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Here Be Tigers And Dragons

A blustery Monday at Chesil (which is pretty much always windy by the way), and we were heading out onto the beaches to recce a butterfly survey walk. Minimal Lepidoptera seen this time, just one Small White in fact, but plenty of other wildlife about including bumblebees and Wheatears (Oenanthe oenanthe). Other notable birds seen at Chesil earlier this week have been Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea) and Little Terns (Sternula albifrons).

My favourite part of the aforementioned walk was when we came across a mass of fluffy caterpillars, initially thought to be around 50 or so. I started counting … and kept counting … and still counting … there were 157 of them in a small patch of land (a couple of square metres roughly)!!! 157!!!!! Crazy numbers! And then I found a further 11 not too far away – I wonder how many are actually on Hamm / Chesil Beach? Anyway down to identification – not too difficult with this species, it is very distinctive: Garden Tiger Moth Caterpillar (Arctia cajaI found two a couple of weeks ago as well). Since I found a total of 168, and they are a relatively common species – though declining like many – I decided that it would be safe to take 3 of them to raise up. They are now living in a (large) pot with plenty of food. Naturally, I shall be keeping track of their progress and will update you as well.

A second type of caterpillar was later found at Lorton … but no clue as to what it is! Green caterpillars are rather difficult to identify, so I am also going to raise that one into an adult and shall let you know what it turns into!

I had cracking views of the local kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) one morning, it was hovering near the centre then dropped down on its prey and stood on the path for a while munching away / ripping it apart. A little grim, and unfortunate for the small mammal being eaten, by fascinating nonetheless.

I am very lucky to be paid to do what I love, which to put it shortly is talking to people about wildlife. This week had a special highlight as we had a class from local school come to Lorton to do pond dipping, which is absolutely one of my favourite activities! The underwater world is just fascinating! This session was no exception; with water boatmen, damselfly nymphs and snails galore! The highlights for me were finding the exhuvia (skin) of a dragonfly nymph (left behind when the adult dragonfly takes to the air), and two different types of water snail eggs – you can tell the difference between the species by how the eggs are laid onto the surface.

A typical conservationist, I went for a walk on the reserve after work as I had been informed that the Early Purple Orchids (Orchis mascula) had started to bloom. So I duely headed off to find them, and of course, saw plenty of wildlife along the way. The dandelions (Taraxacum) are going over now, which is great fun for blowing the seeds. I even saw a couple of Long-tailed Tits (Aegithalos caudatus), and finally managed to take some decent photos, after mixed attempts previously!

The weekend saw me adventuring to somewhere new – the lovely Worcestershire county, particularly the Malvern area. Matt was leading a dawn birdsong walk with the local WI and I tagged along, the highlights for me were: Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla), Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin) and Goldcrest (Regulus regulus). Moving from birds to botanical, a visit to a nearby nature reserve meant that I could practice my wildflower ID.

Matt has spent quite a lot of time here photographing the wildlife. Below is one of a Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea), a pair of which breed under the bridge.

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A bit of everything (well, almost)

I know that every week I say, “Wow, what an amazing and full-on week I’ve had, and I’ve learnt so much!” It just seems to be the nature of this traineeship (and my spare time!) to just be jam-packed with cool wildlife stuff. Despite not being able to top the Short-Toed Eagle from last week, this week has seen a great variety of wildlife in a range of habitats.

It started off with a trip up to Lorton Meadows Nature Reserve, a gorgeous place on the edge of Weymouth. It’s full of interesting wildlife (including a nesting barn owl whose chicks you can watch on a webcam!), but the focus of this trip was the mysterious underwater world as the Chesil Beach Centre volunteers and I were there to do some pond dipping!

A damselfly nymph

A damselfly nymph, Lorton Meadows

Coming up from underwater, I headed over to Fontmell Down Reserve in the north of Dorset for the big staff field trip of Dorset Wildlife Trust. Again, a variety of wildlife but I was particularly interested by the range of wildflowers there. Naturally we also saw some animals, including my favourites – some moths!

A Yellow Shell moth

A Yellow Shell moth, Fontmell Down

It was great to be out on a new reserve to me, and with knowledgeable people. With so many conservation people in one place, there was always someone on hand to tell you what a species was – and why (i.e. it’s identification features).

A Bee Orchid, Fontmell Down

A Bee Orchid, Fontmell Down

An excursion to Somerset saw a couple of the trainees learning about bumblebees and how land managers, particularly farmers, can help them – and other pollinators – out. The focus was on field margins, excellent spots for planting wildflowers. Our case study was the Frogmary Green Farm which has made the room for wildflowers, and it had worked as we saw plenty of bumblebees. One species of note was the Tree Bumblebee, and I believe the photo below shows a melanistic Tree Bumblee (i.e. it’s abdomen is black rather than the normal orange).

Melanistic Tree Bumblebee? Somerset

Melanistic Tree Bumblebee? Somerset

The big event of the week was the Little Tern Fundraising Evening at the Chesil Beach Centre where we were raising money for the Little Terns of Chesil Beach. As the second rarest breeding seabird in the UK, and the only colony of Little Terns in the southwest, this population definitely needs help. Although numbers have gradually increased, support is still needed as the eggs and chicks are so vulnerable to predators.

I still don’t have a decent photo of a Little Tern I’m afraid, so I’ve included a photo of Morgan Vaughan (the current Little Tern Officer) from the evening where he was getting excited about the eggs. You can follow Morgan on Twitter at @Morgan_Vaughan

Morgan talks about Little Tern eggs, Chesil Centre

Morgan talks about Little Tern eggs, Chesil Centre

The weekend began with a trip up to Barton Meadows Farm to learn about butterfly identification with the Dorset Branch of Butterfly Conservation. Although I knew a few species (e.g. Red Admiral / Peacock / Large Skipper), I wanted to know about the key identification features to look for when I see a butterfly. I can say that these are:

  • Family (e.g. Skippers or Blues)
  • Flight period
  • Habitat
  • Food plants
  • Behaviour
  • And last, but most obvious, patterning on wings

After a morning of theory, we put it into practice with a walk in the afternoon sun. We saw 16 butterfly species, as well as a number of moths (including Mother Shipton, Burnet Companion and Cinnabar), beetles and interesting wildflowers. A big thank you to Bill Shreeves and other members of the Dorset Branch for running the day – I know I learnt a lot and hope to get out there more often to get butterfly records!

Theory session. NB: the pinned butterflies are from an old collection donated to the Dorset Branch.

Theory session. NB: the pinned butterflies are from an old collection donated to the Dorset Branch.

Marsh Fritillary Butterfly, Barton Meadows Farm

Marsh Fritillary butterfly, Barton Meadows Farm

A female Large Skipper butterfly, Barton Meadows Farm

A female Large Skipper butterfly, Barton Meadows Farm

The evening saw me out birdringing, or should I say birdwatching! With the target species of Cuckoo and Nightjar, we had set up mist nets on the heathland of the Lulworth Ranges. We referring to Steve Hales, Luke Philips and I. One of each of the target species flew into the net, but both promptly flew out again! Very frustrating, but at least I saw both of them – and I saw / heard a number of other birds including Woodlark, Meadow Pipit and Swallows.

I'm new to wildflowers, but thought maybe a Spotted Heath orchid, Lulworth Ranges.

I’m new to wildflowers, but thought maybe a Spotted Heath orchid, Lulworth Ranges.

Therein is the end of this week’s roundup, though I will admit to missing some things out – roadside verges surveying, World Oceans Day at the Chesil Beach Centre, my personal moth trapping. But to cover everything would be too much!