Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Northern Summer Stuff

As I mentioned in my previous post it was time to fetch Daughter 1 back down from Durham at the end of her first year already. I can't believe just how quickly the time has flown: one year already of "Gnome Goes North". I've been looking back at my previous trips and it's been an interesting mix of seasonal birding: October was classic autumn birding at Spurn with the Masked Shrike, Little Bunting and Richard's Pipit. The winter trips brought a Blythe's Pipit, Black Grouse, White-winged Gulls, Long-eared Owl, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Snow Goose and Shorelark. The spring trip had been my trip up to Scotland and now it was time for some summer stuff but the question was what to do. Of course June is generally a poor month for birding but a Squacco Heron which was found at Saltholme the day before I was due up was certainly a possibility. As it was summer there were also butterflies to consider now and one which in particular caught my eye was the Northern Brown Argus. Now split from Brown Argus and considered a species in its own right this would be a nice butterfly tick for me and so it too went down on the list. To complicate matters somewhat, this time my VLW was going to be coming with me as she hadn't been to Durham before and Daughter 1 wanted to show her around. So the plan was that we'd head up nice and early and I would drop my VLW off at around lunch time whilst I went off to do my own thing.

Thus it was that at a little after 8 a.m. we set off in the Gnome Mobile on the now familiar route north. The journey was uneventful though unfortunately the weather was bearing out the forecast by being depressingly overcast and grey with even some scattered showers - definitely not what one wanted when butterfly hunting. On the motorway there were lots of overhead notices talking of long delays on the A1(M) northbound between junctions 60 and 62 (the latter being our turn-off for Durham) so we decided to come off at 60 and take the scenic route into the city. Despite some nasty roadworks on one section we arrived only moderately late for our rendezvous with our daughter and I dropped my VLW off. Then it was a quick check on RBA to see what was about - no sign of the Squacco Heron today so it was going to be butterflies and plants instead. Time to spring into action!

Just as we'd arrived a rare sunny interval had come about with actual sunshine and blue sky for the first time that day. I didn't waste any time and hot-footed it off to my Northern Brown Argus site before the sun went in again. This site was Bishop Middleham Quarry, an old Magnesian Limestone quarry that the Durham Wildlife Trust were now managing and a key site for Northern Brown Argus as well as some rare plants. With some jams now southbound on the A1(M) as well I had to go a different route to the site but fortunately it was only fifteen minutes away so I didn't lose too much time and I arrived with it still looking relatively sunny. I'd naturally done some pre-trip research on-line so knew exactly where to look and hurried in through the gate and along the path. I was immediately struck by the wonderful array of wild flowers of all colours and shapes. Something to sift through once I'd found my butterflies but there was no time to waste now. I'd been told to look out for a bank of Dog Rose which I soon found and within a few minutes I'd spotted a couple of my target butterflies flitting around and posing nicely.

Northern Brown Argus - note that there's a hint of white in the strong black spots on the forewing which is typical of the north of England sub-species Aricia artaxerxes salmacis. The Scottish sub-species A. a. artaxerxesis has just pure white spots
An underwing shot showing the diagnostic "figure of eight" - see later for an explanation
Shortly after that the sun went it and it went rather quiet. With my target species safely under my belt I wandered off to where I saw someone taking photographs at the other end of the quarry. He turned out to be a nature photographer who'd happily snap butterflies or flowers and who'd been trying to photograph some Common Blues that he'd found. We got chatting and I asked him if he knew where I could find some of the speciality plants that had been mentioned on the Durham Wildlife Trust web-site, namely Dark Red Helleborine, Moonwort, Fairy Flax and Blue Moor Grass. He knew of most of these though the Helleborine wasn't out yet and the Grass had apparently all been eaten by the horses so you couldn't really see it. He kindly took me over to another area of the quarry and showed me where to find the Moonwort. This turned out to be an absolutely tiny primitive fern, literally only between 1 and 2 inches high. I'd never have found it without his help.

After a while of trying to photograph this miniscule plant I decided to look for some of the other specialities and quizzed my companion some more. He told me that the Helleborine, whilst not in flower yet, would be at least growing shoots by now so I thought that I'd take a look for it. Apparently it grew down on the quarry floor and that one could go down some steps to get there. My guides didn't seem to be so strong on his feet though and didn't offer to come and help me find it so I went down on my own. I didn't really know what to look for so just took photographs of all the non-flowering plants that I didn't recognise in the hope that I might find it and fortunately this turned out to be the case when I later got out my wild flower guide.

Dark Red Helleborine
After a while I headed back to the Argus hot spot to see if I could find any more of them. My companion headed over as well and I showed him some of my shots on my camera. At this point he started to express some doubts as to whether they were in fact Northern Brown Argus rather than female Common Blues, saying that there seemed to be a lot of a blue colour about the body on both the open-winged and close-winged shots. I started to fret that perhaps I'd got it wrong after all though I'd dutifully swotted up on the diagnostic marks a few days earlier. I decided to wait around to see if I could find some more and whilst I did I downloaded the relevant page from the UK Butterflies web-site just to double-check. The signal was appalling but I did eventually manage to download the page and it confirmed what I thought, namely that the "figure of eight" pattern was indeed diagnostic. My very helpful companion (who'd now left) had turned out to be more helpful with his plants than accurate with his butterfly ID. Looking back through my photos I was relieved that I had after all found my target species though I still decided to wait to see if I could find any more.

On the left Common Blue and on the right Northern Brown Argus. The arrow in the left-hand image shows how the one spot is displaced for the NBA, forming the key "figure of eight" pattern with its neighbour

Time passed and I busied myself with photographing all the flowers that I didn't recognised whilst I waited for what looked like a brighter patch in the rather grey sky overhead. I was starting to appreciate just what a wonderful little reserve this was with a host of great plants everywhere as well as lots of insect life. I found a few moths to keep me occupied.
Crambus lathoniellus
Grass Rivulet
Latticed Heath
There were lots of new flowers to learn about and I snapped away busily so that I could identify them once I got back home.

Common Milkwort
Common Rock Rose - the larval food plant of Northern Brown Argus
There were plenty of orchids about too, and I did my best to get my head around the subtle differences between them though in the end I had to resort to the iSpot experts when I got back home.

Apparently Common Spotted, Northern Marsh and a probable hybrid between the two

Eventually the hoped-for sunny interval (well more of a brighter patch of cloud) arrived and a couple of butterflies started moving, one being a smart male Common Blue and the other a Northern Brown Argus. Whilst overcast conditions are poor for finding butterflies, they are of course much better for photographing them with lots of opportunities for point blank fully open-winged shots.

A male Common Blue
A Northern Brown Argus

I've not mentioned much about birds so far at this site. There were a couple of singing Yellowhammers engaged in a "sing-off" with each other and Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps could be heard warbling away in the surrounding area. There were also lots of Swallows, House and Sand Martins about with the latter nesting in some holes in the quarry face. Just as I was photographing the butterflies I heard a commotion and looked up to see a Carrion Crow at one of the holes, winkling out a couple of the fledgling Martins and taking them off to the quarry floor where it quickly dispatched them before taking them off, presumably to feed it's own young. All the poor Sand Martins were flying around in a distraught fashion calling away though of course they were far too small to fend off a Crow. This example of nature red in tooth and claw was rather upsetting to see,  especially as the Crown then came back looking for more tasty hole-in-the-wall snacks. I chased it off though of course an intelligent bird like a Crow is just going to come back again until it's worked its way through all the fledglings that it can reach. I felt sorry for the poor Martins but that's how nature works.

Anyway, time was marching on and I had a second DWT site lined up a few minutes down the road that I wanted to take a look at so it was back to the car and off to my second site. This was Raisby Hill Grassland, part of the local chain of quarries in the area and apparently with similar habitat though this site had some pools that were supposed to attract Common Hawker dragonflies. It was only a short distance away and I was soon pulling up and setting off down the hill towards the site. Crossing over a small stream on a footbridge I disturb what sounded like a Dipper though it sped off before I could get a good look at it. Then it was a walk of a few hundred yards through some woodland before I came upon the site entrance.

Whereas Bishop Middleham Quarry had been a wonderful riot of flowers within an interesting quarry setting, this site was much more understated, consisting of a rather thin clearing of land running alongside a stream and bordered on either side by some woodland. There was also some grassland habitat higher up the hill though I wasn't sure how to reach it. Still it was the water and its possible dragonflies that I was chiefly interested in so I slowly walked the length of the reserve looking carefully. There were some rather boggy areas with lots of reedy stuff growing in it. Down south I would expect this area to be full of Damselflies but I didn't see a single one the entire time I was there and there were no dragonflies of any description either. Still, there were a few interesting plants to look at.

Heath Speedwell
Tufted Vetch
Water Avens
The weather was rather cloudy and it was getting late so I didn't hang around for too long looking for dragonflies but instead made my way back up to the car. Then it was a short journey back to Durham to rendezvous with my VLW and daughter. We went out for an evening meal and then set to work packing the car with all our daughter's stuff ready for the departure tomorrow. This took some time but we wanted to get most of it done this evening as she had to be out of her room by 10 a.m. the next day. At around 8:30 p.m. this packing was completed and my VLW and I went back to the car to head off to our Air B&B accommodation for the evening. However, when I started up the car an ominous red warning light came on with a message that the car required an urgent system service. Very worrying, especially since we were so far from home. I decided to try it to see how it went and soon discovered that the car didn't seem to have much power and I wasn't able to accelerate away up the hill despite putting it into low gear. I was just starting to worry about getting home when suddenly it kicking in and I had proper power again. Relieved we drove off to our B&B and thankfully the car behaved itself for the rest of the journey.

Our B&B turned out to pretty special: it was an old manor house tucked away in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by farmland and woodland and set in beautiful grounds with an ornamental pond and chickens running around on the lawn. Our room was huge and done up in a very tasteful style. Once we'd settled in I called up Volvo who said that the error message was a general one which requires interrogating the computer to find out more details and that there wasn't much that they could do apart from doing a road-side recovery if we wanted. I decided to see how the car behaved tomorrow when we went to pick up our daughter and the rest of her belongings and we left it at that.

The next morning the car did the same thing of initially being sluggish before suddenly kicking back to life. Since it was fine after the initial few minutes we decided that we'd try just driving home as usual and then if we broke down we could get the recovery team to take us back home. As it turned out the car behaved itself and we managed to get back safely in one piece though we were all very tired by the end of our journey. Still it had been a very pleasant trip up north and I'd managed to see more interesting things that I wouldn't otherwise get to see down south.

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