Sunday, 28 June 2015

Peregrines at the Roaches

Just over the county border into Staffordshire are 'The Roaches', part of a gritstone escarpment in the Peak District very popular locally with hikers and particularly rock climbers. It has also been the location for breeding Peregrine falcons this summer, and it was really fantastic news to hear that within the last few days all three Peregrine chicks have fledged successfully.

I visited at the end of May and it was wonderful to watch the magnificent parents flying above and around the rock face, as well as seeing their classic 'stoop' if a potential pigeon meal caught their attention. Jackdaws were omnipresent while the adult Peregrines were away from the area, but kept a much lower profile when they returned - though less likely to be targets, they sensibly weren't taking their chances. 

The three Peregrine chicks were only a couple of weeks old at this point, and it was a delight to watch them appear when the sun came out, then they would recede closer back towards the vegetation and largely out of sight when the sun went in again or the wind became a little stronger. After a little while of waiting whilst admiring the chicks, we watched as the male returned to the nest with food caught for them.  

Male Peregrine with chicks
Staffordshire Wildlife Trust set up a 'Peregrine watch' at the site with a scope available for the public to use to get a good view of the birds' nest from a respectful distance. It was fantastic to have the wardens and volunteers present sharing their knowledge and love of these birds with the public, whilst at the same time their presence there acting as a deterrent to would-be egg or chick thieves, unfortunately still a potential problem here. Access to this area of the rock face was restricted so that the Peregrines (another Schedule 1 species and therefore afforded special legal protection) would not be disturbed and would have a better chance of successfully raising their young. It's great that the climbers (insofar as I've ever heard at least) seem to take these restrictions with good grace and acceptance. 

The plumage of male and female Peregrines is quite similar, and although there is a size difference (with the females being considerably larger than the males as with many other raptors), this is difficult to judge from a distance and I was informed by the warden that the adult bird in the photos above and below is the male. The images of the Peregrines were as good as I could manage from this distance using a 150-500mm zoom lens, all taken from the same vantage point quite far away (I had to shake off the touch of 'lens envy' I could feel creeping in), so apologies (not least to the Peregrines!) for the poor quality! 

Peregrine falcon in flight (not doing him justice I know, but at least he is recognisable as a Peregrine!)

'The Roaches', Staffordshire (wide-angle view, taken from the same spot as the images above)

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Shakerley Mere

With so much dreadful weather during much of May as well as a quite busy month in other respects meaning few opportunities to visit my local patch, this is a catch up post from a visit to Shakerley Mere a few weeks ago in mid-May. 

Very young Mallard duckling
Following a trip to one of the farms where I ring (band) the Barn Swallows (more on that in a future post) I thought I’d pay a visit to another mere which I’ve driven past on many occasions, but never stopped - Shakerley Mere near Holmes Chapel in Cheshire. Despite its location adjacent to a busy stretch of the M6 motorway, I was pleasantly surprised at what a lovely place it was to visit with abundant vegetation and wildflowers surrounding the mere. The first wildlife I saw, or rather heard, when I arrived was a small Mallard family consisting of Mum and just three very young ducklings. The quick ‘peeping’ calls coming from the direction of some trees overhanging the water's edge betrayed their presence and of course on hearing their calls, it didn't take very long to spot them, their Mum trying very hard to keep the super-quick little youngsters out of trouble. 

Beautiful butterfly, shame about the perch! 
A male Brimstone sunbathes on a molehill
It feels that every year I see noticeably fewer butterflies than I did the year before, so it was wonderful to actually see lots of butterflies on the wing at this location. 

A female Holly Blue had an unusual hole in one wing. I've seen many a tattered butterfly towards the end of their seasons but never one with such a neat hole punched through an otherwise perfect wing. Whether caused by an injury, or possibly even a parasite, I really don't know, but it didn't seem to affect her flight in any way and just before and after taking this photo she was back fluttering around the tops of nearby shrubs. 

A beautiful male Brimstone, with his closed wings resembling leaves, threw caution, not to mention camouflage to the wind, sunbathing on the side of a large molehill. Brimstones are one of only a handful of butterflies in the UK that hibernates through the winter as an adult and they have just one brood per year. Newly emerged adults appear from late July onwards, so for a relatively elderly butterfly, I thought this one was looking in fantastic condition. Other butterflies seen were beautiful Orange-tips and Green-veined Whites enjoying the nectar of dandelion flowers.

Female Holly Blue (or holey Holly as a friend quipped!)

St Mark's fly - Bibio marci
Also on the wing were a good number and variety of hoverflies enjoying the wildflowers, including the unusual looking Rhingia Campestris with its distinctive mouthparts which enable it to feed on nectar in deep flowers which other hoverflies cannot reach (giving it the nickname of Heineken fly...), here photographed on Herb Robert. Enjoying the daisies was a beautifully marked hoverfly, subsequently identified as a female Leucozona lucorum. 
Meanwhile St Mark's flies, (so-named as the adults emerge around St Mark's day, the 25th April) flew their slow dangly-legged flight and ambled sluggishly and clumsily over foliage.

Rhingia campestris on Herb Robert

Female hoverfly - Leucozona lucorum
Greylag goose family approaching

Completing my circuit of the mere I noticed two families of Greylag geese, one of which only appeared to have one gosling, the other family with four. One of the parents of this latter family led the goslings closer and closer to where I was crouched next to the water's edge, perhaps to check whether I had bread (I hadn't), looking increasingly aggressive the closer s/he came, though wonderful to see the fluffy youngsters up close.

Greylag gosling

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Chartley Moss NNR

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to visit Chartley Moss, a National Nature Reserve (NNR) in Staffordshire managed by Natural England. It owes its NNR status to being the largest example of a floating peat bog (or Schwingmoor to use the correct terminology!) in Britain. The layers of peat form a huge raft over an underground lake and due to differing thicknesses in this peat layer and a very real risk of getting stuck or even sinking through, the reserve is closed to the public apart from on a handful of occasions each year when guided walks are taken through the reserve. Quite surreal and unnerving is the effect of jumping on the spot on areas where the peat layer is quite thin - the effect on the ground underneath is not dissimilar to that of jumping on a rope bridge, the earth quite literally moving beneath your feet with nearby trees swaying for good measure! Standing still on apparently solid (if damp) ground for too long resulted in water creeping up over the toes of the obligatory wellies, the sphagnum moss underfoot entirely saturated with water. (This all triggered inevitable jokes amongst the group of "making the earth move" and getting "that sinking feeling", all of which the site manager had heard many a time!)

The unique landscape of Chartley Moss NNR

The site has an interesting history. Previously, attempts had been made to drain the site however not realising the mammoth task at hand (i.e. that there was an underground lake), the plans failed. Subsequently, attempts were made to instead turn the site into a forestry plantation and although some trees did make it to maturity (and under current management/restoration work some are still being removed), many others drowned once their roots worked through the peat layers and into the acidic water underneath effectively drowning the trees, either through age and size, or through sinking deeper under their own weight. The effect of their remains leaves an unusual and unique landscape - in the photo above it is impossible to know whether the tree remains which can be seen were their full size, or if these are the tops of larger trees which sank.

The acidic environment is hostile for many species but supports a wide range of specialist plants as well as great numbers of invertebrates. The ‘star species’ at this site is the White-faced darter, a small dragonfly that is rare throughout the UK, this site being its most southerly stronghold (this site has been a donor of dragonfly larvae for reintroductions at other locations). This dragonfly is the subject of Biodiversity Action Plans in both Cheshire and Cumbria with important populations occuring in the highlands of Scotland. The weather was still unseasonably cool and cloudy but was at least dry and fortunately (with help from the site manager and her assistants) we did see some White-faced darters. The only one close enough to photograph was a teneral (meaning newly emerged) female - she hasn’t yet developed the white frons or 'face' which makes this species so distinctive. We were informed that the darters are very good at hiding themselves away when conditions are unfavourable and this appeared to be what they had nearly all done!

White-faced Darter, teneral female

White-faced Darter, teneral female
Tucked away in an old tree stump I made an interesting find - a large longhorn beetle which I subsequently identified as a Two-banded Longhorn Beetle (Rhagium bifasciatum), the body of this beetle being about an inch long. Fortunately s/he was very obliging as the photographers of the group politely took it in turns to take their fill of beetle photos.

Two-banded Longhorn Beetle (Rhagium bifasciatum)

Two-banded Longhorn Beetle (Rhagium bifasciatum)

Spotted close to one of the many pools was an Alderfly - they are lovers of standing water and are another insect which are happy to be photographed, often not rushing to fly off if approached carefully.

The reserve also supports an interesting array of plant life perfectly adapted to the inhospitable conditions such as the insectivorous Sundew. Living in nutrient poor soil it supplements its diet with the occasional insect. Also lovely to see was flowering wild cranberry. Bilberry which is abundant on the site supports a good population of beautiful Green Hairstreak butterflies, though with cool cloudy weather, the only one I saw had been spotted (and netted for observation) by one of the helpers on the walk.

Certainly a unique reserve and one I would love to visit again given the opportunity.

Wild Cranberry flower (left) and Sundew (right)