July in the Isle of Purbeck

Last weekend we once more made for the wonderful lowland heaths of Dorset. We hadn’t visited them in July before and were interested to see what goes on there at this time of year. En route we stayed with some friends who have taken the plunge and moved to live full time in Milford on Sea.

The Needles on the Isle of Wight as viewed from Milford on Sea. They are very happy living by the sea and with the New Forest as well just to the north and in easy reach

The next day, the dreary and over-busy route west from Milford, weaving round the major conurbations of Bournemouth and Poole, made us begin to wonder if it was all actually worth it. But from the moment we turned off left and headed south onto the Isle of Purbeck, we knew that it was. After all, we were returning to one of our favourite hotels, the Priory Hotel in Wareham, set in four acres of beautiful gardens:

The very comfortable Priory Hotel in Wareham. Photo from our last visit in June 2021
Our room was in the right hand side of this boathouse, with french windows opening out onto a terrace by the river Frome. It was all very lovely

Directly opposite the boat house is a row of trees that hosts a major corvid roost each night. We made sure we were sitting on our terrace as dusk approached in order to witness the noisy spectacle of them all flying in. The racket coming from those trees once the crows arrive is quite a thing, but they very quickly settle down and tranquility once more descends.

We were impressed that Durlston Country Park, in the south of the Isle of Purbeck, regularly records thirty-four species of butterfly. What is the management there to encourage so many species of butterflies – and can we replicate it back in the meadows? We went along to find out.

The Victorian ‘castle’ at Durlston is now a visitors’ centre and cafe

As we walked along their wildlife trail, we saw that the mix of plants in the flower meadows was actually pretty similar to that in our own meadows back in Kent. But, in contrast to the shortage of butterflies that we are experiencing this year, Durlston had clouds of them – skippers in particular, most of which seemed to be the rare Lulworth skipper – a butterfly we had never seen before:

The females have a ‘sun-ray’ on their wings – a splay of golden dots on their rich orange wings
Photographing Lulworth skippers at Durlston

In the UK, Lulworth skippers are localised in a few self-contained colonies, mostly in coastal Dorset, east of Lulworth Cove. Within these very limited number of places, though, they can be extremely numerous such as they are at Durlston – but they do only fly on sunny days and it is only then that you see them.

Along with the skippers there were plenty of marbled whites, gatekeepers and meadow browns there to admire.

We also saw several small blues as we went round
Six spot burnet moth

We came away delighted to have seen so many butterflies at Durlston, but still without ideas on what we could be doing further to help our butterflies in the meadows. We certainly envy Durlston its six miles of dry stone walling as well as its much greater scale and variety of habitats including cliffs, gullies and sea caves. But as far as its flower meadows go, ours look very similar.

We will continue onwards with our long term butterfly goals for the meadows; trying to improve the ratio of flowering plants to grasses, trying to increase the variety of trumpet-shaped flowers to encourage long-tongued bees and butterflies and enlarging the areas of horseshoe vetch in an attempt to entice in two of the more unusual blue butterfly species – the chalkhill blue and adonis blue.

A roe buck with his white chin at Durlston
Driving through Corfe Castle on the way back up to Wareham

One the next day we visited RSPB Arne in the northern part of the Isle of Purbeck, part of the extensive Purbeck Heath National Nature Reserve:

Arne is a beautiful reserve at any time of year but in July the sea lavender, Limonium vulgare, is in flower, giving the salt mashes a pinkish hue:

I was unfamiliar with this plant but it is in fact very similar to the statice that I used to grow in the garden.

This sea lavender is much loved by a little bee that we saw digging its burrows down into the sand of Coombe Heath:

Active burrows being dug into the sand on the heath

The bee was difficult to photograph as it rarely stayed still but we did notice that they had a very shrill hum as they came and went. However, it was only when we subsequently looked at our photographs that we noticed those wonderful green eyes and realised that this must be the green-eyed flower bee, Anthophora bimaculata, found mostly in lowland heaths in southern Britain. Just look at those amazing eyes:

The heather was also coming into flower at Arne:

What a remarkable place, particularly given its location on the over populated south coast of England:

The new Middlebere hide has distant views over an artificial osprey nest:

This year’s Springwatch was filmed at Arne and did feature nesting ospreys on a similar platform but perhaps there are more than one because this one seemed very disused

We didn’t see many butterflies at Arne, and actually few birds as well – certainly nothing as exciting as this nightjar that we saw right by the path when we visited in August 2021:

But we really enjoyed our visit to the reserve and were surprised to find that a five whole hours had gone by when we returned to our car.

The sparse but surprisingly long hairs of a cinnabar moth caterpillar at Arne
I think this is a five-spot burnet moth, rather than the narrow-bordered five-spot burnets that we get in the meadows
This photo gives no idea of the scale and sturdiness of this funnel web by a pond, with the spider sitting plum in its centre. It was simply enormous but I couldn’t get close to take photos good enough be able to identify it

Back once more in the meadows and our new chalk butterfly bank is starting to look very cheering with the native annual seed mix that I sowed back in the spring.

Perennial seed was also sown onto the bank but these plants will take longer to get established.

I sat and watched as this magnificent emperor laid her eggs in the pond:

Shockingly, this is only the second dragonfly I have seen in the meadows this year. Although we took steps to ensure our ponds didn’t dry out completely last summer, many ponds in the area almost certainly would have done, killing most of the freshwater invertebrates within including dragonfly larvae.

Here she is again with a blue-tailed damselfly for scale – the spectacular emperor is the UK’s largest dragonfly:

Those eggs she is laying will be emerging as emperors themselves in a couple of years.

Last year a swarm of honey bees took up residence in our little owl box:

In September, numbers had built up to such an extent that a swarm formed and hung in a cone below the box while scouts went out to find it a new home:

The amazing swarm hung in the vegetation for several hours before it moved on to its new premises. I wish I had had the patience to have stayed and watched it as it moved off

It would only have been some of the bees that left in the swarm, though, the others remaining in the box and preparing to overwinter. But many bee colonies do not survive the winter and ours unfortunately was one of those that didn’t. When the weather warmed up again this spring, the box remained deathly quiet. This week, however, I noticed that it is once more active and busy – this time with a nest of tree wasps.

I will attempt to get better photos of these wasps but I’m not that keen on getting close.

Some other interesting photos from the meadows this week:

A dock bug
The last of the brimstone butterfly caterpillars are just finishing up on the alder buckthorn before they pupate
There are still loads of pollen beetles around
It seems to be a very good year for seven-spot ladybirds. I have seen so many
Surely these are dog biscuits that this fox has in her mouth?
Earlier this year we put a tremendous effort into ridding the meadows of alexanders. Now it is time to do the same with ragwort

There is a roving camera in the wood, that we are pointing at bird boxes to see if dormice have arrived to make a home on top of the abandoned tit nests. For this box, first there was this little teaser:

But soon the dormouse showed herself properly:

Dormice have sticky pads on their feet that enable them to cling on to things really well:

Other photos from the wood this week:

A smart female green woodpecker..
…and the male showing this year’s speckled juvenile the new pond
I always enjoy a jay with a mohican after a bath
A pair of jay
Tawny by the pond
A sweet little fox cub

We seem to have been away an awful lot this year. But, now that we are back from Dorset, we are not going anywhere for the rest of the summer and I am looking forward to catching up. There is always a long list of outstanding jobs to do here and it would be very satisfying to get round to ticking some of these off now.

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