Thursday, 14 January 2016

Butterfly Season Kicks Off

Not so many years ago my first butterfly of the year was likely to be a Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni), Comma (Polygonia c-album), Peacock (Inachis io) or Small Tortoisehell (Aglais urticae) awakening from hibernation. Nowadays however, the first species I see is invariably a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta).

Essentially an annual migrant to our shores it has not been able to survive our damp winters in the past and they have either had to fly south in the autumn or perish. With our changing climate, the Red Admiral is increasingly able to overwinter in the UK as an adult butterfly and in its immature stages. It does not hibernate in the true sense but will roost during bad weather and must come out to feed during mild spells.

Walking on Ashdown Forest yesterday with Bob, we saw our first Red Admiral of the year. With thick insulating layers of dead bracken to roost in and plenty of gorse in flower to feed on, the heathland of Ashdown Forest offers a safe haven for atalanta to see out the winter.

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) basking on gorse.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Pevensey Levels

Wednesday 6th January provided a welcome sunny respite from the persistent rain of the previous few days. I met up with Bob Eade for a stroll across the levels to see what might be about and we were rewarded with good views of 3 Marsh Harriers, 1 Hen Harrier and 2 Kingfishers and not such a good view of a Short-eared Owl.
A view across the levels (below) looking towards the ever present dome which used to house the Isaac Newton telescope, before it was moved to the Canary Islands in the late 1970's.

The following day, Carol and I returned to the levels to enjoy the beautiful late afternoon sunshine. Heavy overnight rain meant that waders might have been a better choice than wellies but we were treated to the sight of a Merlin flying low across the fields in front of us.

Sunday, 3 January 2016


It is always a thrill when I happen upon rare species or rarely seen behaviour in the wild. Whilst I'm not particularly obsessive about chasing rarity for it's own sake, I am always on the look out for anything unusual.

For me, rarity can mean a nationally rare resident breeding species, rare and vagrant migrant species, or regionally rare species that may be common in one county and not found in the next.

Globally, the Long-tailed Blue (Lampides boeticus) is a widespread species but it is a rare migrant to UK shores and in two of the last three years it has managed to produce late season British broods. When, in 2013 it became clear that Long-tailed Blues were arriving in southern England along a broad front, I was keen to seek it out in East Sussex.

Long-tailed Blue (Lampides boeticus) (female)

Long-tailed Blue (L. boeticus) (male)

Long-tailed Blue (L. boeticus) (male)

This male (below) was the only example I saw in 2015, found by Mark Colvin as we searched together at an East Sussex site.

The Four-spotted Footman (Lithosia quadra) is mainly a migrant moth to Britain but has established a breeding population in East Sussex in recent years. In June 2014, my wife and I came across a quadra larva basking on a garlic mustard leaf whilst I was looking for Orange-tip larvae. (Yes, Carol saw it first!). Whilst I could see what family it was from, I didn't make a positive identification until I got home to check the books. It was the first confirmed sighting of a quadra larva in Sussex since 1949 and then 1874 before that.

(Reference; "A Complete History of the Butterflies and Moths of Sussex" vol.4, by Colin R. Pratt).
Four-spotted Footman (Lithosia quadra) (larva basking on garlic mustard leaf in East Sussex)


Guide books will show that the main breeding populations for the Scarce Emerald Damselfly (Lestes dryas) seem to be centred around the Thames estuary and Norfolk. The occurrence of this species in East Sussex can at best be described as sporadic, with I believe no known or confirmed breeding sites within the county. In July 2014, I came across a male dryas on Ashdown Forest.

Scarce Emerald Damselfly (Lestes dryas) (male)

For all things to do with orchids, I go straight to the excellent "Orchids of Britain and Ireland" by Anne & Simon Harrap. The distribution map for the Green-flowered Helleborine (Epipactis phyllanthes) shows that it is found locally mainly in south-central England. In East Sussex it appears to be a rare plant although it may be under-recorded. In 2014 I was invited by a friend to come and see a helleborine species that appears annually beside her farm driveway. After consulting the Harrap, I was confident that we were looking at phyllanthes. In 2015, I decided to search a wider area for more plants and was chuffed to find another small group growing nearby.

Green-flowered Helleborine (Epipactis phyllanthes) from the original group.

Green-flowered Helleborine (E. phyllanthes) from the second group.