Sunday, 29 May 2011

RSPB Arne Reptiles

TODAY could have been quite disappointing as the cool, overcast weather did nothing to persuade the reptiles, dragonflies and songbirds out at Arne, the beautiful expanse of Dorset heath on the Purbeck Peninsula.  However, the RSPB managed to turn the day into an exciting experience by way of their demonstrations of some of the local wildlife superstars.  The superstars that I am referring to are of course the very rare sand lizard, smooth snakes and other such beasts that inhabit this amazing heathland.

Each hour, on the hour today (Sunday 29th May), wary adults and fascinated hands-on kids are treated to a short show and tell of these animals by one of the local RSPB staff; this was an opportunity too good to miss so I was keen to look, listen and learn...and hold!

Each of the individuals displayed are newly caught from the reserve, held carefully in separate heather filled boxes and then released at the end of the day.  These are not pets or zoo animals.  They were caught and handled under licence and it is obvious that the wardens feel passionate about conserving these species and their habitats.

Sand Lizard and RSPB Warden
Kids love wildlife

The species on display were:
  • slow-worm
  • common lizard
  • sand lizard
  • smooth snake
  • and grass snake
Each one was brought out and its commonness (or otherwise) and biology were described.  The small audience at the beginning quickly grew, and included adults and children - everyone was captivated.  I took lots of pictures and was lucky enough to hold a slow worm and a grass snake, and stroke a smooth snake.  Both the smooth and grass snake are non venomous species that constrict their prey.  Our only snake with venom was an adder - there were no adders at this event.

The smooth snake was indeed very smooth, with none of the bumpy roughness of the grass snake.  The small size of the slow worm belies its robustness, it feels just muscled and strong.  If attacked at the tail end this can be sloughed and will wriggle vigorously to attract the predator.  The slow worms that I have seen often have stumpy tails where tail loss has happened and the new replacement has not quite emulated the old one in length.

Smooth snake - really quite small
Smooth snake

Now that I think back I can't quite believe that I held a grass snake in my hands - I feel quite honoured.  It was very calm with the weight of its body in my left hand and the remaining in my right, with the end of its body curled around my wrist.  Snakes are not slimy, but dry and sinuous, they are quite wonderful beasts.

What I did not realise is that grass-snakes really stink - or at least they can do when distressed.  This one did not smell too much, but a close sniff of its body told me that a full on evacuation was not something that I wanted to experience.  This noxious spraying is one of its defence mechanisms, along with hissing and playing dead.

Grass snake (female)
Grass snake and onlooker

This was a great event, so thanks "Bob" (the Information Assistant at Arne) for such an excellent talk and hands-on experience, and thanks to the RSPB for managing this magnificent reserve, even with such a large human pressure..

Grass snake
Grass snake
Some of the non reptile highlights were the beautiful bright red sundews, towering foxgloves, roaming deer, and the shellduck and waders, particularly the three redshank chicks accompanied by both parents out on the marshy tussocks.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

More dragonflies & more dragonfly slayers

I had the pleasure of showing a friend some of the best bits of Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve on the Somerset Levels yesterday and it turned out to be a corker of a day.

Our route to get this wetland reserve takes you through the flat landscape of small and medium sized grassland fields, surrounded by thick hedgerows or rhynes (pronounced "reens" which are wet ditches).

Many of these fields are down to permanent grassland, rich in wild flowers including orchids, yellow rattle, black knapweed, ragged robin and a whole host of different grasses, sedges and rushes.  These only survive intact because the local farmers have continued a traditional farming management, which has not included herbicides and artificial fertilisers, and the ground has not been ploughed and reseeded in modern times (if ever).  They are a joy to see.

We were hoping to see the large number of hobbies that stop off at the reserve on their migration each year and we were not disappointed, but more of that later.

Our first port of call was to see some of the orchids up close.  At the moment the species in flower is the southern marsh orchid.  Other flowers currently out are the tall and robust yellow flag irises.  These are quite frequent here.


Here is an example of irises where they have been allowed to completely fill a rhyne:

There was a good number of insects of all kinds including this fabulous yellow darter.
The next port of call was the areas of the reserve where there are flooded peat cuttings which are now extensive reedbeds.  Some areas have remained wet woodland and fen however.  

Along the edges of of these areas the tracks were alive with dragons...well dragonflies anyway - I have never seen so many at this site during spring.  Approaching a bramble bush sends up clouds of hawkers and blue damselflies.  I was keen to capture a dragonfly in flight.  I have not quite managed to get the shot that I'm after but here are the latest attempts - they're fast little beasts!

There is a stand of mature oak woodland adjacent to silver birch carr; this area with some fallen wood sometimes kicks up interesting wildlife - this time the highlights were a wasp beetle, hornets and brimstone and red admiral butterflies.

We were keen to see the hobbies which hang around for a few weeks on the Levels on their way to their breeding sites.  As the clouds were high so were many dragonflies and hence most of the birds were quite far away.  One or two did venture down to hear the water level and just for proof I took a few far off blurred pictures - you can see the hobby holding a dragonfly.  Sometimes it is possible to see them clip of the wings off their prey in flight, which then tumble to the ground catching the sun as they fall.

Later on when walking back from Noah's hide (where this picture was taken) we were spooked by a sudden whooshing sound; a hobby had passed over our heads like a mini fighter plane - it was quite amazing.

There were no sounds of waterrails or sightings of kingfishers, which is perhaps a sign of the impact of our harsh winter.  There were loads of willow and garden warblers, blackcaps and whitethroats.  There were loads of swifts too.  However the locally freqent Cetti's warblers were also few and far between.

We heard a few cuckoos too, but the best call of all was the bitterns with their unusual booming calls.  We had some good sightings as the flew from one reedbed to another.  At the scrape near the Ham Wall end of the reserve, the black tailed godwits (see below) were happily feeding, but the great white egret and heron seemed to have a bit of an issue as they squabbled together.


Tuesday, 17 May 2011

A moment captured

LAST Sunday we were determined to stretch our legs and so followed a set walk in the beautiful Wylye Valley in south Wiltshire.  This valley is a hidden gem, with stunning picture postcard villages abutting the "SSSI" and "Special Area of Conservation (SAC)" designed river, which is full of wildlife.  The water cuts through the great chalk mass south of the mighty Salisbury Plain and joins a number of other rivers, such as the Avon and the Nadder in beautiful Salisbury.  In winter these rivers conspire to flood the local residents of this city, sometimes filling the low lying land until the water spills over onto the roads.

River Wylye

In the past, these flat rivers valleys were managed as specialist water meadows, where careful husbandry of the land kept the grass wet in spring and slightly warmer than it would otherwise be, so that it was less prone to be covered in frost.  This allowed for earlier grass growth ("flush") in spring and the sheep that grazed the ground to get an "early bite" - significantly earlier than other areas around the country.

The sheep, which also grazed the downland hillsides of the valley, were then penned up ("folded") on the neighbouring arable land during the night to fertilise the ground with their droppings.  This virtuous cycle (sic) brought great wealth to the county as woollen fleece was highly sort after, and along with the meat, was a valuable commodity.

The moment captured in this blog's title was the sighting of the first spotted flycatcher of the year.  I managed to capture the one moment that it showed itself before we had to move on (I can't use up all my credit on one image!).  I did not realise until I looked at the photo that it is possible to see the insect that the bird was actually eyeing up (the distance here was a bit of a stretch for my lens):

I also was glad to also see healthy populations of house sparrows snapping up the flies by the river; this chap was posing on the roof of an old church.

Our walk took us along the river banks, amongst cattle pasture dotted with pink ragged-robin, along hedgerows stuffed with cow parsley and open arable fields.

We had to make a special detour to see the downland, but by the time we reached the downs the wind was biting and we were in no mood to dally.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Evening butterflies and slowworms

THERE'S a special place not too far from where I live which must remain secret, but which supports something very special and exciting - marsh fritillary butterflies.  These are dazzling little insects, with a wonderful chequered colouring.

The lack of grazing on this small site gives rise to long, lush grasses dominated by upright brome.  However the absence of such management is not great news for many of the limestone loving flower species which get choked out.  Only where the foot traffic is heavy are the grasses are kept in check; it still has a good population of commoner orchids, vetches and knapweeds etc..

Devil's-bit scabious is quite common here; the reason why this is significant is that this is the food plant of this butterfly's larval stage (i.e. when it is a caterpillar).  I knew that there was a colony of marsh fritillaries, but had not managed to see them before.  The individuals that I saw this evening (05/05/11) were fresh and bright, and I suspect have appeared quite early this year.

The coolness of the evening made the female adults much easier to approach and hence I even managed to get some to perch on my hand.

The tapering shape of their abdomens suggests that the individuals that I saw were all females.  This once locally common butterfly species has declined rapidly where it is dependant on fast disappearing wet grasslands which support devil's-bit scabious.  However it has managed to adapt to live on dry limestone or chalk grasslands where this larval food species also exists.  This colony is however very isolated, so is probably very vulnerable to extinction should the site be managed differently.

There were also a number of common blue butterflies chasing one another, or in the case of the couple below, simply resting for the night.

Recently I seem to be coming across a lot of reptiles.  I had already found small a slowworm under a piece of discarded chipboard.  I very nearly stood on this one (shown below) as I made my way back to the car; it was a case of just stopping my foot coming down on it at the last second.  Fortunately it remained  absolutely still whilst I lay down on the ground ("slowworm eye level") to take its picture...(note to self - must get a macro lens!).

Finally I went hunting for a little owl which I have seen in the local area, but to no avail.  However I did spot these two male pheasants having a "barny".