I spend a lot of time on the wonderful Fenns, Whixall and Bettisfield Moss NNR (National Nature Reserve), taking photos, carrying out surveys and collecting species records. People from all around the country visit Fenns and Whixall Moss NNR often to see some of the rare species such as White-faced Darter dragonflies, Large Heath Butterflies, Raft Spiders, Hobbies (falcons) or many other species found on what is now itself a very rare habitat, a lowland raised bog. This is the third biggest lowland raised bog in Britain. Those visiting the site for the first time are often awed by the sheer size and scale of the site.
My aim in starting this blog is to share what I see on my regular visits, alongside photos and other observations so people know what is around. As I say it can be an overwhelming experience when you visit the Moss for the first time, or even the first few times because of the sheer size of the site. Visitors often don’t know where to start looking for what they’ve come to see. I hope to help visitors to the Moss by sharing some of my knowledge about what can be found where. Those who’ve visited the Moss may likely have met me as I’ve helped many visitors find their first views of the various specialist species that they’ve visited Fenns and Whixall Moss NNR to see.
Above is a male White-faced Darter dragonfly Leucorrhinia dubia, one of Britain’s rarest dragonflies, and a species many visit Fenns and Whixall Moss NNR to see. Outside Scotland, where this species is not exactly common, there are only 3 main breeding sites left in England and Wales, and 2 further sites they’ve been recently re-introduced to. This species is on the wing from May to July.
Fenns and Whixall Moss NNR straddles the English Welsh border, being partly located in North Shropshire and Wrexham County Borough. Roughly 1/3 of the site is in England, and 2/3 in Wales, although the site is managed by Natural England with support from NRW (Natural Resources Wales). More information about Fenns and Whixall Moss NNR and how to get there can be found on the link below.
We had some hot sunny weather from Friday 19 April and I recorded the first Odonata of the year on this Good Friday, Large Red Damselflies Pyrrhosoma nymphula. This was on the Whixall, Shropshire, English side of the Moss. I believe they were recorded on butterfly transect C on the Fenns, Welsh side on Wednesday 17 April.
On Monday 22 April I saw 2 White-faced Darter Leucorrhinia dubia tenerals, and a single Four-spotted Chaser Libellula quadrimaculata dragonfly. These last 2 are very early, especially the White-faced Darters as it’s often May by time I record the first. Possibly a sign of climate change.
On Sunday 21 April I saw my first Green Hairstreak Callophrys rubi butterflies. There are moderate numbers of them in several locations, but it will take a couple of weeks before their numbers build up. It’s the same with Large Red Damselflies. As I write on 23 April I’ve found them at most locations I’d expect to see them, but there are only scattered individuals and are not yet in numbers.
Last year I wrote about Sitticus floricola, the nationally rare bog jumping spider being re–discovered on Fenns, Whixall and Mosses, only to have to amend the blog, because it turned out that the Sitticus species was S.caricis. In some ways this was a more significant find, because not only had it never been recorded on Fenns, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses before, but it is the only record from the whole of mainland Wales, all of midland England and most of the north of England with the exception of an isolated single record in Cumbria. There is a record from somewhere between 1910-1915 near Lichfield, but how reliable this record is I don’t know. Otherwise the distribution of S.caricis is East Anglia, Southern England, and several sites on Anglesey, where Richard Gallon found it. Sitticus caricis discovered, not Sitticus floricola Re-disovered
On this Saturday 25 August, Richard Gallon, and Rich Burkmar of the Field Studies Council, BioLinks and now Cheshire county recorder for spiders, along with Andrew Allot set out to search for spiders. Partly to search one compartment to see if a second population of Sibianor larae could be found in the UK. Unfortunately it was not. My role was just to guide people around as my knowledge of spiders is limited, and the only discovery I made was to find an adult female Raft Spider Dolomedes fimbriatus with an egg sac. I didn’t get a photo as I kept sinking into the bog at the spot I found it. Sibianor larae a news species to the UK
However, Sitticus floricola was finally re-discovered at 3 different locations on Saturday 25 August. This was quite exciting because not only was it the first reliable records since I think 1988, but the first in these areas. Even more impressively, to my knowledge this makes Fenns and Whixall Moss the only site in the whole of Britain, where both species are known to occur on the same site.
In addition, other highlights were Heliophanus dampfi, the Bog Sun Jumping Spider, a first for Shropshire, and nearly a first for England if Rich Burkmar hadn’t discovered it at Holcroft Moss earlier this summer. Richard Gallon found Carorita limnaea, a very rare Money Spider on the Welsh side of the border, a first for Wales, which Richard was especially pleased about being the spider recorder for the whole of North Wales. I can’t provide a complete list yet, but overall it was a very successful day. Not least of all because this was the fifth search by Richard Gallon since last year for Sitticus floricola. I might provide an update on the full species list when available.
What this neatly illustrates is how on a huge site like Fenns, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses NNR, that you can’t assume that just because a species is not found at a number of locations that it isn’t present. The Mosses may look superficially similar and homogenous across the whole area. However, there are lots of subtle differences in habitat type.
After the fourth summer of searching I finally got confirmation of the presence of Keeled Skimmers Orthetrum coerulescens, and a photo of this magnificent male. I can’t express just how elated I am. I’ve had a number of likely sightings in the last 4 summers, but on every occasion before I could get a photo or confirm the ID, they’d flown off across the Moss where I couldn’t follow. I was starting to doubt myself because each time I got close to a blue skimmer, or got a photo, it turned out to be a Black-tailed Skimmer Orthetrum cancellatum. The latter is a species I’m familiar and know to be present on the Moss on good numbers. Could I be getting it wrong, and what I was seeing were actually Black-tailed Skimmers? It didn’t seem like it because I’m familiar with Black-tailed Skimmer, but it’s difficult to be sure when you’ve only had a fleeting glimpse.
In Summer 2015, Sue Rees-Evans, then County Odonata Recorder for Shropshire asked me to look out for Keeled Skimmers on Fenns and Whixall Moss NNR, because she had a single record from 2013. When I checked the then NBN Gateway, now NBN Atlas, there were 2 other records from 2006 and 2007, but I couldn’t find any further information about these records. Apparently Sue had a photo of the 2013 record, a female if I remember rightly, so it should be a good record. However, there aren’t any other known sites nearby, and as far as I’m aware this is not a species which tends to wander much. In other words, there should be a population on the site if these other records were correct. Yet Whixall Moss is a very well visited and studied site, so you’d expect that plenty of other people should have seen and recorded them if there was a population on site.
In theory the site should be suitable for them. During the last 4 summers I’ve searched and checked out every skimmer I could. On a number of occasions I’ve seen what appeared to be an all blue skimmer with no black tail, and which looked to have the form of a Keeled Skimmer, but on each occasion when I’ve either gone to lift my binoculars up or my camera, before I could get it in focus it had flown over the Moss and I lost track of it.
Then whilst checking the area where the Keeled Skimmer was recorded in 2013 on Sunday 15 July, suddenly I saw a blue skimmer which looked like a Keeled Skimmer. Even better it caught a fly and landed to eat it. However, there was a Bracken frond in the way blowing around in the breeze, and which stopped my camera autofocusing on it. I tried to focus manually, but modern focus screens aren’t good for precise focus at a distance. So I got around the Bracken frond and managed to get 3 photos before it flew off.
The main difficulty viewing the skimmers on the Moss is that you can’t get close to the larger pools where you tend to see them, because these areas are boggy and treacherous. All you can be sure of is that you can see a blue skimmer. Only occasionally do they land on the paths, and when they do, if they take off, they always seem to fly off where you can’t follow them. This is why I suspect that even though there appears to be a population present, they don’t get seen or photographed very often.
Initially I was worried whether the view in the photo would be good enough for confirmation that it was a Keeled Skimmer, as I really wanted a shot showing the whole top of the dragonfly so you can see the thorax, and the top of it. Keeled Skimmers have light stripes on the top of the thorax, absent on Black-tailed Skimmers. However, I needn’t have worried as others immediately recognised it as a male Keeled Skimmer. Now, the aim is to get more photographic evidence of their presence.
On a side note, on the pools on the Smallholders Triangle, there remains a single male White-faced Darter. The previous weekend there had been four left, but on Monday 9 July there was only one left, and a dead one being devoured by water beetles. As of Sunday 15 July this male still remains. As you can see he has a damaged abdomen, where he was most probably grabbed by a bird. But this isn’t stopping him chasing away much larger male Common Hawkers.
Manchester Treble Bar moths Carsia sororiata, are a nationally scarce moth. They are more common and widespread in northern Scotland but have a far more patchy distribution in England and Wales. Their larval food plant is given as Bilberry, Cranberry and Cowberry. Fenns, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses are a known site for this species and where they can be seen more reliably than other locations. Yet until this year I struggled to find more than just the odd one. I’m aware that with spotting the smaller scarcer moths, it’s all about getting your eye in, and knowing where to look.
I had a bit of a breakthrough in my understanding of this moth on Friday 6 July, which has enabled me to find this moth regularly. I thought I’d share this information, because I haven’t seen the behaviour I observed mentioned in any description of this species.
I’d managed to see a few of these moths when doing a UKBMS butterfly transect the day before, when it was oppressively hot. So hot that I had to give up on my search for them after finishing the transect walk because I was getting too hot. So I visited the Moss at sunrise, just before 5am the next day, mainly so I could search without being in danger of getting heatstroke. I was astounded at what I saw. Lots of Manchester Treble Bars and other moths including Purple-bordered Gold in flight. My guess at what species they were was confirmed, when occasionally they briefly landed. However, whilst it was possible to confirm the ID with binoculars, it was impossible to get photos as they only settled very briefly, before setting off again on their endless patrols. Presumably these were males searching for females, as their flight was almost non-stop.
This constant in flight and patrolling behaviour only lasted for about 1 1/2 hours at most after sunrise, then it rapidly dropped off in intensity, until no moths could be seen flying. The conditions were sunny and still. Only when they stopped their constant patrolling was it possible to find some Manchester Treble Bars at rest in the vegetation, where they could be photographed. Unfortunately this moth is very difficult to photograph, similar to Large Heath butterflies. It’s very skittish, taking off at the slightest disturbance, often flying some distance over boggy terrain, where you can’t follow them before settling. Likewise it often settles in the Purple Moor Grass Molinia caerulea, where it’s difficult to get a clear view of it because of other grass in the way. Also it hangs at odd angles making it difficult to get the focal plane of your camera to it so all the wings are in focus. In other words finding one in pristine condition, resting in a place easy to photograph it at the right angle, is time consuming.
Fortunately you can find individuals at rest in the vegetation lining the publicly accessible Mosses Trails. Finding them needs lots of patient searching. In flight they are light coloured, and have a grey look. However, there are large numbers of another light coloured moth, a grass moth, the Pearl-band Grass Veneer moth Catoptria margaritella. Whilst these moths look nothing like each at rest, in flight they are a similar size and can be confused. The grass moth looks whiter in flight, doesn’t fly or flutter around so much, and tends to quickly dive down in the vegetation again, when disturbed. The Manchester Treble Bar looks more greyish, and tends to have a more purposeful flight, often although not always flying some distance.
Overall, if you want to find the location of where Manchester Treble Bar moths are, you ideally need to look around at first light on a fine and still morning. You need to look around patches where there are large patches Sphagnum, and Cranberry. It should be noted that on the Moss the Cranberry beds are not the only places where Cranberry is found. In fact, whilst I’ve found Manchester Treble Bars in the Cranberry beds I’ve found more elsewhere. However, if you want to photograph them, and not just seem them, you will have to look in the vegetation at the edges of the path, later in the day, and familiarise yourself with what they look like in flight when they are flushed out of the vegetation.