Butterfly Number 52!

Last weekend we decided to venture out in search of a new butterfly species – the Silver-spotted Skipper. Our original plans for butterfly spotting this year had of course been stifled by the lockdown, so the skipper was a bit of a plan B. At this point we had seen 51 of the 58 species of butterfly on the UK mainland, but most of the remaining 7 were too far away to contemplate for a day trip. The Silver-spotted Skipper though was just about in reach, down in South Oxfordshire at the Aston Rowant Nature Reserve.

Butterfly watching and bad weather don’t go well together, so for days beforehand I’d been checking the weather forecast for Aston Rowant. While not ideal, Sunday was going to be the best day with sunny intervals throughout the morning – no mention of rain! So we set off early and got there before 9am to be greeted by very overcast skies. After our usual faffing about trying to find the entrance to the reserve, we got into the first fairly ordinary looking field and spent about 20 minutes fruitlessly searching for butterflies, before it started chucking it down. We took shelter under some trees for a while before deciding to head back to the car to wait it out. While trudging back through the rain we looked over a fence to spot another field on a sloping bank absolutely covered in flowers – a much more promising place to look for butterflies, although not while it was still raining.

Once the rain had stopped, we hurried back to the flowery slope, pursued by another couple with the same idea (there’s always a bit of friendly rivalry when you’re both looking for the same butterfly, who will spot it first? I hate to gloat but….). This chalk slope (with lumps of flint dotted around) was really beautiful, covered in wild flowers – wild thyme & marjoram, thistles, scabious and all sorts of other things I can’t name.

The area is also known for having a population of red kites. We saw two circling around while we were there. Because we were fairly high up on the hill, they were virtually at eye level with us sometimes, although that didn’t make it any easier to photograph them.

With the sun finally out, the slope was alive with butterflies and also 6-spot burnet moths catching the eye as they flashed their red underwings.

We saw lots of butterfly species – Marbled Whites, Small Heath, Red Admirals, a fritillary, Meadow Browns and lots of Chalkhill Blues. In one area there must have been 50 to 100 of them – the air above the grass and flowers was almost shimmering with blue butterflies. We’ve never seen so many.

Eventually though amongst all these blues we found a couple of our target species – the Silver-spotted Skipper. They’re really quite small and are almost impossible to spot unless you see one in flight. Then, as soon as they land, they disappear, perfectly camouflages in the undergrowth. But they are lovely little butterflies – very dainty and beautifully marked.

I did try a brief video of one, although the wind was blowing quite strong by then so I’m wobbling about a bit.

 

We had about an hour chasing butterflies before the rain came again and as if by magic all the butterflies disappeared back into the undergrowth. So we gave up and headed back to the car and the long drive home. But butterfly number 52 had been ticked off, so despite the weather we were more than happy with the outcome. The remaining 6 will have to wait until next year when hopefully we will be able to travel further afield.

 

 

 

Back Down to Daneway

As we were still technically on our holiday that never happened/staycation at the weekend, we decided to head out again for another butterfly day. Not a new species this time, but back down to Daneway Banks in Gloucestershire to see the Large Blues that we had only seen once before.

As we entered the reserve, the air was positively buzzing with the sound of grasshoppers. I think they were Meadow Grasshoppers and they were everywhere, pinging away from us as we walked across the grass.

The commonest butterflies by far were the Marbled Whites and Meadow Browns.

The Marbled Whites in particular were very fresh looking and quite stunning in the sunshine.

We even managed to find a mating pair; the female is the one at the top with the browner looking markings on the underwings.

It was a bit cloudy when we first arrived, so the Large Blues weren’t flying much, but as the sun started to come out we spotted a couple. On our previous visit we had only managed to get photos of a mating pair of Large Blues – most unusual for that to be our only shots, but it meant they had their wings closed. So this time we were keen to get one with its wings open. Fortunately the first one was fairly relaxed and let us take a few photos.

A very helpful reserve warden then pointed us in the direction of a “hot spot” for them, further into the reserve. This coincided with the sun really coming out, which made them much flightier. So although we probably saw about 10 more, we couldn’t get as close again to get better photos.

The final individual we saw was another raggedy one, who was perhaps to worn out to be bothered flying off, so allowed us a photo of the underside of what was left of his wings.

We’d seen a few skippers about during the day, but they are so fast it is often hard to tell which species until we can download the photos. Turns out these ones were Small Skippers, our first of the year.

The final butterfly species appeared just as we were leaving the reserve – a Small Heath, again the first of these we’d seen this year.

Once again I failed to get decent shots of a couple of birds. This woodpecker sat on a fence post for ages as I crept closer trying to get a photo, then of course just as I was getting within reasonable focal distance he flew off.

Most unusually a swallow landed on the ground only a few metres away from me. I was so surprised that I didn’t react quick enough to get a photo of it on the ground, only this blurry one as it took off again. I’d always thought they stayed on the wing almost permanently apart from egg time, but clearly this one had other ideas.

As we were about to leave the same helpful warden suggested that we might want to nip across the road on our way back to the car and have a quick look in Siccaridge Wood. It is an ancient coppiced woodland and there was apparently a Greater Butterfly-Orchid just 30 yards in. Never having heard of this, let alone seen one, it seemed worth a small detour. Sure enough, exactly as described was the tallest British orchid we’ve ever seen; it must have been at least 50cm tall. With hindsight I should have got Chris to take a photo of me next to it for scale (I stand a majestic 1.5m tall).

I can’t say the flowers looked particularly butterfly like to us, but it was certainly an impressive plant.

On our previous trip to Daneway we had finished up at the very nice Daneway Inn, but sadly of course that wasn’t possible this time. Daneway Banks is a fantastic site and a real success story for the Large Blue butterfly, which had gone extinct in the UK before the heroic efforts to bring it back. The perfect way to round off our non-holiday.

Butterflies Old and New

2020 has certainly been a most unusual (and hopefully never to be repeated) year for all of us, but finding solace in nature has been a great help getting through these strange times. At the height of the lockdown, we felt very lucky to have a garden full of wildlife that we could enjoy. We have spent an awful lot of time watching the wildlife emerge as the weeks went by and have particularly enjoyed seeing how the new pond developed. But after a while you do start to go a little stir crazy and we were longing to get out and see things beyond the confines of our garden. So as things began to ease a couple of weeks ago and nature reserves started to reopen, we made our first tentative ventures out, first to a local one and then to one a bit further afield.

First stop was Monkwood, just a few miles away and a lovely reserve that we’ve been to quite a few times before. First delight was that we heard a cuckoo calling on and off the whole time we were there – our first cuckoo of the year.  It was the end of May and the Wood White butterflies were out in abundance. They had only been reintroduced to Monkwood a few years ago, but are clearly doing really well. They are small delicate little butterflies, not as showy as say the fritillaries, but really delightful to watch and very pretty in their own subtle way.

Several other butterfly species were out, but it was particularly nice to see some Large Skippers, our first of the year.

We also saw several small and non-descript moths flitting about. Despite me chasing them around, the best photo I could manage was this blurry specimen. Turns out that they were Drab Loopers, not perhaps the most attractive of names for the poor things. They are generally a bit of a rarity though and Monkwood is a stronghold for them.

Next up was a splendid large caterpillar of the Drinker moth. The Drinker is supposedly fairly common in the West Midlands, but we’ve never seen the adult moth; so it was nice at least to see junior here trundling across the path.

On a patch of Guelder Rose, we saw loads of what looked like caterpillars, completely destroying the rose leaves. Turns out (thanks to the good people of iSpot) that it was in fact the larvae of the Viburnum Leaf Beetle, so another new one for us.

Finally for Monkwood, it was great to see my perennial favourite, the Swollen-thighed Beetle.

This week as the lockdown measures relaxed a bit more, we decided to venture further afield. This was the week that we were supposed to be going on holiday to Norfolk, where we’d hoped to see our 51st British butterfly species – the Swallowtail. Obviously all holidays were cancelled, but we came up with a plan B to at least see a 51st species. The Black Hairstreak was on our yet-to-see list and the nearest sites were about 2 hours away in Northamptonshire – just about doable in a day trip. So we set off at the crack of dawn (well a bit later than that to be honest) and headed to Glapthorn Cow Pastures.

The name might suggest it was more of a meadow and indeed it did used to be grazed by cows. But now it is managed as a mix of woodland and blackthorn scrub – ideal habitat for the rare Black Hairstreak. We got there about 09:30 just as another keen butterfly spotter arrived. Funnily enough we heard a cuckoo calling here too as we got out of the car – a good omen perhaps? We’d had tips from kind people on Facebook as to where to look, but still finding a small butterfly in a big wood did feel a bit like a needle in a haystack job. We wandered around for a bit until we met up with the other traveller again who had found a local who knew where to look and consequently found the butterfly too!

We saw at least 2 Black Hairstreaks while we were there. The first was a perfect looking specimen, but rather flighty. So apologies that all the photos are either a bit blurry or it’s got its head stuck in a bramble. But it is at least recognisably a Black Hairstreak with the black spots on an orange background around the edge of the wings and the little tail.

The second individual has unfortunately lost his tail and half his black spots (the best bits of a hairstreak) and we nick-named him Raggedy.

Raggedy was however quite obliging and hung around long after the more perfect one had disappeared. He was so keen to be seen in fact that as more people arrived we could point him out to the newcomers. Glapthorn is clearly a popular spot; by the time we left there were 9 people all trying to see the hairstreaks (Raggedy’s moment to shine) – all trying to socially distance themselves at the same time of course.

It was a lovely hot day and plenty of other butterflies around – skippers, speckled woods, red admirals, lots of meadow browns, whites (too fast to determine which) and a small tortoiseshell. There were also quite a few of these stunning black and yellow longhorn beetles (Rutpela maculata) enjoying the flowering brambles.

Having come so far, we had a walk around the rest of the wood to make the most of the day.  There were lots of very pretty orchids in full bloom (possibly Common Spotted Orchids although I’m not sure).

The sounds of the cuckoo had given way to the calls of a woodpecker. We saw a couple of them flying high in the trees and managed a couple of distant shots – looks like we had both Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers.

So that’s it, our 51st butterfly seen and photographed and a couple of lovely days out to quench our thirst for wildlife. It would have been great to have been in Norfolk this week for our holiday, but hopefully we can do that next year instead. In the meantime we are very grateful not only to have such wonderful nature close by, but also that we have been very lucky to have stayed safe and well during these unprecedented times. Stay safe everyone. xx

 

Fungal Foray

For the last week or two we’ve been seeing some fabulous fungi photos on social media, from around and about Worcestershire. We’ve never really gone out specifically in search of fungi, but spurred on by mushroom envy, we set out for Monkwood. Monkwood has been a favourite place for butterfly watching in the past, but we’d never been out of season, so it was interesting to see it at a different time of year. The wood itself of course looked totally different, the trees resplendent in their autumnal colours.

We’d barely stepped out of the car before we realised there were mushrooms and toadstools everywhere (apparently there is no scientific difference between the two of these, people just tend to call the poisonous ones toadstools and the edible ones mushrooms). There were fungi growing out of the ground, from dead wood and from living trees. Single specimens and bigger colonies were everywhere.

As complete novices we took photos of everything with a view to identifying them when we got home. Thankfully there are some very helpful people on https://www.ispotnature.org/ who identified all but the blindingly obvious ones which we managed ourselves. Unfortunately we hadn’t realised that to identify a lot of the fungi, you really need to take photos of the stem and the gills underneath, not just go for pretty photos of the cap. So a lot of the fungi we photographed couldn’t be fully identified. We’ll know better next time. Despite this we (well mainly the kind people on iSpot) managed to identify 13 species. Not bad for a first attempt.

We saw several types of bracket fungus – fungi that form shelf-like ledges usually growing out of wood. We only managed to get 2 identified to species. The first is this Turkeytail, which fans out from branches or logs, with concentric rings of different colours.

Next is the brilliantly named Hairy Curtain Crust. This grows in more varied wavy shapes, with the upperside distinctly hairy.

Some of the fungi grew up in short spikes rather than forming the more typical cap. This one growing out of dead wood is called Candlesnuff Fungus, but also know as Stag’s Horn.

This next one is called Crested Coral and looks just like a piece of marine coral that has somehow found its way into the middle of a woodland.

We spotted 3 types of jelly like fungus, in varying colours. The Purple Jellydisc is pretty much self explanatory.

The Crystal Brain Fungus doesn’t look particularly brain-like, but I do like the name – maybe because it reminds me of the Indiana Jones title!

This Yellow Brain Fungus is also known as Witches’ Butter and was indeed a beautifully buttery colour. This specimen was too small to really look like a brain but apparently when they are bigger they get more brain-like wrinkles.

On to the more “traditional” looking mushrooms. This one is called the False Death Cap – apparently unpleasant tasting but not totally poisonous like the real Death Cap. We have no intentions of trying any of the mushrooms though – not worth the risk when our identification skills are still in their infancy!

Next up the Common Puffball or Devil’s Snuffbox. It’s a small round mushroom, which as it ripens develops a hole in the top through which the spores puff out. The latin name is Lycoperdon, which comes from Lycos for wolf and perdon for breaking wind – hence another name – Wolf Fart Puffball.

The next one is a Trooping Funnel. They start of with flat caps which gradually turn funnel shaped. They can occur in large groups or Troops and can form fairy rings.

We did come across one very large Fairy Ring (or Elf Circle or Pixie Ring) of mushrooms (not sure what species) in the wood. It must have been at least 5 metres in diameter, the mushrooms growing around the perimeter. It was too big to get in a single photo, the best I could manage was this section of them growing in a line.

Next up a pretty little cluster of Sulphur Tuft. These are apparently a common sight on decaying wood, often forming large tightly packed clumps.

While many of the fungi seem to have devilish names, this next one has gone the other way – the Angel’s Bonnet, is a dainty little thing growing on dead wood.

The final fungus is the one that most intrigued us from the social media photos we’d seen – the Green Elf Cup. We’d seen photos taken in Monkwood the week before of really stunning bright green elf cups, which is why we’d chosen this wood for our first fungal foray. Sadly we couldn’t find the same cluster, but we did spot this small group of them. Not quite as vivid a green (in fact looking more blue here) as we’d seen online, but lovely to find all the same.

Hopefully this will be the first fungal adventure of many and we’ll get better at photographing and identifying them. I’ve loved finding out all their names. Fungi names often seem to have mystical connotations – elves, fairies, devils  and death seem to feature strongly. Fungi are present in a lot of old folklore, being associated with both positive and negative spirits.

Although we spent the morning hunting for mushrooms, this Speckled Bush Cricket had climbed an old stump and was crying out to be photographed. I was surprised to see such a fine specimen so late in the year, a reminder of the summer gone.

The Marsh Fritillary – Butterfly No. 49.

Our final blog post from our holiday in Somerset/Devon and we set out to see and hopefully photograph our next butterfly species – the Marsh Fritillary. From our base on Exmoor we headed across north Devon to the Dunsdon National Nature Reserve. We were reliably informed by the local Wildlife Trust that this would be a good place to see the Marsh Fritillaries and with the weather forecast looking better than it had all week, we set off. The reserve took a bit of finding as it is tucked away, but it was well worth the visit. There was only one other couple there – also keen butterfly spotters, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

The marsh fritillary likes damp grassland and given the weather we’ve been having recently there was certainly plenty of the damp element around. We left the car and followed the boardwalk through the trees until we got to the first field. Within yards we’d spotted our first ever Marsh Fritillary – our 49th species was ticked off the list!

We managed a few photos before it started pouring with rain again and we retreated to the car. Thankfully the rain didn’t last too long, so we headed back out again and were rewarded with plenty of butterflies. We must have seen at least a dozen fritillaries during our visit. The first few we saw were all sitting with their wings open to reveal their beautifully patterned uppersides. Here are some of our better photos.


Of course having got the upper view, we wanted some side on shots. Luckily we found a few feeding on thistles, nicely displaying their gorgeous undersides.

Most of the fritillaries we saw were settled on the thistles or amongst the grass, but we did see a few in flight, dancing over the meadow – a really lovely sight.

The marsh fritillaries may have been our main focus, but other insects kept side-tracking us as well. I can never resist a moth and spent a large part of the visit chasing a particular species around until I could get close enough to identify it – a Burnet Companion as it turns out.

We had hoped for some dragonfly action, but apart from a brief glimpse of an impressive dragonfly in the distance, the only one we got close enough to was this female large red damselfly.

Scorpion flies always fascinate me, so after a bit of the usual chasing I managed to get a photo of this one. I think it must have been a female, as there wasn’t much sign of the scorpion like tail.

We do try to enjoy any interesting plants we see too and not focus solely on the insect life. Dunsdon reserve also had some lovely spotted orchids. No idea what species they were, but guessing they were not the same as the Heath Spotted Orchids we’d seen the day before as the habitat was different.

The reserve had a fair number of dainty Ragged Robin flowers which prefer damp meadows like this. Not only are they gorgeous little flowers, they are great for wildlife too.


But my favourite remains the Forget-me-not. I’ve loved these flowers since I was a child and the holiday cottage we stayed at had a whole meadow of these gorgeous sunny blue flowers. The image has stuck with me for over 40 years and I still love the sight of them today.


So that’s the final blog post from our trip down south and our 49th species of butterfly photographed. Only 9 to go now (10 if we decide to include the Cryptic Wood White in Northern Ireland). We’ve got one more species we are hoping to see this year – the High Brown Fritillary – watch this space!

 

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!

 

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!

Barcud Coch & Cwm Elan – A Welsh Day Trip

Barcud Coch & Cwm Elan – well I hope I spelled them right (now I’m also worrying that I’ve spelled “spelled” wrong – should it have been spelt?) – or in English, red kites and the Elan Valley for a fantastic day out. We headed over to the Elan Valley first as several friends had recommended it as being well worth a visit. We somewhat underestimated how much was there and only had time to drive around about half of it, but the half we did see was amazing. The Elan & Claerwen valleys have been dammed in 6 places and the result is beautiful reservoirs set in even more beautiful countryside.

Our visit was on a bit of a dreary day weather-wise, but it had the advantage of giving everything a beautiful misty (bordering on foggy) atmosphere.

There was snow on some of the highest peaks, but nothing to hamper our exploration. In places the road was lined by avenues of tall trees, but elsewhere the views were pretty breath taking.

None of the dams were actually flowing on our visit, but hopefully next time we go back they might be. We found a well-kept (and surprisingly empty) bird hide, from which we could just about make out some ducks in the distance – too far away to get decent photos, but just close enough to identify them as a male (bottom) and female (top) goldeneye.

After the dams, we headed back through the small town of Rhayader to go to the Red Kite Feeding Station at Gigrin Farm. We’d pre-booked spaces in their photographic hide and had to be there by 2pm for the feeding. Gigrin Farm have been feeding red kites since the early 1990s. Having started with just a few pairs, they now regularly have over 300 red kites coming to the feeding station. So we were expecting a lot of kites, but have honestly never seen anything quite like it.

As we approached the hides, we spotted a huge white bird in the distance across the field.  Turned out it was a leucistic red kite; leucistic birds are not the same as albinos as they still have pigment in their eyes. Apparently up to 1% of the Welsh red kites are actually white or partially white.

As 2pm drew closer we could see more birds amassing in the surrounding trees. They clearly all knew what time the food was due.

2pm on the dot and a tractor appeared to dish out the meat for the birds. Within seconds the sky was full of swirling kites – literally hundreds of them. Chris took a video just with his phone which gives some idea of the sheer number of birds filling the sky.

I then tried to film them as they swooped down to pick up the meat. They are so fast it looks as if the film has been speeded up, which it hasn’t.

Initially we thought this was great and we were going to get loads of amazing photos as they were all so close. Then we discovered the problem – there were so many and they moved so fast, it was impossible to focus on just one and get a nice sharp photo. We can now understand why small birds flock together in large numbers to confuse predators; this massive flock of kites had the same effect confusing us photographers. So although we took over 750 photos between us, I don’t think a single one is as crisp and clear as we would have liked. In our defence we weren’t helped by the dull overcast weather and it may have been better on a sunny day.

Having said all of that, it was still an absolutely stunning spectacle. Once we stopped worrying about the photos and just stood back and watched, it was just incredible. We have seen red kites before of course, but never so close up. I hadn’t realised how huge they are; their wingspan is pushing 2 metres!

The numbers swooping down at any one time were incredible.

This next photo looks like it is a composite shot of 4 birds, but is actually 4 in a row, all swooping down and off again one after another.

When viewed in the sky they almost formed an abstract pattern silhouetted against the sky, wings pointing in every conceivable direction.

Their aerial acrobatics were phenomenal, twisting and turning as they dived. They’d scoop up a piece of meat in their talons, then bend over to transfer the prize to their mouths to eat.

Here are a few more photos of them for no other reason other than they are really photogenic birds.

The white kite that we’d seen as we arrived put in several appearances, easy to spot amongst the more usual coloured ones. He/she appeared to have a number tag on his wing, so may be part of some study.

Red kites of course weren’t the only birds of prey making the most of the meaty picnic. We saw several buzzards watching from the trees. Perhaps because they are slightly smaller than the red kites, they are content to wait their turn.

We didn’t see any come down while we were there (although to be honest there may have been some amongst the melee of red kites), but we did see this one glide beautifully into the tree, displaying its gorgeous fan shaped tail.

And of course there were large members of the crow family making the most of the opportunity too. Initially we thought they were all carrion crows, but I think there were a few rooks lurking in there too – distinguishable by their paler beaks and pointier looking heads.

Final treat of the day – a heron flew lazily (in comparison to the kites at least) across the field and landed in a tree.

Hopefully we can go back to see the kites again in the summer when the light should be better and we can perhaps get crisper photos. But in the meantime we’ve got the memories of one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles we’ve ever seen.