A moment by the pond

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Emerald damselfly (c) Rebecca Cassie

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Azure damselfly pair (c) Duncan Hutt

The day wasn’t promising, a gray blanket of cloud was the best that the morning could offer with temperatures more akin to March than July.  As the cloud broke so the showers started, heavy drenching showers with the slightest glimmer of sunshine between.  None of this is great for spotting dragonflies and damselflies but a brief burst of sun meant it seemed worth a quick trip out; part of a survey to see what species are found at Throckley Pond.  Sadly the fresh breeze also reduced the activity around the water although once you got your ‘eye in’ the resting damselflies were relatively easy to identify as they held firmly to pondside vegetation.  And it was all damselflies today, no sign of their bigger dragonfly cousins.

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Blue-tailed damselfly (c) Duncan Hutt

First to be seen were the small dark damselflies with an almost glowing blue thin stripe on the end of the abdomen, these blue-tailed damselflies (Ischnura elegans) proved to be pretty common around the water’s edge along with the much brighter blue azure (Coenagrion lunulatum).  In sheltered spots males battled over unseen territories while the females were somewhat less conspicuous or daring in the challenging conditions.  Much less common, and at the beginning of their flight season, were a few emerald damselflies (Lestes sponsa) with their almost iridescent green backs over more cream coloured flanks, only four were spotted but numbers should rise in the coming days.

The site was oddly lacking in butterflies around the flowery margins and sheltered banks of the pond.  The lack of the almost ubiquitous speckled wood was unexpected and the newly emerged ringlets were also strangely absent.  In fact the only butterfly of the day was a large skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus) that settled on a tiny piece of willowherb by the path as we left the site.

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Large skipper (c) Duncan Hutt

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On Eycott Hill

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Blencathra from Eycott Hill nature reserve (c) Duncan Hutt

Eycott Hill isn’t one that comes immediately to mind when thinking Lake District fells, unless you are a geologist apparently.  This small volcanic outcrop is the centre on a newly opened Cumbria Wildlife Trust reserve, visited on the day it officially opened.  The hill is actually quite small and oddly only a couple of metres higher than the small car park for the reserve.  The view out is to the surrounding Lake District hills such as Blencathra and Great Mell Fell in the near distance and south-west to the more distant Scafell range.  These large hills frame the site and its upland type habitat seems to be entirely in place despite its relatively low altitude.

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Great Mell Fell from Eycott Hill nature reserve (c) Duncan Hutt

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Newly created meadow at Eycott Hill (c) Duncan Hutt

The path from the entrance to the summit crosses newly created meadows formed by spreading green hay from other local sites onto prepared and cleared ground which was perviously species poor.  There are more areas to do but at least one field  looked exactly as it should with yellow rattle, plantains, and hawkbits amongst the sward of wild flowers.

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Lasallia pustulata (c) Duncan Hutt

Beyond the meadows the land opens out into a mix of acid grassland, small patches of heath, with heather and bilbery, and areas of fen and bog.  The white splashes of cotton grass on these mires standing out from the mellow greens and browns around.  Small craggy outcrops speckled the surface, the rock crevices home to parsley fern and lichens such as Lasallia pustulata, both west coast species barely found back at home in Northumberland.  The summit itself was a windswept outlook and a painted lady bravely defended this vantage point from another foolhardy cousin that swirled past on the wind.

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Small pearl-bordered fritillary (c) Duncan Hutt

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Small pearl-bordered fritillary underwing (c) Duncan Hutt

Back below the summit the sun emerged more consistently from a sky that had doggedly held on to a plethora of grey and white mottled clouds.  With the sun a few more butterflies emerged; the small heath defying the wind to flick past only to settle with a plunging descent to a seemingly random stem of grass, wings tight closed as it landed.  Here too the rarer small pearl-bordered fritillaries darted past settling to show either their orange and dark brown patterned upper wings or the more mottled underwing.

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Marsh cinquefoil (c) Duncan Hutt

The bogs and mires were home to an interesting range of plants like the colourful marsh cinquefoil, bogbean and spearwort and some more diminutive sedges such as the rather unimpressive few-flowered sedge (Carex pauciflora), a species that is uncommon outside Scotland.

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Few flowered sedge (c) Duncan Hutt

The site had been overgrazed during a relatively short lasting ownership before the management was taken over by the Cumbria Wildlife Trust and it is only now beginning to recover from this interlude.  The grazing was taken off completely for a while and is now being returned slowly and carefully using a small herd of Luing cattle, a hardy breed that will live here year round.

All going well this is now a site that is only going to improve in the years to come, much work has already been done and there is much more to do.  It is a fascinating and almost unknown corner of the Lake District providing an almost secret vista out on to the rest of the world around.

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Luing Cattle (c) Duncan Hutt

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Common by name

 

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Common blue (c) Duncan hutt

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Common vetch (Vicia sativa) (c) Duncan Hutt

At last the cloud and drizzle lifted today and the sun came out providing enough warmth for a few butterflies and other insects to appear.  There was enough time too to get out from work meetings to have a look at a sunny bank on Druridge Bay.  Here the swathe of wildflowers provided a colourful pattern of mostly purples and yellows; in amongst them the diminutive common vetch (Vicia sativa) with some attendant ants hunting over the flowers and leaves.

Most butterflies must have struggled over the past few days to hide out of the way of the damp and cold but a large white was the first to appear as the sun warmed up the day.  Here too a common blue flitted into view, its wings not entirely uncurled indicating this to be a new emergence of the day.  Hopefully this was good timing but as the sea fret rolled back in off the North Sea it may have wished it had stayed in its chrysalis for a day or two more.

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Do look up

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Beech leaves in Cairn Wood (c) Duncan Hutt

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Horse chestnut leaves (c) Duncan Hutt

It’s an odd thing that most of us live our lives at eye level and below.  We may look down to the ground in front of our feet or at the distant horizon but rarely, unless prompted by the sound of a bird or an aeroplane, do we look up.  In cities the tops of all but the most iconic buildings remain largely unseen; in the countryside it is the trees that suffer our neglect.  In Cairn Wood, in the countryside above Belfast Lough in County Down, the bright sunshine and fresh spring leaves combined to provide a spectacle directly above.  The light breeze added to the dynamics of the vista with leaves playing in the dappled shadows of those above, dropping in an out of semi darkness.

The woodland trees were not all Irish natives: horse chestnut, with its seven fingered leaves, is an introduction to this part of the world along with beech.  Beech has a ‘natural distribution’ which includes the south of England but further north it has been assisted by people (would it have made it on its own by now to the north of England and beyond?).  In Ireland it’s a bit more clear-cut as it’s not native here at all and with the Irish Sea in the way would never have become so on its own.  Horse chestnut is a south-east European species introduced to both Great Britain and Ireland.  Alongside these two species were a few English oak and the occasional rowan but it was the beech that dominated here in this woodland.

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Beech and oak leaves meet in the canopy (c) Duncan Hutt

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Basking in the park

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Myathropa florea (c) Duncan Hutt

A quick call in to Ponteland Park on the way home from work proved to be a great opportunity for a bit of hoverfly spotting.  The early evening sun was warming up the trees along the edges of two woodland glades and the sunny leaves were a magnet for basking flies of all types.  Hoverflies are tough to identify, other flies are even worse so anything that wasn’t a hoverfly (or butterfly) had to remain unnamed.  As it was some of the more tricky hoverflies were not tackled but even one common species proved to be awkward.  It’s partly the result of a new season that I had forgotten the key features to check out and while the photos were clear the colour of the hind femur was not visible so the exact species of Syrphus will remain unknown for now.

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Epistrope eligans (c) Duncan Hutt

Another hoverfly was more easily identified.  It has a particularly distinctive ‘batman’ shape on the thorax.  It falls into the Eristalis family which can be partially determined by the large downward loop in the vein down the middle of the wing but is actually Myathropa florea.  Another species that could have been confused with a small Eristalis did not have the looped vein and had a distinctly bronze colour making it Epistrope eligans, a spring species of woodland rides and glades.  It’s less common the further north you go but likes a warm spring – it would have been a dubious claim this year until a week ago.

Other species spotted included an Eristalis pertinax, some Melanostoma scalare, a couple of Platycheirus albimanus and a Rhingia campestris but there must have been others that remained unseen.

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A peaceful calm

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Kielder Water and Forest from Elf Kirk viewpoint (c) Duncan Hutt

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Hoverfly (Melangyna lasiophthalma) (c) Duncan Hutt

It was a rare morning of complete calm at Kielder – the mirrored surface of the reservoir reflecting the forest and hills to the north.  It only lasted for a few hours before a chilly breeze got up cancelling out the warmth of the unbroken sunshine.  Out of the wind the flowers of the willow trees provided useful early season food for bumble bees and hoverflies.  Spring specialists such as the hoverfly Melangyna lasiophthalma (no English name to make it easier!) frequented these trees alongside a range of bumblebees and some unidentified flies.

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Ashy or grey mining bee (Andrena cineraria) (c) Duncan Hutt

On a sheltered bank little mounds of mined soil with an adjacent tiny hole indicated the presence of some burrowing insects.  One bee dug itself underground before any identification was possible but a few others hung around, basking on sun warmed stones.  Amongst them were a few ashy or grey mining bees (Andrena cineraria) with their distinctive grey hairs and black abdomen.  These bees are solitary in that they each have their own burrow although they do often nest close to one another. Like the hoverfly it is a species of spring most usually seen between April and June.

All this activity was going on adjacent to well used paths but rarely noticed by those who pass by.

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Waiting for spring

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Holystone woodland canopy (c) Duncan Hutt

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Wood sorrel leaf (c) Duncan Hutt

It hasn’t been a cold winter but spring is still struggling to arrive.  In the oak woods at Holystone there are a few leaves emerging on the smaller trees like willow and an odd birch.  Primroses were in bloom along with an occasional violet but plants such as wood sorrel are only just pushing up a few tentative leaves.  The weather wasn’t promising much in the way of spring; the air was cold with sleet and snow showers and while the sun did shine it had limited warming effect.

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Thuidium tamariscinum (c) Duncan Hutt

 

On the woodland floor the brown of last year’s oak leaves was mottled with the green of mosses such as Thuidium tamariscinum which picked out the shapes of stones and fallen branches.

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