Observations at Wheathampstead Local Nature Reserve
The first plant to flower on the reserve in the Spring is the willow. The buds on this and other trees attract small parties of Bullfinches, that can be quite regular but usually difficult to see. Their piping call gives them away. Early Spring flowers include the white Lesser Stichwort at the wood margins, and a glorious display of Cowslips along the chalk-bank area. The warm Spring sunshine can bring the odd Peacock or Comma butterfly from hibernation. The bright yellow Brimstone butterfly can also be seen in these early months. By May the Orange-tip butterfly emerges and can sometime be seen nectaring on Ragged Robin, flowering around the pond area at this time of year. The arrival of our Summer migrant birds in April and May is a welcomed sight. The song of Willow Warbler and Whitethroat joins that of the more resident Blackcap, and can be heard coming from the scrub or woodland margin. On warm days swarms of blackish Long-horn Moths or St.Mark’s Flys may be seen near the Hawthorn. By the end of May many plant and insect species become more visible. Ladybirds, Lacewings (esp. Chrysopa. perla) and Beetles (such as the green and red M. bipustulatus) can be seen around the emerging Ox-eye Daisies. Caterpillars of Burnet moths can be seen fattening up on Meadow Vetchling and Bird’s-Foot Trefoil, plants of the pea family.
By June the rarer plants of the reserve are in flower. Grass Vetchling with its slender stem and pink-red flower can be found in the grasslands. The occasional Bee Orchid can also be found at this time of year in areas without too much scrub encroachment. The yellow flowers of Goat’s Beard found along the Eastern path can only be seen in the morning as they strangely close by mid-day giving them their alternative name of ‘Jack-go-to-bed-at-Noon’. The first of the Summer butterflies appear in June. Common Blue butterflies fly around the grasslands. The brown Large Skipper butterfly can be found along field margins. Day flying moths are numerous by now. The brown Burnet Companion moth can often be disturbed from the grass, replaced later in the year by the Shaded Broad-bar. Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet moths with their conspicuous red spots on black wings fly confidently from one flower head to another, advertising to birds by their colouration, the unpalatable taste of their bodies. Interestingly, by the end of July these moths are replaced by the similar Six-spot Burnet moth that hatches out slightly later in the Summer. Another notable moth flying in June is the very small but beautiful yellow and metallic blue Commophilia aeneana, that feeds as a caterpillar on the roots of the yellow Hoary Ragwort.
By July flower numbers are at their peak with heads of purple Knapweeds and Hedge Woundwort, blue Field Scabious and Teasel, white Campions, and yellow Lady’s Bedstraw providing a colourful display. The increased nectar provides food for the wide variety of mid-Summer insects. The number of butterfly species peak this month with the common Gatekeepers, Meadow Browns and Small Skippers joined by Marbled Whites, Green-veined Whites and the occasional Ringlet. Insect activity is not limited to above ground. In the un-improved grasslands ants are busy creating hills that, with land management, could be as impressive as those at the neighbouring Marshall’s Heath nature reserve. Green Woodpeckers can be seen at most times of the year feeding from these ant-hills. Come August a second generation of Common Blue butterflies appears. The occasional scouting dragonfly passes through the reserve. Brown and Southern Hawkers and the dainty Banded Demoiselle have been seen. Grasshoppers have by now grown in size and can be clearly heard on warm days, and nights. Their more unusual relatives, the Groundhoppers, but also Dark Bush-crickets and Long-winged Coneheads, can all be found at the reserve.
Through the Autumn and Winter months the reserve can seam bleak, but the reduced cover in the trees and the higher activity of birds, constantly feeding to stay alive, makes it easier at this time of year to see some good sights. Parties of long-tailed tits regularly pass through the woods. The odd Jay or Great Spotted Woodpecker may also be seen. If you are lucky, Charms of Goldfinches may be seen feeding on teasel seeds, or you may see a solitary Yellowhammer or a flock of Linnets, or even Redpolls. Migrant thrushes are regular visitors to the reserve in Winter. Redwings enjoy feeding in the leaf litter of the wooded areas and Fieldfares are often found on the more exposed playing fields, along with the occasional pair of Mistle Thrushes. The Winter months do provide an opportunity for maintenance of the reserve, otherwise difficult in the vibrant Summer months. Flowers have seeded and insect populations lay dormant or remain in more passive larval stages. Clearing invasive scrub and cutting grass or employing sheep to encourage a flower friendly shorter swath is vital to maintaining the rich diversity of habitats and wildlife on the reserve. Winter is also a time, maybe, to reflect and look forward to another year observing wildlife through the seasons.