High on Fritillaries

So, in late July I went to the Lake District with my family, and no matter how glorified it is compared with its biological value, Arnside still has good butterflies. Here are the Lepidopteran highlights of my trip.

Near to where we were staying these Purple Hairstreaks put on a great show one evening, but failed to appear subsequently. They adorned a small oak on a hillside, allowing spectacular views. This is the first time I have seen the purple properly.

 

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Purple Hairstreak

In the one nice day we had, I managed to get to Arnside Knott, hoping for some new butterflies.

The first of which I saw almost immediately; High Brown Fritillary.

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High Brown Fritillary

All but one of the frits I clinched turned out to be female High Browns, the other a male, which I found odd, considering Dark Green is much commoner country-wide and female butterflies are usually more retiring than males. Most were rocketing over the slopes, too fast to follow, but a pair seemed to favour a sheltered patch of Bracken.

My second new butterfly came just as we were leaving. I had gone to look on the other side of the knott for it when my mum called me and told me she thought she’d found it. I walked relatively casually back, thinking there was no chance of it still being there as well as being the target species.

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Northern Brown Argus

I was wrong.

I was a bit on the late side, as can be seen from the wear on this individual, but I knew there was a chance. Sometimes you get lucky with wildlife. I did miss a flyover Honey Buzzard, but let’s forget about that.

Fresh Scotch Arguses were a real treat too, having only seen battered individuals on my previous visit to the knott.

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Scotch Argus

The moth trapping was amazing at our cabin, my personal highlight was this Large Emerald.

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Large Emerald

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30 Days Wild Pan-species Challenge: Day 26

Crowle Moors was absoloutley heaving with insects today, I’m sure once I’ve identified them all there will be some rare ones/loads of things I’ve never seen before.

However, my overriding target was the Large Heath, a specialist of these lowland bogs. In previous years I have managed to miss this butterfly while my family saw it, don’t ask me how this happened!

Today was different, however and this time I came away victorious. In total, we saw at least five individuals, mainly feeding on thistle.

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Large Heath

The Large Heaths were a nightmare to photograph, they kept leaning and turning in weird angles, and the multitudes of Large Skippers, Meadow Browns and Ringlets wouldn’t share the thistle nicely.

There was quality in other taxonomic groups too, a female Adder making her way through tinder-dry vegetation and the distinctive songs of Tree Pipit, Cuckoo and a single Garden Warbler.

 

30 Days Wild Pan-species Challenge: Day 3

I’m back in East Yorkshire now after a brilliant week in Norfolk but on the way back we visited Snettisham Coastal Park. We didn’t have time to visit the RSPB reserve, and in any case, the tide was way out so all of the birds were on the sands, too distant to really see even with a scope.

However, there were a few of these stunning soldierflies sunning themselves on the edge of a boating lake. They are Broad Centurion, Chloromyia formosa (perhaps so called because of their shiny, metallic colouration?) and my pan-species lifer for the day. I have seen centurions before but I’ve never tried to identify them.

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Broad Centurion

There were couple of Common Terns on the lake they were near and Lesser Whitethroat, Cetti’s and both Acrocephalus warblers were all singing.

30 Days Wild Pan-species Challenge: Day 2

Day 2 of my challenge and I’m still on track.

Today, I visited Wells Woods in Norfolk and I noticed this moth fluttering about near the edge of the pines on the beach side. It’s the pretty, but common, Common Wave (clue’s in the name). I probably should have seen this species by now but they all count!

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Common Wave

I also noticed this weevil that I believe is Philopedon plagiatum, also a new species for me. They are all around the dunes there (they are associated with Marram Grass) and they’re quite variable.

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Philopedon plagiatum

Other (non-lifer) highlights of the day included Sandwich Terns and this nest of Great Spotted Woodpecker.

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Great Spotted Woodpecker chick in nest hole

Hen Harrier Day 2016: Ban Driven Grouse Shooting

The following piece is what I wrote and spoke for my Speaking and Listening exam for my English Language GCSE (and it got high marks). There is also a section at the end where I unleash what I really think, this section was not included in the exam as it may have been hard for the examiner to understand and may have been unsuitable for the exam environment.

“The uplands of Britain are where many people go to ‘get away from it all’ and to immerse themselves in nature or the wilderness. But what many people do not know is that this environment is about as natural as the manicured lawns we see in parks and gardens today. The reason for this is management for the hideously highbrow ‘sport’ known as driven grouse shooting.

Driven grouse shooting usually involves a very rich man, who has paid a lot of money, sitting in a grouse butt while his workers drive the birds towards him. The grouse eventually take fright and fly over the shooter while he unceremoniously blasts them out of the air with a shotgun. This is his idea of fun. Shooters regularly judge each other by how many dead grouse have accumulated at the end of a shoot. This is why unnaturally high densities of grouse have to be created on the hills.

The management needed for this is extremely detrimental to the local and wider environments. An example of this is the burning of heather on some of our most delicate and rare habitats, which is needed so that the huge, unnatural numbers of grouse have more than enough to eat. Our uplands hold a very unique, internationally important habitat known as blanket bog. Blanket bog is home to many rare and specialised organisms but also has many more importances. One of these is carbon storage. This is a benefit that is becoming increasingly important in our ever-warming climate. Unfortunately, a large proportion of our blanket bog is situated on land managed by driven grouse shooting gamekeepers who show a complete disregard for the environment and the law. They illegally burn the heather on these protected habitats which dries out and destroys the bogs, releasing the carbon that was being stored. This adds to the greenhouse layer, contributing to global warming. The UK’s peat soils are estimated to store 5.5 billion tonnes of carbon, which is the equivalent to 31 times the UK’s annual emissions. This is the scale of the effect burning our uplands will cause and blanket bogs are a significant part of this, being a particularly effective carbon store.

Even more immoral, perhaps, is the widespread murder of our upland wildlife. On grouse moors anything that could potentially harm a grouse is routinely and barbarically killed, without any regard for the negative effects it could cause, by either shotgun or poison, legally or illegally. This includes much of our enigmatic upland wildlife but there is one bird that one bird that stands out from the rest and acts as a beacon to bring the illegal and immoral murder of our wildlife to wider attention, as it is so often in the firing line of the grouse shooting community, metaphorically and literally. This is the Hen Harrier, surely one of our most beautiful and iconic birds of prey. Now, this is virtually only an upland bird, especially favouring heather moorland. Unfortunately, this puts it in close contact with grouse moor gamekeepers and owners and, as a species that occasionally eats grouse chicks, it is unpopular in the grouse shooting community. But the Hen Harrier is a legally protected species and this, you might think, would make it safe. But, oh no, too frequent are the reports of monitored birds mysteriously disappearing. The reality is that these birds are killed ruthlessly and with a complete lack of empathy. Our current government rarely does anything about this, despite legislation put in place by them and other governments, possibly because they have grouse shooters high up in their ranks. There is enough suitable habitat in England for over 300 pairs of Hen Harriers but in 2014 only 4 pairs bred and this year there have only been 3 attempts when there should have been 332. This is why it is imperative that we save this beautiful bird because the illegality surrounding it undermines our legislation, conservation and quite frankly, our morals.

Now that I have shown you the reality of our uplands, are you happy with their treatment? Do you want to stand back and let this happen? Or do you agree that we need to unite for the benefit of ourselves, our environment and our wildlife by changing something. That something is banning driven grouse shooting.”

Now, the fact that the numbers of Hen Harriers aren’t being allowed to reach even 1% of their potential population makes me livid. And we’re not even just talking about the Hen Harrier, multitudes of species are affected: Golden Eagles, Mountain Hares, Buzzards, Goshawks, Merlins, Red Kites, Stoats, Foxes… The list goes on. All of these species are being brutally ripped from our upland landscape by gamekeepers just because some of the rich people in our country want to kill some more birds with a gun. What’s more, the rich people owning the grouse moors are actually subsidised by the government to conserve a ‘healthy upland landscape’. Well, that’s certainly not happening is it? Anybody with even an elementary grip of ecology can see that an ecosystem with no predators cannot function and the claims made by the grouse shooting community that grouse shooting is a vital part of the economy are completely false. Tourism makes far more money in the areas where grouse shooting occurs. Driven grouse shooting is not beneficial to anybody other than those directly involved in it. In fact, it’s far from being even remotely beneficial to the public: increased water bills and flood risks spring to mind. Overall, driven grouse shooting is a barbaric, senseless, immoral and environmentally damaging practice that is of no use to the public. Why can’t our government see the light and ban driven grouse shooting?
Here’s a link to the petition to ban driven grouse shooting, please sign it for your benefit, society’s benefit, our wildlife’s benefit and the environment’s benefit, thank you.

Petition To Ban Driven Grouse Shooting

Header photo credits: ©Frank Osterberg

Guest Post for Wild South London – A Throwback to Spring and Wild Hull

Note: I’m very sorry from my break from blogging which was caused by having to do my GCSE exams and then being abnormally busy in the holidays. Thankfully I felt my exams went well and all that is over now so I can get back to blogging regularly. This seems like an appropriate post for my return to blogging as this was how it was before my exams…

This is a guest blog post for Will Harper-Penrose, urban nature blogger and self-proclaimed adventurer, about the urban wildlife of Hull. His blog can be found at https://wildsouthlondon.wordpress.com/ which is packed with interesting posts in his entertaining writing style.

When Will first asked me to write this blog, the prospect didn’t fill me with joy. I had never really been looking for wildlife in the city centre, it has always been just as easy for me to visit sites in the countryside, which most people would view as being better. That all changed, though, during the course of this trip, in two of the top sites for urban wildlife in Hull.                                                                                                                                                      However, I think it is fair to say that Hull is not seen as the most glamorous of places, but in this blog post I hope to extirpate this stereotype, at least from a naturalist’s point of view. Now, where has my copy of The Urban Birder got to?

First up on the list of places to visit was the Pearson Park Wildlife garden. This is a mini wildlife oasis managed by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, secluded in the heart of urban Hull. It is aimed at involving young children with nature, something that previous readers of my blog will know I feel strongly about, with eye-catching fact boards and creative statues dotted around.                                                                                                                                                    I headed straight for the pond, having fond memories of pond-dipping, and was not disappointed as lurking within were the dragons of this realm, Smooth Newts. These were my first of the year and courtship behaviour was observed, often involving three newts at a time. They are definitely best seen up close, though, with their beautiful and striking mottled bellies, washed delicately with the colours of fire. Very small tadpoles were also writhing around the pond and congregating in the shallower areas. A sure sign of spring. Along with them, my first Pond Skaters of the year flicked effortlessly across the unruffled surface of the water.

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Tadpoles in the Pond

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Pond Skater

I then decided to take a look around the rest of the reserve. There were a multitude of garden birds; Wrens were flitting from bush to bush and firing their rapid song into the clear spring air, Long-tailed Tits roamed the canopy in their parties, exploring every nook and cranny in the delicate new branches for miniscule insect prey and this rather friendly Robin came down from his perch to investigate me.

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Friendly Robin

It may have been better to visit later in the year, the information boards promising me Common Blues told me that, but all around me, spring was coaxing the world into coming out to play after a long winter; fresh green leaves were appearing on the Hawthorn bushes, Great Tits were broadcasting their repetitive song and the first bumblebees of the year were taking their initial tentative flights into the air. Spring was springing and I was loving every second of it. At the boundary of the reserve a juxtaposition became apparent, through the hedge I could see businesspeople striding briskly down the path, I could hear the squeak of car breaks and the occasional horn blast. But, if I turned around all of this melted away and the serenity of the gently swaying bushes and trees and the calming calls and movements of the birds would absorb me and the outside world didn’t seem to exist.

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 Fresh Hawthorn Leaves

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The Wildlife Garden

Back to the main park it was to try to photograph some of the (mostly feral) birdlife at the pond. The easily-spooked pigeons had flown up all around and their atmospheric flapping filled every part of the soundscape, taking me to 1800s Wisconsin and the immense, and sadly now extinct, Passenger Pigeon flocks. They soared in circles with wings raised into a poised, elegant V and departed to wreak havoc in the bread crumbs of the city centre. Many wildfowl and gulls frequented the pond including this immature Herring Gull:

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Herring Gull

What would a visit to Hull be without seeing its claim to fame, the Humber river? I wasn’t expecting much, but was secretly hoping for some scarcer birds out on the estuary, but what followed made me think differently about urban birding.

I came to the river by The Deep with the Humber Bridge in the distance, landmarks galore (!), and was immediately greeted by a Redshank bobbing amiably among the rocks by the shore of the great river, a good start and maybe a foreshadowing of what was to come.

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Redshank

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Many Landmarks!

Scanning the river brings up nothing but a few distant gulls. But, a short walk along the river later and a large wader is seen pottering around among some seaweed. A quick glance through my binoculars confirms it as a Curlew. It allows me to edge closer and closer until I am about 3 or 4 metres away, I fire off some shots but then go back to scanning the river as I am in a more likely place for birds that have come in from the sea. When I finally lower my binoculars the Curlew has come even closer, now this is definitely the best view of a Curlew I’ve had! It allowed me to get ridiculously close, waders here are certainly tamer than in their usual seaside or estuarine habitats. This is one of the great joys of urban birding! Seeing a Curlew is even more special now, because of their well-publicised and drastic decline.

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Curlew

Further downstream, I come to a quay sunken into the street where some Moorhens and Mallards are bobbing about. There is also a Mallard’s nest tucked away in the corner of the quay amongst some grasses, the female who is incubating the eggs and guarding the nest is defiantly hissing at some males who have approached too close. Unfortunately, you can see that some of the eggs have fallen into the water, a tragedy for the female and one of the dangers of having your nest so close to the edge of the water.

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Female Mallard on her Nest

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Eggs in the Water

I come to a channel flowing into the much larger Humber and it makes an attractive photo opportunity, this view would not look out of place on an unspoilt and wildlife-rich Scottish estuary. But it is here, just a stone’s throw from the centre of industrial Hull. The wildlife associated with this environment is also present here, albeit in much smaller numbers. At this point in time I am incredulous that I let myself think that urban birding was not going to be a worthwhile pursuit! Many gull and wader prints were also scattered around on the mud; it seems I missed quite the party!

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Prints

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Channel into the Humber

I keep walking and seaweed-covered rocks start appearing at the bank of the Humber, out of the corner of my eye I see a whir of wings and expect to turn and see small waders; Dunlin, Turnstone or something of that description. But no, Starlings have some down from the rooftops on my left to reap the rewards of the estuary. I have never seen this behaviour before and you can see the characteristic feeding method of inserting the bill into the weed and then prising it apart, looking for invertebrates hidden within. Starlings; the unofficial waders of today!

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Starlings Feeding on the Seaweed

Just behind the Starlings it becomes present that true waders are in attendance, a group of Redshank are puffed up on the tideline and another group of them then shimmer back the way I have come, uttering their peevish but calming calls, the white panels in their wings shining out amongst the gathering gloom. An allusion to North Norfolk, past holidays there were always Redshank-filled and this moment brought me back there.

All in all, this was a brilliant day that changed my opinion of urban birding and nature watching. I won’t be surprised if I take many more trips to find nature in the city again!

 

Harrier Fever

Having recently read Mark Avery’s brilliant Inglorious (for the second time) and unexpectedly seen my first Hen Harrier, I find myself blissfully affected by ‘harrier fever’. Ever since I read Inglorious and learned of the Hen Harrier’s plight I have longed to see one. That all changed one evening at Alkborough Flats this February…

Perhaps it’s human nature to defend the underdog (which the Hen Harrier certainly is in the context of illegal persecution)? Perhaps it’s the bird’s undeniable classiness and elegance? Perhaps it’s that the harrier is the pinnacle of evolution in the form of a vole-hunting machine? In any case there is something irresistible about Hen Harriers, something that makes one rejoice whenever one is seen. For some reason, I have always seen the Hen Harrier as a special bird, early memories of seeing a female pictured in my dad’s Collins Gem field guide prove this. I imagined it chasing chickens (it is a HEN harrier after all, but now I now that Moor Hen is an old name for Red Grouse which makes much more sense…) or sitting in the heather of the uplands in Britain or Northern Europe. I always thought to myself how beautiful, intricately marked and well camouflaged it looked. Strangely, it was not a bird that I ever envisaged seeing, maybe I could sense the illegal persecution?

One cold, February evening me and my family paid a visit to Alkborough Flats in the hope of seeing a Starling murmuration. We did see one, although it was very far away and the light levels were falling rapidly, it was still a sight to behold, the flock twisting and turning like a shoal of avian fish. But before this we were seated in a hide waiting for something to happen.

Redshanks pottered around the pools before us while a considerable roost of lapwing was forming on the mud. A dark shape drifted over the reeds, wings raised, quartering the ground intensely in the edge of my vision. A Marsh Harrier. A lovely bird to see, although quite a common sight on the reedbeds of East Yorkshire. This bird is followed by another and they both float left over the marsh. Suddenly a brown bird bursts from cover very near the hide. The white rump is immediately obvious. I know it instantly, a ringtail Hen Harrier. It flies differently to the Marsh Harriers, it is quicker and far more elegant than them. Twisting and turning, it hassles some small birds hidden amongst the reeds and was then lost. A brief but heart-pounding view of Britain’s most controversial raptor.

I needed more, harrier fever had overtaken me, so a trip to Blacktoft Sands duly ensued.  I was desperate to see a ‘silver ghost’, an adult male. Blacktoft started off with prolonged views of many Marsh Harriers and then another ringtail made an appearance, again drifting confidently through the air and into the Phragmites. My second Hen Harrier and my second ringtail. Even though it was once again a brief view, none of the joy had been taken away and this only intensified my desire to see the big prize (unfortunately also seen as the big prize by gamekeepers to disband nests on their managed land), a silver ghost. A shout of “Barn Owl” from the other side of the hide got my pulse racing and a fly over of a small falcon sadly wasn’t the Merlin that was in the area, but a Kestrel. A far commoner but nonetheless beautiful bird. There were also some murmurings about a male Hen Harrier that could have been briefly seen.

After this, the Barn Owls did come out to play, there were two in the air at one point, and rewarded us with prolonged and enjoyable views of them hovering and drifting over the marsh like serene spectres. They made me re-think what my favourite owl was and they did come out on top of the Short-Eared Owl…

It was getting dark and suggestions that we should leave were being made, I was watching the distant Starling murmuration along with everybody else in the hide when I decided to scan the reedbed once again, almost in vain. A light shape caught my eye, it was there. The silver ghost twisted and turned in the half-light, the black wingtips forming an exquisite contrast with the powder grey body. It was up, down, hawking over the marsh. The cold wind stung my eyes and nipped at my toes but the Hen Harrier continued to fly while it unknowingly instilled joy in my heart. It showed for what seemed a gratifying eternity and I eventually had to tear myself away from the spectacle to go home. No day can ever be a bad day when you see a Hen Harrier.

I could have gone into lots of detail about illegal persecution and displayed my passion to conserve this truly amazing species but I think I’ll save that for nearer Hen Harrier Day and the Inglorious 12th, my blog is in danger of having a complete harrier imbalance. Anything for a pallid to turn up near me…

My Patch

Seeing as I am new to blogging I think that I should introduce the places that I visit on a regular basis to watch wildlife. I am 15, and therefore can’t own a car or moped, so I am limited as to how far I can travel (without bugging my parents) by bike in a day. My patch which I bird at is an area of mature hedgerows, which have turned into broken woodland in places, pastures used to graze horses and the pools which form in these pastures. I will refer to this area as ‘Priory Fields’.

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Priory Fields

It is very accessible for me, being only a 10 minute walk away, and is probably the best birding location in the (very) local area. As I said, it is an area of pastures with mixed mature hedgerows, a feature now sadly disappearing from much of the lowland farmland, in my area at least. Some of my favourite inhabitants of this area are the winter thrushes and they are abundant here. Especially Redwing and Blackbird along with smaller numbers of Mistle Thrush and Fieldfare. It is magical to walk down one of the pathways on a crisp morning in a corridor of trees and hear the alarm calls ring out, forming a pleasant chorus of chucks, seeps and rattles which is one of the quintessential sounds of winter.

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Redwing

The pools in the pastures are quite a unique feature of this area of farmland, being full pretty much all year round, and support species which would not be present on normal farmland. For example they are a local hotspot for gulls; mainly Black-Headed, Herring and Common gulls and occasionally Mediterranean Gulls, although I have never seen them here. They also periodically attract migrating waders including Little Ringed Plover.

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One of the Pools

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Mixed Flock of Gulls

Other birds living here include decent numbers of Buzzards, Sparrowhawks, Yellowhammers and Bullfinches are also reasonably common; one of my favourite birds. Along with all the regular farmland and garden birds other relative rarities have occaisionally been reported such as Peregrines and Red Kites. On the other side of my village there is more farmland which is more crop-based but holds large numbers of wintering Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting along with Lesser Redpoll, Roe Deer, Skylarks and Tree Sparrow. Here, last summer, I was surprised to see a male Black-Tailed Skimmer dragonfly, something I really was not expecting to see. This just goes to show that even humble arable farmland can sometimes surprise you!

To see other wildlife, namely invertebrates, I usually visit my local botanical gardens. There is a meadow there that, at the right time in summer can put on a spectacular show. All of the common garden butterflies occur here along with Speckled Wood, Ringlet, Meadow Brown and even Small Copper. It is late summer when this meadow, bordered by woods and a lake, is at its best. With the golden light just beginning to fade away through the swathes of grass and the bronzing, brittle leaves on the trees, I found myself there last summer. The air was hazy and balmy and huge numbers of dragonflies whirled around my head and up to the treetops. Changing direction with crackles of gauze wings, they pursued their prey, the myriad of small flying insects. All of this activity made their wings glisten against the August sun and sent me into a trance of happiness.

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