Sunday, 2 July 2017

Somerset Weekend 1st and 2nd July 2017

A quick jaunt down to Somerset to connect with some of the local specialities was a resounding success thanks to Rob's timely research and a weather forecast that saw sunshine all around, and light winds only.

Saturday's itinerary was a three site tour, starting at Green Down to look for large blue (Maculinea arion), a species coming to the end of it's flight period. We remained hopeful for a connection - and were not to be disappointed.

This south facing limestone grassland is divided into two steep slopes - with a gallop running east / west cutting the site in two. We started on the lower slope and traversed the grassland admiring the flora, and the wealth of butterflies on the wing, but failing to see a strong flash of blue that would clinch our target species. Part way across we bumped into a couple of gentlemen, one of whom, was generous to give us a thumbnail sketch of the history and success of the large blue re-introduction programme, and point us in the direction of the upper slope access - where we would be more likely to connect with the species. As we walked away Rob was grinning and explained "You know that was Jeremy Thomas? I'm surprised you didn't ask him for an autograph?".

On the upper slope, we were just starting to lose heart when a large blue legged it past Rob at knee height - the game was on! Catching up with and getting half way decent(?) photo's of the individuals was a challenge in itself, made difficult by the steep terrain, and the distance each individual would travel if accidently flushed. Add to that their habit of only alighting on the ground cover wild thyme (Thymus polythricus) meant many photo opportunities were shooting downhill at insects fore-shortened by the gradient. Anyhow that sounds like I am complaining? When clearly I am just very chuffed to have had the opportunity to see such a splendid conservation success story up close and personal. By the end of the visit we had seen 5 individual large blue, including a female which appeared to be ovi-positing.

Green Down - lower slope

Green Down - upper slope

large blue

Our second site visit of the day was to Collard Hill, which is the more widely known site for large blue. Although the local NT Ranger reported at least one individual being seen that day, she assured us that the flight period for this species was almost completely over at this site. In keeping with this news we failed to connect. A flash of brilliant red against some gorse scrub - did throw up a random sighting of scarlet tiger moth (Callimorpha dominula) a species I hadn't seen in some years.

Moving on, we headed to our final destination: Ham Wall Nature Reserve - target species - little bittern (Ixobrychus minutus), which would be a welcome addition to my UK heron list. After a walk East to almost the very end of the reserve, we finally stopped and staked out the blocks of reed and open water to the south of the main path. It wasn't long before we heard the "dry cough" of the little bittern coming from the reed bed in front of us.

Alison and I have seen this species several times in Egypt, but do not recall hearing (or more likely recognising it's call?); this time the vocalisation was all we had to refer to, as the bird itself did not show. We saw bittern (Botaurus stellaris), little egret (Egretta garzetta), great white egret (Ardea alba), and grey heron (Ardea cinerea) completing our heron list for the day. Although dipping on the local cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis) meant that we did not complete the Reserve's heron list.

On Sunday we headed to Haddon Hill, Exmoor. In the car park we saw / heard spotted flycatcher (Muscicapa striata), lesser redpoll (Carduelis cabaret) and common crossbill (Loxia curvirostra), before heading out onto the north facing heathland to look for heath fritillary (Melitaea athalia). After some time spent following tracks within the ubiquitous bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), we started to find open areas of heath with a ground layer of bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) and common cow-wheat (Melampyrum pratense), the species favourite habitat.

bracken dominated slopes

common cow wheat

bilberry or Whortleberry as it's locally known

One of these open areas, very low on the hill slope abutting the woodland provided us with our day's quarry. First a very showy individual, and then a second very battered & tattered.

open area and first sightings

heath fritillary

green hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)

Having got our eye in on the fritillary, we then found three more on a open area, as we walked back to the car park - another lucky 5 day!

Our last quest of the weekend - a hopeful quest given the lateness of the season - was to try and find pied flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca) and wood warbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix) in the woodlands, downslope and immediately north of the Haddon Hill summit. We lucked out on the pied fly, but were rewarded with the song of the wood warbler, with the bird itself eventually showing in the under-canopy.