Thursday, 11 July 2013

Following in the flight of Emperors and Goatsuckers....

The last couple of weeks have provided me with such a wealth of wildlife wonders that I had to share some on the blog.  The butterfly population has truly exploded on Stockbridge Down with Dark Green Fritillaries and Marbled Whites smothering the grassy slopes and bramble bushes.  I was also treated to a rare spectacle whilst doing my butterfly survey; on a beautiful purple thistle that was in an area we cleared of scrub over the winter, I came across a Fritillary that was freshly emerged and drying out its wet crumpled wings in the sun.  Fritillaries are very strong fast fliers so it is usually very hard to get a proper look at them for any length of time.  However this one was yet to take its first proper flight as its wings were still damp so I was able to watch it under my very nose for a good few minutes and it was during this observation that I managed to make a positive ID – Pearl Bordered Fritillary!  This is a butterfly that has declined in number over the last century with the cessation of coppicing and woodland glade creation.  It is slowly making a recovery and requires cleared woodland rides, or grass/scrubland areas such as Stockbridge Down.  This is the first I’ve seen up there and although they have occasionally been reported there before, it was always thought they flew across from other sites.  The fact that I saw one freshly emerged implies it was born and pupated on Stockbridge Down itself – a big success!
I also got a good ten minutes of watching a pair of Blue butterflies mating on a Salad Burnet Flower, their magnificent shades of blue shimmering in the full sunlight.  We think they are Chalkhill or Common blues, but with the female (on the left) being an abberation in that her underwing colouring is different to the usual species colouring - she should have orange spots as well but as you can see, she has no sign of orange and is a beautiful silvery blue, so any butterfly experts out there who can help me with a positive ID please post a comment.  The male briefly opened his wings at one point and i caught a glimpse of blue with a black margin.

Romance on a Salad Burnet!

Myself and Laura, the Outdoor Ranger in the New Forest spent the other day placing reptile tins across some of our Commons in order to set up surveying.  It was a scorching day spent roaming across the heat - hazed heathland with silver studded blue butterflies dancing round our heads and dragon and damsel flies darting up from the boggy patches.  Whilst placing one tin we saw what resembled a insect like zeppelin blimp hover past; we instantly gave chase and managed to see it properly - a large Blue Emperor Dragonfly clutching, in its legs, a meadow brown butterfly!  These dragonflies are voracious predators and regularly fly high to catch insect prey although I’d never witnessed it before. 
Laura kitted out for a days surveying - complete with camera, GPS, binoculars, clipboard, phone, sunhat, keys...


That same evening we took countryside volunteers on a nightjar walk at Foxbury, which is one of our heathland restoration sites.  Nightjars are fascinating birds, that over winter in Africa and then return to the UK in summer where they nest and breed on our heathlands.  In the olden days, they were considered some kind of forbidding omen and were called ‘goat suckers’ as villagers used to believe they would come into the village at night and suckle milk from their goats.  I think this is a bit of a harsh reputation for them but there is no denying that they are an interesting looking creature – big black eyes to see in the dark and a huge gaping mouth that is tipped with a little beak.  A long body with long wings and a hunched head; they have small whiskers either side of their beak which they groom using their toes and they are perfectly camouflaged for sitting in amongst the vegetation unseen.  
 Male nightjars have white spots under their wings which they use as a territorial display, by flying through the air flapping their wings above their head thus showing off their white spots and making a clapping sound. 
Nightjars will also sit on a branch perch and make a wonderful churring call which is quite unlike any other in the bird world – it is a long churrrrrr that goes on and on often going between high and low pitches but all in one long unbroken note.  It is the very definition of summer, when you can walk across a twilight heathland and hear that churring sound. The nightjars at Foxbury were absolutely on form that night, wheeling and swooping, clapping their wings at each other in a fierce display of rivalry and churring from their Pine perches.  Laura and I waved white sheets of paper which is known to entice them closer as the males can believe it is the white markings of another male and swoop in for a closer look.  It certainly paid off as we had about 5 birds flying around us and landing on the track, giving everyone a brilliant experience.
This was a nightjar I had the pleasure of holding a few years ago when I worked at Leith Hill.  He was caught as part of a bird ringing project - only to find he was already ringed and that it was the same bird caught as a fledgling the year before, who had flown to Africa and returned to breed at the exact same site!  We fondly nicknamed him Jarhead.  Note the tiny beak, yet the mouth actually opens all along the white marking under the eye.

Finally, walking back to the staff car park one sunny evening, we were lucky enough to see a pair of Red Kites wheeling lazily around the thermals.  It’s the first Kites I’ve seen over Mottisfont and they were so low down the view of their forked tails and slender wings was perfect – a great sight to see at the end of another sunny day.


  1. Dear Catherine,

    The two blues are common blues (P. icarus); the specimen on the left in the photograph being the male.

    Rather than being aberrant, I am inclined to think that the ground colour and lack of the usual markings are due to the severe wear and tear that the butterfly exhibits. Having said that, he clearly still has a little zest for life left in him..!

    The flash of blue that you saw on the butterfly on the right would be entirely consistent with it being a female P. icarus.

    Great photograph by the way.

  2. Hi Piers,
    I have only just seen your comment - sorry I haven't replied for months! Thank you for that, good to know the definite species and gender of each one.
    I am longingly awaiting the next butterfly season - only a few months now!
    I shall work out how to be notified of comments when they are made.