Nature-watching

Common Wasp

Common wasp on angelica

I love birds.  And butterflies.  And dragonflies.  And reptiles.  And amphibians.  And wild flowers.  I keep records of the species I have seen, and am as excited as anybody when I see a new species for the first time.  Lots of people do this.  They go round collecting lists of things they have seen, some travelling long distances to get a “tick” on their list.

But I’m not a birder, twitcher or any other kind of highly-travelled collector of “ticks”.  My approach to wildlife watching is different.

Years ago, I would get in the car and set off whenever there was a report that a certain butterfly had emerged in a particular location, and head off to well-known bird-watching haunts to see species I had not seen before and were known to be there.  But I found this very unsatisfying.  There was no real connection with the creature I was viewing, no really deep understanding of this creature and its relationship to other species within the ecosystem in which it lived.  Likewise, I found wildlife-watching holidays, in which we were conveyed round in groups to look at wildlife for a brief moment before moving on to the next location to be rather empty.  So I’d seen bee-eaters, or flamingos, or hoopoes – so what?  How much did I really know about the habitat in which they lived, and why they were there, and what pressures they face, and how they behave, and what interactions they have with other creatures in the local area?  Not a lot, really.

Also, I have a weakness when it comes to being a birder, or other type of “collector” in that I actually like watching all birds, all butterflies, all dragonflies, all wildflowers.  They are all fascinating, common or rare, frequently seen or rarely viewed.  I find it endlessly fascinating to watch common little brown birds, just as I find it fascinating to watch a rare species.  I love to watch how they behave, how they interact, what they feed on, where they nest, and how they fit in with the other species in the habitat in which they live.  A knowledge of, appreciation for, and enthusiasm for collecting rarities on a list can be a wonderful way of getting people involved in nature-watching, and protecting our diminishing wild places, but it isn’t the way I like to enjoy nature.

Peacock Butterfly

Peacock butterfly – common butterfly, common ragwort, but very worth watching

Baby Wren

Little brown bird – baby wren

For me, the pleasure of nature-watching is in knowing the habitat well, something that gives each sighting of a different species some meaning and context.  Obviously owning a woodland is a wonderful thing, and allows me to form a close and deep connection with the land, the trees, the plants, the insects, the birds, the bats and all the other creatures that choose to live there.  New species are exciting, not just because they are new, but because they represent the fact that the ecosystem can support them.  They are there because they want to be there, because the conditions are right for them to be there.

I also like wildlife watching whenever I travel elsewhere for business or pleasure.  Wherever I may fetch up, I like to watch what wildlife is there, and what it is doing.  I like to travel to nice places with diverse ecosystems, and enjoy walking in other woodlands, countryside, hills and valleys.  But nature-watching isn’t only about going somewhere that you know is going to be populated by spectacular wildlife.  It is about learning what you can about the local habitat and then seeing what is there in context.

This year we went to Doncaster for our business.  We stayed in a hotel in a very ordinary edge-of-town retail and leisure development.  And yet there was great wildlife there.  Early purple orchids by the edge of the ornamental lake.  Long-tailed tits in groups flitting through the young amenity trees by the chain restaurant in which we dined.  Pied wagtails in the hotel grounds.  Wildflowers growing in profusion in the as-yet-undeveloped areas around the edge of the development.

It didn’t matter that the wildflowers and birds were common.  What mattered was learning about, and enjoying, what the habitat had to offer, even a very “ordinary” urban-edge habitat on a brownfield site.

Great tit in the snow

Great tit in the snow – common, but beautiful

In short, I like to learn about whatever ecosystem I find myself in has to offer.  I am sure that some “tick-collectors” like to do this too, but my experience is that quite a few do not – the tick matters more than anything else.  Maybe at heart I am an ecologist, rather than a birdwatcher, butterfly-watcher, bat-fanatic or anything else.  For me, the pleasure of nature-watching is about taking the pulse of the land and becoming part of it, so you can understand it in depth, and appreciate everything that is there, from the common to the rare, the plain to the flamboyant and the drab to the colourful.  There is so much all around us all the time and that is what makes being a nature-watcher so exciting – provided you don’t mind your birds being small and brown, your butterflies being white, and your amphibians being common.  I don’t.  I enjoy watching them all.

Butterflies Count

Common Blue

Common Blue

It is the time of year to count butterflies.  The Big Butterfly Count is a citizen science project, aiming to get people all over the UK counting butterflies so we can build up a picture of how butterfly numbers are doing for the commonest butterfly species.  Butterflies are great to count.  In general, they are easy to identify.  They are pretty and therefore popular insects.  And they depend on food sources being present for both adult and larva (caterpillar).  As such they are an excellent indicator of the health of ecosystems.  Plenty of butterflies, and plenty of butterfly diversity indicates that there is plenty of plant food, and a diversity of plant food.  It is also an indication that there is plenty of food available for birds, bats and other insectivores including reptiles, amphibia and mammals.

Small Skipper

Small Skipper

We have counted butterflies in our meadows for a number of years.  The numbers of different species do fluctuate from year to year, as weather and other conditions change.  What has been remarkable is the steady improvement in diversity of species and count within species, although there have been a few blips.  In the first year our meadow was planted, we saw quite a few brown argus;  this year we haven’t had any.  But last year we only saw one dingy skipper and this year we have seen several.  Common blue numbers have been quite constant, but six-spot burnet (day-flying moth), meadow brown, ringlet, gatekeeper, small skipper, large skipper and Essex skipper have all gone up.  The white butterflies are also doing well this year, as are speckled woods, which were almost totally absent last year.  Tantalising glimpses of the purple hairstreaks among the oak canopy also suggest their numbers are holding up.  Brimstones and orange-tips were present in relatively large numbers this spring, as were green-veined whites.  In general, the situation is improving in our meadow, and this is exciting.

It has not just been a good year for butterflies:  there have been good numbers of dragonflies and a good diversity of species too.  We have noted common blue, large red, azure, white-legged, blue-tailed, emerald and banded demoiselle damselflies, and common darter, four-spotted chaser, broad-bodied chaser, brown hawker, Southern hawker and emperor dragonflies.  And a hobby (falcon) has moved in to feed on them!

Speckled Wood

Speckled Wood

What this shows is that in spite of dreadful weather over the past two years (drought, washout summer last year, extremely cold and late spring this year), insect numbers can flourish provided the habitat is provided for them.  It doesn’t even need to be a huge amount of habitat, just a bit of connected habitat makes all the difference.  Butterflies abound in the hay field opposite our woods too.

The problem is that this good news is not typical.  Grassland butterflies have declined by 50% in Europe over the last 20 years.  This has been put down to intensification of agriculture in easy-to-farm areas and abandonment of areas that are not easy to farm.  Both result in degradation of grassland habitats, and in turn, the reduction in butterfly numbers and diversity.  Meadows need maintenance, be it by mowing for fodder, or by grazing, or both.  This strips off the grass that would otherwise dominate, allowing wildflowers to grow.  Abandon the meadows and they revert to grass.  Plough them up, and it is very hard, if not impossible to return them to their unimproved state.  Added to that, widespread use of insecticides reduce the opportunities for those butterflies that can find foodplants for their caterpillars and nectar for the adults.

Essex Skipper

Essex Skipper

Meadows are very precious, but many butterflies can live on very common plants, and leaving a corner of the garden unimproved, letting it go over to nettles and wildflowers can really make a difference to nettle-feeding butterflies such as small tortoiseshell and peacock.  If we manicure our gardens, cover them in gravel and decking, squeeze productivity out of every inch of farmland, and stop mowing or grazing our meadows, we will lose butterflies, and with them, many other species.  We also mow our roadside verges short, several times a year.  Letting areas run to wildflowers would also make a massive difference, as the Plantlife roadside verge campaign points out.

Large White

Large White

Do we care?  I don’t know.  Almost everybody I know bemoans the loss of butterflies and birds over the last 50 years.  But whether they are able or willing to do so is another matter.  Are we willing to tolerate a bit less tidiness in our roadside verges and gardens?  Or will we complain to the Council the minute the grass gets longer than 3 inches?  Will we complain about our neighbours letting the garden run to weeds?  Are we willing to pay a bit more for good hay, for naturally-grazed animals, or to allow subsidies to go to those who uphold the most valuable habitats?  Or do we just want cheap food at any cost?

Comma

Comma

The fact is that the butterfly-filled meadows of my youth are rare and getting progressively rarer.  If children today don’t experience them, they won’t be able to appreciate their importance, won’t value them, and won’t protect them in future.  Butterflies DO count.  So, please, do count your butterflies this weekend, and contribute to the project.  And DO think of them and the habitat they need.  A little bit of untidiness won’t kill anybody, but too much tidiness will definitely kill off the butterflies.