Thursday, 26 June 2014

Hook Norton Cutting and Banks SSSI: clouds of marbled white butterflies

Weds 25th June

An evening visit to the limestone grasslands south of Hook Norton was a truly memorable experience - a fine sunny evening, lots of flowers and impressive numbers of butterflies.
path through the restored meadows
I started my exploration at Cow Lane Farm, an access site promoted by Natural England as a country walk.  There is a small pull-in off the lane and a mown grassy path winds across the main field.  As soon as you enter the field, the great variety of colour of the grasses and flowers hits you.  What is really remarkable is that just over twenty years ago this field was under arable cultivation.  Now it looks like one of our best conserved ancient meadows, though the lack of any ant hills is a small clue that it's origin is more recent.  A great job has been done by the landowner Mary Powell and inspiring to see.

pyramidal orchids
Before long, I am drawn to the numerous pyramidal orchids scattered across the field, and chance upon a patch of bee orchids.  Further on a few clustered bellflowers add a dash of purple-blue to the tapestry.
clustered bellflower
Looking across the fence I notice literally clouds of marbled white butterflies lifting from the tussocky grass and greater knapweed in the adjoining meadow.

marbled whites on greater knapweed
marbled white
marbled white
meadow brown
This is the "Banks" part of the SSSI, and the main source of the wildflower seed that had spread so successfully across the new meadow.  This true ancient meadow has a different character and some really special flowers, many typical of limestone grassland - dropwort, rockrose and sainfoin.  It reminds me, in miniature, of childhood rambles on the South Downs of Sussex.
In late June I am seeing it just at its peak for flowers, but the interest will continue into late summer when fellwort should be common.

six-spot burnet moth on meadow scabious
After wandering around the meadow, I headed a very short distance up the lane to the railway cutting part of the SSSI.  The sun is quite low by now and there is much less butterfly activity.  The wildlife trust care for the site and have a task on their hands keeping the advancing scrub at bay.
railway cutting part of the SSSI
My next stop is Balscote Quarry nature reserve, where I round off the evening watching curlew coming into roost in the ever dwindling shallows of the main pool.  There are two when I arrive and 8.40, then just after nine, groups of three and two drop in.  In recent days up to 16 have come in to roost.  These birds will have completed breeding and are gathering ahead of their movement to wintering grounds somewhere on the coast.
two of the roosting curlews, late evening

Sunday, 22 June 2014

BBS and Upper Cherwell Valley: kestrels fledging beside the M40

An early start for the second of my two BTO Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) visits to countryside near Moreton Pinkney in South Northants.  Vegetation laden with dew soaks my trousers but the early morning sunshine is energising and soon I'm watching a distant little owl perched atop a large hawthorn bush.  Many birds are still singing, especially blackcaps and wrens.  Juvenile goldfinches and linnets are feeding on the seed heads of arable weeds on the edge of the oil seed rape crop that has grown almost to head height.

Further along I eventually find a single tree sparrow where five years ago there would have been a dozen.  A few butterflies are on the wing, including ringlet and large skipper.  No mammals recorded at all, not even a rabbit.  Forty five species in all over the two visits this year - one less than last year but still the second highest in eight years.  In that time, the losers seem to have been the tree sparrows, others have fluctuated, especially wrens and skylarks, and some have just been occasional like willow tits (twice) and cuckoos.

Back in Upper Wardington, a spectacular insect flutters around our patio doors over lunchtine.
ichneumon wasp species - female with very long ovipositor

The lovely weather tempts me back down towards Banbury and the Environment Agency flood defence scheme area.  Almost immediately I surprise a grey wagtail that flies up from a small ditch where it was feeding, but instead of disappearing off into the distance it sits calmly on a perch beside the ditch and starts preening.  A rare stroke of good fortune.

male grey wagtail

I have time to get my camera and creep forward for some close-ups. Eventually the bird flies off, joined by a juvenile that remained hidden in the ditch. Grey wagtails seem to be as common as pied wagtails in our area at the moment, the latter getting a little scarcer it seems.
preening tail feathers
feeding in the ditch

My wanderings take in the new lake where dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies are getting well established.  Coots are raising a brood of chicks and six drake tufted ducks are moulting into eclipse plumage; their breeding season work is already done.

Marbled white butterflies are scattered around the whole area but always on the move.  Burnet moths are too busy to worry about the close proximity of my macro lens.
narrow-bordered five-spot burnet moths
Marsh woundwort is flowering in a prominent location next to one of the huge concrete regulating structures.
marsh woundwort
Tucked away in fen-like vegetation I encounter a couple of blood-vein moths; really stunning.

To round off a very enjoyable afternoon I find a couple of juvenile kestrels flying with what seems a lack of confidence.  They are only just out of the nest box, which I soon realise is attached to a huge motorway sign, where another juvenile kestrel is surveying the view.  How had I managed not to notice that box on my previous visits?  I feel like I have been let into another small secret about this area.  The more you look the more you learn.......
kestrel's have been provided with a motorway home
which they find to their liking.....
EA have just mown the flood bank which means the newly established meadow saxifrage won't have time to set seed.  I'm hoping they will survive and spread vegetatively.  And there will less habitat for the voles and mice needed to feed young kestrels, and not too far away, young barn owls.  Which is a shame - but overall the area is definitely getting better for nature, and is very much more accessible.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Balscote Quarry: bee orchids

Bee orchids are one of the most charismatic of our native plants and always a joy to behold.

Having discovered I had missed seeing them on my recent visit to Balscote Quarry, I was keen to return before they start going over.

That opportunity arose at lunchtime today and a grabbed a half hour or so to study some of the plants and take some pics.  They are growing just in front of the viewing screen, so you need to walk carefully to avoid treading on the orchids (which are surprisingly hard to spot at times), and not disturb the lapwings and other birds on main pool.

Bee orchids find this particular area very much to their liking and there are dozens of plants.

They are not a scarce species nationally, but very localised in our area - I would imagine they are pretty much confined to former quarries, railway cuttings and perhaps one or two grasslands.  They like nutrient poor soils on chalk or sandy geology.  Balscote offers them some great habitat, with extensive stony "soils" left from quarrying of the calcareous Hornton stone.  In some places the vegetation is still quite bare many years after the cessation of the quarry.

The flowers are designed to look like female bees so they can attract male bees, who then inadvertently pollinate them in practise most of the plants self pollinate.

Later in the summer thousands of dust-like seeds will ripen in each seed capsule and be carried on the wind across the nature reserve and far beyond, maybe finding a new site to colonise.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Balscote Quarry: pyramidal orchids

An early evening visit to Balscote Quarry in warm sunshine.  Star turn were the gorgeous, neatly shaped pink flowerheads of the pyramidal orchid scattered across the grassland.  Positively glowing in the sunlight.  I counted about fifteen but there must have been more.  Far more numerous were the common spotted orchids, which are now just past their best, numbering many hundreds.

pyramidal orchid

Butterflies were on the wing, with large skippers allowing my close approach with the macro lens.  Ringlets, meadow browns and small tortoiseshells a little less co-operative.
large skipper

Out on the pool, where water levels are much lower, 22 lapwings were gathered and a single common sandpiper was feeding along the water's edge.  Yellowhammers are still singing from the scrub and hedgerows; sand martins regularly to and fro from nest holes in their specially designed tower.

Lots of other flowers in bloom: grass vetching particularly caught my eye, and hoary plantain flowers were attracting a few insects.
grass vetchling
hoary plantain

Sunday, 15 June 2014

High Wood and Meadow: hidden gem

Tucked away in a quiet valley well of the beaten track, High Wood and Meadow is a great place to spend some time exploring.  A Wildlife Trust nature reserve and SSSI (click view citation), it is well protected and looks to be in good shape thanks to the Trust, their volunteers and most importantly their flock of Hebridean sheep.

The SSSI citation gives a really good account of this site's special value: relatively natural ancient woodland with hazel coppice, undamaged by conifer planting, and adjacent to which is a precious patch of flower-rich acid grassland.

It's also great that the wildlife trust allow you to roam across the site, so you are not restricted to the paths (good though they are).

It is the sort of place worth repeat visits, especially in spring and summer.  Today the weather was cloudy and quite cool, not great for butterflies and only a handful of meadow browns were on the wing, as was another chimney sweep moth.

There are two grassland fields, and the sheep are grazing just one at the moment, creating an interesting contrast along the fence line and showing how far the sheep can stick their heads through the netting!
sheep are grazing to the right of the fence

The flowers took most of my attention; in particular it was nice to see a profusion of mouse-ear hawkbit Pilosella officinarum - exquisite lemon yellow flowers set against a background dappled white by heath bedstraw.

mouse-ear hawkbit


yellow pimpernel

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Upper Cherwell Valley and Upper Wardington: more chimney sweeps

Friday 13th June
The transition from spring to summer continues at pace.  Running home through the Upper Cherwell valley a post-breeding flock of ten lapwings flew over, heading west.  No sign of any curlew this time - possibly they have joined the group roosting at Balscote Quarry, which now includes juvenile birds.  Around the new lake created where clay was dug for the new flood defences, large clumps of birds-foot trefoil have become established, adding a vivid splash of yellow to the scene.

Having ID'd the chimney sweep moth at Little Tew Meadows on Weds, I found a good colony of them in the "yellow rattle meadow" - at least thirty adults on the wing.  The caterpillars feed on pignut, a plant of old meadows and common in this particular field.

Saturday 14th June
As part of my objective to visit accessible SSSIs in our area, I called in to have a quick look at Plumpton Pasture near Weston in Northants. As a result of agricultural change, the crested dog’s-tail-common knapweed type of grassland conserved in this field is now rare both in Northamptonshire and in Great Britain. This nine acre field gives a view back in time to how our countryside would have looked in previous centuries, and idea of how much we have lost over recent decades.

You don't get a great view from the public footpath but it is clearly much more botanically rich than most grasslands in our area and it is great that is has been saved and being well looked after by the landowner.  

I am getting a picture that most of the SSSIs in Banburyshire are either unimproved grasslands like this and Little Tew Meadows, or railway cuttings/former quarries.

Later in the afternoon a took the camera for a stroll around Upper Wardington.  The "meadow saxifrage meadow" has just been mown, and a little further on in a horse paddock I found a common spotted orchid - my first ever in the village.

common spotted orchid
It was hard to find much wildlife to photograph until I wandered up a field margin and found some field pansies and a nice selection of common flowers of arable cultivation.  The only butterfly to show itself was a single speckled wood.

field poppy

small flowered cranesbill

Friday, 13 June 2014

Nene Valley: trading development helping wildlife trust create big new nature reserve

Details of the scheme here.  Outside our area, but a good example of what can be achieved for nature by collaboration by conservation groups with developers.  It would be great to see more of this happening in Banburyshire.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Little Tew Meadows

This evening I made my first visit to the Little Tew area, specifically to walk some of the public footpaths that cross the 40 hectare Little Tew Meadows SSSI.  The citation here describes the mixture of unimproved meadows and pasture that sit within a delightfully unspoilt valley and support a good range of flowers and other wildlife.  It is in fact one of the most extensive areas of unimproved meadows left in Oxfordshire.  It feels and bit like stepping back in time: fields full of buttercups and hedgerows buzzing with yellowhammers and linnets.  Yellowhammers must be at just about their highest density here - they were singing from every stretch of hedgerow.
view across part of the SSSI
One field margin was lit up by a spectacular patch of common spotted orchids.  Not sure if this was a good example of a well managed field margin or a relic from a once rich meadow long lost to arable.
common spotted orchids thriving in a field margin

I managed to photograph a couple of moths, a chimney sweep was particularly beautiful with narrow white tips to the charcoal wings.
chimney sweep moth

latticed heath moth
Black bryony is busy winding it's way up the hedgerows and tall plants like hogweed.  White bryony is also flowering.  A pinkish flowered hogweed next to the footpath was worthy of a close-up. A red kite drifted across the valley and landed in a tree top to survey the view.
black bryony
white bryony
hogweed close-up
Close to the village a couple of smaller meadows were awash with buttercups.  Much of the wildlife interest here is beyond the SSSI - more hay meadows and arable fields with some nice field margins. It is not a surprise to discover much of the land is in a higher level stewardship agreement.  Without financial support for environmentally friendly farming, this valley could rapidly loose it's wildlife value.
meadow near the village

Looking back over past few evenings: I found a barn owl hunting along the new flood defences in the Upper Cherwell valley on Sunday evening; Monday evening I watched spotted flycatchers on the BOS field trip to Great Tew and yesterday glimpsed a peregrine dash over the Broughton road just outside Banbury.  A great time of year to be out and about.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Ardley Quarry nature reserve: into the dragon's tooth den

Ardley Cutting and Quarry SSSI, see here, is important for both geology and nature, and undoubtedly one of the most significant ecological sites in Banburyshire.  Technically, the SSSI is in "unfavourable recovering" condition, meaning it was in a poor condition in the past, is now improving but still has a way to go to be in top condition.  Active management is very much in evidence and good to see.

The nature reserve section, managed by BBOWT, comprises the former limestone quarry: now reverted to scrub, grasslands and small pools, and long established woodland including hazel coppice. There are also some fine pollard and coppice trees along the eastern boundary, including field maple.

It is a good place to look for butterflies and flowers.  On my visit, I first encountered an unusual yellow-flowered legume, dragon's tooth - an introduced species but now naturalised across the site.

dragon's tooth
Common spotted orchids and common twayblades (also an orchid) were much in evidence; a veritable forest of the latter in one location. 
common spotted orchid
common twayblade up close

forest of twayblades
 After yesterday's heavy downpour, dusky slugs were much in evidence in the earlier part of the morning.
I'd hoped to encounter grizzled and dingy skippers.  No luck with them, but I did see green hairstreak, small skipper, small heath, common blue, speckled wood and brimstone.

small heath
I searched quite hard for bee orchids, eventually found about half a dozen in bud, almost gave up, then found a group of three in flower.  Spent an enjoyable few minutes trying to photograph them.

bee orchid
The nature reserve benefits from a large meadow on the Ardley village side.  Slightly frustrating to see trees being planted on some good butterfly habitat adjacent to the SSSI though.

Checking the SSSI map, I realised the amazing Ardley Trackways SSSI is neaby too - site of the famous dinosaur footprints.  If you are not familiar with the story it is at least worth looking at photos of the footprints, easily viewed via Google.  Awesome.