robpartridge

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robpartridge
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robpartridge

Postby robpartridge » Mon Mar 24, 2014 4:07 pm

Monday the 24th of March, 2014 - a bright day after one of the sharpest frosts of the year, and even in the early afternoon the southerly wind has a bite to it. I've already had small tortoiseshells and peacocks in the garden on and off since February but thought it was time to have a look at the countryside.

If you can call it that... There are many diaries about species-rich places. I read them and marvel at the range of butterflies some people have on their doorsteps (and the stunning pictures that they take of them), whereas I live in a small fenland village, surrounded by vast acreages of flat, arable fields. Nowhere that I visit on a regular basis is managed for butterflies - they have to fend for themselves out here. Most of the places are marginal habitats, always under some sort of threat - development in the case of the old airfield, mechanical destruction of hedgerows on an apparently random basis, mowing of footpath edges and road verges, horses and off-road vehicles damaging the droves and paths that support tiny populations of species that are common in more friendly countryside. I thought it might be interesting to keep a diary about such places, if only so that we can appreciate the others more fully!

Brick Lane is an old footpath of about half a mile in length, running east to west. One side has a thick and varied hedge; up to two years ago so did the other side but then the farmer decided to remove it, and most of the trees as well. Locals were very annoyed as it's a popular dog-walking venue but, ironically, the increase in light has improved it for butterflies except for the speckled wood which used to be common here but was not seen last summer.

Today, just two each of peacock and small tortoiseshell were present on Brick Lane, and only the former posed for pictures. The one on the ground sat for a long time in the sun but with wings closed; it cannot have been too hot, so why do they do this?

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Brick Lane


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Brick Lane, Mepal 24/03/2014 - sunbathing with closed wings


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Brick Lane, Mepal 24/03/2014



Brick Lane leads to the Gault Holes. This old clay pit forms one of the few deviations in the banks of the Ouse Washes, famous for their breeding waders (or they used to be) and winter wildfowl. The edges are managed by the EA but still provide a good selection of common species in summer.

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The Gault Holes


South of the village is a long-disused second world war airfield. It has been partially developed for industrial use but much open land remains. However, eventually it is likely to disappear under housing. It has huge numbers of the common rough grassland species.

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The old airfield, Mepal. Lancasters flew from here.


It was cold and windy up here. Three small tortoiseshells and a lone peacock were sheltering in the verges, warming up on the stones that road-mending companies store here:

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Out of the wind


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The need for warmth outweighs camouflage


Just the two species today... If this first posting actually works, I must give credit to Peter and his instructional videos, and if it doesn't, he is in no way to blame! My respects to all the diarists whose pages I have enjoyed without realising how much work goes into it,

Rob

Pauline
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Re: robpartridge

Postby Pauline » Mon Mar 24, 2014 4:18 pm

Great start to your diary Rob. Looking forward to reading more of it as the weather warms up and the year progresses.

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Maximus
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Re: robpartridge

Postby Maximus » Mon Mar 24, 2014 7:51 pm

Nice start to your diary Rob, you've set the scene, now I'm interested to see how things unfold.

Mike

robpartridge
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Re: robpartridge

Postby robpartridge » Tue Mar 25, 2014 7:58 am

Many thanks to Pauline and Maximus for the comments. Having read your diaries, there is plenty to live up to. I have a pretty limited range of species in the areas around my village that I'm planning to write about, so I'm hoping that they will do some interesting things this summer to make up for that. I have to say that the opportunities the site gives us to create albums and diaries are inspiring - a model for how such things should be done,

Rob

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Re: robpartridge

Postby MikeOxon » Tue Mar 25, 2014 12:15 pm

Your writing brings the place to life! I look forward to seeing more. I believe that Thor missiles were deployed at Mepal (strange name) - hard to believe when you see the peaceful fields now.

Mike

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Neil Freeman
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Re: robpartridge

Postby Neil Freeman » Tue Mar 25, 2014 8:16 pm

Hi Rob,

Great start to your diary, its always interesting to read about peoples experiences from different places, looking forward to further posts.

cheers,

Neil.

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Wurzel
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Re: robpartridge

Postby Wurzel » Tue Mar 25, 2014 11:34 pm

Great start to the PD Rob - I'm really looking forward to reading about what turns up as that's the great thing about nature - you never know :D

Have a goodun

Wurzel

robpartridge
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Re: robpartridge

Postby robpartridge » Wed Mar 26, 2014 8:10 am

Thanks to all for the recent, encouraging comments. Like everyone else, I'm impatiently waiting for some more sunshine after those tantalising few days of spring. The weekend should be warmer if still somewhat cloudy here in the east; time to get the moth trap out again, at least.

Mike, Mepal is indeed an unusual name. We have out own short entry in Wikipedia, which explains it thus - "Listed as Mepahala at the start of the 13th century, the village's name means "Nook of land of a man called Meapa.". That means that there has been a settlement on this isle in the Isle of Ely for at least 900 years. It would fascinating to know the full story of how the butterfly fauna has changed in that time but I am certain that Swallowtails and Large Coppers once flourished at the bottom of my garden,

Rob

robpartridge
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Re: robpartridge

Postby robpartridge » Sat Mar 29, 2014 4:23 pm

Proper sunshine at last after some rather dismal weather all week, and a chance to continue the opening tour around the parish before the season really gets underway. The old airfield is on a slight hill, and one of the paths leading away and down from it is The Rushway. The name is thought to originate from a time when most of the fen villages were islands and the practice of going down into the fens to harvest reeds and sedges was an annual event in late summer or autumn before the water levels rose again - this was probably one of the pathways they used. Nowadays it is wide enough only for a couple of walkers and thick blackthorn hedges have taken hold in some sections; it receives little management other than an occasional mowing and even more occasional scrub clearance. Nevertheless, in terms of numbers of species, the half a mile track is the best site in the parish because in addition to all the common things, the few scattered oaks support Purple Hairstreaks and the belt of regenerated elm at the northern end usually has White-letters. When I first discovered these two species less than a quarter of a mile from my house, I was walking on air for days and it is still a thrill to see the first ones each season.

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The Rushway


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The Rushway, a slightly more open section


Turning east off The Rushway today, I crossed two fields; the first is intensively cropped but the rape last year was attractive to Large Whites. Then one crosses a recently sown grass field that is cut once or twice a year for silage - hostile country for butterflies.

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Heavy land but two fields to the left is black peat


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A green desert - rye-grass


Once onto the Widdens drove, there are butterflies at last. The combination of a drainage dyke, drove-way and hedge is quite common in parts of the Isle of Ely; the variation they offer makes them a magnet for all local wildlife, and a few have been given some limited protection. Most are still used by farmers for access to fields and they can become impassable in winter. However, the bare ground that results makes them surprisingly reliable for Wall Browns.

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Widdens drove - the south-facing bank is a good spot for browns and skippers


Almost nothing was staying still for photographs despite counting 20 Small Tortoiseshells, 11 Peacocks and 3 Brimstone males along the drove. Finally a Small T took pity on me:

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Pleased to see so many of these


My wife and I have watched badgers and recorded their setts for more than twenty years. When we moved here it was easy - there were only three setts known to anyone locally. In that time, numbers have increased quite dramatically, and we found several dung pits in a gateway of the drove, about half a mile from home.

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Gateways often mark the edges of badger territories


Back on The Rushway and nearly home, we finally had a chance of a good photograph. These two Peacocks were behaving in amorous fashion up amongst the sloe blossom; they made several short flights together before returning to the bush. After enjoying the spectacle, we left them to it.

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Romance in a romantic spot


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We left them to it...


The Millenium Atlas made much of the fact that our wider countryside species are able to survive in linear habitats, and that is entirely the case with the areas that I have described so far, apart from the grassland on the airfield. Everything has to live on the edge here.

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Re: robpartridge

Postby Chris Jackson » Sat Mar 29, 2014 5:22 pm

Nice photos and comments Rob. What a lovely place to live in.
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robpartridge
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Re: robpartridge

Postby robpartridge » Sat Mar 29, 2014 5:58 pm

"What a lovely place to live in."

Many thanks, Chris - my wife would say exactly the same about the south of France...

Rob

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Re: robpartridge

Postby Wurzel » Sat Mar 29, 2014 11:03 pm

Great report and photos Rob :D That's the thing with the nice weather - it can be too nice and the butterflies just bomb around everywhere making photography near impossible :roll:

Have a goodun

Wurzel

robpartridge
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Re: robpartridge

Postby robpartridge » Mon Mar 31, 2014 2:56 pm

At eleven o'clock this morning only the weakest of sunshine was getting through the high cloud - not much chance of many butterflies, I thought, but an opportunity to get further with the virtual tour of my parish, ready for when the action proper begins any day now. After the end of the Widdens drove, one arrives at the Ouse Washes. These huge embankments run in a virtually straight line SSW to NNE for more than twenty miles across the fens. In the winter they hold flood water from the Great Ouse catchment, water which once flooded many thousands of acres of low-lying land every year, making most villages islands and indeed the Isle of Ely itself owes its name to the once extensive marshes and and meres created by these floods. Today the washes were losing their water, leaving ideal conditions for the many wildfowl and waders that still nest here in good years - lapwings and redshanks were calling constantly. The east bank is only lightly grazed and managed, leaving plenty of teazels, nettles and thistles for butterflies in the summer. A few peacocks were guarding nettle patches, wings closed, waiting for the sun to break through.

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A few peacocks were guarding nettle patches


The New Bedford river - not that new now as it was dug by hand in 1650 - is tidal, even though we are more than thirty miles from the sea here. As I climbed on to the top of the bank, a common seal surfaced long enough for one shot; when he reappeared he was almost a hundred yards away:

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The river here is tidal...


The barrier banks are managed by the EA. Fortunately, in recent years the grazing has been fairly light, allowing nettles, thistles and teazels to develop in good-sized patches. The teazels are highly attractive to late summer butterflies and had several clouded yellows in 2013. Where the grass is shortest, small heaths sometimes develop small colonies. As the sun shone a little more, I was surprised yet again by the number of small tortoiseshells this year, with a dozen in as many yards. Nectar plants are few and far between and some were using daisies. Today, a small dredger was at work - the banks would not last through many winter floods without annual maintenance.

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Nectar plants are few and far between at this time of the year


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Sometimes it seems intrusive but without this regular work my house would be underwater


I drove around to the west side of the washes. On the single track road I had to swerve to avoid a grass snake. I stopped and walked back - when it did not move I assumed that it had already been run over but no, it was simply sunbathing on the warm surface. It would not move until I gently lifted it onto the verge with a stick!

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A lazy sun-bather


Later on I managed another, close-up picture of a much small grass snake as it slipped away into a reed bed. March is quite early - I usually see the first ones here in mid-April:

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Despite my quiet approach, he had heard me and was slipping away


Climbing up onto the western barrier bank and looking north, both the Old Bedford river, on the right, and the Counterwash drain on the left are visible. The latter has the highest levels of protection and is very good for aquatic plants and insects, as well as most of our commoner grassland butterfly species. Today there were a few more peacocks and small tortoiseshells. Also here was a male brimstone and my first small white of the year but neither stayed for a picture:

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The Counter drain and the Old Bedford. The teazels here are smothered in butterflies in late summer


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I must stop taking pictures of these...


In the far distance is the outline of Ely Cathedral - it has watched over this landscape for more than a thousand years:

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Ely Cathedral


The sun had finally given up the struggle. When I got back to the car, a peacock was waiting for me, having found somewhere warm for just a few more minutes. When I drove away, I'm sure it tried to follow:

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Just a few more minutes

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Re: robpartridge

Postby Wurzel » Tue Apr 01, 2014 9:58 pm

That is a great locale you're at Rob :mrgreen: And that is a great Peacock shot, it really does tell the story of a thousand words :D

Have a goodun

Wurzel

robpartridge
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Re: robpartridge

Postby robpartridge » Wed Apr 02, 2014 7:20 am

Thanks again, Wurzel. It was a dull day as far as the light was concerned but not as dull as some of the pictures suggest - I think I'll have to turn up the exposure compensation on the Lumix!

Rob

robpartridge
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The end of the tour

Postby robpartridge » Wed Apr 02, 2014 2:08 pm

It's time to finish the opening tour of my parish before everyone realises that I don't have many butterflies to show just at the moment. The parish of Mepal forms a scalene triangle - yes, I had to look it up, a new-fangled word, I think - with the western end the most acute angle. Neatly inside this point are two post- war gravel pits, some 60 years old now and, of course, quite mature. The largest is 44 acres in extent and is used by a fly-fishing club. We have many gravel pits in the fens, and once completed, they often form quite good habitat for many species, especially birds. Their insect fauna is less well studied but the margins can also be interesting for most of the wider countryside butterflies.

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The 44 acre pit is now a trout fishery


Once again the sun was weak if present at all, and I could find nothing on the wing. Eventually I found one small tortoiseshell sheltering from the cold south-easterly wind, in the lee of a dyke - this is what everything else must have been doing here at this time:

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Keeping out of a cold south-easterly


Nevertheless, this gravel pit has some interesting moths. The first photo shows the empty cocoon of the hornet clearwing at the base of a poplar tree - this species is widespread in my part of the fens but rarely seen unless one examines the trunks on an early morning in June. The second image shows a sallow that has been well-worked by larvae of the goat moth. This is a species of conservation concern but some of my local pits have strong populations:

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An empty cocoon of the hornet clearwing


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Clear evidence of the goat moth


I could think of one corner that would be out of this wind, and sure enough, a few butterflies were present, including just my second comma of the season. Fortunately, it was a better-looking one than my first:

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The second comma of the season


This quiet corner also attracts less welcome visitors. Even though we are a rural area, we have our share of criminals as this heap of cable sheathing shows. In the past I always reported such things but, to be honest, I doubt if it does any good. Fly-tipping is just one more hazard that our butterflies have to face:

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One more hazard


But there were skylarks beginning to sing overhead, and two sand martins appeared briefly over the lake before continuing their journey north. Spring always brings a little hope and, as Philip Larkin wrote, "Things are tougher than we are." I'll end with a picture of the open, arable fields that most people associate with this part of the country. The parish boundary is along the left side of this photograph. It looks bleak and unfriendly for butterflies but even out here there will be some to be found in a month or two.

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Even out here there will be butterflies...


Thanks for staying with it this far!

Rob

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William
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Re: robpartridge

Postby William » Wed Apr 02, 2014 4:42 pm

Great stuff Rob, I'm fascinated by your tales of all the moths. Goat Moths and Clearwings are the stuff of myth and legend in my part of Somerset :D :D . I'm very jealous of your White - Letters too, I'm sure there are some on my patch, though repeated attempts to find them have ended in failiure :lol:
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robpartridge
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Re: robpartridge

Postby robpartridge » Wed Apr 02, 2014 5:30 pm

William wrote: Goat Moths and Clearwings are the stuff of myth and legend in my part of Somerset


Thanks, William. A quick look at the Provisional Atlas does indeed suggest that you are a long way from the nearest hornet clearwing! The goat moth now has an odd distribution and I wouldn't be surprised if there are still a few small colonies in unexpected places - it's not something that many people look for, and it does not come to light very often. As for White-letters, in my part of the world populations seem to vary enormously from year to year, and some seasons you hardly see them, whereas last year's hot July really favoured them here. I'd keep checking any likely elms for several years before I concluded that they were absent, but others know much more than me and I'm sure there are Somerset experts on the species,

Rob

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Re: robpartridge

Postby Wurzel » Mon Apr 07, 2014 8:49 pm

Some great reports - we're really getting to know your local patch and nice to see some of the local butterflies :D That's the great thing about your LP, you never know what'll turn up and you can take ownership of it, almost becoming protective of it. :D

Have a goodun

Wurzel

robpartridge
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Re: robpartridge

Postby robpartridge » Wed Apr 09, 2014 7:38 am

Thanks Wurzel - but as soon as I'd completed the opening tour, the sun went in and it hasn't come out properly since! I hope this isn't a judgement from above. Looking back at past records, this is nothing to worry about, of course; it will just make for a better morning when things get underway again,

Rob


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