Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Marbled Whites, Chalkhill Blues and Frog Orchids at Barnack Hills

Barnack Hills and Holes Nature Reserve - site of a medieval limestone quarry

There is a period in July and August, between the migrations, when birding becomes very quiet. The summer doldrums. Unfortunately it coincides with my summer holiday. Six weeks when I'm free to go anywhere at the drop of a hat and all there is to look at are a few passing waders and maybe a couple of days spent in the south-west gazing out to sea in the hope that some far-flung waif seabird goes shooting by.
Of course, as soon as I return to work the rare birds start turning up again. One year a first for Britain, a Purple Martin all the way from America, had the indecency to turn up on the Western Isles on the last Sunday of my summer holiday. It stayed for a few hours into the next day, but I could hardly let down a new class of 5 year olds on their first day at school, could I? (And no I didn't, in case you're wondering).

So many birdwatchers turn to other wildlife at this time of year. Our obsession with all things with wings leads us to butterflies, moths and dragonflies. Although I've flirted with such subjects in the past, along with trying to get to grips with our native fauna, I've managed to resist the temptation.

But last Sunday I dragged Sue along to an organised butterfly walk at Barnack Hills and Holes Nature Reserve, just outside Stamford. It is the site of a medieval quarry and, this far north, is a very rare patch of limestone grassland.


Six-Spot Burnet on Greater Knapweed
We booked the walk through Greeniversity. The weather was a bit breezy for butterflies, but at least it wasn't raining. But when we turned up at the small reserve car park, we were turned away! The car park was full. We had expected about 10 people but there were closer to 50! Now I may have just endured my 49th birthday, but it has to be said that Sue and I were among the youngest, by quite some distance.
But with that age came knowledge. There were several botanists (plant people) at hand and a couple of entomologists (insect people). It didn't take long to catch a glimpse of our first target butterfly species scooting past, a Marbled White. This was only the second time I'd ever seen one. We were to see many more during the afternoon, though it took quite some time before one sat long enough to be appreciated properly.

Marbled White
Kneeling in homage

Our second hoped for butterfly, the Chalkhill Blue, we were informed was only just on the wing. There may be one or two around if we could find them. This was slightly disappointing news, for I'd never seen one before, at least not knowingly. However, it didn't take long for the group to find one, but again it was flighty and only stayed still long enough for me to get a quick snap.

Fortunately we got to see quite a few more as the sun came out and the wind died down a little and close-up views were eventually afforded to all.

As it turned out, the day wasn't just about butterflies, for limestone grassland holds its very own range of specialist plants. We were shown such oddly names plants as dodder, knapweed broomrape, mignonette, clustered bellflower, small scabious and common rockrose. The first two of these parasitise other plants so don't need chlorophyll, which means they aren't green. The broomrape in particular was fascinating, appearing as if someone had gone round the reserve spot-treating it with Roundup!

Common Rockrose
Knapweed Broomrape

There were some even more special plants on the reserve though, for squadrons of Pyramidal Orchids poked their pink heads above the sward. These are the last orchids of the year to flower. The reserve is actually host to 8 species of orchids, but most of the others, such as Fragrant Orchid and Man Orchid, had gone over now.

There was one more treat in store. For roped off to protect them we were lucky enough to be shown a small group of Frog Orchids. If you hadn't known you would have walked straight past, for Frog Orchids are not especially pretty. But they are very rare. The whole plant, including the flowers, is essentially green, but that is not where the frog bit of the name comes from. The flowers resemble small frogs...well, they're supposed to. I struggled to see it myself.

I only wish I'd taken along my proper camera and not relied on my phone to capture the many interesting finds of the day. I guess that gives me an excuse to go back, maybe earlier in the year when the Pasqueflowers or the Man Orchids are out.
Finally I would like to thank the Friends of Barnack Hills and Holes for showing us all around, sharing their knowledge and displaying great patience answering our questions all afternoon.

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