If you go down to the woods today.. Falling, fluttering and flitting

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On Monday I took a walk along the South Downs way which goes through a golden leafed Friston Forest towards Litlington.. and on this sunny November day as I crunched through the fallen leaves, I still managed to spot some butterflies.

This speckled wood was still flitting around quite happily, settling on these fallen leaves! Velvety brown the spots are quite a bright cream colour.

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( 12 Speckled wood, pararge aegeria)

The first one I spotted this year was near Rye harbour, just as I was coming out of a bird hide. Another week in the Summer I took a walk from Falmer across to Ditchling, and where the path passed woodland, there were dozens of them, mostly chasing each other!

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The other thing I didn’t really expect to see was dragonflies (or perhaps damselflies?) They were flitting everywhere in the forest, and then there were dozens down in the rushes by the Cuckmere river.

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What a glorious spot it was. I sat on the river bank and enjoyed a snack at my half way point before I followed the river back to the coast, on an almost deserted path.

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The red admirals still seem to be everywhere at the moment, rushing around with their beautiful wings, far too busy to have their photo taken! The red admiral is a migrant to Britain and can be seen in many months of the year. Though some survive in this country, most arrive from continental Europe  from  May to early Autumn. In the 17th century some naturalists called it the “Admirable” rather than the Admiral.. and I can see why. It really is rather splendid with those scarlet markings.

One Summer day I went out for a walk spotting butterflies, and didn’t see any red admirals, but as I sat down in my living room later, one came right up to my window and on stopped my balcony to rest.. Thank you beauty.

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(13 Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta)

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      Oh, Autumn! why so soon
Depart the hues that make thy forests glad;
Thy gentle wind and thy fair sunny noon,
      And leave thee wild and sad!

 

Autumn Woods, by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

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Still chasing the blues – searching for my adonis!

 

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I was still on the hunt for the Adonis Blue. I read somewhere that Malling Down was a good place to try, so I took a chance, and decided to spend my Monday off walking from Glynde over to Lewes via Mount Caburn and Malling Down. I’d not been up this way for a number of years.

It was not an encouraging start. Drizzle all the way up Mount Caburn and very little wildlife in view except a few sodden sheep. I reached the top and headed north and into Southerham nature reserve. It’s perfect butterfly habitat rich with wild flowers, if only the sun would come out and warm a few butterfly wings. The best I could find were a few moths and a beautiful lacewing in the meadows.

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galium carpet moth

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common carpet moth

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lacewing

I backtracked, trying my best to avoid the golf course where I always seemed to end up dodging golf balls, and carried on around the hill. I ended up rounding the back hill on a path that turned into sheep trails that seemed to get steeper and wilder as I went on! I disturbed a number of pheasants which flew off in noisy protest and also watched a bird of prey (probably a buzzard) hunting in the fertile grassland. It was still gloomy and drizzly and I ate my sandwich walking along.  I eventually came to the edge of a chalk pit, which looked very promising butterfly spotting ground down below (in fact I could see a couple of likely butterfly spotters and their cameras!) However it looked like a steep descent and  I really wanted to start heading back towards Lewes. So I took another path westwards. It’s always a bit difficult to work out exactly where you are on these nature reserves which are open access.  I suddenly came across a sheltered clearing, thick with wild marjoram and vetch, and there at last were some butterflies. Not just any butterflies, but blue butterflies including the one I was looking for!.

Looking at the books the Common blue and Adonis blue can look very similar. However in the field, my first Adonis blue took my breath away. There really is no doubt – what a brilliant blue it really is! Looking more closely, the distinctive black lines that stripe through the white margin and blue wings that also distinguish it. These lines are even visible on the side of the wings.

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Absolutely stunning. You can keep your Greek gods, I was very happy with my Adonis blue butterflies!

The path started a steep descent and I was soon back in a lane on my way back to Lewes to warm up in front of an afternoon film in the new cinema.

(11 Adonis Blue, polyommatus bellargus)

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Adonis – a divine figure in Greek mythology, portrayed as a beautiful youth and associated with fertility

Friend or Foe, Pest or wildlife?

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(2 Holly Blue)

It’s a bit ironic really that a lot of gardeners see butterflies as a bonus, but caterpillars as a pest! We really can’t have one without the other! I was delighted to spot a holly blue butterfly in my garden, and if that means I’ve been hosting a few caterpillars on my variegated holly bush, then so be it (though with the number of birds coming in to feed at the nearby bird feeder at the moment, I wouldn’t like rate their chances!) Maybe if I was trying to grow cabbages, then I’d feel a bit differently!

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(3 Small white)

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Back in May a walk in at Cuckmere Haven I spotted lots of these striking caterpillars, in cocoons in the hedges. It’s taken me a while to work out an ID, but I think they are brown-tail moth caterpillars. These are found throughout Europe and in the UK mostly frequently in the south, especially by the coast. They feed on a variety of deciduous trees including hawthorn and blackthorn. The cocoons and caterpillars should not be handled or disturbed due to the stinging hairs that can cause skin reactions requiring medical treatment. The hairs can even become airbourne in strong winds causing a hazard in public places, as a result of which many councils will deal with an “infestation”.  Anyhow I found them rather fascinating. I believe the stinging hairs also act as an excellent defence against predators such as birds!

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Another day, another caterpillar on its favourite plant, and this time it’s the plant that’s the baddie. What a beautiful beast this is, the cinnabar moth! Just stunning, with those tiger stripes and gorgeous long hairs.

Newly hatched larvae feed from the underneath of ragwort leaves within the area of their old eggs. The larvae absorb toxic and bitter tasting alkaloid substances from the ragwort, and absorb them, becoming unpalatable themselves. The bright colours of both the larvae and the moths act as warning signs, so they are seldom eaten by predators, with the exception of cuckoos.

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The host plant, common ragwort is classified as a pest, but the moth caterpillars can quickly decimate a plant, working their way up from the bottom. I looked this week in the place I took these photos, and the ragwort was almost all gone!

Ragwort is one of five weeds specified by the UK’s Weeds Act 1959, which “requires landowners to take actions as may be necessary to prevent weeds from spreading”. The plant is toxic to horses and other grazing animals. Most animals avoid eating the plant, but if gets into dry hay, it can be eaten by the animals and can poison them. The plant has had a lot of bad press, encouraging the public to pull up this weed wherever it can. However the law does not require that the plant is removed, only that an order may be issued to remove the weed. In fact if members of the public walking across land, do pull up the plants, they are breaking the law that states it is illegal to uproot any wildflower. This is only legal if carried out by the landowner, occupier, someone authorised by them, or a specified official. In any case pulling up the plant is unlikely to prevent it coming back.

Common ragwort (senecio jacobaea) is hugely beneficial to wildlife, providing a home and food source to at least 77 species of insects. Thirty of these use ragwort exclusively as their food source! Of these, seven are officially deemed as scarce. Species depending on this plant include the cinnabar moth, picture winged fly and the Sussex Emerald moth.

So celebrate our ragwort, and our wildlife! It certainly brightened my day!

The ragworts, growing up so straight,
Are emperors who stand in state,
And march about, so proud and bold,
In crowns of fairy-story gold.

Francis Darwin Cornford

Another plant I spotted at the edge of the water in the Cuckmere valley, looked just like the fennel I grow at home, but there was no smell. I’m pretty sure this is wild parsnip (pastinaca sativa).

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Again this plant is very important to the insect life that feeds off it. This plant (like many others) has sap that can cause a skin rash and cause sensitivity to sunlight. It would be advisable to wear gloves if handling it. A recent story in the Eastbourne news featured a four year old that had bad blisters caused by picking the flowers for his grandmother. The grandmother wanted to warn others about the dangers of this plant as “other children may pick it”.

Fair enough, but I would like to add to that.. please do not let your children pick wild flowers. Some sting, some have thorns that can hurt you, some have sap that will irritate, some will have been contaminated by dogs and rodents and most (even the unfairly maligned ragwort) are very precious. Leave them there in their place, for the wildlife that depend on them, and for the rest of us to enjoy. Thank you

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Ragwort thou humble flower with tattered leaves

I love to see thee come and litter gold…

Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields

The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn

So bright and glaring that the very light

Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn

And seems but very shadows in thy sight.

 

John Clare 1831

Summer, so many things that I have never seen

Summer, so many things that I have never seen

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(1 Marbled White)

And so one of my resolutions for the Summer was to slow down. Get outside whenever I could weather permitting, and not to rush, but instead to stop and look closely, and photograph. Then to learn something I didn’t know last year. Trying to identify, names of birds, butterflies, flowers, insects and more. To learn my landscape as it changes through the year. I’ve made a good start, but this is the sort of journey, cultivating my curiosity, that takes a lifetime, and is never finished.

So if I come across a snail on the chalk path leading up the hill, I should resist the temptation to tread on it (my garden ones are never spared!) and instead wonder about whether there are many varieties of snails, and whether the snail shell always curls the same way. What do the snails eat on the thin chalky grassland? In my garden they managed to climb several layers of copper tape, slide across sharp gravel and chew their way through every stem of zinnia every time… The stem of the struggling remaining one, has been repaired several times with sellotape. Which seems to work, and the poor flower is battling on valiantly. Not that I’m bitter.. well not that bitter..

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Anyway I still don’t know the answers about snails (I’ll get there, but they are not exactly top of my list) but I have enjoyed my way so far. Be patient, as my travels so far may take a while to tell, and if the weather is good, I won’t be typing, but outside instead.

According to the Sussex branch of the Butterfly Conservation society there are 52 species of butterfly found in sussex, 43 entirely native to Sussex. So I wonder if it’s possible to spot (and photograph all of them?) It seems worth a try. Second I want to be identify the flowers and plants that thrive within walking distance of my house. I already belonged to a couple of facebook groups for birdwatchers, and recently joined one for wild flowers. I haven’t yet dared post any photos (although it is mostly friendly enough) but I have learned just how many flowers there are , and just how difficult it is to identify them, especially from just one photo! I have a lot to learn!

You have to start somewhere, so I’ll start with my first butterfly of the year, the marbled white. The first ones I saw were up Seaford Head on 3rd July, in the long grass near the golf course, and they are normally pretty common there. This year I was also very pleased to find one in my garden on the verbena bonariensis, which I’m encouraging to run rampant anywhere it pleases.

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“The Marbled White is a distinctive and attractive black and white butterfly, unlikely to be mistaken for any other species. In July it flies in areas of unimproved grassland and can occur in large numbers on southern downland. It shows a marked preference for purple flowers such as Wild Marjoram, Field Scabious, thistles, and knapweeds. Adults may be found roosting halfway down tall grass stems. 

Found in unimproved flowery grassland with tall sward but may stray into gardens. The strongest populations are found on chalk or limestone grasslands but other habitats such as; woodland rides and clearings, coastal grassland, road verges and railway embankments are also used.

Caterpillar Foodplants- Red Fescue (Festuca rubra) is thought to be essential in the diet of larvae but Sheep’s-fescue (F. ovina), Yorkshire-fog (Holcus lanatus), and Tor-grass (Brachypodium pinnatum) are also eaten. It is thought that several other grasses may be used, but the full range is not known.

There’s a lot of knapweed up on Seaford Head, and you don’t have to peer at many heads before you spot some wildlife. Bees, soldier beetles and butterflies are all fighting over it! In fact I think knapweed will be on my list of things I really want in my garden next year!

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But of course nothing is that easy.. Knapweed – well is it greater knapweed, lesser knapweed, common knapweed, cultivated knapweed? Well according to the couple of books I have, I’m going to plump for greater knapweed. But I’m always happy to be corrected, as it’s in the process of being wrong, that we learn something. I have a terrible memory too, so the harder the journey is to answer the question, the more likely I am to remember this time next year when I’m out with my camera again, and checking what’s new.

“I sit beside the fire and think
Of all that I have seen
Of meadow flowers and butterflies
In summers that have been

Of yellow leaves and gossamer
In autumns that there were
With morning mist and silver sun
And wind upon my hair

I sit beside the fire and think
Of how the world will be
When winter comes without a spring
That I shall ever see

For still there are so many things
That I have never seen
In every wood in every spring
There is a different green
J.R.R. Tolkien