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Put your cursor on any photo for a caption, or click here for more July downland and seaside flower photos. For the latest observations see @SWC_Nature.

17 July 2018 There were a couple of good showers in my locality on Friday night (13 July) but in general the drought continues, with no end in sight.

A surprise is how resilient nature is. As was pointed out on the twitter feed this week, common ragwort turns out to be a very drought-resistant plant and I saw one large clump this week positively dancing with gatekeeper butterflies and bees of sundry types.

Then yesterday on the downs near Birling Gap - apparently completely brown due to lack of rain - movement near a patch of spear and musk thistles caught my eye. This led me to investigate the  bottom edge of the hill which was full of thistles and alive with both common and chalk hill blue butterflies (not to mention meadow browns, some gatekeepers and lots of whites). Of the blue species I reckon there most have been at least 100 individuals in all, all using the thistles as a nectar lifeboat in an an otherwise arid landscape.

Later on - and also on Sunday on Pewley Down near Guildford - I saw good amounts of knapweed, field scabious, ladies bedstraw, marjoram, wild carrot and burnet saxifrage in flower. It was only later that I thought of all the downland flowers that were missing - rock rose, eyebright, self heal, hawkbits, wild basil, silverweed... And near Birling Gap it was sad to see late summer downland flowers such as red bartsia and clustered bellflower struggling to come out.

Going back to those butterflies, I wondered later whether after staying alive on the thistle nectar they would be able to find somewhere to lay their eggs. In many cases they rely on their caterpillars feeding on the summer vegetation and turning into pupae. If there is no vegetation will there be a population crash next year?

On the plus side I have to say that this sunny weather seems to have been good for the three white butterfly species - large, small and green-veined. For the last couple of years I have been thinking "What has happened to the whites? They used to be common." Well, this year they are absolutely everywhere, as they should be. My only frustration is that I can only identify them if they land and this they rarely do for more than a nanosecond. But all three species seem to be doing well this summer.

So is the comma, a lovely orange butterfly with distinctive jagged wings (photo). At this time of year - can I confess it? - identifying a comma is a slight consolation prize, since one is hoping that that orange flash might be a silver-washed or dark-green fritillary. But no matter, since commas are a stunning butterfly too and have the good manners to usually come back to the exact same perch that you disturbed them from, if you wait a little. It seems to be a very good year for them because I am seeing them everywhere. And they are a rare modern success story - in the early 1900s they were very rare, apparently, but now qualify as common.

Near Birling Gap I also saw two or three painted ladies (photo), the first of these migrants from Morocco I have seen since May. We have to sadly concede that it is not going to be a great painted lady year. Red admirals are also amazingly scarce this year. Last year they seemed to be omnipresent: this year I could count the number I have seen on one hand.

To tear ourselves away from butterflies for a moment, notice that birdsong is now to all intents and purposes over. The exception to this is wood pigeons - and sometimes collared doves - that continue to coo, mainly though not exclusively in the late afternoon. You then get the occasional blackcap, chaffinch or song thrush who seems not to have got the message that all his fellows have now fallen silent. Skylarks continue to sing in places and you can hear twittering goldfinches and cheeping sparrows. But basically silence has descended.

6 July 2018 Delightful though it is to be having some proper summer weather, the lack of rain is getting rather worrying. It is sad to watch the grassy dry and the wildflowers shrivel for lack of rain.

It is not just flowers that are affected but the insects and butterflies that feed on their nectar. It is painful to see them flitting around an increasingly brown landscape.

Bushes and shrubs are less susceptible to drought because they have deeper roots and create their own shade to keep the ground moister longer. One whose flowers many butterflies - and indeed bees and other insects - make good use of at this time of year is bramble. But it is all but over in many places already, the green unripe blackberries appearing, and I fear it will not be a food source much longer.

On downland popular butterfly plants include knapweed, scabious and marjoram. These, and others, form the second wave of downland flowers that normally appear about now. Given the lack of rain, I am not particularly optimistic that they will. Downland flowers are often quite drought-resistant since chalk produces dry, well-drained soils, but there are limits to their endurance. Without them, the breeding season for marbled white butterflies and dark-green fritillaries will come to a premature end and the lovely chalk hill blues, which appear mid month, may not get started at all.

Thistles are also quite drought-resistant and are coming into their own now. The familiar creeping thistle (photo) is joined by spear thistle (photo) and the more straggly marsh thistle (photo). No one ever writes poetry about them but they are actually quite attractive flowers when you look closely, and insects certainly love the nectar they produce. With similar flowers to thistle is burdock, another drought-resistant shrub and again popular with the little critters. Notice too the rather strange and rather delicate flowers of teasel (photo).

Another place to look for flowers in time of drought might be riversides and pond margins. July sees purple loosestrife flower (photo) and the appearance of the invasive himalayan balsam. The latter is a plant people love to demonise for the way it crowds out native flora but it seems extremely popular with bumble bees, and bumble bees may need all the help they can get this year.

But I suppose I should not be too downhearted. Nature always surprises by its resilience. Even after weeks without rain, there are always odd corners in which greenery and flowers survive. I just wish we could have one proper downpour: then I could go back to enjoying the sunshine.

24 June 2018 The best time of year for butterflies is upon us. This week I have been visiting downland sites such as Box Hill in Surrey and Hutchinson's Bank near New Addington just south of Croydon, and there you can see fields alive with marbled white (photo), ringlet (photo) and meadow brown (photo), the latter two hard to tell apart in flight, as both look brown.

Gorgeous bright orange dark green fritillaries (photo: the name is confusing and refers to its underwing) are also out and about on downland, and in woodland clearings you can see the even more magnificent silver-washed fritillary (photo). Neither should be confused with new generation comma butterflies (photo) which are also emerging, along with small tortoiseshells and brimstones, the offspring of the butterflies that overwintered and emerged in early spring.

One thing that strikes you looking at the marbled whites, ringlets and meadow browns in particular, is how numerous they are. Suitable grassland habitats can be alive with marbled whites - you can easily see 50 or more in a single field - while meadow browns seem to be everywhere - not just on downland but in grass fields and along verges: almost boringly common.

The thought occurs to me that this is how all butterflies should be - abundant, numerous, everywhere. It is sad in how much of the spring and summer and in how many places in the countryside one only sees the odd butterfly here and there, if that. Downland at this time of year gives you a vision of how the world must have been back in the 1950s, before modern agriculture reduced butterfly numbers sharply.

This is also peak flowering time for bramble - in fact, in places green unripe blackberries are already appearing - and this is a great place to spot any butterflies that happen to be about, since it is a popular food source for just about all of them. So if you pass a bramble bush in flower, stop and look for a bit and you might see all sorts of delights. One butterfly that should shortly be common on them is the charming gatekeeper (photo).

Look closely too at thistles and other such "wasteground" flowers, which are a popular food source. Knapweed, bindweed, ragwort - all have their insect fans.

With the sun shining and summer in full swing this is a wonderful time of year, but if there is one cloud on the horizon, it is ..... the lack of clouds. I was noticing for the first time this week that the countryside is starting to look parched and stressed. If this continues it is obviously not good for summer flowers - or for butterflies, for that matter, since they need flowering plants to feed on. Only a little rain would do, though. A thunderstorm or two? (Preferably at night.)


Em said...

Somewhere on this site you have written that it is perhaps sterile to spend time identifying birds, plants etc but I don't think so. I think it helps enjoy the rich diversity of what is there and appreciate the differences and variety in nature.

Peter C said...

I am glad you think so, and definitely agree!

ramblinros said...

Thank you for interesting nature blog
Found a new-to-me spring flower on Saturday
Spring Beauty - Claytonia perfoliata syn Montia perfoliata -
the stem is surrounded by a curious cup-shaped leaf
Was walking on the North Downs Way eastwards immediately after the Watts Gallery - very sandy -
up a slight rise and then the plant was on both sides of the descending path
for about the next 100m, and then no more

Peter C said...

Nice observation, ramblinros! I have seen this plant once or twice and I do mention it in April Verge and Field Flowers (….

"Also in the wierd category is spring beauty, a plant of sandy soils which has tiny white flowers in the middle of large round leaves."

…….but it is a rather rare thing to see, so I am glad to hear of your sighting.

PeteB said...

On polling day 7 May I went for a long tramp over the South Downs starting in Lewes and eventually finishing in Eastbourne. At the start of my walk (Book 2 walk 25c Lewes to Glynde) I had just left the golf club car park and started on the path past a water trough where a herd of cattle were drinking and grazing when to my surprise I saw what I am sure was a single red? deer hind grazing with the cattle (it was too large to be a roe or fallow deer). The animal was frightened by my presence and seemed to try to hide among the cattle! I had my camera phone but did not want to start unsettling the cattle and I had a long day ahead so pressed on with my walk. The only deer I have seen before on the South Downs were fallow deer in the flat water meadows. I have never heard of red or sika deer on the South Downs and a web search has revealed nothing. Quite a sighting !

Peter C said...

A very interesting sighting, I agree. Of course, historically red deer were present throughout England but I had always understood that now they only live in places such as Richmond Park. The only other place I have once thought I saw one was in the Lake District. Perhaps you should report this sighting to some relevant association or other. I am not quite sure which. (If it was a butterfly or bird or flower it would be easier to think of suggestions!)

PeteB said...

Did walk 3.20 Sevenoaks to Wesaterham today after bailing out of it early on Sunday because of violent storm. Bluebells already showing well at Ide Hill and should be at their best in 2-3 weeks which seems a bit earlier than usual? Fields still pretty waterlogged in the morning but after lunch at the Cock Inn terrain and woodland trails much drier.

PeteB said...

Did walk 3.20 Sevenoaks to Wesaterham today after bailing out of it early on Sunday because of violent storm. Bluebells already showing well at Ide Hill and should be at their best in 2-3 weeks which seems a bit earlier than usual? Fields still pretty waterlogged in the morning but after lunch at the Cock Inn terrain and woodland trails much drier.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to learn that Yellowhammers have been detected on the walks this summer (considering their numbers have declined rapidly). I saw some on the Pewsey/Avebury walk recently. They were in a quiet country lane, flanked by tall *all important* hedgerows. I haven't seen this species for years. E.

Peter C said...

I have read that their numbers are declining, but I have to say I hear them quite a lot in the south east. They like hedgerows on farmland but are also heard up on the downs. A lovely song so I hope they don't decline further.

Sandy said...

Fantastic blog - I was particularly interested in the 19 September one about late-surviving flowers. I started noting down flowers still out in Nov/Dec a few years ago - e.g. 24 spotted on 3-4/12/2014 and 27 on 19-20/12/2015. It was astonishingly mild then of course. I don't seem to have any notes from last year but maybe I wasn't out walking at the right time. Look forward to comparing notes later in the year.

Peter C said...

Thanks for your kind comments. Glad you find it interesting.

December 2015 was indeed the weird mild one when all sorts of early spring flowers and even blossom started to come out. But some flowers in early December are not unusual. Before writing the blog I should perhaps have checked my own December Flowers page which lists several. See

Peter C said...

I don’t know why the link in the last post says November in its url. But go to the main blue button menu above the Nature Blog and click December and you will find the page I mean.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter

Glad you are also enjoying the sunny weather and the May/June flora display. Hope your trip to Devon went well despite the train disruptions at
Paddington the day I went to Hartlocks nature reserve. I saw the lady, monkey and hybrid orchid. Also green hair streak and grizzly skipper butterflies.
Went to Homefield Wood nature reserve in Marlow yesterday. Great day out very sunny. Saw hundreds of Military (soldier) orchids, Greater butterfly, Fly,
Spotted, Scented, Bee and broad leave helloborine orchids. Plus a Marsh Fritillary orchid which is odd. Another frittary is the Green heath and silver
wash fritillary. I shall explore Warburgh nature reserve when I get back from Scotland. Off to Newtonmore on Saturday 9th and 23rd to Mull.
Regards Monica

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