Ian Short


Spring and summer wildlife highlights

For me, the pleasure of seeing wildlife depends heavily on the setting, location, and health of the species. As an example, every so often at College Lake in Tring there turns up an isolated wading bird that should really be with others of its kind in North or South America. Probably it has been blown off course while migrating. It has little chance of ever seeing its fellow species again, and it has a high chance of perishing. Certainly not a wildlife highlight for me; I feel sorry for the lost birds.

For another example, we fairly often see barn owls at wildlife shows. It’s interesting to look at them close up, however, seeing them in captivity doesn’t compare to seeing them alive in the wild. Once while E and I were walking in Parkgate near our house at dusk, still daylight, a barn owl flew overhead, coming close by. Presumably it had left its daytime roosting place and was heading to the marsh for hunting. That was our best sighting of a barn owl: clear view, no car headlights involved, and the owl doing what it should be doing in its natural habitat.

There you have the groundwork for my list of summer wildlife highlights, the top twelve, going from lowest to highest. The list is by no means definitive, or carefully thought out; it’s just what I happen to remember now, written much later.

12. Cinnabar moths appearing out of nowhere

Last year our small back garden had a number of ragwort plants, all covered in cinnabar moth caterpillars. This year we had very few ragworts, but we did have cinnabar moths appearing every few hours on bright sunny days in spring. Presumably they had spent the winter in their pupal stage just underground and were emerging with the heat. They would hang around in our back garden for a bit and then venture off.

11. Military orchids at Homefield Wood

Homefield Wood has a great patch for orchids, with military orchids the stars of the show.

10. Black hairstreaks at Salcey Forest

It was an incredible year for butterflies.  We attended a Butterfly Conservation walk at Salcey Forest and a wealth of black hairstreaks greeted us, flitting around in the trees above.  We saw plenty of other lepidoptera too, including wood white butterflies.

9. Dark green fritillaries at Sharpenhoe Clappers

Dark green fritillaries and six-spot burnet moths in their hundreds. There were moths emerging from blades of grass all over the field, we were surrounded by them. [Insert picture!]

8. Scarlet tiger moths while walking home from school

On one occasion in spring while walking home with the girls from school through the golf course we encountered several scarlet tiger moths flying about. What they were doing, I don’t know; they were just hanging out by some leylandii. The following day they were there again!

Whatever you do, don’t picture some idyllic countryside location – we live on the outskirts of Milton Keynes.

Here’s a shot of some scarlet tiger moths from our back garden from the year before.

7. Frogs and newts in our back garden pond

We have a tiny pond in our back garden. It is surrounded by rocks and overgrown pond-friendly plants. There is a large sprawling compost heap nearby. I spent a long time this summer watching frogs and newts together in the pond. The frogs are easier to photograph as they like to sit on the weeds sticking out above the surface.

6. Common blue damselflies emerging

Our pond is also home to many common blue damselfly nymphs. On one day in spring I counted about twenty nymphs crawling up stalks of flag iris and other plants, ready to transform into damselfies. Here’s my best shot. [Poor quality will update.]

5. Slow worm at the end of our street

I was jogging to fetch the girls from school and this slow worm was wriggling around on the path into the golf course. I got a good view of it for 5 seconds. Rare to see them in the open like that. We do have grass snakes and some say even a few adders around here (I have my doubts about the latter).

4. Field cow wheat

E monitors the plant species on a patch of land for Plantlife. The highlight of this patch is field cow wheat, an extremely rare flower, known only to grow in a few places in England. It was once common in certain spots in the South, but its long-term future is doubtful. (A housing estate is planned for the patch E monitors.)

It was living happily in E’s patch alongside a load of yellow rattle.

3. White letter hairstreak at the OU

I have no idea what this was doing at the OU, but there it is to cap an extraordinary spring and summer for butterflies.

2. Elephant hawk moth in the back garden

They aren’t rare, but they are awesome.

Must finish with my favourite…

1. Return of the swifts

The swifts were late to return this year, and I was worried. But they came, at last, a few weeks later than usual, and for three months of the summer in the skies above Woburn Sands, piecing through the traffic noise, was the screech of swifts.



This summer we visited Tarn-et-Garonne, in southern France, staying near the Aveyron river. It’s a great area for butterflies, because of the climate, the soil, and the low intensity organic farming. In fact, so rich was the country for butterflies that it made me wonder why we bother in England desperately trying to protect a small patch of unimproved chalk grassland for a tiny population. The difference in scale got me thinking.

Scarce swallowtails were in abundance (below), and we saw a few other swallowtails too (which looked more like the English ones).

Millions of moths about, including jersey tiger moths like this one.

E’s favourites were the fritillaries, such as that shown below, which looks like a glanville fritillary.

Here’s another…

A highlight for me was this lesser purple emperor.

I rather liked this wasp spider too.

Plenty of lizards of course.

And beetle things…

However, perhaps best of all was the volume of blue butterflies. One here:

and a whole load in this video:

Spring is coming

A stroll through my local patch today revealed the early signs of spring.

Two white-tailed bumblebees greet me at the start. I tried to get a look at their bums. Wrens were in song along the river, their homes in tatters after the carnage left by the modern-day coppicing machines.

Then, a butterfly, first of the year: a peacock, who has survived the winter. She distracts me only for a second, as my attention turns to a squeaking in the willows. Goldcrests, on the move.

Redwings are still about, jumpy. They’ll be gone soon. Two buzzards are squawking overhead.

British Petroleum

BP continues with its plans for extreme deep water oil drilling in the Amazon Reef. I will not buy petrol from them unless they cancel these plans, and I recommend that you do the same. Watch this short video by Greenpeace UK about BP.

Can we trust BP to drill near a unique Amazon coral reef?Local communities are still struggling for justice following BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster, but now BP are trying to drill in even deeper waters, risking a spill near this precious ecosystem. Join the petition to keep BP away from the Amazon Reef: http://act.gp/2vvRfG0

Posted by Greenpeace UK on Thursday, 3 August 2017


Is it really worth destroying one of the beautiful natural wonders of the world, when such places are rapidly decreasing, just for the sake of more oil to burn? What will we have to show for it in years to come? We will have driven around more in cars, BP will be richer, but the world will become barren.

And, fundamentally, burning our reserves of fossil fuels will result in temperatures vastly exceeding safe limits, as this article in nature demonstrates, leading to worldwide catastrophe.

Since BP’s environmentally devastating Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, BP have had at least five other known oil spills. They are not to be trusted.

The public can stop them drilling in the Amazon. Take responsibility.

Howe Park Wood and Salcey Forest

The best place in Milton Keynes is Howe Park Wood, and that’s where I took I and J this Saturday, for a wildlife event run by Milton Keynes Parks Trust. We were greeted by two privet hawk moths.

The Wildlife Trust were there as usual, and Butterfly Conservation. I was glad to see lots of knowledgeable young people representing the Parks Trust. The girls made hats out of bits of grass and hedge. Then the Wildlife Trust rep showed us an elephant hawk moth in the grass.

I nearly trod on it a few minutes before while taking this picture of a large skipper:

I got this shot of a marbled white as we left.

On Sunday we went somewhere even better, to Salcey Forest. This time the girls had their bikes and they cycled round with me jogging next to them. The place was awash with butterflies. I saw (I guess) over a hundred silver-washed fritillaries, here’s one:

Poor photo that, considering how many there were, but then again I had two children with me, one who was out of view cycling 1/4 mile ahead. Many commas too, such as this one:

There were wood whites as well, at the end of their flight season I think. They don’t stick around for photos.

Then a highlight for me, a white admiral!

I have a lovely video of it. They fly beautifully. Saw about five others later on. One launched an attack on J while she was cycling.

Things got even better when I spotted a white-letter hairstreak.

I saw another later too.

The track is 5 miles long, and as we reached the 3.5 mile mark, there on the track was a massive butterfly: a purple emperor! It was licking the ground, for salt perhaps. It wasn’t shy at all; I could have bent down and eaten it.

Peculiar looking at the photos of it afterwards. In some it looks purple, in others it looks black. We saw another shortly afterwards.

What a day and location for butterflies! At the end we climbed the tree top walk. Here we are at the very top.



Our latest family adventure, during the Whit half term, was to Pembrokeshire, in the far west of Wales. Broadly speaking, Pembrokeshire is a big farm with a lovely coastline and a few towns and nature reserves dotted around. The coastal path is well maintained, but the inland paths that we visited were not, for the most part. I had hoped to see some choughs, and I did, on two occasions. They look like jackdaws but with curved red beaks and red feet (and they are black all over, no grey). There are only a few hundred in the UK, and a good proportion of them are on the coast in Pembrokeshire. There are, however, far more jackdaws on the coast, so you have to scan each jackdaw until you get a chough.

Like ravens, choughs can fly upside down. I didn’t witness this; the choughs I saw squawked a bit, and then headed for their nests, which were on the side of cliffs, so I lost sight of them. Someone told me that choughs were persecuted at the time of the great fire of London because it was thought that, because of their red beaks, they encouraged fire, somehow. I doubted this was the reason for their small numbers now, as the great fire of London was some time ago, and indeed my bird book told me that choughs feed on insects and larvae from  unimproved, short grassland. Not much of that about.

We also saw loads of linnets, stonechats, whitethroats and other small birds that you get in half-decent places. And of course there were plenty of seabirds about, particularly on the islands (Ramsey, Skoma, Skokholm, Grassholm) off the coast, such as guillemots, razorbills, puffins, gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, and manx shearwaters. We saw some but not all of these.

Weather was middling, so there weren’t too many butterflies about. I was pleased to see a number of painted ladies. They were all faded. I imagined their disappointment flying over to our country, and  discovering that Great Britain isn’t so Great for wild animals. The sun came out on the last day and we saw several green hairstreaks. Then Ellie spotted a dark-green fritillary, which capped the day off nicely.

There were plenty of wild flowers. These common spotted orchids were growing by a roadside.

I took a shine to this flag iris in our garden. It was by a stream, and there were beautiful demoiselles flitting about, mating.

Perhaps my favourite sighting of the Wit half term, however, came the day after we got home. On a fraught trip to Ramamere Heath, just as were leaving, a small blue butterfly made an appearance. I understand their caterpillar’s food plant is kidney vetch, and we couldn’t see any of that about, but nonetheless, it was a small blue. We watched it for a bit, then Isi fell in some stinging nettles, howled, and we left.

Don’t vote Conservative

Here’s a tool by Avaaz to help you decide who to vote for to stop the Conservative Party gaining (more) power:

Avaaz – vote smart.

Mark Avery’s blog post on the disregard for the environment in the Conservative Party manifesto is worth a read:


Tree bumblebees

Recently, there have been a load of bumblebees buzzing around outside a crevice in the wall of one the university building. Here’s a snapshot of some of them.

Several bees were flying round in circles outside the nest, while other bees flew in and out, seemingly oblivious to those loitering outside. Eventually, with the help of this article on tree bumblebees, I figured out what’s going on.

Tree bumblebees are recent arrivals to the United Kingdom (first appearing around 2001). They are spreading rapidly, and are not, as far as I’m aware, considered a threat to other bees. They are common on the continent. In the wild they nest in trees, but in towns they often nest in buildings. Most other nesting bumblebees in the UK nest in the ground, I believe.

The queen bee emerges around March from hibernation. She feeds, then finds a nest site. She then produces female worker bees, most of which go off and collect nectar and pollen (same as for other nesting bumblebees). Around the end of May, the queen produces drones (males whose sole purpose is to mate) and new queens. The drones perform a ‘mating dance’ outside the nest – not their own nest – another tree bumblebee nest. When new queens leave the nest, the dancing drones try to mate with her. And so the cycle goes on; some successful queens establish a second colony in the same year, later in the summer.

The drones fly facing the nest (mostly), ready for a queen to emerge from the nest. Sometimes, in their eagerness to mate, drones fly into each other, perhaps believing momentarily that another drone is a queen. They fall to the ground with a thud. A friend witnessed this, but I haven’t seen it. I did see a couple of queens moving in and out of the nest.

Wildlife at the OU

This weekend we visited Marston Vale Country Park, as we often do, for I’s birthday. There wasn’t much to see… perhaps because of our binoculars skills.


It got me thinking about the abundance of wildlife I see at the OU. The River Ouzel flows through the university (it’s a tributary of the Great Ouse), and birds and insects live near it, and within the reeds of nearby ponds. Wildlife highlights of the area are great crested newts, which you occasionally see wandering around during summer, as well as frogs and toads (in the evening). And I once spotted a weasel near the river. I regularly see kingfishers in the warmer months, as well as sedge warblers and reed warblers, which sing incessantly. Last year I saw a grass snake lying on a path, and others tell me that they are a common sighting. When I used to cycle home at night, I regularly saw a little owl, and I once saw it in the day time too, bouncing along the ground in pursuit of something. Little egrets are regulars, as are bullfinches, reed buntings, fieldfares, goldcrests and redwings (winter) and willow warblers, chiffchaffs, and blackcaps (summer). From my office window I see buzzards, sparrowhawks and occasionally kestrels and red kites. House martins, swallows and swifts arrive at the start of spring. There used to be loads of house martins around the OU, but some of their nests were destroyed, and the population never recovered after that.

We’re looking forward to spring. The wrens have started singing; it must be coming soon.

Blooming bitterns

Today we went searching for bitterns. We persuaded the girls to go along with this by telling them about the booming noise that bitterns make during mating season – booming bitterns. J understood this as blooming bitterns.

Our first stop was Foxcote reservoir near Buckingham. No luck there – it was far too misty. However, the friendly people from the Wildlife Trust at Foxcote advised us that they would be at Calvert Jubilee a few miles away later in the day, and we should try there. The girls seemed game, so we hung around in Buckingham for a bit, before driving to Calvert. When we got there, the Wildlife Trust had a telescope trained on a bittern in the bushes! After a bit it strolled around for a while, and we got a good look. Here it is!


Got it? There was also a marsh tit flitting about near the bird hide.

We walked around the reserve for a while. Last chance to do this in peace as HS2 is to be built through it soon, a great pity.

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