A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Friday, 31 July 2015

Wood Whites - Bury Ditches, Shropshire

With news that the second generation of Wood Whites had begun emerging at Bury Ditches in Shropshire last week, we decided to head down at the weekend to try and find these beautifully dainty woodland butterflies for ourselves. With more of a south western distribution, the substantial population in Shropshire is one of the closest, and having only seen a single Wood White on the Burren in Ireland back in May last year, I was keen to see them in Britain and get some photos of these delicate butterflies.

Arriving at the car park on what was luckily the only sunny day that week, we headed down the bridle path in search of our target. The pathway was lined with thistles and brambles attracting a whole range of species – Ringlets, Gatekeepers and Meadow Browns all danced along the ride as we walked, while the larger Red Admirals, Commas and Painted Ladies took advantage of the sunny weather to feed up.

Following the path along, it soon became apparent that there were no Wood Whites to be seen - frustratingly the only ‘white’ butterflies were of the Small and Green-veined variety. Retracing our steps several times and even trying further up the hill itself, we decided to give it one last go – this time heading past and beyond the wooden bench where we had previously stopped and turned left.

This proved to be a good move, and as we approached the bend I spotted a small dainty butterfly fluttering low down along the side of the path, unmistakeable as a Wood White and with a second individual not far behind! The sun now temporarily behind a cloud, one settled right in front of us at the side of the track, demonstrating the classic teardrop closed wing pose and allowing some great prolonged views as it rested.
Wood White - Bury Ditches, Shropshire
Wood White - Bury Ditches, Shropshire
Travelling 100m or so down the path, we seemed to have struck a hotspot, and there must have been at least 10 in just this small section alone. At one point, we even witnesses 4 grouped together on the same leaf – more than likely 3 males battling it out over a single female. Two butterflies displaying and courting on a nearby flower head was also fantastic to see.
Wood Whites - Bury Ditches, Shropshire
Wood Whites - Bury Ditches, Shropshire
Males attracted to a female
Much smaller than our other species of whites, Wood Whites can be readily identified in the field by their much slower and delicate flight style, their smaller size, and at rest, the rounded tips of the forewings. Interestingly, the adults will never rest with their wings open.
Wood White - Bury Ditches, Shropshire
Tending to stick very close to the ground and not fly higher than a metre, we watched as the males patrolled along the edges of the ride in search of any females. With individuals in England emerging in May and June, we were now on the second generation (which emerges at the end of July and in to August) where individuals are slightly smaller and the males have a touch more black on the wingtips.
Wood White - Bury Ditches, Shropshire
A female - no black on the wing tips
Wood White - Bury Ditches, Shropshire
The black tips to the wings indicate this is a male
We luckily also got to observe a female laying an egg on one of the many foodplants lining the side of the path. This tiny conical pearl-like egg was the first butterfly egg I’ve seen and it was great to witness the succession of the next generation in action.
Wood White egg - Bury Ditches, Shropshire
Wood White egg - Bury Ditches, Shropshire
Wood White egg- Bury Ditches, Shropshire
The difference in plant species between this area and closer to the car park was also apparent, with much less vegetation at the edge of this stretch of path – the sides here were much less overgrown than by the car park. It was clear as to why the Wood Whites were favouring this section and not earlier on up the path, as their food plants of vetches and trefoils were much easier to find in the thin grass without competition from the more dominant brambles.
Wood White - Bury Ditches, Shropshire
Wood White - Bury Ditches, Shropshire
Wood Whites have only very recently been separated from the virtually identical Cryptic Wood White (originally described as Real’s Wood White before this species was itself split in 2011) and the latter can only be found in Ireland.

The two species share many of the same characteristics in terms of both appearance and behaviour, but curiously the evidence suggests that the distribution of the two doesn’t overlap – Cryptic Wood Whites don’t occur outside of Ireland in Britain, and the Wood White is restricted to just the Burren (where Cryptic Wood Whites are absent) in Ireland whilst occurring throughout the south of Britain. Adults can only be identified by a detailed examination of their genitals, so this difference in range is the key factor in determining which of the two species it will be.

Wood Whites have suffered dramatically over the decades, and this species is now in serious decline in several of its former strongholds. With woodland rides becoming too overgrown for this delicate butterfly and numbers dropping accordingly, it would be disastrous to lose this beautiful species from our countryside. Luckily habitat management is underway, and several sites still remain as strongholds for this enigmatic white of the woods. 
Wood White - Bury Ditches, Shropshire

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Terrific Terns - Cemlyn Bay, Anglesey

The tern colony at Cemlyn Bay on Anglesey offers some truly amazing views as the birds return to their nests with beaks laden with sand eels – often flying low down right overhead! 
Sandwich Tern - Cemlyn Bay, Anglesey
Sandwich Tern - Cemlyn Bay, Anglesey
Sandwich Tern - Cemlyn Bay, Anglesey
A must see for anyone visiting the area, this year held Sandwich terns in huge numbers, as well as around 30 pairs of nesting Commons and 15 pairs of Arctic on the smaller of the two islands. A single pair of Med gulls have also bred again on the smaller island, and it was suspected that the eggs had just hatched a few days prior to visiting. 
Sandwich Tern - Cemlyn Bay, Anglesey
Sandwich Tern - Cemlyn Bay, Anglesey
With South Stack’s seabird colony not too far away holding nesting Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins, Kittiwakes and Fulmars, along with the Choughs and Peregrines that perform their aerial acrobatics over the cliffs, a great days birding can be had by combining the two sites, even stopping off to call on the brilliant Black Guillemots that make Holyhead harbour their home on the way. 

Monday, 27 July 2015

Lesser Twayblades - Cliburn Moss, Cumbria (6th June 2015)

After spending the morning at Sandscale Haws back at the beginning of June, the afternoon was spent making the journey over to Cliburn Moss near Penrith to see if the Lesser Twayblades were still flowering. Having visited the reserve on numerous occasions before in search of both the Creeping Lady’s Tresses that grow there and the Lesser Twayblades, I was already well familiar with the site, and quickly found my way to the area the orchids were flowering in after following some excellent directions that were absolutely spot on.

I quickly spotted several individuals in front of a Silver Birch, with another few plants scattered around in roughly a five metre area away from the tree – like the Coralroots it was simply a case of getting your eye in to spot them all. As is usually the case with orchids, once you spot one, there are usually several more in the immediate vicinity.
Lesser Twayblade - Cliburn Moss, Cumbria
Lesser Twayblade - Cliburn Moss, Cumbria
Lesser Twayblade - Cliburn Moss, Cumbria
Absolutely tiny in size, each plant was no more than 10cm and due to the coppery-brown colouration that blended in so well with the pine needle covered floor and the fact many plants had their leaves eaten away, they were very tricky to spot indeed.
Cliburn Moss, Cumbria
There's a Lesser Twayblade in here somewhere......
Cliburn Moss, Cumbria
I’ve had a grid reference to the spot the Lesser Twayblades were flowering in on my previous visit, but being slightly too late that time and not heading far enough in to the trees where the plants seemed to grow best amongst, we sadly didn’t spot any on that occasion.

With two distinct leaves at the base, Lesser Twayblades are like miniature versions of the larger and much more abundant Common Twayblade – the double basal leaf structure is distinctive of these two species.
Lesser Twayblade - Cliburn Moss, Cumbria
The two leaves at the base are clear to see
Each rust coloured flower column also had numerous individual florets in the shape of tiny elves – amazingly dainty and exceptionally fragile in miniature form!
Lesser Twayblade - Cliburn Moss, Cumbria
Lesser Twayblade - Cliburn Moss, Cumbria
Another northerly orchid with populations found in abundance throughout the upland heather moors of Scotland, plants can also be found growing in suitable habitat in North and mid-Wales as well as the northern English counties, with some populations also occurring in wet woodland and native pinewoods (like Cliburn).  

Usually found growing actually underneath heather bushes in some cases, it was also a relief that the flowers were standing proudly out in the open! Lesser Twayblade is a species I have wanted to see for some time, and it was great to see them at their best before the flowers went over. 
Lesser Twayblade - Cliburn Moss, Cumbria
Lesser Twayblade - Cliburn Moss, Cumbria
Lesser Twayblade - Cliburn Moss, Cumbria

Friday, 24 July 2015

White-letter Hairstreaks - Brockholes, Lancashire

White-letter Hairstreak is a butterfly that despite being readily recorded in both Hartford and Leftwich, I hadn’t as of yet managed to catch up with. Often residing high up in the treetop canopy where they can be seen tumbling through the sky, I decided to seek out this often elusive butterfly at Brockholes Nature Reserve in Lancashire. Here the colony can be found on a large bramble bush next to the path, where individuals can give great low down views as they nectar on the flowers.

Arriving at Brockholes just after lunch, we headed straight for the bramble bush in question at the entrance to Boilton Woods and immediately discovered that this small patch of vegetation was a small haven for butterflies - Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers and Ringlets were all in abundance whilst several showy Commas and Red Admirals settled on the flowers to feed.

With no sign of any White-letter Hairstreaks fluttering around either the top of the solitary Elm tree or the brambles below, we decided to stick it out and wait until we spotted one (whilst getting absolutely bitten alive by the Horse Flies – not putting on insect repellent was a huge mistake!)

Luckily another enthusiast also on a mission to find the Hairstreaks arrived, and after phoning his local contact we heard they had been favouring a patch of thistles just a few feet further down the slope. Staking this area out, sure enough within a few minutes our companion had spotted one, happily nectaring on the purple flowers. 
White-letter Hairstreak - Brockholes, Lancashire
Getting closer to admire this stunning butterfly in more detail (and getting severely nettled in the process!) we could clearly see the diagnostic orange band on the underwings and the delicately marked white ‘W’ alongside. Unlike the Black Hairstreaks I saw at the beginning of the month, there were no black spots running along the edge of the wing – the key point in separating these two similar butterflies.
White-letter Hairstreak - Brockholes, Lancashire
After a while, the butterfly fluttered off in to the air, and within seconds had completely vanished, making it impossible to track its whereabouts.

Throughout the afternoon, several more individuals were spotted on the large bramble bush, with another perched out of reach on a nearby tree, only visible through binoculars. With the thistles offering the best vantage point photography wise, I decided to stake it out here for the rest of the afternoon. Sure enough, another (possibly the same) individual landed in the thistles, again allowing a fantastically close approach.
White-letter Hairstreak - Brockholes, Lancashire
In addition to the abundance of butterflies, several dragonflies patrolled the area, with Southern Hawkers and Common Darters flying around the small patch of brambles, as well as a fantastic Emperor Dragonfly we spotted resting on a perch in the middle of the bush.
Southern Hawker - Brockholes, Lancashire
As Elm is the sole foodplant for White-letter Hairstreaks, there were fears this secretive species may have become extinct in Britain due to the catastrophic effect of Dutch Elm disease in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Thankfully surviving colonies were sought out to gain a greater understanding of their distribution, and several new colonies were discovered in the process. With an effort to find disease resistant Elms that are able to support the Hairstreak caterpillars, there is considerable hope for the future. Luckily, Wych Elm (the Hairstreaks favoured species) seems to be the most resistant to the disease.

Colonies can also be extremely small, sometimes consisting of just a few dozen individuals, and may even be contained on just the one tree (often on the outer edge of a wood) like the population at Brockholes.  With White-letter Hairstreaks resting in the tops of the trees during the day, early morning and late afternoon is the best time to these dainty butterflies as they come down to the ground to feed on their favoured thistles and brambles.


A fantastic butterfly to finally see and one which means I have now seen all species of Hairstreak in the UK!

Monday, 20 July 2015

The Purple Emperors at Fermyn Woods - 11th July

Every July the Purple Emperors at Fermyn Woods in Northamptonshire put on a fantastic show as they flit majestically around the tree tops, occasionally heading down to the ground to feed where they provide excellent views for the many enthusiasts that have travelled to see them.

With reports of the Emperors emerging the weekend prior, I knew from past experience that the next weekend would be the perfect time to go as the butterflies would be at their best - later on in the season they tend to stay up in the trees more with the wings becoming slightly worn. Having seen Purple Emperors at Fermyn several years ago, but with Alex never having experienced the wonders of them for himself, we drove down to Northamptonshire to catch up with these most regal of butterflies.

Arriving on site after lunch, despite the majority of Purple Emperor activity usually being concentrated in the morning, we still managed an impressive number of individuals – around 15-20 in total - with many of these landing on the ground in front of us.
Purple Emperor - Fermyn Woods, Northamptonshire
Purple Emperor - Fermyn Woods, Northamptonshire
Usually found high up in the tree canopy feeding on aphid honeydew, Purple Emperors are well known for providing great views as they come down to the ground to feed on a variety of materials (often rancid smelling) to gain valuable salts and minerals. Favouring the edges of dips and puddles in the path, there are often a whole range of temptations brought by those looking to lure the Emperors down - bananas, shrimp paste and fox poo all seem to work well! The butterflies will also readily land on people (attracted by the sweat) and one actually landed on Alex’s arm for a brief moment before taking to the skies once again.
Purple Emperor - Fermyn Woods, Northamptonshire
We brought some Salmon paste along with us, and 2 minutes after adding our concoction to the many strategically placed banana skins lining the path, a Purple Emperor came flitting down from the trees and floated around our legs – the smell seemed to have worked! Walking back several hours later, we also encountered a male feeding on the bright orange paste, his yellow proboscis tucking in and completely oblivious to us as we busily snapped away with our cameras.
Purple Emperor - Fermyn Woods, Northamptonshire
Purple Emperor - Fermyn Woods, Northamptonshire
Purple Emperor - Fermyn Woods, Northamptonshire
During the day, the males will often fly to the ‘Master Tree’ that provides a vantage point for passing females, and they can often been seen congregating with flashes of purple as the light hits their wings, so we were quite lucky to have them on the deck this late in the day.

Purple Emperors are definitely one of the most striking butterflies in the British Isles. Sometimes appearing black with white bands across the wings, if the angle is just right the wings of the male will explode with a magnificent iridescent purple sheen, which is a result of light being reflected from the structure of the wing scales (brown females don’t have this sheen).

We had the most luck with the Purple Emperors in the adjacent Lady Wood, having parked in the small car park on Harley Way and walking along the gravel path to the next set of trees. I’d had the majority of Purple Emperors here on my last visit, and sure enough, the exact same stretch of path was where we encountered our first this weekend.
Purple Emperor - Fermyn Woods, Northamptonshire
Looking up at the pine trees lining the hedge, we could see 4 or 5 at once flitting between the trunks, often landing on the pine needles and chasing each other through the trees. Usually associating with Oak, it was really interesting to see them favour the pines – there may have been an abundance of honeydew or sap luring them in.

As well as ‘his majesty’ (as the Purple Emperor is often referred to) we enjoyed a fine supporting cast of several White Admirals and a cracking Silver-washed Fritillary that favoured one bramble patch in particular at the left hand side of the path. 
Silver-washed Fritillary - Fermyn Woods, Northamptonshire
Silver-washed Fritillary - Fermyn Woods, Northamptonshire
Silver-washed Fritillary - Fermyn Woods, Northamptonshire
White Admiral - Fermyn Woods, Northamptonshire
The rides were also alive with Ringlets, Meadow Browns and both Large and Small Skippers, but as the afternoon clouded over we couldn’t find the White-letter Hairstreaks that also share the tree top canopies with the Emperors.
Large Skipper - Fermyn Woods, Northamptonshire
Ringlet - Fermyn Woods, Northamptonshire
A Beautiful Demoiselle flitting gracefully along the path, far from its usual stream haunts, was a damselfly first for me, the jet black wings standing out even from a distance and the gorgeous iridescent marine blue body ensuring the damselfly really did live up to its name. We tend to get mostly Banded Demoiselles around here in Cheshire, so it was great to see this species.
Beautiful Demoiselle - Fermyn Woods, Northamptonshire
With the spectacle of Purple Emperors at Fermyn woods an annual occurrence, this really is a great woodland to enjoy the delights of these enigmatic butterflies, and I’ll definitely be returning again to photograph and admire this star species. 

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Red-footed Falcon wows the crowds in Staffordshire

When a report of a Red-footed Falcon photographed in Staffordshire broke early on the Thursday evening, I saw this as a welcome opportunity to catch up with this beautiful species which has so far managed to elude me. With negative news on the Thursday night however I assumed the bird must have moved on, so was pleased to see it had been re-found and was showing well early on the Friday morning.

Heading to the fields outside Whitfield Colliery in Chatterley that the falcon had been frequenting after work on the Friday afternoon, I immediately saw the bird as soon as I had stepped out of the car – possibly the fastest twitch in existence!
Red-footed Falcon - Chatterley, Staffordshire
Sat on the grass right in front of the fence where the assembled birders were stood, this stunning falcon was showing much better than I could have ever imagined, foraging for insects amongst the earth and making short flights to its favoured perches in the field. 
Red-footed Falcon - Chatterley, Staffordshire
Red-footed Falcon - Chatterley, Staffordshire
Red-footed Falcon - Chatterley, Staffordshire
Favouring the last horse paddock on the left before the entrance gates to the Colliery, this particular individual has been faithful to this location since it was discovered, ranging between the telegraph poles, wires and fence posts and rarely moving far. With several horses churning up the soil, it’s clear that there is an abundance of insects here for the falcon to hunt, keeping it locked down to this one particular site.
Red-footed Falcon - Chatterley, Staffordshire
Red-footed Falcon - Chatterley, Staffordshire
With such a showy individual this was a fantastic opportunity to get some photos, and the bird’s tendency to perch on the wire relatively close to the road was welcomed by all those that had come to admire it.
Red-footed Falcon - Chatterley, Staffordshire
Red-footed Falcon - Chatterley, Staffordshire
I’ve missed several of these eastern falcons over the last few years, with a first summer male in Derbyshire back in 2011 (which was unfortunately found dead later on) and a fantastic adult male at Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk both sadly out of reach. With relatively few individuals reported in the UK last year, I had made Red-footed Falcon a definite target to see this year, although the birds reported further down south earlier in the spring were just a little bit too far. With an apparent invasion of Red-footed Falcons in Spain this summer, there may yet be more of these fantastic little falcons reported from our shores as the year progresses.
Red-footed Falcon - Chatterley, Staffordshire
Red-footed Falcon - Chatterley, Staffordshire
Whilst the Staffordshire bird was a first summer male as opposed to one of the more colourful adults, Red-footed Falcons change their plumage at different rates, and this particular individual was extremely well advanced, with a gorgeous sooty grey body complete with vibrant orange legs and bill and fiery red eyes. The barred underwings and tail were the main features separating it from an adult male, as well as a little bit of chestnut colouration on the neck.
Red-footed Falcon - Chatterley, Staffordshire
Red-footed Falcon - Chatterley, Staffordshire
Several birders present were checking the underwings to make sure this wasn’t an Amur Falcon – very similar to Red-footed Falcons but with a white underwing. With just one British record to date from Tophill Low in Yorkshire in 2008, the individual in question was originally thought to be a Red-footed Falcon, until it was later re-identified from photos as an Amur Falcon almost a month after it had first arrived (and ironically it wasn’t seen again!) Having been present for a month from the middle of September to October and being in moult for the duration of its stay, the bird was only identified when the white underwing coverts became clear to see on several photos after it had completed its moult. There is every possibility that this extreme mega may be overlooked in the UK, and a recent record from the Faroe Islands offers some hope that this far eastern falcon may make a return to Britain in the future.
Red-footed Falcon - Chatterley, Staffordshire
No white on the underwings here!
Heading back to the Red-footed Falcon on Sunday with Alex, we both had excellent views as the bird performed for the crowds once again, sometimes even coming to within 5 metres as it hovered above the grass looking for insect prey.
Red-footed Falcon - Chatterley, Staffordshire
Red-footed Falcon - Chatterley, Staffordshire
Red-footed Falcon - Chatterley, Staffordshire
Being so obliging ad putting on such a show, this is most definitely one of my favourite birds of the year so far, and one that is definitely worth making the effort to go and see! 
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...