The Large Heath – Butterfly No. 46!

We headed off again on Saturday in search of our next butterfly species – the Large Heath. Whixall Moss is a peat bog on the English/Welsh border and the only place anywhere near us where we might see this increasingly rare butterfly. The bog has the beautiful Llangollen canal running along one side of it. We had to stop and wait for the bridge over the canal to be hand-winched back down as a narrow boat passed through.

We’d seen reports a mere 4 days before of sightings of upwards of 30 Large Heaths at Whixall Moss, so we’d set off with high hopes of nailing this one easily. These hopes were slightly dampened almost as soon as we left the carpark when we met an exhausted looking lady (carrying her even more exhausted little dog) who’d been searching in the scorching heat for 5 hours and not seen a single one. Undeterred (while slightly deterred to be honest) we carried on, following the walk described in the Butterflies of the West Midlands book.

We’d been walking for about an hour and a half and it was starting to look as if we’d draw a blank, although we had seen lots of other lovely wildlife. But then finally, just as we were about to head back, I spotted a butterfly dancing about the path. Initially I wasn’t sure what it was as it didn’t look like I’d expected. Turns out the Large Heath would struggle to pass the trade description law – it is actually really small! It was a raggedy little specimen and it insisted on hiding behind bits of grass, but at least we’d found one. It proved to be the only one we saw that day, but after a 2 hour drive and an hour and a half walk, we were grateful just to have found one. So here it is – our one and only Large Heath.

It looks a bit like a Meadow Brown but smaller and with spots like a Ringlet.

Whixall Moss is also well known for its population of White-faced dragonflies. Despite taking lots of dragonfly photos, none of them turned out to be white-faced. But we did get a new one for us – the Black Darter. Here is a male (top) and female (bottom).

There were blue and red damselflies everywhere and love seemed to be in the air for many of them, including this mating pair of Azure ones.

Aside from the whirring of insect wings in the air, there was the chirping of grasshoppers in the undergrowth. This one hopped obligingly onto the path in front of me.

The final insect of the day was a day flying moth and a new one for me – the Common Heath. As the Large Heath wasn’t particularly large, so the Common Heath didn’t seem to be particularly common, but I did manage to chase one down to get a photo.

As we’d walked along the path, something had scared up a pair of ground nesting birds. They took to the air for a few minutes until the danger had passed. We didn’t know what they were at first, but working on our usual principle of snapping anything that moves, we took some photos. Turned out they were lapwings.

A bit further on and we found more of them – this time looking a bit more relaxed, nesting by a pooled area. Lapwings have suffered major declines in the UK in recent years, so it’s always nice to go somewhere that has them.

So it was a long hot day at Whixall Moss, but the success of seeing the Large Heath and the bonus of the lapwings, made it all worthwhile. Butterfly species no. 46 ticked off the list – only another dozen or so to go!

Moth Breakfast & Butterfly Brunch

Yesterday we had the perfect start to a Sunday – a Moth Breakfast, followed by a brunchtime stroll for butterflies. Thankfully the Moth Breakfast was not as insectivorous as it sounds – we simply looked at moths while actually eating bacon butties!  The event was organised by the West Midlands Branch of Butterfly Conservation and took place as one of our favourite places – Monkwood. The moth traps had been put out the night before and all we had to do was turn up to see what had been caught. The great thing about an event like this is that we got to see moth species that we just don’t get in our garden. So amongst many others we saw woodland moths such as – Blotched Emerald, Large Emerald, Peach Blossom and Rosy Footman – all species that I have been dying to see for ages. So here they are:

Blotched Emerald.

Large Emerald.

Peach Blossom

Rosy Footman

Another bonus of going to this kind of event, is getting to meet a load of like minded people. It’s not often I get the chance to discuss with enthusiasm the differences between a blotched and a large emerald, or a Fan Foot versus a Small Fan Foot. I’m more used to amused tolerance rather than eager enthusiasm when waxing lyrical about the beauty of moths! So it was lovely to chat to some new people.

After we’d had our fill of moths (and bacon butties) we headed off for a mid morning walk around the wood. Monkwood is run by Butterfly Conservation and as such is brimming with butterflies. The very first time we went to Monkwood we were amazed to see White Admirals flitting around as we got out of the car. This time it was Purple Hairstreaks – there were at least 3 or 4 (and possibly many more) fluttering around the tops of the trees around the carpark. Sadly none came down low enough to get a decent photo, so this was the best distant shot I managed.

The White Admirals though were much more obliging and appeared along the path almost as soon as we left the carpark. The uppersides of their wings might not be as showy as their Red Admiral cousins, but the undersides more than make up for it. They are fast flying butterflies, but thankfully a few settled long enough to get some pics.

We also saw our first Meadow Browns and Ringlets – common enough butterflies, but still always nice to see your first ones for the year.

A couple of Silver Washed Fritillaries bombed passed us but didn’t hang around long enough to get their photos taken. Same story with a Comma and a White of some description which didn’t even slow down enough for me to tell if it was Large or Green-Veined.

By far the most common butterfly we saw was the Large Skipper. As always I love these cheery little orange butterflies, not least because they pose so nicely for photos.

Butterfly highlight of the morning though has to be the Wood White. We have seen Wood Whites once before (at Haugh Wood in Herefordshire), but it was nice to see these delightful little butterflies again. Their renewed presence in Monkwood is a relatively new thing and is all down to the hard work that Butterfly Conservation have put in. We were at the tail-end of the Wood White season, so there were only a couple around, but there had apparently been plenty of them earlier in the month. A good news story!

The Wood Whites are such ethereal little butterflies. This last photo in particular reminds me of how I imagined fairies to be when I was little – long before I’d even heard of Wood Whites.

Monkwood has plenty of other insect life to offer too. There are a few small ponds, so dragonflies and damselflies were abundant in those areas. We are used to seeing the red and various blue damselflies, but this Emerald one was a new one for us I think.

We saw quite a few beetles, including several of this splendid Black & Yellow Longhorn Beetle.

Chris managed to find our first Speckled Bush Cricket of the year,

whilst I got a male Scorpion Fly showing off his strange scorpion-like rear end and his even stranger proboscis.

Final interest for the day was this pair of mating Dock Bugs, who for some reason had chosen a spot of bird poo for the site of their nuptials, all watched it seems by a curious fly.

So many thanks to Butterfly Conservation West Midlands for getting us out of bed on a Sunday for a most enjoyable morning.

 

 

 

Isle of Wight – Part 2 Thwarted By Fog

Our first full day on the Isle of Wight coincided with the first day of 30 Days Wild – the Wildlife Trusts’ annual event to get people to engage with nature.  Perfect day then to go looking for our next two species of butterfly – the Glanville Fritillary and the Adonis Blue. Unfortunately the weather had other ideas and a thick blanket of fog seemed to have covered most of the island. No self respecting butterfly was going to fly in that, so our chances of seeing them were virtually nil. We did make a short half-hearted attempt and had a bit of a wander around the chalky slopes on the southern coast. Fortunately we like all sorts of invertebrates besides butterflies and many of these are fog tolerant.

Snails of course don’t mind a bit of damp weather and we found two new (to us) species in the hedgerows. This beautifully coiled one is a Kentish Snail (Monacha cantiana).

This tiny pointy snail is in fact called a Pointed Snail (Cochlicella sp.). It was only about a centimetre long, but still managed to have at least 8 whorls on its shell.

The other group of invertebrates that braved the fog in reasonable numbers were moth caterpillars. We saw several species, but these two were particularly striking. We’ve never seen them before either in caterpillar form, nor as adult moths. The top one is the caterpillar of the Lackey Moth and the bottom one of a Dingy Flat-Body Moth (thank you to the good people of iSpot for identifying the second one for me).

The other notable invertebrate was a cricket – there were large numbers of these Dark Bush Crickets (Pholidoptera griseoaptera) in the undergrowth. We only saw immature stages such as this nymph.

After an hour of enjoyable but butterfly-less searching, we went to Plan B. Isle of Wight is also known for its thriving population of Red Squirrels. Thankfully the grey squirrels haven’t made it across the water yet, so for the time being the reds have free rein over the island. So we headed inland to Borthwood Copse, a small woodland managed to support the red squirrels. The first interesting animal we spotted when we got to the wood, was another insect. This female Scarce Chaser dragonfly (Libellula fulva) is, as its name suggests, fairly scarce, so it was a really nice find. With its yellow veining and dark tips to the wings, it was clearly different to any dragonfly we’d seen before.

The wood was full of birds, all singing their hearts out (or all shouting warnings that we were intruding possibly). We could hear, if not see, lots of species, but the only one we really managed to photograph was this male Great Spotted Woodpecker.

After a lot of dizzying staring up into trees, we eventually spotted our first red squirrel. I think we had both fondly imagined that the squirrels would come down and somehow just sit waiting to be photographed. Needless to say, they did no such thing and remained steadfastly high up in the branches. Over the course of the next hour we spotted a few (or possibly the same one taunting us over and over) and although they were a delight to watch, they never came close enough for any really good photos. But we did eventually get some recognisable red squirrel photos, so here are our best efforts. We watched this one for a while carrying a bundle of nesting material, jumping from branch to branch.

We followed it by eye until it disappeared with its bundle of nesting material into what looked like a denser patch of leaves. It stayed in there for ages, so we wondered whether this might have been a nest or drey? You can just about make out the denser patch in the photo below.

When it eventually emerged it no longer had the nesting material, but decided to sit nearby watching us below. I know the next picture is really dark, but you can see the squirrel staring directly at us.

 

We had a few more sightings after this. In some they were again carrying nesting material, although we lost track of them in the branches so couldn’t see if they took them back to the same place.

The final photo I know is really rubbish, but I just love the way it looks like he’s just dangling there, when obviously we just caught him mid-jump.

So Plan B worked out pretty well in the end. The fog may have stopped us seeing butterflies that day (don’t worry we got there in the end – see next blog post), but there was plenty of other wildlife to enjoy. That’s one of the things about wildlife watching I love, you are never really disappointed, as there is almost always something amazing to see if you look.

 

 

 

 

Table Manners

Our garden furniture doesn’t seem to have had much use this summer; we normally try and eat outside quite a lot, but the weather just hasn’t been tempting enough. Of course in true Too Lazy style, the garden table is still sitting out on the grass, where we left it a couple of months ago. Various things get dumped on it, including the occasional hedgehog feeding bowl, which fills up every time it rains. The sparrows had taken to using this as an impromptu bird bath, cramming themselves into the small dish with barely room to flap a wing.

Today though I looked out to see that one of the unfortunate sparrows was suffering an altogether different experience on our table – he had become lunch for our local sparrowhawk. My first thought was guilt that I’d encouraged the sparrows, only for this one to become today’s special on the sparrowhawk menu. My second thought was can I get the camera in time? And for once I did. Not the finest set of photos; there was nothing I could do about the bits of grass and weeds obscuring the view, I just had to snap away getting as close as I could before the sparrowhawk spotted me. Thankfully the window cleaner had been literally an hour before, so I could at least see out of the patio door; the photos would have been a lot blurrier otherwise.

The black tripod visible behind the table had the trail camera set up on it. Needless to say, the trailcam was pointing in the opposite direction and missed all the action!

I headed out into the garden a bit later, not really expecting much after the excitement of the sparrowhawk. It may not have been quite so dramatic, but I was chuffed to find a Common Darter resting on the table – in almost the same spot the sparrow had met his unfortunate end. I never find it very easy to get all of a dragonfly in focus, so having failed a bit on the full body angle, I tried focussing on its head and the amazing compound eyes.

The sparrows don’t actually need to be using the tiny terracotta bowl as a bird bath. Having seen them all squashed in there, I had bought them a more spacious bird bath and put it right next to the table. They don’t seem that keen on it and are a bit wary of the slippery sides. I’ve yet to see one bathing in it, although they did have a tentative paddle a few weeks ago.

Bird bath

Our robin however has taken to the new bathing facilities quite happily, maybe because he doesn’t get jostled for space by the sparrows.

Bird Bath
Bird Bath
Bird Bath

While I was gathering together these clips and photos of goings on around the table, I remembered that last year I’d videoed a wasp eating chicken on the table – not a chicken with an appetite for wasps, but a wasp tucking into some cooked chicken that we’d left out. I’d never got round to adding this to the blog before, so here are a few clips now:

Wasp eating chicken
Wasp eating chicken
Wasp eating chicken

So our garden table may not have seen much of me and Chris this year, but it’s still getting plenty of use from an assortment of winged wildlife!

Grafton Wood

Lovely day yesterday out and about at Grafton Wood, one of our favourite butterfly hunting spots. Forecast was for sunny spells in the morning so we headed over, hopeful of a good day’s butterfly spotting. The sunny spells were slow to materialise and for the first hour we hardly saw a butterfly. Nor did we see anyone else, it was as if everyone else knew the butterflies were having a day off! Eventually though the butterflies started to appear – a slightly dopey Common Blue was the first to pose for us.

After the initial dozy one, more blues arrived plus Green-Veined Whites and our first Painted Lady of the year.  All in all we tallied up 11 species – not bad after such an unpromising start.

The one butterfly we’d particularly hoped to see though, the Brown Hairstreak, eluded us. They are notoriously tricky to find and we’ve only ever seen one, right here at Grafton Wood in 2015. So it was no great surprise not to find one yesterday. We did however meet  a very helpful gentleman who gave us some top tips for spotting them and showed us some new areas of the wood to look for them in future.  So butterfly-wise we were very happy.

But Grafton Wood is buzzing with more than just butterflies, there are plenty of other insects to enjoy. We kept seeing beautiful big hornets – either Grafton has lots of them or we were being stalked by the same one everywhere we went.

There were lots of small moths flying about in the grass, but the mothy highlight was spotting a group of Buff Tip moth caterpillars that had almost stripped a young tree bare.

We also saw a few shieldbugs, including this nice specimen of a Forest Bug (Pentatoma rufipes).

In the sunnier periods we could hear crickets chirruping in the grass. We saw several of these particularly large ones, which turned out to be a new species for us  – the Long-winged Conehead (Conocephalus discolour).

Grafton is also a great place to go for dragonflies and damselflies. Darters (like this female Common Darter (thanks to Neil for ID)) were reasonably common all over the wood.

We also saw several of the much larger Southern Hawker dragonflies, particularly around the small pond. They seemed to be inexhaustible though and never once did we see one land. Both of us spent ages trying to get a photo of one in flight over the pond; this blurry shot was the best we managed.

Damselflies were also common around the pond – again another new species for us – the White-legged Damselfly (Platycnemis pennipes), which has, as the name suggests, white legs! (although to be honest the legs look more like pale blue to me)

I found one individual sitting on a flower, seemingly staring straight at me. It stayed so long and I spent so long trying to get the perfect photo, it ended up feeling like we were having a bit of a staring contest – if we were then he won!

One insect we’d been trying to get a photo of all summer, was a scorpion fly.  These are seriously weird looking insects, with a long beak like structure on the head and a scorpion style tail on the males. We’d seen lots of them at Trench Wood a few months ago, but then only the females which don’t have the scorpion bit. Grafton Wood however was buzzing with males. It still wasn’t easy to get a photo of the tail as the wings kept getting in the way, but here are our best efforts.

Final surprise of the day was a cheeky little deer face, peeking at us over the wheat field as we walked back to the car.

Grafton Wood has never disappointed us and this weekend was no exception.

Out and About – Lea Quarry, Wenlock Edge

One of the goals for 2017 was to see some new butterfly species. So yesterday we set out for Lea Quarry at Wenlock Edge, in search of the Wall butterfly. The excellent “Butterflies of the West Midlands” book recommended Lea Quarry as a hotspot for Walls in August, so off we went. As usual we nearly managed to get lost as soon as we left the carpark, thanks to someone removing an arrow sign from the path trail! Fortunately while we puzzled over which way to go, a very helpful butterfly spotter Roger (and his gorgeous Malamut dog), showed us the correct path and in fact led us straight to our targets.

Wenlock Edge is a narrow limestone escarpment and Lea Quarry is just as it sounds – a quarry.  From the path there are lovely views out over the Shropshire countryside.

The path runs along the Edge with the quarry to one side.

The butterflies congregated on a small rocky slope at the side of the path. The area may not have been very big, but it was full of butterflies – we counted 11 species. Most were common ones like Gatekeepers, Speckled Wood, Comma, Holly Blue, Meadow Browns and Whites.

There were a couple of large and fresh looking Peacocks which were jostling for position over the same flowers.

There was also one Small Heath, which was more unusual to us. It skulked about in the undergrowth a bit though and looked generally a bit tired, so we only managed this poor photo.

A Small Skipper was much more obliging, posing happily right in front of us.

Common Blues were reasonably common and the males were very blue! The poor female is of course the dowdier of the pair, but still very beautiful.

But the main attraction were the Walls. They’re medium sized butterflies and quite strikingly marked, yet were surprisingly difficult to spot unless they took off. They fly most when it’s sunny, so we were lucky the weather was kind to us and the sun shone down on the righteous! Roger pointed out our first ever one, but after that we were up and running.

We saw several basking on the bare rocks. Unfortunately they do have a tendency to take off as soon as you approach with a camera, but we did eventually get a few decent shots of them like this.

I did eventually manage to get a few photos of a Wall on a flower – only because I was trying to photograph something else and the Wall landed on the flower right next to me though – but hey, you take what you can get! I didn’t realise until I looked back at the photos, just how beautiful the undersides of the wings are too.

The stony bank was busy with insects of all kinds besides the butterflies. Common Blue damselflies were drifting about all over the place – even photobombing one of our Wall photos.

Chris also spotted this much larger Darter dragonfly (Common or Ruddy – I can never remember which is which?)

Bees and hoverflies were making the most of the summer flowers. The hoverflies were particularly numerous and included this striking Large Pied Hoverfly (Volucella pellucens).

We could hear grasshoppers/crickets almost constantly – chirruping away enthusiastically in the sunshine. It was towards the end of our visit though before we actually saw one, when it hopped out onto the path. The relatively short and thick antennae indicate it was a grasshopper rather than a cricket, and that’s about as far as my ID got. But thanks to Neil, it has now been identified as a male Meadow Grasshopper.

So the Wall takes our lifetime tally of butterflies to 43! Very happy with that, but already looking forward to adding to this. We’re probably too late to bag any other new ones this year, as we’d need to travel serious distances probably. But with a bit of luck next summer, we might manage to creep a bit closer to the magic total of 59 – the generally recognised number of British species. It’s almost certainly going to get harder and we’ll have to travel further, but it’s nice to have a goal and a great way to get out and about, so we’re not complaining.

30 Days Wild – Day 27 – Trench Wood

It’s Day 27 of 30 Days Wild and we’re back on the butterfly hunt, this time in beautiful Trench Wood, Worcestershire. Not looking for anything new as such, just hoping for sightings of some old favourites and Trench Wood never disappoints. The place was absolutely heaving with butterflies and insects of all sorts.

Most notable today were the ringlets – they were everywhere, we must have seen hundreds. I don’t think we’ve ever seen so many, every step we took seemed to scatter more off the path. It was lovely to see, as I’d been starting to worry that we’d not seen so many this year. There were mating pairs too (in one case a trio, with an overly enthusiastic extra male!) doing their thing in the sunshine.

Meadow Browns were also common, although not nearly as abundant as the ringlets.

There were plenty of skippers, most being Large like this one with its hooked antennae.

But there were also a few Small Skippers – distinguished by their orange tipped, clubbed antennae. This one is a male with a diagonal scent brand across the wing (thank you to Mike Williams on Facebook for confirming this).

Once again the White Admirals proved elusive. There were quite a few present, but as usual they refused to settle long enough for a decent photo – here’s my best but still poor effort.

The one we really went looking for today was the Silver-washed Fritillary and in this at least we were fairly successful. Initial sightings were just glimpses as they bombed past us, but eventually we tracked down a few more obliging ones. Chris got the best photos, not just because he is a better photographer, but because he is taller than me and they tended to land quite high!

Surprise “bag” of the day was a Purple Hairstreak. Chris spotted it and got just the one photo before it was off. A great find and addition to this year’s tally.

A variety of moths were out and about too. Some tiny ones like this Nettle Tap,

others slightly larger like this Clouded Border,

and others simply stunning like this Scarlet Tiger and Five Spot Burnet.

Damselflies, demoiselles and dragonflies were all fairly common around the pond. I think we saw both Beautiful and Banded demoiselles, azure and large red damselflies and these two splendid dragonflies. The top one is a female darter (either common or ruddy) and the blue one at the bottom is a male Emperor dragonfly.

There were of course bees and hoverflies everywhere, but there just wasn’t time to do those as well today – so many insects so little time! But there were a few other things that took our fancy. This Long-horned beetle was stunning, although we hadn’t noticed all the tiny beetles around it when we took the photo.

And finally I got a photo of a Scorpion Fly – I’ve been trying to get one of these for weeks now. Only trouble is, every single one we saw was a female, so none had the distinctive scorpion tail which only the males have. So the hunt goes on!

So all in all another fabulous day out and probably one of our most insect laden ones to date. Day 27 of 30 days wild and we’re still finding things that surprise and delight!

 

30 Days Wild – Day 20 – Chasing Admirals

It’s Day 20 of 30 Days Wild and the day started early and hot. I got up at the crack of dawn to empty the moth trap and the temperature had only dropped to 18.3C – at 4 o’clock in the morning! Not surprisingly it had been a great night for moths and the trap was stuffed with them including 7 elephant hawkmoths! Prize for me though were these 3 gorgeous Scarlet Tigers (hawkmoths were so last week!).

Next surprise was a racing or homing pigeon, which turned up outside the patio doors, while I was planning what to do for the day. It had rings on its legs, which I presume would be traceable. It didn’t seem injured or unduly bothered and eventually flew off, although it returned in the afternoon.  If it reappears, I’ll maybe see how you go about reporting a stray homing pigeon.

Anyway, clearly having learnt nothing about how hot it was from yesterday’s trip, I headed out again – this time to Monkwood Nature Reserve near Worcester. Chris and I went there a couple of years ago and saw our first ever White Admirals, so I hoped for a repeat performance.

As on the previous trip I was amazed to spot some White Admirals as I got out of the car. There were a couple flying high in the trees around the carpark, too far away to get a photo though – this turned out to be how they behaved all morning. The butterflies of all species were very flighty in the heat (unlike myself!) The only White Admiral I saw land was this one, which flew off before I could get any closer.

So in a kind of “this is what you could have won” way – here’s the photo I’d hoped to take – one from 2 years ago!

I had a bit more luck with a Red Admiral that landed delightfully on  a dog poo.

There were lots of Skippers about, I had thought I’d seen both Large and Small ones, but on examining the photos at home, I decided they were all Large ones.

The skippers even photobombed my attempt at a Meadow Brown.

I saw several other species, none of which would stop for photos – Speckled Wood, Ringlet, Silver Washed Fritillary and Commas.

The guide book said to look out for the ponds and seeing as I seem to be getting a bit obsessed with dragonflies lately, I checked them out. They were full of dragonflies, but also lots of these adorable water boatman – flapping through the water with their built in paddles. Best spot of the day though was this Broad Bodied Chaser, which was hunting over a pond, but kept coming back to this twig to rest.

There was another large dragonfly buzzing over the pond. It refused to settle for a photo, but kept dipping its abdomen in the water – I can only assume it was a female laying eggs, but if anyone can correct me, please do. The best I could manage was one of my short shaky videos.

Dragonfly at Monkwood

Final photo of the day is this Large Red Damselfly. I’d never realised before just how red their eyes are.

I could have spent longer in Monkwood and on a cooler day, I would have been happy to do so. It is a beautiful wood and full of butterflies; birds too no doubt if butterflies aren’t your bag! We are very lucky living in Malvern to have beautiful woods like this, the Wyre Forest, Grafton and Trench Wood, all within an hour’s drive.