Below are a few snippets on some of the wildlife that we've seen, late April/early May can be delightful months with the emergence of many of our invertebrates, however this year we haven't seen the best of the weather, especially in comparison to last spring, although we have had our first sightings of Orange Tip and Holly Blue butterflies, Large Red Damselflies, Banded Demoiselles, 4-spotted Chaser Dragonflies, and birds such as Common Cranes, Short-eared Owls, Little Owls, Turtle Doves and Cuckoos have been pleasing finds. The first young chicks of the year have also made their first appearance, with three Little Grebes hatching on a pond in East Cottingwith along with two Oystercatcher chicks, whilst several Lapwing and Redshank broods have also been noted on the Ings. Plenty of our flowering species have also been recorded this month, with species such as Adder's-tongue Fern, Green-winged Orchid, Bugle and Ragged Robin all noted.
At the end of April (21st) we came across the first damselfly of the year, when four Large Reds were seen on ‘Adder Heath’ and around the Bomb Bay Loop. This species is usually first found in May, with the first records from the previous two years being on the 19th May in 2014 and the 22nd May in 2013. So this is almost a month earlier than we were expecting compared with the last two years. Large Reds are the first of the damselflies to emerge in the UK, with the first records appearing from the end of April across the country. Perhaps the warm weather at the end of the month brought forward their emergence, it certainly brought out a flurry of butterflies on the Common, with 11 Orange Tips, 4 Peacocks, 3 Brimstones, 1 Small Tortoiseshell and 1 Comma all seen, along with the first Speckled Wood of the year at Bank Island.
Adders are known to be present on the Common, however this hasn’t always been the case. The interest in reptiles on Skipwith has only been developed over the last 15 years or so – prior to this time species such as Adders and Grass Snakes were relatively scarce on the Common. Work over the last 30 years by Escrick Park Estate and Natural England has seen areas of woodland and birch scrub cleared, to help regenerate more of the open wet and dry heath for which the site is nationally important. Further fine tuning of the management since the site became a National Nature Reserve in 2009 has seen the provision of more reptile refuge and hibernacula to further boost numbers, and a greater awareness of this interest to allow more people to enjoy the Common’s reptiles – let us know if you’re lucky enough to see any on your visits by filling in the sheets in the boxes provided.
There can be few things that represent the arrival of the British summer better than the characteristic sound of the calling Cuckoo. With an easy to identify call, intriguing life cycle and national press interest in the arrival of the first calling bird in the country each year, the Cuckoo has it all, but unfortunately that familiar call has disappeared from many parts of the English countryside, and the bird has undergone a dramatic decline over the last 20 years. The BTO have been carrying out a research project into the species to try and understand the possible causes from this decline and have been satellite tracking several birds to follow their migration routes and discover the wintering ecology of the species – details of this work can be found here (http://www.bto.org/science/migration/tracking-studies/cuckoo-tracking).
The last month has also produced numerous raptor sightings including species such as: Short-eared Owl, Little Owl, Barn Owl, Tawny Owl, Marsh Harrier, Hobby, Peregrine, Red Kite and Buzzard.
It’s not often that we get close to a Buzzard, however the bird pictured here allowed amazing views as it perched for quite some time on a fence post on the Duffield to Skipwith road. Buzzards are now common in the valley and are seen on a daily basis, with often double figure counts made. However it’s not that long ago when they were a real scarcity in the area, and you only need to go back to the early 1990’s when they were considered rare, with only four sightings during the year in 1994 and only ten as recently as 2001. In the 14 years since then numbers have rocketed and now it’s estimated that as many as 15-20 pairs may breed around the surrounding area. This mirrors a huge range expansion across England (spreading eastwards), perhaps we’ll be saying a similar thing about Red Kites in 14 years’ time……
We've also been keeping an eye out for new plant species during the month, recently whilst carrying out surveys at Newton Mask (at the northern end of the valley), we took the opportunity to look for the rather aptly named Adder’s-tongue Fern. Unlike all other British ferns this species is unmistakable, with a single bright green upright frond, and a single tall spike bearing the spores - from which the fern gets its name (being similar in appearance to a snakes tongue). This species appears from mid-May to August, showing a preference for old grasslands, often on hillsides and often favouring sandy soils. This probably accounts for its location at Newton Mask, occurring on the lighter soils of the slope outside of the floodplain. Adder’s-tongue Fern is often regarded as a good indicator of ancient meadows – of which we know the Lower Derwent Valleys meadows certainly are.