Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Whixall Moss

There's a lot to cram in to the summer season if one is serious about one's butterflies and dragonflies! Whilst birds are my main thing and I don't personally have a great inclination to go around seeing the same insects year in year out, I'm still keen to see the various species at least once. This means that at some point I was going to have to go to somewhere like Whixmall Moss, a floating peat bog habitat on the Welsh Borders, in order to catch up with acidic pool specialists like White-faced Darter and also the Large Heath butterfly. This was by far the nearest location to Oxford for these species which otherwise are to be found much further north. A couple of weeks ago on the Variable Damselfly trip, whilst Peter Law and I were discussing places we were wanting to visit we found a common interest in visiting this reserve and so a plan had been hatched. When Peter suggested a Monday visit I was happy to accept (this being the least productive work day for me) so it was that around 8 a.m. we rendezvous'd under the A34 flyover by the the Pear Tree Park & Ride and set off in the Gnome mobile for our destination some two and half hours away. It's always nice to be heading away from Oxford at this time in the morning whilst huge jams are piling up going the other way. The M42 was it's usual busy self but I treated myself to the M6 Toll as usual (one of my driving indulgences) and after a hectic one-junction hop on the M6 we were onto the relative quiet of the A5 and A41. As we sped along Peter would fret about the weather from time to time which, whilst still bright, was rather cloudy and not ideal for butterfly hunting. The journey was uneventful until right at the end when we got stuck behind a herd of cows and then had to decide whether the Sat Nav knew what she was talking about when she suggested an unmarked track heading along the side of the canal. We took a punt and it turned out that she was right as we soon found ourselves parking up at Roundthorn Bridge, one of the two ways into the reserve. Fortunately the weather appeared to be on our side and the cloud was lifting as we arrived with warm bright conditions and even patches of clear blue sky. According to Peter poor weather can often be a problem at this reserve which seems to attract the cloud so we were lucky today. As we got ready a Sedge Warbler flitted about in the ditch opposite us.

As far as reserve amenities were concerned it was fairly minimalist with there being nothing more than a layby and a few maps to help you. To be honest the maps were fairly useless as well as they didn't seem to include half the tracks that criss-crossed the reserve. We wandered along the path through a grove of Silver Birch where I found a clump of Climbing Corydalis nestled in amongst the bracken - a species that one doesn't tend to find back in Oxon.

Climbing Corydalis - excuse my hand in the shot, it's the only way to get the autofocus to work!
Then suddenly we were out in the reserve proper. It's interesting because at first sight it just looked like some open heathland though with fewer scrubby bushes than one might expect. It was only when one looked more closely that one could see that between the paths it was in many places made up of bogs populated by Sphagnum Moss and very treacherous underfoot. This was the acid floating peak bog habitat that makes Whixall Moss unique.

Whixall Moss Reserve, at first sight rather unassuming

It wasn't long before we found our first target when a butterfly flitted by with a rather floppy but surprisingly fast flight. Peter immediately recognised it as one of our target species, the Large Heath butterfly, a new species for me. After I got my eye in I found that it was relatively straight-forward to differentiate them from the Meadow Browns and Ringlets with the colouring of lower underwing giving it a more pale sandy impression in flight and of course when viewed closely one could often pick out the large spots on the underwing as well. I soon learnt though that whilst this butterfly was very numerous it was also very hard to pin down. They rarely seemed to settle and when they did so they were easily spooked so photos were hard to come by.

A Large Heath during a rare moment when it settled
Please at having at least seen our first target so quickly we wandered on up the track where we soon discovered a small pond on our right. This turned out to be occupied by several bully-boy Four-spotted Chasers who were harassing a couple of much smaller White-faced Darters. So that was both our targets achieved pretty quickly - very satisfying! 

The pool with Peter checking out his back of the camera shots
Now it was just a question of getting some photos. We spent a while trying to photograph them though there were on the far side of the pool so it wasn't so easy. All the while Large Heaths flitted about - tantalisingly close but never settling.

Male White-faced Darter showing off its white face

After a while we decided to try to find the big pool that Peter remembered from last time though he wasn't sure exactly where it was. Having done my usual pre-trip research, I'd come to the conclusion from the map that it was located to the north west of the reserve not far from where we were, where the large "White-faced Darter" logo was on the map. A reasonable enough conclusion you'd think though Peter wasn't so sure. In the end he humoured me and we wandered down a track which was clearly heading away from the right habitat: you could tell because the Large Heaths were being replaced with Meadow Browns, Ringlets and Speckled Woods. We didn't find the pool though we did come across another small one, in the typical rectangular shape for the reserve since they were formed from old peat cutting trenches. This one looked great but had little more that a couple of Four-spots and a few damselflies. We did however find a nice little patch of heather where we managed at last to score a settled and nicely posing Large Heath.

Shame it was upside down!
I did manage to find a Large Red Damselfly at the pond
Having realised that the map was useless I let Peter get on with the task of finding the other pool which he duly did. This was still small though certainly larger than the one's we'd seen so far and had several Four-spots but also several White-faced Darters as well. What's more there were some nice boardwalks around the edge on which the Darters would occasionally settle, offering some better photographic opportunities. We both set about taking some photos.

The bigger pool

Various White-faced Darters though sadly my super-zoom doesn't really do them justice

After a while I'd had my fill though Peter seemed keen on taking more shots. Given the poor quality of my camera for dragonflies (as you can see from above) I knew that there wasn't much point in trying too hard so I wandered off to a much larger looking pond that we'd come across on the way to this one. The reason for this was that I was quite keen to see if I could find a bonus Common Hawker, not one of the key species here but it was the sort of acid moorland habitat in which they could be found. The large lake had rather treacherous hidden mossy bits around the edge so I soon learnt to keep to the main path and scan with my bins. The main inhabitants seemed to be blue Damselflies though there were one or two Four-spotted Chasers and some Blue-tailed Skimmers to be seen but certainly no Hawkers. I wandered further along the path and came across a small yellow Darter, which turned out to be a female Black Darter.

Female Black Darter
Marsh Pennywort around the edge of the large pond
Crambus pascuella grass moth
Pleased with this success I wandered on and found some more peat cutting trench pools with mostly just Four-spotted Chasers in though I did find one White-faced Darter. I wandered about contentedly, listening to the calling Curlews and Reed Buntings. A Teal flew in and landed on the large pool and I spotted a young Canada Goose lurking at the back. I was starting to feel peckish now having foolishly left my lunch back in the car so I started to head back to Peter whom I met coming to find me. We both agreed that we'd more or less had our fill so we wandered back, stopping again at both pools briefly for some final snaps. We managed to score another settled Large Heath on the way back though it was typically obscured.

Obscured and upside down
We ambled slowly and contently back to the car, with me taking shots of flowers and Peter of butterflies as we went. Back at the car we de-tooled and I ate my lunch and had a welcome cup of tea from the flask.

By now it was mid afternoon and it was time to head home. However, I'd noticed on RBA that the long-staying Melodius Warbler near Hampton-in-Arden was still about and as it was just a five minute diversion from our route I suggested that we might wish to pop in to pay our respects. Peter was agreeable so that's what we did. The journey back was fine though I soon noticed that I'd left the boot wide open whilst driving off (what am I like?) and I also managed to get lost on the back roads by the reserve and had to resort to the Sat Nav to get us back on the A41 though after that it was plain sailing. After the M6 Toll I put the Sat Nav back on and she guided us flawlessly on the few minutes it took to arrive at the turn-off for the Warbler. This was opposite the entrance to Marsh Lane, where I'd come a few years ago for the Dusky Warbler but this time we needed to head off in the opposite direction along a farm track. It just took five minutes to walk along in what by now had become quite hot weather. Skylarks were singing overhead and there were a few farmland flowers to take snaps of en route.

Alsike Clover

As we approached the location we could hear the warbler singing away and we arrived to find one other person there who had it in his scope. It was doing a circuit, singing in its favourite tree for a few minutes and then flitting off somewhere else for a few minutes before coming back. We had pretty good views almost immediately and I even managed some snaps with my super-zoom camera.

The Melodius Warbler

Pleased at having seen the bird so well and with time marching on we didn't hang around but soon headed to car, stopping only to photograph a rather battered Painted Lady on the way back

Painted Lady

Then it was back into the car and back home to Oxford where I dropped Peter off at the Park & Ride. I arrived back into the bosom of my family home shortly after 6 pm to find that Daughter 1 had made us all some yummy Gumbo, her signature dish, which we all tucked in to whilst watching Wimbledon on the telly. It had been a very productive day, connecting with all our target species very quickly and the weather and traffic had both been kind to us. What more could you want?

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Banbury White-legged Damselflies

As regular readers will know, I've been trying to catch up with some of the rarer Odonata within the county. With Club-tailed Dragonfly and Variable Damselfly already under my belt my attention had now turned to reports of a colony of White-legged Damselflies that had been found in the north of the county by Gareth Blockley on his local patch at Grimsbury Reservoir in Banbury.  I've been trying for a few years now to see this species, making occasional trips to the Thames in summer months where they are supposed to be found but so far to no avail. So when Gareth's find was backed up by Peter Law who managed to find ten of them I knew that a trip to see them was in order.

This week had been rather busy for me at the start of the week and I wasn't able to head out on my usual Monday trip, partly of course because of problems with the Gnome mobile from the trip up to Durham which I reported last time. Still these were sorted out on Tuesday where it turned out to be a faulty soot filter. For some reason the computer seems to think that with a faulty soot filter you shouldn't be able to drive fast at all so "helpfully" limits your speed. Anyway, that was all sorted and thankfully it hadn't cost too much to put right. Come Thursday and things had slowed down at work, the markets were completely dead and the sun was shining. What more excuse did I need? I was soon heading up the M40 towards Banbury.

I'd been to Grimsbury Reservoir a few times, to see the Willow Tits there - the last "stronghold" in the county though there's only one or two birds present. I wandered along the path by the reservoir enjoying the summer sunshine, looking at all the plants and listening to the birds. To get to the Damsel hot-spot I went under the railway bridge by the river and then followed the path alongside the Cherwell through a wonderfully overgrown Meadow towards the roaring traffic of the M40 which crossed over the river at the end of the field. Peter Law had found a few White-legged Damsels in the Meadow itself so I kept a keen look out though I only saw one possible that flew away too quickly for me to be sure. There were loads of birds singing here with Bullfinches, Reed Buntings, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Chiffchaff and Sedge Warbler all heard singing away. I couldn't help but contrast this with Burgess Field on my patch at Port Meadow which is all too quiet now.

The M40 crossing over the river The hot-spot is in the corner by the bridge
Singing Sedgie

In the far corner I started to look more intently though for a while I couldn't see any Damsels at all. Then I found a Common Blue and finally a nice male White-legged. After that I found quite a few more - they all seemed concentrated in one area very close to the end of the field. There was also a pair of Beautiful Demoiselles in amongst the smattering of more common Bandeds. I busied myself with taking lots of snaps as well as looking out for any flowers that I didn't recognise.

White-legged Damselflies: top three males, bottom one female
I used to suffer from hay fever though over the years I've more or less grown out of it. However I found myself sneezing away like an idiot whilst I was wandering about the tall vegetation. It wasn't really surprising, there were so many grasses about in full flower and it was June after all. As a former hypnotherapist I find that I can often turn down the symptoms through positive thinking but this time it wasn't working so I had to do full-on hypno zap to myself in the field. Two minutes later and I completely stopped sneezing. Despite using it for years on clients it always amazes me how well hypnosis can work. So fortified I carried on with my searching in the hot sunshine gradually winkling out some more White-leggeds.

Male Beautiful Demoiselle
Female Beautiful Demoiselle
In all I counted three males and six female White-legged Damsels during my time there, including one mating pair which was a nice total. After a while I felt that I'd covered all the ground in that area thoroughly and so started to head back to the car. This time I was lucky enough to find another male on the way back to add to the tally.

By the railway bridge
On the way back I noticed the they were busy cutting the grass around the reservoir. It was a real shame as there were all these wonderful plants and flowers growing there in the long grass that were just being mowed down for no reason at all. Back near the car park I came across a newly mowed area that I had just walked through a couple of hours earlier, all the flowers now hacked down senselessly. Quite why people feel the need to sanitise these places is beyond me - it's almost as if they want to purge all the nature from the area if they can. Anyway, it was back to the car and home along the M40 noticing with relief that I'd managed to miss the huge traffic jam that was building up the other way on the motorway. I arrived back at Casa Gnome in time for lunch very pleased with my bijou tripette and that at last I'd got to see some White-legged Damselflies.

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.