Saturday, 24 November 2012

Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve on a Summer's Day

As is often the case with the best laid plans, my 'series of catch up posts' wasn't to be but as the weather here has been so very gloomy for the last few weeks I thought it would be nice to be transported back to one of the very few sunny Summer days we had this year and show you a visit I made to Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve. The reserve is located high on the steep north western escarpment of the Chilterns and part of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Beauty (COAB), it is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The beauty of this special place was, for me, marred by the ever present sound of traffic from the motorway, the M40 having been carved straight through the chalk hill, the heart of the reserve, which has resulted in reserve land on both sides of the motorway. For much of the time it is only the constant hum of the traffic which disturbs the tranquillity of this lovely place but there is one part which involves a lengthy walk along a narrow track on the top of the very steep hillside where the motorway is in full view far below. Some would probably not find it intrusive but for me it spoilt the place and it is a mystery to me why the decision would have been made, back in 1974, to cut the Chiltern escarpment through the middle of a supposedly protected National Nature Reserve despite, apparently, fierce and passionate opposition at the time by conservationists. I hasten to add I am not being hypocritical and did not travel on the motorway to get there, even though it would have cut the around an hour and a quarter journey by about twenty minutes or so, preferring to avoid such soulless routes whenever possible.


My little rant over ;-) and back to the purpose of the visit which was primarily to look for the Chalkhill Blue butterfly. It is fortunate I didn't go for the Red Kites which should have been there in abundance as the only one I saw was on the journey there! Unlike the visit to nearby Watlington Hill in 2009 when they were everywhere. You can read about that visit here and here. I should add the visit to Watlington Hill was unsullied by sights or sounds of the motorway but I didn't see any Chalkhill Blues there and had read I was more likely to at Aston Rowant and so it was, although on this occasion not in the large numbers I might have expected.

Chalkhill Blue Butterfly

As the name suggests, this pretty little butterfly is found on chalk downland and sometimes limestone downland. Their larval foodplant is Horseshoe Vetch and large numbers of males may be seen en masse obtaining moisture and minerals from animal dung in the same way as the Purple Emperor. The Chalkhill Blue is a butterfly of conservation concern due to weather patterns during the last decade or so.

'0 could I stand beneath the sky,
With shining grass about my feet,
And catch one bright blue butterfly:
I think that life would be too sweet!'
(E.A. Hart)

I interpreted the poem to mean 'catch' with the eye rather than the hands. I think you know I would never approve of that :-)

I only found one with open wings, a male.

There are a small number of attractive sculptures on the reserve which were created by local artists, mostly from wood found there. Each sculpture has a wind-up listening post where you can hear audio clips of either the artist relating the story behind their piece or children and adults explaining what the reserve means to them.

Despite this next butterfly being relatively widespread throughout the country I had never knowingly seen it before although I know many of my UK blogland friends have. It is quite inconspicuous and rarely settles more than a metre above ground so I may well have inadvertently overlooked it in the past.

 Small Heath Butterfly

I spotted this grasshopper on the naturally trodden, narrow track we were following through the chalk grassland, it is slightly out of focus as it was constantly on the move but the photo also shows how chalky the ground is. I'm not completely sure but think it is the Common Green Grasshopper.

EDIT: Thank you very much to Greenie for confirmation of my ID. As always, I knew I could rely on you Greenie.

 Common Green Grasshopper

'When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper's--he takes the lead
In summer luxury,--he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.'

(John Keats)

When I visited Watlington Hill I was lucky enough to see a rare butterfly which is restricted to chalk downland in southern England so I was hoping I might also see it at Aston Rowant, I was not disappointed.

Silver-spotted Skipper Butterfly

This delightful little butterfly is on the wing from late July until early September. They have one brood and the female lays a single egg on Sheep's Fescue (a type of grass), or sometimes on adjacent plants, where they overwinter. In early Spring the larvae hatch and then feed in small silk webs around the food plant. They pupate deep within small tussocks of grass and surrounded by loose silk cocoons. Although the Silver-spotted Skipper is of conservation concern, due to a decline over the last fifty years, its fortunes have improved since the 1980s with the careful management of chalk grassland sites.

Before we set off for the reserve I had made a mental note to look out for another rarity however, when we arrived I was so engrossed in looking for butterflies that I completely forgot but on our way back to the car we passed an information board which mentioned it and decided to double back and make another foray, this time looking not for a butterfly but for a flower.

Consequently I spent another hour or so going uphill...very, very steep, breath taking and back bothering hills ;-) and down dale but with no success having completely lost track of the instructions of the route to follow which were given on the notice board. In the end I admitted defeat and decided to try again another time....Only to get home and find that just the third photo I had taken, on arrival, of a pretty but unknown flower was what I had subsequently spent so long searching for at the end of my visit! Why it didn't dawn on me when I took the photo I really don't know, if it had I would have spent more time taking a better one than this solitary, quick snap :-)

Chiltern Gentian

As we wended our way back through the woodland to the car park this sculpture looked quite magical with the setting sun's rays falling on it through the tree canopy.

A most enjoyable visit rounded off by a couple of Roe Deer running across the track and into the reserve as we started the journey home.

I know this has been rather a lengthy post but as my posts have been few and far between this year I hope I will be forgiven.

Until next time...enjoy the beauty of Nature, wherever you are.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Still Catching Up!

'Real life' rearing its troublesome head has left me with little time or enthusiasm for blogging recently but in an effort to get back to some sort of more regular posting I am aiming to publish a series of catch up posts in an attempt to get through a backlog of photos, some dating back to August, I hope that won't be too boring! This post and probably the next will still be concentrating mainly on invertebrates simply because that is what occupied me on outings the most during our (so called!) Summer but lest anyone should think otherwise, my enthusiasm for birds has not lessened at all and they will feature more strongly in future posts :-) 

My love of butterflies has, in recent years, turned from admiration of their beauty to a deeper interest and desire to actively seek out ones I have never seen before and despite the mainly awful weather we have had in the last few months I have been fortunate to see several this year for the first time. Two of them were shown in earlier posts, the most notable of course was the fantastic Purple Emperor, an amazing and probable once in a lifetime encounter. The Purple Hairstreak was also a first. Another butterfly I very much wanted to find was the Dark Green Fritillary but despite visiting several places where it should apparently have been, including a number of attempts at a location very close to home, I was unlucky this year. However, I was more fortunate in my quest to find the Silver-washed Fritillary but although I saw several on the wing only one posed briefly for the camera and unfortunately what had previously been a sunny afternoon suddenly turned dull and spots of rain were falling as I snatched a very quick photo before it flew off to seek shelter among the trees. Maybe next year I will manage to get a better photo of this striking butterfly.

Silver-washed Fritillary Butterfly

Another butterfly I was pleased to find for the first time this year was the White Admiral, this one, like the Silver-washed Fritillary, looking rather worn at the end of its season.

White Admiral Butterfly

Despite the weather it seems to have been a good year for skipper butterflies, I have certainly seen a lot of Large and Small Skippers (as seen on the previous post) but also some Essex Skippers distinguished from the Small Skipper by the black tip on the underneath of the antennae as shown here.

  Essex Skipper Butterfly

' "Just living is not enough,”
said the butterfly,
“one must have sunshine,
freedom and a little flower." '
(Hans Christian Anderson)

When passing Ragwort plants I always look out for Cinnabar Moth caterpillars but this year they didn't seem anywhere near as plentiful as usual. Ragwort is poisonous to livestock particularly horses and there has been a concerted effort in the UK to control this native plant resulting in a dramatic reduction in the number of Cinnabars. The caterpillars are not affected by the toxins in the plant and indeed store the poison in their bodies which still remains when they become moths. If predators are not deterred by their bold colouring they will very quickly be repelled by the obnoxious taste!

Cinnabar Moth Caterpillar

I used to think that we in the UK have Grasshoppers while our American friends have Crickets before realising that we have them both here and that the latter can be identified by their much longer antennae. In order to show them more closely I have 'cropped' the antennae on both the photos of crickets below.

Dark Bush-Cricket

There was a little sunshine on the day I saw the next one!

 Roesel's Bush-Cricket

'Twas sweet to see the tiny things,
So bright of garb and so small of size,
But howsoever that might be
Each seemed of perfect symmetry.'
(Thomas Jeffrey Llewelyn Prichard)

 Back to butterflies and all of these I have seen many times before.

Gatekeeper Butterfly

Meadow brown Butterfly

Green-veined White Butterfly

The final butterfly for this post and one of our loveliest I think. 

Peacock Butterfly

'Her slender form, ethereal light,
Her velvet-textured wings unfold:
With all the rainbow's colours bright,
And dropt with spots of burnished gold.'
(William Roscoe)

I always find it difficult to get a photo of a Brown Hawker as they are usually encountered busily patrolling their territory but I did manage to photograph one which was settled and sunning itself on a tree trunk. Not the best of places to show its wings but beggars can't be choosers.

Brown Hawker Dragonfly

 This pretty little damselfly is always a pleasure to find.

Emerald Damselfly

Finally, I will finish as I started (and thank you very much for making it to the end!) with this female Ruddy Darter...I don't think it's a Common Darter? which posed nicely for the camera, it is just a pity that the sun wouldn't pose nicely for so many of these photos...Oh, the joys of living in the UK!

Ruddy Darter Dragonfly (female)

Before I finish, just a quick word to say I have very reluctantly decided to watermark my photographs, not because I think they are worth stealing, I know there are far, far better photos out there than mine and I also realise that once anything is placed on the Internet we, to some extent, surrender ownership but I do think it is worth trying to protect our work and the considerable time and trouble we take to produce it. There are some very unscrupulous people out there and one blogland friend of mine had her entire blog stolen a couple of years ago and passed off by the thief as their own! I recently noticed some slightly odd activity in my blog stats which might be perfectly innocent but I have decided to be safe rather than sorry. I have placed the mark across the middle of the photos, as it would be very easy for someone with ill intent to crop it from the edge but I have tried to make it as unobtrusive as possible.

Again, thank you so much for sticking with me to the end of this rather lengthy post. Until the next time...enjoy the beauty of Nature, wherever you are.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Catching up with Summer and Another Purple Butterfly!

On the few sunny days we have been lucky enough to enjoy recently and with the birds being mainly in hiding while enduring their seasonal moult, I have concentrated my thoughts, in the main, on butterflies and other insects. This post is a bit of a catch up of just some of my sightings from the last few weeks.

It has been heartening to see that, at least in my experience, the Marbled White Butterflies seem to have done well this year despite the constant downpours. I have seen them in at least five separate locations. The ones below were engaged in a bit of a battle for the same flower! 

Marbled White Butterflies

'And where the pretty butterflies
  Their glancing beauties show;
It always makes me glad to think
  All things with beauty glow.'
(Lizzy: 1857)

To the victor the spoils :-)

On a visit to a small, local lake, a few weeks ago, I saw this Four-spotted Chaser. I intended to post it last time but the Purple Emperor took precedence.

Four Spotted Chaser

There were lots of Blue-tailed Damselflies enjoying the warm and sunny day.

Blue-tailed Damselfly

And a walk along the canal towpath produced just one Banded Demoiselle. In previous years there have been lots of them and also Beautiful Demoiselles which I haven't seen at all this year although to be honest I have avoided water a little this Summer to protect myself from the infamous and extremely vicious Blandford Flies which I fell victim to last year and the year before!

Banded Demoiselle

An insect which seems to be everywhere which isn't surprising given their common name and obvious desire to constantly ensure the continuation of the species, is the Hogweed Bonking Beetle (Rhagonycha fulva). Apparently, they are very good at predicting thunder storms, when some hours beforehand they will all retreat to the undersides of leaves!

Hogweed Bonking Beetles

'And through the wide meadows a murmurous humming 
Of insects too happy to sleep.'
(Abba Goold Woolson)

I think I have been remiss in not showing any wildflowers recently so rather than devoting a whole post to them or making this post even longer ;-) I have compiled a collage of just some of the ones seen recently before they become hopelessly out of date.

Clockwise from top left: 1. A mixture including Musk Mallow, St. John's Wort and Self Heal.
2. Common Centaury. 3. Foxglove. 4. Common Spotted Orchid. 5. Ragged Robin. 6. Hemp Agrimony 7. Wild Marjoram. Middle: Clustered Bellflower.

I saw this day flying moth,  the Six-spot Burnet, in July when they seemed very few and far between but happily, I have seen many more in the last few weeks.

Six-spot Burnet Moth

Back to butterflies and, again despite the abysmal Spring and Summer, the skippers seem to have done well.

Large Skipper Butterfly

'On the gay bosom of some fragrant flower
They, idly fluttering, live their little hour;
Their life all pleasure, and their task all play,
All spring their age, and sunshine all their day.'
(Mrs Barbauld)

Small Skipper Butterfly

I was very pleased to discover another  butterfly I have never seen before and the one with which I started this post. Like the Purple Emperor (featured on my last post) it spends much of its time in the canopy of Oak trees but unlike its imperial relative it is much easier to find if one only looks. As mentioned in The Magazine of Natural History in 1837 and still true today:

'A person may walk though a wood which abounds with the little brilliant purple hairstreak, and yet not see a single individual, unless his attention is drawn to the right quarter. These insects keep hovering about, and settling upon the summits of oak trees; in which situation they sometimes absolutely swarm. They rarely approach the ground; and even in a cloudy day, if disturbed by your shaking the trees, they settle again in the same place. This insect then, though common and abundant, is not obvious.'

I was fortunate to see it lower down in an Oak but not fortunate enough, on this occasion, to see it with wings open to show the purple which gives it its common name.

Purple Hairstreak Butterfly

A butterfly I have seen many times before but worryingly, only once so far this year, is the Comma. I have seen it featured quite often on other bloggers' posts recently though so maybe I have just been unlucky. I do think it is a beautiful creature.

Comma Butterfly

This magnificent dragonfly was seen quite a distance from water. I am sure it is the Southern Hawker although I was a little confused as to why the head doesn't show any blue but perhaps it was the way the sun was shining on it or was it rather immature? 
EDIT: Thanks very much to Greenie for confirming that it was indeed immature.

Southern Hawker Dragonfly

'Till the dragon fly, in light gauzy armour
burnished bright,
Came tilting down the waters in a wild,
bewildered flight.'
James Whitcomb Riley

I will finish with this photo of a Bumblebee on Yellow Flag Iris which should have been posted a few weeks ago. It is so bright and cheerful that it seemed a shame not to share it. I had difficulty in deciding whether it is Bombus Terrestris or Bombus Lucorum but have opted for

Bumblebee (Bombus Terrestris) 
EDIT: Thanks again to Greenie for confirming my tentative ID.

I shall post sooner next time as I'm building up rather a backlog of photos and am in danger of still posting butterflies at Christmas time!

So, until then...enjoy the beauty of Nature, wherever you are.