Monday, 8 June 2015

Secret Surrey and a butterfly lifer

This weekend (which was lovely and sunny by the way) I went to three (three!) new places with my camera, and with my lovely pals Susan and Paula and Clive the schnauzer, to indulge Susan's new (and my old) passion for butterflies. I arrived at Richmond at about 2pm on the Saturday and we went for a walk over Wimbledon Common - not a stellar butterflying experience but plenty of nice things to see on this sprawling and very varied grassy, heathy, wooded and riverine area. We parked in Richmond Park and took a short walk through it to reach the common.

We were walking near the little river when this female Kestrel flew into a tree at absurdly close range and just sat there happily while we walked around trying to find a good photo angle (there wasn't really one, she was very backlit and Photoshop had to work very hard to produce some actual Kestrel colours). If this shot doesn't look THAT close range, please bear in mind that I took it with my 180mm macro lens!

A gorsey area looked promising for Green Hairstreak but no luck - however, there was a male Emperor Dragonfly racing about here - my first of the year. And shortly afterwards two more year firsts appeared - a rather uncooperative Red Admiral and this lovely Four-spotted Chaser.

We stopped for tea at the windmill near the mere, and as we enjoyed that we were watched by two Woodpigeons and a Robin, eyeing our table for crumbs. Swifts zipped overhead and I read a leaflet about the local birdlife. Excitingly, this includes breeding Hobbies, and increasingly regular sightings of Lesser Spotted Woodpecker...

We didn't find either of those, but did discover an active and very noisy Great Spotted Woodpecker nest in a big tree by the mere. The mere itself, by the way, was a very picturesque waterlily-strewn lake with common wildfowl on it, but not too much 'emergent veg' and zero Odonata.

The return walk took us through some more heavily wooded bits and here we found another year first - a faded but still very sprightly Comma butterfly.

That was about it for Wimbledon. Disappointing lack of Wombles, and also of Sugar Gliders which (rumour has it) may have a small feral population somewhere on the common. Barbecue for dinner and a cheery evening of chat, then bedtime.

Paula and I went for a short run in Bushy Park early on Sunday. This was not really notable for wildlife (though wonderful to hear the Skylarks singing over the grassland) until we were almost back, when we were stopped in our tracks by a superb male Stag Beetle standing foursquare (or do I mean sixsquare?) in the middle of the path, its many-tined mandibles raised skywards. Despite its fearsome appearance it was in a precarious and squash-susceptible spot so I picked it up and moved it to safety. Amazing to hold this spectacular beast in my hand - it's a pity we were both out without our phones or there'd be a record shot of it here.

We had showers and breakfasts, then assembled a picnic and the four of us set off to Howell Hill, a small Surrey Wildlife Trust reserve near Epsom. We parked in what looked like featureless suburbia, but a tiny cut-through by a busy roundabout brought us into farmland.

The hedgerows here yielded a Peacock and some bastard whites, in this case a Large and a Small that actually sat down for photos.

From there it was a short walk to the reserve, a lovely area of rough grassland and scrub with lots and lots of flowers and butterflies. Quickly the species began to rack up - Small Heath, Common Blue, Small Blue.

Small Blue is the star here, according to transect counts it is the reserve's most numerous species (at the right time of year of course which is now!)

Small Heath. Still the only one of the grassland 'browns' that I've seen this year, though it can't be long before more are out.

One of the very many Common Spotted Orchids. I am very pleased about this backlit photo because I a) remembered to tweak the exposure comp straight away and b) remembered to adjust it back again afterwards!

This actually looks like a different kind of orchid, but I failed to pay enough attention to it because I was distracted by the Brimstone sitting on it.

In between occasional nectar breaks, this female Brimmie was flying slowly about looking for Blackthorn stalks on which to oviposit. I made several attempts to photograph her in flight as she did this, and got just this one sharpish frame.

A Crab Spider. Are these getting commoner, or am I just getting better at finding them? I didn't notice at the time but this one seems to have had its two back legs neatly amputated at the 'knee', which may account for its unwillingness to run away.

Paula kindly held the stem steady for me while I tried some other angles.

Several of the small brown 'butterflies' flitting about were turning out to be Burnet Companion moths. They were skittish but I finally got a close and clear view of one. I really think these are most attractive little things, though a Dingy Skipper ID pitfall for the unwary. (No Dingies at this site, which helped.)

I found a large round dip in the ground which is probably a pond in winter. Now it is dried out, with a much shorter, thinner grass sward than surrounding areas, and in it was this faded Brown Argus, plus another brighter but less posey one.

Another nice moth, and new to the blog I think - Yellow Shell.

We headed back soon after that, and hunkered down for the 40-min drive to Hutchinson's Bank. This site, another SWT reserve, is near Croydon and is home to a recently reintroduced population of Glanville Fritillaries. This butterfly is widespread on the continent, but in Britain is now only naturally found on the southern side of the Isle of Wight, hence its absence from my 'butterflies I've seen' list. However, it seems to be doing OK at Hutchinson's Bank and has been reintroduced at a couple of other sites too. We were close to the end of its flight period but I was still hopeful of finding it - and some other good species too with any luck.

After some satnav shenanigans we found the right spot to park (you want Farleigh Dean Crescent off Featherbed Lane, NOT the housing estate to which the postcode will send you!) and set out. The reserve is on a steep south-facing slope and the first bit of the walk passes some very bare steep scraped areas which (we discovered later) are for the benefit of the Glanvilles. We saw none though, but did find a battered-looking Dingy Skipper.

We also found this splendid creature, a Common Frog sitting on the path looking a little lost. As someone who sees (and hears) Marsh Frogs all the bloody time, I'm always delighted to bump into their native cousin.

Moving into a scrubby, shady, woody patch, we found a swarm of these great little things, which I think I've IDed correctly as Nemophora digeerella. The family to which they belong is known as the 'fairy longhorn' moths, a very appropriate name.

One landed on Paula's fabulous London Marathon jacket and posed for us. This presented me with a dilemma - zooming in close on the moth meant cutting short those outrageous antennae. I couldn't do it!

The sunshine was a bit on and off as we walked along the top of the bank. There were quite a few plants I didn't recognise, including these two (now IDed as Sainfoin, and Hoary Plantain).

We picnicked, and a Common Blue fell to the camera. When the sun came out, plenty of these would appear, plus quite a few Brimstones and the odd Dingy.

At a crossroads, Clive insisted we take the downhill branch. The sun came out properly as we descended the steep slope. I have to remark on the wonderful view from up here. Looking south all we could see was miles and miles of woodland, and no sign of human activity to see. You would never guess we were a stone's throw from Croydon. Unfortunately there was plenty of human activity to hear, with some kind of fete or carnival underway nearby and plenty of music and shouting to slightly dent the rural idyll experience.

About halfway down we had a clear view of the field to our left, which was another 'scraped area' and contained a man who was clearly photographing something. We were distracted then by finding something of our own to photograph - a Green Hairstreak which was feasting on Birds' Foot Trefoil nectar.

Paula took this sneaky shot of Susan and I taking hairstreak photos. Clive sneaked into the bottom of the frame as well.

The 'scraped' field was basically loose chalky rubble with sparse vegetation, including many Ox-eye daisies. The man with the camera was still there and - yeah baby! - he was photographing a Glanville Fritillary. It was quite worn and seemed very happy to just flop from one daisy to another while we all took photos of it from various angles. We checked the rest of the field (well, the lower edge of it anyway) but couldn't find a single other one.

We decided to head back after that, as there didn't seem to be much further to go. The walk back produced Small Blues, and a nicely posing Yellow Shell (yes, another one). We also added Holly Blue to the day list.

Back at the first stretch of scraped bank, Susan found another Glanville, sitting on a daisy just like the first. And a look around revealed another on an adjacent daisy, and a third on the ground (I put it on a daisy, which it seemed to appreciate). So our total Glanville count was four, not too bad given that they are really on their way out now.

Thanks very much to Susan and Paula for a lovely couple of days. Both of the SWT reserves impressed me hugely and I'm sure will be well worth a return visit later in June or in July, when the likes of Silver-washed Fritillary and Marbled White should be on the wing.

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