Sunday 29 June 2014

Staying local 29th June 2014

Sunday morning and the rain and cloud of yesterday had been replaced by milder and sunnier weather this morning. I wake early these days so was out of bed and on the road by 7.30 am making my way to Dry Sandford Pit, a BBOWT reserve a few miles south of Oxford that I had never visited before.

After a minor problem with the directions I  found myself driving into the tiny and well hidden car park that served the reserve. Leaving the car I entered the reserve through a small gate. Some of the reserve is wooded but there is an area of fen that I was looking for as it harbours  hundreds of Marsh Helleborines, a plant I had not seen before. It was only a few hundred metres when I came across the small area of fen and made my way somewhat precariously into the heart of the fen following an obvious track.

Marsh Helleborines were everywhere I looked and well worth my coming to see. A medium height plant of such delicate beauty with waxy white flowers coloured deep pink, almost mauve on the inside of the petals, the individual flowers growing in profusion up the flower stalk. 

Marsh Helleborines
The reserve like many BBOWT reserves is a small understated gem. The kind of place that you feel is almost a well kept secret but once known you feel better for being aware of its existence. I  sat on a bench overlooking the fen and just enjoyed the sunshine and the profusion of helleborines and orchids growing below me in the boggy fen. A buddleia opposite me was in full bloom and its sweet scent perfumed the early morning air and the profusion of flower spikes, heavy and purple had attracted a family of Blue Tits as well as a few ChiffChaffs, presumably finding many insects lured to the flower spikes by the honeyed scent. A male Blackcap warbled loudly, his grey throat swelling as he sang and his grey underparts turning almost silver in the morning sunlight. I sat for a while in contemplation and quiet contentment. A Red Admiral, all bright primary colours, settled on a hazel leaf, its garish appearance almost crude compared to the delicate beauty I had just encountered with the helleborines.

Marbled Whites and Meadow Browns jigged their random paths across the fen and a Small Skipper absorbed the sun's energy as it perched on a dead stem.

One knows the time to move on and for me it came with the first dog walker. The spell was broken but for an hour I had enjoyed this quiet corner, hopefully preserved forever  by the excellent work done by the many volunteers who clear the scrub each year to preserve the fen and thereby the helleborines and orchids and all the other delicate life forms that rely on the reserve's existence.

I moved on. Back briefly onto busy roads around Oxford before finding leafy sanctuary in Bernwood Forest. I love this place, the quiet of the woods on either side of the wide track running through it is soothing and gives a sense of permanence and peace. I walked slowly along its mile and a half length but today there were no Purple Emperors, possibly because it was a little early in the year although I had seen one here, albeit briefly, earlier in the week. However that other gem of these woods, the Silver Washed Fritillary was now well on the wing. 

Silver washed Fritillaries
Huge, powering along in fast swooping and swerving flight along the woodland edge and through the glades, their bright ginger forms passed me at great speed on their unknown quest. Occasionally one landed on a bramble to feed, almost orange in the strong sunlight as it fed on the pink tinged white flowers. A brief flicker higher up in an oak brought my attention to another fast flier and restless examiner of the woods. A White Admiral. It settled briefly on a leaf and then was gone into the depths of the wood. I wandered back to the car and made for my last stop. 

Parsonage Moor, another BBOWT Reserve and yet another little gem of a reserve is not far from Dry Sandford Pit. I walked along the boardwalk through the reeds and came to a runnel, a narrow channel of sluggish flowing water with boggy margins and sure enough there was a male Keeled Skimmer as there always is. His slim, powder blue body borne on gauze like wings. He flew towards me as if in examination of my presence and then returned low over the barely discernible trickling waters to settle on the vegetation, turning his wings to the sun. 

Male Keeled Skimmer
Southern Damselflies teetered as if constantly unsure of themselves over the marshy ground and water, some in mating pairs, others single and unattached. Their delicate beauty mirrored the fragile habitat that but for the voluntary work carried on here every year would be unable to sustain them.

Southern Damselflies mating
Male Southern Damselfly
I wandered further along a grassy track surrounded by reeds and marsh thistles. An exotic combination of red, black and cream caught my eye resting like a jewel in the grass at the base of the reeds. It was a moth, its brightness exotic and unexpected amongst the more mundane green surroundings  It was a Scarlet Tiger and as it took off to wing its way up into a willow the red underwings shone, startling in their brightness.

Scarlet Tiger
That was my day done. Simple pleasures are sometimes the best.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

I've got the Blues 25th June 2014

With a continuation of this beautiful sunny weather I cancelled plans for a lie in and decided on a whim to venture into that part of The Cotswolds that lies over the border from us in Gloucestershire. I had heard that Large Blue's were on the wing at Daneway Banks Nature Reserve, a Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust Reserve between Cirencester and Stroud. This was an easy trip for me of less than thirty miles so at around 10am I was being guided by the Satnav down deep cleft, narrow country lanes that were green with overhanging branches and dappled in sunlight  until I came to a tiny car park with room for no more than five cars at the bottom of a beautiful wooded valley. I walked over the old canal bridge and climbed the stile into the reserve.

Entrance to the Reserve
The Large Blue butterfly slope
Before me lay a steep open slope, a wonderful example of limestone grassland covered in summer grasses and a profusion of wild flowers. A sight to gladden the heart and soul. I was entirely alone as I wandered up and through the bounteous summer abundance manifesting itself on all sides. Marbled Whites like exotic chequer boards lolloped through the grasses settling on clover and thyme to feed. Meadow Browns, those mundane, ill considered members of the lepidopteran world jinked and bounced along through the waving grass stems and a smart Six spot Burnet Moth examined a Field Scabious but where were the Blues?

Marbled White
Meadow Brown

Six Spot Burnet Moth on Field Scabious
I wandered further up the bank through bright yellow patches of Lady's Bedstraw, careful not to tread on the many Pyramidal Orchids, their cerise purple, cone shape flower heads glowing bright amongst the green stems.

Pyramidal Orchid
I found an anthill, home to the Yellow Meadow Ant. I am not sure if this is the ant that is vital to the Large Blue's life cycle as I always thought it was a particular species of red ant that was necessary but in any case the young caterpillars secrete a solution which persuades the ants to carry them to their nest and the caterpillars then feed on the ant grubs before they pupate in the ant's nest, with the adult butterfly eventually emerging from the ant's nest to dry its wings and then fly.

Nest of Yellow Meadow Ant
There was still no sign of a Large Blue as I walked through the swaying grasses until what looked like a small pale blue leaf  on the stem of a seeding Goat's Beard caught my eye. I looked closer and joy of joy I  had found a Large Blue, in fact not one but two, a mating couple, clinging stoically in unison to the seeding stem. I sat beside them in the cool grass and admired the intricate patterning on their underwings and their sheer size. Much bigger than I imagined and quite unmistakeable. 

Large Blues mating
Now I wanted to see one with its wings open. These two would be here for ages so I set off again criss-crossing the bank in a quest for another Large Blue. They were, frankly, hard to find but then one flew past me, moving fast just above the grass heads and disappeared. I had an impression of a steel blue coloured butterfly slightly darker in tone than its cousins. I tried to follow but it was gone. I waited and then saw one fluttering over some Wild Thyme, their food plant. Cautiously I approached it and there at last I was looking down on a Large Blue, now feeding on the thyme with its wings spread open to the sun. It is hard to describe the sheer elation at seeing, after so many years, a butterfly I never seriously considered I would ever see in the wild like this. The distinctive black spots on the blue forewings were no longer something I dreamed about in fanciful moments. Here they were on the living insect a few feet from me! I savoured every moment watching this very rare buttterfly brought back from the brink of extinction in England by the dedication of enthusiasts and involving a huge conservation effort. The population on this particular reserve was re-introduced in 1999 and is now thriving although by no means from what I could see, in large numbers. After my initial encounters I found one other mating couple plus other single Large Blues, some of which were obviously females laying eggs on the buds of Wild Thyme. Their fat, furry, silver bodies curled over and pressed into the thyme buds. During my visit lasting about two hours I think I saw seven or eight including two mating couples. 

Large Blues on Wild Thyme

Female Large Blue egg laying on its foodplant Wild Thyme

No one else came while I was there and I was left to myself, almost in a reverie, to wander the slope looking for Large Blue's. What a pleasure, what a completely satisfying and uplifting way to spend a sunny morning in such beautiful and tranquil surroundings. To make life even more bearable just on the other side of the narrow lane was The Daneway, a country pub with a garden overlooking the valley. I finished my day with a pint in the pub garden.

Monday 23 June 2014

Whixall Moss NNR 22nd June 2014

This wonderful summer weather continues. Today, I determined to seize this fair weather opportunity to seek out what would be for me, two new insects, and made a plan to go to Whixall Moss NNR which is in North Shropshire near the Welsh border. There was no real need to get up extra early as dragonflies and butterflies are not active until the sun warms them up. So at 7am I found myself sitting in the courtyard of our garden drinking tea and consuming a slice of marmite toast before setting off. The air was still fresh from the cool of the night and the gentle early morning sunlight benign as I sat with the sensuous scent of our old fashioned roses coming to me on the air. It has been such a good year for roses and I rejoice in their subtle perfumes and beauty.

Everything was imbued with that early morning renewed freshness that arrives unnoticed overnight but is dispelled soon enough as the rising sun increases in strength and inexorably sucks the moisture from the air and land.

Whither Whixall Moss? Well this is the home of a rare dragonfly, the White faced Darter, the male a really dapper looking creation of scarlet and black with an all white face. As a bonus Whixall Moss is also home to the Large Heath butterfly, increasingly threatened by loss of habitat and although not  nearly so showy as the darter is imbued with a subtle beauty and understated charm all of its own.

Two hours later I found myself in the small car park that leads to Whixall Moss NNR. I have never been to this corner of England before and knew nothing about Whixall Moss. All my preconceptions proved wildly inaccurate. Whixall Moss straddles the English border near Whitchurch in England and Wrexham in Wales and is immense, being 675 hectares to be precise and forms the third largest area of raised bog wilderness in Britain. It has been rescued after coming close to destruction from large scale commercial peat cutting and drainage for agriculture and forestry. Twenty two years of subsequent conservation effort have safeguarded its wonderful boggy biodiversity for future generations. Now it supports 2500 species of plants and animals of which more than two hundred are insects, including ninety six rare or vulnerable ones. I had come in search of two of the rare or vulnerable ones

Having little idea where to start I addressed some gentle enquiries to a local enthusiast in the car park who was kind enough to give me directions as to where to find the White faced Darters.There are many boggy pools and stretches of water hidden amongst the vast acres of The Moss but one in particular is the pool favoured by the darters. I also enquired about the Large Heath butterflies but was told it was a little early for them to appear.

I set off into the wilds of the reserve following the tracks and directions I had been given. A short walk through some deciduous woodland produced my first butterflies of the day with  many Ringlets and Meadow Browns jinking along the woodland edge over the grasses. The occasional Large Skipper zipped around and a Speckled Wood sunned itself on a dappled leaf. I came eventually to the wide open spaces of The Moss proper and followed an open track through The Moss for about half a mile.

Whixall Moss
Here, contrary to what I had been told I found my first Large Heath butterflies, bouncing and fluttering their erratic way across the track and away into the boggy wastes either side of the track. Mid June is at the beginning of their flight season so presumably I was lucky and my visit had coincided with a major hatch of this butterfly. It was folly to try to follow them as you would just sink up to your knees in water and bog if you left the track so I had to just hope one would settle near the track. There were good numbers of Large Heaths but they never seemed inclined to settle and restlessly pursued their random wanderings, low across the bog. Finally one settled but deep in the grasses although I could still see the attractive patterning on the underwings as it rested, clinging to a grass stem. Similar to the more common Small Heath but somewhere between the size of these and a Meadow Brown their underwings are a pleasing combination of a row of black spots surrounded by white rings on a base colour of white, dark grey and various shades of brown. At Whixall they are at the southernmost limit of their range. It was good to see so many of this increasingly scarce butterfly. Over the day I managed to see a few more that were clinging to grasses and photographable but the vast majority of the hundred or so I saw were forever on the move.

Large Heath.

Southern populations have spots on the underwings whereas in Scotland the spots are absent whilst there are gradations in between the two population extremes. At the end of the track I turned left and there before me was the small sphagnum bog pool with areas of black peat water that harboured the White faced Darters.  

The White faced Darter pool
I saw one almost immediately, zooming across the surface and finally settling on a sun baked patch of earth by the pool. The pool was surrounded by temporary decking  to allow presumably dragonfly enthusiasts to get close to the pool without sinking up to their knees in the bog. There appeared to be between seven or eight darters using this pool. Each male patrolling a territorial patch, daintily hovering and then darting hither and thither to challenge another male. Constantly restless and sensitive to any sudden movement, this required me to move very slowly or just stand quietly and wait for them to come closer. I saw only two females, one resting and another mating in the wheel position. These latter two spent most of their time in the nearby bushes and bracken as did a lone male. Apparently the female once mated separates and deposits her eggs in the watery patches of the pool.

White faced Darters mating
Male White faced Darter
The males from distance look small and black and it is only when you get closer or look though binoculars that you can see their true beauty.The head is strikingly white whilst the thorax is black with a large amount of crimson markings. The abdomen is also black but with two splashes of orange red about two thirds of the way down.Very smart indeed.

Male White faced Darter
Four Spot Chaser and White faced Darter using same perch
White faced Darters mating
The pool was also inhabited by a couple of Four Spot Chasers which in typical fashion darted constantly at high speed around the pool for no apparent reason before coming to rest on a prominent perch.

Four Spot Chasers
Tiny, delicate blue damselflies floated around the edge of the boggy pool, almost ethereal, seemingly floating on air like tiny blue needles.

Azure Blue Damselflies mating
I spent around an hour here just enjoying a new and very beautiful dragonfly. I was virtually alone for most of the time conscious of the vast boggy wastes stretching away around me on all sides. Curlews trilled evocatively in the distance, Reed Buntings sang monotonously and a Hobby flew after dragonflies high over The Moss. It was enchanting.

A Frog made me start leaping in the grass as I left the pool to walk further into The Moss, following firm paths through the bog.

Common Frog
Nearby was a larger area of open water criss-crossed by many dashing Four Spot Chasers, the true busy bodies of the dragonfly world, inquisitive and nosy, investigating anything and everything that comes into their range. A hysterical torrent of high pitched notes betrayed the presence of a Little Grebe hidden deep within the waterside sedges and a Teal swam hurriedly away from me over the black water.

Further on yet another hidden pool was only made known to me by the entertaining dive bombing of a raucous Black Headed Gull which presumably had young hidden somewhere on the pool and objected to my presence. Its attention was soon diverted to a passing Carrion Crow and accompanied by its mate they saw the crow off in no uncertain manner.

I came across many other similar boggy and peaty pools, their waters black and still, almost sinister and all populated by the ubiquitous Four Spot Chaser and inumerable blue damselflies which appeared to be a combination of Common and Azure Blue Damselflies with occasionally a Large Red Damselfly in amongst them by the waters edge.

Large Red Damselflies
I walked on further into The Moss,reflecting you could spend days here and still not do it justice.To be alone, surrounded by the quiet and to feel so peaceful on this beautiful day was sheer delight.

Some strange square wire baskets drew my attention and I walked out to them to discover they were part of a World War Two defence plan. This area went under the unlikely name of a Strategic Starfish Site. When the German bombers were trying to pound Britain into submission in the early years of the war the baskets in the middle of nowhere would be lit to fool the bombers into thinking this was the target, diverting them away from the nearby Liverpool Docks and industrial areas of Merseyside

Throughout my wanderings I never found another pool that had White faced Darters but then in the early afternoon I took another turning, following another track and after a while came across some old peat excavations, many of the square patches now overgrown and clogged with moss and boggy plants but two still filled with water. The first looked ideal but just to show how little I knew was devoid of any darters but crammed with Four Spot Chasers, each male aggressively defending his patch in fast flights a few feet above the water, occasionally clashing with another male, the noise of their wings scraping each other plainly audible. I left this pool and went to the other water filled patch and here I met with more success finding one male White faced Darter patrolling the pool but unfortunately found another, long dead, enmeshed in a spider's web.

It was now early afternoon. I had been walking The Moss for five hours and was feeling the heat. Misadventure had resulted in my getting a bootful of water and inumerable insect bites on my bare legs but I didn't really care. I sat, tired but happy and watched the antics of the Four Spot Chasers careering crazily around and across the pool. A female was ovipositing her eggs into the water delicately dipping her bottom into the water, creating circles of ripples as she deposited each egg.

Ovipositing Four Spot Chaser
As I watched a larger dragonfly rose from the base of some juncus on the opposite side of the narrow pool and shot vertically skywards to a great height. It was a Common Hawker and some innate sense told me it had just emerged. I looked at the base of the juncus from which it had arisen and could just see the larval case from which it had emerged clinging to the base of a thin reed. From beast to beauty. From water to air. Free.

A Garden Warbler throatily sang from the birches behind me and a group of twenty or so dragonfly enthusiasts guided by a very knowledgeable young lady arrived. I tagged on for a while in the hope of learning something and indeed I did. The lady knew her stuff and imparted a wealth of facts about dragonflies and even located another larval case of a Common Hawker to show us.

I also learnt that this is a good place for Black Darters which should be hatching any day now. So me and my good friend Badger, who could not make it today will undoubtedly be returning here sooner rather than later.

Until next time ..........................