I have been out and about a few times since mid July which is where I left the state of play in my previous blog entry. My first trip was a late night one to see Glow Worms. Photographing these is a bit of a challenge and takes some experimentation. I went out with a local group which leads a couple of walks in the summer months. We were not sure we'd find any as this year hasn't been too good for them and, indeed, it did take a while but find some we did. I say 'we' but actually it was other people who spotted them and I found it hard to see them even when they were pointed out to me as they were very low down on the grass stems and almost hidden by the adjacent flora. I only had a very short time photographing one before the group started walking back to their cars but I managed to grab a few quick shots. Photography-wise I regard this as a start but really more of a record shot than I'd like. I definitely need longer to experiment with settings for this particular species.
It was great to see them though I must admit. You'd think they'd be easy to see but, in my limited experience, they are not easy to see from any distance. Sometimes I wonder how on earth the males find the females since all the females I've seen (in total defiance of all the scholarly literature describing their typical behaviour) were not climbing tall grass stems to make themselves visible but were tucked in amongst the undergrowth. I have also seen a juvenile glow worm before and the image is on this site in the arthropods section but their life history makes for rather gruesome reading. Since they feed on snails I wonder why they haven't made a successful move into gardens - maybe gardens don't provide the right kind of flora for them. Our walk leader explained that female glow worms, which are flightless, need grasses that fit within a certain range of grass heights, with some at the shorter end of the acceptable range and some at the taller end. This, presumably, gives them maximum opportunities to display to the winged males.
Looking back on the past few weeks it seems like I've finally moved away from flowers but not very far. My next trip was to see Bog Orchids, and following on from that I made that trip I'd planned back in June to Dorset for heathland specialists. Together this got me more and more involved with the heath/bog habitat and I can't seem to get enough of it atm. During these trips I've seen Grass Snake, Adder, Slow Worm, Sand Lizard, Smooth Snake, Emperor Moth caterpillar, Sundews and Southern Damselfly. I think it's a really appealing habitat and staff at the RSPB Arne nature reserve say it supports more species than any other UK habitat. This is pretty incredible to me. I've always assumed it would be woodlands or wetlands (these have always been my two favourite habitats so I guess it's not so surprising that I'd want to claim greatest biodiversity for them in my mind). I also learned that the UK has the largest percentage of lowland heath in the world (the UK has 20% of the world's total*). As one of the Arne staff said: "If we lose it here, it is lost for good."
The Bog Orchid trip was a natural really, after all the other trips I'd made this year to see orchids and other flowers. Once again planning this trip involved some research; it is likely I'd never have found this orchid by myself and I'm really grateful to those people who sent me the information I needed to find it. I knew I'd get wet as it lives up to its name and grows in very wet conditions so I took a change of clothes with me. Other options were to go barefoot and in shorts or just dry out on the hoof as it were. Wellies wouldn't work as this orchid is very small and you need to get right down to ground level to photograph it (wellies wouldn't be flexible enough for that).
When I got to the site I met another wildlife enthusiast who also wanted to see this plant so we decided to work as a team, scouring the ground together. It took a little while and I think we were both beginning to get a little anxious in case we were just failing to spot it but eventually my scouring partner found the first one which enabled us both to get a better idea of what we were looking for, leading to several more discoveries quickly after that.
I did say it was small didn't I? I think I should have put a 50p piece next to it or something like that to give you some idea of the scale of the plant. Photographing something this small is not easy even with a macro lens. I found it hard to pick out detail in the individual flowers and, in fact, hard to even find a focus point that would work. The flower is, after all, not only tiny but also green. There wasn't much for the camera's focusing system to work with so I had to work manually for most of the time using nothing but my own eyesight as judge. This leaves me a little uncertain as to whether I've done true justice to the orchid but I hope so. I was really pleased to make the acquaintance of this little starlet. It may be small and it may be green but I think it has definitely got style.
My trip to Dorset took a bit longer than usual to plan as I wanted to stay overnight and could not find any free accommodation despite endlessly trawling the web and sending out enquiries to cottages, hotels, B&Bs and campsites . I guess the wonderful summer weather has had people pulling out all the stops to get away for a few days. In the end I booked a Youth Hostel. I've not stayed in a Youth Hostel since I was about 14yrs old so I was a bit trepidatious about it but the stay turned out pretty well. The room was fine and my roommates were fine (apparently you can book a private room these days but one was not available for the night I'd asked for) the only real downside were the toilets which were rather pungent to say the least. Still, at £20 for the night, I really didn't feel like moaning about it.
My main reason for travelling to Dorset was to visit Arne nature reserve where they were holding guided reptile walks that weekend. Unfortunately for us the weather was just a bit too hot and bright. This meant the reptiles did not need to bask underneath the corrugated iron sections laid out on the heath and we saw very few on our walk. On the plus side the Arne staff had already captured some reptiles (it is illegal for the average person to do this - the staff at Arne are specially trained with a special licence which permits them to hold the reptiles in captivity for a maximum of three days) and they put on a 'show and tell' session for us. I was actually able to hold a Smooth Snake in my hands for a few moments; that was brilliant.
I tried to get a few shots of the reptiles during the 'Show and Tell' session but was only really successful with the Slow Worm.
The Smooth Snake shots did not turn out well (the one below, for example, has had to have heavy sharpening around the head of the snake to make it passable even as a record shot) so I expect I'll be making another visit next year to try again.
Even though we saw very few reptiles I really enjoyed the walk we took with the Arne staff as they were very enthusiastic and informative and the reserve itself was beautiful.
At one point our walk leader stopped to tell us about Wood Ant nests and stuck his hand into the nest to demonstrate the ants' impressive formic acid defence mechanism.
After being sprayed all over by formic acid, the warden 'kindly' offered his hand to us to sniff and I was blown back a few feet by the aroma - what an awesome defence that is.
The one downside (for me) about the reserve was how busy it was. It has a car park (free to RSPB members) and toilets and lots and lots of visitors. I was told it is the busiest RSPB site in the country and I could believe it. Thus it was that, after the walk, when I sat down to think about what to do next, I decided to visit somewhere a little quieter. This is where all my planning before a trip comes into its own. I simply pointed my GPS at another reserve and off I went. Within 15 minutes I was sitting down in a beautifully quiet, peaceful spot enjoying my lunch and looking forward to a great afternoon walk.
It started off well and I really did enjoy it. As it turned out I failed to find the little plant I was looking for (Pale Butterwort) but I did see many other things including reptiles, damselflies, heathers and Oblong-leaved Sundews.
By this time it had started to cloud over and that made a big difference to my reptile sightings. Just as at Arne, there were many pieces of corrugated iron about and almost every one produced a sighting. These reptiles were still pretty warm though and as soon as the iron was lifted they were away very smartish. Still, it was nice to see them.
My quest to find the Butterwort had taken me well into the bog and I was happily exploring that habitat when I began to look around me and notice how dark it was. I checked my watch - was it later in the day than I'd realised? I often find my wildlife walks so absorbing that I completely lose track of time so it wouldn't have surprised me to find that it was a lot later than I'd thought. It turned out to be 5pm not 8pm so that was good but the bad news was that the loss of light was due to dark clouds building overhead. Not long after this the heavens opened and, being dressed for full summer sun, I got completely drenched. I wear glasses and within seconds I could not see where I was putting my feet. The ground was very uneven, I needed to cross a steep runnel containing a stream with very uneven footing on the other side and all I could do was follow the streamlet uphill until its banks became sufficiently shallow for me to step across with a little more confidence that I wouldn't twist my ankle getting to the opposite side. By now I was soaked, cold, miserable and wishing I'd finished my walk half an hour ago. Not having many options I was forced to try and find my route back to my car but that was easier said than done. The path markers were so widely spaced that you couldn't see the next one from the one you were standing at and the 'path' was simply not discernible among the myriad natural ruts and tracks of the bog. Without my GPS I would have been lost and a bit panicky alongside the miserable and cold. It just goes to show how easily your day can turn against you, especially in tricky habitats like moors and bogs. My partner says he'd never go into a bog on his own as you never know what can happen and I've since seen scary stories of people over 6' tall (a lot taller than me) falling into a bog down to their waist. Maybe I'll take a walking stick next time just in case!
The bad weather drew my wildlife activities for that day to a close so I made my way to the Youth Hostel, swapped stories with my roommates about the day, read my book and thought about what to do on the following day.
When I got up the next morning I found I hadn't had enough of that beautiful little reserve so I drove back, had some breakfast and set off once again. The weather was a lot calmer and the day was very pleasant, quite a contrast to the previous evening. I was still on the hunt for the Pale Butterwort and still failed to find it but, as I was looking, I did come across a caterpillar of the Emperor moth and this made up for my lack of success with the Butterwort. The Emperor moth is a truly spectacular moth and the caterpillar is very attractive too...
This species feeds on a variety of plants including heathers and the adults fly in spring so I'd been thinking that I might be lucky enough to come across one and had actually made enquiries about it during our walk across Arne. I was a little pleased with myself to find I'd been right, the timing was perfect and this caterpillar was pretty much fully grown. Delighted to have seen this species and aware that time was moving on I decided to call it a day and make my way back to my car. I'd enjoyed my Dorset trip, I decided, even though I hadn't got the photos I was after and it was time to get back to Sussex before the traffic got too horrendous.
Once back in Sussex I took some time to think about where to go next and, as I could not get that Pale Butterwort out of my head, my next trip was also westward bound. This time I headed for the New Forest. Yet again the little Butterwort proved too elusive for my poor detecting skills but I saw some Sundews that made me re-evaluate the Sundews I'd found in Dorset. Like the Dorset examples these had oblong leaves but they were much smaller and definitely more red in colour. Did this mean my Dorset Sundews were in fact Great Sundew rather than Oblong-leaved Sundew? I cannot be 100% sure but it does look that way to me.
[NB I have since revised this view based upon the information to be found at: http://bioref.lastdragon.org/Magnoliophytina/Drosera.html. I now think they are both Oblong-leaved Sundew.]
I also saw a horsefly caught on a Sundew by its wings. I don't interfere in natural processes when I see them and I'm not a huge fan of horseflies but I hate seeing things suffering so this shot was hard for me to take but here it is...
By this time I was very hot and tired, disappointed at not finding the Pale Butterwort yet again and this was another very busy spot so I was quite relieved to hop a short distance down the road that evening in search of Southern Damselflies. When I got there I found the heat of the day had mellowed a little and the route passed through beautifully shady trees until they opened out onto open heath through which ran a charming little stream. There were dragonflies and damselflies everywhere. What a wonderful sight that was, I want to go back there already :). Within minutes of emerging onto this heath I saw Golden-ringed, Keeled Skimmer, Small Red damselfly, Blue-tailed damselflies and Beautiful Demoiselles. It took a little longer for me to get my eye in for the Southern Damselflies but before long I was happily facing one trying to get some shots. This proved difficult as they didn't want to let me get close enough to bring my macro lens to bear but, as time moved on and the evening drew in, they became more settled and the shots became easier to get.
I don't know a lot about this species but I do know it is quite rare in the UK with its largest population in the New Forest. I didn't knowingly spot a female (or see them flying as it was fairly late in the day) but that is something to hope for the next time I visit. They did impress me as being quite small and delicate looking and I thought they looked very striking against the green, gold and orange of the heath.
It was now definitely time to think about going home but I found it very difficult to make myself head homeward as the site was so beautiful and relaxing. The next time I visit this spot I'll be sure to spend longer there :)