2015 British Butterflies – 14: Large Heath at Whixall Moss, Shropshire + White-faced Darter – 29th June

Prior to heading back to Suffolk and work this week I needed to fit in an insect double bill before it was too late. During our recent damselfly collaboration Adam and I had agreed to go when convenient for Large Heath and White-faced Darter, he as driver and me as guide. These species would both be lifers for Adam and today was the day.

Having myself travelled to east Kent and back, Suffolk twice and the long way home from the Norfolk Broads in the past eight days, it was relaxing to be chauffeured on this occasion. And especially in a big Volvo 4×4, the “Gnome mobile” of Oxon legend. After arriving on site we walked out through a wooded area where there were good numbers of common butterflies: Meadow Brown, Ringlet and Speckled Wood. Then upon reaching the mosses proper we immediately began to see Large Heath, the first of very many.

Whixall Moss

Whixall Moss

Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses NNR is one of the largest lowland raised peat bogs in Britain. The acidic and waterlogged environment here allows a significant number of specialist bog plants and insects to thrive, including our day’s joint targets. Large Heath, of which there are several forms is most common in Scotland but also occurs in isolated colonies further south where suitable habitat exists. In my experience they are not easy to photograph, being skittish and unapproachable with unhelpful habits of sitting low down in long grass, flushing as the observer gets near then flying around tantalisingly without settling, before heading off into the middle distance. The shot I wanted was of a butterfly nectaring on Bell Heather, and this was duly gained. But they don’t usually do “clutter free “.

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Large Heath

Large Heath

At the first bog pool we came across there were two White-faced Darter. It then took a little time to find the larger pool where I had experienced these attractive little dragonflies in 2014. There were partial board walks leading into that hot spot upon which the several WFD present were prone to settle, and we also located a mating pair. This species is also most common in the Scottish Highlands, while Whixall Moss is the closest location to Oxford where it occurs.

White-faced Darter

White-faced Darter

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At both pools WFD were being harassed constantly by Four-spotted Chaser, the bovver boys of the dragonfly world. Adam wandered off and found teneral Black Darter nearby, that emerge at this time of year; but neither of us saw Common Hawker, another possibility at this site.

On the way home we dropped in to visit the male Melodious Warbler near Marsh Lane NR, Hampton-in-Arden, West Midlands. When we reached the recycling works where this bird (my second British sighting) has set up territory in recent weeks it was singing and showing well. So that was three out of three easy connects and a nice bonus to end a successful day.

Melodious Warbler

Melodious Warbler

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2015 British Butterflies – 13: Swallowtail at Hickling Broad, Norfolk + Red-veined Darter – 27th June

I am spending some time working in Suffolk at present, and so was within range of Britain’s largest butterfly that I had observed on just one previous occasion. Though widespread across mainland Europe Swallowtail has been found here only within the Norfolk Broads historically, though there has been some colonisation of Sussex since 2013 (see here). The resident Norfolk butterflies are actually a sub-species britannicus that is slightly smaller and has more extensive dark markings than the continental counterpart.

The Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Hickling Broad NNR (TG428221) comprises extensive areas of reed bed, pools and woodland adjacent to the largest area of open water in the Broads system. On arrival mid-morning I was directed by the visitor centre to a trail along which many tall thistles grow in the reed edge. Here I found several Swallowtail moving from plant to plant with their characteristic floppy flight. These certainly looked bolder and brighter than the continental form that I have experienced many times. They were a beautiful sight nectaring on swaying thistle heads and trying to keep their balance in a strong breeze. I could gladly have taken much more time photographing them but there was a lot of reserve to explore.

Swallowtail

Swallowtail

swallowtail_01.1501 hickling broad

swallowtail_01.1504 hickling broad

Having achieved the day’s main objective I quickly became preoccupied with the reserve’s abundant dragonfly life. Amongst these I gained pictures of Black-tailed Skimmer for the first time this season (below). Around a large pond near the reserve’s western edge, Emperor were engaged lazily in territorial jousts with fading Four-spotted Chaser and I eventually located one Norfolk Hawker. There are plenty of the last-named at this site had I cared to search the many reed bed channels for them, but I’d done the species already this year – in Kent!

Red-veined Darter

Red-veined Darter

There were also some Darter species on the wing and amongst these was what I believe is my first British sighting of Red-veined Darter. This migrant is a frequent visitor to eastern and southern England and occasionally breeds. It took some time to secure a confirmation picture (above) after which I followed the “Bittern Trail” along the edge of Hickling Broad. From there cut paths led into the reed bed and I came across a cluster of Swallowtail again. These could have been the same butterflies I had photographed in the morning because when I got back to that first spot there were none to be seen.

It was now past 3pm and mindful of the 190 mile drive home, way beyond my usual range, I needed to leave. But hours could be spent productively at this fabulous site, getting better pictures of the Swallowtails, seeking out the Norfolk Hawkers and more dragonflies; and there had been no time today to locate the reserve’s Common Cranes. Bittern? … Bearded Tit, Marsh Harrier … well we’ve got all those birds in Oxfordshire nowadays. I expect I’ll visit Hickling Broad again though sooner or later.

And should insect fatigue be setting in anywhere, here's a shrewd operator. No tame jokes on this blog!

Lastly, here’s a shrewd little fellow should insect fatigue be setting in anywhere … no tame puns on this blog!

2015 British Butterflies – 12: Heath Fritillary in East Blean Wood, Kent – 21st June

Today was the day to head back to East Blean Wood near Canterbury and catch up with another of Britain’s rarest butterflies. And that makes it three of those in the last six days.

The Heath Fritillary became confined to Kent’s Blean Woods and a few upland valleys on Exmoor, but has been reintroduced to a few more woodland sites in Devon, Cornwall and Essex. These sun lovers favour locations where the vegetation has recently been cut, burned or cleared, and are therefore mobile limitedly from year to year within sites where they occur. I had seen them once before in 2013 on Exmoor’s Dunkery Beacon. There the wildness of the off piste location became etched in my memory, but I also recall a two hour wait for the sun to come out and not getting pictures of males or underwing shots. I had unfinished business with this species here today.

This visit was how butterfly watching should be. Within half an hour of my arrival bright sun replaced overcast conditions that had persisted throughout the journey. By 11am I reached a promising looking clearing and immediately began to see Heath Fritillary, then more and more. These butterflies can be very abundant if the habitat is right, and there were hundreds of them here today. Seeing so many flitting about, nectaring on bramble flowers, squabbling, courting and generally going about their business was indeed a charming sight.

... such a charming site

I was interested to see whether there would be butterflies in other clearings I searched eight days previously. The answer was yes but in more modest numbers. I had indeed found Heath Frit grand central and other observers arriving later in the morning mostly seemed to know of the hot spot. There were also some flying in the car park when I left at 1pm. So it wasn’t me being dim on the earlier visit, not seeing any really had been down to the weather conditions since HF are said not to fly in temperatures below 18ºC.

Getting such an early and good result left the afternoon to be filled, so I revisited Westbere Marshes, less than three miles away to try for Scarce Chaser dragonfly. The male pictured below was in vegetation beside the Great Stour river where my reading between visits suggested the species was being seen. He only did arty poses, but no matter because I have good accurate pictures already. Along the path to that spot at least three Green-eyed or Norfolk Hawker were active in the flooded reed-edge ditches. I can’t really get enough of the latter, they are so beautiful.

What a beauty!

What a stunner!

More Oxon Odo: the “Cothill three” and White-legged Damselfly – 17 & 19th June

When Wednesday’s fair weather forecast from earlier in the week didn’t materialise I was actually quite relieved. Covering full butterfly and odonata seasons then presenting it all here can get to be quite intensive, especially when things are so sunshine dependent. In the event I abandoned plans to re-visit Blean Woods in Kent and decided to concentrate on county sites for the rest of the week instead.

Dry Sandford Pit

Dry Sandford Pit

One of these is Cothill Fen, the largest surviving expanse of alkaline fen habitat in central England. Within this area around the village of Dry Sandford, west of Oxford are three nature reserves: BBOWT’s Dry Sandford Pit and Parsonage Moor, and Cothill Fen NNR itself. There are three site specialities here that occur nowhere else in Oxfordshire: Southern Damselfy, Small Red Damselfly and Keeled Skimmer dragonfly.

I knew from Wayne’s blog that all of these were flying; it was just a matter of finding each of them since I also know exactly where to look. These sites would test my new resolution to go boldly (no split infinitives on this blog!) into odo habitat, since the observer is not likely to see much otherwise. In the event I located and photographed all three species.

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While Variable Damselfly were causing a stir in the south of Oxfordshire last weekend, our correspondent in the north Gareth turned up another scarcity White-legged Damselfly on his Banbury patch. So this being one of three English damsels that I still needed for my life list, I went for a look myself today (19th). From the car park at Grimsbury Reservoir I followed paths beside the River Cherwell into ungrazed meadows between that river and the M40 motorway.

This area of the Cherwell valley is also dissected by the main Oxford to Birmingham railway line and the Oxford Canal, creating triangles of “wasteland” that are chock full of valuable wildlife habitat. During three hours around the location where Gareth had reported his sightings (SP465427) I found 7 – 8 female White-legged Damselfly (pictured below) on either side of the motorway.

White-legged Damselfy (female)

White-legged Damselfy (female)

White-legged Damselfy (immature female)

White-legged Damselfy (immature female)

It seemed strange not to see any males here, but while I was walking back toward the railway bridge over the Cherwell first one then a second male (pictured below) landed beside the path. This made things feel like a good result and suggests WLD must be present across this entire meadow area. From my field guide, most of the insects today looked immature with some variation between individuals. They may continue flying into August and I expect these damselflies will draw a few more visitors between now and then.

White-legged Damselfy (immature male)

White-legged Damselfy (immature male)

2015 British Butterflies – 11: Black Hairstreak in Whitecross Green Wood, Oxon – 18th June

Today, at the fourth attempt I located one of Britain’s rarest butterflies in its local stronghold. Black Hairstreak is restricted to a belt of mostly woodland sites stretching north from Oxford through Buckinghamshire and into Cambridgeshire. BBOWT’s Whitecross Green Wood has become my location of choice in the last two seasons, since in my view some other Bernwood Forest sites have become over visited and I do not wish to contribute to that.

Myself and other hopeful observers began prospecting here from 4th June. On my second visit three days later a local expert predicted these Hairstreaks would begin flying in this month’s third week, following upon cold nights through May. That had been the usual emergence date until becoming earlier over the last few years. Her forecast proved to be spot on as BH were first seen at WGW and three more sites in Bucks from15th June.

I arrived at a regular hot spot in strong mid-afternoon sunshine, quickly finding 3 – 4 Black Hairstreak flying around the tops of a tall stand of Blackthorn. But these butterflies were not inclined to settle. As the sun weakened between 4 and 5pm they began to perch closer in lower growing Blackthorn. Even then they displayed the annoying tendencies to either lie side on to the sun upon settling, as BH do or adopt other difficult angles to my camera lens.

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Black Hairstreak

This was also not an easy spot for photography as there was no Wild Privet in bloom amongst the Blackthorn. When nectaring on that food plant BH are not prone to distraction and so allow a close approach. But when feeding on aphid honeydew, which I assume they were today, they tend to half conceal themselves in the curves of upturned leaves. Eventually acceptable shots were gained though, if from some slightly unusual angles (above).

The particular insect (pictured above) must be the Ricky Hatton of the Black Hairstreak world. That’s a lot of war wounds for a maximum four days on the wing. But this butterfly has a short flight period in which to defend its territory and mate, and I have noticed how quickly they deteriorate in previous seasons. Numbers are expected to peak before the end of June, then it will all be over for another year. In the interim many visitors are likely to pressurise the Bernwood Forest sites, but I for one will not seek out this rarity again in 2015.

2015 British Butterflies – 10: Large Blue at Daneway Banks, Glos – 16th June

I became aware of this Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust reserve in 2014, visiting for the first time on 1st July. The Large Blue was being seen less at the National Trust’s showcase reserve for the re-introduced butterfly, Collard Hill in Somerset’s Polden Hills. So the Cotswolds’ site provided a nearer and easier option then, and did so again today.

Daneway Banks SSSI, lying in the Frome valley about 8 miles south-west of Cirencester, is a prime example of unimproved limestone grassland. The hillside above the village of the same name (SO937034) supports a rich flora and diverse insect fauna that has included the Large Blue since the turn of this century. The British race became extinct in 1979 but following the reintroduction of an indistinguishable race the species has spread to around 25 other places in the west of England, mostly in Somerset.

Daneway Banks

Daneway Banks

Last year my three Large Blue sightings were on the lower slopes immediately above Daneway village. So arriving on-site today just after 11am I checked out those same areas first. A good variety of high summer butterflies were on the wing, including season’s first Marbled White and Ringlet, but no Large Blue. More species seen were Small Heath, Large Skipper, one or two Meadow Brown, Small Tortoiseshell; and even Green Hairstreak and Dingy Skipper.

Other visitors told me the Large Blue were active much higher on the hillside. I kept being directed further up than I realised this reserve extended until reaching an area in which about six observers were searching. But it soon became apparent that numbers aren’t necessarily an advantage. Two in-your-face characters, one wearing army boots the other wellies, were charging about like headless chickens before leaping upon then chasing around the Large Blues that they found. The most galling thing was that they located the butterfly I eventually photographed. I had already seen one that didn’t settle and my final tally was three. These looked noticeably darker in flight than the many fading Common Blue that were also present.

Large Blue

Large Blue

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I couldn’t escape those people in this spot, felt no desire to compete for the top wing shots they were intent upon, and so left. My enjoyment of Large Blue, both here in the last two seasons and at Collard Hill in 2011, has always been spoiled by this sort of attention that the species attracts. Next time I would like to see these butterflies in a Polden Hills location other than Collard Hill where the ambience might hopefully be more mellow, as butterfly watching should be. But I needed the species for this series, it’s now included and I move on.

After a sandwich break back at my car then a pint in the village pub, I walked around the lower slopes of Daneway Banks again but without seeing any more Large Blue. I left site wondering if these butterflies had been driven up to the higher slopes by all the attention last year, and whether they might eventually be chased away from this place altogether.

Oxon Variable Damsels + that Scarlet Tiger time again – 15th June

Over the weekend Oxfordshire’s newly revealed colony of Variable Damselfy has drawn the great and good of the local Odonata community to Barton Fields nature reserve by the Thames in Abingdon. Yesterday I received an email from Adam inviting me to join him in locating 2015’s six-legged stars of our county “birding quiet season”. Since his preparation is always thorough I appreciated this would be a good opportunity to get to know that site.

Today Adam had found out exactly where to look from our county odo recorder Steve Burch, and also Richard Lewington whose own interest shows the significance of this recent discovery by an Abingdon enthusiast. I really must network more myself! Armed with this information we found the insects straight away in an area of dense vegetation that was ankle deep in water. Compiling the last two Rn’S posts has brought home that I need to be much bolder in getting into odonata habitat, and today proved it.

Variable Dameslfy

Variable Dameslfy

Diagnostic broken blue stripes on thorax and wine glass pattern near top of abdomen

“Are you looking at me?”

In total we saw 9 individuals which Adam assured me exceeds the previous day count for Oxon, though later in the day Wayne had more than 10. Good quantities of other blue damselflies were also present. It was noticeable how the dominant May species Azure Damselfy is suddenly dwarfed in numbers by Common Blue Damselfy that has a more vivid blue appearance in flight. There’s also been one record this year of White-legged Damselfy at Barton Fields, but despite searching we didn’t see any today.

Barton Fields

Barton Fields

Back at home In Garsington’s shanty town the year’s first Scarlet Tiger moths have emerged in my wildlife garden. Once the food plants I manage for them – Caucasian Comfrey and Green Alkanet – had been completely munched in April, I transferred hundreds more larvae from other plants into the surrounding countryside where wild Comfrey grows. Others were relocated to Ewan’s garden in Kingham, north Oxon. Last Friday, before the weekend rain I noticed four individuals outside, then this evening three mating pairs. The food plants have staged a full recovery just in time for egg laying to begin.

Scarlet Tiger

Scarlet Tiger

Uh oh! Here we go again

Uh oh! … Here we go again

To me there is no such thing as a birding quiet season, just an insect high season. At present, weather allowing I am spoilt for choice of places to go and things to see. Watch this space!