February Hibernation Survey at Harlaxton

Last Sunday was one of those beautiful days when everybody feels spring is just around the corner. The garden was filled with birdsong and sunshine, neighbours decided it was finally time to venture out and sweep those autumn leaves, daffodil bulbs bulged yellow at their tips where flowers are just waiting to appear.

What better day to descend into a sealed up tunnel, feeling the temperature drop steadily on a headlamp-lit thermometer, to search for hibernating bats!? Along with another member of the Lincolnshire Bat Group, we gallantly left the sunlight behind to see what we could find.

Entering the tunnels

In the past we have come across hibernating barbastelle bats, a rare species in the UK and here, at almost the northerly limit of their range, but sadly this time they were absent from the deep cracks which staircase down the brickwork where the tunnel curves.

Several years ago the Bat Group put up boxes in the tunnel, to provide a greater range of roosting opportunities and in here we did find some bats – two boxes had brown long-eared bats sleeping soundly inside, their long ears tucked behind their wings with only the tragus – the fleshy projection within the ears – apparent.

Hibernating brown long-eared bat

Only one of these bats was present during the January survey which means that some time in the last month, the other has flown and found this as a new place to enter torpor. This is not uncommon, bats will rouse during warmer winter weather and will often feed briefly before returning to their torpid state.
Along with the bats were around 60-70 peacock butterflies, all with their wings tightly closed and apparently oblivious to our torchlight as we passed by, careful not to disturb them. Many had damaged pieces of wing from last year – the first butterflies of the year are often tattered old veteran tortoiseshells, peacocks and brimstones.

Hibernating peacock butterflies

A number of herald moths were also present, including the pair pictured below who appeared to be hibernating upon a spiders web! I would love to hear any feedback on this interpretation – I do not think they have fallen prey to the spider as this same pair were present last September when I checked the boxes were ready for the winter and are apparently still alive and well! They will take flight when the weather warms, sometime between March and May.

Hibernating herald moths

If you are interested in joining the local bat group, visit their webpage for details – there are events throughout the year that you can take part in. For details of your local group if you are outside of Lincolnshire, the BCT webpage has all the info.

Things to do in February Number 1 – Goosanders at Harlaxton

Goosanders (Mergus merganser) are an impressive looking diving duck whose summer habitat is upland rivers usually found further north than Grantham. Like the waxwings and the short-eared owls featured in January’s posts, this is another winter visitor to the area and makes a welcome addition to the local fauna at this otherwise dull time of year. Whilst goosanders do move from their upland habitats in the winter, it is likely that this small flock have moved further, many migrate from the colder climates of Scandinavia.

For the last few years, there has been a small flock which arrive at the relatively peaceful lake on the drive to Harlaxton Manor – a private drive which the University of Evansville kindly allow access for walkers. I have sadly failed, repeatedly, to get a good photograph of them because they are absent, or at the wrong end, or the light is awful or the battery dies, so please do excuse the rather poor quality below. They show strong sexual dimorphism, that is the males and females look different. In this image, the white birds are the males whilst the more dowdy bird with the brown head is the female.

Goosanders on Harlaxton Manor lake - two males to the right and one to the left with a single female in between
Goosanders on Harlaxton Manor lake – two males to the right and one to the left with a single female in between

If the photograph was better, you might be able to see the serrated bill which is used for catching and gripping the fish they prey upon – this is a definitive characteristic of the ‘sawbill’ family to which they belong.

I counted ten on the lake today – 7 males and 3 females. The lake can be accessed either by walking down the main drive (around the edge of the grand gates) and down towards the manor, or walking from the village of Harlaxton (see location map below). They can be a little shy and tend to stay away from the bridge but a pair of binoculars should reward you with a good view!

For more information in goosanders, the RSPB website is always a good start!

Location of Harlaxton Manor Lake - access from the village of Harlaxton (to the left) or the A607 (at the top)
Location of Harlaxton Manor Lake – access from the village of Harlaxton (to the left) or the A607 (at the top)

Hibernating moths and butterflies

A recent trip to look for bats in Harlaxton railway tunnel didn’t reveal any – it’s still a little early for them to be hibernating – but plents of moths and butterflies were preparing to hibernate for the winter. The tunnel gets cold but the conditions are stable and this allows the insects to enter a torpid state until the weather warms up again. Herald moths prefer dark places and where you find them, the chances are conditions will be good for bats too! Several of the herald moths were hibernating on old spider’s webs – this isn’t something I’ve seen before but seemed to be a populat location, at least half of them were hanging in this way. The peacock butterfly was recently arrived as he was still quite active, flapping his wings slowly when the torch fell upon him, but plenty more had their wings folded tight and looked set to sleep out the winter already!ImageImageImage

Where to see bluebells near Grantham

There are a few woods around Grantham where you can go and see wild bluebells. I saw a few plants flowering as early as the end of March when we had the week or two of glorious weather, but the majority are looking beautiful now in May.

English bluebells in Belvoir Woods
English bluebells in Belvoir Woods

Belvoir Woods, accessed by footpath from Stathern, a village several miles to the west of Grantham, is a good location to see carpets of bluebells within the woods – this is where the photographs on this page were taken. The map below shows where within the woods the largest abundances can be found.

Location of bluebells in Belvoir Woods
Location of bluebells in Belvoir Woods

Belton House, the National Trust property to the north-east of Grantham also has them in their woodland beside the river. You need to pay entry to get into the house and gardens unless you are a National Trust member (but, it goes without saying, it’s well worth it!)

Location of Belton House, just outside Grantham
Location of Belton House, just outside Grantham

This Sunday, the 20th of May, Harlaxton College will open its woods to the public to see the bluebells there. The college is based at the large manor just outside Harlaxton, visible on the left of the A607 as you leave Grantham heading west. The college is an outpost of the American University of Evansville. Access is through the village and the woods are open between 1pm and 3pm.

Location of Harlaxton Manor, just outside Grantham
Location of Harlaxton Manor, just outside Grantham

For other locations of bluebell woods, why not check out the National Trust’s Bluebell Map here.

For more info on the difference between native and Spanish bluebells, have a look at my recent post here.