Friday, 20 July 2018

Fritillary surprise!

Standing by the back door, a cup of tea in hand and idly looking out at the butterflies that were attracted to next door's Buddleia, my alarm bells went off when a large orange butterfly alighted. I had my suspicions as to what it was, but it was just too far away to be certain with the naked eye. After swiftly fetching the binoculars and bridge camera, and grateful that the butterfly was still present, I was able to confirm that it was indeed a Silver-washed Fritillary! Needless to say, a garden first.

Another that I've been expecting.

Oak Processionary. A moth to strike terror into the heart of the general public...

In Southern Europe, where the species naturally occurs, the ecosystem is balanced so that the moths have natural predators to keep the numbers under control, but further north - where due to slow expansion and accidental introduction - there is not. This species can take over areas and cause human suffering via irritant hairs that are found on the caterpillars, (which can break off and become airborne, finding their target with ease).

Since 2006 an increasing number of records have come from south-west London, and, even with council controls such as spraying infected trees, the expansion creeps on. Until today I had not recorded the moth at the garden MV, but this morning one finally turned up. Along with Box Moth, a garden addition that is not really good news.

Back in 1987, when I first switched the Banstead garden moth trap on, I would have laughed out loud with incredulity if someone had told me that by 2018 the following would be resident: Tree-lichen Beauty, Jersey Tiger, Toadflax Brocade, Small Ranunculus, White-point and Cypress Carpet. And they're just the species that come right off the top of my head...

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

The sound of destruction

A cooler and cloudier morning than of late. I took a very laid back stroll along the minor road that runs down the middle of Canons Farm. Quite a few sluggish butterflies were on the wing, including this Comma (above). In the still air the quiet was punctuated by a small amount of bird song, including three singing Yellowhammers (below). It was altogether restful and the lack of action barely mattered. This peace was, however, soon sullied. Machinery was started up and the noise emanating from it crept closer. I knew what it would be before I saw it, and when it finally appeared around the corner of a mature hedgerow my fears were confirmed - a tractor armed with a hedgerow cutter. This lump of metal was levelled against the sides of the verdant vegetation and the growth torn off, leaving ragged, broken branches and chomped leaves. There is nothing careful about this procedure, it is a rape of the growth. The flora at the base of the hedge was also cruelly destroyed.

What of the birds still nesting? Obviously they do not count. The RSPB suggest that hedges are not cut back between March and August. Section 1 of The Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 states that is an offence to intentionally take, damage or destroy a nest of any wild bird when it is in use or being built. The person(s) who ordered this cutting back will, if challenged, deny any knowledge of birds nesting, so that there could be no intention in their actions. Today is July 18th, and it is almost inconceivable that several hundred metres of healthy hedge would not have birds nesting in it. Our wildlife needs all the help it can get. It hasn't had much help this morning.

Monday, 16 July 2018

In the footsteps of Darwin

Nestled in the charming Kent countryside, close to the village of Downe, Down House was the private residence of Charles Darwin, between 1842-82 - it is now owned by English Heritage and is open to the public. Today, after too many years of not having visited, this was corrected as together with eldest daughter Rebecca we went on a pilgrimage to pay our respects to the great man.

The rooms of the house are mostly accessible, with the first floor largely taken up by a splendid exhibition which charts his life and works. The experience is made all the more intimate by being able to visit several of the family rooms in which he spent so much time with his many children, something which he willingly did in an era when fathers were not predisposed to do so. Best of all was his study, a sizeable room packed out with books, tables, cabinets, jars, specimens and the additional paraphernalia used in the study of the natural world. Apparently his routine was to work at his studies for six hours, then take a midday walk before breaking for lunch at one o'clock, (his main meal of the day), which would often be in the company of some of the many vistors to the house - Darwin and his wife were willing and able hosts. As an avid letter writer and a man of local standing (he was a JP) his afternoons and evenings would have been taken care of.

The grounds are wonderful - an amalgamation of walled cottage garden, wild and weedy strips, vegetables and fruit, woodland and hot-houses - home to many of his experiments over the forty years that he lived here. Nearby is the famous 'sand walk', a circular path that he strode on a daily basis for exercise of the body and of the mind, deep in thought and wrestling with his theories as to the workings of the natural world. I cannot say that we ambled along the track with such lofty aims, but were certainly lost in the ambience that the welcome shade and warm air offered, together with the clouds of butterflies that were present wherever the sun broke through.

You don't have to be an admirer of Darwin to thoroughly enjoy a visit, but if you are then it is an enhanced experience - to walk in his footsteps, look upon his many artefacts, read his notebooks, stand in the rooms in which he played, studied and died. We arrived early and were often the only two people in a room. It was as if the great man had just popped out for a stroll around his beloved 'sand walk' and would be back any minute.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

A colonising species

Last year I posted about the first garden records of the micro-moth Blastobasis rebeli. Over the course of July 2017 four individuals were recorded, and these may well have been the first records for Surrey. This morning another two appeared at the MV. It now seems more than likely that they are now resident in the area. It is still a rare moth across most of southern England, with a sprinkling of records in Hampshire and Sussex, and the first for Kent appeared last week. As for Surrey? It would seem unlikely that they are not already elsewhere. I think it's fair to suggest that we will all be seeing a lot more of Blastobasis rebeli...

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Hedya salicella

Micro moths can be, and often are, overlooked. They can be too small, too numerous and too alike. But we are lucky nowadays as there are many sources of reference that are added to each and every day, both in print and particularly on-line. Digital photography has enabled the most modest of budgets to produce crystal-clear and detailed images of the moths, not only to be used as an immediate tool to identify the species but also to add to this reference body. It still takes effort to build up a working knowledge of them and not all are identifiable on external features alone, but most can be. Above is Hedya salicella, which is quite distinctive and fairly straight forward to identify (so I am led to believe!). If it were the size of a Large Yellow Underwing then it would be celebrated, but its modest size relegates it somewhat. This individual appeared in the garden MV trap this morning and, although a common moth, it is the first that I've recorded. I'm rather taken with it, especially those chocolate-brown tufts on the thorax!

Friday, 13 July 2018

A meandering walk to a book shop

Epsom town centre is but a five minute drive from home, or a twenty minute walk away. When I visit I normally choose 'shank's pony' over the car for several reasons - fitness, boosting my green credentials and the chance to do a bit of nature watching on the way. This morning I wanted to go to Waterstones to buy a bit of summer reading - I'm old fashioned that way, I like to actually pick up objects that I want to buy, to feel them and look at them rather than order them online - and would, by the way, normally choose an independent bookseller over a chain, but Epsom does not have one. But I digress...

There are a number of routes to take into Epsom town centre, and the one I took was extremely rambling, taking in a good section of Epsom Downs, then the historical old part of town which is full of Georgian and Victorian architecture, cottage gardens and mature trees. My trusty compact camera came along 'just in case'. I'm glad it did.

It was cloudy as I crossed the parched grassland of the downs, so the few Chalkhill Blues that were active were quite sluggish, enabling close approach.

I was delighted to come across a healthy clump of naturalised Red Bistort (Persicaria amplexicaulis) growing amongst the nettles, brambles and various tree saplings on a roadside verge as I entered the town. I do like these 'escapees'.

I arrived at the bookshop, buoyed by my natural history interlude. What did I purchase? 'The Magus' by John Fowles and 'Underworld' by Don Delilo. I'll let you know what I think.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Boys from the brown stuff

Today it was a pleasure to welcome Beddington Sewage Farm stalwarts Peter Alfrey and Kevin Guest onto the chalk for a botanical foray. A start at Epsom Downs provided Cypress Spurge and Round-headed Rampion, with butterflies also highlighting with a second-generation Small Blue and plenty of Chalkhill Blues. We then continued onto Mickleham and a scour of Juniper Bottom. The orchids were largely over, although there were a few Broad-leaved Helleborines in bud. Corn Mint (below) was a pleasant find, along with plenty of Silver-washed and Dark Green Fritillaries, plus one Purple Emperor which flew down the middle of the path and straight through us.

The slopes of Box Hill at the zig-zag were a great disappointment, with the parched ground not a great place for much flower or insect activity. We cut our losses and headed to the River Mole at Young Street, where a combination of cool shade and watery aspect cooled us down. Botanical highlights included Small Teasel (below), Arrowhead and Branched Bur-reed. A rather showy Silver-washed Fritillary (top) and a host of dragonflies and damselflies were a good end to a day that had been rather compromised by the hot dry spell.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

The Mocha

With the hot weather continuing so does the incidence of moths wandering away from their 'normal' haunts. After yesterday's two Kent Black Arches I was delighted to find this superb Mocha in the MV - another addition to the back garden list. This often happens, a run of consecutive nights when new species are recorded here in Banstead. It is as if there is a shift in the air above the garden, bringing in a conveyor belt of moths that originate from exotic places.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Kent Black Arches

In the last post I mentioned this as a species that was cropping up in nearby MV traps, and this morning, after 31 years of recording, not one but two individuals finally showed up in the back garden MV.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Recent moths

The garden MV continues to throw up a number of species that are of irregular occurrence here in Banstead, such as Large Emerald, Four-dotted Footman, Waved Black, Grey Arches and Minor Shoulder-knot. There are also a number of species popping up in traps in the wider area - which include Kent Black Arches and Red-necked Footman - that I would only be too pleased to welcome to Banstead. And while we are mentioning 'missing from the garden list' moths, any Oak Processionary moth that might be flying over also has an open invite.

Large Emerald - just about annual 
Old Lady - as big as your palm

The Shark - what a quiff!

Yellow-tail. You can see where it gets its name

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

1976 and all that

1976. Can you remember it?

To me, in my advancing and increasingly befuddled state, 1976 was only a handful of years ago, but you will have to be approaching 50 to have any recollection of it at all. 1976 is now 42 years ago - blimey! Even if you were born well after it, you may well have heard of 1976 because of the summer heatwave that was enjoyed/endured. It was 100 degrees F each and every day from May 1st - August 31st, it didn't rain at all, roads melted, rivers ran dry, reservoirs became vast empty bowls, all the grass died, we were all covered in dust, ice cream ran out, beer ran out, there was a hose pipe ban for four months, we had to queue up at standpipes to get our drinking water... OK, it wasn't quite like that, but that isn't far from the truth. For some reason 1976 stands out as the hot summer to be measured against, although I can remember 1975, 1983 and 2003 having pretty special hot and sunny summers. In fact, in the latter year, the UK's record high temperature was recorded, 38.5C at Brogdale in Kent (August 10th). So although 2003 had the hottest temperatures (and beat the previous highest temperature from 2002, a year which is not even on our radar), 1976 had the longest, most drawn-out and unbroken heat wave on record. I spent great swathes of this time birding at Beddington SF, but wearing shorts and flip flops was not as option, due to the presence of ubiquitous chest high nettles, strangling goose-grass and boggy sludge lagoons - jeans and wellington boots were order of the day, and believe me, when the temperature is in the 90s and you have just fought your way through 200m of rank vegetation to get to a decent wader bed, 'hot and sweaty' somehow doesn't do it justice. Enough of my vague recollections, this is what the Met Office has to say about it:

The spell of hot weather, from mid-June to the end of August included 15 consecutive days where a maximum temperature of 32C or more was recorded somewhere in the UK. It was one of the most prolonged heat waves within living memory. The highest temperature recorded in June 1976 was 35.6 C in Southampton on the 28th. This record, for June, still stands. Whilst 35.9 C, recorded on 3rd in Cheltenham, was the highest July temperature. However what really set the summer of '76 apart was the drought. Below average rainfall was notable from May 1975 to August 1976 resulting in one of the most significant droughts of our climate records and making summer 1976 (June, July, August) the 2nd driest summer on record (dating back to 1910) behind 1995. Parts of the south west went 45 days without any rain in July and August. The hot, dry weather affected domestic water supplies leading to widespread water rationing; many still remember queuing for water at standpipes in the street. As crops failed and food prices subsequently increased, a Drought Act was passed by the government, a Minister for Drought appointed and plans to tanker water in from abroad were discussed. Heath and forest fires broke out in parts of southern England, with 50,000 trees being destroyed in Dorset alone.

Monday, 2 July 2018

The heat goes on

The grassy fields look more of a burnt caramel in colour than a lush green, and what vegetation is in flower is crisping and looking quite weedy - this heatwave is not doing them any favours at all, and we really could do with some rain. I'm pretty sure that here in Banstead there has been just one wet day in the past five weeks.

Anyhow, hot weather normally means something interesting turning up in the garden MV, and the garden's 10th record of Festoon (top) just about creeps into that category. Afterwards I walked the glades of Banstead Woods and, after many years of failure, finally saw a Purple Emperor there. Up until this morning the closest to home that I had recorded the species was Ashtead Common. Also seen were White-letter Hairstreak, Silver-washed Fritillary and Purple Hairstreak (below).