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.
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 Pear-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.
Today I photographed a mating pair of Purple-bordered Gold moths Idaea muricata. They’re a nationally scarce moth, which don’t occur on many sites. To capture a mating pair was something I was really pleased with, and never hoped to witness, as I see very few mating pairs of moths, presumably because it takes part in the undergrowth, out of side. In fact, along with fellow NNR volunteer Barry Probin, we witnessed the whole courtship process. And a big thanks to Barry for acting as assistant with the photos i.e. removing bits of vegetation, and holding the grass stem in the breeze.
During the courtship 2 males appeared to fly around what appeared to be the female for some minutes, before one of them paired with what appeared to be the female.
It’s always been a bit of a puzzle about Purple-bordered Gold moths Idaea muricata on the Moss. All the British references say their larval food plant is Marsh Cinquefoil Comarum palustre, and yet there essentially isn’t any Marsh Cinquefoil on the Moss. So what do the larvae feed on? Even more puzzling is that on sites with plenty of March Cinquefoil, is that there are no Purple-bordered Gold moths.
I was discussing this last year, and came across this German reference, which claimed that the larval food plant was Cranberry Vaccinium oxycoccos, and other dwarf shrubs, as the larvae was polyphagous. This made sense because there is plenty of Cranberry on the Moss. Plus I’ve found quite a lot Puurple-bordered Gold. this year newly emerged in areas with lots of Cranberry.
Of course this doesn’t prove that Cranberry is their larval food plant, but it is a lot more plausible than it being Marsh Cinquefoil. This has to be confirmed by finding the eggs or larvae of the Moss on Cranberry.
PS. My apologies for not updating the blog regularly, and I hope to remedy this. Expect a big blog soon, and the latest news about species on the Moss.
This is an informational piece. Hobbies Falco subbuteo, typically arrive on the Moss around the end of April, just in time for the emergence of the dragonflies and damselflies. Quite large numbers can gather. Certainly it’s not unusual to be able to count numbers of Hobbies in the air in an area into the teens. It’s difficult to estimate the total numbers on the Moss as it’s a huge area, and likely all the Hobbies are not in the same area, or are even flying at the same. Plus they’re so fast, and travel so much ground in seconds, that as you turn your head to count others, you lose track of the ones you’ve already counted.
Typically you’ll see several together the first time they appear in late April, and then numbers will build up rapidly. The Moss seems to be a gathering point before they disperse to breed. This is the thing about these Hobby numbers, and that is they will only last until the dispersal to breed, which is somewhere from about the end of the third week of May onwards. I suspect the date isn’t fixed and it depends on weather conditions. Possibly this dispersal is triggered by there being enough food, as numbers of Odonata build up, and it means plenty of food to sustain the adults and feed the chicks when they hatch.
Generally around 1-2 pairs of adult Hobbies remain on the Moss, and maybe several non-breeding younger individuals. I don’t think these numbers are static, with possibly individuals arriving or moving on. However, once the dispersal to breed has happened it’s unusual to see more than about 3 individual Hobbies in the sky at one time, and usually you’ll just see 1-2 at a time.
For anyone hoping to get close photographs or just close views of either flying or perched Hobbies, it gets much harder after they have dispersed. With such a large area, and relatively few birds, the odds of you being in the spot where the Hobbies fly close or perch get much smaller. When there are lots of Hobbies there is much, much more chance that they’ll fly close to you, or perch nearby.
In August numbers of Hobbies will pick up again as the breeding is over and not only adults, but youngsters will appear. But numbers will generally never be as high as in early May, and individuals come and go. In addition, you’ll notice wing feathers missing on many of the adults.
Yesterday on Monday 21 May I sat out in the middle of the Moss near the weather station, which gives the overall best view over the Moss, and could only see at most 2-3 Hobbies. Mostly it was just the odd individual. Therefore I’m guessing that they’ve dispersed as it was a hot fairly still day earlier, with plenty of dragonflies about. Numbers seemed down on Saturday 19 May. It remains to be seen, but I think we’re now past peak Hobby time for this year. Numbers will rise again by mid-August when breeding is over, but it is difficult to predict how many will be on the Moss at any given time, until they leave in September.
I’m sorry for not updating the blog for some time. It’s been a strange old Winter and Spring. Firstly, as noted in my Winter Update it was unusually quiet on the Moss over the Winter, with there being much less roosting Fieldfares and Redwings on the Moss, and the virtual disappearance of Reed Buntings, Stonechats and Meadow Pipits on the open Moss (there were some Reed Buntings but only on the periphery of the Moss). This meant that quartering Hen Harriers and hunting Merlins were a rare site this Winter. Although a female Hen Harrier (Ringtail) did turned up for a couple of weeks in February.
I was longing for Spring, and thought come March everything will pick up. Unfortunately as everyone knows it’s turned out to be a strange Spring, with sudden periods of very cold weather “the beast from the east” and it’s subsequent lesser sibling later, followed by some record breaking hot weather. This meant the gradual awakening of Spring got interrupted several times, and everything was late and out of synch. I kept thinking once this or that happens, I will write a new blog entry only for it not to happen as expected.
The Reed Buntings, Meadow Pipits and Stonechats were suddenly in evidence on a cold and frosty (-5C), but sunny morning on 21 March. It was also the day the Curlews changed from their flocking behaviour on the fields surrounding the Moss, to take up their breeding territories out on the Moss.
The flooded fields were more flooded than last Winter and there were good numbers of ducks and geese, including more Wigeon the I remember in previous years. However, there’s been a curious lack of waders, even the after mud was exposed when water levels fell.
Swallows over the Moss and outside the surrounding farms were late, and numbers are still low. It appears that there’s only one male Cuckoo calling over all the Marches Mosses, which I will cover in another blog entry. It was first heard on 17 April.
The ducks and geese from the flooded fields have dispersed to breed, and many are nesting out on the Moss, including more Shovellers than I remember in previous years.
The first butterflies I saw were a few male Brimstones along the canal by the Quob in a brief warmer spell on 25 March
The first decent sized Raft Spider I saw on a pool was on 5 April. It must have been a hardy specimen because it was pretty cold at the time.
The first Large Red Damselfly I saw was on 21 April during the brief hot spell we had then. But this was a single individual. It then went very cool again, and so predictably nothing else emerged until the beginning of May. It seems to have been the first damselfly or dragonfly record for Shropshire in 2018.
My first Hobbies were seen on the 28 April, including this one, which I managed to get to within less than 15m (50 foot) from by carefully just taking one step at a time and pausing, as I do with my dragonfly approach method. I believe the first Hobbies seen by someone else were a day earlier than this.
Unfortunately the late emergence of damselflies and dragonflies have meant that the Hobbies have had nothing to feed on lower down. On the bird walk on 5 May, I promised everyone Hobbies, and whilst they were seen, they were very high. I think they were feeding on a large hatch of Mayflies being drawn up by the warmth of the unusually hot weather. Only once the damselflies and dragonflies mature and start flying low over the pools will the Hobbies really be putting on their incredible aerobatic displays.
My first sighting of a dragonfly proper was this teneral female White-faced Darter on 4 May. I’m not sure if there were any other sightings prior to this.
During the bird walk on 5 May I saw my first Four-spotted Chaser Dragonfly of the year, but didn’t get a photo until 6 May. It appears that there are no fully mature dragonflies or damselflies yet, because even during the very hot weather between 5-7 May, there was no dragonfly or damselfly activity except emergence around the pools.
Green Hairstreak butterflies have been emerging in more numbers since the warmer weather began on 4 May, but numbers are not high yet.
Wonderful male Emperor Moths have been winging around the Moss. Most of the time you just see an orange blur, and in flight they look a bit like a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly with an unusually fast wing beat. Only when they occasionally land will you see their full magnificence.
Sorry for no blog for so long. I had intended to be blogging regularly as the Moss’ bird winter visitors turned up. However, this year the Fieldfares, Redwings and other winter visitors were very late, and only then turned up in small numbers. Last year huge numbers of Fieldfares turned up on the 22nd and 23rd October, with 2 Great Grey Shrike. Every night thousands of Fieldfares roosted in the Birches out on the Moss, and even more Fieldfares, Redwings and Redpoll roosted in the trees around the edge of the Moss. I would often stay out on the Moss after sunset, and see all the birds coming into roost.
Unfortunately this year the Fieldfares were very late, not turning up until well into November, and there are very few birds roosting on Moss and around the edges – with the exception of Wood Pigeons, which I will come to later. Last winter there were very large numbers of Reed Buntings out on the Moss through the winter, along with Stonechats, but this winter there are very few. To my knowledge there have been no sightings of Great Grey Shrike on the Moss this winter.
Having said this, since my last blog I have seen more Marsh Harriers, a regular male Hen Harrier, both male and female Merlin, Peregrines, a Short-eared Owl and even a Goshawk on the Moss. However the thing is, except for Crows, and Wrens which are widespread on the Moss I have seen little else. Even the Common Snipe have been in lower numbers than usual. The lack of smaller birds on the Moss has meant that I have not seen these raptors hunting over the Moss with the usual frequency in previous years. It is this which caused me to delay writing my next blog entry. I was waiting for it to pick up. At first sight the list of rarer raptors seems very inviting, but I’ve had to put in very long hours to see these, and in between it has been very quiet with very little else to see, except for Crows, Wrens here and there and the odd Raven.
This is not just the Moss, but most of North Shropshire and South Cheshire. There are very few Fieldfares and Redwings compared to usual. There are a few here, a few there, even the odd small flock, but this is it.
However, as I said there have been huge flocks of Wood Pigeon roosting in the conifers around the north of the Moss. Back on 24 November I saw huge numbers of Wood Pigeons swirling around Maelor Forest as they came into roost. Probably a few thousand. I then scanned the tops of the trees with my binoculars anti-clockwise as I saw the Wood Pigeons were coming from this direction. Incredibly there was an unbroken river of Wood Pigeons that stretched right round to Morris Bridge, a distance of well over 2 miles. But this is the thing, they were still flying in an hour later. I would even know how to start estimating such numbers. No wonder a Goshawk was attracted by this amount of food.
One other event to report is that the flooded fields now owned by Shropshire Wildlife Trust on the approach to Morris Bridge are now truly flooded. The water level is even higher than it was in the winter of 2015-2016. Whilst this is unwelcome news to the houses close to Morris Bridge that are prone to flooding, it bodes very well for interesting wetland birds in the coming month. A quick check yesterday (23 December revealed fair numbers of Teal, some Shovellers, Mallards, Moorhens, Lapwings, Greylag and Canada Geese, with a family of Mute Swans, I’m sure more will turn up now the water levels are much higher.
I don’t want to put off naturalists and birders visiting the Moss, but be aware that if you visit, you may see some very interesting birds, but you will have to wait, put the hours in, and possibly not see very much at all in between. Below are some photos of the birds on the Moss since my last blog. Unfortunately most are distant crops, because the wide open spaces of the Moss mean what you see is often at distance.
I had intended Friday 26 October to be my last attempt at photographing some of the late season dragonflies still around. I’ve had this project in mind for a while, but photographing late season dragonflies is difficult. When the sun gets weak they don’t bask much, there aren’t so many around, and when they take off they tend not to settle again nearby. The forecast was sun all day with the air temperature low. That would be fine if the sun stayed out. Unfortunately, after about 11am clouds kept covering the sun, meaning it cooled off and the heat required to get the remaining dragonflies out never developed. I got some photos of some Black Darters, including a very fresh looking one, but didn’t manage any photos of the Common Darters or Common Hawkers I saw around.
I sat out in the middle of the Moss near the weather station by the Strategic Starfish Site, which has a bench to sit on. This gives one of the best overall views of the Moss. I was particularly interested in seeing if a Great Grey Shrike had turned up, as there were 2 individuals on the Moss last year at this time. Or maybe one of the Harriers that visit the Moss at this time of year. But after a few hours I’d not spotted anything but a couple of Ravens, and lots of Carrion Crows. So I returned to the sheltered edges to see if the now more continuous sun had brought out more late season dragonflies. Unfortunately not, and it was too late for them to emerge. I was just walking back out on the Moss when I spotted a Crow pursuing a Marsh Harrier on the other side alongside the old railway line.
Not long after I thought I spied a male Hen Harrier quartering down the north end of the Moss. Usually I tell people look out for what looks like a gull in the distance and it will be a male Hen Harrier because you don’t tend to get low flying gulls over the Moss in the Autumn and Winter. But when I looked through my binoculars, there was a low flying Black-headed Gull. I swore it had been a Hen Harrier. A bit more scanning with the binoculars proved me correct, and there was a glorious male Hen Harrier.
Not long after I saw a Marsh Harrier flying in from the direction of Roundthorn Bridge. I thought it was funny as the one being chased by a Crow had disappeared in the direction of Bettisfield church spire, meaning it must have flow back around pretty fast. Over the next hour or so I got multiple sightings of Marsh Harriers. I was fairly certain there was 2 different individuals.
As the sun was low but not yet setting I saw a Marsh Harrier heading up the Moss from the Bettisfield direction flying low and quartering, and then I saw it land. I tried getting closer as I was looking right into the low sun. I then saw it flying again, before going down, shown in the sequence of photos below.
I got in position waiting for it to fly back up for a good photo, but it never appeared, and the sun was starting to set and the light getting low. Just then I saw a Marsh Harrier flying high circling the perimeter of the Moss. As it flew above the trees along the canal dividing the Moss I saw the male Hen Harrier quartering beneath it. Two different Harrier species in the same field of view, it couldn’t get better, but it did.
I was pretty sure there were 2 different Marsh Harriers as I was certain I would have seen the other one if it flew up. The other Marsh Harrier flew up the Moss close to where the other one had gone down. I was hoping it would come up. Then suddenly there were 2 Marsh Harriers in the now darkening sky together. Both studiously ignored each other, and when their paths crossed there was no interaction at all. Then the male Hen Harrier flew low beneath them. 3 Harriers and 2 species all in the same field of view, incredible! The sun had set now, and I had to make my way of the Moss, elated at what I’d just seen.
No great photos as mostly I was watching at distance and either looking against the low sun, or it was setting. I fluffed the point where the 2 Marsh Harriers flew past each other. I was only using a single autofocus point, so it missed both.