A New Dawn

Well, I am all settled in here in Cambridge, and I have started a new job too! However, I shall come onto that momentarily, as I had some interesting wildlife sightings beforehand.

Before the live wildlife sightings, I took a train ride down to big old London town for a meeting at the Natural History Museum. A wonderful meeting, and in addition, I got a quick tour of Angela Marmont Centre – a resource for naturalists! When we went to look at the specimens, naturally I requested to see the Lepidoptera. How superb it was! I spent much of it just going “oh wow … oh look at that one … oh that’s gorgeous”!

Following this, my parents came to see where I am now living and we went for a lovely autumn wander in the nearby woods and fields. Toby had a wonderful time – lots of new smells to investigate! And then we enjoyed a scrumptious Victoria Sponge that I had made as a belated birthday cake for my mum. I suppose I ought to be modest, but it really was scrumptious.

I’m trying to learn how to garden as best I can. I am not naturally green-fingered but I am giving it a go nonetheless. The pond had been completely covered with grass, so I have been clearing that. I haven’t done all of it yet, I wasn’t sure if I should, but I have done a good proportion of it. And managed to spot a little frog (Rana temporaria) whilst doing so! A couple of days later I was pruning the hedge (which is attempting to take over the garden) and found the summer form of the Hawthorn Shieldbug (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale, the first generation in spring looks different). Matt and I are collating the garden list, I wonder what else will turn up? Domestic cat has – on numerous occasions!

A Saturday morning dawned bright and mostly clear of clouds, and we took ourselves to RSPB’s Fen Drayton Lakes where autumn had definitely taken hold. However, I did spot a couple of bramble flowers! At the end of October! Very odd, or perhaps not? I’m not sure. From what I remember, we saw almost 50 different bird species in just a couple of hours – including my first Bittern (Botaurus stellaris)! Strangely Matt spotted it from the car park within a minute of getting out the car! Other highlights included Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus), Devil’s Coach Horse Beetle (Staphylinus olens) and Ruby Tiger Moth caterpillar (Phragmatobia fuliginosa). For the latter, I risked life and limb to protect it from cyclists zooming past, before managing to safely relocate it off the path!

And so, suspense over – news of my new job! *drum roll* I am now working in the Visitor Welcome and Membership Team at National Trust’s Wimpole Estate. It’s a beautiful location and the team are absolutely lovely! Do flick through the photos below!

Day Five of Megan & Matt Go Wild!

Welcome to our joint-blogging series for the Wildlife Trusts’ 30 Days Wild Challenge – you can read more about the campaign and ourselves in our introduction page.

(Megan, travelling from Dorset to Malvern)

I had originally planned to spend the morning on Portland, looking to see if the Lulworth Skipper butterflies were about there yet (having seen them on Sunday at NT’s Corfe Castle). However, it seemed that my adventures had caught up with me and my body needed more sleep than I had planned. When I awoke, it was a quick dash around the house packing as I needed to head off to Worcestershire!

It was a long and boring journey – no good music on the radio (when there actually was signal!), and no wildlife seen except a dead hedgehog at J14 of the M5 (naturally, I shall submit this record to Project Splatter)! I was perplexed and a tiny bit annoyed – how would I do my 30 Days Wild challenge?

Upon arriving in Malvern and unloading my bag from the car, my eye was caught by something just above head height, flying by the edge of the house. A bumblebee! Better yet, a couple of them going in and out of the roof section – there must be a nest there! How fantastic! I ignored the unpacking and watched them buzzing about for a while instead. I do believe that bumblebees are one of my favourite groups of insects – not as good as moths obviously, but wonderful creatures indeed. I am particularly amazed by cuckoo bumblebees, but that’s for another time.

A very blurry photo, but you can just see one of the bumblebees

(Matt, travelling from Germany to Malvern)

I set off early this morning with a 14 hour train journey, made up of seven different trains, ahead of me. From Bonn to Malvern was a long way to go in one day, but it’ll be worth it for the next two days of wildlife.

In the meantime, far away in Dorset, Megan was soon(er or later) to set off on her own journey to Malvern.

But, as I’ve written in the past, trains are one of my favourite places to watch wildlife from. My previous sightings have included merlin, common crane and short-eared owl.

Lugging a heavy suitcase meant I was tired and spent a lot of time dozing, but I didn’t miss out on spotting some awesome wildlife.

A kestrel hovered over some farmland in Germany and swifts swirled over the French countryside. A flock of woodpigeons were feeding in a field in Brussels.

And as my sixth train passed Didcot power station in Oxfordshire a huge flock of red kites circled over the landfill site. Red kites are still fairly locally confined but they are spreading back across England and Wales, having been persecuted essentially to extinction here.

And for anyone who has been following conservation news recently, in passing I’m going to say that high numbers of predators are a good sign of a healthy ecosystem and even play an important role in it. Bring on more top carnivores recovering their UK numbers!

Even trapped in a train carriage for the whole day, I managed to Go Wild, determined to fit in some wildlife and have something to share with my lovely girlfriend, who was travelling from Dorset to Malvern herself, when we finally achieved our rendez-vous this evening.

The hills are alive, with the beating of wings

Crikey, what a week indeed! It has been a real cracking few days for seeing wildlife – with the exception of Thursday where it just poured down with rain! Otherwise, I have been out and about looking for different animals all over the place!

A team meeting summoned me to Brooklands Farm (the HQ of Dorset Wildlife Trust), where I did my best to pay attention rather than being distracted by the butterflies just outside the window (and the cake waiting on the table for our break!). Lunch was a quick affair, speedily munching food before heading out to the meadow with Steve and Steve (yes, two!). We were hoping for some blues (butterflies), but no joy. However, there was an incredibly fresh and clean Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages) butterfly. As the name suggests, they are normally a bit duller in colour – it must have been newly emerged!

The sunny weather continued when I got back to Lorton Meadows, and duely spent some time by the pond after work. Just wonderful. I have actually been inspired to write a poem by the pond, my first poem in 7+ years! I need to tweak it a little, but maybe I will share it here one day soon.

The latter part of the week was particularly lovely as Matt was visiting. We may have gone a little OTT with our wildlife watching, but it was fantastic! Some really spectacular species seen (and heard). A visit to Cerne turned into a bit of a recce – the weather was just a little bit too chilly and windy for butterflies I think. We did see some wildlife of course, the highlights being a Green Carpet moth (Colostygia pectinataria – my first of the year) and a Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major – feeding on the ground which is a little unusual).

The sightings of awesome wildlife continued with a trip to one of the local RSPB reserves – Lodmoor. My second Speckled Wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria) of the year was seen, though it landed rather awkwardly in the middle of some nettles (see top left photo below). However, I managed to get a decent photo of it despite that (see top right photo below)! Not long after, a male Orange-tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines) was showing off the undersides of its wings (see bottom left photo below) – you can really see that green/white patterning! Another insect of note was a stunner of a dragonfly, a female Broad-bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa – the male has a blue abdomen in comparison). What a beauty (see bottom right photo below). Others insects seen: Peacock butterfly, Comma butterfly, Small White butterfly, Brown Tail moth caterpillars.

In terms of birds at Lodmoor – crumbs where to start?! I’m not going to lie – some of these were heard rather than seen, and Matt identified most of those (although I’m getting better at them!). I’ll go alphabetically:

  • Blackbird, Blackcap, Black-headed Gull, Black-tailed Godwit, Canada Goose, Chaffinch, Chiff chaff, Cetti’s Warbler, Common Tern, Coot, Cuckoo (seen not heard!), Dunnock, Gadwall, Great Black-backed Gull, Greenfinch, Grey Heron, Herring Gull, House Sparrow, Little Egret, Magpie, Mallard, Moorhen, Mute Swan, Oystercatcher, Reed Bunting, Reed Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Shelduck, Sparrowhawk, Starling, Swallow, Swift, Tufted Duck, Whitethroat, Wood Pigeon.

The wildlife didn’t stop there. The sun was at its zenith high above us, and we continued on to our next appointed location. The local branch of Butterfly Conservation were running a guided walk along Weymouth Relief Road. This sounds a little odd, but actually, when they put the road in, they created habitat for butterflies and 22 species has been recorded there! Annoyingly, I managed to park in the wrong place, but even walking over to meet them – there was plenty to be seen (and also lots of prickly / stinging things to hurt myself with, d’oh!).

Upon joining the group, I was relieved to see that not all members of the walk were the usual crowd that I find at naturalist outings (60+ years, ~80% male). Not that their is anything wrong with the usual crowd! But it is always good to see diversity. The walk was fantastic, albeit breezy and I got to see my first (non-Holly Blue) Blues of the year! And a very rough-looking Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) too poor thing!

On Sunday, the sun was out again and not deceivingly-so, it was actually rather warm! We headed over to Cerne Abbas for a second time, feeling hopeful this time, to join another Butterfly Conservation Dorset Branch walk (joint with the Devon Branch). I was particularly excited as I had seen reports during the week of Marsh Fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia) and Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina) butterflies being seen here (hence the first visit!). Would I be in luck? As we drove via the Dorchester relief road there were clouds ahead and I started feeling a little down. Second time unlucky too? Pulling into the car park, further assessment of the weather / temperature and we decided to continue feeling hopeful.

And boy oh boy we were in for a treat! Butterflies and moths galore – including those mentioned just now. The patchy sunshine meant that the butterflies were not actually flying around that much, which is just perfect for photographing them! They were incredibly patient models, posing nicely whilst we gathered round awestruck at their patterning.

I am not going to lie, I fell in love this weekend. With a Duke of all things. But can you blame me? A wonderfully delicate butterfly, and those contrasting colours are just gorgeous! And that isn’t forgetting that by seeing this lifer at the weekend – I have just completed another of my 2015 Wildlife Resolutions! To see 2 new butterfly species this year. The first was the Grizzled Skipper in mid-April at BC’s Lankham Bottom, and now I’ve seen a Duke of Burgundy too!

In other insect news – I also found (I think) the nesting site of a bumblebee at Cerne, plus an odd-looking wasp-type creature.

Nature is full of drama

What a week of drama! So much wildlife has been seen and there have been stories worthy of a TV soap opera! And oh yes, there was that general election thing as well. I’ve written about that too.

In terms of the caterpillars, they are all still alive and munching their way through large quantities of leaves. I did get quite worried about the Garden Tiger Moth caterpillars at one point as they were not moving much, or eating much. And then I found what looked like half a caterpillar! But I still had three … turns out it was the skin of one! Evidently they outgrow them and shed them. It wasn’t long before the other two went through this as well. Just after they shed it, their hairdos look particularly fresh! They are called Fluffy 1, 2 and 3, whilst the green caterpillar has been nicknamed Jade (as suggested by Jennifer Hunt).

At Lorton, we have had a couple of school groups in looking for minibeasts – pond dipping, using sweep nets in the meadow and searching under logs in the wood. An interesting beetle, caught by a little girl, caught my eye and I took it back to the centre. My line manager identified it as one of the soldier beetles, and with a bit of further investigation I do believe it is Cantharis fusca which is Nationally Scarce species. [ID was confirmed by NHM Coleoptera, I said previously that it was a Red Data Book species, but it was downgraded in 2013]. In the woods, one group found a caterpillar, so I promptly potted it up (with some leaves of course). This one is called Fusspot as he/she seems quite fussy about food.

We had a bit of a work jolly on Thursday. As part of being a volunteer at the Chesil / Lorton centres, training is provided. In this case, training took the form of a trip over to Durlston Country Park and National Nature Reserve where we had a lovely wander in the sunshine (surprisingly pleasant weather considering the wind we’d had the rest of the week!). We found yet another caterpillar – now potted up and named (Arnold – suggested by Chris Calow), as well as plenty of flowers and even my first Wall butterfly of the year!

After our wander, we were given a guided walk by one of the rangers, during which we saw some more fantastic wildlife!

Back at Lorton for the weekend, and I was anxious during Sunday morning – the eggs had been unattended all morning, with just the quickest visit from the male Kestrel. Later on, he sat on them for a good long time, though as I type at 8pm, he is absent again from the webcam. My fears were confirmed when someone found some wings and feathers in the meadow near where their box is … Kestrel wings, and according to Sean Foote, they look to belong to a female!

To cheer myself up after this tragedy, I spent an hour or so sitting by the pond after work (busman’s holiday!) looking at the insects and listening to the birds. As you can see, it is a lovely spot to relax at. I watched a damselfly nymph crawl across a lilypad, attempt to climb a vertical leaf a couple of times, before it fell into the water. I saw a bright red beetle lurking in the shade of a post, and a spider waiting for its next prey item to appear. A fellow naturalist appeared and we discussed wildlife, before he spotted a damselfly on a nearby bush – my first of the year! Just after, I spotted a dragonfly exhuvia attached to a plant near the pond – a different shape to the one I found last week, thus a different species presumably!

Here Be Tigers And Dragons

A blustery Monday at Chesil (which is pretty much always windy by the way), and we were heading out onto the beaches to recce a butterfly survey walk. Minimal Lepidoptera seen this time, just one Small White in fact, but plenty of other wildlife about including bumblebees and Wheatears (Oenanthe oenanthe). Other notable birds seen at Chesil earlier this week have been Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea) and Little Terns (Sternula albifrons).

My favourite part of the aforementioned walk was when we came across a mass of fluffy caterpillars, initially thought to be around 50 or so. I started counting … and kept counting … and still counting … there were 157 of them in a small patch of land (a couple of square metres roughly)!!! 157!!!!! Crazy numbers! And then I found a further 11 not too far away – I wonder how many are actually on Hamm / Chesil Beach? Anyway down to identification – not too difficult with this species, it is very distinctive: Garden Tiger Moth Caterpillar (Arctia cajaI found two a couple of weeks ago as well). Since I found a total of 168, and they are a relatively common species – though declining like many – I decided that it would be safe to take 3 of them to raise up. They are now living in a (large) pot with plenty of food. Naturally, I shall be keeping track of their progress and will update you as well.

A second type of caterpillar was later found at Lorton … but no clue as to what it is! Green caterpillars are rather difficult to identify, so I am also going to raise that one into an adult and shall let you know what it turns into!

I had cracking views of the local kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) one morning, it was hovering near the centre then dropped down on its prey and stood on the path for a while munching away / ripping it apart. A little grim, and unfortunate for the small mammal being eaten, by fascinating nonetheless.

I am very lucky to be paid to do what I love, which to put it shortly is talking to people about wildlife. This week had a special highlight as we had a class from local school come to Lorton to do pond dipping, which is absolutely one of my favourite activities! The underwater world is just fascinating! This session was no exception; with water boatmen, damselfly nymphs and snails galore! The highlights for me were finding the exhuvia (skin) of a dragonfly nymph (left behind when the adult dragonfly takes to the air), and two different types of water snail eggs – you can tell the difference between the species by how the eggs are laid onto the surface.

A typical conservationist, I went for a walk on the reserve after work as I had been informed that the Early Purple Orchids (Orchis mascula) had started to bloom. So I duely headed off to find them, and of course, saw plenty of wildlife along the way. The dandelions (Taraxacum) are going over now, which is great fun for blowing the seeds. I even saw a couple of Long-tailed Tits (Aegithalos caudatus), and finally managed to take some decent photos, after mixed attempts previously!

The weekend saw me adventuring to somewhere new – the lovely Worcestershire county, particularly the Malvern area. Matt was leading a dawn birdsong walk with the local WI and I tagged along, the highlights for me were: Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla), Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin) and Goldcrest (Regulus regulus). Moving from birds to botanical, a visit to a nearby nature reserve meant that I could practice my wildflower ID.

Matt has spent quite a lot of time here photographing the wildlife. Below is one of a Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea), a pair of which breed under the bridge.

We Knew We Had Been There Before

Part of me feels I should start splitting my blog posts into four sections – Chesil Beach, Lorton Meadows, the garden and adventures out and about. Thoughts on that idea welcome, but for now, let’s get on with looking at wildlife!

Wait hang on, wildlife is suffering for oh so many reasons, and I want to highlight one of them briefly – litter. Isn’t it just awful?! Cans with the last remnants of fizzy drinks, dirty plastic bottles, torn and mangled plastic bags hanging from trees or caught up in grass. You’re probably nodding as you read this, we all see litter all the time. But how often do you actually do something about it? If you’re my dad (unlikely as I don’t think he reads this blog often), that’s quite often. Rarely a dog walk goes by when he doesn’t pick up some litter and put it in the bin. The rest of you though? Have an honest think for a moment … how often do you walk past litter? Or watch someone drop litter and say nothing? Or (hopefully not!) drop litter yourself because (a) it’s just a little bit, so it doesn’t matter, (b) there are no bins around and no way are you putting it in your pocket / bag, or (b) you’re in car so it’s fine to chuck it out the window? And that’s just litter … don’t get me started about dog mess!

Why am I going on about litter? Well, first it is one of my 2015 Wildlife Resolutions to pick up more litter which I have been trying to do, and second I took a photo of one of my quick litter picks on Monday to put onto Twitter under the hashtag of #2minutebeachclean. It’s a wonderful idea, literally just spend two minutes picking up litter whilst you’re at the beach (obviously don’t add any litter to the beach during your visit!). Imagine if all the visitors did that … *dreams happily of litter-free beaches*.

Why bother though? Well! As previously mentioned, litter is awful for wildlife. It gets eaten and kills a variety of animals – including beautiful albatrosses and turtles. Even degraded plastic is not safe – it turns into microplastics and ends up in the food chain (and likely in your seafood)! Plus, litter is an eyesore, and by picking it up, perhaps you’ll inspire others to pick up litter too and soon your local area will be litter-free! Hooray!

So next time you’re out and about, do pick up some litter!

Ok, now back to wildlife. Whilst litter picking, I could see some Terns about on the Fleet. I’m still not 100% sure I have seen a Little Tern (Sternula albifrons), so won’t tick that species off for 2015 just yet. However, there were plenty of Sandwich Terns (Sterna sandvicensis) diving for food. I also managed to take a rather blurry photo of Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator). Another aim for my time here – get some better photos of that species?

I also spent time over at Lorton Meadows as expected, trying to learn a bit more about the reserve – both its history and wildlife. There’s a wonderful variety of wildflowers and insects (as well as birds of course – oh, if you don’t know of the Kestrel Webcam, go watch! I warn you though, it’s quite addictive!), and I’m looking forward to seeing how it all changes across the seasons. Fingers crossed, I’ll be allowed to do some moth trapping there as well!

I won’t keep you much longer, I just want to show off a couple of the moths that I caught in the garden this week – before it started raining at the end of the week. My catches included a particular beauty called the Early Thorn (Selenia dentaria) whose wing patterning is beautiful I think. I tweeted about this species early in the week, and it seems that others agree with my thoughts, which is marvellous (though not unexpected).

Now this looks like a job for me

As the title suggests, I am no longer unemployed! However, before I get onto that good news, I would like to take a detour over to Kent where my parents and I headed out onto the river on their boat. Mind you, before even got onto the boat, I was distracted by a daisy! The sunlight was shining on it in particularly lovely way and I just had to take a couple of photographs! It was a stunning day, warm and blessed with sunshine – I could hear Chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus collybita) and Greenfinches (Carduelis chloris) on the riverbanks, and we saw plenty of waterfowl including Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) and a rather handsome Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata). There were huge swathes of blossom ladening the air with their sweet smell.

Naturally, I got a little distracted by insects – I managed to get a decent photo of a bee-fly (Bombyliidae) before we took to the water, and once on the water it seemed like the insects wanted some attention! A number of beetles landed on the boat, as did a wasp and an (as yet) unidentified creature.

Onto the job. Do you remember that I spent six months with Dorset Wildlife Trust last year before I was snapped up for a job at Radnorshire Wildlife Trust? I was a trainee, funded by the Heritage Lottery, based at their Chesil Beach Centre. Well, now they’ve taken me back as an employee for 6 months, based jointly at Chesil and Lorton Meadows. And I get to do what I love, talking about wildlife to people (and seeing wildlife at the same time of course)! What a thrilling summer it is set to be!

My first day back immediately set a high standard. Vicky and I were asked to find the Barrel Jellyfish (Rhizostoma pulmo) that had been reported on Hamm Beach – which we did. But being naturalists, we also took note of the other wildlife about! I was trying to remind myself of the specialist coastal plants about, and getting distracted by bees and butterflies!

I even found my first moths for Dorset this year – three hairy caterpillars! The first was an unknown to me initially, but using an educated guess, I went for Ruby Tiger (Phragmatobia fuliginosa). The other two were both immediately recognisable – Garden Tiger (Arctia caja).

Now that I’m back in Dorset, I’m afraid you’re going to be seeing a lot of stunning landscape photos. I hope you can put up with that.

The evening of my first day back saw me heading up to the Isle of Portland on my first twitch of the year, a Hoopoe (Upupa epops) had been reported at one of the quarries. Meeting up with Sean, we made our way to the area in hope. Chatting away (quietly) as we approached where it was last seen, I suddenly said “Is that it there?” Just on the path in front, maybe 20m away, a Hoopoe! These birds fly up from Africa to southern Europe, and some always overshoot and end up in the UK, but I’d never seen one before. What a fantastic bird it is! Just look at that plumage!

And on a related note – I’ve completely now ticked off another of my 2015 Wildlife Resolutions: to go one at least one twitch!

I’m not always out and about looking for wildlife, sometimes I look for wildlife in the garden too. The species below were all seen in my landlady’s garden – the Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus) and Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines) butterflies were my first for the year! As was the Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria), which was rather amusing as I was on the phone to Matt when I saw it, causing me to put him on hold. Fortunately he understood and was ok with that, phew!

At the weekend, I went on a busman’s holiday and visited Butterfly Conservation‘s Lankham Bottom reserve (I still can’t help giggling at that name). That was exciting too – as well as being a stunning reserve, I saw a Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) and a Red Kite (Milvus milvus)!

The highlight however came in the form of (very) small butterfly, darting about in a blur among the grass. My initial thought (whilst it was still a blur) was perhaps a day-flying moth. However, as soon as it landed, I knew what it was – a very distinctive butterfly species, the Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus malvae). My breath caught in my mouth, I almost froze in astonishment / excitement. My first new butterfly species of the year! And what a beauty it was! Much smaller than I thought it would be (it really is tiny!), and unfortunately a species whose distribution is declining. Such as treat to see it. Could I manage to get a photo? It was rather restless, but it did land every now and then. Luck (and perhaps a little bit of photography skill on my part?) was on my side and I got a few satisfactory shots. Crikey!

Wait a moment, that means that I’ve half-completed another wildlife resolution of 2015 – to see 2 new species of butterfly! And what with offers to help me see at least three more, it looks like I’ll be ticking off that resolution as completed soon!

Just before I sign off, I would like to direct you to over to the A Focus On Nature blog, where there are a series of posts being published in the run-up to the general election as members of the network discuss their Vision for Nature (also on Twitter using the hashtag: #VisionforNature). As well as pointing you in that direction because the posts make for very interesting reads, it’s also because I’m co-ordinating the publishing of these blogs (so a little bit of self-interest I won’t lie). I am partway through drafting my post, which shall be published in due course and will appear on my own blog of course.