Friday, 29 May 2020

Pearls in The Wyre Forest 27th May 2020

I arranged to meet Peter this morning at the end of a rural lane in Worcestershire that starts in some unexceptional housing and then descends in a series of steep winding curves to a small dusty area cut into a hillside that serves as a car park for the Wyre Forest NNR. Arriving a little early I stood by my car in the pleasant sunshine, in a place I had never visited before, but that was quite beautiful with huge oak trees towering over me and the land dropping away on one side into a narrow valley, the bottom of which contained an an old mill house and the winding flow of Dowles Brook.

Wyre Forest is part of the largest, ancient lowland, coppiced oak woodland left in England and the reserve comprises 549 hectares, a mosaic of grassland. meadows, old orchards and areas of scrub.

Even at 10am the car park was almost full but we managed to secure the last two spaces for each of our cars.  It obviously was a popular spot, with more and more cars arriving and as we walked into the reserve, following a wide pathway which used to be an old railway track, we and other pedestrians were constantly having to be aware of fast moving mountain bikers.

Not exactly a relaxing experience but we were soon to turn off the main pathway into another, quieter world that was far from the busy recreational thoroughfare we were currently walking along.

Our mission today was to find both Pearl Bordered and Small Pearl Bordered Fritillaries. Peter had been here last year so knew where to go, which were some tree enclosed meadows down by Dowles Brook, the meadows especially managed to enable both species of fritillary to thrive and prosper.

However, we had not gone far on the main pathway when we found our first Pearl bordered Fritillary, a very tatty and faded specimen that had only three wings but seemed little inconvenienced by such a handicap when it flew. Not a very satisfactory start but soon we found others, quite a few, that flew and settled while we followed and photographed them to our heart's content. It is always such a treat to see these rare and much desired butterflies, an innocent pleasure in a complicated world 

A faded Pearl bordered Fritillary nearing the end of its flight period
A man passing by us stopped to ask what the butterfly was we were showing such an interest in. We told him it was a Pearl bordered Fritillary and in return he told us where there was a nest box occupied by a pair of Pied Flycatchers. He whispered enigmatically, 'Remember. Look for Box 33'. We thanked him and made a note to check out this information later but it was fritillaries first.

Pearl bordered Fritillary
Turning off the main pathway we entered an area of woodland scattered with numbered nest boxes for presumably Pied Flycatchers to nest in although some were occupied by Great and Blue Tits. Descending on a rough track into the valley bottom we came to the mill and crossed the brook. 

The Mill House
We eventually diverted into the specially maintained meadows for the fritillaries. There were meant to be both species here and after some delay we found our first Small Pearl bordered Fritillary flying fast and low over the grass but not willing to settle. Despite its orange colour it was surprisingly hard to follow as it flew erratically across the grass, to be lost in the distance.

Small Pearl bordered Fritillary
Soon we began to locate more fritillaries and it took some effort to differentiate the two but after a while we became relatively proficient as we encountered examples of each, fluttering around. Small Pearl bordered were, as their name would imply, noticeably smaller than their larger cousin and seemed much brighter, presumably because their flight season has only recently commenced in contrast to that of the Pearl bordered which is earlier and now most of which we saw were beginning to look faded. The underwing markings of the two species, when you could see them,  were diagnostic. This was by no means an easy task as the butterflies resolutely kept their wings open when they ceased flying and nectared on the various meadow flowers.

The easiest identifiable underwing differences, for me, were twofold. First the black spot in the centre of the lower underwing on the Small Pearl bordered was large and very obvious whereas the Pearl bordered had a much less definitive spot. Second the row of seven white 'pearls', a line of markings towards the outer edge of the hindwing were outlined in black in the case of the Small Pearl bordered and orange in the case of the Pearl bordered.

Small Pearl bordered Fritillary showing black dot in cente of  hindwing and the seven white pearls
edged with black chevrons
Pearl bordered Fritillary showing a much reduced black dot on underwing plus the seven white pearls are edged with orange chevrons

Small Pearl bordered Fritillary - above two images
Looking at the butterflies settled with open wings, Peter told me to look for 7-3-0 on the outer edge of the forewing of the Small Pearl bordered Fritillary. These are three marks that vaguely resemble the figures 7, 3 and zero.The markings are not the same on the Pearl bordered and as if this was not enough information to assimilate, the dark markings on the tip of the forewing of the Small Pearl bordered are usually joined whereas in the Pearl bordered they are not.

Small Pearl bordered FRitillaryThe 7-3-0 feature is clearly shown on the left forewing as are the joined dots on the tip
of the same forewing
But enough of the technicalities and let us enjoy the fritillaries for what they are, beautiful insects which bring me much joy, that sense of enjoyment enhanced by the magnificent surroundings in which they were enacting their short lives on a wonderful early summer's day. We had the meadows entirely to ourselves for most of the time and made the most of it, walking through the lush grass and yellow buttercups, the steep slopes of the valley rising on either side of us and Dowles Brook bisecting the valley, sluggish from lack of rain but still chuckling and gurgling wherever rocks impeded its timeless progress below the green shade of the overhanging trees, while above the sky was an unsullied forget-me-not blue.

Every so often we would see the burnt orange colour of a fritillary flying before us. the recently emerged Small Pearl bordered noticeably brighter than the Pearl bordered, now coming to the end of their flight season and with a faster more busy flight action. We followed them hoping one would settle but almost all were males, relentlessly patrolling, looking for a female to mate with. Occasionally one would settle and we tried to make the most of the opportunity but were often frustrated by the butterfly's ability to adopt positions not conducive to getting an aesthetic image that captured their essence and beauty. Countless were the times that a blade of grass interfered with the perfect image or cast a wayward shadow over the insect. We persevered and persistence got us the images we desired and in a way we enjoyed the challenge. Me, mainly wanting shots of the underwings, which in all fritillaries show a wonderful mosaic pattern while Peter was more desirous of an upperwing image.

Small Pearl bordered Fritillaries
The morning passed, unheeded by us, towards noon and we found in the far corner of our favoured meadow a fritillary hot spot. We had become aware it was better to stand and wait for the butterflies to come to us in this corner, rather than allow our enthusiasm to cause us to chase after them, often fruitlessly. 

So we stood patiently and were duly rewarded.

Small Pearl bordered Fritillaries
It was pleasant at the far end of the meadow. A place that was tucked away, hidden and secret from the regular passers by on the other side of the brook. There was a small drop to the brook below which  had formed a pool in the right angle caused by the bank jutting outwards. 

A fallen tree across the brook and some boulders were providing a temporary home for a family of Grey Wagtails, the adults chasing flies to bring to their fledged young, all the birds, adults and young constantly bouncing their hindparts and tail up and down. A curious movement, that in Grey Wagtails is accentuated by their long tail, the longest of any wagtail species in Britain.

Grey Wagtail - male
The unremarkable muddy bank of the brook, below where I stood, was suddenly transformed as a flash of bright blue betrayed the exotic and entirely unexpected presence of a Kingfisher which flew off up the brook to be followed shortly after by another. I moved my position to examine the bank more closely and sure enough there was the obvious entrance hole to their nest.

It was a true rural idyll and for a while I stood and forgot about the butterflies and embraced this moment of pure nature in a near perfect day. Mindfulness and Mother Nature inextricably entwined and working their magic once again on my soul. These are such strange times we are living through now, with every day seeming the same as the one before and the one after as our human world comes to a temporary hiatus, yet nature all around us, at this time of year, is never more energised and vital.

Mayflies were hatching and on wings of gossamer, shining in the sun, rose in slow spirals from the brook, fragile, ephemeral insects in the final stage of their life cycle, rising into the still sultry air only to be extinguished by a pair of Blackcaps, which had a nest nearby in a bramble clump and were taking full advantage of this bounty. Repeatedly the male and female Blackcap would fly out from the alders on the bank and seize the defenceless insects.

We walked back through the meadows, not an unpleasant experience in itself, the day now become hot and the shade bringing a welcome cooling greenness. Spring is almost over now and nature is at its most bountiful but the summer solstice will be here in three weeks and then it is a slow gentle decline from this profusion of growth and fecundity.

We took up the challenge from our earlier unknown passer by and went in search of the Pied Flycatchers and on a footpath skirting an area of sun dappled oak woodland reserved for birds found Nestbox 33 and its occupants, a pair of Pied Flycatchers feeding what appeared to be recently hatched young.The male was bringing all the food, tiny green caterpillars, and the female remained in the box for the most part, just looking out from the hole on one occasion.

Pied Flycatcher male at its nestbox
We left them and following the footpath eventually rejoined the main pathway with its attendant dog walkers, mountain bikers and families out to enjoy themselves. I felt a sense of loss at having left our secluded meadow and butterflies but we walked a half mile or so along the pathway but it was now hot and we were tired. An app. on my phone told me we had walked over four and a half miles so we called time and headed back to the car park, stopping to enjoy one last Small Pearl bordered Fritillary that was feeding on some bright yellow Horseshoe Vetch by the pathway.

At the car park I took some refreshment and then took out my bottle of 80% alcohol hand sanitizer. 'Cheers! ' came a voice from the car adjacent to mine as a man raised his bottle of sanitizer in acknowledgement.

These are strange times indeed.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Wood Whites in Northampton 24th May 2020

Butterflies possess a delicate and fragile beauty that makes them forever attractive. Combine this with the fact that they are, in the main, colourful and for the most part frequent unspoilt areas of habitat that are usually located in areas of great natural beauty and you can see why they prove irresistible to anyone with more than a passing interest in them.They somehow seem to recapture in our psyche an age of innocence, past times of childhood, imagined or not, that have long since vanished and the flash of colour when they open their wings cannot fail but to brighten the day.

Butterflies do not have personalities but each species is bestowed with its own behavioural characteristics that create the impression they do. Wood Whites are the smallest of our white butterflies and have a distinctive shape caused by their oval wings and long slim body. They have all white wings that show a faint shadow of grey on the undersides and both sexes possess a  smudge of black on their forewings. Wings which they only open in flight, as the minute they settle they are firmly closed. Small and creating an impression that they are as delicate as tissue they have a flight which is slow and hesitant, fluttering, almost constantly at ground level, through the stems and blades of grass.To fly a metre or so above the ground is, to a Wood White, the equivalent of taking a trip into the stratosphere and they forever dither along by the grass fringed tracks, the males looking for females to mate with, the females seeking out trefoils and vetches on which to lay their eggs.

Today, I went to meet Peter in a wood in Northamptonshire where we hoped to find Wood Whites which thrive here on a specially maintained habitat of grass verges, courtesy of The Forestry Commission.

Sadly our arrival coincided with the clouds rolling over, blown our way by a strong southwest wind. Hardly conducive to searching for butterflies. Nevertheless with the eternal optimism that is a pre requisite for any butterfly enthusiast in Britain's capricous weather we set off along the broad rides to find precisely nothing. You could hardly blame the butterflies which were no doubt hunkered down in the grass and vegetation, out of the wind and threatening rain.

Forty five minutes later after staring at countless blades of grass and flower buds, untroubled by sun, it began to rain and we sought shelter under the surrounding trees. For fifteen minutes it was very unpleasant as we stood and in my case getting increasingy chilled, wet and miserable. I had mistakenly worn shorts expecting sunshine but now the wind and rain whipped around my bare legs to add to my misery.

Looking to the heavens we could see further huge banks of ominous grey cloud but beyond was an expanding splash of blue, somewhere the sun was shining but would it come our way? We stood and waited as the blue patch with infinitesimal slowness edged towards us. Finally it was above us and with it came welcome sunshine. I felt the warmth on my skin and rejoiced as it looked like we were now in for a prolonged spell of sunny weather and our search for Wood Whites could recommence.

Expectantly we looked around for the butterflies taking to the wing but there was absolutely no sign of a butterfly apart from one Small White which disappeared into the forest.

Peter walked down a grass ride that was more sheltered from the wind and soon afterwards he hailed me with a shout that he had found a roosting Wood White, settled on a nettle leaf. 

Although complaining about the weather it had in fact, to an extent worked in our favour as it had made the butterflies lethargic and unresponsive, chilled by the cold and wind and now it would take them a little time to warm up and become active.

Wood White
We took the opportunity to photograph this oh so dainty insect as it clung to its leaf, apparently dead to the world. The warming sun soon persuaded another Wood White to take to the wing and it came on hesitant flight along the ride until it reached the roosting butterfly, whereupon it promptly landed right in front of it, head to head and the two communicated by regular rapid flicks of their wings, opening them for a fraction of a second then closing them. We presumed the roosting butterfly was a female and the other a male and the wing flicking was part of the male's courtship of the female. The wing flicking went on for a couple of minutes before the male gave up, realising its attentions were unwelcome and he moved on.

Male Wood White with wings spread molesting a female

A pair of Broad bodied Chaser dragonflies had also become active, sunning themselves on dead and broken bracken stalks. Dragonflies do not enthuse me as much as they do Peter but nonetheless they are attractively coloured insects although rather fearsome looking when examined closely.The stuff of nightmares but I have plenty of those at the moment thank you!

Broad bodied Chaser male

Broad bodied Chaser female
Slowly more Wood Whites emerged, their slow, ground hugging flight identifying them. We found others perched as well, looking transiently beautiful on blades of grass, Greater Stichwort and Tufted Vetch flowers.

These were the first brood of Wood Whites to emerge this year, there will be a second brood in July and August.

Wood Whites were the only butterfly we saw apart from a male Orange Tip which briefly settled to nectar on a vetch flower.

Orange Tip male
At around lunchtime we called it a day and it was just as well we did as an unwelcome and unpleasant heavy rain shower descended on the wood.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

An Abundance of Sanderlings 21st May 2020

This May has been exceptional for small waders arriving at Farmoor to briefly rest and feed  on their long northward migration. Dunlins, Ringed Plovers, Turnstones, Sanderlings and memorably no less than two Curlew Sandpipers have, so far this year, graced the concrete shores of this most inland of reservoirs.

I always assumed that bad weather would be the prerequisite for waders dropping in to Farmoor but I have been proved wrong as waders continue to arrive daily in the most pleasant of conditions. How many more must pass unseen, high overhead, taking a short cut across Britain to their northern destinations without putting down, can only be wondered about but it must be considerable. In an earlier post from two days ago I referred to my hope that the Sanderling passage would continue and I would get to see more of them and today I was not disappointed.

At ten this morning, which is when the reservoir now opens under its new covid restrictions, I scanned along the  southern edge of the causeway and was delighted to see a group of six small waders running along by the water's edge. Too far away to identify initially, I set off down the causeway to get closer  to them and in great anticipation of what I would discover. Dunlin probably, as they are the most frequent wader to visit here, but you never know it could be different this time.

I slowed my pace as I got nearer to the waders so as not to alarm them, then stopped and looked through my bins.To my great delight I found myself viewing no less than five Sanderling and one Dunlin. The five Sanderling were, typically, all in differing plumages, three quite pale still but the other two stood out as being darker due to their more rufous tones and one of these was the most colourful of all, possessing a rich rufous blush to its face and breast and with upperparts liberally suffused with a similar rufous colouration, the feathers with black chevrons in their centre creating a pleasing marbled effect. A Sanderling in its full summer breeding plumage and the holy grail as far as I was concerned. This was my reward for all those long unrequited trudges up and down the causeway, hoping, forever hoping it would happen and now it finally had. Here at last, a summer plumaged Sanderling on lowly Farmoor.

All six waders with the Dunlin on the left and five Sanderling showing the wide range of plumage they exhibited

The Sanderling was an absolute picture, a glory of rufous and white highlighted in the morning sunshine and more to the point only the second one in this advanced colourful plumage that I have seen at Farmoor, which made it even more pleasurable.

Now, if you will indulge me, there follows quite a lot of images of Sanderlings, well one in particular but hopefully its beauty will bring as much enjoyment as it did to me and convey my sheer delight at seeing both it and its companions so close to me on the causeway.

Thankfully they were not skittish, as some are that visit here, and they would allow me to walk right up to them provided I made no sudden movements. It was one of those moments when forlorn hope becomes reality  and I sat on the low retaining wall and watched and photographed them to my heart's content but not unnaturally my attention always drifted to the richly coloured individual as it fed on the weedy concrete.

It is always a conundrum coming to a definitive diagnosis of a Sanderling's plumage in Spring. Regarding the paler ones, which always predominate, are they just later in their moult or, as the books tell me, is it that some individuals will remain paler throughout the breeding season?

One of the paler Sanderling with hardly any rufous on its  head and upperparts apart from on some of the scapulars.
Note the unmoulted wing coverts and faded tertials.Will these be moulted or retained?

Two of the paler Sanderlings

A paler Sanderling at the front.The more colourful individual at the back

The two most colourful Sanderling together
But then it could be that they will all moult into rich rufous colours, like the one individual with them  today that was so markedly more coloured. Only one other Sanderling was approaching a similar colour but was not  so rich in tone or extent and consequently appeared duller in comparison.

The two most colourful Sanderling together with the brightest individual at the front
The sun continued to shine down as the Sanderlings communicated with each other by means of a quiet conversational twittering. The rufous Sanderling was a truly beautiful looking creature and I thanked my stars that I had this opportunity to see it. 

Sad to say the Dunlin  and the other Sanderlings hardly got a look in, as thoroughly distracted I feasted my eyes on the bright Sanderling but I can make no apology, as I knew not when this would happen again, if ever. Here today was a perfect combination of good weather, no disturbance and a group of totally confiding waders with one sensationally coloured individual amongst them. The last time I saw a Sanderling in plumage as advanced as this at Farmoor was many years ago, when it too was in a flock of paler individuals but was very wary and it was in wet and miserable conditions.

An enormous military aircraft from nearby RAF Brize Norton was practicing manoeuvres over the reservoir. It was a machine packed with wonderful and hugely expensive technology, tonnes of it held in the air by enormous screaming jet engines, a miracle of engineering and as I regarded its ominous amd threatening presence I turned to the Sanderlings, creatures of a natural evolution that has brought them to a delicate beauty and innocence, each weighing just grammes, their lives under constant threat but fearlessly embarking on a journey to the far ends of the earth, with no compass or navigation aids, possessing nothing but instinct, wings and feathers to get them there. The incongruity was not lost on me.

Today will live long in my memory. After an hour I left the Sanderlings to their meandering along the water's edge, having put the news out so others, quite rightly could come to see and photograph them.

For me it was all about this moment and a very special exclusive hour in their company. Where, I pondered will they stop next  to refuel and rest? North Uist in the Outer Hebrides maybe, before heading northwest out over the Atlantic, perhaps via Iceland before crossing to Greenland to breed or maybe across the North Sea to Scandinavia before heading east to the trackless wastes of Siberia?

It's still not the end of May. 

Dare I say it would be nice if a few more Sanderling came along to Farmoor. 

Please ...............