Basin Notes - August 2012

Summer Delights

The wildflower patch in my garden has been very colourful again this year and the plants seem to have thrived despite the cold and wet conditions.

Poppies, cornflowers, mayweeds and forget-me-nots, interspersed with the cheerful yellow blooms of corn marigolds have brightened a dull and dreary summer. Bumble bees and hover flies have been foraging on sunny days but butterflies have been few and far between.

Last year's UK-wide Big Butterfly Count saw an 11% reduction in numbers compared to 2010. The common blue, a small widespread butterfly, was down by 60%. On the other hand red admiral numbers increased by over 90% during the same period. In general terms, however, the Butterfly Conservation Charity estimates that half of the UK species are in decline.

One morning last week I had a walk through the Tayock corner of the nature reserve in search of butterflies. Conditions were ideal as it was a sunny day with hardly any wind. Several meadow browns were active in the longer grasses. They have orange patches on their forewings which feature an eye spot and the females are more colourful than the males. Small heaths were there too. A widespread butterfly most active in bright conditions, and numerous in August, their upper wings are orange/beige with an eye spot on the underside of each forewing. They look like a small version of the meadow brown but always rest with wings closed.

Two common blues were flitting around their territories feeding intermittently on white clover and bird's-foot trefoil. All the males are bright blue and some females may be blue as well but most are brown with their wings fringed with orange spots.

I was pleased to find a number of small coppers in different parts of the Reserve. With a wing span of only 30-35mm these dainty but fast fliers use a variety of habitats and you may well see them in your garden. They are a very distinctive butterfly with their coppery orange wings, marked with dark brown fringes and dots. They take nectar from a variety of plants and you will often see them rotating around the flower heads as they feed.

I disturbed a number of day flying moths as I passed along, the most eye-catching being a six-spot burnet. Each greenish/dark grey forewing is decorated with six bold carmine - red spots, with the bright red hind wing having a black fringe. The red spots are nature's way of warning potential predators that this insect is poisonous. The cinnabar is also a dark grey moth with red markings and it is found in meadows and dry coastal areas. It too contains chemicals derived from the ragwort plant which the black and yellow caterpillars feed on.

On July 15 a water rail with its four black downy chicks was seen at the edge of a pool in front of the visitor centre. They have bred there periodically over the years and chicks have also been seen at the west end of the Reserve. Moorhens used to breed every year among the waterways and reeds by the centre but the chicks were often heavily predated, the likely culprits being carrion crow, grey heron or stoat. It is an ideal habitat for these water birds but we seldom see them now.

On July 25 Ben and Dennis from the Tayside Ringing Group netted 33 sand martins at their nesting wall site and 27 new birds were ringed while six were retraps. An estimated 16 pairs are using the nest site this year.

Since early May I have enjoyed the aerial displays of swifts from my kitchen window. Recently I have seen up to 30 dashing across the sky and I think many of these would have been juveniles. Over the next couple of weeks these remarkable birds will start moving south on migration to spend the winter in Central Africa.