Monday, 13 July 2015

Smardale...Botany, Butterflies, Birds, Bridges and a Beasty from the Beck

Whisht! Lads, haad yor gobs,
An Aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! Lads, haad yor gobs,
An’ Aa’ll tell ye ‘bout the Worm.

(Apologies to non N E England readers regarding the lyrics.  Google Lambton Worm for information).

11th July.  Smardale Gill Nature Reserve is a National Nature Reserve and SSSI managed by Cumbria Wildlife Trust, and this limestone area has many attractions to naturalist and historian.  Today I had been enticed to participate in the RSPB Local Group trip to the area.  Numbers attending these trips are far cry from past years when waiting lists were kept for places, but never the less there were seventeen keen members ready to explore the area.  I find that the smaller numbers often leads to a friendlier feel with everyone interacting with one another, but perhaps the accounts suffer the consequences and in this respect it suggests to me a need to consider those old concepts of change, modernisation and recruitment.

First thing to catch the eye as we walked eastwards from Newbiggin-on-Lune was the display of flora in this limestone area.  Vetchlings, Birdsfoot Trefoil and Rock Rose suggested that we would not be short of butterfly sightings.  Other notable flora included Melancholy Thistle, orchids, Wild Thyme, Jacobs Ladder, Stonecrop, Betony, Great Burnet, Crosswort, Field Scabious and Yellow Rattle.

Common Blue Butterfly (male)
Butterflies and day flying moths were soon catching the eye and leading to some frustration amongst the photographers.  The most numerous butterflies that I was seeing were without doubt Common Blue, Ringlet and Meadow Brown.  These attractive ‘blues’ (both male and female) were at times showing brilliantly in the sunshine.  I also recorded Small Tortoiseshell, Small Heath and a single Northern Brown Argus (the latter seen at the old Limestone Quarry where there were also Common Blues in great numbers.  Other members reported Small Copper, Peacock, Speckled Wood and Small Skipper.  I’d been surprised not to find Small Skipper myself, as they had been abundant on a previous visit to the area.  Unfortunately despite a thorough search I was unable to find Dark Green Fritillary on this occasion and I reckon we were too early for Scottish Argus.  There were also many day flying moths and my prowling in the undergrowth paid off when I was able to capture images of my first ever Chimney-Sweep Moths.

Common Blue Butterfly (female)

Chimney-Sweeper Moth  (The larva feeds on the Pignut plant)

I haven't identified this day flying moth as yet.

Such was the walk through a botanical paradise and my search (often on my knees) for insects, it had almost escaped my mind that I ought to be on the look out for birds too.  If I’m honest I had no expectations at all that this was a good time of year for bird watching in this area.  I was busy photographing butterflies when some group members found a Redstart.  Skylark song filled the air at times as did hirundines and occasional Swifts.  I heard Meadow Pipits and watched as a Kestrel hovered in the wind over the crags. My star bird of the day was a Spotted Flycatcher showing really well as I searched for Dark Green Fritillary.  At the same spot two Jays were seen briefly as they flew off.  Blackcaps and Willow Warblers sang.  Today was not a day to focus on birds and the group list of forty-six reflected that.  We didn’t spend long in the wooded areas which may have ensured that the list number may have lifted a little.


Beauty meets the beast.  Common Blue Butterfly (male) on disintegrating cigarette butt.  Perhaps just perching but I did wonder if it was finding some nutrient here.

 We were soon looking down upon the old eighteenth century pack-horse bridge which crosses Scandel Beck.  Thoughts of who and what this bridge has witnessed over the centuries always springs to mind when I look at it and begin to think of Hugh Walpole novels.  We stopped for lunch at the redundant Limestone Quarry and Lime Kilns.  Lime form the Kilns was taken by rail from the railway siding opposite.  Lunch was interrupted a few times as I grabbed images of Common Blue Butterflies and my one and only Northern Brown Argus Butterfly.

Northern Brown Argus
Lunch was finished and it wasn’t long before we were crossing Smardale Gill Viaduct.  This is of course a major attraction in the area.  Built for £11, 928 and completed in 1861.  Restoration work was completed in 1992 at a cost of £350, 000.  Doesn’t inflation hurt?  This viaduct has 14 arches, reaches 27m in height and is 170m long.  It’s worth a visit to the area just to admire it.

Smardale Gill Viaduct 

Scandel Beck leading to the viaduct

The pathway on our return was a bit more demanding but offers excellent vistas.  There was minimal birding interest as the clouds began to come in.  However, we did find the beasty from the beck along this route, or more precisely a Grey Heron did.  We got our eyes on a Grey Heron on the other side of the beck and soon realised it was feeding on what was a snake like beasty.  Was it a snake?  Was it a Lamprey?  Was it an Eel?  Views differed.  What ever it was, it was struggling and certainly a whopping great thing.  I quickly ruled out snake as there is none in the UK that look anything like this yellow rotund monster.  It appeared to have a thin black stripe along part of the body, at the tail end I think.  I’ve watched Grey Herons struggle to swallow Eels in the past but I’ve never seen anything like this.  The beasty had to be approaching four foot in length and it really did have the girth of a large snake.  The Grey Heron took two or three small flights with the beasty in its bill before landing at the side of the beck and dropping it in the water and appearing to spear it.  Lifting it up again, the beasty was swallowed in one large gulp.  I was fully expecting it to emerge again from the Grey Heron’s bill, but it never did.  The Grey Heron then fully sated flew off.  I’m guessing in order to rest and digest its ginormous meal.  This was my sighting of the day without a doubt and having done the research I find that the beasty was in fact a ‘yellow’ Eel.  It seems that they turn this colour as they age.  I must do some more reading about Eels. (It seems that the European Eel can reach a length of 1.5m or 4ft 11ins, but it is rare for them to reach more than 1m or 3ft 3ins, so we had found a rarity).  Unfortunately just too far away to capture an image of any quality and I didn’t even bother to try.

Some dodgy looking characters on the old Packhorse Bridge
I finished the day in the café with a pot of tea and a nice piece of cake and having watched the Grey Heron take its fill I was completely guilt free!

Soldier Beetle

It had been an excellent day in an area that has great appeal to me.  OK, few birds, but there was ample natural history to keep everyone happy in this very well managed reserve.    A really good walk that can be taken at a pace that suits.

The journey home provided Lapwing and as we crossed the River Tyne, a Kittwake, taking the bird list to forty-eight.


  1. It was a very nice day. Very good to see many moths and butterflies, when back at home there seems to be a shortage.

  2. It's mainly down to good habitat management.

    1. Yeah that makes sense. I hope that other places follow suit.

  3. Did you solve the 'day flying moth' identification problem?
    A moth expert friend lives in Riding Mill, but he's currently on holiday!

    1. Not really Ian. Mottled Beauty has been suggested to me, but I'm not so sure that is the one. Any advice would be much appreciated. Cheers.