The Marianne North Gallery

I counted 51 large blues on this glorious day! A warm day, a low wind until mid-afternoon, and patches of sunlight meant excellent butterfly weather, and a magnificent day to be up Collard Hill.

Visitors who spoke with me today met a very happy Butterfly Ranger. After the weekend’s wind and drizzle I was delighted to see the butterflies enjoying the warmth. As I began my first transect a flurry of marbled whites danced around me, a joyous sight.

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These alluring marbled whites are now in and around the Eastern Glade

Have you ever been to the Marianne North Gallery, a gallery dedicated to one of my favourite artists, at Kew Gardens in London? It’s an amazing place, absolutely packed with hand-painted botanical masterpieces.

Two climbing plants of St Johns and Butterflies

Two climbing plants of St John’s and butterflies (South Africa)

Marianne North was an unconventional Victorian, she set off on exotic voyages to destinations that were considered far too dangerous for an English woman.

Landscape at Morro Velho Brazil

Landscape at Morro Velho (Brazil)

She never married, using her time to paint a huge array of plant portraits.

Angraecum and Urania Moth of Madagascar

Angraecum and urania moth (Madagascar)

Marianne North had no formal art training but painted confidently in bold colours, using oils straight from the tube.

Yellow Bignonia and Swallow-tail Butterflies with a view of Congonhas Brazil

Yellow bignonia and swallowtail butterflies with a view of Congonhas (Brazil)

The Victorian tradition was to paint flowers as botanical specimens, uprooted and against a plain background.

The Avocado or Alligator Pear

The avocado or alligator pear (Java)

As you can see Marianne North defied this tradition, painting her plants in their natural settings. She included native insects and birds, the background landscape, and other plants within the same habitat.

A Native Orchid and Butterflies Mahe Seychelles

A native orchid and butterflies (Seychelles)

Marianne North was an ecologist painter; she gave importance to plants as part of their ecosystems rather than stand-alone species. She changed the way people thought about plants as well as creating amazing artworks in their own right.

You can browse many of her stunning artworks on the Kew Online Gallery, although it is well worth a visit to the small jam-packed gallery in London to see these fantastic paintings in real life.

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The Marianne North Gallery

I am away from Collard Hill for a couple of days now, I will post again on Thursday evening. Volunteers will be carrying out transects for me over the next two days. If the weather is as glorious as today then the hill will be splendid this week!

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Flying kites in the rain

I saw six large blues today, most of these were spotted by visitors. It was a very windy day, overcast with occasional short bursts of rain, the butterflies wisely took shelter all day.

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Delicately poised (credit: Lee Gardiner)

As I hide from the weather in my car on top of the hill I see a lone kite rise into the sky, v-shaped it swoops and soars like a raptor. Another two kites rise further along the ridge, classic trapezoids this time. I can’t see the kite-flyers which only adds to the magic. This is exactly what hills are for, Sunday children flying kites with their fathers.

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Just what windy hills are for

The rain dwindles and I leave my car to find a father and daughter have just spotted a resting large blue, hunkered down on a grass head. As we discuss the implausible life-cycle a rambling group arrives, ending their weekend wander at the hill. Lucky timing for them, I could show them a large blue! I really love when people visit with a little knowledge and lots of intelligent questions, giving me the opportunity to share my know-how on these beautiful insects. I especially love when visitors ask me about the ants!

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The bees are still busy

I sit down amongst the wildflowers for lunch, and examine them. With my trusty Collins guide at my side I identify some more; silverweed, meadow vetchling, black meddick, common knapweed, ox-eye daisy. On my return home this evening I find that a morning visitor has sent me a list of plants he spotted, following a discussion on thistles. Thank you Martin. There are at least four different thistle species on Collard! I now feel the need for a grasses ID guide, and hope to meet a grass enthusiast up the hill over the next month.

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But which thistle?

I spent a leisurely afternoon looking for orchids and discussing the merits of a career in ecology with a visitor, Stephen. The few visitors today all praised the beauty of the meadow wildflowers. I love overcast days like this because of the gentle conversations with visitors, the drama of the wind, the atmospheric view. A couple of history enthusiasts gave refreshing exchange on the 6000 peacemakers who met on the hill opposite in 1645 to rebel against the civil war. More information on Clubmen1645. There is something unexpected to learn from every visitor up Collard Hill.

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A rather nice moth

The hill gets the brunt of the wind’s force, if you visit in high winds be prepared to appreciate sights other than the large blues. Visitors with enough time to spare usually do find a large blue. There are other merits to Collard Hill than butterflies, notably the wildflowers and grasses and orchids, and of course the awe-inspiring view.

A myriad of wildflowers

I counted eight large blues on this cold, windy and drizzly day. Visitors saw more than me, I tried to time my transects to make the most of passing patches of sun, however the rain kept catching up with me.

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Braving the wind

Large blues were to be seen in the sunny moments. I have learnt to change my transect method depending on the weather. When it’s sunny I look both near and far, to spot that royal blue colour on the wing. When it’s windy I look at the ground within a five meter radius, especially at thicker stems of plantain and grass, and at wild thyme patches. I’m looking for white, grey or light blue, rather than the royal blue of the upper in flight. When it’s still but overcast I tend to look downhill to spot the royal blue of the butterflies sunning themselves, as well as looking further afield for large blues in flight.

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Small scabious

This morning I was disheartened to find no large blues as I walked the hill. I spent time instead trying to identify the myriad of wildflowers. I started with the yellows and spotted; ladies bedstraw, creeping cinquefoil, common birds-foot trefoil, smooth hawks-beard, mouse-ear hawkweed, creeping buttercup, common ragwort and dandelion. Then I had a go at the pinks and purples and named; creeping thistle, dwarf thistle, spear thistle, small scabious, field scabious, red cover, pyramid orchid, common milkwort, selfheal, bee orchid, spiney restharrow and of course wild thyme. I began on the whites and got as far as; white clover, hoary plantain, fairy flax, daisy and hedge bindweed. There are many more still to identify.

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Field scabious

I met an inspiring pair of orchid enthusiasts who taught me about some very interesting hybrids, such as a bee-fly cross, and a lady-monkey cross. I wonder why orchids hybridise so readily compared to other flowers. The impressive vivid purple orchid by the youth hostel I have learnt is a very rare variant; a rhodochila.

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Common spotted rhodochila orchid?

Again I wouldn’t like to guess on the weather for tomorrow. Check the forecast for Street, Somerset, and expect it to be incorrect!

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Here comes some weather!

Giving the gift of time

On this peaceful day up Collard Hill I counted 45 large blues. The forecast was rain and whilst the sky looked ominous we got none. Visitors were pleased with many open-wing shots as the butterflies sunned themselves in the overcast light.

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Please avoid standing on the wild thyme, this is the only plant for large blue’s eggs

I saw the first small tortoiseshell on site, very fresh and vibrant. I’m afraid I don’t have a photo to show you as I left my camera at home today, I did this to see how it changed my experience of Collard Hill. I found myself looking at things very closely, and sitting by wild thyme with the large blues coming down next to me, I could see all their intricate beauty. I looked for eggs and tell-tale caterpillar munch holes in the florets.

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The amazing texture of a large blue egg (credit: Pete Eeles)

I listened more too, to the bird song and chatter especially. I noted the birds on the hill today, I saw or heard: chiffchaff, green woodpecker, great tits, blue tits, long-tailed tits, goldfinches, chaffinches and black caps. Let me know if you noted any more.

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Dangerous-looking spear thistle

As always I met lovely visitors. I learnt about wildflowers from one couple, especially distinguishing the many different yellow flowers. There are adorable wildflower names like mouse-ear hawkweed, creeping cinquefoil and fairy flax. On my return home I discovered my wildflower ID guide has arrived, perfect timing.

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The lemon-yellow of mouse-ear hawkweed

I have met visitors up the hill who also volunteer their time for conservation. Some people carry out butterfly transects elsewhere, others volunteer as Rangers, one gentleman used to breed barn owls for release! Volunteering is a great thing, it can benefit all parties. There’s so much worthwhile volunteering that can be done. I have volunteered in the visitor centre of Warnham Local Nature Reserve, with habitat management groups such as Gatwick Greenspace Project, with Sussex Wildlife Trust assisting running Nature Tots. I have pulled up invasive Himalayan balsam, built boardwalks and benches, taught toddlers how to light fires with a flint and steel, chatted to birdwatchers. And I have had a great time doing it.

There’s various places you can look for volunteer opportunities if you’d like to give your time, have fun, get outside and make new friends. Here’s a very short list:

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Curious cows

I dare not guess on the weather tomorrow, it’s always different to expected. I’ll be on-site over the weekend and may have a volunteer with me. I’m happy to chat, I also need to carry out two transects a day so I may need to chat later if you catch me on transect. I look forward to meeting you!

Invertebrate intelligence

Another windy day at Collard Hill however butterflies were on the wing, I saw 33 large blues today. After the rain cleared this morning we had a sunny afternoon, the wind blew through the Eastern Glade so even that sheltered meadow wasn’t tranquil. Every visitor saw large blues, some travelled from Southend and Epsom to see them.

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Edit: eggar moth caterpillar

That fantastic voluptuous beetle from yesterday I have identified. I thought at first it was some kind of dumble dor, a dung beetle, but I realise it is actually a lovely rotund bloody-nosed beetle. I have never seen one before, I’m quite taken with it.

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So nice I’ll show him twice

As I open the front door on this wet morning a multitude of snails greet me, these ones escaped the Roman’s stomachs. On my way to the hill there’s a thrush I see many mornings, who has a favourite stone on the footpath for cracking open her escargot breakfast.

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Good morning snail

It’s one of my best friend’s birthdays and in honour of the day I thought I would talk about one of his favourite phyla, Mollusca. On a field trip Rick spent a day alone with molluscs, measuring the height and diameter of 80 limpets, and developed a deep affinity for them.

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Rick’s new buddies (credit: Kyran Young)

I’m sure you know that molluscs include snails, slugs and some shellfish like mussels. Did you know that cuttlefish, squid and octopuses are also molluscs; the cephalopods? These specialised marine predators are the most intelligent invertebrates on Earth. Octopuses can solve complex puzzles, however they are notoriously difficult to experiment on. They would rather dismantle the puzzle, squirt water at the researchers, and turn the light switch off!

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Smarty pants (source: pixabay)

Cephalopods have amazing colour-changing abilities, complex mating rituals, show tool use, and have evolved a complex eye very similar to our own eyes. Extinct ammonites were cephalopods and the rare nautilus retains an ammonite-like shell. In fact most cephalopods have internal shells; many octopuses contain vestigial shells.

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So many ammonites (source: pixabay)

It’s amazing that these clever invertebrates are so closely related to our garden snails! Cephalopods are awesome and I could talk about them for a long time, but I’ll stop.

Met Office tells me that winds will drop tomorrow and it may well rain from lunchtime. The weather is very variable up Collard Hill, if the forecast is correct then the morning may be good butterflying weather.

An insect oasis

High winds today meant fewer large blues were on the wing, I counted 43 across my transects. In windy conditions the best place to find butterflies is the steep meadow directly below the bench and blue flags: the Eastern Glade.

largeblueopen

Turning his solar panels to the sun

On Monday 39 large blues were spotted and the same number were seen on Tuesday, thanks to my two volunteers who carried out important surveys on my days off. Over the last three days we have also seen speckled woods, large skippers, painted ladies, marbled whites and the ever-abundant meadow browns, small heaths and common blues. Red admirals have joined the butterflies on-site.

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Finally I saw a fat-bodied large skipper

I found some fantastic insects today, my favourite is this big lovely beetle. I have left my ID book up the hill, I will have to identify another day!

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A very lovely beetle

I’m really pleased to have seen a delicate beautiful marbled white for the first time, battling the wind then taking shelter behind a hawthorn.

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Ever so cute

I’m very happy to meet every visitor and I love seeing people enjoy the superb spectacle of the large blues. One gentleman completed his collection of all 58 British butterflies today and commented in the visitor book: “What a stunning location to see my final butterfly”. A U3A natural history group came through and were excited to spot the ant! I was visited by Andy of Chaos of Delight (linked in my last post) who found a very nice iridescent beetle whilst we attempted to find eggs to photograph.

irridescentbeetle

A tiny jewel

I was visited again by my new friends Paul and Carys, who enjoyed Collard Hill so much last week that they had to return before the end of their holiday. Paul studied primates at Chester Zoo and Carys lectures in Environmental Management, a very interesting couple to befriend.

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Such intricate detail

I cannot recommend the orchid meadow enough. Park at Ivythorn YHA and follow the blue-tipped posts and you will stumble upon a magical meadow of exquisite orchids. I found a couple of broken orchids, please please be gentle with these delicate beauties and avoid standing on them.

There are 56 species of orchid in the UK, here’s a nice guide to many of them from the completed Orchid Observers citizen science project on Zooniverse: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/content/dam/nhmwww/take-part/Citizenscience/orchid-observers/orchid-observers-id-guide.pdf

view

I can never tire of the views

If you haven’t discovered it yet you may like to browse Zooniverse, a collection of research projects which you can get involved with and help with real science from the comfort of your armchair. There’s a huge range of projects to choose from. You can help identify marsupials from camera traps, tag tropical flowers, listen to manatee calls, name marine invertebrates from microscope slides. Watch out, it can get addictive.

https://www.zooniverse.org/projects

Tomorrow looks to be warm and sunny, however you never can tell. If winds are high like today the butterflies will take shelter, so try the Eastern Glade. If winds are low butterflies may be all over the site.

The diversity under our feet

What a fabulous day to be at Collard Hill!

Today I recorded 44 large blues in the morning and 38 large blues in the afternoon, totalling 82 across the day! This is twice as many as yesterday. The weather was ideal with low winds and sunshine and patchy cloud cover. As always there’s lots of butterflies to be found in the warm sheltered Eastern Glades, the Quarry, and the main slope. When arriving I recommend taking the path half way down the slope, that runs parallel to the main upper path.

smallbloodvein

An intricately patterned (edit) yellow shell

Visitors struggled to get open-wing shots in the Eastern Glade in the afternoon as it’s so warm there, but my gosh is it amazing to be surrounded by the fluttering blues. Try elsewhere on site for those elusive open-wing moments, or come earlier in the day. Visitors also saw a marbled white and some large skippers, however these eluded me.

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Roesel’s bush cricket

Today I’ve been meditating on soil. Soil is critical to the variety of rare species found at Collard Hill. Because of the steep slopes erosion is high so soil formation is slow, creating a thin topsoil layer. This means specialised plants can grow. Soil is really interesting and yet we call it “dirt”, children are chided for getting dirty. I loved studying soil this year, I got a little carried away in my exam. I chose to answer an essay question on soil formation, an hour and a half and eight sides of A4 later I realised I still needed to answer the second essay question!

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A precariously-balanced click beetle

Soil is so important to life and there is a huge diversity of organisms beneath our feet. At university we took some Bristol soil back to the laboratory and looked for mesofauna down the microscope. There’s some amazing things in there! I found this extraordinary pseudoscorpion, a member of the same family as spiders and scorpions. These exotic-looking creatures are about the size of a full stop. There’s a really fun website with amazing macro images of soil mesofauna, check it out: https://www.chaosofdelight.org

pseudoscorpion

A tiny predator under our feet

I met some very knowledgeable visitors today and had pleasant conversations in the shade of the turkey oak. One visitor told me that biting insects used to be called vampires and that eating garlic really does keep them away! Another visitor pointed out a perennial type of cleaver called madder, which I believe may be a historical red fabric dye. I know from a living history fayre (I love these so much) that the three dyes we had in Europe were woad, weld and madder. When I was in northern Vietnam a local tribeswoman showed me the indigo plant and to crush it in my hands, which left my palms deep blue for days.

tinybee

Doing important work

Tomorrow looks like very similar weather to today so expect lots of large blues. I have a couple of days off now so I will post again on Wednesday evening. Speak soon!

Silken bundles and visitors from afar

Today I saw the most large blues so far. I counted 39 across my two transects! I saw 24 in the morning, mostly at the Eastern Glade, the upper slope to the right of the main path was also a good area. I counted 15 large blues in the afternoon, mostly in the same areas and also in the Quarry. The weather was mild with very low winds and patchy clouds, large blues were to be seen over much of the site. For those open-wing shots try cooler areas of Collard than the Eastern Glade, I took one near the non-native oak.

tatteredpaintedlady

A visitor from afar

Today I saw my first painted lady on the site, a tattered migrant from Africa. I’m impressed something so delicate can fly so far and cross seas. I found a bee orchid on site, about six paces downhill from the lone squat hawthorn tree near the Lynchets. It had me fooled, at first glance I took it for a bumblebee.

bee orchid

You cheeky orchid

This beautiful large spider can be seen guarding her brood on the edge of the Eastern Glade. I haven’t had a chance to ID her yet, any guesses? Another silken bundle can be seen high up on a bough towards the Lynchets, perhaps this is a moth species.

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A devoted mother (edit: nursery web spider)

I wonder if every Ranger in this role finds themselves talking to the butterflies. “You beauty!” I whisper as a large blue lands on wild thyme flower. “You’re so pretty” I tell her as she flutters to another purple floret. “Good job” as she lays another egg.

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What’s in there? (edit: ermine moth caterpillars)

Some of my family visited today, to see the orchids and the butterflies. I can tell you this is not an ideal place if you suffer hayfever, like my twin brother! I was able to explain the unusual lifecycle to my niece and namesake Little Mia. Off she strode looking for wild thyme and ants.

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My first open-wing shot

Again I met some lovely visitors. A group of ladies staying at the Youth Hostel came for a stroll on their girl’s weekend. What a lovely place to stay, surrounded by orchids and so near Collard Hill. Some visitors travelled here just for the orchids. One visitor commented in the book that they had seen over 20 large blues. Another mentioned that there were lots in the Quarry area. The weather for tomorrow looks to be sunny in the morning and cloudy but warm in the afternoon. It should be another good day for large blues.

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Talking with visitors at my base

My three top places for more large blue info

Once the rain cleared butterflies began to take flight, I counted 19 large blues today, 15 of which were in the afternoon. The Eastern Glade is the place to be, patient visitors took some beautiful open-wing shots today. There are large blues to be found over most of the site.

As I arrived at Ivythorn this morning the rain began. Knowing there wouldn’t be any butterflies, or butterfly enthusiasts, out in the rain I waited in my car for it to subside. As a perfect remedy to a rainy start a member of a facebook group, Somerset Butterflies & Moths, sent me some excellent photos he took of large blues at another site along the Polden Hills. Thank you very much Chris.

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That royal blue (credit: Chris Hooper)

I’m sure many readers of this blog are well aware of the fascinating life cycle and conservation story of the large blues. If you’re not in the know I would like to direct you to my top three places for more information on large blues.

  1. The tabs at the top of this blog
  2. Butterfly Conservation UK’s excellent fact sheet on the large blue
  3. For an in-depth look at the conservation story read the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology’s large blue page
speckledwood

Pararge aegeria

Today the speckled wood joins the butterfly species on site. I’m waiting to spot these fabled photogenic marbled whites! Some super cute long-tailed tits darted by me in the Quarry, chirruping away. And I found a smart-looking rove beetle on a yellow meadow ant nest.

rovebeetle

Paederus fuscipes

I met some fantastic visitors today and I loved speaking with them. I’m delighted that visitors saw the butterflies and took fabulous shots, one gentleman showed me wonderful close-ups of a large blue egg (the texture is amazing) and also an interesting ichneumon wasp. And thank you to another visitor, Paul, for your comment on facebook: “Great to meet up today Mia, you are so enthusiastic, perfect person for the large blue season”.

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For the love of orchids

As I wander back to my car these purple lanterns glow through the tall grass in the late afternoon light. I don’t even know how to begin to describe the majesty of the orchids, that have me nearly weeping for the beauty of them. I feel like I’m walking through a fairytale landscape, I will post close-ups of these ethereal orchids another day.

The weather tomorrow looks similar to today, so outside of rain showers there should be large blues to be seen. They are to be found over most of the site and especially in the Eastern Glade.

A grey wildlife-filled day

Every visitor I met found a large blue on this grey day.

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A grey day brightened by large blues

I counted eight large blues during my transects, mostly in the morning. There were several light rain showers so by the afternoon most of the butterflies were taking shelter. I was very pleased to be able to direct visitors to the Eastern Glade especially, where I had seen a large blue pairing. How exciting!

largebluepairing

This is exactly what we want

I love the pattern on the antennae, like the tail of a ring-tailed lemur (which is the tail that I would have, given the choice). I found lots of interesting wildlife today. On my walk to Collard Hill from my car I met a fledgling wren, we carefully edged around each other as Mother Wren chirped her alarm.

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Troglodytidae

An exotic-looking green woodpecker alighted in the Lynchets as I passed. In the afternoon a beautiful lithe slow worm gently slithered into the brush by the non-native oak. Slow worms have lizard faces, it’s clear that they’re not snakes. There are plenty of invertebrates too at Collard Hill, the ground is covered with delicate threads of funnel-web spiders.

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Patience is a virtue

It was lovely to speak with visitors today, I’m very happy that my last blog post instigated people to visit knowing the large blues are in flight. I enjoyed meeting the Bristol Naturalists Society who I will look up when I return to university. I received another entry in the visitor book, a visitor from Cardiff said of their time: “Very good, saw three despite the rain showers. Staff very helpful”. Thank you to all the visitors I met for your kind words.

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Edit: six-spot burnet moth caterpillar

Many people took excellent photos of large blues today. I would absolutely love to see your photos and perhaps use them on the blog, giving credit of course. Please e-mail largeblueranger@gmail.com and I will gain access to this e-mail address as soon as possible.

Tomorrow looks to be similar weather. Although it was grey there were large blues to be seen especially in the morning, try to the right of the main path when you reach the top of the hill, and try the Eastern Glades which are at the far end of the site – when you reach the gate at the end turn right instead of going through it and look on the steep slopes.

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Toy horses in the fields

See you soon!