Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Counting butterflies

I love counting things - any thing - it doesn't have to be birds, plants, moths or butterflies. It could be books, or albums, or photographs. It is a bit of an illness really, a Tourette's of adding things up. I find myself automatically doing so when driving, having a bath, or, like this morning, out walking...

07.15hrs saw me on Park Downs and not only was it already warm, there were at least three figures of butterflies flying above the flower-rich grassland. These I had to count! A zig-zagging route was embarked upon, with care taken to not recount sections of meadow. My final tally was a bit of a shock as I'd recorded just over 1,000 Marbled Whites. They really were a sight, flitting just above the sward, some spiralling up in combat and then veering off into nearby scrub. They were skittish and didn't settle that easily. Also on the wing were Ringlet, Meadow Brown, Small Skipper, Small Heath and 4 Dark Green Fritillary. It was barely 09.00hrs.

I now had the bit between my teeth, so decided to walk the length of Chipstead Bottom, from Fames Rough in the west to the Holly Lane meadows in the east. It was memorable, as the flower-rich meadows held thousands of butterflies, a constant shimmering presence above the vegetation. This time there were more Meadow Browns (2,270) although the Marbled White count was an impressive 1,760. These are very much conservative counts, the true tallies must be much higher. I didn't ignore the plants, with the Hither Field and Valley Meadows holding a minimum of 3,500 Pyramidal Orchids. The abundance of flower, mainly Cat's-ear, Bird's-foot Trefoil, Yellow-rattle, Rock Rose, Hairy St. John's-wort, Red Clover, White Clover, Wild Thyme and various trefoils was outstanding.

Some people may question the value of putting a number to a species that is clearly impossible to count with pin-point accuracy. However, I feel that this is preferable to purely suggesting that a species is 'abundant' or 'present in hundreds' or 'low thousands'. What does that mean? 300? 500? 2,000? 10,000? At least giving a firm figure allows future naturalists/researchers a baseline. If I repeat the process next year I have something to compare it to - and so do other people. Apart from that, it's fun doing so. What can be better than wandering flower-rich chalk downland surrounded by butterflies?

Monday, 29 June 2015

A great flowering

Over the weekend I paid a brief visit to Banstead Downs. The amount of flower on show was terrific - locally we seem to be experiencing a great flowering at the moment, at least on our precious chalk downland. The most eye-catching was this Kidney Vetch, which will be good news for the Small Blue colony, as this is their food plant. There was plenty of Fairy Flax, Bird's-foot Trefoil and Dropwort also on show. The only slight downer was that the patch of Basil-Thyme (very local in Surrey) is much smaller this year. It seems to be getting crowded out by coarse grasses.

Friday, 26 June 2015

At last a Banstead Cypress Carpet

I've been expecting a Cypress Carpet to come along and pay me a visit here in Banstead for some time now. This species has become established (albeit patchily) across the south of England, and 'my' part of Surrey seems to be a bit of a stronghold. However, whereas other local lepidopterists to the north, south, east and west of me casually reel them in, I have failed - until last night (see above).

So, Cypress Carpet joins an ever increasing list of species that, back in 1987 when I first starting recording here, were but flights of fancy - Toadflax Brocade, Small Ranunculus, White-point, Tree-lichen Beauty and Jersey Tiger to name but five. What next?

Thursday, 25 June 2015

6250 and 354

The two 'orchid fields' at the northern end of Park Downs have really got to me. I have spent much of the last 36 hours wondering just how many orchids there actually are. After Tuesday's visit I put the Pyramidal Orchid figure at c3,000 and the Bee Orchid total at 100+. This morning I went back and counted them...

One person, even if they methodically criss-cross the two moderately-sized fields, is not going to come up with anything other than an approximation of the number of plants on show, but I can confidently claim that there are certainly no fewer than 6,250 Pyramidal and 354 spikes of Bee Orchid. Most of the former species are towards the top and middle of the fields and those of the latter at the base of the slope. In one small area (maybe 20m x 5m) I counted 114 Bee Orchids alone.

I didn't stop to look at much else, although was pleased to come across quite a bit of Smooth Tare, and butterfly numbers had picked up, mainly Meadow Browns and Marbled Whites.

If you live nearby it is certainly worth a visit. I will be going back for sure!

There were very few paler flowered Pyramidals
Many of the Bee Orchids are huge!

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

A bit more about Park Downs

You can read about Park Downs (and the work of the conservators) by clicking here.

I'm still bathing in the joy of yesterday's visit and will go back again very soon - there is much to see and plenty to find! A few more images from yesterday to give you more of a flavour of the place:

The northern boundary of the reserve. The yellow flower is Rough Hawk's-beard, a local Surrey species.
Looking south from the picture above. Most of the Bee and Pyramidal Orchids are in this general area.
Grassland detail. bejewelled with the crimson of Grass Vetchling flowers.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Park Downs orchid extravaganza

I was going to write a rambling account of the sheer joy of walking through an area of chalk downland where over 100 spikes of Bee Orchid and several thousand Pyramidal Orchids were on show. I thought the images would say far more than I could... Park Downs is just south-east of Banstead and well worth a visit. At the moment there is a spectacular botanical display that should not be missed. Apart from the orchids, I have never seen so much Dropwort in one place. Stunning.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Daughter's know best

Being a miserable git for a lot of the time, it is surprising that my wife and daughters still find the inclination to be kind to me. Today was Father's Day, one which I always tell them to not worry about - "a load of marketing tosh" - but each year they ignore me and shower me with gifts, cards and love. Today was no different, and after a breakfast accompanied by presents, they suggested a trip out to Pulborough Brooks RSPB reserve - I needed no persuasion!

The trip down was highlighted by a low-flying Red Kite in the Billingshurst area, and our arrival at Pulborough was accompanied by the sun coming out and a boost in the temperature. We initially wandered the heathland section where dogs (and our cocker spaniel) can walk. After a gourmet picnic lunch we then waved goodbye to wife/mother (and dog) so that Father and daughters could enter the reserve proper and head down to the edge of the brooks. Bird wise it was understandably quiet, but the plants made up for this with highlights being plenty of Corn Spurrey and a patch of Bugloss. A single Painted Lady was found amongst the more numerous Small Tortoiseshells. It was all most agreeable.

Back at the visitor centre we had to sample the famous (and excellent) cakes. Elder daughter Rebecca was also furnished with her first pair of binoculars, as she is going on an African safari later in the year, (where, I suggested, being without optics would be a terrible state of affairs). All I will have to do is come to terms with a mass gripping off in the autumn, when she returns home with tales of the wildlife that she will have seen! We came home via the Dog and Duck (and pint) at Kingsfold. What a lovely day - thanks girls!

Friday, 19 June 2015

New nature writing

I'm a sucker for books, particularly of natural history books, and especially those that could be termed as having a literary bent. In recent years the market has been flooded with them, coining the phrase 'new nature writing'. One of the architects of such works, Mark Cocker, has written an interesting piece about this subject for the New Statesmen. You can find it easily by clicking here.

My bedside table currently has three natural history books awaiting my attention: The Natural History of Selborne (Gilbert White), Island Going (Robert Atkinson - thanks Pete!) and Common Ground (Rob Cowen). Two of these are works from many years ago. Whether or not I am largely an avid reader of such publications because they invoke a sense of nostalgia is a moot point - but the prerequisite of any book worthy of my (or your) attention should be that they are well written. I think it is fair to say that the level of penmanship in this particular field of subject is very high indeed.

It is said that we all possess within us a book. In idle moments I fantasise about writing one, with nature being a central theme. But when you cast your eyes across what has already appeared, it will take a great leap of faith to actually do so.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Black-veined Moth and more about Bordered Straws

Last week I visited Wye Downs in Kent, primarily to search for a very rare moth indeed. The Black-veined Moth is currently known from maybe four sites in East Kent and can vary in numbers from year to year. My visit coincided with the early part of its flight season, and what with the day being bright and warm (if a touch breezy) I thought that my chances of success were good.

However, after an hour of searching, and seeing very few moths and butterflies in the process, I started to prepare myself for the dreaded dip. But then, as often happens at such moments, a single Black-veined Moth gave itself up as it flushed from an area of rough grassland at the bottom of a steep sloped valley (see above). I obtained very good views as it settled in front of me, but each time I brought the camera to the moth it decided to fly on. After several such interactions I felt it morally wrong to harry such an endangered species so made do with observing this striking creature.

Nearby were several Late Spider Orchids. Always a pleasure...

I seem to have touched the nerve (in a mild-mannered way) of several much valued visitors to this blog by voicing my displeasure at the use of multiple Bordered Straw images in social media. Just to give you some hard figures, in the past 24 hours my Twitter feed has seen 11 images of said species uploaded, joining the 53 that had been on show over the previous six days! I do accept that on a personal blog the posting of Bordered Straw images is understandable - a blog can (and should) give us an insight into the writers feelings and thoughts towards the natural world and is a platform where they can also share the highs and lows of pursuing this most wonderful of subjects. Twitter, on the other hand, should be used as a vehicle for disseminating information (in my opinion), rather than a vehicle for certain individuals to gum up the twitter feed with self-centred twaddle - and that includes posting yet another image of the moth in question. For what purpose? By all means let us know that you are still catching them (that is of interest, even to a cynical old git like me), but why then attach an image to the post? We know what they look like. Originality seems to have died and been replaced with a very large flock of sheep. I know, I could just look the other way or unfollow them, but a lot of this stuff gets re-tweeted by others. I'll stop now, I ranted about all of this a few posts ago.

I'll leave you all with just one last thing:

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Bordered Bores

Bordered Straws - don't you just hate 'em? That is, on the surface, a bloody stupid thing to write, but at the moment I am suffering from Bordered Straw overload. Every other tweet or post seems to possess an image of the bloody moth. I can understand the thrill of trapping your first one and wanting to share it with the world, but after a while it becomes so mind-numbingly boring. I've seen quite a few in 'real life' over the past week, even taking a few pictures of them, but you will not be seeing any of them on this blog...

My lack of recent posts is down to laziness and a week-long sojourn on the hallowed shingle. Marks out of ten - Birds (5), Plants (6), Moths (7), People (9). I did escape the peninsula to go and look for a very rare resident moth, which I will post about very soon indeed - you might even see the odd picture as accompaniment - but not of the target species...

So, what can I say about Dungeness over the past seven days? The numbers of butterflies were low, dragons and damsels were just starting to grow in volume, there was some interesting insect migration, certain plants were flowering in profusion (particularly English Stonecrop and Broom), but most were late or in poor show. Whatever is going on in the natural world, it is a magical place. I spent plenty of time just wandering and pontificating (to myself), soaking up the sun and bathing the soul in the spiritual warmth that I get from the place. Psued's Corner? Maybe, but I don't need to apologise for being a firm supporter and advocate of the place.

Friday, 5 June 2015

It's a bit like 1996

Here in Banstead it's sunny, warm and muggy. There has been single Silver Y and xylostella in the MV and a Painted Lady has briefly alighted on a patch of Red Valerian in the front garden. I'm getting a strong feeling of deja-vu... (cue shimmering visuals)

On the morning of 7th June 1996 I was surprised to see 10+ Painted Lady on the front garden Red Valerian (yes, the very same patch) - there had been just the one the previous day. I was still slightly dazed from processing the MV catch, which had provided a Gem (!), 25 Silver Y and 23 xylostella. It was the first night that more than one migrant species had been recorded that year. Needless to say, my switching on of the MV that evening was done with much anticipation. I was not to be disappointed.

When I inspected the trap the following morning I felt as if I had been transported into a parallel universe, as a glance at the very first egg box revealed THREE Bordered Straw. What was going on? And there were another three within, together with 93 Silver Y, 48 xylostella, 5 noctuella plus a single Dark-sword Grass. I wandered around the garden in a state of shock. That same afternoon I visited the meadows in nearby Nork Park, where, in an hours trawl of the three fields, I recorded 2,000 Silver Y, 50+ Painted Lady and 2 Clouded Yellow. Unbelievable!

Over the next few nights the trap still enticed good numbers of Silver Y, xylostella and noctuella, a further 2 Bordered Straw turned up on the 11th, with singles on the 12th and 19th. As the month wore on, the migrant numbers died away, although the odd Pearly Underwing joined in with the festivities. My little bit of north Surrey had become a coastal headland for a few precious days. I'm still waiting for such a concentration of migrants to happen here again.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Let the clearwing season begin!

Any long-suffering and regular visitor to this blog will most probably be aware of my poor track record with pheromone lures. So far, in two years of trying, I have only managed to entice Six-belted Clearwing. I have questioned my timing, the weather and the lures themselves, but have been stopped from throwing them away in a fit of pique by other lepidopterists, who have also admitted to finding the success rate as being a bit hit-and-miss (we will ignore those clever-clogs who seem to haul in hundreds of the bloody things just by thinking about hanging a lure up).

This morning was relatively warm, the cloud was parting to allow the sun to peak through from time to time and a gentle breeze came from the south-west. It might be early in the clearwing season, but the odd one has been reported, so I threw caution to the wind and headed over to the Carshalton area of northern Surrey, where I knew of two nailed-on sites. I was joined by the man on-the-spot, Derek Coleman.

Carshalton Park was our first stop, where a number of very old Sweet Chestnuts play host to Yellow-legged Clearwing. We tried several trees over a couple of hours, but nothing came. Maybe a bit early? Maybe my jinx was continuing into 2015? The trees here are incredible specimens, gnarled and twisted into shapes not seen outside of Tolkien novels. I will return later in the year.

Our next stop was a small wetland reserve nearby. The FOR lure was hung up more in hope than expectation, but as often happens when you aren't really trying, everything came together - within 10 minutes, at least one (and possibly two) Red-tipped Clearwings flew in to have a look. I actually netted one, but it escaped before I could pot it up, hence no pictures. A good start to the clearwing season.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Wear a Pom with pride!

Alexander McQueen? Paul Smith? Ted Baker? These fashion houses better mind their backs and move aside because there's a new kid in town - Dungeness Bird Observatory! The warden and the committee have poached the best young designers in Europe to produce the 2015 'Pom Collection', which was launched at a star-studded, invitation-only soiree held in The Britannia Inn car park last month.

For modest and affordable prices you can own one (or all) of the Pomarine Skua range - polo shirt (£15), sweat shirt (£20) and fleece (£25). And you can have any colour that you like, as long as that colour is black. They come in S, M, L, XL and XXL. Knowing the birding demographic, the sales of S and M will most probably be poor, as most birders are (a) middle-aged and (b) overweight - therefore the stock of L - XXL will be kept topped up! If you want to purchase any of these desirable garments (and why wouldn't you want to support one of the UK's foremost ornithological establishments), you can place orders by emailing Dave Walker at dungenessobs@vfast.co.uk

I will be taking to the catwalk to show off the clothing when I return to the shingle later this month. Rumours that the launch of the DBO 'boxer and thong' range is imminent has been strongly denied.

Snow stopped play

I've had a lie down and have almost recovered from my rant. It would be easy to embark on another one, aimed at 'Flaming June' and suggesting that we could rename it 'Freezing June', but will desist. The news channels have been reminding us that unseasonal weather is not a modern day phenomena and have unearthed footage from forty years ago to this very day - June 2nd 1975 for the slow among us - when snow fell. The Met Office says:

Scattered sleet and snow showers were reported in East Anglia and the Midlands and even penetrated as far south as the London area. This was the first time since 1888 that snow and sleet had been reported as widely so far south during the summer. Several county cricket matches were abandoned due to snow, the most notable were between Essex and Kent at Castle Park, Colchester and between Derbyshire and Lancashire at Buxton. Strong to gale force winds, occasionally severe on coasts, occurred in Scotland and Northern Ireland with many places reporting gusts in excess of 40 knots. 

I've just looked in my 1975 notebook and I made no mention of the weather, just that some young Blue Tits had left the nest box in the back garden.

Want something summery? How about an Adonis Blue from the archives. I bet that there are more than a few of them wondering why they bothered to emerge...