Knapp Time

Lovely weather at the weekend, so we set out with great intentions of visiting a new (to us) nature reserve. Our chosen spot was a small wood not far away – unfortunately this wood only has a tiny car park and others clearly had the same idea. With nowhere to park, we headed back to our perennial favourite – the Knapp and Papermill Nature Reserve. We didn’t manage to get there last year so it was a very welcome “Plan B”.

In the wooded areas we were treated to our first banks of bluebells for the year, looking fabulous in the dappled light.

bluebells

The smell of garlic was heavy in the air in places, with banks of Wild Garlic just coming into flower.

wild garlic 2

Lesser celandines, wood anemones and primroses completed the spring flower array. A plant we don’t see so often was the Butterbur. I always think the Butterbur flowerheads look slightly alien. The leaves in the summer grow huge and were apparently used to wrap butter before the invention of fridges!

butterbur

We’d hoped for some spring butterflies to complement the spring flowers and we weren’t disappointed – 6 species at least – Peacocks, Small Tortoiseshells, Commas, Holly Blues, Brimstones and Orange-Tips.

peacock on bluebell

The Orange-Tips really signal spring to me. We only saw males – hard to miss with their bright orange tipped wings. They were particularly prevalent around the cuckooflowers, a favourite food for their caterpillars.

Orange tip (3)

Apart from the odd bee, it was pretty much butterflies and birds that caught our attention on this visit. The birds were obvious from the start, with this female chaffinch making the most of the bird food the ranger puts out at the entrance to the reserve.

chaffinch

There were buzzards overhead and what I thought was some weird loud bird in the woods, until we decided it was actually a deer calling! Slightly more recognisable were the calls of blue tits and chiffchaffs, although we never actually saw the latter. We saw a pair of blackcaps, but only the female posed for a photo.

female blackcap

There’s a small river running through the reserve and a male mallard was busy snuffling about with his head under water looking for food.

Mallard (1)

Mallard (2)

Further upstream a Grey Wagtail was bobbing about around the weir. The weir seems to be a favourite spot for them to catch insects washed down the slope and we see wagtails here on most visits. This one was reflected beautifully in the still water above the weir.

grey wagtail (6)

Star of the show though has to be this Dipper – Britain’s only aquatic songbird (a beloved fact of many a Springwatch episode!). I have to admit that only Chris saw the dipper as I had been too lazy to walk down the steep steps (or more precisely couldn’t face walking back up said steps!) to that part of the river. So he got the twitcher’s tick without me.

Dipper (1)

Dipper (2)

We usually focus on the wildlife or wild plants we see, but sometimes something a bit more abstract catches the eye. The wagtails weren’t the only things reflecting in the water – we both loved the reflection of this log in the still water behind the weir. A quiet, peaceful image to finish on.

reflections

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.

2020 – The Year of the Pond

Well there are probably lots of ways to describe 2020, but most of those aren’t repeatable on what tries to be an upbeat blog. So I will gloss over the obvious and instead try and focus on the many good things that happened in the last year.

First and foremost was that we finally managed to put in a new pond. The timing for this couldn’t have been better – the pond went in during February and of course in March we went into lockdown. Having the pond to sit by and watch develop through those long months was a real sanity-saver. It was amazing how quickly the wildlife moved in and as it matures I’m sure it will only get better.

A real highlight and sense of achievement came at the end of May when George, the Eyed Hawkmoth I’d reared from an egg, finally emerged. I’d been nurturing him for 10 months since I’d found the egg in the moth trap and so I felt like a proud mum when he emerged and flew off into the night. Hopefully there will be sons and daughters of George in flight this summer too.

Another moth related achievement was the creation of our Moon Garden – an area planted specifically to attract moths. And it worked. 39 new moth species were recorded, bringing the running total for the garden to 405. Best of all it attracted a Dark Crimson Underwing – believed to be the first record for this species for the whole of the West Midlands.

2020 turned out to be a good year for butterflies too. Between lockdowns, we managed to add 2 more species (Silver-spotted Skipper and Black Hairstreak) in our mission to see all the British butterflies. We also noted 2 new species for the garden (Silver-washed Fritillary & Brown Argus), although this was more by luck than good management.

The new bee hotels provided lots of interest and again we added 2 species to our garden count (Willughby’s Leafcutter and a Sharp-tailed Bee). Being able to watch both Red Mason & Leafcutter bees build their nests in the tubes was really fascinating.

Despite lockdowns, we still managed to take part in various citizen science projects – including Big Butterfly Count & Garden Moth Scheme. A new project this year is the Slugs Count project.  This is a monthly survey of the garden for slugs and it’s been great (trying) to get to grips with a whole new group.

As I do every year, I’d made various wildlife resolutions at the start of 2020. Of course back in January none of us had any idea of how the year was going to turn out! Not surprisingly the Covid imposed restrictions had an impact on some of my resolutions, but at least this year I’ve got a really good excuse for not completing them all! So here were last year’s targets:

  • New pond – well at least we smashed this one. Many thanks to Gwyndaf the Cycling Gardener who was the one who did all the hard work digging, while we sat back and reaped the rewards.
  • Create a Moon Garden. I think we pretty much nailed this one too. The Moon garden was a big success both aesthetically and for the moths.
  • See 2 more species of British Butterfly. For a while it seemed touch and go whether we would achieve this one. Our planned trip to Norfolk to see the Swallowtails was of course cancelled, but in the end we did manage 2 other species (always good to have a plan B). So we’ve now seen 52 of the 58 species.
  • Visit 5 new nature reserves. I think we only managed 2 new ones (Glapthorne Meadows and Aston Rowant NR), but then many of the nature reserves were closed to the public during the lockdowns, so I figure we have an excuse.
  • Go rockpooling. Had hoped to do this one in Norfolk, but of course that went out the window. Not much scope for rockpooling in Worcestershire, so this one will have to get bumped to next year.
  • Go and see some wild Ospreys. Again we were thwarted by Covid. I had hoped to go up to see the Dyfi Ospreys, but for a large part of the year we’ve not been allowed into Wales!
  • The moth tattoo! I genuinely thought this would be the year I’d get a moth tattoo – I’ve even decided it should be of George the Eyed Hawkmoth. But of course tattoo parlours were one of the first things to get closed down – so that’s my excuse at least.

So to New Year’s Resolutions for 2021. Covid may continue to thwart our efforts, but we can at least hope to enjoy as much wildlife as possible.

  • Try and video a dragonfly emerging from the pond. We had lots of dragonfly/damselfly egg laying activity in the new pond last year, so hopefully I can catch some of them emerging in the summer.
  • Expand the moon garden – it’s been great so far, but I’m hoping to double the area.
  • See 2 more species of British Butterfly. We’ve now seen 52 of the 58 species, but we’re having to go further and further afield to see the remaining ones. Fingers crossed we can see the Swallowtail in Norfolk at least this year.
  • Visit 5 new nature reserves.
  • Rockpooling. Again fingers crossed we make it to Norfolk for this.
  • Go and see some wild Ospreys – if we’re allowed back in Wales!
  • The moth tattoo!

If 2020 has taught me anything it is that I am very grateful to have a wildlife filled garden and that I am lucky it brings me so much pleasure. It must be awful for those who didn’t get the chance to enjoy wildlife this year, but then I think it would be awful in any year not find joy in the nature that is all around us if we take the time to look.

Miscellaneous Delights

Despite being stuck at home like many people, for much of this year, I don’t seem to have blogged as much as I would have liked. It certainly wasn’t for lack of interest in the garden – having spent an inordinate amount of time sitting out, there was plenty to see. Perhaps there was too much, or perhaps I just couldn’t face being cooped up inside to write. Whatever the reason, I’ve ended up with a lot of interesting (to me at least) snippets, that never saw the light of day. So here’s a miscellany of wildlife moments from the garden this year – they all cheered me up and they deserve their moment!

Most of this will be insects, but there are a trio of mammals making the cut.  Hedgehogs of course featured regularly in the garden. Freda our 3-legged hedgehog from the previous year not only made it through the winter, but produced at least one hoglet. Here she is looking like many mums – slightly harassed by her offspring.

 

Bats (most likely Common Pipistrelles) have always used our garden as a hunting ground in the summer months. A weed-filled garden tends also to be an insect-filled garden, so there are plenty of moths and other food for them. It may be wishful thinking on my part, but the bats do seem to be coming more frequently now we have the new pond. The pond is surely generating extra insect activity, which hopefully means more bats. I’ve tried with very limited success to film them – this was the best of a shoddy selection of shaky videos. I reckon there are at least 3 bats visible towards the end of the clip.

Third mammal is this mouse at the bird feeder, for no other reason than it was so cute.

So on to the insects. I was really chuffed to spot a Dotted Bee-fly again this year, amongst all the regular bee-flies. Both species seemed to favour warm stones around the pond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hoverflies were abundant in the garden and as usual I failed completely to get to grips with identifying them all. There were lots of different shapes and colours though, including some of the delightful bee mimic ones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One I did manage to identify though was the Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) – one of the biggest British species. They really were huge compared to the other hoverflies.

A new species to me and in fact a new group was this Potter Wasp – so called because some species construct little mud pots for nests.

Continuing on the waspy theme, here’s one of the gorgeous ruby-tailed wasp species. I tend to have mixed feelings towards these – they are of course stunningly beautiful, but they do parasitize mason bee nests and I feel very protective of my little mason bees. But live and let live and it’s nice to have diversity in the garden.

The wasps aren’t the only parasitic insects in the garden. I discovered this new addition to our garden bee fauna this year – a Sharp-tailed bee Coelioxys sp.  These ones make use of leaf-cutter bee nests.

Talking of leafcutter bees, I had meant to do a whole blog post on them. I’ve got a lot of photos and a lot of videos – so many in fact I think it became too daunting to sort through. So a full leafcutter post will have to wait until next year. In the meantime here’s a snippet.

 

We’ve had a few interesting beetles this year too. This one I spotted on the garage wall, while out checking the moth trap one night. For a split second I thought I’d got a Stag Beetle, then reality set in and I realised it was a Lesser Stag Beetle. Still a first for the garden, so very pleased to add it to our list.

The pond of course attracted lots of water beetles. This huge Great Diving Beetle misjudged his landing though and ended up in the hedgehog’s water bowl.

Also misjudging his landing was this Dung Beetle (Onthophagus coenobita) which ended up on a bit of frogbit in the pond.

Moths I’ve covered fairly extensively in other blog posts, but possibly my favourite odd moment this year was watching a male Black Arches moth flare it’s genitalia at me! It was perched on the edge of a pot and while I tried to photograph it, it started this weird behaviour. Don’t know whether it was trying to warn me off, or perhaps entice me (should I be flattered?), but it was certainly very odd. I sent the video clip to some moth experts and they weren’t sure why it was doing it either.

So that’s it really – a quick round-up of some of the wonderful wildlife I was lucky enough to see in our garden, but didn’t manage to blog about before. I feel very lucky to have had a garden to enjoy in 2020; it really has made things a lot easier to deal with when you’re surrounded by so much wildlife.

I’ll do a summary of everything else we’ve seen this year in the next blog post, with hopes and dreams for next year too. Happy New Year everyone. xx

 

 

 

Moon Garden

One of the things on my New Year’s Resolution list, way back before 2020 went crazy, was to create a Moon Garden. I’d got the idea originally from one of Butterfly Conservation’s e-newsletters; amongst the tips for things to do to encourage wildlife was to make a Moon Garden. This is specifically planted to encourage night time wildlife, in particular moths. Most of the plants are white/cream or pale yellow, so they almost glow in the moonlight. Many of them are also more fragrant at night and so should attract plenty of moths. Although at the beginning of 2020 we had already recorded 367 species of moth in the garden, there was always more to hope for!

A patch of garden had been roughly cleared in late autumn, so just needed digging over and any remaining weeds removed.  Here’s the obligatory “before” photo of the soon-to-be Moon Garden area.

Using the list from Butterfly Conservation’s website I ordered some of the plants as ready grown specimens and, to cut down costs a bit, some of the plants as seeds. One of the plants I was particularly keen to grow was the Tobacco Plant (Nicotiana alata) – known to attract the Convolvulus Hawk-moth, a large migrant moth. These grow quite large and tall and have long tubular flowers perfect for the moth’s long proboscis.

Other pale flowers included white alyssums and lavenders, evening primroses, night-scented stocks and phlox, hebe, jasmine and honeysuckle. There were a few, such as white campion, that I simply couldn’t get this year – thanks to covid closures of local garden centres and online sources being swamped with orders. But all in all I was very lucky to get a nice mix of flowers for the moon garden.

A final addition to the garden was Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina)- grown not only for the silvery-ness but also the hairiness of its foliage. This had two-fold appeal – the plant is not only attractive to moths, but the hairs on the leaves are collected by Wool Carder Bees. I’ve only ever seen one Wool Carder Bee in the garden, so had hoped to attract more. Sadly if they did come they did so while my back was turned. But the Lamb’s Ears have grown well, so hopefully next year I can split the plants to get greater coverage.

So this is what I ended up with – or at least this is the stage mid-summer before the Nicotiana and evening primroses took over. For some reason I forgot to take a photo later on before they all died off again! This part of the garden really did smell lovely in the evenings, with the mix of the honeysuckle and other night scented flowers.

So I’d built it, but would they come? Well I may not have got a Convolvulus Hawk-moth yet, but plenty of other species have been more obliging. We started the year on 367 moth species recorded for the garden and to date we now have 405 – an increase of 38.  Of course I can’t prove that all these 38 are a direct result of planting the moon garden, but I’m sure some of them at least must be. And since the garden looks and smells lovely anyway, it’s certainly a win-win thing to do.

Although I was primarily expecting to see the moths in the moon garden at night, it was nice to find the occasional one resting there during the day – like this Garden Carpet on the evening primroses. A slightly more impressive find though was this Poplar Hawk-moth roosting during the day on the Nicotiana.

At night the evening primrose flowers were particularly well used by Silver Y moths.

I run my moth trap most weeks close to where the moon garden now is. It may be co-incidence but some species certainly seemed to increase in numbers this year compared to previous years. The Elephant Hawk-moths for instance were arriving in veritable herds compared to the usual singletons.

The new species were a mix of macro and micro moths. Some I’d been longing to see for ages like this Peach Blossom.

But others were completely new to me. Here are a few favourites – Triple Barred Argent (Argyresthia trifasciata for the purists – a stunning golden striped micro), Lesser Spotted Pinion and Least Black Arches.

The undoubted highlight has to be the moment I discovered a Dark Crimson Underwing in the trap. I nearly put it down as being one of the regular Red Underwings (in my defence, it did after all appear to have red underwings) which I have occasionally found in the garden before. But it looked a bit different, so I double-checked with those much wiser than me and was thrilled to find it was a Dark Crimson instead. Not only did this turn out to be a new species for Worcestershire, it is probably new for the whole of the West Midlands region – result!

So all in all I’ve been very pleased with the results from my moon garden experiment. So much so in fact that I intend to extend it next year and hopefully double the area. Some of the perennials may take years to grow to their full potential, so hopefully it will get better as time goes on. Again it may be coincidence but we noticed more bat activity over the garden this year (hope they didn’t snaffle my longed-for convolvulous hawk-moth, although I suspect it would be too big!), which is great too. Perhaps next year I might plant an area specifically for caterpillar food plants too – it’s all got to be beneficial after all.

Our local branch of Butterfly Conservation had asked earlier this year for moth related articles for the magazine. I was delighted that they included an article on our Malvern Moon Garden. It was Butterfly Conservation’s article that inspired me to plant it in the first place, so it would be lovely if our garden could then inspire someone else to have a go and encourage more moths into their own garden.

I’m not normally one given to poetic quotes, but there’s a line from William Blake – “The Moon, like a flower in heaven’s high bower, with silent delight, sits and smiles on the night” which makes me think of our moon garden – a silent delight giving both me and hopefully the moths great pleasure.

 

 

 

 

Newt News

When we had the new pond put in, way back in February, the frogs moved in almost straight away. There was a lot of croaking and and even some amphibious cuddling, but they completely failed to produce any spawn. I guess the pond was just too new and they didn’t feel it was up to scratch yet. The frogs may have let us down (I did try not to take it personally), but the newts, when they arrived, have more than made up for it.

The first newt plopped into the pond at the beginning of April and was quickly followed by many more. We never really knew how many we’d got, but I reckon at least a dozen must have found there way there in the end. Here’s the first ever one, popping up for air (the pond looks so bare looking back at it now, the plants have filled it out so much more since then).

They are all Smooth or Common Newts as far as we can tell, but they are still absolutely fascinating to watch. For the first few weeks in April, the newts we saw looked fairly laid back, with not much action; just occasionally popping up to the surface for a gulp of air. But as the breeding season progressed, we started to see courtship behaviour and could see the difference between the males and females.

The females are relatively plain coloured varying from beige to olive brown to dark grey. Their bellies in the breeding season go yellower with dark spots – you can just about see this in the female below.

The males tend to be much more jazzy. Certainly the ones in our pond were spotty all over, with a yellowy orange belly and a crest running down their backs and along their tails – visible below. (although the crest of the male smooth newt is quite marked, it is apparently nothing compared to that of the Great Crested Newt – clue’s in the name I suppose!)

Courtship consists of a lot of tail waving from the male – sometimes very energetically, almost aggressively in his determination to impress the ladies. Having got her attention, he deposits a packet of sperm, which she then manoeuvres over to fertilise her eggs. In the video below, you can just make out him producing a tiny white packet of sperm at about the 20 second mark.

 

There can be quite a lot of chasing each other around – sometimes more than just a pair; we’ve seen 4 or 5 chasing each other in a conga line across the pond.

The female lays the eggs individually on the leaves of aquatic plants. Water Forget-me-Nots are apparently a favourite for this, so we made sure there was plenty in the pond. The females grasp a leaf between their 2 back legs, folding them over and depositing an egg inside the fold. She then glues the leaf together and holds it until it sticks.

I particularly like this zen looking female laying eggs.

The females take so much time and care choosing the perfect spot for each individual egg.  The next couple of videos show them carefully selecting and positioning each egg.

 

The eggs were small white blobs in a layer of jelly. Most of the time they were hidden in their protective leaf curls, but occasionally the leaves popped open to reveal one.

We first started seeing baby newts swimming around the pond in mid-May. These first ones were tiny, less than a centimetre long and with no legs.

By early June mini newts with tiny legs had developed. The legs were virtually transparent still, but fully functioning.

They gradually grew, the legs thickening and strengthening, but still retaining their gills.

To get clear shots of the baby newts swimming/walking I very carefully caught a few and filmed them in a tank, before gently releasing them back into the pond.

 

The tank videos are good for seeing the detail, but it is so much nicer to get them swimming free in the pond (although considerably trickier to film). I love this little one determinedly hunting tiny water fleas as he paddles around.

 

I’ve not managed to find any young newts who have fully metamorphosed into efts and lost their gills yet. I’m sure some of them must have done by now, but they have probably left the pond and dispersed into our plentiful weeds. There is plenty of cover around the pond for them to hide in. The closest I’ve got is this one resting on the frogbit (should that be newtbit?), but he still has gills.

 

A lot of the young newts or efts of course won’t make it to adulthood. Lots of things will eat baby newts, not least of which is this Great Diving Beetle which landed unceremoniously in the hedgehog’s water bowl the other night and may have then moved on into the pond.

The efts won’t mature into adults until they are 2 or 3 years old, so it will probably be a couple of years before these youngsters return to the pond to breed. But hopefully some at least will make it and the pond will have done its bit to increase the newt population in our garden. Watching the newts court, lay eggs and develop into efts, has given us such pleasure during the sometimes bleak year that has been 2020; the least we can do is repay them by providing a suitable weed-filled garden for them to live in. They don’t mind that we’re too lazy to weed.

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.