Friday, 31 July 2015

The Big Butterfly Count

Another blog post written by Bug Mad Girl ...
Today we went to the Aston Clinton Ragpits to do a Big Butterfly Count. It's a nature reserve managed by BBOWT and was full of wild flowers. It was so colorful!

Even though it was a bit cloudy, there were masses of butterflies flying about and the first thing we saw as we went through the gate was a Red Admiral! Some of the butterflies and day flying moths we saw were:

Six-spot burnet moth


Chalkhill blue

Large skipper

Large white

Longhorn moth with big green eyes

Marbled white
Holly blue
We checked under the sheets of corrugated iron that were left out and found 8 slowworms, 4 of them were under one sheet. It was really cold last night and they'd probably slithered under there to get warm.

We also saw lots of ants nests under the iron sheets!
I also saw a green woodpecker, a dragonfly and found some treasure in the woods including an egg shell, some feathers, a beautiful piece of bark and a massive bone. I took the bone home and compared it to my dogs upper leg bones. It was about the same size (15cm long), so I think it must have come from a fox or badger.

The totals for our butterfly count were 1 small copper, 2 red admirals, 3 six-spot burnets, 10 small whites, 19 meadow browns, 2 green veined whites, 17 large whites, 2 small skippers, 10 gatekeepers, 1 holly blue, 6 marbled whites, 2 ringlets, 3 brimstones, 4 peacocks, 1 silver washed fritillary, 3 chalkhill blues, 1 large skipper and 1 common blue!

It was very exciting to see so much nature, then we went home and I entered our results on the Big Butterfly Count website

Thursday, 30 July 2015

The hunt for Striped Lychnis caterpillars!

Another blog post written by Bug Mad Girl ...
Mum, Nanny Moth and I went to Lodge Hill this morning on an important mission to look for striped lychnis caterpillars and their food plant, dark mullein. Striped lychnis moths are nationally scarce, but are found around where we live in Buckinghamshire.
In the spring we grew some dark mullein plants for the Upper Thames branch of Butterfly Conversation, so that there would be more food plant for the caterpillars to eat. We took some of the plants to Holtspur Bottom butterfly reserve and planted some in our back garden.Now we've also offered to go to Lodge Hill and search for striped lychnis caterpillars and dark mullein plants, counting how many we see. The site was last surveyed five years ago, so it will be interesting to see how well the moths are doing there now.
When you first get to Lodge Hill, there is a nice view over the hill and a golden wheat field.
Lodge Hill
As we walked along, Nanny Moth told us we could eat the bits of wheat inside the hard case. It was very chewy, and tasted like flour. Then we came to a wooded area where we had to climb up a really steep, tiring slope. At the top of the slope it opened out into chalk grassland, full of all sorts of plants and bushes. It was very exciting when we saw our first dark mullein plants, especially when we could see they had striped lychnis caterpillars on them! Unfortunately they were behind a barbed wire fence so we couldn't get too close to them.
Dark mullein plant
Undeterred, we carried on hunting and found lots of dark mullein growing on both sides of the hill some of which had caterpillars on them. Luckily they were quite easy to spot as the plants are quite tall and the caterpillars seem to prefer eating the flowers. We managed to find a gate through to the first plants we'd seen so we could check them properly for caterpillars too.

Striped lynchnis caterpillars

While we were hunting we found some other caterpillars eating the dark mullein, including a strange caterpillar that was holding the plant with its back legs and sticking out at a right angle.
While we were hunting we saw lots of lovely butterflies, including chalkhill blues, common blues, small coppers and meadow browns. There were also loads of 6-spot burnet moths.
6-spot burnet moths
6-spot burnet moths

Chalkhill blue

Common blue

Small copper
There were also shield bugs, ladybirds, spiders and other bugs on the plants.
Baby shield bug
As we went further down the slope we came across a blackberry bush. I ate one of the blackberries that looked ripe, my first of the year, but it was really sour and I had to spit it out.
It was a lot of fun and over all we found 326 dark mullein plants and 33 caterpillars! We've still got to finish checking one of the slopes and then walk around the fields at the bottom of the hill, but it was a really good start.
(5 years ago there were 430 plants and 48 caterpillars, but we've still got to finish our count!)

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Narrow-lipped helleborines and a surprise

I've been back to take a closer look at the narrow-lipped helleborines that I found 'up the hill' last week. That time I had the dog with me so spent most of the time trying to stop her from standing on them! On my own today I had the chance to have a good hunt around and counted 28 plants in flower.

They're nationally scarce plants and were a real thrill to discover. They flower for a short time between mid July and early August - the flowers have opened a lot since I was last there a week ago and I could see they were starting to go over already.

The largest plant I saw - most were considerably smaller

They were growing in the shade of the beech trees where not very much else was growing. Each plant seemed to be close to one of the beech trees.

As I was groveling around in leaf litter and the beech masts, trying to get some photos of the helleborines, I noticed a strange looking yellow thing next to me. It was tiny (maybe 3-4cm tall) and looked almost waxy. At first I thought it might be a fungus that had popped up after all the rain on Sunday.  

Then I looked around and found a few more that were flowering. I found 12 in total, some of which had gone to seed (which I think is the case of the first one I saw). I believe these were yellow bird's nests, which have no chlorophyll, living off a fungus instead of using photosynthesis. I don't think they're as scarce as the narrow-lipped helleborines, but still quite rare and a first for me. A lovely surprise to find them growing in amongst the helleborines!

The flowers are going over and the seed heads are developing

Monday, 27 July 2015

Whoo ate what for dinner?

As the summer holidays have started, Bug Mad Girl is going to write some of the blog posts about our adventures. This is the first of those ...

Today we dissected the owl pellets that we found a few weeks ago when we were out walking. We found 2 small soft pellets on Pulpit and 5 larger hard pellets on Watlington hill. They look and feel like they are from different birds but can we find out which ones?

First we had a proper look at them and measured them. The smaller ones were between 2.3-3.5cm long, were grey and felt like soft balls of fluff. 

Smaller, soft grey pellets
The larger ones were between 4-6cm long, were grey, very hard and had pointy ends.

Larger, hard grey pellets
After looking at them we put them in hot water mixed with disinfectant and left them to soften. We took them out of the water and pulled the pellets apart with wooden sticks.

The smaller pellets were full of mud and fur. We found a couple of tiny bone fragments and what may have been a feather. There were very few bones in these pellets.

The smaller pellets contained very few bones and were mostly fur and mud
4 of the larger pellets were made up of fur and lots of interesting bones such as the jaw of a small mammal, like a mouse, that had wobbly teeth in it! We also found parts of hip bones, a shoulder blade, back bones, teeth and toe nails with fur still attached! They all looked like bits of small mammal bones, such as mice or voles.

Jaw bone with wobbly teeth in it

 1 of the larger pellets was made up of feathers, including the back/chest of a bird with a wing attached to the side and a wing (not attached to the body like the other one) with the feathers still attached to it. There were lots of bits of feather shaft and even a piece of moss.

Bird for tea! Wings, feathers and feather shafts
After we looked at all the bones/feathers we stuck them to pieces of card and labelled them so we could see what bones we had found. It was very exciting seeing what was in the pellets as well as dissecting them! (Even though it stank a LOT)

We used an RSPB document called "Owl pellets, how to study their contents" and tried to work out what had made the pellets.

I think that the big pellets were from a tawny owl because they are the right size (between 2-5cm long), they are hard with a point at one end and the bones are well digested.

I think the smaller pellets are from a kestrel because the bones are more digested than the ones in the tawny owl pellets. They were also the right size and were a very spongey texture. It's possible that they might also be from a red kite as there are a lot of them around here.
I drew this tawny owl using chalk pastels.