Friday, 20 May 2016

Bats, badgers and butterflies...

Boom! It’s that fabulous time of year when the natural world has quite literally exploded with colour, light and life.  The hedgerows are thick and green, the trees are all wearing their new leafy crowns and wildflowers are popping up in vast expanses creating a visual display that is a wonder to behold.  Stockbridge Down, always one of the most glorious of our sites for wildflower variety and colour, has begun displaying its beauties with Milkwort, Horseshoe vetch, Speedwells, Black Medick (confusingly named as the flowers are actually yellow; I think the seeds are black), Primrose, Wild Strawberry, Cowslips and so much more, with so much more to come.  The Salad Burnet has regenerated with the season and consequently there is a lovely fresh cucumber smell as you walk around on it which makes me think of gin and tonics….The Black Medick makes me chuckle as it looks like clusters of tiny yellow pacmans’ all bustling together whilst the Cowslips make me smile as they have proliferated hugely this year – I’ve not seen so many, so wide spread across the Down in my few years here and this of course is great news for one little butterfly in particular; the Duke of Burgundy. 

Delicately coloured Milkwort

 I have talked before of the coppicing and clearing work we have done on the down to improve the habitat for this little butterfly, and how well it seems to have worked.  Well this year appears to be no exception as I wandered down to our coppiced area the other day and within minutes I saw not only Dukes, but Pearl Bordered Fritillaries, Grizzled and Dingy Skippers (which incidentally seemed to have had a really good year on the Down this spring; I have seen them everywhere!), Green Veined Whites, Holly Blues, Orange Tips, Brimstone, Red Admirals, Small Coppers – a lot of species for such a small area!  One Duke was hanging out down the far end by the Primrose patch which we had cleared round in order to encourage its spread, so that was very pleasing to see that the chap for whom all the work was being done – the Duke – was satisfied enough with the result to make his territory there.  In the rest of the area were more Dukes – males and females (they sat long enough and showed me their legs, the number of which is what tells the sex) and the Pearls which were just so truly perfect in their daintiness and vivid colour.  I forget how much smaller than other fritillaries the PBF’s are so each spring when I see them again I am dazzled by their petite beauty.  I spent some time happily observing and snapping away on my camera, thrilled with the continued health of this fragile population, before slowly wandering back to my truck and back to work.  I have also been sent a splendid photo of PBF mating in this area which shows that we will have a next generation on its way – the circle goes on! Many thanks to Mike Duffy for sending me the photograph.

A new reign - fresh Duke of Burgundy

Pearl Bordered Fritillary

'room for one more?' PBF mating (Photo credit: Mike Duffy)

Photo credit: Mike Duffy

And whilst talking Dukes – I was on the Western slope of the Down yesterday, with the sheep, and was absolutely head over heels chuffed to spot a Duke there!  This is completely the other side of the Down to the coppice colony and whilst I have seen them up this far end before, I haven’t found them on this slope – and this slope has had an invasion of cowslips this year and the general quality of the herb and grassland has improved massively over the last couple of years with the sheep grazing regime so I think we can thank our woolly wonders for this.  I realise one butterfly does not a colony make, but I need to return on the next sunny day and have another look for more – fingers crossed we have another good patch for these butterflies on this Western edge of the site too as this will help encourage their spread over the whole Down.

Naturally I can’t mention the woolly wonders without updating you on their progress of eating; they have mostly shed all their winter wool now and are looking plump and sleek, with only a few of them still sporting chunks of ragged wool which I can’t resist peeling off when I get close enough.  Walter remains a bit of a bolshie boy at the moment although since shedding he has been less so – a scratch around his face seems to pacify him more these days, with less head butting.  The new five have begun to integrate slightly with the flock and whilst we often still find them separate, we are finding some of them in the main flock more often, or even one of the main flock hanging out with the five – so allegiances are being made and renewed and bonds are head-butted into establishment. Yesterday I moved the flock through from the Leckford slope to the NT slope to begin their munching wonders on this patch as they haven’t been here since December.  I shook the bucket and bellowed to the horizon and soon enough a white fluffy tidal wave of animals broke out of the scrub and followed me, screaming for their nutty treats.  I jogged ahead of them to the dividing gate between the slopes and ran through calling all the way and most of the flock followed me without question, their bellies bigger than their suspicions.  However in the end two remained on the other side, unwilling to follow me through the gate – one of which was a ewe who had had a sore foot for a few days and had obviously not liked me turning her over to examine it and treat the cut.  So whilst the rest of the flock fell upon the vegetation of the NT slope like Black Holes sucking in light particles (I could pretty much hear their stomachs dancing with all the fresh new grub, not that they were starved before!) the Vigilantes remain on the Leckford side for now, until I can lure them close enough to either drag through or coax back to their ovine family. Never simple with these animals!  So if you are walking on the Western slope of the Down over the coming months, please pay attention to the signs in every carpark and on every gate, detailing the flocks’ location, and keep dogs under control around them – I really don’t want to lose any to dog attacks this year…
Incidentally whilst on the Down yesterday as well as spotting that Duke on the sheep slope, Dylan and I were lucky enough to hear, on the wind, the purring of a Turtle Dove – hooray!  One of my bird surveyors had heard one the week before and so I was very happy to hear one myself, first one of the summer and know that they had made it safely back from the continent for at least one more year.  We even managed to spot it, sitting at the very top of a Birch tree which is the first time I’ve ever seen one – normally it’s a hearing thing only.  Things like this just enhance how much I love this time of year – first sightings/hearing of wildlife and flora which demonstrate that the habitat work you slog through in the winter months really does make a positive impact.  Nothing beats seeing the species benefit and inhabit the site as a result.

I spent some time last week surveying Damselflies in Long Lash, our wetland meadow area at Mottisfont.  Home to a series of wetland peat ditches which in turn are home to various species of Dragon and Damselfly including the Southern Damselfly, I took the first opportunity I could spare to go and see if anything had emerged with the recent spate of warm weather.  This was the area we had removed vegetation and peat from over the winter in order to maintain the water flow in the ditches, which is important for the Southern Damselfly (and the peat matter, you will remember, went to Stockbridge Marsh to fill in the eroding inlets).   I plodded through the long grass to one of the pond areas and before I had even fully arrived at the water’s edge, all I could see…were damselflies.  Flashes of colour and iridescence flitted between the stems before my eyes, glinting like precious jewels.  Azure Blue’s looking like tiny, fragile vivid blue twigs, drifting gently between the rushes, Large Red Damselflies gleaming like fire, Banded and Beautiful Demoiselle polished and shiny to the point of incredibility, Four Spotted Chaser Dragonflies patrolling the area like gold plated soldiers with the sun sparking off their wings with every wing flap – oh! It was just magical, I felt like I had fallen into wonderland where all the colours were enhanced and surreal and it hit me, more than it has ever done before, just how stunning Damsel and Dragonflies are.  

Banded Demoiselle

Four Spotted Chaser

And closer....

Large Red Damselflies
Sounds silly, as they are obviously beautiful and colourful but something about that moment watching so many luminous bodies shimmering around, and just how brightly they caught the sun just really brought it home to me and I stood there, with a massive grin on my face taking photos and observing them either first hand or through binoculars to help with ID.  After about ten minutes of this warm, multi-coloured dream, I suddenly realised that I had followed the latest Four Spotted Chaser through my binoculars over to the Wild Play area and so I was now essentially a random lone figure standing in a field grinning inanely whilst staring at the wild play area (full of children) through binoculars.  I hastily diverted my gaze back to the pond and hoped the parents in the play area didn’t think I was anyone untoward….haven’t heard of any complaints yet.

'This looks like a good spot'

'I say, do you mind if we join you?'

Room for three pairs! Ovipositing females whilst males guard (two large red couples, one Azure blue couple)

I shall leave you now, with a final few photos of things that seem to have ignored their nocturnal tendencies and have been out and about in the daytime, which is unusual.  One is of a Brown Long Eared bat that spent an afternoon flying and hunting round the Abbey grounds, shortly after the weather finally turned warm – I believe, as it had been cold for so long, that it took its chance to grab a snack in the warmer weather.  It flitted from tree to tree, flying low over the grass catching bugs which it then sat and gobbled from its paws!
Taking a breather

Hard to see in the pic, but its actually eating a bug that its holding in its feet - face down munching!

The other was of a fat badger cub on our estate, who I found happily snuffling and rooting and digging for worms and snails.  She seemed oblivious to my presence and consequently I sat, only feet away, and watched her (or he) for about half an hour whilst she gobbled her fill of worms, snouting them out with her nose then snapping them up spaghetti style.  I couldn’t help but laugh at the thought of the mother badger, asleep in her sett, whilst this little chubber had popped out for a midday snack!  
What 'choo looking at? Emerging from a rabbit hole after crunching snails...

Snuffling and rootling for worms


I have films of both creatures too but they were too large to upload so you will just have to enjoy the photos – I have been very lucky in happening to be in the right place at the right time to enjoy their company for a short while and catch a rare and special glimpse of a part of the natural world that so often stays hidden to our diurnal eyes.  Perhaps it’s a sign I’m becoming more feral...