Tuesday, 31 May 2016

21st May 2016- Sun, Butterflies and Damselflies.

After the disappointments of May 18th, it was a few days before the sun shone again but on the 21st, we awoke to blue skies once more. 

What a difference a few days make! The buttercups in the top meadow have sprung up to their full height and seemingly multiplied too, as the field is a mass of yellow blooms, waving gently in a light breeze. Perfect weather for fritillaries, and Rosie enjoys it, too. We squeeze in a quick game of hide and seek before getting down to business. 

Rosie enjoying the warm weather

Down at the 3rd field, where on the 17th there had been only a single lone Marsh fritillary, numbers are now starting to build. The previous summer had been a bumper year for them, so I'm hoping that numbers will be up, despite the wet winter (and the cows in the field, the hooves of which always seem to me to be a grave threat to webs of hibernating larvae). This early in the season, it's hard to tell about numbers. But what I'm seeing looks encouraging.

Marsh fritillary keeping a wary eye out for photographers

I count 40 or so in the two hours I'm there, which is about equal with the same time last year. They're always a challenge to see, even though they don't travel far from their place of emergence. They have an uncanny ability to fly a short distance and then just disappear, only appearing again when they fly up as you approach the place where you last saw them settle, and whizzing off to settle elsewhere, where the process starts again!

Marsh Fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia) portrait

These are also displaying territorial behaviour, with the males chasing each other in chains of up to four, following each other fast and low over the tussock and then vertically up into the sky until the threat is nullified and the chain falls apart, its protagonists falling back to earth and resuming business as usual. I hope to photograph this behaviour at some point in the future, but it won't be an easy thing to capture, as the flight is extremely quick and unpredictable to follow.

Further down towards the river at the Hemlock patch, the damselflies are still gathering in the midday sun, but now the appearance of males amongst them leads me to believe that there are no Banded Demoiselle there, and they are all Beautiful Demoiselle. Interesting, since the Wildlife Trust specifically mention Banded Demoiselle in their literature for Volehouse. 

Beautiful Demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo) female

The male Beautiful Demoiselle has dark wings and lacks the characteristic dark band across them that makes the Banded Demoiselle so striking.

Male Beautiful demoiselle

All too soon, it's time to get out of the heat and head back to the car. Rosie is by now eager to get back home and scampers ahead, sighing deeply in expressive resignation when I stop to photograph a Speckled wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria) that is patrolling the track.

Speckled wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria)

It's a good butterfly; common but always nice to see as it flits from leaf to leaf. This one is kind enough to stay at ground level and allow close approach while Rosie flops down in a weary huff, waiting for her erratic companion to stop messing around and get her back to the car for a long drink.

Which I then do, and which she dribbles all over the back seat of the car. 

Sunday, 29 May 2016

18th May 2016- The day after the Marsh Fritillary...

After the excitement of welcoming back the Marsh Fritillaries to Volehouse, I was looking forward to seeing more. I expected to see more. And if there's one thing that (natural) history tells us, it's to not expect anything when wildlife watching!

The day dawned cloudy and wet. This is not unusual in North Devon. Neither is it necessarily a problem, since the weather changes so quickly here. It's not unknown to have hail, sun, rain, fog and even snow in a single morning, never mind a single day. 

But this seemed pretty settled in, and my spirits were dampened by the drizzle as I walked down to fritillary corner. There were some snail shells, broken open by something, and I looked for an anvil that might have been used by a thrush, but there was nothing. I wondered what bird it might have been. There is a roost of crow down by the river, but the holes in the shells seemed too delicate for these large and powerful birds.

Snail shells

It had rained overnight and the mud enveloped my wellies and even threatened to pull one off as I struggled through the gate. Grazing by cows keeps the Culm grassland in good order, but their hooves turn the entrances to the fields into seas of deep sucky mud that have had me toppling gracefully into them several times. 
Even if nobody's around, I find the embarrassment of hopping around trying to retrieve a welly that's stuck firmly in the middle of a muddy marsh is hard to live down.

Having negotiated the mud bath, I set about finding some wildlife, but there really wasn't much to see. A Willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) was hopping around amongst the branches of the hedge, but with a short macro lens on my camera I stood little chance of getting a photograph. Instead, I followed it down the field. Every time I got near, it would hop a few metres further away, perch and look at me, cocking its head. It got bored of playing this game before I did, and flew off over the hedge.

In the end, in the absence of anything else to photograph, I decided to record the Lousewort (Pedicularis sylvatica), growing low to the ground and always looking as if it's just been trodden on. I've always rather liked it- it's actually very attractive when you look closely.

Lousewort (Pedicularis sylvatica)

So all in all, the day had been a bit of a let down after the excitement of the previous day. But that's the thing, isn't it? If every day was a highlight, there wouldn't, by definition, be any highlights. And no matter how little you see outside, it's still a lot more interesting than anything you'd see inside!

Friday, 27 May 2016

17th May 2016. Day of the Marsh Fritillary.

There are some days that you know are going to be good from the moment you wake up.

As I blearily opened my eyes, the early morning sunlight was painting a stripe on the wall above my head like a sundial telling me that it was time to get up and out. I just had a feeling that 17th May was going to be a goodun.

To be fair, I had the odds on my side. In 2015, the Marsh Fritillaries at Volehouse started to emerge on May 15th, and there was nothing last winter to make me think they would delay for long before putting in an appearance this year. However, as the stars of the Volehouse show, they were, of course, entitled to make a late entrance. So nothing was guaranteed.

As I walked down to the bottom right quadrant  of the 3rd field, which in my mind will always be known as 'Frit corner', everything looked perfect for them. Full sun, mid-morning and only a light breeze. I've always found from 10.30 to 1pm the peak flying time for Marsh Frits, and they absolutely insist on sunshine. They will fly in wind, but only reluctantly. 

So, I stood there, eyes darting left and right, revolving slowly in the way that only madmen and naturalists do.


I moved into the lee of the hedge. 


I shifted to the other side of the field.


By this time, it had clouded over and I was prepared to accept that they weren't going to show so I decided to make the best of the day and to go down to the Damselfly patch. I walked over to where I'd left my water bottle and kit, picked it up and as I straightened, the sun emerged briefly and out of the corner of my eye, I saw what I'd been waiting for. A tiny scrap of brown like a piece of dead leaf being blown fast across the tussocks.

This was a Marsh Fritillary (Euphydryas Aurinia). My spirits lifted instantly and a surge of adrenalin kicked in, as it does when you see something really special. And Marsh Frit is really special.

It used to be quite widespread at one time, although always in tight local colonies, but changes in the land and climate have decimated its habitat and numbers so that it is now a threatened species not only in the UK but also in Europe.

Butterfly Conservation say that it is "massively declined and now restricted to the west coast of Scotland, south and west Wales, Northern Ireland and south west and southern central England" That sounds quite a lot, until you see the sightings map, which is pathetically sparse. BC also state that the numbers are down by 46% since the 1970's. That's a staggeringly quick decline, and one that if not halted bodes very badly for this beautiful butterfly.

And it is a beautiful butterfly. By far the most colourful of our fritillaries. A freshly hatched one absolutely glows in the sunlight with its complicated chequered pattern of orange, yellow and brown.

And now the cloudier weather started to work for me, as it touched down nearby on some tussock, and didn't go up again. Eyes locked on to where I'd seen it land, I crept forward.

And there it was. The star of the show. 

The star of the show: first Euphydryas Aurinia of the year

The one I was looking at was very freshly hatched, probably only emerged that morning. It was absolutely shiningly perfect and remained perfectly still as I got closer and closer, camera at the ready.

I photographed it at close range and then sat watching for ten minutes or so before leaving it to its own devices. And though I hunted for another hour, that was the first and only one that I found.

But that's fine. The season has started and there will soon be others joining it. 

This year, I will be photographing them and making notes throughout the flight season and beyond. I hope you will check back frequently and see how we're all getting on.

Posing beautifully for a shot of the underside

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

16th May 2016- The day of the spiders

It was an earlier start than usual this morning, and I arrived at the third field at 9.20am. The sun was warming most of the grass tussocks, but in the shade of the hedge, I could see spider webs stretching back up the path, each one misted in a sprinkling of hundreds of tiny dewdrops.

Webs in the third field

 I'd been amazed before by the sheer number of tiny spiders in the third field. With every step, they'd dart away from my descending wellie at speeds too fast for the eye to lock on to.

I'd never really noticed their webs before, though. Flat on the grass, there were hundreds of them, each a rough circle about six inches in diameter. And given that the spiders were only half a centimetre or so long, it seemed unbelievable that they could have created such vast structures, not just once but every single night- for there was no sign of these webs during the day. 

Was that because they were only visible when covered with dew? I didn't think so- I was reasonably sure that I'd have noticed them before; after all they were quite dense tents of silk. It seemed more likely, though not more plausible, that the spiders were constructing them nightly.

In the middle of each web was a funnel like hole with a series of glittering black eyes lurking within. I found that if I was quiet and slow, I was able to get quite close before they retreated into the depths of the web, moving so fast that it seemed they had suddenly blinked out of existence.

One particularly bullish specimen allowed me to get close enough to photograph. He was having breakfast in the sun at the entrance to his web- a rather tasty looking leafhopper.

Eating a leafhopper

I was hoping to end this post by nonchalantly identifying the spider and supplying its scientific name, but unfortunately even with the Collins Field Guide to spiders, identification proved inconclusive. Turns out there are an awful lot of spiders that all look very similar, although, apparently, none that look similar to these. Consulting the internet, I did think I had it at one point but it turned out to be a species from another continent. Which seemed a little unlikely, even for Volehouse.

This leaves me with two alternatives. The first, which is more likely, is that I'm not very good at identifying spiders.  The other is that it is a spider that is completely new to science and in time honoured tradition, I will be able to call it whatever I like. 

In which case, meet Spidey McSpiderface.  

Monday, 23 May 2016

15th May 2016. Day of the Demoiselles

A year ago today I saw the first Marsh fritillary of 2015 sunning itself on the brambles at the bottom of the third field, so I decide to walk down there and see if anything's doing. I'm not too hopeful after the last couple of days, which have been unrelentingly grim and wet, but today things look a little more hopeful, and in the distance, I can even see some blue sky.

Marsh fritillary is not a butterfly that flies except in full sun, and as expected there's not much going on. With every step among the tussocks of the Culm grassland, dozens of swift little spiders scurry for cover, but that's about all. 

No sign of Marsh Fritillaries yet

After an hour of fruitless searching I have nothing to show for it except very wet jeans and I decide to walk down to where the River Torridge crosses the reserve. It's another three fields down, and just before I reach the woodland that runs along the river, the blue sky that I saw earlier reaches me and the sun finally breaks through.

There's a lovely little Common Dog Violet  (Viola Riviniana) nestled into the hedge that marks the edge of the wood. It's the foodplant for the Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary, and even though I've never seen one here, I live in hope!

Common Dog Violet (Viola Riviniana)

The planks that serve as a bridge across the marshy patch that leads to the river are surrounded by a mass of Hemlock Water-dropwort (Oenanthe crocata). It's one of our most poisonous plants but the leaves look disconcertingly like flat leaved parsley, and the plant smells of parsley too.

It's on these that my eye is drawn to a jewel-like green flash. It's a damselfly- either Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx Splendens) or Beautiful Demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo). The females are very similar and there are no males around so I can't be certain which it is- both species can fly here at Volehouse. I get a photograph and resolve to come back another day to try and see a male which may help clear up the mystery.

A female Demoiselle damselfly. But which one?


Sunday, 22 May 2016

13th May, 2016. The meadow is awake...

It’s been 6 long wintery months since I last walked down the track to Volehouse. Rosie recognises it instantly and bounds off ahead, reaching the 5 bar gate at the end before returning at a more leisurely pace, nose brushing the grass and twitching furiously to take in the mass of new scents. They say that Spaniels smell in 3D and watching Rosie selecting and discarding the invisible trails before settling on the most interesting, I think they’re probably right.

The track that leads to Volehouse south side

The top meadow, south side. Cattle graze here during late summer and autumn. 

The buttercups in the top meadow are in full flower, and as I walk down into the next field, a male Orange Tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines) is flying along the hedgerow. Only the males display the orange on the forewings. The females are plain white with grey-black tipped forewings. Both have the distinctive green-looking mottling on the underside of the hindwing, though, so they’re easily distinguished from the superficially similar Green veined white (Pieris napi) and Small white (Pieris rapae).

The mottled underside of the Orange tip identifies it even if there's no orange! 

This particular one is in a hurry, alighting briefly on the cuckoo flowers (Cardamine pratensis, sometimes known as lady's smock) that are closest to the hedge, pausing for a couple of seconds and then moving on. 

Male Orange Tip on Cuckoo flower

He's hunting for a mate, and further down the field, I come across the object of his affections flying in a far more relaxed manner from flower to flower.

The female Orange Tip has no hint of orange anywhere

Spring has woken the meadow from its long winter's sleep and now things will start changing almost daily. 

It's nice to be back.