Thursday, July 12, 2018

By Royal Appointment...

As a young lad, I used to read the books of the naturalist and field sportsman Denys Watkins-Pitchford other wise known as 'BB'. He was a great writer and illustrator who's evocative descriptions of warm summer days watching butterflies or  wildfowling on ice and snow bound salt marshes would hold me captivated. 

In particular I loved to see his black and white lino cuts and ink drawings. He was agreat inspiration. Nowadays his field sports interests might be a little bit frowned upon but he was a man of his era.

I can remember reading about his love of Apatura iris, the Purple Emperor butterfly that was an elusive and declining insect of the forests of the midlands and south of England. BB used to look for the eggs on sallows and take them to rear into adults away from predators to release the next summer. He was concerned that they may disappear altogether as a result of foresters spraying pesticides on oak trees to rid the woods of tortrix moths.

Fortunately, this practice seems to have stopped and iris numbers are on the increase. Or maybe it is due to some warmer summers in recent years in the areas they are found?

Last summer was a good one in the East Midlands with many Purple Emperors on the wing in the Rockingham Forest woodlands of East Northants. It was then that I decided we must have a trip down to have a meeting with the creature affectionately known to his fans as 'His Imperial Majesty'.

Fast forward to the heatwave of summer 2018. As the UK basked in 30 degrees temps for weeks on end, the Emperor was on the wing earlier than  usual and in bigger numbers. At the Knepp Wildlands project in West Sussex, for example, Matthew Oates counted over 300 on the wing in late June, making them more numerous than Meadow Brown! Knepp is a bit far to go over two days for us (and a bit expensive to get access) so last weekend John and myself visited the old stomping grounds of BB himself - Fermyn Woods in Northamptonshire.

We left sunny Northumberland at 4am and were onsite by 8.30am. Only one car was parked and its occupants had already left for their walk. As we entered the woods, I was a bit disappointed to see that the forestry people had annihilated the trackside scrub including all of the sallows favoured for breeding by the Emperors. What would BB have thought?

Onwards and upwards though, and a movement half way up and oak trunk attracted my attention. It was a worn old female Purple Emperor! First butterfly of the day too. This is a doddle, we thought.

Male Purple Emperor showing why he has his name.
How wrong could we be. For the next several hours walking the length of Fermyn and Lady Woods all we manged were brief flight views of H.I.M gliding around his territory but always too high. Other great butterflies for us invaders from the north filled in the void, with good sightings of White Admiral, Purple Hairstreaks, Silver washed Fritillaries, Gatekeepers, Marbled Whites and Essex Skippers, let alone masses of Ringlets, Meadow Browns, Small and Large Whites, Small and Large Skippers all along the rides. It was fantastic.

White Admiral, now past their best.

Silver Washed Fritillary

Essex Skipper, only two seen amongst dozens of Small Skippers and Large Skippers 

Gatekeeper. We dont get these at home.
The heat almost made us succumb by 2pm so we headed back to the car, without an 'iris on the deck' shot.

Only 50 mtrs from the parking area, a young lady said she had a male up in the taller trees. Another visitor has sprayed a little attractant ( vile fish oil) onto the track to no avail. She soon left, and John and me stood, gazing back up the ride hoping for a large butterfly to appear. No joy, so we turned to head off and there, on the path, 3 feet away, was His Majesty spread eagled in the dappled shade. I pushed John to one side and I the other to prevent him being trodden on and thought that was our chance gone, he was bound to flush back to the high oaks. But no, he sat a while then flew a few feet and landed again and sat there for the next hour enjoying sucking his yellow proboscis on the hardcore path.

More of the male that granted us an audience.
Our concentration attracted the attention of other watchers and some even came from the Cafe at the country park around the corner for a look. Patience scarcely paid off as despite being a beautifully fresh butterfly he didnt want to open his wings again. I couldnt resist trying to see if he would sit on my finger and with the agreement of the observers left, I gently slid my flat hand towards him, just touching his legs before he glided safely up into the woods.

What a great experience!

We were staying in The Woolpack Inn not far away overnight so I'll do another post about the next day soon....its mostly odonata...

The backstage door, butterfly style. You can see the Emperor in the front.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Should I stay or should I go? ...

...was never really the question I posted on Twitter the other day.

My Tweet said -

'Many of you are Natural History . I am wondering how Twitter and Facebook has affected your blog output? I'm wondering if my blog has had its day, its been going 12 yrs with 750,000 views... Comments please.'

Now with that short sentence or two, in a second it reaches over 2,000 people. The blog could never do that, but is that really its purpose anyway? I don't think so.

What I was mostly interested in when asking the question was, has social media had the same impact on the blogs of others as it has on mine and the answer was a resounding Yes.

Out out of the responses I received from fellow bloggers the most common response by far was 'too little time' to blog when you can rattle off a few tweets in seconds. I am one of those people too. Is it true though? I think the reason we dont have time to blog ( when we used to have time) is because of all the bloody time spent on social media!

Then I looked back only as far as August 2017 when I said this  .

Rather than repeat myself, again, I'll just leave it out there. I will continue to blog as frequently as I can, and will try to cut down on the others... Mmmmm...

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Lamberton and Burnmouth

On Sunday morning we took our annual trip up over the border to catch up on some scarce butterflies and moths.

On arrival at Lamberton Cliffs it was cool and breezy, so being a bit late in the season I didnt have much hope of seeing the Small Blues that inhabit the path edges here. Fortunately, down on the scree it was more sheltered and the butterflies were out in decent numbers. We had 20+ Small Heath, 7+ Common Blue, 13+ Small Blue, 2 Wall Brown, 2 Large Skipper and a few moths including our first Blackneck, an oddity here with most other records for this moth coming from south of Yorkshire. We flushed 9 Blackneck including a mating pair. Commoner lepids included Latticed Heath, Garden Grass Veneer, Silver Ground Carpet, Celypha lacunana and Timothy Tortrix all in good numbers plus 4 Chimney Sweepers.

Small Blue

Small Blue

Quaking Grass


Small Heath

Wild Strawberry

Large Skippers
From here we drove the short distance along to Partanhall scree cliffs where the masses of Red Valerian, Rock Rose and Salad Burnet were the home to 13+ Northern Brown Argus, 1 Painted Lady, 2 Common Blue, 2 Small Copper and 1 Small White. A tiny brown and white banded pyralid seems to be Pyrausta cingulata.

A good morning out, as it always is up here...

Northern Brown Argus

Common Blue

Common Footman caterpillar

Sunday, June 10, 2018

More Inverts...

The weather was very pleasant this morning so we headed a little way inland between Alnwick and Rothbury to look for some insects. We started with Debdon wood to see the Small Pearl bordered Fritillaries. 12+ were on the wing and showing well. Also here were Latticed Heath and Red and Black Froghoppers in profusion. Several families of Crossbills flew over, a Jay was seen and a Cuckoo heard.

Small Pearl bordered Fritillaries

Latticed Heath

From here we decided to check some ponds in Corby Crags for odonata. The shelter of the pines meant there were a good range on the wing with 30+ Four spotted Chaser, 1 male Banded Demoiselle, 1 Hawker sp likely a Golden ringed Dragonfly but couldnt nail it. Its too early for the other hawkers found here, Large Red, Common Blue and Blue tailed Damsels. best of all was our first Northumberland male Broad bodied Chaser. A rare dragon up here but one we were hoping to find. Success!

 We also had 30+ Red necked Footman seemingly emerging on grass below the trees

Broad bodied Chaser, a male, on a new pond in the wood. 
Before I forget, yesterday Jane, Peggy and me took a trip to Holy Island for a walk. There is still always time for wildlife though and I was over the moon to bump into 4 plants of Henbane, a rare flower in the county.


So, whilst there has not been much birding, there has been loads of interest to see and to look out for in the recent spell of fine weather. Lets hope the summer continues like this...

June Update...

I didnt post here last week probably due to the stress of Sundays debacle! We were out orchid hunting and happened to lock the keys in the car boot and the spare was in my coat pocket on the back seat! To cut a long story short, the RAC bloke pick pocketed my coat with two bits of wire through a three mm gap in a prised open door to get the key.

We had a decent morning until then too, with 3 Birds Nest Orchids at Callaly and 35+ Coral Root Orchids on Holy Island...

Birds Nest Orchid

Coral Root Orchid

Over the week the garden moth trap and village patch has been quite good for some unusual species -

Small Elephant Hawk-moth

Pale Tussock not only a first for me, but a first for VC68 North Northumberland of this common moth south of the Tyne.

Wall Brown

This huge Birch Sawfly landed in our small birch. I have seen its caterpillar like larvae before but this was big surprise.

Plenty of Red headed Cardinal Beetles around at the minute.

This Cucumber Spider in our lilac was a new one for me too...

Wall Browns in the garden daily.
Red and Black Froghopper has had a boost this year. I have only ever seen them once about 20 miles away, now they seem to be everywhere.

Grey Dagger on our shed door, I missed this one earlier.

This Nemophora degeerella was anice surprise on our Hemp Agrimony last night, a first for me.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Heartbeat Country..

I can't remember how I originally heard, that only about 120 miles away into the North Yorkshire wolds lurked some highly sought after species. It will probably have been on Twitter or some other internet spot. I then put social media to its best use and contacted some acquaintances for further advice. Soon a couple of people in the know, kindly gave me directions to their favourite spots and asked me not to widely broadcast, so forgive me for being a bit vague with the info on here. I'm sure a bit of dilligent internet searching will point you in the right direction.

Armed with our newly acquired info, on Sunday, we took a day trip out of the county to check out the sites . First stop was near Pickering for a couple of nice orchids that I did not know occurred this far north - Burnt Tip Orchid and Fly Orchid. In a very green and uninviting arable setting the small area below was a stunning oasis for flowers and butterflies.

We soon found several Dingy Skippers, Small Copper, Brown Argus and Small Heath butterflies, then 3 nice spikes of target No 1 Burnt Tip Orchid. Target No 2 lurked only a few feet away, Fly Orchids. There were more of these with about 8 spikes noted. We would normally have put the morning in at a site like this, but other delicacies were waiting...

The small limestone diggings shows the substrate favoured by the plants.

Dingy Skipper

Burnt tip Orchid

Early Purple Orchids in good numbers.

Above - Fly Orchids.

Brown Argus
Site No 2 was about 5 miles away, for a butterfly I have only seen once - Pearl bordered Fritillary.
We soon located up to 20 of these normally woodland insects, either dashing past a a rate of knots (males) or (females) being elusive, flutterhopping into dead bracken clumps looking for violets to lay egs on or near to. They are another declining species in the UK with scattered small colonies mainly with a westerly distribution.

Fritillaries dashed past or scurried around under the bracken laying eggs.

Pearl bordered Fritillaries above.
 As time was wearing on, we made a move, 16 miles further west towards Thirsk, for the star of the show, the headline act, so to speak, all arise please for - The Duke of  Burgundy.

The last time I met with the Duke, was on a Lancs limestone pavement a few years back, 
now here we are, in the other rose county, where we were very pleased to count 19+ in a small sunny area. Up to 7 at a time, 'kettled' in circles, squabbling together then dividing back to low perches on bramble leaves and grass stems. Anything flying by would be chased by these tiny terrors, not much bigger than a Small Blue.  I could have watched them all day.

Above - the haunt of the Duke...

Duke of Burgundy
 The time was getting on now and we headed off for the two hour drive home, very pleased that we had not only seen all of our target species, we had great views and decent numbers of them too!
While working out our next sortie away, its back to the patch for the rest of the Bank Holiday...