Heath, heath, heath!

On our recent trip to Somerset, we had a bit of a mission going on – to see 2 more species of butterfly, namely the Heath Fritillary and the Marsh Fritillary. We went for the Heath Fritillary first, having discovered a site at Haddon Hill that was supposed to have a population of them. Haddon Hill is at the edge of Exmoor and overlooks the delightfully named Wimbleball Lake. Unfortunately having researched enough to find the hill had a population, we didn’t dig deep enough to find out exactly where on the hill to look. So we ended up spending about 3 hours wandering round the hill on a walk that was only supposed to take an hour! Not a glimpse of a fritillary, but we did see a Small Heath at least – not the heath we wanted, but after 3 hours we were just grateful to see a butterfly – any butterfly!

The hill did however have its fair share of bird life, including lots of Meadow Pipits, who seemed to fly up repeatedly to get a better view of us trudging in circles.

We also saw several of the famous Exmoor ponies – much easier to spot than the butterflies. They are native breed of pony and were recorded on Exmoor as far back as the Domesday book and have probably been there for thousands of years.

Fortunately having drawn a blank on Haddon Hill, we had a plan B when it came to the Heath Fritillary. We had booked ourselves onto a guided walk by Butterfly Conservation and the National Trust around Halse Combe the following day. The weather wasn’t promising with rain forecast, but at least we were with people this time who knew where they were going!

So we headed up the combe until we reached a sunny(ish) open slope. Almost immediately someone spotted a Heath Fritillary, basking in what little sunshine there was on some bracken. It was smaller than we had expected and much browner than the other fritillaries we have seen, but a real beauty. We waited our turn while everyone in the group had a go at photographing the first one – so here it is, our first heath fritillary:

After that the group fanned out across the slope looking for more butterflies and being very careful not to stand on any! It being a bit of a cold damp day actually helped with the photographs as the butterflies weren’t in the mood for flying. So once you found one, it was relatively easy to get a photo. The Heath Fritillaries are beautiful on their uppersides, but their wings are even more stunning when the undersides are visible; like miniature stained glass windows. So here are a few of our favourite shots from the day.

We spent a very happy half hour or so photographing the butterflies before the heavens opened and it really did start raining quite heavily. We took shelter under some trees, until it became obvious that the rain wasn’t going to stop and we headed back down hill. On the way, one of our guides showed us some of these pretty little Heath Spotted Orchids.

We returned to the carpark, slightly soggy, but very happy to have seen our 48th species of butterfly. Thank you to Meghan from Butterfly Conservation and Basil from the National Trust to leading us straight to these elusive butterflies and giving us an excellent and informative guided walk. So we went looking for a Heath Fritillary and ended up getting a Small Heath and a Heath Spotted Orchid too – 3 for the price of 1, can’t be bad!


Isle of Wight – Part 3 Butterflies at Last!

It’s taken me a full week to whittle down the 600+ photos we took on our second full day on the Isle of Wight to a manageable number to post. We went looking for butterflies and found so many to photograph I think we got a bit carried away! Our main targets were the Glanville Fritillary (pretty much only found on the Isle of Wight) and the Adonis Blue – two new ones to add to our tally of British species. After our usual struggle getting lost before finding the right carpark, we set off on the “Paradise on the Isle of Wight Butterfly Trail” over Compton Down. The walk was only supposed to take 2 to 2½ hours, but we spent so long taking photos, it took nearly 5! But it was well worth it, not only for the butterflies, but for the fabulous views of the white cliffs.

The day started sunny and bright, but then the fog rolled in incredibly quickly and the cliffs (and butterflies disappeared). It was amazing watching the fog come, it seemed to chase us along the path until we were completely enveloped. Fortunately it didn’t stay too long, the sun came out again and we resumed out wildlife watching. There were butterflies and moths everywhere. Although our main targets were the butterflies, as usual we couldn’t resist the moths either. There were Silver Y moths everywhere (when we got home to Malvern the next day there were well over a dozen of them in the garden too, there must have been a big influx of them from abroad that weekend).

One we don’t see so often is the Burnet Companion – a subtly pretty day flying moth.

A more showy day moth was the Cinnabar – flashes of red underwings catching our eyes as we walked over the downs, although we never managed to catch one in flight to show this.

But on to the butterflies – the walk certainly lived up to its name, they were everywhere. In total we counted 14 species of butterfly, which maybe our highest count ever for one walk.  Some were fairly common ones we were familiar with, but a couple of others we’d previously only seen on one occasion. The Wall butterfly we’d only seen for the first time last year up in Shropshire, but Chris spotted one here – I missed it unfortunately.

But then I got my own back by spotting a Grizzled Skipper, which he missed. This was another species that we’d only seen for the first time last year in South Herefordshire.

Grizzleds weren’t the only Skippers around though, one of the most common butterflies we saw here was the Dingy Skipper, a species we’ve seen in a few places before, but is always nice to see again. We were almost tripping over them as they seemed to like sitting on the path.

Another find was a Large Skipper. We saw a few of these, but not nearly as many as the Dingys.

Small Heath butterflies were also reasonably common. Not as showy as some of the others, but a lovely butterfly nonetheless.

So on to the blue butterflies – there were blues flying everywhere almost as soon as we set off, but it quickly became apparent that there were several species. So in an effort to ensure we didn’t accidentally miss the Adonis, we took photos of virtually every blue thing moving! In the end we got 4 of the “blues” including a few of these Brown Argus which aren’t really blue at all but fall into the same group.

Of the true blues, we got 3 species. The small blue is as its name suggests very small – Britain’s smallest butterfly in fact. They may be small but they are very quick, so it took a while to get a half decent photo. They’re not as blue as the other species, but there is a definite dusting of blue scales near the body.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, the most common blue butterfly was the Common Blue Butterfly! We saw loads of these and photographed many of them in the hope they would turn out to be Adonis. The males are a beautiful bright blue with a plain white fringe around the edge of the wings.

The females are duller – more of a brown colour but with a row of orange spots around the wings.

We even saw a pair of these mating, although at the time we weren’t sure which species they were as its hard to tell from the underside (a kind soul on Facebook confirmed them as Common Blues).

Although obviously only 2 can mate, a third one (a male) did try and get in on the act, perhaps hoping to drive the first male away so he could have his way with the female.

But of course the blue we really wanted to see was the Adonis. Adonis Blues are found other places than the Isle of Wight, but this was the first time we’d been to a site with the right habitat, so while we were here we were keen to see one. We took a lot of Common Blue photos before we got one we were sure was an Adonis. Thankfully there was another couple of butterfly enthusiasts on the same walk as us and they confirmed we had finally bagged our target photo. The Adonis can be distinguished from the Common Blue by the presence of black marks crossing the white fringe around the wings. They also seemed to us to be a much more vivid, azure blue than the common ones.

The real priority for us that day was to see a Glanville Fritillary. Restricted to south facing chalk downs, it is now only found on the Isle of Wight, although it used to be more widely spread. They only fly when it’s sunny, so were lucky the weather was good and we saw one almost immediately as we set off on the path. It was a bit of a scruffy specimen, but we didn’t care – it was a result!

Fortunately as we walked on we saw lots more, most of which were in much better condition. They are small but beautifully patterned butterflies with orange and brown chequered markings on the uppersides of the wings.

The underneath of the wings are even more striking with a stained glass window effect of cream , orange and black markings. We had hoped to get the classic shot of one posed with its wings upright to show this off, but none of them would oblige. The best we managed were these two shots partially showing the undersides.

So that was it, two more species added to our list to bring us up to 45 out of the 59 British species seen and photographed.  Only 14 more to go, although I think they may get harder and harder to find.

Other species seen that day included Large Whites, Speckled Woods, a Peacock and a Painted Lady to make up our total of 14 species in one day. The walk certainly lived up to its name, as the area was a complete paradise for butterfly enthusiasts – the perfect end to our mini break to the Isle of Wight.

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.

30 Days Wild – Day 1 – Titterstone Clee

It’s Day 1 of 30 Days Wild and I can’t believe it’s been a whole year since the last one! A lot has changed for me in the last year, so it will be interesting to see how things compare and how much “wildness” I can now fit into my life. I’m hoping to try lots of new activities/places and not repeat any of those wild things I did last year – not that I didn’t enjoy it all, but it will be nice to explore some new ideas.

The main change for me this year is my job; I now have the pleasure of working for the British Hedgehog Preservation Society two days a week, up on Clee Hill in Shropshire.  Working just 2 days a week, should mean it will be relatively easy to fit something wild into the remaining 5 days. But the 2 working days are longer than I’m used to and with travelling time, I may have to get creative to fit something wild in – but then that is sort of what the 30 Days Challenge is all about.

As luck would have it the first 2 days of June are days I work. So for Day 1 I thought I would explore my work environment a bit after I’d finished for the day.  I work part way up Titterstone Clee Hill, the third highest hill in Shropshire. This morning the hill was shrouded in mist and the summit was barely visible.

But by 5pm, when I finished work, the sun was shining and it was an altogether different view.

I headed up the hill (I must admit by car, or I’d never have got home for dinner!) as far as I could and surveyed the view, which is absolutely stunning. The Clee Hills are part of the Shropshire Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and from up there I could see why. You can see for absolutely miles. On a good day you can apparently see as far as Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons, the Malverns, Cotswolds and even the Peak District if you’re really lucky. It was a bit hazy for that, but I could still see for miles and miles!

Titterstone Clee has been extensively quarried and the scars on the landscape are very much evident as are the ruins of the buildings.

More modern usage include this radar dome which is visible for miles around.

The weather up on the hill can change very quickly and even while I was there it went from bright sunshine to overcast and moody and back again in a very short time.

I did walk around the upper area of the hill to see what wildlife I could spot. I saw lots of birds, but none would come close enough to let me get a photo. Last week I heard a cuckoo as I parked at the office and we could hear it during the day when the windows were open. Lovely to be working in a place where you can hear cuckoos! No sign of it this evening though. There were several swifts swooping around and some kind of bird of prey in the distance. The closest I got to anything though was the sheep in the road on the way back down. They stared at me as much as I stared at them (maybe they’re doing their own version of 30 days wild?)

From the village of Clee Hill you can see all the way back to Malvern – the view today was all mist blue and reminded me a bit of the distant views of the Lonely Mountain in the hobbit.

The drive back to Malvern from Clee Hill takes about an hour. It is a lovely cross country route, taking in the little market towns of Tenbury Wells and Bromyard. Maybe I can work some exploration of these into my 30 Days Wild?  I actually really enjoy my commute, it’s not exactly a rat race. Already in the few weeks I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen a stoat carrying something across the road and had to jam on the brakes to avoid a deer that jumped out in front of me!

So that’s Day 1 of 30 Days Wild – a beautiful evening stroll around Clee Hill. Not a bad end to the working day!




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.


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


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.


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!


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.


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.



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.