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.

 

 

 

Damsels & Dragons – Part 2

As promised, here’s part 2 of Damsels and Dragons. Since part 1 was all about damselflies, it will come as no surprise that part 2 is all about the dragonflies we’ve seen in the new pond so far.

The first species appeared in the middle of May – a Broad-bodied Chaser. It was a female with a lovely golden and, as the name suggests, broad body (well abdomen). We’ve not seen any males, but the female (or possibly more than one female) has been back several times and has clearly found a male somewhere as she’s been laying eggs. Each egg is laid incredibly quickly as she dabs her abdomen in the water.

As she was our first proper dragonfly in the pond, we went a bit overboard on the photos, but I’ve whittled them down to just a few here.

I like in the photo below that you can see how her wings beating is causing ripples in the water with the downward pressure.

One of the things I like about dragonflies is the way the like to find a perch from which to survey their pond. So I figured our pond would benefit from a dragonfly perch – or stick shoved into the ground at a jaunty angle. So I was really chuffed when our first chaser gave it her seal of approval and perched right on it.

The next dragonfly to turn up has only been seen once so far (perhaps it found our pond lacking somehow or perhaps it didn’t find a mate?) It was a Four-spotted Chaser, a species I don’t think we’ve seen before anywhere, let alone in our own garden. It may have found the pond lacking but it did pose nicely on “my” perch,

It also posed beautifully on a bee garden ornament a friend had kindly given me for Christmas. I’d stuck the bee on a stick by the pond, but hadn’t actually expected the dragonflies to take me up on it – but it clearly makes another good perch.

It didn’t hang around for very long, so I didn’t get my usual hundreds of photos, but I quite like this one where it looks like it’s falling off the borage – not that a dragonfly would ever do anything as inelegant as fall off something.

I got excited when the next dragonfly arrived, thinking we’d got another new species. It had a broad abdomen and was laying eggs, but it didn’t look like any female Broad-bodied chaser I’d ever seen before. Turns out this was exactly what it was, just a more mature specimen. Apparently older females change colour and start to look more like the males. This one had quite a bit of blue on her tail, so she must have been an old gal!

I thought as I starting typing this post that this next one was the final (although I was still hoping for more) species of dragonfly to find our pond – the Common Darter.

The Common Darter can look very similar to the Ruddy Darter, but if you look at their legs very closely, you can see that the Common Darter has a dirty yellow stripe down each leg. The Ruddy darters on the other hand have all black legs. There are probably other ways of telling them apart, but this seems to be the most reliable – if you can get a decent photo of a leg!

 

Here’s a couple more photos of it, just because it posed so nicely on the perch (yes I was still smug that they were using “my” perch even a month later).

So I’d thought that would be it for this post, but before I could upload it, a dream came true and a female Emperor dragonfly graced our pond. Not only graced it, but laid eggs in it!

 

She’s been back a couple of times since, so plenty of photo opportunities, although getting a decent shot of her in flight has proved nigh on impossible.

She didn’t sit on my perch but I can forgive her for that for being just so big and beautiful! So all being well we should have emperor dragonfly larvae in the pond for the coming year – perhaps not good news for some of the other pond inhabitants as the dragonfly larvae are huge and voracious predators.

So that’s our dragonfly/damselfly round up so far – 6 species to date. Of course it would be nice to get a few more; I would love to see one of the Demoiselle species, but I think they prefer running water. Maybe we need to install a stream next?

Damsels & Dragons – Part 1

Our new pond only went in just over 5 months ago, but it’s been truly amazing what has already found its way here. One of the groups of animals we’d really hoped to attract was the Odonata – the dragonflies and damselflies. Of course we didn’t expect to get them for a few months, they don’t start emerging until the warmer weather comes, so all we could do was watch and wait. One good thing about the lockdown – it gives you plenty of time to watch and wait by a pond.

Right on time though at the end of April our first species arrived – the Large Red Damselfly. I’d spotted one down at the allotments, so was keeping an especially beady eye out and the next day one found its way to our pond.

Within a few days I was even more excited to find we had a pair of mating Large Red Damselflies. The male is the upper one of the pair. He has a pair of hooks at the end of his abdomen which he uses to hold onto the female around her neck. He holds onto her while she lays the eggs to prevent other males getting a look in!

Their larvae take two years to develop, so all being well, we should have our own “home-grown” red damselflies emerging from the pond in 2022.

I was barely getting over the excitement of the first damselfly’s appearance when the next one turned up – a stunning blue, or as it turned out Azure Damselfly. Since then we’ve seen them a few times, both males and females, but have never spotted a mating pair. Hopefully they have perhaps just been more discrete than the red damselflies and we will be lucky enough to have some emerge next year – they have just a one year life cycle compared to the 2 year for the reds.

The next two photos are of female Azures, below which are 2 males. The females have a bluey green tint, while the males are a much more vivid blue – azure I suppose!

As the pond was new and dragonflies and damselflies take at least a year to develop, we hadn’t expected to get any newly emerging ones. What we hadn’t banked on was getting damselfly larvae arriving with plants we’d ordered. This is the only explanation I can think of, for finding a newly emerged damselfly still pumping up its body on a reed.

The exuvia that the new adult had crawled out of was still clinging to the bottom of the reed, like some weird little alien.

The damselfly was very pale; it can apparently take a few days for them to develop their mature colouration, so we can’t be sure what species this is, but it’s probably one of the blue tailed ones. To start with the abdomen was shorter than the wings, but as we watched, it pumped itself up until eventually the abdomen was clearly much longer than the wings. You can see this in the sequence of photos below.

While its rear end was busy getting bigger, it had a quick wash and brush up round the head using its front legs.

Despite us both sitting there watching, we somehow managed to miss the moment of take-off. But a few minutes later we spotted this one just a foot away on a plant by the pond – probably/possibly the same individual having a rest after all the exertions of emerging. It has darkened up, but still lacks the blue colouration.

So that’s a round up of our damsels – very pleased to have such success with the pond in only the first few months. I’ll do a second blog post for our dragons next – the damsels have been great, but the dragons really are stunning!

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.

Pond Arrivals

Never has the old adage “Build it and they will come” been more true of anything than of building a pond. Our new pond went in at the beginning of February – seems a world away now, given everything that has gone on in the world since then. The human world may be in chaos and despair, but for everything else life goes on and a new pond is a beacon attracting wildlife from all around. Every week if not every day something new finds its way to our pond. We’ve not been able to finish all the landscaping or get all the plants I would like to have got due to various restrictions, but it seems the wildlife doesn’t mind at all.

Quite a wide variety of insects have already found their way to the pond. A few tiny beetles whizzing around were the first we spotted, followed shortly by a lone water boatman. We suspect there are now more water boatmen, but since we only every see one at a time we can’t be sure. Both of the above have so far proved too fast to photograph.

Of course small flies and mosquitos were soon flitting over the surface of the water laying eggs, which soon hatched in large numbers into wriggling larvae. These will hopefully provide plenty of food for larger animals further up the food chain, so are a very welcome addition to the pond.

Within a couple of weeks our first pond skater arrived, followed by several of its friends! These insects are great to watch scooting across the surface of the pond in search of food. They regularly battle each other, that or they get very frisky, we’re not sure which. Apparently they use the middle legs for propulsion, the back legs to steer and the front ones for grabbing their prey.

Next insect to appear was this diving beetle which flew in and plopped into the pond while we were sitting watching. These diving beetles come to the surface and collect a bubble of air to breathe, so he or she pops up to the surface quite often.

Since then we have spotted numerous medium sized beetles whizzing around the pond, all adding to the food chain.

The biggest excitement though was the arrival of our first damselfly – a Large Red Damselfly to be precise. Hopefully this will be the first of many damselfly and dragonfly species to use the pond and I can do a full post on them soon. In the meantime here is our first one.

Other insects have been using the pond in other ways; a Holly Blue caught drinking from the pond, an Orange Tip butterfly nectaring off the cuckooflower and this snazzily striped hoverfly buzzing all over the place. The hoverflies have clearly been making whoopee as we’ve already started finding their larvae – the delightfully named rat-tailed maggots in the pond. Wriggling and semi-transparent these are very difficult to photograph, the best I could do was this short video.

Spiders have also moved in amongst the stones at the side of the pond, nipping in and out to catch unsuspecting insects.

The birds have of course continued to make good use of the pond (drinking, bathing, catching insects), to the point I feel they are annoyed with me for hogging it by sitting there for so long. My favourites so far are this pair of young magpies, exploring the world for the first time. They go everywhere together and particularly like the pond, squabbling one minute and then looking to each other for reassurance the next – a typical pair of siblings.

Sadly all the frog activity we saw in March came to nothing and we didn’t get any frog spawn this year. It’s not too surprising as the pond had literally only been in for a couple of weeks before their mating season. We’ve yet to see a toad around the pond either, but the newts have come up trumps. The first newt (they are Smooth Newts) arrived early April and since then there seems to have been more each day. I shall do a full newt blog soon as they’ve provided lots of photo and video opportunities, but here’s a taster.

Sometimes the things you don’t get to see in person can be the best though. Our hedgehogs have been making good use of the pond, carefully tiptoeing down the sloping beach that was put in specifically for them to access the pond. Obviously we rarely see them directly, but the night cameras pick them up regularly. This video shows 7 separate visits to the pond by at least 3 different hedgehogs over the course of one night. Shows the value of providing a drinking source for your hedgehogs, especially in hot weather.

 

I am so glad that we got to make the pond before the world went into lock-down. It has provided interest, relaxation, welcome distraction and so much more – we have spent an awful lot of time in the last 3 months gazing into the pond, grateful for having a garden we can sit in while staying home and staying safe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Pond!

Excited doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel this week – we’ve got a new pond! I’ve been promising to do it for years now and finally we’ve done it! When I say “we” it is in the loosest sense of the word – as in it wasn’t me at all. Our lovely friend and Cycling Gardener, Gwyndaf came and did all the hard work while I flounced about the garden excitedly but pretty much ineffectually. Let’s hope the wildlife appreciates all Gwyndaf’s hard work.

So here is the obligatory “before” photo – a fairly sunny spot near the fence in an area that had once been a veg patch but has long since been a weed patch.

Unusually for one of my ideas, I actually tried to do a bit of research rather than just launching into the pond without a plan. All the books explain the need for plenty of shallow areas, with perhaps a small deeper section. I even drew up an actual plan, although I don’t think I’ll win any awards for my draughtsmanship.

Fortunately Gwyndaf managed to interpret my messy scrawls and set to work digging our dream pond. Here are the various stages of digging.

Once dug, the area was checked for any sharp objects, then the pond lined with sand to hopefully prevent any rogue stones poking through.

Next a layer of white underlayer to further protect against punctures, then the final EPDM rubber lining. It was a big relief when the lining was down to find we had measured up correctly and got a big enough liner.

Next essential element was of course water. All the books say to avoid tap water. We emptied the water butt which provided just enough water to fill the central deep section, but little more. I was terrified some poor animal would fall in and get trapped at this stage, so rigged up some hessian “ladders” so that anything falling in could crawl out.

Fortunately we live on the beautiful Malvern Hills – famous for their spring water, so we figured we might as well make use of our local resources. There is a handy well – The Cowleigh Spout – just up the road from us, so I made a few trips filling every available water container to fill the pond a bit further.

The UK was then battered this weekend by Storm Ciara, bad news for a lot of people, but good news when you’re trying to fill a pond. The downpours not only topped up the pond directly, but repeatedly filled the water butt again.

The pond now has the all important sloping beach one end, to allow anything that falls in to climb back out again. I’ve been particularly worried in case any of our hedgehogs took a dive, but now they should be able to get out easily. There are shallow areas for birds to bathe in and (fingers crossed) for amphibians to get loved up in.

We wanted to plant the pond up with native plants to give as natural a feel as possible and promote as much wildlife as possible. Although there are lots of online suppliers, it turns out February is not a good time to be buying pond plants as most are dormant for the winter. We did manage to source some Hornwort, which floats about oxygenating the water. A few others we’ve got as tiny plug plants – Purple Loosestrife, Flowering Rush, Marsh Marigolds and Woundwort and Brooklime. Still waiting for a few more to arrive, but hopefully we should end up with a good mix of marginals, floating and emergent plants to encourage an equally good mix of wildlife.

So here it is in all its half finished glory:

There’s still a lot of work to do finishing it off – hiding the liner edges, more planting in and around the pond, but hopefully by the summer we should have a proper wildlife pond again. In the meantime we’ve had our first wildlife visitor to the new pond. It may only be a pigeon, but it’s using the pond and it’s made me very happy!

Expect to see a lot more pondy posts!

2019 – The Year of the Moth

2019 seemed to flash by in the blink of an eye; but then it probably says something about my age that the whole twenty tens decade seems to have whizzed by too. So before my 2020 year’s wildlife adventures kick off, here’s a bit of a review of some highlights of 2019.

As usual the moth trap has been out most weeks for the Garden Moth Scheme and National Moth night and often just for the hell of it. Over 220 moth species graced our Malvern garden with their presence this year. This included over 30 new ones, bringing the total number of moth species recorded in our garden, since we started trapping, up to 368 species! Even better some of the new ones were ones I’ve been wanting to see for a while – Antler Moth, December Moth, The Playboy Bunny Moth (yes really – Ypsolopha sequella) and a Lobster Moth. But best of all, and possibly my best moth find ever – a Bedstraw Hawkmoth. And I was not alone getting excited by this moth – 4 moth watchers came over to the house just to see it. I doubt I’ll ever top this, hence 2019 being the Year of the Moth!

Continuing on the mothy theme, a couple of individuals laid eggs while I was photographing them. An Eyed Hawkmoth laid 2 eggs, one of which I managed to successfully rear to pupation. The chrysalis is now dormant and I’m hopeful that an adult moth will emerge in the spring.

The cameras have of course been out in the garden (and the allotment) throughout the year, recording mammals, birds and amphibians. As always hedgehogs stole the show (and my heart) with plenty of drama. We’ve had the highs of successful releases and hoggy courtship and  the lows of underweight and injured ones needing rescued. We’ve got a new hedgehog house with built in camera, which gave us great views until a hog packed the house so full of nesting material that it blocked the camera! We’ve also got a new illuminated feeder outside the patio doors so we can watch them come to feed from the comfort of the sofa.

 

A fox has also become a semi-regular visitor to the garden – thankfully there is enough food that it hasn’t bothered the hedgehogs. On the allotment, I was thrilled to get a badger drinking from the pond. The pond was also crammed full of frogspawn in the spring with plenty of newt and frog action throughout the year.

 

Beyond the garden, we’ve been out and about with the cameras. Back in April we finally managed to get over to the Lugg Meadows near Hereford to see the Snakes Head Fritillaries. Beautifully little flowers bobbing about on a blustery day.

We had a lovely week’s holiday down on Exmoor in the summer and between that and a trip to Wales, we’ve managed to “bag” three more butterfly species – The Marsh (shown below), Heath and High Brown Fritillaries.

A poignant event for me last year was that we had to sell my Dad’s house in Herefordshire. It was the house my sister and I grew up in and it was a sad day to see it go, but needs must. It had a large garden full of wildlife – not because Dad was a wildlife enthusiast, more because it was pretty much untouched (this is may be where the Too Lazy to Weed mentality came from). The remains of an old orchard, a stream running by and swathes of unmown grass. We left the new owners with a hedgehog house as a welcome gift and instructions to “be careful” when mowing. I shall miss this garden very much.

So every year I make some wildlife oriented New Year’s Resolutions and every year I manage to fail on most of them. 2019 was no exception. So here were last year’s targets:

  • The Red Kites at Gigrin in Wales – success with this one. We finally got round to going last January and it was spectacular.
  •  See 3 new butterfly species – success again, with Heath, High Brown and Marsh Fritillaries.
  •  Visit 5 new nature reserves – I think we succeeded although not with the local ones we’d planned. We did go to a few down in Exmoor and one in Wales and found a new walk in Malvern. But could definitely do better next year.
  •  Video some rock pools using the GoPro camera – failed on this one but not for want of trying. We visited the North Devon seaside, but picked a stretch with no decent rockpools. Did get some nice footage of fish in the River Barle though.
  • Garden pond – still not done it although we have started clearing a space for it. When I say “we” I actually mean our eco-friendly Cycling Gardener – Gwyndaf.
  • Moth tattoo – epic fail again, although the Bedstraw Hawkmoth is looking like a likely contender if I ever do get round to it.

So now to 2020s possibly unrealistic resolutions:

  • The pond – absolutely determined to put a new pond in the garden this year!
  • Create a Moon Garden. We do pretty well for moths as it is, but I’ve decided to create a Moon Garden with even more moth-attracting night scented flowers.
  • See 2 more species of British Butterfly. We’ve now seen 50 of the 58 species, but the last ones will be getting harder, so only aiming for 2 this year.
  • Visit 5 new nature reserves.
  • Rockpooling.
  • Go and see some wild Ospreys.
  • The moth tattoo!

 

 

One Year or a Thousand

This isn’t one of my usual posts with pretty photos of moths or hedgehogs. Instead I’ve got photos of bits of plastic decomposing, or not, in our garden. This may not be the most aesthetic post, but it does touch on something we should all be concerned about. We subscribe to a few groups who send us magazines and I am also partial to the occasional wildlife or the odd foodie magazine. Many of these publications arrive in single use plastic covers. With everything in the press and on our minds of late over the use of these plastics, I was particularly pleased, when a year ago, our magazine from the Butterfly Conservation charity arrived with the following note:

Our magazine was wrapped in a bag made from biodegradable or compostable potato starch. Why can’t all magazines come like this?

So maybe I need to get out more, but I thought it would be really interesting to see just how long it would take for this starch bag to decompose. I decided to put the potato starch bag outside and document its hopeful decay. Old lab habits die hard though and I felt the need for a “control” subject, so fished a real plastic magazine bag out of the bin and placed it next to the starch bag for comparison. So here we have on the left a traditional plastic bag and on the right the compostable starch bag from Butterfly Conservation.

I laid them side by side on the patio, weighted down with stones. Of course the starch bag should really have gone in the compost bin to degrade quicker, but then I wouldn’t have been able to monitor it. This way I could compare how the starch bag changed while the plastic magazine bag remained the same.

Initially I was a bit over-optimistic and planned to photograph the bags every week, expecting rapid change. Clearly these things take longer, especially when just sitting on a concrete patio! So after 3 weeks there wasn’t much change, apart from various bits of crud having landed on the bags.

By May this year though there were the first signs of decomposition of the starch bag in the top right corner.

By September, the starch bag was really starting to break down, whereas the plastic bag on the left looked pretty much the same.

By November, a year since I put the 2 bags out, the starch bag has almost completely disintegrated. The plastic bag on the left looks pretty much the same as it did when I laid them down originally. Cleaned up the plastic bag on the left would still be very much recognisable, the starch bag on the right is barely there.

They say a regular plastic bag takes anywhere between 10 and 1000 years to decompose (depending presumably on which “they” did the research). The thought that a plastic bag that was used solely to cover a magazine that we read once, then discarded, could still be here any time up to 1000 years from now, is fairly horrifying. If Butterfly Conservation can distribute their magazines in biodegradable starch bags, surely there can be no excuse for any other magazine not to be doing the same?