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.
Between the end of the Summer, and the part of Autumn when the Winter birds start to arrive on the Moss, usually around the last week of October is a fairly quiet period on the Moss as regards natural history. The Summer species slowly decline or migrate in the case of birds, and in October the Moss rapidly changes from it’s Summer green, to it’s Autumn/Winter Brown. Wildfowl and waders start to appear on the Moss from around September onwards. Some wild and waders breed on the Moss in the Summer, but especially in the latter part of Summer when the young have been raised you rarely see wildfowl and waders out on the Moss.
It may surprise some that Dragonflies are still on the wing on the Moss, as are some butterflies. As I write this, 15 October, there are to my knowledge at least 5 species of dragonfly still on the wing – Black Darters Sympetrum danae, Common Hawkers Aeshna juncea, Common Darters Sympetrum striolatum, Migrant Hawkers Aeshna mixta, and Sourhern Hawkers Aeshna cyanea, roughly in that order in terms of numbers. There could even be the odd Ruddy Darter Sympetrum sanguineum or Brown Hawker Aeshna grandis left. They will probably be around for a few weeks yet. My latest sightings on the Moss were 3 Common Darters on 20 November, 2015, near the old Peat Works. Common Darters are usually the latest species to hang on, and can survive some quite heavy frosts. They have even been recorded in December in other parts of the country, with one being found on 27 December in Nottinghamshire in 2015.
However, whilst there are still dragonflies around, photographing them isn’t easy at this time of the year. You mainly notice them when they are flying, or when they fly up when disturbed. They don’t have regular patrol routes on territory, which allows you to photograph them in flight. What makes it difficult to photograph them is that they will only bask on the surface of vegetation in strong direct sunlight sheltered from any cooling breeze. This means the conditions have to be just right to get photos.
On Saturday 14 October I managed to photograph this male Migrant Hawker below.
In addition to the Migrant Hawker, on Saturday 15 October I also saw Common Hawker, probably Southern Hawker, Black Darters and Common Darters. Below are a few photos of the Darters.
There were male Darters of both species about as well as the females, but I only succeeded in photographing females.
There are still Raft Spiders to be seen, both on the pools and on vegetation, but expect them to disappear as soon as the temperature drops. It’s only the mild weather an no frosts which mean they are still to be seen.
Last year the Fieldfares and a Great Grey Shrike turned up on the Moss on about 22 October, so soon it will be a change to the Winter inhabitants of the Moss.
It appears that the female Marsh Harrier I first saw on 13 August and blogged on 14 August is still hanging around Fenns and Whixall Moss. A couple of birders have mentioned it could be a juvenile. I’m not a good enough a birder to know all the subtle indicators but the immaculate wing plumage is certainly consistent with it being a young bird.
I got a quick glimpse of it on Friday 22 September on the Late Summer/Autumn Walk on the Moss led by David Tompkins the reserve manager. As no one else really saw it aside from one other person I thought I’d go out today (Sunday 24 September) to get a photo to demonstrate I wasn’t imaging it. I picked it up quite quickly flying down the middle of the Moss past the weather station heading north, but lost it behind some small Birches. I was thinking it had flown down the north end of the Moss, but couldn’t see anything. However it then flew up from where I last saw it, obviously it had settled there, and back in the direction it had come from.
I know of one other sighting of a similar bird on the Moss a couple of weeks back. It seems like the same bird. It’s not that easy to see or pick up as typically it’s flying low and quartering when in flight. The leaves on the trees, and the vegetation at it’s maximum height restrict viewing across at the moment. It’s well worth looking out for, but it can’t be seen consistently and it is likely using the wider area and not just the Moss.
Despite it being dull there was still quite a few dragonflies about and I will post a Moss update soon as to what can be seen around on the Moss at the moment.
I will amend the blog, or put another blog post up shortly. Apparently the spider discovered appears to be Sitticus caricis and not the superficially similar Sitticus floricola. This is an equally rare species, and not one previously recorded on Fenns and Whixall Moss. It raises interesting questions about the identity of the species recorded on the Moss in 1988 and 2004. Richard Gallon is off to examine the specimens collected by Liverpool Museum to determine if it was previously misidentified as Sitticus floricola, or if the identification is correct and there is also Sitticus caricis.
Sitticus floricola is a nationally rare Jumping Spider of the family Salticidae. In Britain it has a very restricted distribution and has only been known from several sites in Cheshire, 2 sites near Wrexham, 2 sites in South-west Scotland and Fenns, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses. It’s a specialist of bog habitats. However, it was last recorded on Fenns, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses in 1988, 29 years ago (see footnote because it appears there is a record from 2004)*, and subsequent searches have failed to find it. Fenns, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses NNR is frequently visited by many expert entomologists and arachnologists so it was puzzling as to why there were no records of it for the last 29 years. It wasn’t clear whether this species still remained on the Moss, or had died out.
Therefore Liverpool World Museum’s Tanyptera Project contracted spider expert and editor of the British Arachnological Society newsletter, Richard Gallon to search for Sitticus floricola, and other spiders which occupy similar habitats. Richard re-discovered Sitticus floricola at the 2 historical sites near Wrexham, the first records for 29 years, and I was lucky enough to accompany him on his visit Fenns and Whixall Moss NNR on Saturday 2 September 2017, in his search for Sitticus floricola. Not being a spider expert my main role was to help Richard find suitable spots to sample based on his knowledge of their preferred habitat – this being Sphagnum lawn, preferably with plenty of Common Cotton Grass Eriophorum angustifolium, in which it builds cocoons in their heads.
We visited 6 locations to sample on the Moss, with 2 off them being on the Welsh side of the border, and 4 on the Whixall, Shropshire side of the border. Richard carried out timed searches of the Cotton Grass heads, and then timed vacuum sampling of the area, boldly going where most arachnologists fear to tread on the wet areas of Sphagnum lawn (those visiting the Moss shouldn’t try this as it’s potentially dangerous because there can be over 3m of wet peat you could sink into – other hazards off the tracks can be deep drains hidden by vegetation, and if you fall into them you wouldn’t be able to get out – keeping to the track isn’t just a rule without a reason, it’s for the safety of visitors).
The first site sampled, which I took Richard to, seemed perfect from his description of the preferred habitat of Sitticus floricola. Searches of the Cotton Grass heads produced no results. However, the vacuum sampling produced quite a few immature Sitticus floricola spiders, in addition to many other species of spider. Aside from having an incredible knowledge of spiders from their general appearance and behaviour, Richard must have incredible eyesight, because all the spiders were quite small, some of them tiny – yet he was confidently pointing out the species and which individuals were male and female with his bare eyes. I had to use a hand lens or my very close focusing binoculars to confirm what Richard was seeing and describing.
Further searches at 5 locations (6 in total including the first location) produced Sitticus floricola at all but one location, section 24 – the Smallholders Triangle, where I’d taken Richard to see Raft Spiders Dolomedes fimbriatus (the subject of my next blog entry). These are Britain’s largest species of spider, and another bog specialist, a signature species off the Moss. Unfortunately we didn’t find any Sitticus floricola on the Smallholders triangle, and nor did we find any full adult mature Sitticus floricola of their cocoons at any location. All the Sitticus floricola found were immature specimens. However, with sampling, absence is as important as presence because of the big picture it helps to creat. With their being plenty of immature specimens it tells us that the adults must have been there, and that they’re widespread in the right sort of habitat. It also says that to find the adults and cocoons it’s necessary to search earlier in the season.
On Sunday 3 September Richard also managed to find Sitticus floricola on Bettisfield Moss. However, a search of Wem Moss NNR failed to find any Sitticus floricola, but Richard did find 2 other nationally scarce spiders, Philodromus histrio, a Running Crab spider never previously recorded on Wem Moss, and Singa hamata, a small Orbweb spider last recorded on Wem Moss in 1963.
It’s always a pleasure to go out with a real expert naturalist, and it’s worth pointing out just how few expert naturalists their really are. People with this level of expertise are few and far between. Biodiversity and natural history is such a huge and complex subject, the most complex subject known to humankind, that someone can only be a real expert in one or at most a few groups of species. It really is the most underrated and taken for granted field of knowledge.
All the photographs are of the same small male, which probably had a body length of 3mm or less. The adults have body lengths of up to 6.5mm, but are generally around 5mm. Given their habitat type and small size these are not likely to be a species that visitors to the Moss are will see, but it’s great to know they’re there.
Having said that it’s well worth look at the heads of Common Cotton Grass near the paths in May-June. These spiders bind the outside of the white fluffy Cotton grass heads with their silk, and when these flower heads are fresh, this is the best time to see the ones occupied by spiders. Later in the season many of the Cotton Grass heads are naturally matted together without them being used by spider. It’s worth noting that other species of spider have been found to bind the heads of Cotton Grass like this as a home, so you can’t be certain it means Sitticus floricola.
*Richard Gallon has contacted me to say that on the Spider Recording Scheme database there was a record for Sitticus floricola on Whixall Moss by Dr. Jonty Denton on 27/07/2004, which is only 13 years ago.
A bit of an unusual sighting on the Moss yesterday, Thursday 17 August, a Little Egret Egretta garzetta. Whilst Little Egrets are no longer unusual in this part of the country, it’s an usual visitor to the Moss. This is because they are fish eaters and the acid pools of the Moss don’t support fish or much which is likely to be of interest to them. In other words it would be disappointed and soon move on, although it might hang around on pools in the surrounding countryside which do hold fish.
I’d just been eating a sandwich on the bench by the big pool by post 9 on the Mosses Trail, when I saw a white bird land. As my view was obscured by the tall Purple Moor Grass I wasn’t sure what it was at first. I only had my macro lens on my camera, and was just changing to my long zoom lens when it flew up, flying right above me to check me out, and then flew off. Unfortunately I only managed to snatch the shot below from behind as it was flying into the distance. If I’d been just a bit quicker I’d have got a lovely close up of it in flight.
Unusually there have been very few Common Darter dragonflies Sympetrum striolatum this year, although the Black Darters S.danae, which usually emerge at a similar time were early this year. However, on yesterday’s butterfly and dragonfly transect walk, there were suddenly lots of Common Darters about. It looks like they’ve emerged quite late. Most of the males weren’t as red as this male I photographed last year on the Moss.
Quite a lot of the Bog Rosemary Andromeda polifolia, appears to be having a bout of fresh growth and is flowering again. It’s really a Spring flowering species. This is a true bog specialist and has greatly declined because of the loss of bog habitats. Fenns and Whixall Moss is an important remaining habitat for this species and it is one of the named important species in the site’s SSSI designation.
I’d been looking for a decent day to get some photos and put together an account of what can be seen around on the Moss at the moment. Unfortunately the weather hasn’t been very cooperative this last month or so with sunshine and showers weather. To put together an overview of what can be seen around on the Moss you need a good sunny day with not too much wind. Any cooling breeze, or a lack of sun makes spotting the butterflies, dragonflies and other invertebrates of the Moss difficult as they tend not to be very visible, and even the birds tend to be quiet and difficult to see.
However as Sunday the 13 August started off sunny, with only a light breeze it was possible to take stock and see what’s around. After a period of dull, wet and windy weather often the butterfly, dragonfly and damselfly populations take a bit of a hammering. Their numbers drop because their life expectancy is short. I kept to the area known as the “Smallholders’ Triangle”, section 24, to anyone with a site safety map. This general area is popular with naturalists visiting the Moss as it contains most of the typical Moss habitat, a number of pools, and best of all contains a few lines of trees which help to ensure it’s sheltered from cooling breezes from several directions.
First of all dragonflies and damselflies. There were quite a few Common Hawkers Aeshna juncea around, with males on territory over the pools. Amongst the Common Hawkers were a few Southern Hawkers A.cyanea. These 2 species are similar in size, and are superficially similar, especially when flying. As they tend to fly non-stop, only occasionally settling, separating the 2 species takes practice. Key differences are the male Common Hawkers are all blue, whereas with male Southern Hawkers only the last few segments of the abdomen are blue (these colour impressions can be seen when they are in flight). Common Hawkers tend to appear less bright in flight, with the colours of male Southern Hawkers appearing almost luminescent. Another key difference is the yellow stripes on top of the thorax, with them being narrow on the Common Hawker, and broad on the Southern Hawker. Both species can be seen around from late June to October on the Moss. With the Common Hawker being the specialist species of acid habitats such as bogs.
By far the most numerous species of dragonfly at this time of year on the Moss is the Black Darter Sympetrum danae. These are another specialist of acid habitats such as bogs. Whilst this species is still emerging, as can be seen from the shiny wings of this teneral (a newly emerged dragonfly or damselfly), the numbers were much lower than you expect at this time of year, a consequence of weather. I only got a brief glimpse of 2 Common Darters S.striolatum, and there are very few of these little dragonflies around this year.
Damselfly numbers were much lower than usual at this time of the year, and this is the second year on the run that damselfly numbers have dropped to quite low numbers by early August. There were a moderate amount of Emerald Damselflies Lestes sponsa around, and just a few Azure Damselflies Coenagrion puella.
Butterfly numbers were also low for the time of year, as tends to happen after a period of duller, wetter and windy weather. Although to be fair this area of the Moss doesn’t support large numbers of butterflies. Probably most numerous were Green-veined Whites Pieris napi, with a few Large Whites P.brassicae. There were a few Meadow Browns Maniola jurtina and Gatekeepers Pyronia tithonus. I only saw a few Peacocks Aglais io, and no Red Admirals or Small Tortoiseshells. There was the odd Common Blue Polyommatus icarus butterfly around, and best of all quite a few Small Coppers Lycaena phlaeas, although none of them looking at their best.
It appears that the Raft Spiders Dolomedes fimbriatus bred early this year. In August you start finding lots of juvenile Raft Spiders on the vegetation, Bramble leaves, Birch leaves, Oak leaves and Bracken. In fact they can often appear to be the most numerous and widespread spider you see on the Moss, with them being found quite some distance from the nearest pool. But this year the juveniles appeared much earlier, and are more advanced and larger than usual.
You tend to find the really big female Raft Spiders on the water earlier in the year, especially May-June. But at this time of the year you will see far more Raft Spiders on the water – although they tend to be either juveniles or young Raft Spiders, nowhere near full size, as this one below.
I’ve not started a true log of current visits to the Moss yet for two main reasons. Firstly high Summer is a time of little change. Most of the Moss rarities and specialities are over, the birds go quiet, are generally hard to see, and many of the species you see around are widespread high Summer species. In other words one blog entry would read much like the next. Plus we’ve had a month or more of sunshine and sudden showers type weather which makes planning long outings on the Moss difficult.
This isn’t to say it’s not worth visiting the Moss at this time of year, because there’s always interesting things to see, or just to soak up the wilderness feeling of this huge open area of natural habitat. It’s also a time of the year when the Moss tends to look it’s greenest. As we’ll come to shortly, there’s always the chance of something really interesting turning up.
I visited the Moss on Saturday 12 August, but unfortunately the sun disappeared just after I arrived and there was a cool strong northwesterly breeze. When this happens the Moss tends to go very quite and it seems like there’s little life around. The butterflies, dragonflies and other insects all disappear, hunkering down in the vegetation. Even the birds go quiet, and it can be difficult to see much at all. However, the forecast was much better for Sunday, with only a light breeze being forecast.
Sunday was much better and at least I got some photos of dragonflies, Raft Spiders etc, for a Moss update I will put up after this entry. Slowly the blue sky started to get hidden by the sun, and it went from being sunny, to just the odd sunny spell, to being overcast. Nevertheless it was still pleasantly warm in the light breeze. I thought I’d stand out on the History Trail where there’s a good view of the open Moss and see if I could spot any of the Hobbies which are still around. I got a few distant views, but none came close. There were a few Kestrels about, and a pair of Common Buzzards had ventured out onto the Moss proper.
All of a sudden a large flock of Lapwings took to the sky from around the large pool opposite post 17 of the History Trail. I’ve had a go at counting them, and I make it just over 200. It’s difficult to count the precise number because some overlap, and the heat haze you get over distance on the Moss when the sun’s been out means everything is a bit fuzzy.
I said to myself, there’s a raptor about. Although it was difficult to tell what had spooked the Lapwings. Was it just the pair of Common Buzzards that had been around, or was it something more interesting.
Slowly the Lapwings settled, and despite scanning the sky I could see no sign of what had spooked the Lapwings. Then a few minutes later I became aware of a largish brown raptor flying low over the Moss. At first I thought it was one of the Common Buzzards I’d seen. Whilst not usual Buzzard behaviour you do occasionally see them hunting low over the Moss, likely after reptiles. Rather than lifting my binoculars up I looked through the long zoom lens of my camera because something didn’t seem right about this “Buzzard”. As soon as I saw the light coloured head, I thought Marsh Harrier, and indeed it was a female Marsh Harrier quartering the Moss. I rattled off a series of photos, although I wasn’t close enough for a really good image.
This was the first Marsh Harrier I’d seen on the Moss. They’re infrequent visitors to the Moss, and from reports I’m aware of they don’t tend to hang around long. Even though I spend a lot of time out on the Moss, I’ve not managed to see one of the Marsh Harriers that sometimes briefly visit the Moss. In other words whilst this individual might hang around for a few days, maybe a week or so, it’s unlikely to be around for much longer, and might have moved on already.
No great photos as the heat haze over the Moss destroys any image detail at distance. Both viewing and photographing anything at distance on the Moss can be difficult because of the heat haze you get over the Moss, whenever, there’s been direct sunlight. Even in the Winter a heat haze can rapidly develop after a bit of direct strong sunlight.
The Hobby Falco subbuteo is a small Kestrel sized falcon that is a Summer visitor to the UK and usually arrives from April onwards and departs by October. On the Moss they usually arrive at about the beginning of May and can be seen well into September. When the Hobbies arrive at the beginning of May their numbers build up quite rapidly and sometimes you can see over 10 at any time in the sky in the middle of the Moss, until they disperse to breed around the end of May to early June. A few will be seen around in June to July, either non-breeding birds, or those nesting locally. Then in August to September more Hobbies return to the Moss, including young newly fledged birds, but never quite in the numbers seen they first arrive in May.
They are simply the most incredibly agile and fast bird I’ve ever seen. They specialise in catching dragonflies on the wing, but will take other insects, can catch Swallows and Swifts on the wing, and have even been known to catch bats. When you see the stunning displays of aerobatics these birds put on it’s truly breathtaking. Even if you fail to get any good photos it’s never time wasted.
Whilst Hobbies can be seen anywhere on the Moss, the centre close to the Weather Station and the Strategic Starfish Site is the most reliable place for seeing them. Although later I find that the old railway line is also a good spot for seeing them. The History Trail between posts 8-17 is overall the best place to see and photograph them. There’s a bench at the Strategic Starfish Site where you can sit and wait for them.
After trying out different approaches I think you’re best off waiting in one spot for a close view and photographic opportunity, rather than chasing them around. You may see them in the distance, but if you try to move to where they are, they’ll likely have moved before you get to where you saw them. It can be not a little frustrating to see them hunting in the area where you were standing before. Be patient because the Hobbies move around the Moss, to seek out the best areas for dragonflies. When there are a lot of Hobbies gathered in May, as long as you’re in a spot where they hunt, you will get a close pass if you wait long enough
As the Hobbies on the Moss are mainly feeding on dragonflies, you’ll mostly see Hobbies flying, and especially hunting when dragonflies are on the wing. In other words the best views are likely to be in still sunny weather. I find midday to late afternoon peak time, although you can see them late into the evening. Sometimes at distance they can be difficult to tell apart from Kestrels. However, Hobbies never hover, and when not gliding tend to fly far faster and more energetically than Kestrels. They are never the red brick colour of Kestrels, being slate grey on the backs with younger birds being dull brown. Hobbies tend to have shorter tails than Kestrels and more scythe like wings, but these features can be deceiving as it depends on the angle you are viewing the bird from. The adults have distinctive “red trousers” with this being less distinct on younger birds.
When not flying, as when the sun goes in, and the dragonflies stop flying, Hobbies can be seen perched on posts such as the Mosses Trails posts, small bushes, trees, and even the weather station as below. Always check out these potential perches around the Moss.
As I write this in early August there are more Hobbies on the Moss after the usual quieter period for them in June-July. Although some of the adults are missing a few feathers after the breeding season.