Thursday, 9 July 2020

Wingate Quarry and Thrislington. Butterflies and Botany.

The pull of another trip south of the Tyne was too much to resist, and our efforts today were well rewarded.

Giant Bellflower at Wingate

Wingate Quarry was our first stop on what was a breezy morning with a chill in the air, grey cloud at times threatening rain which never arrived in any noticeable amount.   The first highlight of the day was finding a rather noisy begging family of unfledged Kestrels being fed by a parent bird high and safe on the quarry face.  The young Kestrels looked almost ready for flight and they were making moves outside of the nesting area.  After this encounter our minds were firmly on butterflies and botany for the rest of the day.  At this point we had no idea just how well the day was to turn out.

Like the old quarry at Bishop Middleham, this area had been worked for magnesian limestone until the 1930s.  We were here primarily to try and find Marbled White Butterflies, rarely seen in the area outside of the reserve, they were introduced here in 2000.  Initially we struggled to find any butterflies of any description in the overcast conditions, then one or two species began to make an appearance, all of them flighty.  Then we found one Marbled White Butterfly, and moving on to an area rich in knapweed and thistles more were seen, but again all where flighty and viewing chances where brief, with no chance of a photograph.  They would quickly disappear as soon as the sun was covered by cloud, seemingly disappearing deep into the grasses.  There were other butterflies too including Small Tortoiseshell, Common Blue, Meadow Brown, Ringlet and Small Skipper.

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly.  The under-wings are often as interesting as the upper-wing.

Common Blue Butterfly (male)

A single Fragrant Orchid, a single Common Twayblade and many Common Spotted Orchids stood out from among some interesting flora.  Having looked again at my image of the Common Twayblade I see in the flowers, celebrating spacemen/women in green spacesuits, and honestly I have not touched a drop of red wine today.   This had been our first ever visit to Wingate Quarry, I’m sure it won’t be our last.  Our next stop was to be a first visit too, the reserve at Thrislington, a National Nature Reserve.

Common Twayblade

Small Skipper

Small Skipper

During our hours walking at Thrislington we learned a good deal about this calcareous grassland area, not least being its sheer beauty at this time of year.  There are hectares of land painted in patchwork fashion by the vivid colours of a myriad of wildflowers.  The scene could have come straight from an artist’s brush and palette and offered ample opportunity for the poetic mind.

purple Betony


With so many flowers came numerous bees, grasshoppers, butterflies and other insects.  The star butterflies were the Northern Brown Argus, which we had expected, and the Dark Green Fritillary which we hadn’t really thought about.  Both species probably reaching double figures.  Again, the Dark Green Fritillaries were especially flighty, but one, sadly a little worse for wear, gave the chance of a photograph.

Northern Brown Argus

Northern Brown Argus

Dark Green Fritillary

By now the sun was out and warming the air.  The day list of butterfly species seen came to 12 and some others added included a lone Small White as we stepped from the car, Small Heath, Red Admiral and Speckled Wood.

As we walked through the grassland we found the air strongly scented by the many plants that bloomed and encircled us.  Perhaps the most noticeable scent came from the many beautiful Fragrant Orchids now reaching their peak of perfection.  There were thousands of orchids of many hues and sizes, but orchid species which stood out for me was the Dark Red Helleborine which we eventually came across.  This must rank highly on my list of favourite flowers and they had reached their peak, one of them holding 36, wine red flowers on its spike.    This made up for our disappointment on visiting Bishop Middleham Old Quarry a couple of weeks ago and finding only one of these plants beginning to flower.

Fragrant Orchid

Fragrant Orchid

It was with interest that I noted from Anne and Simon Harrap’s Orchids of Britain and Ireland that the first British record of Dark Red Helleborine was made in a work by John Ray in 1677.  The site Ray mentions is Malham, 4 miles from Settle.  Also noted in Harrap’s book is that the maximum number of flowers known on a Dark Red Helleborine plant is 45, so our plant wasn’t far short of that.  My own experience of seeing these orchids is that spikes usually have fewer flowers.

Dark Red Helleborine

Dark Red Helleborine

I have never seen such a display of Orchids, nor can I recall seeing such an area of general botanical interest in Britain.  It had us discussing just how wonderful it must have been to wander around the open country of John Clare’s England and enjoy not only the sight, but also the aroma of wildflowers.  Oh, how he would have enjoyed today's walk.

We recalled the flower meadows of Eastern Europe and the area where open grassland met the tree line even invoked memories of the African Savannah, although on a minor scale of course.  Yellowhammers sang as we admired the scene.

Savannah type scene

Sam ready for action

There were simply too many species of plant to list, but some come instantly to my memory.  Carpets of golden Rock Rose, large areas of purple Betony, layers of Agrimony, bee laden Greater Knapweed, pale blue Field and Small Scabious side by side, masses of Birds foot Trefoil, clovers and vetchlings, blue Perennial Flax, Common Centaury, delicate Common Milkwort and an abundance of Lady’s Bedstraw and many  more.  It may sound imaginary and overstated, but it is not.

Perrenial Flax

Common Milkwort

We chatted to the chap from natural England who was going about his business and tetrads and was one of the very few people we saw in the area, and he give us a condensed history of the reserve.   Exmoor or similar Ponies are used here in winter for conservation reasons and whist some of the area is perfectly natural, a large proportion was re-laid some years ago.  To my untrained eye I would not have known.  As with any conservation area it is not without its problems and conflicting views as to how best to manage it, but whatever is being done certainly seems to be working.

Rest Harrow

Kidney Vetch

It’s quite a walk to do this area justice, but there was so much interest, we quite forgot how far we had gone, although the whole day here would not have been wasted.  Our day had been wonderfully complete and it had been a good lesson in botany.  We’d quite forgotten about birds and decided that tiredness meant we ought to put off a visit to Castle Lake until another day.  Our find of Dark Red Helleborine also meant that a visit to Bishop Middleham Old Quarry wasn’t essential either.



Well there is always another time.

busy Bumblebee

Plantain sp

Quite incidentally I’ have begun in the past few days to read a book by Steve Nicholls entitled Flowers of the Field, A Secret History of Meadow Moor and Wood.  A wonderful follow up to the trip described and full of excellent photographs.  I believe Steve is a Middlesbrough guy so I’ll be checking to see if Thrislington gets a mention in his book.  By the look of the index it doesn’t.


Please remember when visiting reserves or other areas of this nature, to keep to the pathways.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Little Terns to Nightjars, Coast to Forest.

Despite an unusually windy June evening we took the decision to travel north to Long Nanny to watch Little Terns.  The walk along to the bay was indeed windy, but I was surprised to see so few folk out on what was otherwise a fine evening.  The dunes were colourfully carpeted in the purple and white hues of Bloody Cranesbill and Campion.  Skylarks appeared all along our route and Meadow Pipits dropped as if by parachute.

Bloody Cranesbill

We were soon at the bridge, and found the boxes holding the Little Tern nesting area somewhat distant.  We headed for the warden’s hut, but that was blocked off because of covid, so we found a comfortable spot on the edge of the dunes which gave shelter from the gusting wind.  The long stretch of sandy coastline was deserted and we felt we had the whole area to ourselves.  The sand formed a myriad of patterns on the beach as the light conditions constantly changed, and the wind blew the small dry grains of sand in varying directions, resembling twisting dust clouds on the move.   We had some good sightings of Little Terns over the sea and flying along the tidal edge, whilst one of them landed on the sea-soaked sand and stayed there some minutes.  Perhaps the best sighting was of the Little Tern flying erratically along the tide line and appearing to fly through the brightly lit surf, with a turquoise sea as a backdrop.

Along with the Little Terns were both Sandwich and Arctic Terns, and perhaps best of all two sunlit Gannets continually diving like pointed missiles close to shore, in an area obviously providing good feeding.  Sam got his eye on a Manx Shearwater flying north in the distance and waders seen included Oystercatcher, a small flock of Dunlin, Curlew and Bar tailed Godwits.  The white broken cloud to the south contrasted to the rain filled darkness of the cloud to the north, which thankfully kept its distance.

As we walked back via the dunes a small Pyramidal Orchid was found, but the best and least expected sighting was a family of Stoats crossing the path ahead of us.   All three quickly aware of our approach, they disappeared stealthily into the dunes.  Not good news for the Little Tern colony, but an excellent sighting for us, but just not quite enough time for photographs.  Around the same area Stonechats and Linnets were seen.  The male Stonechat looking at its best perched with the blue sky as background.  Kestrels were added to our list.


Once back at the car we decided to visit the scrape at Low Newton.  I remember that a lot of work was put into this scrape and those responsible must be incredibly pleased to see it bearing results especially having attracted breeding Avocet, and we saw the young birds this evening.  Ringed Plover was among other birds seen here.  Two Brown Hares were seen in the fields, looking as they often do when still, like mounds of earth, and a male Sparrrowhawk gave a good sighting as it glided along the hedge-

Pyramidal Orchid

We travelled back by the scenic route and called at Cresswell and listed four Spoonbills and more Avocet.  A nice evening at the coast despite the wind.  The roads were ghostly quiet on our journey back home.
We had plans for a trip to Slaley Forest for Nightjar the following evening, but the forecast ranged from showers all evening, to heavy rain all evening.  We ignored the forecast and set off anyway aiming to make the most of it.  It would not be the first time I’ve been soaked to the skin in Slaley Forest.  Our first stop was at Whittle Dene Reservoir where the highlights were Yellow Wagtail, two pairs of Great Crested Grebe, a family of Kestrels, Common Buzzard and Swifts,  Swallows and Sand Martins swooping low over the water.   A Red Fox showed in the distance and then slowly trotted down by the side of the reservoir before disappearing behind the hedge-line.  Brown Hare was seen again too.  There were some interesting plants to examine including Common Spotted Orchid. 

Having walked back across the Military Road, a great stretch of road for driving and viewing, but not so good for crossing if a pedestrian, we made off towards Corbridge where a break was taken for tea.  The waters of the River Tyne seemed higher than on previous visits and the stony ground under the bridge was under water.  We walked a good way along the riverbank, being on our guard not to fall into the river where the sandy pathway has in places collapsed.  The call of Common Sandpiper was heard before the bird was seen, but it was the plant life including the invasive Himalayan Balsam that took the interest.  Our return walk took us past the stones from the old bridge with its information board which has seen better days.  Long tail Tit was among birds seen.

As I stepped out of the car at Slaley Forest, having spotted several Brown Hares as we approached, I knew right away that it was going to be a battle between us and the midges, so out came the Avon skin so soft, not for the last time this evening.  Calling Crossbills flew overhead, as did soon afterwards, Siskin.  It was to be an evening where the sense of hearing would bring such good rewards.  Seldom in this cacophonous world do you find complete peace and quiet, but as we walked onto the moor the silence and stillness were intense.  That state was we believed so noticeable, as it so seldom occurs and it didn’t last long, soon broken by squawking Jays, the hum of bees and eventually an off-road four-wheel drive coming in our direction.  However there was little sound from birds, as very few were about, but we did hear the occasional Meadow Pipit, a lifting Common Snipe, the Black Headed Gull colony in the distance and the chat of Stonechats, a youngster being fed by the parent bird at one point.  We also had a good sighting of a Cuckoo being mobbed by a Meadow Pipit on the edge of the forest, before each bird disappeared into the trees.

As we walked along the forest road the smell of pine was intense the thump of Woodcock wings was heard as it took off and flew across the road ahead of us.  It was now time for a five-minute break, more skin so soft and then a walk deeper into the forest where we passed a mass of Northern Marsh Orchids, and the occasional Common and Heath Spotted Orchid.  We’ve been along this path numerous times, but have never seen a display of orchids so fine and densely placed.  By now the air was in places a fog of midges and they got everywhere, including up the nose.  We eventually found an excellent viewing spot where there was a small passage of cool air which seemed to lessen the onslaught by these devils in the air.

The weather forecast had been completely wrong and it was a perfect night for our vigil.  The cloud had broken up somewhat by now, so we had to be patient in our wait for darkness.  The sky to the north and west was a mix of blue streaks, flaming orange areas and purple cloud.  The orange areas slowly decreased as darkness neared.  The cloud far off in the west appeared as if an ocean.  A few Woodcock flew over the area in that unmistakable manner of flight that they have, and one landed close by us as I poured on more insect deterrent.  A Tawny Owl hooted from far in the distance and then as darkness fell the churring of Nightjars began.   Initially it seemed a distant quiet churring, but the sound gradually increased in volume.  This must be one of nature’s greatest sound effects.  We then heard wing clapping so knew the Nightjars were now in flight over the open area before us.

We walked further along the narrow path and soon we were almost standing under the trees where the churring was coming from.  Bat species were flying to and fro, and then Sam got his eye on a Nightjar flying out of the trees into the darkness.  I then picked up a Nightjar out in the open area and we watched a fine display of fight before it dropped to the ground.  I would have been happy with the sounds of churring, but as always the sighting was the icing on the cake.  We eventually returned to the car and escaped the attacking insect hoards.  I felt and smelt wonderful!

As we set off homeward bound a Roe Deer walked nonchalantly across the road in front of the car as if it hadn’t become aware of our approach, its eyes shining brightly in the darkness.  Further on a flock of gulls where lit by the car headlights as they lifted in a field, giving the effect of a ghostly apparition.   Sam then entertained with ghost stories as we proceeded towards home.

As I crossed the threshold of home at two minutes past twelve I realised I had become a year older.  Yes, it was my birthday and a better gift I could not have had than the evening’s experience just undertaken.  I walked in the kitchen and found the bin lid in the centre of the floor.  I’m convinced it wasn’t there before I left.  I had a coffee and made off to bed, but not before checking all rooms!  Nightjarring is always a highlight of the birding year, tonight was exceptionally good!   I reckoned up and found we had been on the go for seven and a half hours and that we must have walked several miles.  I slept well, but had a very odd dream!

Friday, 26 June 2020

Bishop Middleham Old Quarry. A Great Day.

As we walked through the woodland ride which leads to the disused magnesian limestone quarry we were grateful of the shelter that the Ash, Sycamore and other surrounding trees and verdant herbage gave us from what now was a blazing hot sun in a clear blue sky.  At this point we didn’t realise that our next few hours in the quarry were to be spent in sweltering conditions on what was the hottest day of the year so far.  In this damp and humid atmosphere, we found interesting plants including our first Wild Strawberries of the day and Ringlet Butterflies, and we were able to photograph Grasshoppers as we listened to the tac of a Blackcap.  Giant sized fungi grew on a decaying tree stump in a more sheltered and dark area of the wood.  Germander Speedwell was abundant along the sides of the pathway.

Field Grasshopper

Common Green Grasshopper

It wasn’t long before we entered the more open part of the quarry, it was like entering a furnace.  Not worked since 1934, this old quarry underlines just how well nature can flourish, when in the main, left to its own devices with just a little careful management by Durham Wildlife Trust.  It is certainly one of my favourite sites in Durham and I never tire of visiting.  It’s my belief that nature will carry on long after people has disappeared and that is a comforting belief to have.  It was immediately noticeable that Rock Rose, that the Northern Brown Argus Butterfly depends upon, was very much abundant.  Northern Brown Argus Butterflies where here in numbers, and although flighty in the heat of the sun it was possible to gain some decent images.  These butterflies are so moth like in flight they can be easily overlooked.  By now we were in our own little worlds, concentrating upon what was surrounding us and not feeling a need for the spoken word.

Rock Rose

Northern Brown Argus

Northern Brown Argus

Northern Brown Argus

It is amazingly easy too, to overlook the Common Twayblade the first orchid along with Lady tresses to be recorded in Britain, noted by William Turner (born in Morpeth) in his Names of Herbs in 1548.  Perhaps because of their sheer number in the quarry it would have been difficult to overlook them today. Despite looking initially uninteresting they are worthy of closer inspection; the flower being shaped like a human figure.  The plant is pollinated by small insects which follow the nectar filled groove leading up the lip of the flower.  Very flighty Northern Brown Argus, Small Skippers, Common Blue, Small Heath and Meadow Brown Butterflies were around us during our inspection of the botanical interest.


Northern Brown Argus


If Common Twayblade is easy to pass by, I can think of few people who would pass exotic Bee Orchids without showing some real interest, and we came across a few fine examples today. The flower has evolved wonderfully to look like bees even down to the hairy parts, the evolutionary irony is that at least in Britain the plants are self-pollinating.  In parts of Europe bees still aid pollination.  Common Spotted Orchids where everywhere and Sam found us a Pyramidal Orchid too.

Bee Orchid

Bee Orchid.  The yellow pollinia clearly seen will be blown by a slight breeze and stick onto the stigma and pollination will take place.

Bee Orchid.  One of the Pollinia appears to be stuck to the stigma.

Time passed us by very quickly and it was around 2:00pm when hot, dry and not a little hungry we decided to adjourn back to the car for lunch.  As I ate my sandwiches I looked at the wild Poppy at the side of the road which looked as if it had dropped to the wayside on Remembrance Day.  It was one Poppy of many seen today, although Poppy fields of years gone by are regrettably a true rarity these days.  Rested and cooled down a little we returned to the quarry.  Climbing the stone steps to the upper storey was demanding in the heat.

Pyramidal Orchid

Sam is keen to let me know he found the Pyramidal Orchid.:-)

Small Heath Butterfly

Until now we had left the wild strawberries alone, but we eventually gave way to temptation and tried one.  The tart luscious taste was fleeting but seldom have I enjoyed such a small item so much, the sun and surroundings adding pleasure to the experience.  That one small strawberry put Morrison's insipid berries to shame.

Wild Strawberry

Wild Strawberry

By now I had almost forgotten we were in Durham as the limestone area, grassland and floral interest suggested wilder areas of Europe, in the main such areas long gone in an overpopulated and over worked Britain.  We both decided that we don’t give enough attention to botany and on my part I forget some of the names of plants.  We decided that we must give more attention to the subject.

Common Centaury

Common Milkwort

The quarry is perhaps best known for the large number of Dark Red Helleborines it supports.  This orchid is among my favourite of flowers, but sadly it will be a week or two before they bloom, although that gives us a reason to make a quick return visit, so there is always a positive side to these things.  We did eventually come across a newly opened flower of this orchid which gave an idea of how these plants will look when the many spikes hold their drooping bell like red wine-coloured flowers.

The only Dark Red Helleborine we found with a flower and still not at its best.

Thyme was everywhere.

Greater Knapweed

The afternoon passed as we examined plants and took the occasional rest.  I must have been over 30 degrees and the sun reflected from bare patches of limestone.  As our visit drew to a close, I added a lifer to my list in the form of a very faded Dingy Skipper Butterfly.  Large Skipper was also added to days list as was our one and only Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly which brought our list of butterflies to 10 species for the day.  It was a day when I had barely given a thought to birds although we did have a nice sighting of Yellowhammer and a fleeting one of Greater Spotted Woodpecker, later finding a worn feather of the latter species.   Even odonata had had a look in with a Broad Bodied Chaser  Dragonfly giving us the run around. We had the quarry to ourselves for most of the time only coming across the occasional visitor with whom we exchanged some pleasant chat.

Large Skipper Butterfly

Attractive Snail Shell

As we approached to wooded area again I felt the very slight touch of a cooling breeze, just for a couple of seconds, but it was so welcome as was the relative cooling shade given by the trees.   Red Admiral Butterflies seemed to enjoy this shade too.  Sam heard the call of Common Terns, probably flying to Castle Lake which we usually visit, but today it was right that our full attention was given to the quarry habitat, and we had been well rewarded.  Such was the silence of the day; I had quite forgotten that we were next door to a large working quarry and it wasn’t until we were almost back to the car that I heard to mechanical sounds.

Mouse-ear Hawkweed


Wild Rose sp

Sam found his car covered in a coating of pollen as we decided to make off for home, leaving any further exploration of the area until a later date.  We were cream crackered.  I arrived home, had a beer and lay down for ten minutes, which extended to forty minutes, and if I hadn’t needed to eat it would have been longer!.  Best day I’ve had in a long time.

Common Spotted Orchid

John Clare Summed up our day really well in the following lines

Until the vision waked with time
And left me itching after rhyme
Where little pictures idly tells
Of natures powers and natures spells