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Picture: marbled white butterfly roosting on a blade of grass. Click here for more July butterfly and insect photos. For the latest observations see @SWC_Nature.

28 June 2020 As spring turns to summer, brown colours start to spread in the countryside. Already what were colourful flowery meadows full of buttercups or oxeye daisies a couple of weeks ago have been taken over by wavy beige-coloured grass seed. The barley and wheat fields that currently are still green will soon start to show golden tints, and the green seeds that succeeded the bright yellow April flowers of oilseed rape fields will turn to brown.

Birdsong is fading away. Listen out for blackbird song in the late afternoon and early evening. You can still hear them fluting away as they have done since the dark days of February, but soon they will fall silent. The same is true of song thrushes, which are only now heard occasionally at dusk. On the South Downs at the weekend I was still enjoying skylarks and yellowhammers, but they too will cease before too long. Outbursts from whitethroats, chiffchaffs and blackcaps are now mainly occasional and brief, their breeding seasons all but over. Sometimes you suspect that they are just giving voice one last time for nostalgia's sake.

And so increasingly, the air is silent, even at dusk. If you have been enjoying the birdsong since spring (or if you are one if those people who noticed it for the first time this year as a result of the lockdown), it is a sombre moment. A realisation that, with the exception of the autumn twittering of robins, it will be deep winter before the chorusing starts again.

Despite such thoughts, we are very lucky in this corner of England because we have one habitat where summer shows nature at its glorious best - chalk downland. July and August are the absolute peak time for downland flowers, and here the party is only getting started. 

There is a bewildering list of downland flowers (see here for more detail on this, and here for photos), and in the right conditions they can achieve garden-like intensity. The right conditions include a reasonable amount of rain, and this year June has obliged very nicely. I was on Bacombe Hill near Wendover this week and it was covered in blooms. Some other of our walks on which you can see downland flowers are listed at the bottom of this page.

Downland flowers come in phases. At present you can see lots of creamy white hedge bedstraw, and its near cousin, yellow ladies bedstraw. This is also a time of pink mats of wild thyme and the dainty little purple heads of self heal (photo). Perhaps my favourite of the downland flowers, however, are the pink-purple triumvirate of marjoram (yes, the herb marjoram, which is similar to oregano), knapweed and field scabious. These become very dominant in many cases in July, and are wildly popular with bees, butterflies and insects.

As I alluded to last time, we are now entering the peak period for butterflies. There are three places in particular to look out for them. One is downland, where at present you can see plentiful marbled white in places, along with endless meadow browns. Ringlets, large and small skippers, and small heaths may also catch your eye. The second place to look is on any hedgerow or field edge with bramble flowers (which is most of them), particularly, but not exclusively, later in the afternoon, since butterflies love to feed on bramble. I came across clouds of meadow browns feeding on bramble in the Chilterns.

Thirdly, there are some very special woodland butterflies to be seen at present, though you have to know where to look. Undoubtedly the best is the large and graceful silver-washed fritillary (photo), which glides along woodland rides, and also feeds on bramble. It has a downland counterpart, the dark-green fritillary, which looks similar (ie both butterflies are orange, despite their names), but tends to fly very fast and very incessantly, when it is not feeding. The habitat will usually tell you which of the two you are seeing, though dark-greens can in theory be found in woodland clearings, while silver-washed may venture from woods onto nearby downland.

To find silver-washed fritillaries, and other woodland specialists such as white admirals and purple hairstreaks, it helps to go to a site where they are known to be present. But several of these are very accessible. One is Bookham Common near Leatherhead and another are Ashtead and Epsom Commons. Pictures of all these butterflies, as well as moths and insects you can see this month, can be found here. More information about all the butterflies you can see in the south east, and when you can see them, is on this page.



10 June 2020 Well, that worked! I complained about the drought in my last blog and since then we have had very welcome rain. Good. That means all the wonderful range of June flowers can now spring up on the verges and downland.

It could be my imagination, but the birds seem to be happy that it has rained too. In the past week I have noticed a definite uptick in song from blackbirds, song thrushes, chiffchaffs and wrens, all of whom were rather quiet in May. I hope this is an indication that they are going for second broods. The logic here is that if food is scarce - eg if the ground is baked hard and so earthworms are not accessible - it is not worthwhile for the birds to lay a second clutch of eggs. But now that normal service has been resumed....

As I mentioned last time, bramble is now in full flower, and it is a fabulous food source for insects. Out in my local greenbelt there is an area, formerly grassy fields, that has been left to its own devices for the past twenty years and is now a sea of bramble and blackthorn. The bramble is covered in pink flowers at present, and yesterday there was a positive hum of bumble and honeybees feeding on them.

In an era when it sometimes feels as if all wildlife is getting scarcer and scarcer, it was a delight to see not just hundreds, but thousands of these critters out foraging. It made me wonder whether instead of planting "bee-friendly" flowers in our garden, we should not just be letting brambles run riot in them.

There were almost no butterflies to be seen. This is because we are still in the "butterfly gap", the interval between the spring and summer species. I saw some meadow browns around yesterday - they are a grassland species that becomes so common for the rest of the summer as to be positive boring - and excitingly saw a new generation small tortoiseshell and comma - one of each: possibly a bit early in both cases. But generally there was not much to see.

Why this is interesting is because later in the month and in early July you see all sorts of butterflies feeding on bramble flowers - ringlets, gatekeepers, skippers; dark-green fritillaries on downland and silver-washed fritillaries and white admirals in woodland. All of these butterflies seem to emerge just as the bramble is starting to go over - though fortunately some of its flowers continue to be seen well into the summer. I have always wondered at this mismatch in timing. Were the butterflies and bramble flowers once better aligned, do you think? Is this a result of climate change?

Another rather unloved flower that is a great food source for insects is hogweed. Looking like a rather coarse cow parsley, and with a slightly unpleasant aroma that may be the source of its name, this extremely common verge and field flower is wildly popular with tiny flies and all sorts of little beetles - including the common soldier beetle whose predilection for mating on hogweed earns it the nickname "hogweed bonking beetle). Trust me and stop to take a closer look at a this flower and you will be amazed at the tiny little critters that you see there.

Back in the hedgerow, this continues to be a good time for such flowering shrubs as dog rose, with privet also now joining them (both the garden hedge and the wild variety: the flowers are white and have a sickly-sweet aroma)

If you look closely you can also see lots of berries and fruits starting to appear. They are still green at this stage, and so hard to spot. (It is said that our ability to see three colours, while most mammals only see two, evolved in order for us to be able to see ripe fruits easily.) But look closely and you can see green sloes on blackthorn, little green haws amid the detritus of faded hawthorn flowers, and also green plums, cherry plums and apples. Notice too how oak trees have tiny spherical acorn buds, while winged seeds (sometimes green, sometimes red-tinged) hang on sycamore and field maple - a sign that even at the height of spring, there are intimations of the autumn to come.



1 June 2020 I am as fond of sunshine as the next person - probably more so, because prolonged cloudy weather gets me down - but the lack of rain at present is starting to be seriously depressing.

This would normally be the last glorious height of spring flowers, the peak of greenery: a time when the whole countryside looks impossibly lush and colourful. Instead lots of the landscape is looking rather stressed. Grass crunches underfoot. Wildflowers struggle to keep going.

Hopefully writing these words will make it rain soon. This blog has had such a magic effect in the past. As soon as I say something will not happen, it does....

There is some consolation that we are in any case not far from the time when the big flower displays of spring start to fade. Typically in the second week or so of June the lovely meadows of buttercups either fade or get overtopped by taller grasses. Summer starts, still a time of great floral interest, but without the cheerful exuberance of spring. Brown notes - grass seeds, ripening crops - start to appear in the landscape.

Some species and habitats are more drought-resistant than others, however. This is the peak time for oxeye daisies, and their huge white flowers are fond of growing on grassy banks - along roads and railways in particular, but sometimes covering whole fields. They don't need a lot of water and at the time of writing are still putting on a good show.

Shady spots - field corners, wooded paths - can also preserve fresher flowers and taller greener grass. They are like little oases in the drought-stressed landscape, showing you what the rest of it would be like if there had been more rain.

Shrubs too are able to weather dry periods better, since they have deeper roots and make their own shade. As I mentioned last time, this happens to be a great time of year for flowers in the hedgerow. You can see flowers on dog rose, elder, dogwood, white bryony and guelder rose, and some honeysuckle and bittersweet (aka woody nightshade) are starting to come out. See here for photos of these.

Bramble flowers are also coming out quite widely, a fabulous resource for butterflies, bees and other insects. For much of the year this plant can feel like a real pest, colonising waste ground, growing over footpaths with its large thorny tendrils. But as a food source for our tiny winged creatures it has no equal, being both ubiquitous and having a long flowering season. In dry seasons such as this one it must be an absolute lifeline.

Another unloved but important food source for insects are thistles. You can see some marsh and slender thistles already in flower, and the very common creeping thistle will soon join it. I don't think anyone has ever written poetry about thistle patches, but they can put up with tough conditions and produce nectar-rich flowers. In a previous drought, when the South Downs were brown and desiccated, I found clouds of common blue butterflies feeding on a thistle patch in a field corner.

For butterflies in general, sunshine is good. They get energy to fly from sunlight and like warm conditions. They can make a lot of relatively limited nectar supplies. The problem comes in finding still succulent plants to lay their eggs on. The caterpillars that hatch out also need greenery to eat. So a sunny spring or summer may be good for this year's generation, but not so good for the next.

Birds feed their young on insects, but some, such as blackbirds and robins, also rely on getting food from the soil - digging for bugs and earthworms. I have read that in a reasonably wet summer, when the ground remains soft, blackbirds will have several broods of young. This year I am guessing they are not doing that, which is maybe why their song has been so muted this month.

But birdsong is also now winding down. Out walking I hear the occasional blackbird, chiffchaff, chaffinch, blackcap and whitethroat, but there is the sad realisation that the big spring chorus is over for another year. Scattered birdsong continues into early July, but already it feels like there is a big silence.

On the other hand skylarks still twitter over downs and arable fields, one can hear the occasional yellowhammer, and if you look up in towns and cities you might be surprised to see swifts scything through the sky. I saw some over an ordinary London suburb this week - a gratifying sight. Swallows and house martins continue to be painfully rare in this part of the world, but there are a few if you keep a sharp look out.


16 comments:

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
https://www.flickr.com/photos/ramblinros/13649168915/

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 (http://nature-and-weather.walkingclub.org.uk/search/label/April-verge)….

"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 http://nature-and-weather.walkingclub.org.uk/2011/12/november-hedgerow-and-flowers.html

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

Mike A said...

Wild tales from the Village
For those of you who haven't seen this program, you may wish to watch it on Iplayer at https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b086k8db/wild-tales-from-the-village?suggid=b086k8db
It's an animal drama that tells the story of a year in the life of an extraordinary village, hidden away in the timeless French countryside. Narrated by Tcheky Karyo, this tale reveals the parallel world of incredible tiny creatures that live side by side with the unsuspecting humans

Recommended

Sandy said...

If I may use these comments to make random observations I might have shared on walks if they were happening . . . on a walk in Essex last April I came across some unusual flowers I didn't recognise, but Mr Tiger identified them as spring beauty (see comment 3) He said he'd only ever seen them in Essex. So I was amazed to see a big clump in Surbiton yesterday, just a few minnutes walk from my house. Who knows how many times I'd walked past them and not noticed. Hopefully they won't be the only interesting sight within walking distance.

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