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 see in January Number 2: Go in search of waxwings

Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) are another winter visitor to the UK and, like the short-eared owl mentioned in the previous post, offer an unusual and exciting spectacle in the dead of winter.

They are quite distinctive and very pretty – about the size of a starling and they can look rather similar in flight. However, perched they are a much more exotic looking bird with their smokey, charcoal-grey bodies, the flashes of red and yellow on their wings and tail and a casual plume on top of their heads.

The UK over-wintering population varies from year to year but they are here in great numbers this year. They migrate in search of the berries which have had particulary poor crops on the continent this year. Rowan is a particular favourite with other species such as hawthorn, cotoneaster and rose also providing food.

The birds descend upon trees in small flocks and can strip it bare in a day, sometimes staying until every berry is plucked before moving on. Because of the food species favoured by the birds, they are often seen in rather unexpected places, watching the @waxwingsuk twitter feed gives a roundup of industrial estates, retail parks and supermarkets around the country where these trees are often planted as part of ornamental schemes. They also turn up in more expected sites such as parks and gardens.

Locations where they have been sighted in/near Grantham this year include Downtown carpark (on the A1), Asda carpark (in the centre of Grantham), Aldi carpark (beside the railway line) and most recently beside the A52 as it leaves the town past the barracks to the east. One of the most regular locations has been Marston Sewerage Works although there have been no reported sightings there for a while.

For your best chance to see them, follow @waxwingsuk on twitter as they collate sightings every day providing you with the most up-to-date information on their locations. It’s also handy if you’re travelling as you might see a spot on your route somewhere that’s easy to drop in – I did this in Lichfield before Christmas (see photograph below). I will try to re-tweet any Grantham records so if you’re after local locations, you can check out my twitter feed in the tab on the right for updates!

Waxwings (photograph taken in Cappers Lane, Lichfield)

Things to see in January Number 1: Head up to the Hills and Hollows to watch the owls at dusk

January can seem one of the darkest, deadest months when the problem of hibernating/dormant/absent creatures is compounded by the grimness of the weather which altogether makes staying inside the easiest option. However, there are a few exciting sights to be seen in and around Grantham even in this gloomiest of months. The first of these is owl-watching on the hills which rise up to the west of the town.

Dusk comes early at this time of year which makes the days depressingly short but does at least make crepuscular species – those which come out at dawn and dusk – a lot easier to see at sociable hours.

Barn Owl (Tyto alba) after a successful hunt
Barn Owl (Tyto alba) after a successful hunt

If you walk the footpath which continues up a muddy track through an archway of trees at the end of Beacon Lane, you will quickly find yourself surrounded by rough grassland, a perfect habitat for voles and mice and, therefore, a perfect hunting ground for owls!

Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) hunting
Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) hunting

Around 3 – 4 o’clock in January, you will begin to see them come out and hunt, especially on the broad open grassland to the right at the top of the footpath. Several barn owls – a native resident species – can often be seen, along with a short-eared owl which has taken up residence this year. My photograph is sadly rather pathetic but you at least get a feeling for this impressive bird – a much better gallery from the Hills and Hollows in previous years can be found here.

The short-eared owl is a migratory species which arrives in the UK in early winter from the northern continent – Scandinavia, Russia and Iceland. They will often stay in one place throughout the winter before flying back to their breeding grounds in the north. You will notice how much larger a bird the short-eared owl is with broad, almost buzzard-like wings. It flies low and drops regularly and dramatically into the grassland hunting its prey – you could almost imagine it falling like a child and getting quickly back to its feet as it progresses up and down a hunting patch. The barn owl by comparison will often perch and watch before gliding over the grassland, hovering lower and lower when it spots something tasty until, at the last minute, it drops silently upon its unsuspecting prey.

Take along binoculars, if you can, and don’t forget to wrap up warm as it gets cold when the wind blows! Even if you don’t see the owls (and I’ve no doubt you will), the view across Grantham from this height can be spectacular! You may need a little patience but, as the darkness falls, the birds will surely appear.

Grantham at Sunset

Autumnal Walk along Grantham Canal and Denton Reservoir

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated this blog – everything interesting I’ve seen recently has been far from Grantham, and usually in the dark as bat surveys have filled most of my time! So expect some bat related posts in the near future…

September scene

To get going again; this post is just a few photographs from a walk along Grantham Canal and around Denton Reservoir on a sunny, dew-damp September morning. A little bit of everything! It’s sad to see so many of the wildflowers going over, how can autumn be upon us while we’re still waiting for summer to begin? Still, a few flowers are still hanging on:

Black knapweed (Centaura nigra)

Black knapweed (Centaura nigra) is a favourite with the bees and butterflies and a few are still in flower.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a native which you may even have growing in your lawn, or one of the ornamental coloured varieties in the flowerbeds. Look out for the feathery fronds of leaves beneath.

Autumn hawkbit (Leontodon autumnalis)

There are several hawkbit (Leontodon spp.) species – I believe this one is the appropriately named autumn hawkbit. They are in the same family as the dandelion – the daisy or compositae family – but are a much finer, more delicate species.

Ragwort (Senecio vulgaris)

Ever-ebullient ragwort (Senecio jacobaea). There seems to be a fair bit of debate at the moment on whether it really is dangerous for livestock, but it’s another brilliant species for invertebrates. Look out for the yellow-and-black striped caterpillars of the cinnabar moth in July and August.

Creeping thistle (Cirsium vulgare)

Creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense) is another species with a long flowering season.

Rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium)

Rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium) flowers later in the season and brightens up the countryside, especially around water. This photo was taken beside Denton Reservoir.

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) is a species I was not expecting to encounter – this was growing within a sheep-grazed field to the south of Denton. It is a delicate flower often found in more dry, nutrient poor grasslands and heathland, Sherwood forest is a good area to spot them. A welcome addition to the day!

The fields look as though they are on fire from a distance as clouds of dust rise like smoke from the combines. With the crops gone and the stubble remaining, it’s a good chance to look for a few arable plants. There are a number of species which are well adapted to arable conditions and are growing rather rarer these days thanks to the intensification of agriculture. Below are photographs of scentless mayweed (Tripleurospermum inodorum) and common poppy (Papaver rhoeas) – not rare but attractive, I especially love the texture of the poppy flower!

Scentless mayweed (Tripleurospermum inodorum)

Common poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

I spotted a fair few birds within the hedgerows and arable margins, it’s getting to the time of year when large numbers descend on the feast of berries which are ripening. Plenty of blackbirds along with mixed-tit flocks, yellowhammers, chaffinches and an attendant kestrel. This stretch of farmland is a great spot for fieldfares and redwings when then arrive for the winter too.

Yellowhammer

The last few butterflies were still floating and resting in patches of sunlight; red admirals, comma’s and speckled wood all in evidence. Below is a comma (Polygonia c-album) sunning itself on a bunch of ripening blackberries!

Comma butterfly on blackberries

Dragonflies and damsel-flies were spaced out along the edge of the reservoir, the dragonflies jealously guarding their patches. This was my first attempt at a dragonfly in flight, I’m quite pleased with it! I am not 100% confident on the ID but this is certainly a hawker dragonfly, probably a southern hawker (Aeshna affinis) judging by the amount of green on the thorax but please feel free to set me straight if it’s a common!

Southern hawker dragonfly

Beautiful meadows at Easton Walled Gardens

Wildlife friendly gardening has been gaining interest for some time now, and this year seems to have attained a status close to dominance if RHS Chelsea was anything to go by. More numerous perhaps even than the stylised show-gardens were those on a natural theme; wildflowers were everywhere, although many were in bloom well before their wild counterparts suggesting that these were some of the most well-tended ‘weeds’ in the country. Meadow planting figured strongly in a number of gardens and retail stands seemed to follow the trend, with pots of ragged robin and buttercup adding colour and context to their products.

Easton Walled Gardens, by all accounts, was developing this theme before it was quite so fashionable and a visit illustrates the ease with which aesthetically pleasing displays can incorporate or even comprise, wild flowers and communities.

Poppies in the meadows at Easton Walled Gardens

I have only visited the gardens once before, in snowdrop week in February, and was determined to pay another visit to what looked to be a fascinating project. Sweet pea week (running now until Sunday 8th July) seemed a good excuse to do this – if anybody has only visited for the spring bulbs, I would strongly recommend you see in the summertime too.

The use of wild meadows within the gardens is varied and original. The swathes of long grass beneath the trees within the woodland area is perhaps unsurprising, but their use on the terraces down to the stream is quite unique. Here, the sloping banks are unmown, allowing a mist of Arrhenatherum to form with wildflowers such as scabious and poppy adding instances of colour beneath. Trefoil creeps from the wild areas into the flat walkways which, alternating in strips, are mown short allowing you to walk between the banks of grassland without so much as brushing your legs upon the soft seed heads, nor interrupting the bumblebees which attend the meadows in their masses. These terraces stretch out on either side of the stone steps which descend between topiary shrubs to the plateau before the stream. It is perhaps this novel interpretation of a traditional formal landscaping design which makes the effect so successful.

Meadow terraces at Easton Walled Gardens

From these steps, you can see the lie of the remainder of the garden. Over the stream is a superb herbaceous border which would take pride of place in any National Trust formal gardens and beyond, behind the border, is the deep, dark archway of an old yew avenue. Upon either side of this, complementing the heavy shade of the evergreens are light ephemeral meadows arrayed with glorious roses which seem to fizz and overflow from somewhere below the gossamer swell of grasses. One of the key concerns when incorporating nature into gardens is to display intent and these ebullient features, coupled with cut-grass paths which allow you to move through the medley, leave you in no doubt that this is design.

Roses within meadows at Easton Walled Gardens
These are not yet species-rich meadows and the range of wildflowers is limited, but perhaps counter to common sense, a wildflower meadow takes time and care, or at least appropriate management, to establish. But it is beginning. The terraces were cleared of trees which had developed for fifty years before they were removed and this long-established habitat would have built up a good organic layer of soil, full of nutrients. Where nutrients are high, grasses will almost always out-compete the smaller, slower wildflowers, towering above and shading them out before they have much of a chance to get started, and those which do are the less aesthetically desirable ‘ruderals’ – species which specialise in quickly springing up and setting seed, moving between transient opportunities. Easton have a programme of removing these ruderals – thistles and ragwort specifically, before they have chance to flower with the eventual aim of reducing their presence within the sward. As for the dominance of grasses; this can be dealt with by reducing the fertility of the soil through cutting and removing the grasses throughout the season (taking the clippings away takes the nutrients with them) or, more drastically, stripping the topsoil to reach the more nutrient poor soil horizons. This occurs naturally when the meadows are grazed by livestock. Another trick is to sow yellow rattle – you can see this flourishing in Easton’s meadows – which actually parasitises the grasses, tapping into their roots and thereby reducing their vigour.

Walking back across the lawn, between swallows which skate across the grass as though on ice, the path takes you to the left into Red-tailed bumblebee on sweetpea at Easton Walled Gardensthe vegetable garden and the delightfully named ‘pickery’ which is designed for just that – cut flowers abound. Right now, the centrepiece of this garden is the sweet pea collection – over sixty varieties on display and the opportunity to pick your own to take away. As well as the taxonomic arrays there are famous sweetpea’s from history, showing the development of this flower which as been so bred and refined. It is amusing to watch the bees visiting the peas indiscriminately and pollinating at will showing a callous carelessness for the years of linear selection which have created the unique lines, I wonder quite what cross-breeds would grow from the subsequent seeds!

Our visit was completed with tea and cake which are a highly recommended finale to any trip. And I should add, this brief description has concentrated on the meadows and wildlife; this is to say nothing of the giraffes grazing beside the cedar, the countless other plants and flowers of interest such as the collection of hostas and ferns in the shaded archway as you enter the garden, the developing orchard, the swing which was rarely un-occupied or the other myriad thoughts and touches which show the time which has gone into this garden. It is only 11 years into its restoration from its abandoned state and I look forward to returning to see how it continues to develop.

For more details on location and opening hours, take a look at their homepage here.

Giraffes beside the cedars

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.