Tag Archives: gatekeeper

Isle of Wight 2013

Part 1 – Lepidoptera

I’ve already grumbled in earlier posts about how the weather over the last three years leading up to 2014 was cold and unpredictable here in the UK, and how it had a very bad effect on our wildlife. In particular, overall numbers, and numbers of species, of butterflies, which are very sensitive to environmental change, seem to have been dramatically affected over those three years here in Cambridge at least.

But last year whilst on holiday on the Isle of Wight I took a walk from Shanklin up to the old WW2 radar station which is the highest point on the island, and apart from a flypast by a peregrine falcon, the most eyectaching natural phenomena were the butterflies, which seemed to be in direct contrast to the previous three years.

Comma – Polygonia c-album

The first part of my route took me through a wooded area bound by sea cliffs on one side and farmland on the other. A huge buddleia bush overhung the pathway which was hosting numerous species of butterfly, including the comma, above, and a painted lady, of which I’d seen plenty in 2010 but virtually none in the intervening years when the weather had turned bleak.

Painted lady – Vanessa cardui

The comma is resident to the UK and in recent years its numbers and range have actually increased and this has puzzled the entomologists as it is bucking a general trend amongst all butterflies here in the UK. in contrast, the painted lady is a handsome migrant which, according to my field guide, may or may not show up in the UK, consequently the entire population depends on immigration from Africa. But that raises the question what happens to the adults that are born here?

But since my guide was published, some research has been published where populations were tracked in and out of the UK on their migration routes by radar, and it revealed that painted ladies leave the country at high altitude – 500-1000m – where they can’t be seen by eye. The application of technology is revealing many hitherto unknown phenomena about many species and it’s interesting that up until now it was thought the whole UK population of painted ladies died out each year simply because they fly back just out of visual range.  And even more amazingly, it has now been discovered that this species takes up to six generations to make a circular 14000km (9000 miles) round trip from the Arctic Circle to Sub-Saharan Africa!

Which raises another mind boggling question: how is it hard wired into this tiny creature to make successive steps of this awesome migratory feat, covering half the globe, all in the same direction, at any one time? Unbelievable! But on the other hand, if populations on a previous leg of the journey take a hit for whatever reason it may be the explanation of why population size can vary so much from year to year in the UK.

Common blue male  – Polyommatus icarus

After emerging from the woods I climbed a steep incline, crossing the main Shanklin to Ventnor road and up the chalk downland of Boniface Down towards the WW2 radar station. Consequently, the terrain and the vegetation changed and so did the butterflies. The common blue is another species which I sighted frequently before the three year cold snap of 2011-14, but this male was the first one I’d spotted for a while.

Silver Y moth – Autographa gamma

The silver Y – it’s easy to see how it got its name – is a migrant moth which isn’t peculiar to chalk downlands and can be seen in most habitats, including the farmlands here around Cambridge, and this one was soaking up the sunshine on the down.

Marbled white  – Melanargia galathea

But the real gem of this trip was the marbled white, of which there were numerous examples fluttering around the down, and this one was sipping nectar from a greater knapweed flower. The marbled white is a UK resident and its favoured habitat is chalk downland.

Emerging on the top of the downland the vegetation changed to primarily low scrub consisting of acres of thistles which were home to more gatekeepers than I’ve ever seen before in one spot, I’m not exaggerating when I say there were literally hundreds of them. The information board at the entrance said that small coppers were also in residence but I only saw one and unfortunately it didn’t settle, which was a pity because they’re beautiful little brown and orange chaps and I wanted to get a photograph of one to share. Oh well, next time.

Gatekeeper – Pyronia tythonus – this one is a male, identifiable by the brown patches on the forewings, the ‘sex brands’

During the winter of 2013-14 and so far through this year the weather has warmed up, the cold, the rain and the high winds have all abated allowing many species to start to recover. It’s been a good year so far for butterflies and dragonflies, and hopefully lots more insects and the other creatures that predate them. The resilience of the natural world is astonishing, but I’m hoping we get another couple of mild years so the recovering wildlife can consolidate its numbers before the next big change in the weather.

The views from the top of Boniface Down were lovely. The cliffs on the southern edge of the island falling away to the English Channel were to the left, and when I looked north I could see mainland England. It’s not discernible in this photograph but the Solent and the south coast of the mainland are in the distance:

The only bird I managed to photograph up there was this little fellow who I think is a meadow pippit:

The pippits were very busy feeding youngsters, toing and froing across the scrub with beaks full of insects.

And the other reason I hiked up the hill was to see the old radar station at RAF Ventnor at the top of Boniface Down. This was one of the original installations set up before WW2 and was instrumental in detecting and reporting the massed attacks on southern England by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.

The remaining pair of radar towers at RAF Ventnor – there were originally six

The station was twice bombed by the Luftwaffe and I believe it holds the dubious distinction of being the only radar station to be destroyed by the enemy!

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Brampton Wood

Again, harping back to last July, I took a stroll around a piece of woodland called Brampton Wood with a good friend of mine who is a bit of an expert on butterflies. Which is why we went to Brampton, which is ancient woodland made up primarily of oak, ash and maple and is famed for it’s exotic and scarce Lepidopterans such as black hairstreak, white admiral and silver washed fritillary.

Large skipper – Ochlodes sylvanus

We didn’t see any of the rare species, mainly because the weather was generally unsuitable, but probably also because we were talking too much and not paying sufficient attention, but the species we did see gave some lovely photographs.

The large skipper is part of a big family of butterflies called the Hesperiidae or the ‘skippers‘, so called because they dash around from flower to flower in a skipping motion. They are also easily distinguished as a skipper because of the way they fold there wings at different angles when they are perched (for those of you with an aeronautical interest they remind me of the US Navy plane the F18 Hornet).

Gatekeeper, Pyronia tithonus, patrolling a leafy ride

The gatekeeper is a common hedgerow butterfly, but as with all the other wildlife in this part of the world, it suffers at the hands of intensive agriculture particularly when that involves grubbing out hedgerows. In 2010 my daighter and I did the annual ‘Big Butterfly Count’ in a scrubby field at the end of our road and we counted 11 species in the allotted 15 minute window, including the gatekeeper. A few weeks ago the tenant farmer, obviously a public spirited soul, grubbed out all the scrub and brambles which were home to all the butteflies, so I suspect numbers of all Lepidoptera, and the resident dragonflies, will be severely depleted this year. Which is a real shame as the field is fallow and not doused with chemicals so was a particularly good site for insects. The dark patches adjacent to the black spots on the forewings of the butterfly here are called the ‘sex brand‘ and mark this one out as a male, the same markings being absent in the female. The gatekeeper is also known as the ‘hedge brown’ which gives you a clue as to its preferred habitat.

The splendid creatrure below isn’t a butterfly, it’s a six spot burnet moth:

Six spot burnet – Zygaena filipendulae – adding some additional colour to a thistle head

The burnet moths consist of the burnets and forester families, they are day flying creatures and all have club shaped antennae. The six spot burnet is found in grassland feeding on thistles, scabius and and knapweeds, and its flight season is from late June to August. Apparently the red spots can sometimes be yellow, but I’ve never seen a yellow one.

The Isle of Wight, Part 1

This summers holiday took myself and the family to the Isle of Wight. I’ve often sat on the mainland and gazed at the island wondering what it was like, but apart from a sailing weekend from Cowes some years ago I’d never been there. Prior to the trip, several folk I spoke to who had been there said, ‘It’s very nice, but very 1950’s’, implying that were a bad thing. I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant, so I set off expecting bakelite telephones, knobbly knee competitions and casual racism. But the reality was nothing like that, in fact the Isle of Wight turned out to be a lovely place, very green and full of cool wildlife.

Shanklin Bay looking over the garden of out holiday abode

Within a day of arriving at our destination at Shanklin, on the southeast corner of the island, we’d encountered a pair of ravens who were keen to share our fish and chips on the seafront, and several red squirrels running around the trees in the garden below our apartment. Red squirrels are delightful creatures and the island is one of the few places in the UK where they haven’t been ousted by the bigger and more aggressive North American grey squirrel. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get photographs of these but there was plenty of other flora and fauna to keep me occupied.

The weather on the island during the first week in August was remarkable, it was hot and sunny virtually the whole time we were there, but that coincided with continuous heavy rain and big floods a short distance to the west in Devon and Cornwall. As well as the trees in the garden, there were flowers and butterflies basking in the glorious sunshine:

Wild pansy (Viola tricolor)

The wild pansy is a lovely little flower and has been used as a herbal remedy for eczema and asthma and it was believed it was good for the heart, hence its other name of ‘heartsease’. It’s laden with potentially beneficial chemicals including salicylates (aspirin), antibacterials and antiinflammatories and has many amusing common names such as ‘love lies bleeding’ (!), bullweed, ‘tickle my fancy’ and ‘love in idleness’.

Gatekeeper

Also frequenting the garden was the equally beautifully coloured, but less poetically named, gatekeeper butterfly (Pyronia tithonus). I was pleased to see lots of butterflies here because the dreadful spring weather meant I’d seen very few around Cambridge, a horrid situation which, alas, prevailed for the rest of the summer.

Below the garden at the bottom of the cliff was lots and lots of beach with lots and lots of birds, including the ravens I mentioned earlier. And amongst them was this gull youngster. It wasn’t at all fazed by me and my son running around and seemed more curious than nervous.

A young gull – either a herring gull or a lesser black backed

Alas, I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about gulls to be able to differentiate the first year herring gull (Larus argentatus, Dansk: Sølvmåge) from the lesser black backed gull (Larus fuscus, Dansk: sildemåge), even with my Collins bird guide to assist. And while the gull was peering at us a sandwich tern patrolled the shallows occasionally diving into the water:

Sometimes returning to the surface with a fish… and other times not:

Sandwich tern (Sterna sandvicensis, Dansk: splitterne) fishing off Shanklin beach

From our limited explorations around the island it seemed to be quite distinctly in two halves. The eastern end, where we were based was green and agricultural with wide sandy beaches, and the western end, at least on the south side, was more chalk down rising to imposing cliffs toward the Needles at the far western tip. All the photographs in this post were from in and around Shanklin in the east and I’ve divided the IoW into two posts, so ‘Part 2’ will be from the western end.

A trip to the coast

Last weekend I found myself poking into the nooks and crannies of Fareham in Hampshire. My only previous visits to Fareham had been when I was playing rugby against them some years ago. So it was fun to go back and explore it in a more leisurely fashion and find out what flora and fauna are there. And I was very pleasantly surprised. (A bit of a digression, but as I’m sitting writing this, back in Histon, I can hear a muntjac deer barking somewhere along our road).

Our friends who we were staying with live a short 10 minute walk from the town centre, a route which took me across a piece of ‘managed wasteland’ called the Gillies. This is a mixture of scrubby woodland and is thick with flowers and an abundance of insects and birds.


A common blue damselfly – Enallagma cyathigerum perched on a grass stem

I was hoping to see some species which I don’t see in Cambridgeshire, but alas this was not the case. But I guess that’s a tad churlish as I saw lots of great wildlife. The approach to the Gillies took me under a bridge which I think carries a railway line and glancing up as I passed under it early on the Saturday morning a pair of fallow deer sauntered across. I can’t think of any other town in the UK where I’ve seen that! Alas. I’d left my camera behind.


A somewhat tatterdemalion gatekeeper sipping nectar from yarrow flowers

A glance skyward in the midst of a butterfly hunt with the children, with several blackcaps singing in the bushes, revealed this buzzard circling lazily in the scorching sunshine over Fareham town centre:

…and then a few minutes later:

Shortly after the buzzard had disappeared we had ventured into some adjacent woodland where the quiet was shattered when a pair of fairly big birds chased each other into the top of a big old oak tree screeching as they went. They continued their slanging match for a couple of minutes and it turned out to be two sparrowhawks, and this one appeared in this gap for just long enough to snap a photograph. It’s not the best shot ever of a sparrowhawk but I really like it as it was in the midst of a fight and it sat still for just long enough for a single shot.

One creature I didn’t see but which my host told me she saw during a run through here earlier in the afternoon was a slow worm which slithered across the path infront of her. I haven’t seen one for many years but there are rare reptiles frequenting this place too. It’s a truly remarkable location.

So if you ever find yourself in Fareham feeling a tad disappointed by the 1950’s town planners’ attempts to rectify the damage done by the Luftwaffe, ask a local for directions to the Gillies and go and marvel at all the local wildlife.

The Butterfly Summer

Two weekends ago whilst walking through a meadow of long grass and wild flowers such as scabius, ragwort and bramble it was immediately noticeable that butterflies are now out in force. On several outings around Histon since then many species are frequenting the hedgerows and grasslands. The species which I think heralds the onset of the butterfly summer is the gatekeeper. It always seems to be the the one I see first in June/July and is rapidly followed by the other summer species:


The Gatekeeper – harbinger of sunny summer days


Holly blues were around in the spring months but have now disappeared in favour of species more associated with summer such as the common blue:

Common blue male. I think this is one of the best photographs I’ve ever taken – it’s a beautiful creature!

…and

A comma soaking up some intermittent morning sunshine perched on a cluster of oak leaves

I particularly like commas with their ragged edges and the rich colours of a young one are exquisitely juxtaposed against the green foliage of the oak leaves.

Small tortoiseshell, peacock and red admiral regularly abound on the flowers of a huge buddleia in my garden. And whilst I’m not averse to getting up really close to snap pictures there, it’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, it’s a tad more challenging to get good pictures out in the countryside on some of our indigenous wild flowers:


Small tortoioseshell feeding on nectar from field scabius flower, and

A red admiral

I spent 20 minutes lurking in the undergrowth waiting for this red admiral to open it’s wings and when I looked down amongt the nettles I was standing in it was festooned with caterpillars:


Peacocks before pupation – the ‘ugly duckling’

And after pupation – a spectacular metamorphosis (this one is on the buddleia in my garden, but I love the colours)

A notable absentee from the rollcall of butterflies is the painted lady which was here in good numbers last summer but I haven’t a single one yet. Despite that, lots of other species are out there too, such as speckled wood, brown argus, large and small white and small skipper. But more of those next time I post about butterflies.

Summer songbirds mainly, especially linnet

The summer solstice was a couple of weeks ago, the weather is warm and sunny and the evenings are light until after 10pm. For the last week I’ve been heading out across the fields in all hours of daylight and the wildlife has changed significantly. Until a few weeks ago there was alot of bird activity around the nests and I could watch whitethroat and blackcap in the same place for several weeks before that.


Common whitethroat about to head for the nest

The birds are still around but they have dispersed and a tad more legwork is required to see the same species I was seeing 2-3 weeks ago. But now, the first broods of the next generation have all fledged and while my garden has played host to families of starling, great tit, and goldfinch – the fledglings easily distinguished from the adults by their lack of a crimson face – further afield, the hedgerows are thronged with linnet, whitethroat, reed bunting, corn bunting and yellowhammer.


An adult goldfinch and two fledglings on the niger seed feeder in my garden. The speckled brown and lack of a red face makes the youngsters easy to identify.

Another finch of which there are many adults and fledglings in the countryside are linnet. Linnet are one of my favourite birds for several reasons: they are delightful to look at with their cerise breast patches, they have a lovely song as they fly overhead and as long as I don’t do anything daft they will often sit tight and let me get really close to photograph them.


A cock linnet, underlit by the late evening sun, showing several diagnostic freatures including the cerise breast, grey head and pale grey grey cheekspot and the crimson spot on the forehead

Rather interestingly the taxonomic nomenclature is Carduelis cannabina, which approximately translates from the Latin as the ‘cannabis finch’! The linnets diet consists of small seeds so I imagine the name derives from the days when hemp was grown to make rope and they were seen in numbers feeding on the seeds.

There is a field of oil seed rape on the edge of Histon which I had always imagined to be devoid of wildlife but in the last few weeks families of linnet, reed bunting, greenfinch and whitethroat are regularly perched on top of the rape plants.


Greenfinch male in the middle of the rape field

The rape seed pods are full of small black seeds and if you squeeze one seed between your fingers there’s enough oil in it to make the ends of your thumb and forefinger really greasy, so it’s easy to see why rape is a lucrative crop and why it is a good energy source for songbirds.


Female linnet perched on top of a hawthorn tree at the edge of the rape field, she doesn’t have the cerise breast patches of the male, but lovely colours none the less

Linnet are migrant and resident breeders and passage and winter visitors. In the winter they can be seen in flocks of several hundred over farmland and often mingle with other finches. There conservation status is red due to population decline over the last forty years even though the European population numbers between 10 and 30 million pairs! Despite the overall numbers, along with a multitude of other bird species they are the victims of habitat destruction and the systemic use of herbicides which kill off their food supplies.


Cock linnet perched on top of an apple tree also on the edge of the rape field…

… and another one sitting on power lines. Look at the colour of that breast – they’re beautiful birds!

So if you can’t think of anything else to do this weekend and you feel like some gentle excercise and peace and quiet take a walk in the countryside and keep your eyes open for all the songbirds.

Many species of butterfly including large and small white, red admiral, small tortoiseshell, ringlet and small skippers were flapping lazily around the hedges on Guns Lane this morning, basking in the warm sunshine and I saw the first gatekeepers of the year today too:

A gatekeeper probing for nectar in ragwort flowers

All in all, it’s well worth a trip to the countryside armed with a pair of binoculars!

Favourite wildlife moments of 2010

As we rush pell mell towards 2011 I thought I’d compile a list of my top 10 wildlife moments of 2010. I decided a little over a year ago that I was going to start a blog but it took until September of this year to actually get on the case and do it. But now it is up and running I’ve realised it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’ve always derived a huge amount of pleasure from watching wildlife wherever I’ve travelled, in the UK and to more exotic locations. From snorkelling with green turtles over the coral reefs of the Seychelles to kayaking with orcas in the Canadian Pacific Ocean… and sitting in my dining room in Histon watching numerous species of small songbird frequenting my garden in the freezing winter weather.

But in 2010 these have been my favourite wildlife events (mostly within around 2 miles of where I live!):

10. Starting ‘The Naturephile’ and realising there are people out there who want to read it.

9. Garden spider: my garden was full of these little predators in September and October, filling my garden with webs such that negotiating the gauntlet to put the bins out became my job. Non-negotiable. I posted on them in October (post entitled ‘Araneus diadematus‘) when I got a great series of pictures of Shelob consuming a much smaller male just outside my back door:

That’s him wrapped up in the parcel of silk. Lunch.

8. Swifts in Histon: My photographic skills aren’t up to capturing good photographs of swifts but there were numerous individuals in the air all over the village in 2010. They were screeching up Station Road in Impington as I cycled home from work and 20-30 were regularly hunting insects over the fields north of Histon. There was a period in mid summer when every time a window or door was opened at home they could be heard overhead.  I hope they return here in the same numbers next year when I’ll try harder to get some pictures to share with you.

7. Marsh harrier in Histon: It’s very exciting to see big, rare birds of prey, particularly when they’re not expected. After the harvest this year there was a spell of several weeks where virtually all the birds seemed to have disappeared from my normal walking route. And one morning whilst mooching across the field lamenting the fact, a BIG bird hoved into view, low and approximately a quarter of a mile away. So calling the dog to heel, we sat down and waited. It flew to the opposite side of the field and quartered the long grass the full length of the field right in front of me – around 150-200m away – it was an immature male marsh harrier:

Marsh harrier hunting on the edge of Histon


After failing to find prey he ascended to approximately treetop height and disappeared over Histon to the south heading towards Cambridge.

6. Bullfinch: unlike fruit farmers I love bullfinch – they’re exquisite. When I was a child at home they were regular winter visitors but since then they have become exceedingly uncommon. I saw two in a tree near Girton a couple of months ago whilst walking with my ornithologist friend, David, and since then have seen them in and around Guns Lane in Histon several times. On one ocasion there were four, so I’ve gone from seeing on average one every 3-4 years to seeing 3-4 individuals at one time. A cock bullfinch flying over low against a royal blue sky is a sight to behold! Alas, I’ve no photographs yet, but hopefully this time next year…

5. Waxwing: My encounter with waxwing was described in a recent post simply entitled ‘The Waxwing‘. Myself and my friend Joe spent a freezing cold hour lurking under rowan trees on Brimley Road in north Cambridge and were very adequately rewarded with the presence of seven waxwing, which as well as being wonderfully photogenic were also highly amenable to being photographed. Consequently I managed to get a few nice pictures despite the filthy weather and low light:


Waxwing – Bombycilla garrulus – what a beauty!

There have since seen reports that there are waxwing in Histon. And this week I saw two starling-sized birds with crests amongst a flock of 20 redwing which were flying around near Cottenham Road which could have been waxwing. So far unconfirmed, but will keep looking.

4. Dragonflies: Dragonflies are amazing creatures, and this year I have discovered that a fallow field on the edge of Histon is alive with them from May through to September/October and they offer excellent photographic opportunities. If at rest they seem to be relatively fearless unless I make any sudden or threatening movements:


The blue body of the male broad bodied chaser (Libellula depressa) in my garden, above and the yellow body of the female in a hedgerow, below:


On a sunny day in the countryside, especially near a river or lake, it’s difficult to avoid dragonflies and damselflies. And they’re very entertaining to watch.


Common blue damselfly at Milton Country Park, Cambridge

My Dad told me he was once sitting in the sun in my Grandmothers fruit garden in Denmark when a dragonfly landed on his thumb. He managed not to flinch as it landed so it remained in situ for a couple of minutes before flying off. It returned a short time later carrying a fly and sat on the Old Mans’ thumb and completely devoured its meal.

3. Histon Heron: The shenanigans with the heron were described in my post from last week – ‘Hungry Heron‘ so you can read the story and see the photographs there,  or follow the link to the video clip from here.

The Histon heron – a finely honed fishing machine

The story has moved on a tad since I posted. My friend Chris, whose garden is hosting the heron, emailed to say he had a second bird visiting which managed to negotiate the intricate system of wires comprising the anti-heron device around the pond and steal some fish. And more alarmingly was caught fighting with heron number one who is obviously keen to protect his interest in the supply of fresh fish available in Chris’s garden. I shall report developments as they occur.

2. Butterflies in Histon: this one came about after reading about the Big Butterfly Count in August. There were numerous butterfly species in and around Histon so my daughter, Sophie, and myself went into the fields and counted numbers of species for the requisite 15 minutes. The number of species and the number of individuals was amazing. We saw peacock, red admiral, painted lady, gatekeeper, large white, small white, green veined white, small copper, brown argus, common blue, and ringlet!

Brown argus

Common blue

Gatekeeper

There were also small heath, comma, speckled wood and holly blue in the vicinity which we didn’t count during our 15 minute slot. We’ll continue to do the survey in future years and report the findings here.

1. Seeing a wild badger with Sophie: no photographs from this trip, alas, but it was a great moment. We ventured into Knapwell Wood in Cambridgeshire with my friend, Woody, late in the evening, just before dusk, and staying downwind and as quiet as possible all the way, we managed to get very close to the badger set. We then waited… and waited, and we heard the badgers crashing around in the undergrowth. No animals appeared in view so Sophie crouched down and fell asleep squatting on her haunches…, to be woken up after 20 minutes or so as a young badger ambled up the path towards us. He must have caught our smell as he suddenly stopped 6-7m away and sniffed the air for a minute or two before turning tail and disappearing back down the track. Sophie was very excited but managed to keep quiet until we had emerged from the wood. Listening to an ancient wood prepare for the night with some creatures bedding down whilst others are waking up is a magical way to spend an evening. And Sophie seeing wild badgers for the first time in the middle of the wood made this my favourite moment of 2010.

Have a great Christmas and I’m really looking forward to sharing my posts with you in 2011.

Best wishes

Finn