Tuesday, 31 May 2016

A May Garland

May blossom: Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

May heralds the beginning of summer; warmer, longer days are stretching out ahead of us. Fresh, lush leaves add a dewy coolness to the world and seem to generate their own light even on a cloudy day. May-time is when I want to put household and garden chores aside, stand back and admire the most productive (the most reproductive) time of the year while it lasts, because May waits for no beast. Shakespeare encapsulated May perfectly with his enunciation that summer's lease hath all too short a date. Heinrich Heine also captured the ephemeral beauty of the season in his Book of Songs:

Sweet May hath come to love us, 

Flowers, trees, their blossoms don; 

And through the blue heavens above us 

The very clouds move on.

(Heinrich Heine, 1797-1856)

May is a time of overwhelming beauty and yet a time of competition and conflict. The Song Thrush, Blackbird and Robin begin uttering their melodic battle-cries each morning even before daylight breaks; the botanic world spreads its fingers wide in competition for sunlight; predator and prey contend for the ultimate prize. Human beings are not exempt from Maytime revelry and rebellion: riotous May Day - May 1st - is International Workers' Day, the day upon which the class struggle is most boldly asserted, the day of dissent. F. Scott Fitzgerald's impressive novella May Day is set against a backdrop of the 1919 Cleveland May Day Riots. In Virginia Woolf's Night and Day the main character, Katharine, slowly thaws as winter's grip relaxes into spring, but it is not until May that she finally blossoms and loves. May is the month above all others to live, love and cherish life, but the clock is ticking...

We are all spinning headlong into summer; hay must be made whilst the sun shines. Everything is so green and so lush and so pregnant with adventure. The first brood of sparrows and starlings has already fledged, adding another layer to the cacophony. It is equally the most difficult and the easiest time of year to leave the mower in the shed and leave the daisies and clovers for another day to the bees and the butterflies. I am conflicted myself: the lure of the outdoors is strong and the ephemeral season needs to be taken notice of and indulged in during its zenith and enjoyed before it passes into the poppy-blush of high summer.

A walk during the final hour of daylight at this time of the year is a joyous, well-spent hour. Tonight, as I pass the last of the houses, there are abandoned chairs in front gardens which betray an idle afternoon in the sun, their owners now having retreated indoors. I have the Downs to myself and, as I make my way along paths quietening in the stilling air, Green and Common Carpet moths feint and feign their way across and through the wayside vegetation and blink back into obscurity. A Cuckoo calls somewhere down in the valley below and a pair of Kestrels share a staccato chorus somewhere in the middle distance. Lights in the cottages at nearby Norton become distinct in the gloom; the moon is waning and will not rise until an hour or two after sunset, but Mars blinks open its weary eye in the southern sky. As the light fades, so too does the white noise of the traffic and other sounds now become audible: lowing cattle in a nearby pasture, partridges sneezing their hoarse trilogy, ka-che-che ka-che-che ka-che-che. A Blackbird sings a pitch-perfect coda to the day. Then I hear several of its neighbours singing the same song in rounds as I move through the twilight. The day is slowly becoming becalmed and the milky cow parsley barely trembles in the near-calm air - air which carries the heavy scent of May-blossom.

Yet not everything is bedded down: the Rookery at Bishopstone is still riotous. For once the dogs are silent as we approach the escarpment overlooking the roost and we sit and watch as riotous, raucous Rooks revel in May-time drunkenness amongst the Ash trees. The Rooks collect in numbers on the Norton Hill pasture before returning to the trees. They stagger like revellers hanging around in  the street after kicking-out time. We observe quietly as they fly in a clamouring, intermittent stream, chessboard straight above the trees and falling at the last moment vertically and emphatically down onto their bough. I cannot tell if the whooping and yelling is the scolding of kin-folk decrying the late hour of their return or whether they are enjoined in a drunken moon-shine melody in celebration of the season. As the minutes pass even the Rooks settle down and only an occasional graa emits from the darkness of the trees.

The song of the Blackbird is now all that remains audible. It provides a satisfying cohesion which stitches together not only the beginning and end of each day but also each day to the next. We leave the rookery to its slumber and wander home to this favourite lullaby. Most of the trees and hedgerows and waysides have faded into darkness and silhouette, yet the cow parsley and May-blossom are phosphorescent in the gloaming, as though singing out: "This is our time and our time is short; not even the darkness shall dim our light!" Every path is enveloped in this white May Garland. It lights our way home along the familiar paths.

Esperia sulphurella (Sulphur Tubic)

Sunlight through Sycamore leaves
Grasshopper nymph
Five-spot Burnet (Zygaena trifolii) larva
Dock Bug (Coreus marginatus)
Nomada bee, female
Small Blue (Cupido minimus)
Epiblema cirsiana (Knapweed Bell)
Cocksfoot Moths (Glyphipterix simpliciella) on a buttercup - sometimes a dozen to each flowerhead!
Anthophila fabriciana (Common Nettle-tap)
Common Carpet (Epirrhoe alternata)

Broad-bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa)

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Duke of Burgundy: Gladiators of Heyshott Escarpment

Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina), family Riodinidae (Metalmarks), originally named 'Mr Vernon's Small Fritillary'.

Ready for the fight: a territorial male Duke of Burgundy

Male Duke of Burgundy are one of the bad boys of British butterflies. Put them to music and, while Orange-tips might daintily flutter along in a trail of moondust to Clair de Lune, Dukes are zipping headlong along to a death metal anthem. The sole British representative of the metalmark family, they are one of the smaller butterfly species but they punch well above their weight (ask any passing Brimstone butterfly). Put simply, they are brutes. Heavy metal metalmarks. It is apt, therefore, that these gladiatorial insects are best represented in Sussex in a colossal amphitheatre above the small village of Heyshott: the Heyshott Escarpment. Today, I was one of a group of enthusiasts who, led and compèred by Neil Hulme of Butterfly Conservation, ascended the arena to spectate as the territorial Dukes challenged all-comers.

We have parked our vehicles in the few available spaces along the roadside at Hoyle Lane and followed the bostal southwards until we reach a fork. Here we take the left path and climb a circular route up towards the eastern gallery of the escarpment, which continues through a gate around to the west, where we pick up the route back downhill to the bostal. The distance is short, but the terrain is punishingly steep in places and, beneath a hot sun and clear sky, the going is tough.

Heyshott Down - undulating former mine workings on the east escarpment
The east-side undulations - the steep north-facing escarpment interrupted everywhere by omni-facing mine workings - has been hewn both by nature and, from the Neolithic and Bronze ages until the first half of the 20th Century, hewn also by men. This is a tough landscape inhabited by a tough little butterfly. The site is owned and managed by the Murray Downland Trust (MDT), which works with Butterfly Conservation to restore and protect a habitat which is suitable for Dukes. Numbers were close to extinction about ten years ago. This decline has occurred across most of its national range, mainly caused by the decline in woodland coppicing and subsequent encroachment by scrub as a result of the natural succession of vegetation. Neil explained to us how the site had been managed by the MDT following the cessation of quarrying activity in the 1930s, with scrub being removed to protect the Dukes' preferred habitat of a variable low scrubby mosaic (work continued even during the Second World War, when clandestine night-time operations were made beyond billeted Canadian troops). Numbers had dwindled so seriously by the first decade of this century that numbers were counted for some years on the fingers of a single hand. In 2006 Butterfly Conservation with the MDT began a significant programme of scrub removal to restore a mosaic of scrub interspersed with the Dukes' Primula foodplants. It worked. In 2015 the count was in three figures. The little gladiators had fought back from the brink of defeat.

Neil led our group up beyond a former village landfill, which has been cleared of scrub to encourage the Dukes and Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, and into the Dukes' arena, which is an area of cowslips interspersed with low scrubby growth with a fair amount of regenerating dogwood. Within minutes the first of the territorial male Dukes is strutting around making a show of itself. Moments later we watch as two males spar in an upward spiral: a dogfight above the dogwood. During our visit we will observe male Dukes see off not only their own kind, but also Dingy and Grizzled Skippers, Green Hairstreaks, Brimstones, Whites and even Red Admirals. The small tortrix moth, the Red-fringed Conch (Falseuncaria ruficiliana), which shares the Dukes' foodplants keeps a low profile and skulks through the scrub as though to evade attack.

If the males are typically male in their behaviour, the females - the Duchesses - are also cast in the quintessential female mould. They are demure and seek not the sunlight, preferring instead the umbrella of a shading leaf. The Duke males form leks; the females visit the leks and are unceremoniously grabbed by the quickest male and Neil describes how this can occur faster than the eye can follow. Seemingly, there are two types of Duke genes: the quick and the dead.

The bostal back to Heyshott village
Neil also explains how Dukes can be frustratingly lazy insects. They rise late at around 11am and retire early by around 4pm, resulting in a comparatively short window of activity. This behaviour could negatively affect their capacity for radiation and colonisation of new territory. To an extent, it seems that outward expansion occurs mainly by females, which are known to travel up to 5km from their source (Thomas & Lewington, 2010). In practise, entire colonies are on the move from year to year, following their preferred level of vegetational succession across scrubby mosaics on north-facing downland escarpments. The west escarpment and adjacent areas at Heyshott Down have been cleared to encourage their expansion, but this has not yet resulted in a permanent settlement by the established colony on the east side, although we are encouraged by the sight of two individuals as we walk through the area today. One might speculate about the reason why they did not go extinct at Heyshott and ponder whether they are just too tough or because they just couldn't be bothered. We all give thanks to the Murrays, to Neil Hulme and to Butterfly Conservation for intervening at Heyshott before this beautiful, pugnacious little butterfly did succumb. Long may it prosper here.

As we traverse the bostal leading back to Hoyle Lane we pass halcyon Orange-tips attending their pastoral flowers while a steady stream of Red Admirals bursts past us in a flurry of colour. Their route will take them across Heyshott Escarpment; they are in for a rough welcome when they arrive.

Butterfly royalty: the Duke of Burgundy


Thomas, J. and Lewington, R. 2010. The Butterflies of Britain & Ireland. British Wildlife Publishing: Gillingham, Dorset.

Species seen during the walk
Green Long-horn (Adela reaumurella)  1
Red-fringed Conch (Falseuncaria ruficiliana)  13
Purple Bar (Cosmorhoe ocellata)  1
Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages)  7
Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus malvae)  5
Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines)  6
Green-veined White (Pieris napi)  2
Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)  29
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)  23
Peacock (Aglais io)  1
Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)  3
Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina)  46
Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)  14

Thursday, 12 May 2016

The butterflies of Castle Hill Local Nature Reserve, Newhaven

Transect walk 2016 season, week six

Thrift in bloom

After a slow start to the year, this week's transect walk saw a positive increase in activity around the nature reserve with 18 species and 102 individuals seen. A growing number of day-flying moths are active now and take off as you walk along the clifftop and undercliff paths. This includes the migratory moth the Silver Y, which has begun to arrive from continental Europe, aided by the south-easterly winds in recent days. Burnet Companion is always a welcome sight in the herb-rich areas of grassland. Plenty of White butterflies and a Brimstone were also seen above and below the cliffs, especially around the dense patches of Hoary Cress which hug the base of the cliffs, to which the Small White is attracted.

Male Speckled Wood butterflies have now established their territories along the shady paths to the north of the reserve; they swoop up and challenge many who invade their patch of dappled sunlight. A Brown Argus seen near the Lookout is the first reported sighting in Sussex this year and is the earliest it has been recorded at the reserve.

Patches of gorse are alive with the small Grey Gorse Piercer moth, which flies up in tiny swarms when a branch is knocked. Green Hairstreak butterflies, which to the untrained eye are difficult to see in flight, are also active around the gorse and are apparently increasing in number each year. This year has been the best since we started the transect walk six years ago.

During my walk I set out a pheromone lure and attempted to attract male Emperor Moths - a species which has not previously been recorded at Castle Hill LNR. The lure emulates the pheromone which is broadcast by freshly emergent females. I had not used one prior to this year and some were bought by the Friends of Castle Hill to confirm whether this common, yet elusive, stunningly beautiful moth is present. It is! I recorded two males in the area near the pond. This brings the moth and butterfly species list up to 332.

Emperor Moth male

Other insects seen during the walk included a mating pair of the tortoise beetle Cassida nobilis, probably the first time this species has been seen at the reserve. A pair of Stonechats was seen feeding a fledgling juvenile and more were heard deep in the bramble, no doubt preparing to fly the nest. It reminds me that the season is moving on apace.

Grey Gorse Piercer
Here's the full list (18 species, 102 individuals):

Green Long-horn (Adela reaumurella)  10
Common Nettle-tap (Anthophila fabriciana)  1
Brown-spot Flat-body (Agonopterix alstromeriana)  3
Silver Carrot Conch (Aethes williana)  2
Grey Gorse Piercer (Cydia ulicetana)  30
Straw Pearl (Pyrausta despicata)  2
Emperor Moth (Saturnia pavonia) 2 males - new species
Brown-tail (Euproctis chrysorrhoea)  1 larval web
Silver Y (Autographa gamma)  2
Burnet Companion (Euclidia glyphica)  1
Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)  1
Large White (Pieris brassicae)  4
Small White (Pieris rapae)  23
Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)  6
Peacock (Aglais io)  5
Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)  3
Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)  6
Brown Argus (Aricia agestis)  1 - first known Sussex sighting in 2016

The striking hoverfly Helophilus pendulus

Sunday, 1 May 2016

April's butterfly and moth sightings

April in Newhaven was a poor month for moths and butterflies. I operated my moth trap on 22 nights out of 30 during the month. Forty four species were recorded; a total of 304 moths and butterflies were seen. 

For comparison, my personal ten year average in April is sixty three species and 619 sightings of individuals. Almost all species in April 2016 were seen in numbers below their ten year average, with the exceptions of Light Brown Apple Moth (Epiphyas postvittana) and Angle Shades (Phlogophora meticulosa), which were both slightly above average but still only seen in low numbers (24 and 10 respectively). Butterflies were also below average in number, with only Peacock (Aglais io) being seen in something approaching good numbers with 58 individuals counted (43 of which were seen in one day at Well Bottom near Tarring Neville).

April saw the start of the 2016 transect-walking season at Newhaven's Castle Hill Local Nature Reserve. This, too, has been slow - the slowest start of all the six years that the walk has been performed.

The highlight of the month was the chance finding of a single Phyllonorycter rajella on the inside of my office window in Lewes on 14th. This appears to have been the first Lewes record since before 1849 and the first adult seen anywhere in Sussex since 1984 - 32 years ago.

Another highlight was a single Acleris cristana form fulvovittana, which was attracted to my garden on the night of 11th.

Species summary, April 2016 (44 species) (all adults unless stated below)

125W Robinson trap at home (29 species)

Case-bearing Clothes Moth (Tinea pellionella)  1
Common Slender (Caloptilia syringella)  1
White-shouldered House Moth (Endrosis sarcitrella)  2
Sulphur Tubic (Esperia sulphurella)  1
Common Flat-body (Agonopterix heracliana)  1
Ruddy Flat-body (Agonopterix subpropinquella)  1
Light Brown Apple Moth (Epiphyas postvittana)  24
Tufted Button (Acleris cristana f. fulvovittana)  1 - new site record
Twenty-plume Moth (Alucita hexadactyla)  1
Narrow-winged Grey (Eudonia angustea)  2
Common Plume (Emmelina monodactyla)  6
Emperor Moth (Saturnia pavonia)  1
Frosted Green (Polyploca ridens)  1
Streamer (Anticlea derivata)  2
Double-striped Pug (Gymnoscelis rufifasciata)  14
Early Thorn (Selenia dentaria)  1
Puss Moth (Cerura vinula)  1
Dark Sword-grass (Agrotis ipsilon)  1
Flame Shoulder (Ochropleura plecta)  1
Small Quaker (Orthosia cruda)  3
Powdered Quaker (Orthosia gracilis)  1
Common Quaker (Orthosia cerasi)  28
Clouded Drab (Orthosia incerta)  5
Hebrew Character (Orthosia gothica)  53
Shuttle-shaped Dart (Agrotis puta)  1
Mullein (Shargacucullia verbasci)  1
Early Grey (Xylocampa areola)  24
Angle Shades (Phlogophora meticulosa)  10
Silver Y (Autographa gamma)  3

Fieldwork (15 species)

New Holm Oak Pigmy (Ectoedemia heringella)  mines on Evergreen (Holm) Oak (Quercus ilex)
Green Long-horn (Adela reaumurella)  1
Garden Midget (Phyllonorycter messaniella) mines on Evergreen (Holm) Oak (Quercus ilex)
Firethorn Leaf Miner (Phyllonorycter leucographella)  0
Common Alder Midget (Phyllonorycter rajella)  1
Fox Moth (Macrothylacia rubi)  2 dead larvae
Green Carpet (Colostygia pectinataria)  1
Common Heath (Ematurga atomaria)  2
Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines)  1
Small White (Pieris rapae)  8
Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)  7
Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)  7
Peacock (Aglais io) 58
Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)  21
Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus)  2

Phyllonorycter rajella (Common Alder Midget)
Esperia sulphurella (Sulphur Midget)
Tufted Button (Acleris cristana f. fulvovittana)

Green Carpet (Colostygia pectinataria) at Well Bottom

Frosted Green (Polyploca ridens
Puss Moth (Cerura vinula)

Psychogeography: the Peacehaven promenade as palimpsest

We determined to walk in about one hour the entire length, west to east, of the Peacehaven Promenade; not the windswept postcodes sitting high and dry along the cliffs above, but the sea defence: the brutalist concrete purdah which has veiled virginal white chalk cliffs from the furtive winks of the ruinous sea these last four decades.

We had astutely parked one of our two cars at Cliff Avenue - a psychogeographic derivation and terminus if ever there was one - and continued abreast westwards to the southern and rocky extent of Cairo Avenue, a namesake which conjures no comparison on this cold and windy day other than to suggest that this was our entry point, via the adjacent Howard Park slipway, to a maritime desert bereft of wildlife. We would descend and walk with the strong, cold, salt-laden wind at our backs back to the four steep flights of narrow steps beneath Cliff Avenue, inspecting as we did so fifteen lifebelts for their potential to offer asylum from the waves to any soul unfortunate or reckless enough to find themselves in need of extrication.

The defences have succeeded not only in prohibiting the eroding forces of sea and tempest; the non-human world has here also been made taboo, at least when the tide is high. The only exceptions to the intermittent staccato herring gulls and fulmars wheeling bereft and ledge-less above us were a lone rock pipit clinging grimly to the near-vertical concrete face, hunting for invertebrates (which, if they had once been present, had been blown elsewhere and eastwards by the wind), a single and rather magnificent pill woodlouse (Common or Southern I did not establish) hiding within the housing of a lifebelt and the occasional outcrop of garden-escaped wallflower and tree mallow and some other low-growing vegetation with which I was not familiar. This is not so much a hinterland separating the marine and terrestrial worlds as it is a vacant, sterile metropolis.

The promenade runs parallel to the base of the cliffs in a ruthless coastal parody and in affirmation of man's dominion over savagery. No doubt entropy will have its way, ultimately, but for now the Channel storms' only protest is to hurl stones onto the smooth roadway. These are periodically sucked up by the Council's Scarab (accessed via the Cairo Avenue slipway?) and redeposited, it appears, on the ramps which otherwise allow vehicular access to and from the shingle shelves that abut the concrete. In keeping with the psychogeographic theme, this tit-for-tat between storm and scarab creates a palimpsest which this winter would have been daubed in turn by Abigail, Barney, Coldagh, Desmond, Eva, Frank, Gertrude, Henry, Imogen, Jake and Katie. They all woz 'ere, but the scarab subsequently wiped clean all evidence of their presence and taught them all that resistance is futile against the concrete resistance laying between the sea and the chalk, whose Downland surface high above our heads sympathetically peaks and troughs its way inland.

Interactions are few as we gait our way eastwards: we pass a handful of intermittent dogs and walkers, including a blue-coloured Staffordshire preoccupied in carrying in its puissant mandibles a similarly coloured and similarly-sized flint pebble, both apparently equally hard as nails; also, a rather fearsome, mischievous looking mastiff cross which thankfully is kept on a short tether, presumably for the benefit of all others as well as its own. Passed also are a pair of young adults kicking a ball into but not past the impenetrable concrete defence. A lone jogger jounces her way past eastwards and, moments later, westwards. With only one cheerful exception, all these people are recondite in solitude, cast adrift by choice onto their personal islands. None seem curious about the fact that we stop at each lifebelt to inspect and photograph it. If we threw one at them, remembering to keep hold of the end of the rope, they would probably not even trip over it, let alone throw it back at us. So we don't.

We complete our promenade in just short of seventy minutes. The waterfront is replete with lifebelts ready for use, should they ever be required. We turn our backs to the sea and ascend the cliff to Cliff Avenue. One day the battles won by the concrete and the scarab over the softly, softly eroding sea and storms will be forgotten. It is an awesome consideration that the sea has on its side the entropic forces of time. Victory in battle, imagined or real, is nothing when one knows that the war will have only one victor. In arresting the successive forces of nature, we humans can win only a stay of execution. Nature always finds a way.


The Monotony of Safety

The reds go marching on

Take the cliffs to Cliff Avenue