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Recent sightings

  • 13 July 2014

    Recent Sightings: A Moth Diaries Update


    Large emerald moth, taken by Sally Granger

    Large emerald

    This beautiful, unmistakable moth made its first appearance in the moth trap on Thursday night; definitely an exciting find. Common throughout most of the UK, the large emerald is found between June and August.


    Cinnabar moth, taken by Sally Granger

    Cinnabar moth

    Named after the red mineral of the same name, this brightly coloured moth is often found during the day. As a caterpillar it feeds on the poisonous leaves of ragwort, from which it absorbs the toxins, these remain in the body of the adult moth and leave a bitter taste in the mouth of any predators not deterred by its bright warning colours.


    Buff tip moth, taken by David Osborn

    Buff tip

    The ‘buff tip’ on the wing of this moth makes it striking as it clearly bears remarkable resemblance to a broken twig. These moths are relatively common and have been a frequent feature in the moth trap in recent weeks.


    Hummingbird hawk-moth, taken by Richard Revels

    Hummingbird hawk-moth

    Spotted this week on the planted tub just outside the visitor centre, this is a day-flying moth with a wingspan of around two inches. Its long proboscis and rapid, humming wing beat as it hovers and flits from one plant to another make it easily mistakable as a true hummingbird. It is resident throughout Europe and North Africa and is most commonly seen in the UK in August.


    The reserve is filled with wildflowers and butterflies at the moment, but join us on a sunny day and you’ll more than likely spot a few beautiful day-flying moths too!

    If you'd like to learn more about moths and other creatures of the night, join us for our Bats and Moths Guided Walk on Friday 1st August,

    Posted by Sally G

  • 4 July 2014

    The Orchids are Alright: Make sure you don't miss them!


    We love the orchids, the team can't stop waxing lyrical about them! Here is Adam with a little more info on these beautiful, short lived flowers.

     Common spotted orchid, taken by Becca Bratt

    It’s orchid time here at RSPB Coombes Valley and actually, the orchids aren’t alright. They’re AMAZING!!

    The common spotted orchids look to be having a bumper year, with swathes of them in flower at the moment. These are interspersed with our true star of the show, the greater butterfly orchid, which are also doing incredibly well. In fact, it might just be the best orchid display I’ve ever seen here at Coombes Valley. Recent tweaks to our grazing regime seem to be having the desired effect. The orchids have gone from strength to strength in recent years, with numbers building steadily upwards.

    I highly recommend you come and see the orchids for yourself. But, how will you know what you’re looking for unless you’re a professional botanist? Well, along with our helpful visitor centre team who will no doubt help you out, here are our top tips for recognising our orchids.


    Greater butterfly orchid, taken by Becca Bratt

    Common spotted orchid. These are by far the most numerous orchids we get here. Their small white-purple flower spikes are easy to pick out amongst the other vegetation. When you start to see them just standstill, and take in how abundant they are. It’s a real WOW moment to see so many rare flowers all in one go. Once you get up close, carefully look at the leaves at the base of the plant. The dark oval spots are the giveaway sign it is a common spotted orchid. These spots are also the basis of the name for this stunning plant.

    Greater butterfly orchid. With tall spikes of white-green flowers, rising up from the surrounding grass, these are incredibly beautiful plants. Nothing else on site looks like these, so no worries about confusing them with something else. The flowers are said to look like butterflies, hence the name. They were once called night violets, due to their scent being strongest through the night. This suggests that they are pollinated by nocturnal insects such as moths. Luckily, the unimproved grassland these are found in are also home to a real diversity of moth species; making pollination no problem at all. If you want to find out more about the moths here at Coombes, check out some of our previous blogs

    Common spotted and greater butterfly orchids, taken by Becca Bratt

    I think one of the best things about the orchids here are how accessible they are. They’re literally two minutes walk from the car park, and not up or down hill either! Perfect for everyone to come and see.

    If you want to see the orchids, pop in to the visitor centre and a member of our team will give you directions to them. Any photos you manage to grab would be very welcome on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

    Posted by Sally G

  • 29 June 2014

    Little Things that Bite: Horse Flies

    Becca is back for seconds this week, see what she thinks of the much maligned horse fly!

    We’ve been experiencing an exceptionally warm, sunny June so far – great for walking on the reserve, enjoying the wild flowers, birds and butterflies. However, those conditions are also ideal for a less welcome resident – the horse fly!

    As the RSPB is an all nature conservation organisation, this week I set out to try to convince the rest of the team that horse flies are in fact very interesting insects with (a few) redeeming qualities.

    Horse Fly, taken by Jeroen Shel RSPB Images

    If you hear a horse fly buzzing around, it’s likely to be a harmless male. They lack the scissor-like mouth parts of the female so won’t bite you. As is often the case in nature, it’s the female of the species that you need to be wary of! Her flight is silent, so often you will only notice her after you’ve been bitten.

    Ouch! So why do they bite? Although it can be painful for us, they do have a reason... it is believed that the females need a ‘blood meal’ before they lay their eggs to enable them to develop successfully. As well as humans, most mammals, some reptiles and even amphibians can be the unwitting providers for a horse fly snack.

    I must get to those redeeming features...

    If you’ve ever seen pictures of a horse fly close up, you’ll notice that they have the most amazing, iridescent eyes. It is possible to identify certain species of horse fly by the stripes and patterns of their eyes.  It’s also possible to distinguish between the sexes; the eyes of the male touch in the middle whereas female eyes are separated by a gap in between.

    Horse fly, taken by Phil Cutt RSPB Images 

    Males are important pollinators and some species possess a long proboscis adapted to drink the nectar of specific flowers.

    Horse fly, taken by Ernie Janes RSPB Images 

    Female horse flies are very agile and are able to perform the ‘Immelman Turn’ (an aerial manoeuvre named after a German WWI pilot). This involves a vertical U-turn as shown in the diagram below and enables the fly to reposition and attempt a second attack very quickly.


    Diagram credited to R/C Airplane World 

    However much they are disliked, horse flies still have an important place in the food web here at Coombes Valley, providing small birds such as blue tits and fly catchers with the nourishment they need to raise their chicks successfully.

    Healthy numbers of insects means healthy numbers of food prey for predators at the top of the food chain such as the sparrowhawk. This bird of prey was once so badly persecuted that their numbers were in rapid decline. Fortunately today, they are thriving and healthy numbers of top predators is a sign of stable ecosystem.

    If we are giving nature a home, then that also includes the unpopular, but fascinating horse fly.

    Posted by Sally G

  • 23 June 2014

    Orchids Galore: A Window of Opportunity

    The greater butterly orchids are out in the meadows of Coombes and today our lovely volunteer Becca is here to tell you why you shouldn't miss out. They're only fleeting, so find a spare hour to pop down and see us! 



    Greater butterfly orchid, taken by Becca Bratt


    I'm just starting week two of a three week work placement here at Coombes Valley. Luckily enough it is at a time when the reserve is full of new life, busy sounds and vibrant colour. I already feel that I have a greater understanding of how much hard work goes into managing a reserve, not only for the benefit of wildlife but in order for people to enjoy it too.


    One of my first tasks last week was to count the greater butterfly orchids in the meadow near the visitor centre. I met a couple admiring the variety of flowers down there and they suggested perhaps this task was a practical joke to keep the newbie occupied! However, it was a genuine request and an important one; by comparing orchid numbers from previous years their success can be monitored.



    Greater butterfly orchid and common spotted orchid, taken by Becca Bratt


    Declining numbers make greater butterfly orchids a target species at Coombes. They are only able to grow successfully in ‘unimproved’ hay meadows – fields which have escaped intensive practices, such as fertiliser and pesticide use, and high stocking densities of cattle or sheep which may cause overgrazing or trampling of vegetation. The flower meadows at Coombes are carefully managed to encourage a range of what were once widespread flowers and grasses.



    View over Coombes Meadow


    To be able to increase their numbers effectively, orchids have evolved sneaky tactics to get insects to spread their pollen. They often mimick the scents of female insects to attract the pollinating males and copy the appearance of pollinators with their petals.


    In the case of the greater butterfly orchid, the insects that are responsible for their pollination are night flying moths. The common spotted orchid is less fussy about what creatures spread its pollen - hoverflies, bumblebees and the Dascillus cervinis beetle are all welcome.


    Coommon spotted orchid, taken by Becca Bratt


    It took me a little longer than I thought to complete my count, as the orchids seem to be doing very well in the meadows at Coombes this year! If my numbers are correct, a total of 239 greater butterfly orchids wait to be admired, with plenty more yet to burst into flower. The common spotted orchid is also putting on a great show, with beautiful pink blooms visible in even greater numbers than the greater butterfly orchid. A sight definitely not to be missed in the June sunshine, so get down to Coombes in the next week because you really don't want to miss out.


    If you’d like to find out more about orchids and other plants and wildflowers, join us for our Plants Tell Stories guided walk on Sunday 29th June

    Posted by Sally G

  • 11 June 2014

    Recent Sightings: A Butterfly Transect

     To monitor the butterfly life at Coombes there is a weekly butterfly transect. Our lucky wardens walk a set, hour long route through the reserve and count what they see. What an onerous job! So, what is about this week?


    Green-veined white, taken by Simon Gray

    Green-veined white

    A wide-spread and beautiful butterfly, the green-veined white is common across the country in a variety of habitats. It has a wide range of foodplants to choose from as both a larvae and a butterfly, including garlic mustard, cuckooflower and bluebells.


    Orange tip, taken by David Tolliday

    Orange tip

    Again, the orange tip is common throughout the country. The flash of orange makes it very distinctive and they are one of the first butterflies to emerge each spring. However, the obvious markings which give it its name are only present on the males; the plain white females are often mistaken for the green-veined white or small white.


    Small copper, taken by Simon Gray

    Small copper

    A fast, brightly coloured butterfly found in most areas of the UK. It can be found mainly in open spaces such as grasslands, woodland rides and heathland. As larvae it feeds on common sorrel, sheep’s sorrel and broad-leaved dock. The adult butterfly feeds on a range of wildflowers and is often found at rest while it absorbs the sun’s rays.



    Speckled wood, taken by Steve Brown

    Speckled wood

    So named, the speckled wood butterfly is commonly found in woodland. Unlike other butterflies it favours the shade and is more likely to be seen in overcast conditions than many other species. Although the adults prefer to feed from honeydew plants, when scarce they will take nectar from others sources such as cuckoo flower and dandelions.


    We’re keeping track of the weekly butterfly count in the visitor centre, pop in a take a look at the board to see what’s about on the reserve.

    Posted by Sally G

  • 31 May 2014

    Recent Sightings: The Monsters of the Moth World Descend!

    Our reserve’s moth trap has suddenly begun to yield a group of the largest moth species found in this country. Within the past week the hawk moths have appeared! This group of friendly giants, also known as sphinx moths, are actually often considered to look quite exotic.

    Our first encounter with hawk moths occurred on the 21st of May, where our trap suddenly saw three different species. The most numerous of these was the poplar hawk moth, so called because when resting its wings can look like the dead leaves of a poplar tree.

    One of the five poplars caught in our trap. Image by Lucy Hodson

    The poplar hawk moth is the largest of the three species we’ve caught so far, with a wingspan of up to 10cm. As you can imagine these hefty little creatures are quite heavy to hold, and land with a thud!

    The next of these winged giants to be caught was the eyed hawk-moth. Although overall quite dull in colour, it has a flash of colour on each hind wing. These spots are displayed when the moth feels threatened, and are said to look like eyes; thus giving this monster moth its name.

    The eyed hawk moth, clearly displaying its 'eyes'. Image by Lucy Hodson

    The last of the hawk moth species to be caught was the spectacular elephant hawk moth. Although slightly smaller than the other two species, with a wing span of 5-7cm, it is still an eye-catching creature. As you can see, this little fellow got up-close and personal when I tried to take a snap of him!

    The elephant hawkmoth. Images by (and of!) Lucy Hodson.

    Due to its bright pink and green colours, this moth is often mistaken for a butterfly. Since starting work at Coombes I’ve come to learn that not all moths are dull brown colours. They can be even more varied than our UK butterflies! 

    The elephant hawk moth gets it’s name not from bright pink elephants, but from the appearance of its caterpillar. The greyish colour, along with its shape is often said to look like an elephants trunk, especially in certain ‘poses’.

    The trunk-resembling catepillar of the elephant hawk moth. Image by Guy Rogers, from RSPB Images.

    Before coming to Coombes, I didn’t know the world of moths could be so exciting! In the UK there are around 2400 species of moths, and 800 or so of these are ‘macro moths’, which are generally larger species.

    In previous blogs we’ve mentioned our reserve’s star species of moth; the argent & sable. We actively manage our reserve for all nature and a whole variety of wildlife, not just birds. This intriguing and rare monochrome moth is an example of an invertebrate we directly work towards conserving & monitoring.

    On June 15th there will be a guided walk with an invertebrate theme; looking at insects, bugs, spiders and moths. We’ll investigate just how you go about looking for the hidden depths of life on the micro-level, and beginners and families are welcome! The walk will involve activities along the way such as using sweep nets, investigating deadwood, and best of all, a moth-trap demonstration at the end along with refreshments.

    Who knows, will we see any more of the monster moths?

    If you’d like to come along, the walk will start at 1pm and finish at 3pm on Sunday June 15th. Adults cost £4 and children £2, with a 20% discount for RSPB members, including car parking charges. No booking is required for this event.

    For more information please visit the Coombes Valley website at or call the reserve office on 01538 384017.

    Posted by Lucy H

  • 20 May 2014

    Recent Sightings: What are the blobs?!

    What are the blobs? 

    They're places near the path network where pied flycatcher (black) and redstart (red!) have been heard singing. It's not definitive - but is a guide to where some have been seen recently - and are good places to start on your journey to discover these special birds.

    We'd like you to help us keep track of them too. The team are out doing standard method surveys - and recording casually as they go wandering - but the more eyes and ears the better.  So, if you pick up a trail guide and see a bird - or you're sure you hear it singing - then make a note on your map (including whether it was singing or not). Then when you get back to the Information Centre share it with us - it will help us build up a better picture.

    After a long journey from their winter in Africa, both species should now be settling down. This is a brief window of opportunity because by the end of June they will be much more difficult to see - so come and visit now!

    So far there have been just occasional records of tree pipit and as yet no wood warbler, so we're really keen for you to report back if you see or hear either.

    Thanks for your help


     Pied Flycatcher, taken by Steve Brown


    Redstart, RSPB Images


    Posted by Sally G

  • 6 May 2014

    A moth in monochrome

    I had a great day last Tuesday (April 29th). The new manager of all the RSPB Midlands Reserves, Nick Droy, came out to re-familiarise himself with Coombes. In his younger days, he worked for the National Trust, on the nearby Ilam Estate. Stomping around the reserve brought back many good memories for him. He did note though, the changes since he was last here. He was impressed with the new footpath that goes much further south into the Valley - and all the recent woodland management.

    There was a lot to see and chat about and so we ended up in a mad dash to get back. However, as we neared Buzzard Bank, along the new trail, we had to slow down....... for a slow worm. It was basking on the track, unperturbed by our manic pace. Really nice way to end his visit – and to reinforce that Coombes is a natural experience – not just about birds.

    When I got back, Steve Brown and the work party volunteers came back to add to my ALL NATURE EXCITEMENT. They’d just spotted a grass snake in the plantation at the north end of the reserve. But – that wasn’t all. One of the team, Ken, completely, unaware of it’s significance had spotted a black and white day-flying moth. And the surprise.... (drum roll, drum role)........was that it was the rare Argent and Sable moth.

     Steve managed to get a picture:

     I was buzzing about this. It is a National Biodiversity Action plan species. It is also one of the beneficiaries of all the woodland management work we have been doing. They are fussy blighters and like short birch trees that have re-grown after cutting.

    If you want to know more about Argent and Sable visit the links below:

    If you have a specific interest come and search them out for us – or maybe you’ll see one in passing. From now until end of June, keep your eyes peeled in the right places (see the map below). Please tell us if you see one – where and when – and e-mail us at

    The red spot shows the approximate sighting of the individual on April 29th. The red line shows the area on the main footpath where you might see them. Good luck!




    Posted by Lucy H

  • 18 April 2014

    Recent Sightings: The Moth Diaries

    The beautiful splashes of colour butterflies bring to our gardens are definitive of spring and summer, but what about their night-time relatives? Here at Coombes the moth trap is out almost every night so we can see who visits our reserve once darkness falls. It’s really easy to do, you can even do it at home. 

    Set the scene in your own dusk falls and the sun sets on a still night, the air comes alive with the thrum of all kinds of busy bugs. If you don’t own your own moth trap they are very easy to make at home from a cardboard or plastic box:

    Look out for Elephant Hawk Moths later in the year, taken by Simon Gray

    Even simpler is a live moth trap. Around dusk, hang a bed sheet from your washing line with a bright bulb behind. The moths will be drawn in and some will land on the sheet, making it easy for you to look closely and count them. Definitely a summer treat for kids if it means staying up after bedtime! 

    It’s very early in the year but as the season progresses the range of moths will diversify. We’ll keep you updated on our recent moth sightings; let us know what you find at home.

    March Moth:

    The appropriately named march moth was the first catch of the year! Common throughout Britain, these moths are (probably very obviously) active during March and April. As caterpillars they feed on a range of trees including hawthorn and oak, making Coombes the perfect place for them. Perhaps the strangest feature of the march moth is that the females lack wings. So for those first few days of catching only march moths we can be sure that the trap was a bit of a boys club.

    Hebrew Character, image by Steve Brown

    Hebrew Character:

    Hebrew characters are another very widespread species and can be found in almost any British habitat. Like the march moth they are most active in March and April, although they can be active later in the year. The ‘c’ shaped black mark found on their forewings gives them their name because it‘s similar in shape to the letter ‘Nun’ that is part of the Hebrew Alphabet.

    Brindled Beauty, image by RSPB images

    Brindled Beauty

    The brindled beauty has only made one appearance so far but is relatively common, especially at this time of the year. The male moths are much more likely to be attracted to light and are distinguishable by their large feathery antennae, which help them sniff out the females! Their beautiful peppered patterning helps to camouflage them from predators, making them blend into the bark when they rest on trees.

    Early Thorn, taken by Simon Gray

    Early Thorn

    Whenever a new type of moth makes an appearance in the trap it’s very exciting, like an early morning present! On Sunday I awoke to find the first early thorn. Unlike all the moths above the early thorn has two distinctive waves through the year; now and again in August/September. The other obvious difference is that they hold their wings together like a butterfly and so are much easier to tell apart from other types of thorn moth.

    If you want to help wildlife at home in your garden, visit for more information.  Thank you to Butterfly Conservation Northern Ireland for their moth trap how to.

    Posted by Carl

Your sightings

Grid reference: SK0053 (+2km)

Tawny Owl (1)
17 Jul 2014

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Where is it?

  • Lat/lng: 53.07781,-1.98803
  • Grid reference: SK009534
  • Nearest town: Leek, Staffordshire
  • County: Staffordshire
  • Country: England

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