On my recent lunchtime walks around Strumpshaw Fen, I've found myself being drawn again and again to a particular spot in the woods. It's a patch of brambles next to the trail, which is bathed in sunlight (on good days) and heaving with all manner of butterflies and insects. Most of the butterflies are ones I recognise from my garden - comma, small tortoiseshell, peacock - but if I wait just a minute or two I can usually catch a glimpse of a startling black and white creature gliding over the brambles. White admirals are woodland specialists - they like a mix of shady woodland and sun-dappled patches with brambles where they feed on the nectar-rich blossom. Today I was lucky enough that one landed just half a metre away from me and stayed there basking in the sunlight while I admired its crisp black and white markings. It even folded its wings for a moment, revealing its vivid orange and white underwing.
Like many British butterflies, white admirals have undergone a steep decline in the last twenty years. Although their range has expanded, surveys are showing a dramatic drop in numbers. By creating dappled glades in the woodland at Strumpshaw Fen, we're helping these fragile butterflies to survive. My tiny urban garden isn't quite big enough to create a woodland glade, but I'm very chuffed that the butterfly-friendly flowers I've planted are helping other butterflies and I've seen eight different species in my garden this summer. We can all do a little bit to help butterflies - and with more than three quarters of British butterflies in trouble, it's vital that we do! There are loads of good websites with top tips - see http://homes.rspb.org.uk/ and http://butterfly-conservation.org/ for starters.
Insect life at the fen is reaching peak activity, with soldier beetles covering almost every piece of hogweed, bright yellow longhorn beetles patrolling the thistle flowers and bush crickets lining the wooden edge of sandy wall. This is a good time to keep an eye out for one of Strumpshaw’s best mini-spectacles. Huge numbers small tortoiseshell and peacock caterpillars are currently erupting all over their larval foodplants, and in some cases covering almost every square inch of foliage. At the moment there’s a brilliant example on the nettles just by the first sluice on the fen trail. When we walked past it yesterday almost every plant was heaving with small tortoiseshell caterpillars, eggs and frass (that’s caterpillar poo to me and you) as individuals crawled over each other and stretched out into any empty spaces in search of more leaves to devour.
Small Tortoiseshell Caterpillars. Photo by Ciara Stafford
Small tortoiseshell caterpillars hatch out from their bright green eggs after one to three weeks. They live in groups, and together spin untidy silk webs at the top of nettles which they can retreat to in order to protect themselves from predators. If caught out in the open (I saw them do this when a green bottle fly had the audacity to land on them) the whole group will flick their bodies from side to side in unison to defend themselves. After a month of continuous eating, they will finally disperse to find a suitable place to pupate.
Small tortoiseshell caterpillars in their silk web. Photo by Ciara Stafford
Seeing a nettle patch turned into an insect metropolis highlights the importance of these much maligned plants in maintaining some of our most beautiful butterflies. As well as small tortoiseshells they support the larvae of commas, red admirals, peacocks and painted ladies; so next time you get stung, think of all the good that plant may have done. You might find yourself a little more willing to forgive it.
Blogger: Melanie Beck, Assistant Leader of Norwich Nuthatches, the local RSPB Wildlife Explorers children's club.
It may have been grey and drizzly July day for the Norwich Nuthatches’ Summer Survey but we had a challenge to complete. We could not let a little rain stop us from trying to beat last year’s total of 64 different species! It would also be a great test to find out just how many we could name.
We began with a wordsearch to find 20 bugs hidden in the grid. It wasn’t as easy as you may think. We found bee cropped up at least three times but only counted if it had honey or bumble in front of it! This was going to be a challenge all of its own!
The first part of our survey meant we would be pond-dipping. As we had had such hot temperatures for a few weeks the water level in the pond was quite low so we weren’t really sure whether we would find many pond creatures. But we shouldn’t have worried. Our first catch was a water scorpion, followed quickly by other creatures that included greater water boatman, dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, whirligig beetles, sticklebacks, pond snails and caddis fly larvae. A great start to our total, with William our official total recorder for the morning, writing them all down.
As we finished pond dipping we noticed the warm day had started to encourage out some insects. Meadow brown and ringlet butterflies flitted around us. Soldier beetles and bees were close by resting on the different plants as we started to walk towards the meadow. We saw nettles, hemp agrimony, goose grass, buttercups, clover, and daisies.
We made our way to the meadow, where we passed honeysuckle, brambles and thistles. In the meadow we found more wildflowers such as ragged robin, and marsh orchids. We watched a small white butterfly, a white-tailed bumble bee and a marsh harrier as we listened to a chiffchaff and black cap singing.
As we walked back, a dragonfly and emerald damselfly flew close by. We could name many different trees, from ash and oak, to alder, willow and birch. The birch even had the only fungi we found, birch polypore. By this time we needed just three more to beat last year’s total so we headed to the Reception Hide to look over the broad and were met by so many different birds! A grey heron and a cormorant stood on the island, two kingfishers flew past while mallards, coot and moorhens floated on the water. We could also see a robin, several blue tits and a chaffinch feeding close by. So as our morning drew to a close we waited for the final count from William.
We’d done it!! There were 78 different species on our list, far too many to name all of them on our blog! Not bad for a drizzly grey day. So the challenge has been set for next year – 78 to beat!