Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Festive Fun at Lackford

With December just around the corner, the team at Lackford have been planning an exciting run-up to Christmas that should provide something for everyone to enjoy. This will kick off with the Lackford Christmas Cracker on December 3rd (10am-4pm) where there'll be a bonfire to warm us all up, around which our Reserve Assistant Joe Bell-Tye will be talking to visitors and answering questions about the reserve and the work being done to it. Out on the trails and in the hides, knowledgeable Wildlife Guides will be present to show visitors some of the winter wildlife highlights at Lackford. But if you fancy keeping warm indoors, there'll be Christmas craft and card-making activities upstairs in the Centre, as well as festive food and drink on offer in the catering area. It's sure to be a fantastic day, with lots going on in a lovely atmosphere!
This is our Christmas Cracker which will be pulled during the afternoon of Sunday 3rd December
For the young among us, there is also Naturally Christmas (2nd December) and Wildlife Watch (10th December) where youngsters can set about making natural Christmas crafts and decorations to take home. Later in the month on 21st December there will be a Christmas Activity Morning where there will be craft making and wildlife-themed games and trails out on the reserve. Keen birders will be glad to hear that our local bird expert Paul Holness will be hosting a special Winter Birds-themed guided walk around the reserve on December 9th. It should be possible to see a wide range of birds that call Lackford their winter home, such as goldeneye, siskin and redwing, and perhaps even more unusual species such as redpoll, fieldfare and goosander. To keep you going there'll be complimentary refreshments on offer, and as much of Paul's encyclopaedic knowledge on birds as you can soak up! Paul will also be hosting his usual monthly morning walk on 13th December between 11 and 1pm. All of Paul's walks are suitable for beginners who might be new to birdwatching, and there's always a friendly laid-back atmosphere to them where questions are welcome. Bringing a pair of binoculars is highly recommended but if you don't have any they can be hired from the Centre for the day when you arrive. And on top of all this, the fun doesn't stop when it gets dark- a Members' quiz on December 20th will be held in the Centre (7:30-10:30pm) where you can put your general knowledge to the test with refreshments and mince pies. If you have any questions about the events mentioned above then you can call the reserve on 01284 728706 or to book a place on any of them then just click here.

Create Christmas decorations like this robin from last year at our Naturally Christmas craft sessions!

Whilst all this planning and excitement has been going on, it has been business as usual for the wildlife out on the reserve. At the moment, a visit to the reserve should provide plenty of opportunities for good views of our special winter wildlife. Several goldeneye are seen on a daily basis now on the Sailing Lake and on Long Reach (viewable from Bess's Hide), with hints of courtship behaviour occasionally seen. This is where multiple males may trail a female as she swims across the water, throwing their heads back, stretching their necks up and calling a grating 'ze-zeee' note to her- each male is trying to convince her to spend the winter (and the subsequent breeding season) with him rather than the other males. Numbers of other winter ducks such as pochard, teal, wigeon and gadwall are building up by the day, and Bernard's, Double Decker and Steggall's hide are excellent spots to sit and watch their behaviour. Some species of ducks are dabblers (feeding just below the water surface) whilst others are divers and it is fascinating to watch the different feeding strategies of each species, especially on a crisp, bright winters' day. Sometimes they'll interact with each other, too- its common to see coots following tufted ducks (a diving species) around as they dredge up plant material from the lake bottom to eat, with the coots looking for stray pieces that they can eat themselves, or even pinching bits from right under the bills of the tufties if they're quick enough. A more sedate resident of the pools and scrapes at this time of year (on The Slough especially) is the snipe. This beautiful tortoiseshell wader tends to feed on its own or in small groups in the muddy edges of the water, using its long, straight, sensitive bill like a motion sensor to probe the mud for the movement of worm and insect prey. Snipe numbers have been building since October at Lackford and visitors should be able to appreciate them all through the winter on the reserve.
Male goldeneye (credit: Ian Goodall)
The various bird feeders around the reserve have seen increasing action too, with plenty of reed buntings and the odd tree sparrow and marsh tit making use of the field feeders, which are filled with a special millet-based mix similar to what these birds might be able to find naturally in arable fields. Bullfinches can be heard calling on a daily basis from this area, and do keep an eye on any berry bushes (hawthorn in particular) for blackbirds and their Scandinavian cousins- redwings- in mixed groups gorging themselves on these berries. Another daily sighting is the diminutive siskin, in large twittering flocks, usually feeding quite high up on the cones of alder trees, with the odd redpoll in with them too. A close relative of chaffinches, the brambling, is also occasionally seen passing through the reserve along with yellowhammers. As wild food supplies naturally dwindle at this time of year, and as the days continue to shorten and become colder, we can expect to see more and more small birds visiting the bird feeders and relying on them for sustenance. On any visit to Lackford its well worth spending a little time watching the feeder tree in front of the Centre, where frequent daily visits from a local nuthatch, plenty of coal and marsh tits and the occasional great spotted woodpecker are highlights.

Lackford's nuthatch (credit: Jim Palfrey)
The backdrop to the feeder tree is the reedbed behind Centre pool, and this is itself host to one of Lackford's annual wildlife spectacles- the winter roosts of both reed buntings and starlings. These two birds do things a little differently, but both are worth a watch. Reed buntings tend to drop into the reeds singly or in pairs, in a drip-drip fashion, from about 3:30pm until there can be a couple of hundred birds altogether. The starling roost has been growing since early October and is much more conspicuous- a few thousand birds come from all directions in smaller groups of a few hundred at a time. As they approach, instead of directly dropping into the reedbed, they form mesmerizing clusters in the sky which constantly change shape, which always remind me of the blobs inside a lava lamp! The birds perfectly synchronize their flight so they move in time with their neighbours either side of them, and after these smaller groups merge into even bigger ones they slowly drop in the reeds like black  water being poured out of the sky. The whole 'murmuration' can take an hour and even a modest-sized one such as that at Lackford is an unforgettable experience! When dark descends and the birds are out of sight, the show isn't quite over- you can hear the crazed chatter of thousands of birds communicating with one another before they go to sleep, all talking at once! It isn't known exactly what they say to one another, but it probably includes information about good food sources and the location of predators that the birds might have encountered earlier in the day. A lot of shuffling goes on too- there is a hierarchy along each reed stem that contains birds, where the older, more experienced and more dominant birds sit higher up the stems.
Starlings dropping into the reeds on a recent murmuration. (credit: Mike Andrews)
Whilst the reserve itself will always be open and accessible during daylight hours right through the festive period, the Centre's opening times will vary:
Now until Sunday 10th Dec: Normal opening hours (tuesday-sunday, 10am-4pm).
Monday 11th Dec- Wednesday 13th Dec: Centre open from 10am-4pm.
Thursday 14th Dec- Sunday 17th Dec: Centre will be closed.
Monday 18th Dec- Thursday 21st Dec: Centre open from 10am-4pm.
Friday 22nd Dec- Tuesday 26th Dec: Centre will be closed.
Wednesday 27th Dec- Sunday 7th Jan: Centre open from 10am-4pm.
Monday 8th Jan: Normal opening hours resume (tuesday-sunday, 10am-5pm).

Your Christmas shopping could prove a hoot- owl-themed gifts in the Centre at Lackford (owl soft toys, owl foldable shopping bags and owl coin purses) 

If you find yourself stuck for ideas for what to get your friends and family this Christmas, at this time of year the Centre is well-stocked with wildlife-themed Christmas cards and imaginative gifts, so why not pop along to have a look at what's on offer and combine your next visit to the reserve with a bit of Christmas shopping? Many of the gifts are a little different to what you can find on the High Street and are ideal for anyone who loves wildlife, and you can support the Trust at the same time. I hope this update has been useful, and please do get in touch with the reserve if you'd like to find out more about what's going on over the next couple of months.

by Heidi Jones

Lackford Lakes volunteer.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

The First Arrivals

Just as we say goodbye to the swallows, willow warblers and whitethroats that have spent their summer at Lackford, we eagerly watch the skies for the arrival of the birds who call the reserve their winter home. Some species are seen exclusively on the reserve during the colder months, whilst the numbers of others are boosted during the winter by extra individuals arriving from the continent, so that familiar birds become easier to see. 
The earliest migrants on site this autumn were a flock of siskins, which can be seen feeding on the cones of alder trees around the Centre, usually quite high up. These tiny blue-tit sized finches have a penchant for Lackford and it is about the best site in Suffolk for them- in a 'good' year a group of 50-100 birds are a common daily sight, though they make quite a discreet call that makes them a little harder to find than noisier flocks such as goldfinches or starlings. As well as alder cones, they enjoy nyger seed and peanuts- when the weather turns very cold towards the end of winter they can sometimes be found on the bird feeders. This is a natural response to wild food supplies beginning to run low that mean many winter birds are easier to see as winter progresses. Male siskins are a beautiful canary-yellow, and the females a more subtle greenish colour, but both sexes have a streaky pale belly and a noticeably forked tail. For every 14 siskin that spend their winter in the UK, one redpoll does too. At Lackford it is worth searching among the siskin flocks for these- they are a shade bigger, and are a creamy white with dark streaks all over, a red forehead patch in both sexes and a red breast too if you are looking at a male bird. 

Female redpoll (lacking a red breast)
credit: Mike Andrews

Male siskin feeding on alder cone seeds
Credit: Jim Palfrey

Also in the trees and already present on the reserve are the redwings- thrushes that are so named for the rusty-red patches under the wings most obviously seen in flight. They migrate to the UK (often overnight) from Scandinavia and Iceland and are often seen in a mixed flock with blackbirds, song thrushes and the larger fieldfares, devouring berries in a hedgerow. Red fruits such as hawthorn berries are their favourite, and are eaten first, and ivy berries seem the least palatable as they often hang around on the bushes until the spring, eaten only when all others have gone. This year, redwings were first spotted at Lackford in early October and they are likely to hang around until March or April. Fieldfares have been spotted on site over the past weeks- these are big, confident, darker-coloured thrushes that arrive a month or so later than the redwings but in roughly the same numbers. It is thought that because these are bigger than redwings, they can tolerate the harsher conditions in northern Europe for longer before choosing to migrate south. Look out for both species on the berry bushes around the Kingfisher trail or underneath fruiting trees such as crab apples, eating the fermenting windfall.
Redwing (with the rusty-red patch under the wing just visible)

Fieldfare eating its way through a hawthorn bush
credit: Bryan Tillott

Moving out of the trees and onto the Lakes themselves, the duck dynamic has changed too- October 31st saw the first goldeneye arrive. As I write this we have just a couple of birds on site (numbers should build up over the next couple of months), and perennially good spots to see them include the Sailing Lake and Long Reach (in front of Bess's Hide). Both sexes look similar to tufted ducks, of which we have hundreds, but the male goldeneye has a circular white patch in front of his golden eye and the female has an orange tip to her short stubby bill. They are very active diving ducks and in late winter put on an impressive courtship display- several males may be seen in pursuit of a female, each throwing their heads back whilst making a 'nhair-nhairr' call that is best described as sounding like a clock being wound up. Although a few pairs breed in northern Scotland (<200 pairs), the birds at Lackford are mostly likely to have come from NE Europe or Scandinavia.

A goldeneye pair (male below, female above) on a choppy Sailing Lake!
What is particularly noticeable on the Slough is the boosted numbers of duck species which are present year-round. Gadwall, teal, shoveler (dabbling ducks) and mallard, pochard and tufted duck (diving ducks) have been increasing to the point where the scrapes can look pretty busy, with different species sometimes wing-to-wing with each other!

A sleepy mixture of teal and gadwall in their winter finery on The Slough
credit: Mike Andrews

Recent work by the reserve team has helped make the Slough more attractive for these waterbirds- the vegetation has had its annual cut, and the bridge leading to Bernards' hide has been replaced- the new bridge is set higher up the bank which allows the water level on the Slough to be raised without the path flooding as a side effect. These wetter conditions and the extra mud exposed by the vegetation cut provide ideal feeding grounds for waterfowl, and it has also been popular with snipe. These can be seen in small groups amongst the ducks and on 31st October 14 birds were spotted from Double Decker hide. Outside of the breeding season, snipe are much easier to see not just because they are naturally bolder and more prone to feeding out in the open, but also because UK numbers swell from roughly 75,000 to 1 million birds. So most of the individuals you can see at Lackford will not be local birds but will have come from Iceland, Scandinavia or Northern Europe.

Snipe in reed-stem camouflage mode!
credit: Mike Andrews

Birds such as tits and goldcrests become easier to see now the trees are beginning to lose their leaves, but this is not the only reason why they are more conspicuous- numbers are boosted by birds from the continent. As the weather turns colder these birds naturally form mixed feeding parties consisting of blue, great, coal, marsh and long-tailed tits, with goldcrests (Europe's smallest bird), siskin, treecreepers and sometimes nuthatches all tagging along too. It's thought they do this because the more pairs of eyes there are in the group, the easier it is to find a food source when the weather is harsh- eating enough each day despite the shorter day length can be very difficult. More pairs of eyes in a flock also no doubt make it easier to spot predators such as sparrowhawks who find hunting more straightforward when the trees are bare. As you walk around the trails at Lackford (Ash Carr is always a hotspot) these mixed groups are quite obvious- they tend to be quite noisy and if you take some time to stand still as the group passes by you they will often come quite close- their preoccupation with food means they don't always pay much attention to people!

A winter view outside Paul's Hide
credit: Mike Andrews
All of these birds are very different from one another in terms of their feeding and social habits, but the one thing they all have in common, from goldeneye to goldcrest, is the fact that they migrate south at the end of the breeding season to escape colder weather. Often the conditions they leave behind determine how many birds the UK sees each year- when it is particularly cold in Scandinavia, we receive far more redwings and fieldfares on site. Winter visitors which we expect still to see at the reserve include goosander and, if we're lucky, pintail (both out on the lakes). For the most up-to-date information on our winter sightings do pop in to the Centre at the start of your visit, and let us know what you see whilst exploring the trails.

Sunset over the Sailing Lake
credit: Hawk Honey

by Heidi Jones (Lackford Lakes volunteer)

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Rarities at Lackford

With a site so diverse and as large as Lackford Lakes, there is always something new to find, we just have to look for it. This is especially true when it comes to the small stuff such as insects, spiders and other bugs. All to often we are taken with the beauty of a Red Admiral as it basks on a leaf, or a big fluffy bumblebee as it bounces from flower to flower. We look on in awe as large dragonflies patrol the pathways grabbing flies in mid-air and consuming them without stopping. However, occasionally something else pops up as an oddball. Something that has caught the eye of a visitor, something they haven't seen before, a fly, a bee, a cricket or a spider. Often they return to the visitor centre to ask staff to help with the ID of their new discovery. Sometimes what they have seen is actually quite a common species, but every now and then something special turns up.

This is just what happened to regular visitor and keen photographer Sarah West who saw what she thought was a wasp sitting on a leaf.

An unusual wasp, or is it? © Sarah West
On showing it to me, I spotted straight away it wasn't a wasp, but a fly, a Conops. It turned out to be a the rarest of Conops flies called Conops vesicularis (unfortunately no common name) and was only the 3rd time it had ever been recorded in Suffolk! This fly parasitises hornets and some bees hence its very fooling mimicry which allows it to get close to its victims.

Early last year I asked local spider expert Alan Thornhill if he would be interested in surveying Lackford Lakes for spiders. He said he was very interested and got to work straight away setting up pitfall traps in various locations around the reserve and it was so successful, he carried on surveying right through till autumn 2017. Along the way he found some interesting spiders with varying degrees of rarity and then he found something rather special. It was special because it had never been found in Suffolk before AND it is in serious decline through loss of habitat. The spider has the name of Haplodrassus silvestris and again has no common name. It has probably been living at Lackford since it became a reserve and it's a credit to the hard work of the Trust and its volunteers that create the habitat that it still exists at Lackford today.

I myself am often seen out on the reserve when I get the chance, looking for my specialty, bees and wasps. Over the last few years, I too have made some discoveries at Lackford including another first for Suffolk this year in the shape of the Early Mining Bee, a species usually found in sand dunes in the west and north west of the country, and here it is for the first time in Suffolk and again listed as rare. When I first started working here at Lackford 3 years ago, I found around 6 Large-headed Resin Bees nesting in a piece of old timber outside the centre. This was a rare bee and this was only the 7th record for Suffolk at the time.

Large-headed resin bee capping her nest outside the visitor centre.

I installed a solitary bee hotel and this year the bee is doing very well and can be found nesting in a variety of places around the reserve. This expansion in species in turn brought another rarity to the reserve in the form of a jewel wasp known as Chrysis gracillima, only recorded in Suffolk twice before.

Volunteer James Robinson managed to photograph this Silver-washed Fritillary whilst doing a dragonfly survey.

Silver-washed Fritillary © James Robinson
Now these butterflies are not particularly rare, more of a localised species. However, until James got this photo, this butterfly had never been recorded at Lackford ever before, so it's quite rare for here.

Now we have the opportunity to extend the nature reserve by another 77 acres of prime Breckland grassland habitat. This will not only provide nesting sites for birds such as Stone Curlew, but will also be home to a whole host of insects too. Who knows how many rarities may be living there?

Without doubt, it would seem that all around us there are things waiting to be discovered, we just need to take the time to look at the little things too.

By Hawk Honey - Visitor Officer

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Children discover wildlife at Lackford this summer

Children and Summer go as well together as fish and chips. Where there is sunshine and open spaces you can be assured the children will follow and even when there isn’t sunshine you needn’t worry for the joy of jumping in puddles is more exciting than a classroom any day!

This Summer has been no different and the reserve has been a hive of activity with throngs of people calling in daily. For the first summer ever we have been offering families the chance to do self-led pond dipping! Watching the excitement on their faces as they toddle off with nets clutched in their hands and curiosity on their faces couldn’t be better.

Summer is a time for children to step away from technology and really connect with the outside world. Here at Lackford we have had more family events and activity days than you could imagine and each one has brought a new flurry of excitement and joy!

At the start of the holidays we had our Family Wild play Wednesday! This morning was all about families coming together to play in our woods. We had a mud kitchen where children whipped up magic soups followed by courses of mud pies and cupcakes. Not quite full we also made wild art on the woodland floor and explored our senses on our blindfold trail. By the end of the morning mums, dads, grannies, and grandads were all happily playing with their young ones and trying to pull them away at the end was a challenge!

Come mid-summer we were going on Barefoot safaris where we squelched through mud, tip toed over pebbles and swished through long grass. We even had a chance to see what lived beneath our feet before making clay versions of these Minibeast!

Around this time our young wardens had their summer celebration and to top off a brilliant year we decided to have a Crayfish boil! The children loved learning how to catch the crayfish safely and legally and we tested out different bates (pedigree chum works best!). Once we had pulled them up we took them back to the workshop and boiled them up for lunch. The sweet taste of crayfish on a summers day washed down by lemonade can’t be beat!

We finished off our summer with our fun with science days where the children made solar smore ovens out of cake boxes and even though it was cloudy they were thrilled to find that at least the chocolate had melted slightly! During our science day, we also let off bottle rockets using bicarbonate of soda and white vinegar and watched them soar high into the sky and then in the afternoon we mixed up bouncy balls and made towers using marshmallows and spaghetti!

Overall it has been another amazing summer at Lackford Lakes and although summer may be over it won’t be long till we get some excited school children turning up on coaches’ eager to learn!

By Sophie Mayes – Wild learning officer

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

A 30th birthday present for Lackford

We said back in January that 2017 is shaping up to be a special year for Lackford Lakes and we were right! Not only are we celebrating its 30th birthday, we now have a chance to extend the reserve by 77 acres.

Thirty years ago, Bernard Tickner bought the part of the reserve known as The Slough and gifted it to Suffolk Wildlife Trust. Thanks to his commitment and vision, the reserve has been transformed from a series of gravel pits …

… to a spectacular and diverse nature reserve, teeming with wildlife.

We now have an amazing opportunity to add something a little bit different – big skies and wide open landscape.

The land we now have the chance to buy is adjacent to Lackford village and adjoins similar fields that the Trust purchased back in 2005:

It is a wide, open space which has not been cultivated for over 20 years and is gradually reverting back to grass heath, typical of the Brecks. The grass has been kept short by the constant nibbling of rabbits, exposing the dry, flinty soil and this helps create the perfect conditions for a whole host of specialist plants and animals.
View across the new land

Linking the new and existing land together will create a much larger area for Breckland species like the enigmatic Stone Curlew which has been recorded as nesting on the new land in recent years.

A rare habitat

Breck grass heath has been hugely impacted by competing land uses during the last century. Modern farming techniques, house building and large-scale forestry has reduced it by 85% in just 50 years. We now have a rare to chance to protect a slice of this unique land.

We have just launched a fundraising appeal to raise £200,000 towards the land purchase. The response has been amazing and we've already received nearly £20,000 of donations. To donate, you can visit our Just Giving site or call us direct on 01473 890089.

30th Birthday celebrations

To mark the reserve's 30th birthday, we have a weekend of activities, including bug hunts, moth traps, pond dipping, trails & crafts, taking place on Saturday 23rd & Sunday 24th September from 11am. We look forward to seeing you there!

Friday, 18 August 2017

The Plants of Lackford

An array of interesting plants are on display at Lackford at the moment- some huge and statuesque; others which can be admired only by getting down on your hands and knees!

By far the tallest plant in flower are the very woolly great mulleins, which grace the perimeter of the car park and the edges of the breckland field to the east of the Centre. In ideal conditions these can reach an impressive seven feet tall, but the poor sandy soil of Lackford and the occasional nibble from the rabbits keeps them a little shorter- perhaps five feet at most. These have a long spire of yellow flowers, a few of which open at a time and the leaves are the foodplant of mullein moth- their white caterpillars with rows of black and yellow spots often adorn the leaves in late summer on the reserve and are an impressive sight.

great mullein
Another, rarer relative, the dark mullein, has a habit of growing singly or in very small groups close to the Viewing Platform. Its a smaller plant, but with brighter yellow flowers with conspicuous furry purple stamens- very beautiful close up.

dark mullein spire
dark mullein (flower detail)

The royal-blue flowers of viper's bugloss are still visible all around the edges of the Kingfisher Trail, and these are a favourite with bumblebees (especially common carder), butterflies and the odd hummingbird hawkmoth (who visit usually on hotter days).

viper's bugloss
Mingled in with the viper's bugloss, and approximately the same height, are the creamy white spires of wild mignonette. This is one of a wide range of plants that grow at Lackford because they like the light, sandy soil typical of the Brecks. It's often a little more windy than elsewhere here, and these winds frequently disturb the light, loose soil which the Breckland plants actively benefit from- it provides them with bare, open patches for their seeds to germinate without the competition from vigorous grasses which prefer a more stable soil. Breckland plants often grow slowly and many are very small; this lack of competition from grasses means they can thrive at Lackford. The foliage of wild mignonette provides food for the caterpillars of the large white, small white and orange tip butterflies, and the flowers are very popular with bees and hoverflies.

wild mignonette

Church Walk is currently dotted with the yellow star-like flowers of cat's-ear, a member of the dandelion family but much shorter and more delicate-looking. If you look over the fence that borders the path here you'll also the tawny brown flowerheads of carline thistles, another breckland speciality, sitting ten to fifteen inches above the ground. Carline thistles are usually found growing in coastal sand dunes, but the sandy inland conditions at Lackford prove just as suitable! Three other thistles can be readily seen on the reserve at the moment- the very small but numerous lilac flowers of creeping thistle, the larger violet blooms of spear thistle, and the nodding purple heads of musk thistle which grow in clumps in the fields either side of Church Walk.

Musk thistle

Carline thistle

The diversity of habitats at Lackford mean the reserve also has its fair share of plants which prefer things damp and shady too- at the moment there are lots of harebell in flower on the path between the Viewing Platform and Double Decker hide and the orchid-like spikes of purple horehound are mingled in amongst the nettles on summer trail. Out this evening, I noticed that the damp scrapes on the Slough have turned into a blaze of colour with the flowers of purple loosestrife, lilac water-mint and yellow common fleabane- a favourite nectar source for the common blue butterfly.


The Slough in full summer colour!

Of course the biggest plants of all on the reserve are the trees, and as summer progresses you can clearly see a change in them. The berries of the guelder rose have been like hard green peas up until now, but the clusters are slowly turning red and by autumn will be a vivid, glossy crimson as will the foliage before it falls. alder trees are also ripening their cones- in fact they are the only deciduous tree to produce cones rather than flowers in order to reproduce- and when these are ripe they will be a magnet for visiting flocks of siskins and redpolls come the winter. A lot of the taller trees are clad in thick layers of ivy, especially the oaks, and as ivy is very late flowering it will be an invaluable nectar source for late bees and butterflies- currently the buds are still small but in a month or so they'll begin to open when most other plants' flowering season is over.

These are just a few of the many beautiful plants which are on show at Lackford at the moment- so do keep an eye open for them next time you visit. Some of those mentioned here feature on markers dotted along the kingfisher trail, between the viewing platform and the Centre, and over time we'll change these so that different plants are highlighted when they are each looking their best. A pair of binoculars are helpful for identifying more distant specimens, especially in the breckland field which lies to the east of the Centre. Here we have marked a spot on the kingfisher trail which gives a good view of this field and its plants.

by Heidi Jones (volunteer at Lackford Lakes)

Thursday, 10 August 2017

A Summer of Butterflies

At Lackford we have recorded 24 different species of butterfly on the reserve this year, and up to 16 of these can be seen by visitors on a good day- the best weather been warm, still and sunny! Among the highlights have been silver-washed fritillary, white admiral, purple hairstreak, painted lady and brown argus but the full list can be found at the bottom of this blog. We've also included the dates they were first spotted here this year- interestingly, the earliest was a peacock on February 24th and the most recent a white admiral on July 28th!

Last year we recorded the first silver-washed fritillary at Lackford and this year we have had at least a couple of individuals on site- we figured this must be the case when two of our volunteers spotted them almost simultaneously- with one specimen looking very tired and ragged while the other much brighter and pretty freshly emerged! They have a particular fondness for bramble and thistle flowers, especially when growing in a wooded setting- sunny clearings in the path next to the Sailing Lake and through Ash Carr might offer the best hope of seeing one. The males of this species roam very widely and can move some distance from where they hatched- ours may have come from as far as Bradfield Woods where there is a burgeoning population of them, whereas the females tend to stay closer to home, feeding and searching for the foliage of common dog violet which they lay their eggs upon.

silver-washed fritillary
Purple hairstreaks probably occupy the highest elevations of any butterfly at Lackford, and can therefore be tricky to see- they spend their days flitting about amongst oak leaves close to the very tops of the trees. They can be very hard to spot in between these short flights but look for a lilac-brown underside, about the size of that of a common blue, resting on a horizontal leaf. When basking with their wings held flat they are much harder to see because of how high up they are! 2017 is the first time they have been seen at Lackford but because they live a discreet life high in the treetops, they may have been here for many years.

purple hairstreak
Another species at its peak on the reserve at the moment is brown argus. It has two broods a year and Church Walk on a sunny day is currently full of individuals from the second brood, which have originated as eggs laid by the first brood in late may and early june. The usual foodplant is common rock rose, but I had never noticed this growing in any quantity at Lackford and wondered what they might be using instead- it turns out the foliage of dove's-foot cranesbill seems to be an adequate substitute after I saw a female egg-laying on some last week! Females lay eggs singly on the underside of suitable leaves, and when the caterpillars hatch they feed only on the underside of the leaf- leaving the top layer of the leaves' cells untouched, creating conspicuous transparent 'windows' on the surface of the leaf which are a tell-tale sign the plant has had brown argus caterpillars munching through it!

brown argus
Another special butterfly- the painted lady- arrived first with us this year on May 31st. We get these butterflies in variable numbers each year, depending on, believe it or not, the abundance of thistles all the way over in the Middle East! Thistles are a painted ladies' favourite foodplant, and where the butterflies reside year round in the Middle East, north Africa and southern Europe, sometimes the population builds to a point where there is a thistle shortage, and something has to give. Mass migrations are triggered, where hordes of butterflies fly north until they find more thistle-filled habitat, and they may travel as far north as Scandinavia in their search. A certain number this spring set up home at Lackford and we are now seeing some lovely fresh individuals on site, who have hatched locally, and whose parents undertook their mammoth journey earlier in the year.

painted lady
Red admirals undertake a similar journey, and both species are very closely related. They are both strong fliers and any adults left at the end of summer undertake a partial migration back to Europe, in search of warmer climes for whatever remains of their lives. In contrast, the brown argus mentioned earlier rarely move more than a few hundred metres from where they emerged- quite a difference! Recent observations suggest that although traditionally red admirals find our climate too cold and damp to survive a winter as a hibernating adult, a warmer climate in recent years may be making it possible for a few individuals to hibernate successfully on the mild south coast of England. Suspicion arose when some very fresh red admirals were emerging on warm spring days, without enough time for them to have travelled up from continental Europe.

red admiral
Now is an excellent time to head down to Lackford to look for butterflies as it's currently peak season. It's a good idea to have a pair of binoculars handy to observe them when they're a little further away. Binoculars are also great for looking at the finer details of individuals closer to you.

By Heidi Jones (volunteer at Lackford Lakes)