusive. But there were other blues to tempt our fancy. There were several Common Blues, including this particularly tatty one.

Small Blues were also reasonably common, although very difficult to get a decent shot of.

While we searched for our elusive target we saw plenty of beautiful orchids, which at least don’t fly off! Most were these ones (possibly Common Spotted Orchids).

There were a few of these pretty purple ones, which I think may be Pyramidal Orchids?

We spotted this one perfect white one – not sure if it was a different species or just a colour variant.

Prize of the day went to this Bee Orchid though – absolutely gorgeous and unlike any we’d seen before.

But back to the butterflies – Meadow Browns & Marbled Whites were present in abundance, but none would pose for a photo. This Ringlet and Small Heath were more agreeable to it, although still a bit flighty.

Chris and I eventually spotted a blue butterfly that looked larger than the rest. It flew off towards another enthusiast who was much more knowledgeable than us and confirmed it was indeed a Large Blue. All three of us set off after it, joined by others as we hurried, only to lose it over a grassy bank. But at least we’d seen one, so that was progress!

Eventually we saw Andy – the group leader – waving us over. Unbelievably a mating pair of Large Blues had been found! Chris and I hurried over to join the excited throng. None of us wanted to get too close to disturb the loved up pair, but we did manage to take some photos at least. So here are our Large Blues.

We saw a couple more Large Blues over the next hour, but despite our spirited pursuits, none stopped long enough to be photographed. So unfortunately we never got a shot of one with its wings open  – perhaps that’s something for next time.

As we headed back towards the entrance though, Chris managed to grab a shot of one of the Large Skippers we’d been seeing all morning.

But the final surprise came right near the end – Chris spotted a Green Hairstreak! I didn’t believe him at first, but sure enough there it was –  a very definitely green butterfly.

I’d say seeing the Green Hairstreak was the perfect end to the trip, but actually the cold drink in the very nice pub (Daneway Inn), finished off a boiling hot day just perfectly too.

So we’ve bagged our 42nd species of butterfly and one of the most interesting ones to boot! Huge thanks to Butterfly Conservation Gloucestershire for letting us midlanders tag along. I hadn’t really dared hope that we’d ever see a Large Blue, but to see a mating pair is simply amazing. Fingers crossed it was a successful union and that Daneway Banks is blessed with many more generations of blues to come!

 

 

 

 

30 Days Wild – Day 16 – Plant Pots for Pollinators

It’s Day 16 of 30 Days Wild and this evening I’ve been Planting a Pot for Pollinators. This isn’t just me randomly planting up a pot with more flowers, but part of a nationwide scheme to encourage people to do their bit for pollinating bees, hoverflies and butterflies etc.

It’s being organised by the Butterfly Conservation Society – for more information go to: http://www.plantpotsforpollinators.org The aim is simple – to get as many people as possible to plant up at least one pot in their garden with flowers that are good for our insect pollinators.

If you go to their website you can download instructions, but basically all you need is a big pot, some peat-free compost and some flowers. There’s a list of 6 suggestions – calendula, catmint, cosmos, French marigolds, Shasta daisies and dahlias (but only the single flowered varieties as these have pollen that is easy for the bees to get at).  You can of course choose others, provided they are good for pollinators.

Of the 6, I bought, Cosmos (left), French marigolds and a Dahlia – all of which had bees on in the garden centre when I bought them – a good sign! I also supplemented these with some wildflower plants that I’d had sitting waiting to plant on for a while – Verbena bonariensis, Anthemis and Achillea.

 

It only took 5 minutes to fill the pot with compost and stick the 6 plants in. With hindsight I could probably have squeezed a couple more in and I may well do so at the weekend. Even if I don’t buy more, hopefully those that are there will bush out to fill the pot up a bit more. Hopefully the mix of different colours and shapes will attract a variety of pollinating insects.

So here is the (sort of) finished article, nothing fancy, but hopefully the bees will appreciate it. Ideally I would have liked to include some photos of insects actually on the pot, but since I did this after work, it was getting a bit late and there was not much buzzing about. Assuming I get something on them, I will add more photos when I can.

Having planted a pot, the website encourages you to plot your pot on their map. Butterfly Conservation hope to cover the UK in pots for pollinators. So being a good citizen scientist, I plotted my pot on the map. It is reassuring to see that ours isn’t the only one in Worcestershire!

Of course our garden being a weedfilled paradise for insects, you could argue that it didn’t really need another pot of flowers for pollinators. But you can never have too many, so why not? And by participating in a scheme like this, we are hopefully helping to spread the good word.