Tag Archives: isle of Wight

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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The Isle of Wight, Part 2

My first view of the Needles, at the western tip of the Isle of Wight, was a long time ago when I flew round them in a light aircraft. The weather was much like it is below and it was quite a spectacle!

The Needles looking across to the Isle of Purbeck. Old Harry Rocks are the thin sliver of white chalk in the distance at 11 o’clock from the lighthouse

I’d heard it said that the Needles were at one time joined to the Old Harry Rocks at the southern end of Studland Bay, around 15 miles away on the Isle of Purbeck. I’d thought it entirely possible but never had it confirmed. And then just after I took this photograph I overheard a very knowledgeable old gentleman telling his companion all about the local geology, so I stood close by and earwigged the conservation.

As you can see, the Needles are made of limestone and apparently they were once a single strip of rock with a gap in the middle from which a single calcareous stack protruded, known as ‘The Needle‘. And then in the 18th century a storm caused a collapse which resulted in the Needles of today.

But before that, Old Harry and the Needles were a single limestone structure and the Isle of Wight wasn’t an Isle, and the Solent – the stretch of sea which separates the Isle of Wight from the mainland – was the River Solent. But around 4-5000 years ago a storm breached the limestone wall and the River Solent became a seaway overnight and the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight were cast adrift on a new island. And interestingly, all the rivers on the mainland from Poole Harbour in the west eastwards to Portsmouth: the Meon, Itchen, Test, Avon, Frome and Piddle all flow southward, and those on the Isle of Wight: the Eastern Yar, Western Yar, Newtown, Wootton Creek and Medina all flow northward, and they all drained into the River Solent.

Pyramidal orchid – Anacamptis pyramidalis

The terrain all around the Needles is chalk downland which has very characteristic flora and fauna, amongst which is the pyramidal orchid and this lone flower was lurking at the edge of The Needles carpark. It thrives on the chalk downs to such a degree that it has been chosen as the county flower of the Isle of Wight. In the air high over the car park was a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus, Dansk: vandrefalk) but I didn’t have a telephoto lens with me on this trip, so alas, no pictures. From the car park it’s about a mile to walk to The Needles themselves and on a sunny day it’s a terrific walk, the views are magnificent.

To the east, north and west the air was full of falcons, songbirds, bees and butterflies, and when we got to the very end there was a historic naval gun emplacement. In WWII the gun guarded the Solent and the strategically important ports of Poole, Southampton and Portsmouth against enemy shipping, and just over the top of the cliff from the gun emplacement was a test site for missile engines which had been hewn from the rock – a hangover from the Cold War. The whole thing was fascinating, geologically, biologically and historically!

Teasels – Dipsacus fullonum

Whilst trying to photograph a stonechat which was darting around next to the path I noticed these teasels which were still sporting their downy purple flowers. I have lots of photographs of the dried out brown seedheads of teasels after they’ve flowered but but I’ve been after a good one of the flowers themselves. And I think this is the best backdrop I could have found, looking out across the Solent towards the New Forest on a sunny day.

Also flitting around in the chalky grassland were hundreds of chalkhill blue butterflies. It was a very windy day and I think the butterflies may have been staying down low becausse of the wind, preferring to be stationary rather than risk being blown away. Consequently they were fairly easy to get close to:

Chalkhill blue male (Lysandra coridon)

I absolutely love blue butterflies. In fact anything living and blue – insects, flowers, fish reptiles – blue seems to convey a unique beauty on a creature, so to see so many of these blues was a real pleasure. And the chalkhill blue is a big butterfly too, with a wingspan of 33-40mm.

One of the curious facts about blue butterflies is that some of them are actually brown, and with chalkhills as with common blues, the females are brown:

The female chalkhill blue. She’s brown, not blue, but still a beauty!

Chalkhill blues mating, the brown female is on the left

Apparently this year was a particularly good one for the chalkhill blue. Despite being a devastating one for most other butterfly species in the UK, there were huge numbers of breeding chalkhills recorded in their traditional territories, and in my humble opinion that’s very good news indeed.

The view along the north of the island looking east towards Southampton, with yachts racing toward us

The geology of this part of the south coast is remarkable too. Limestone was formed at the bottom of oceans by the compaction of dead shellfish over millions of years, so it may seem odd to find it at the top of the cliffs. Or indeed whole cliffs made of it. There is a clue to how this happened in the cliff below, which is looking round to the southeast from The Needles, in which there are clearly delineated strata in the rock running upwards from left to right at around 45 degrees. The reason for angled strata is that in this part of the world tectonic shifts have concertinad the rock strata all the way from the east of England along the south coast as far as Dorset to the west forcing them upwards.

This folding of the rock means that in the east the rock is relatively young but the deepest, oldest, layers have been exposed in Dorset around the town of Lyme Regis. So the region around Lyme is referred to as the ‘Jurassic Coast’. Of which more in a subsequent post.

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.