Thursday, 7 July 2016

East Blean Woods

Regular readers will know that I'm trying to finish off my UK (or GB more strictly since I'm not doing Ireland) butterfly list this year. Having already ticked off Swallowtail and Mountain Ringlet, next on the list was Heath Fritillary. This species is sadly becoming all too rare and is now confined to a few woods in Kent and Essex as well as some heathland habitat in the South West. Part of the reason why it is so scarce is because of it's rather picky requirements. In the South West it colonises open heathland (hence the name) whereas in the East it prefers woodland. However, it likes warm clearings within the woodland so as clearings get too overgrown the butterflies move on. In this way they are know as the "woodsman's follower" as it moves from clearing to clearing. What's more it requires Common Cow-wheat or Foxglove as a larval food plant so was restricted to areas where these plants grow. Recent conservation efforts have been directed at maintaining numbers of reasonable clearings for them at existing sites and introducing them to the new woodland sites in Essex though they are still on the decline in general.

Anyway, I'd been keeping a keen eye out for sightings news at East Blean Woods in Kent which was the site that I'd homed in on. A couple of weeks ago they started to emerge (perhaps a bit later than usual) and last week they were out in good numbers. This meant that I didn't have that much longer before they would start to decline and so I decided that it had to be this week that I tried for them. The trouble was the weather. This summer has been very tricky for insect trips as there has been no prolonged spell of sunny weather. Instead we've had lots of rain and lots of cloud with occasional (and rather unpredictable) sunny intervals. The weather was forecast to be dry and calm all this week though almost entirely cloudy the whole time. Initially Tuesday seemed to have some sunny intervals forecast though come the morning itself these seemed to disappear from the forecast so in the end I decided on Wednesday instead. There was supposed to be one hour of sunny intervals late morning and apart from that I'd just have to hope that it was warm enough for them to be out and about anyway. It was going to be a bit of a gamble but at least there would be no wind to speak of.

On Wednesday morning I awoke to find that the forecast had improved to sun or sunny intervals all morning - hurrah! Needing no further encouragement I went and woke up our eldest daughter who'd said that she'd be interested in tagging along. We got ready, knocked up some packed lunches and then by around 8:30 we were on the road. The traffic was rather heavy going around the M25 with the usual stop-start action in the usual places but once we were past the A3 the roads were nice and quiet. The weather looked if anything to be better than the forecast as it was bright and sunny with just a few light clouds - perfect for butterflying! I knew the route quite well as my sister lives near Canterbury so it was only right at the end that I had to switch the sat nav on. Finally we were off the main roads and exploring some very dinky little villages before turning off a very narrow road along which the East Blean Wood car park was located. I turned in to find one other car parked up in the famous car park that I'd read so much about during my pre-trip research trawling through various blog entries. One was often supposed to be able to find Heath Fritillaries in the car park itself and there were certainly plenty of flowers about though in a quick trawl all we could turn up were Ringlets. We therefore got ready and headed off along the main track, looking out for nearby clearings which I'd been told were the best place to look.

We'd walked no more than thirty yards or so before we came to a small clearing that I instantly recognised from some of my blog post swotting up.

The first clearing
Encouragingly, I found some Common Cow-wheat in the shady areas right on the edge of the clearing. I was clearly on the right track.

Common Cow-wheat
We'd walked no more than a few paces into the clearing when we spotted our first Heath Fritillary. In fact there were quite a few flitting about actively in the sunshine all in a relatively small area. I set about taking some snaps


Lots of Heath Fritillaries
After a while another butterfly enthusiast turned up and as it was a relatively small clearing we decided to leave him to is and to move on to explore the rest of the wood a bit further. He mentioned that some White Admirals had been reported elsewhere in the wood and after a brief chat we headed off.

We found some freshly cut coppices that were too bare for the plants to have colonised yet though in a few years they'll become active. In other clearings we found modest numbers of Heath Fritillaries though never in the same numbers as the first clearing. Still it was nice walking through the woods and I snapped away at any interesting plants that I saw. There were loads of Wood Ants about and we were continually coming across their vast nests piled up in corners of the clearings. In fact the ground seemed almost alive with ants and my daughter got mildly freaked out by them - she's not great with spiders either.

Heath Bedstraw

Lesser Spearwort

A Ringlet


After a while we came to a clearing along the path where we spotted a couple of White Admirals dashing across the path. They seemed to be fighting each other and we watched as they battled for territorial control before going their separate ways. Well, at least we'd seen them though there had been no photo opportunity. Further along the the path we hit a T-junction and decided to head back at this point. 

Back at the White Admiral spot we found another one flitting about and this one looked like it might settle so we watched a while. Eventually it did and I was able to get some great shots of it

White Admiral

We wandered back to the main clearing where, now that the sun was stronger, there were even more Heath Fritillaries around. We told the other chap about the White Admirals and he was suitably envious of my photos. After a final look around we headed back to the car park. There we even managed to find a few Frits flitting amongst the flowers that bordered the car park area itself. I all I reckon that we might have seen about 30 or 40 Heath Fritillaries in total during out visit. We both felt that we'd done the place justice and seen all that we wanted to see so we climbed back into the car and headed off for part two of our trip.

I'd mentioned that my sister lived nearby in Canterbury. She and her partner had recently had a baby girl and we'd yet to meet her so it seemed like a great opportunity whilst we were in the area to drop in for a cup of tea and to get acquainted with my new niece. It was only 30 minutes away from where were were and we were soon pulling up at their large detached house near Littlebourne. There we passed some very pleasant time getting to know the latest addition to the family as well as catching up with my sister's news.

Two cousins!
At around 2:30 I decided that it was time to hit the road in order to avoid the rush hour traffic. Sadly despite my efforts we ended up being stuck in near-stationery traffic on the M25 for about half an hour though eventually we made it on to the M40 and we arrived back at Casa Gnome at around 6 p.m. where my VLW had a nice meal was waiting for us. It had been a great day out and most successful on all counts.

A final Heath Fritillary

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