16 members gathered on a predictably hot day at The Learning Centre at Durlston Country Park near Swanage. Dorset Council ranger Paul Jones gave us an introductory talk about the different habitats and the wildlife that we were likely to see. Had we visited earlier (say early June), we could have seen, heard and smelt the colony of guillemots nesting on the cliffs and seen the numerous different species of orchids flowering in the meadows that Durlston is well known for.
However, there was still plenty to see. Paul led us to an old quarry where, on hands and knees, he showed us the rare bastard toadflax (stars-in-grass is his more preferable name for it). He led us to meadows where we quickly saw brown argus, common and holly blues, meadow browns and a single grayling butterfly and, later on, a clouded yellow.
From the cliffs we spied a flight of cormorants and a few lucky members saw peregrine falcons and a white-tailed eagle (They have been re-introduced on the Isle of Wight).
After a fascinating 1.5 hour guided walk we bade farewell to Paul and most of us made our way to the cafe in the castle where, to top things off, we were treated to fly-by from a Lancaster bomber off Old Harry’s rocks as part of the Swanage Festival.
by Peter Shallcross
Breath-taking views were our reward at the top of a climb from the history barn at Tyneham last weekend, as Andrew Graham pointed out the geology and wildlife of this beautiful stretch of coast, towards Kimmeridge to the east and Lulworth to the west.
We had a pair of ravens circling above us for a while and admired Marbled White, Wall Brown and Grayling butterflies near the paths. Several in the group helped with pointing out flowers like wild marjoram, yellow wort and rest harrow which is so named because its leaf and stalk bundle is so strong it can cause hold back a harrow. One of the favourites of the day was the Duke of Argyll's tea tree, which has honeysuckle like tendrils with purple and yellow flowers.
A picnic near the beach, watching the kayakers and hardy swimmers finished off our morning before a stroll back and an exploration amongst the Tyneham ruins for some.
18 members visited the western end of Grovely Wood on Saturday 9th July. This ancient woodland is of considerable size and our walk only took us through a small part of it. Although on arrival at the wood it had clouded up, as the morning progressed the sun broke through and soon good numbers of butterflies were active along the sunlit rides. Banks of blooming brambles proved an attraction at which they could nectar, and soon there were some splendid Silver Washed Fritillaries chasing around as well as numerous Skippers. We were fortunate to get good views of a White Admiral and to get in the right position to make a positive identification of an Essex Skipper.
It was really heating up by the time we got to the "downland" of Middle Hills and this may have been the reason we saw so few Dark Green Fritillaries which are normally quite numerous here. Although three had been seen in the wood that day, we failed to spot a Purple Emperor but an early Chalkhill Blue - possibly a vagrant from more suitable habitat outside the wood - was identified as was a Brown Argus.
Although, surprisingly, we did not see either a Small Tortoiseshell or a Speckled Wood, between us we identified 19 different species during our 3 hour walk:
Dark Green Fritillary
Silver Washed Fritillary
as well as a number of Scarlet Tiger Moths and a Hummingbird Hawk Moth.
We were lucky with the weather and agreed we were lucky to have such a diverse butterfly fauna on our doorstep.
by Andrew Graham
For anyone who doesn’t know it already, Grovely Wood is one of the largest woodlands in south Wiltshire, stretching along the chalk ridge south of the Wylye valley; an ideal place to see butterflies. Andrew Graham and Peter Shallcross will be leading a butterfly walk into and through the wood.
Although the walk will focus on the wood’s rich butterfly fauna, there will be plenty of time to look for other wildlife and flowers along the way. The route will mainly follow paths and tracks, though there will be some slopes to climb. Unless the weather has been wet, it will mostly be easy walking. But stout shoes should be worn and, to protect against possible bites from ticks bearing Limes disease, and when walking through long grass with thistles, long trousers rather than shorts.
The walk should last around 3 hours from mid-morning till early afternoon; do bring with you sufficient refreshments and a snack.
We will aim to be walking into the wood from its western edge at 10:30AM, starting from a stretch marked on the OS map as Dinton Beeches, where there is room to park to the right of the Dinton to Wylye road on a former ox-drove, now a long-distance footpath known as the Monarch’s Way (GR SU007347, What3words – snuggled.melon.wings).
To share cars (and minimise petrol) please meet at 10:00AM in the car park of the Nadder Centre on Weaveland Road (n.b. not the one off Nadder Close).
There is no limit on numbers. Members will have received instructions via email for this field trip. Non-members (Guests) can join us for £2 per adult. Any Guests wishing to join this field trip must please contact us in advance.
July is the best time of year to see butterflies in the UK as, given warm, sunny conditions, so many species may be on the wing. One great spot in the village is the Community Field behind the Nadder Centre. The herb-rich, unimproved grassland is ideal for the family of butterflies known as browns. Rather confusingly, this includes the Marbled White, as well as the Meadow Brown, Ringlet, all of which can be found here in profusion. Another two browns, the Speckled Wood and Small Heath, may also be seen. The varied flowers supply ample sources of nectar and there is no shortage of the grasses, on which the brown butterflies lay their eggs and their caterpillars feed. The Meadow Browns and Ringlets flutter around in and amongst the grass and flower stems, and can be tricky to separate until they rest and you can get a good look at them. In contrast, stronger flyers, such as Red Admirals, Peacocks and Painted Ladies shoot around above the plants dipping down when they need to nectar or think they see a mate.
In the right conditions, you don’t have to go far to see butterflies. If you have a garden with butterfly-friendly flowers, it’s possible you might see as many as a dozen of the commoner species. If you are unsure how to identify them, then there is a helpful chart available from Butterfly Conservation, the wildlife charity that does what it says on the tin. The chart shows 17 of the commoner butterflies and 3 common or striking day-flying moths which might be mistaken for butterflies.
It is provided as part of the Big Butterfly Count (www.bigbutterflycount.butterfly-conservation.org), which takes place for a fortnight from 15th July and is open to anyone with an interest in wildlife. All it involves is picking a spot and spending 15 minutes counting the butterflies and moths you can see. Most people do this in their garden, but you can select another sunny location if you wish. You can do as many counts as you like and even if you don’t see any butterflies, you need to report it as this too is important data. There is also a free app that you can download on which to submit your results and it has more help with identification and distribution maps.
The data you collect is used by butterfly specialists to learn more about butterfly populations and habits and to assess where conservation efforts are most important. Last year, more than 150,000 records were submitted, making it the world’s biggest butterfly survey. Why not join this growing band of “citizen scientists” to help the conservation of these wonderful insects?
by Andrew Graham
We had an enjoyable visit on Saturday to Kingcombe Meadows Nature Reserve, near Toller Porcorum.
27 people came along and were led by Dorset Wildlife Trust trustee Jim White.
There was a moth trap opening event for National Moth Week, so we benefited from looking at the catch once we had finished the walk through the meadows.
Wiltshire is a stronghold of one of our less well-known butterflies – the Duke of Burgundy. It used to be known as the Duke of Burgundy Fritillary because its pretty orange and deep brown chequered markings resembled those of our other Fritillary butterflies. However, as it is actually from a different family – the metalmarks – the name has now been shortened to avoid confusion.
In the past, the Duke was primarily found in woodlands, where it fed on Primroses growing in dappled sunlight of coppice woodland. However, changes in forest management caused most woodland colonies to die out. It is largely restricted to the chalk and limestone areas of southern England, with scrub, gullies, or slopes to provide shelter, although isolated colonies are also found in the southern Lake District and North York Moors.
It flies from late April into June and hereabouts colonies can be found along the northern side of the Shaston Ridge, parallel with but to the south of the A30. Here it favours the base of the slopes where the soil is deeper and moister. This, and less exposure to the sun prevents the leaves of the cowslips, on which its caterpillars feed, from drying out too quickly. The damage the caterpillars do to the leaves as they feed is very distinctive and can provide evidence of breeding even if no adults are seen.
The Duke is often overlooked as it is a tiny butterfly and can be confused with skippers or small day-flying moths that may be found in the same habitat at the same time of year. They are fast-flying and rarely visit flowers. What sets the Duke apart, is the habit of the very territorial males spending much of their time on prominent perches on the edge of bushes or atop grass tussocks. From there they keep a look out for passing females which are pursued ardently. The male will also sally out aggressively to inspect any approaching insect, and if it is another male, they often do battle, spiralling rapidly upwards in a dogfight. The victor returns to their perch. If you disturb one, the males will often return to the same perch or very nearby, so you just have to be patient and wait for it to come back. These locations, sometimes called leks, seem to be favoured every year by newly emerged butterflies which identify the same locations to defend against all-comers. The females are less conspicuous, flying low over the ground, looking for suitable plants on which to lay their eggs. These flights may take them away from where they emerged, helping to establish new colonies if the right habitat can be found.
An unusual feature of the Duke is that it exhibits sexual dimorphism, in that the male and the female are distinctly different. As we know, most insects have six fully functioning legs, but the male Duke only has four.
by Andrew Graham
Hover over the photos for captions
Eight hardy souls donned boots and waterproofs, braved the dodgy weather, and explored Ansty Down on Sunday 15th May. Hoping to see the many spring butterflies that usually frequent this location, on a generally overcast and occasionally rainy morning, we were pleased to see five species. Crucially, this included the tiny Duke of Burgundy, the key butterfly we were hoping to spot. This species is on Butterfly Conservation’s list of Threatened species, so we are fortunate to have it in the vicinity.
We were joined by Dr Susan Clarke, ecologist, and expert on these (and many other) butterflies. Sue explained in detail what is known about the insect’s life cycle, what habitat it favours, how ideal site management is so difficult to determine and achieve, and how it is now more frequently seen on damp chalk hillsides than in coppice woodlands as in the past. Sue showed us how the north face of the Shaston Ridge between Burcombe and Donhead St Andrew represents the most significant location for the Duke of Burgundy in the country. This long string of interconnected unimproved grasslands provides the right habitat for a chain of colonies which, currently at least, appear to be vigorous enough to ride out good and bad breeding years.
We were very fortunate that the clouds cleared, and the sun came out briefly when we were in a patch of ideal habitat. Peter immediately spotted one and soon a few others were seen nearby. These were males, perching in prominent position to sun themselves and keep an eye out for females. They allowed us to approach and get good close views of the striking brown and orange chequered markings and even to see that the male only has four legs.
As well as adult butterflies we also spotted numerous Twayblade Orchids, a large Drinker Moth caterpillar and a large number of Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars feasting on a bank of nettles.
Despite disappointing weather, we enjoyed a very informative walk and came away appreciative of having such an important insect colony nearby.
By Andrew Graham
Photos: Julia Willcock
On this walk led by Andrew Graham, along with other spring downland butterflies, we will be seeking out the Duke of Burgundy, an easily overlooked species for whom Wiltshire is a southern stronghold, living in small colonies on grassland or woodland clearings, laying its eggs in small batches underneath the leaves of Primroses and Cowslips.
We will be joined by Dr Sue Clarke, an ecologist who has been advising landowners for a number or years on how to help Duke of Burgundy (on the left below) and the also rare Marsh Fritillary butterflies (on the right) to flourish.
We will rendezvous at the Old Shaftesbury Drove, a Byway open to traffic, where it crosses the Ansty to Alvediston road at Grid Reference ST 965250; WhatThreeWords: ulterior.enormous.drilled.
There is room for cars to park along the track on both sides of the road.
For anyone wanting a lift, or to share cars, meet at the Nadder Centre car park to set out at 10:30 and rendezvous at the start point to set out at 11:00. [Please note these times are later than published in our programme, to give the best chance of sighting butterflies.]
The walk will be taken at a gentle pace, but will involve some steep slopes and roughly grazed ground so supportive footwear is advised, as perhaps is a walking pole.
The route planned will take 2 to 3 hours, with the aim of returning home for a late lunch. You may want to bring some refreshment, though, especially if the weather is warm. No need to book.
by Dick Budden
Dr. Peter Inness from the Meteorology Department of Reading University opened this fascinating talk, the last in our 2021/22 series of indoor meetings, with two images of the same patch of woodland near his Oxfordshire home taken two years apart to the day. In the first, the forest floor was carpeted with bluebells; in the second merely a green carpet with a few unopened bluebell buds visible. This was one of several illustrations he used to show how short term changes in weather can impact the natural world, as he sought to distinguish this variability from longer term trends.
In her recent PhD thesis a student at Reading had used data collected by volunteers across the British Isles (recorded on the Natures Calendar website managed by the Woodland Trust) to show that across the UK the mean first flower date for bluebells was 1st of May in 2013, but 8th April in 2017, fully three weeks earlier.
Dr Inness was able to explain this difference reflected short term climate impacts, rather than long term trends. Data for bluebell first-flowering dates and temperature records for January to April in successive years show that bluebell flowering dates respond to the weather and temperature conditions during March, February and January, as the plant stems emerge and the flower buds form, rather than during the flowering period itself. And, though invertebrates react rather more rapidly than plants, similar analyses for the first appearance of orange tip butterflies and for blue tits nesting reached similar conclusions.
In 2021, by contrast, hawthorn blossom appeared a whole month later than normal, reflecting an abnormally frosty April.
Looking at longer term trends and the impact of climate change, however, Dr Inness referred to the paper published recently by the Royal Society. This used records on 406 plant species, some dating from as far back as the 18th century, to show a marked shift that took place in the 1980s. Plants are now emerging on average a whole month earlier each year than seventy years ago.
He showed projections prepared by the Meteorological office to indicate that by 2050, in every other year we will experience summer temperatures similar to those we experienced in the very hot year of 2018. And, unless significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are achieved globally, these temperatures will be the annual norm by the end of the century. And he also showed projected rainfall maps clearly showing that our winters will be wetter and summers dryer, and warned that individual rainfall events will be 29% stronger. A new UK record for of 316mm rain in a 24 hour period, set as recently as 2009, was surpassed again only six years later in 2015 with a new record of 341mm. All of which suggests that nationally there are considerable tasks and costs ahead to prepare reservoirs and infrastructure to be able to cope.
From a wildlife perspective these climate trends are complex and deeply concerning. Dr Inness gave as examples the likely impact on the relatively shallow root systems of beech trees, less well adapted to cope with summer drought conditions than deeper rooted oaks. And the impact on populations of birds such as swallows whose northerly migrations are triggered by seasonal changes in daylight hours. They may arrive at European destinations too late to feed their young on invertebrates maturing earlier as a result of warmer Spring conditions.
Troubling as these issues are, the talk was hugely valuable and timely, providing us all with deeper insight into the impact weather and climate have on the natural world around us.
by Richard Budden
Photo: Barn owl
The headers display photos taken by our members. Do get in touch via the Contact Form if you'd like to submit a photo for selection.