Finding Wildlife: Research is not a dirty word

Posted on 19th January, 2020

Spot the Green Hairstreak butterfly on this bracken
Spot the Green Hairstreak butterfly on this bracken

Last year I took a lot of photographs of wildlife focusing on several species in particular. I had a fairly long list because I was keen to get out more, and by focusing on specific wildlife means you are forced to make the necessary effort and also make sure you increase your chance of a good shot. Certainly better than just tromping about willy-nilly in the hope you might see something. Most species are at the very least region specific, and many are also time critical too.

As an example, I wanted to photograph a specific butterfly last year – the Green Hairstreak. Although (living here in the Derbyshire Peak District) I have occasionally seen them in my garden, they really are specific to certain environments.

Coupled with this is the timing. No point looking in September for a species that are active in spring.

So, first thing is (don’t groan!) – RESEARCH!!

Yeah I know some will blench! – but you really shouldn’t. It’s necessary and actually quite rewarding.
For many, when I mention research, this seems to be limited to simply going onto some Facebook group and saying “I want to photograph X, where should I look?”

There is nothing wrong with this, but to be honest you really are missing a trick. You really are. You may get some information, but often (particularly if no-one really knows you on that group) the likelihood is they may not give you much to go on. This is particularly true with rarer species, such as Adders.

And why should they? - they don’t know your motives, and even if your intentions are honourable, it doesn’t mean people will hand out information that results in every Tom, Dick and Harry turning up and trampling the area flat. So, I find that this approach isn’t really useful unless it is a tight group and they know and trust you. And trust is earned – usually through reputation or example.

Anyway – people like to help people who help themselves. You will find it much more rewarding if you start off by reading what you can about the species you wish to photograph. Someone telling you where something might be found is fine. But nothing beats the thrill of having put in the groundwork yourself; done it all off your own back by reading and applying that knowledge, and then going out and putting that into practice.

It really is fantastic when you do all this and then go to a location based on your research and see the species you are after. It’s a real buzz!

 

A male Adder on Derbyshire gritstone
A male Adder on Derbyshire gritstone

Also, the more you do this, the more you will meet others, who will likely share information with you. The day I posted a picture of a male adder in a local Facebook group, I got a blizzard of two different types of message. Most were “where did you see this mate?” but the others were from people who guessed where I was and volunteered more information about other areas. In other words, I got more information from people who would not likely have responded if all I had initially done was asked “where can I find adders”. (I know that because two years beforehand I had asked that exact same question and got nothing!) 

Incidentally – the ones I got asking where I had seen it – I gave no specific information out at all. That may seem harsh, but I don’t know the intentions of those people. . . back to that old chestnut!

Back to research! - the internet is perfect for this. So much information. In fact, there is often TOO much information and much of it can be conflicting!

I would avoid the groups generally when I first start looking (Facebook for example) - I don’t ignore them completely, but I tend to read reliable sources. Some Groups are good and worth joining anyway – and you may garner some useful information. I am not saying don’t use them, I’m just saying don’t rely on them.
I think Wiki pages are fairly general and sometimes worth a look. There are also official bodies, like the Wildlife Trust, and unofficial bodies like Enthusiast Groups or Individuals who run their own sites.

In the example here – the Green Hairstreak butterfly – I would look online on sites like this one : The Butterfly Conservation Group 

They have a good website. So, here in a single page is a wealth of information:

  • Sightings indicate it is pretty widespread and therefore fairly common. Pay particular attention to the status – is it endangered? (Or illegal without a license to take a photograph or disturb the species you wish to track down? – some are – some Bats and Owls for example you need an appropriate licence and reason!)
     
  • If a butterfly is particularly endangered then you should certainly consider this when you decide to go off looking for one. Even if it isn’t against the law, it’s crucial to have in mind that you need to take extra care not to damage the foodplant or environment it lives in. Some species of butterfly are almost extinct in this country – so rare that their presence is reduced to a very small area indeed. The last thing it needs it extra pressure from a horde of photographers – myself included ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
     
  • In the case of the Green Hairstreak for example, at time of writing this blog, the text on the Conservation page reads “Although this is a widespread species, it often occurs in small colonies and has undergone local losses in several regions.
    That means sightings are likely to be localised in areas and clearly some small colonies have suffered. That could be weather or other natural factors, but often it is because of something we humans have done. If it’s because too many of us descend on an area it is a tragic shame.

I’m not trying to sound like some Holy Wilhelmina – just be aware and respectful is all. We all have an impact however hard we try. Doesn’t mean we should all stay home :) 

 

Lifecycle
Lifecycle

Next of interest in particular is the lifecycle. You can see that the adult is really only active from around April to July : -

No point really looking in late August for example.

Be aware too that depending on where you live (and also the climactic conditions in a particular year) this may be extended or reduced. For example, last year I found quite a few Green Hairstreaks in early April. In fact I was surprised to find them because I was actually searching for Adders at the time.

So, a very useful start.

Books by fotovue and collins
Books by fotovue and collins

Next, as a resource, I also love books. Some people don’t like reading books, but I have always had a passion for reading. I tend to buy reference books as “proper” books – by which I mean paper books, but I also buy a lot of eBooks – partly for ease and speed, but also because I can take several with me into the field without the weight of a proper book. Somehow though, I like the feel and accessibility of a proper paper-based field guide. I can add pencilled notes and it doesn’t matter if it gets damp or knocked about.

I don’t wish to litter this blog with lots of recommended books, but I will list a few at the end. However, for completion here I would say that for landscape photography and also one wildlife book of note, you can’t go far wrong with the fabulous guides from FotoVue. This company uses local photographers in each area to write their books in conjunction with the editor and owner Mick Ryan. They are written with passion and usually take a few years to complete, but they are very specifically written by photographers for people wanting to take photographs.
Packed with information and beautiful, inspirational photographs, they provide a wealth of location information and also the best times to be there.

I love too the Collins series of books. They do several ranges of book – from larger detailed tomes that are fabulous but heavy, to lighter “field guides” that aren’t as packed but are wonderfully useful for the more common sightings.

 

The next thing to research is the one often overlooked. Plant foods for the larva (caterpillar) and adult are often very specific and therefore you need to be able to identify these plants in order to maximise your chances of finding the butterfly. Butterflies lay their eggs on plants their caterpillars eat. That simple. You may not find a stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) appetising, but a Red Admiral larva will love it !

So, a good book or resource on flowers is essential.

According to the Conservation website, the Green Hairstreak caterpillar prefers the following “Common Rock-rose (Helianthemum nummularium) and Common Bird's-foot-trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) are used on calcareous grassland, while Gorse (Ulex europeaus), Broom (Cytisus scoparius), and Dyer's Greenweed (Genista tinctoria) are used on heathland and other habitats. Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is used almost exclusively on moorland and throughout Scotland. Other foodplants include shrubs such as Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea), Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), Cross-leaved Heath (Erica tetralix) and Bramble (Rubus fruticosus).”

This whole paragraph is a mine of useful information. It clearly states several plants that grow well on heathland – and certainly here in the Peak District, where we have a lot of what we locally refer to as moorland. If you look at the definition of “heathland” we find “A heath is a shrubland habitat found mainly on free-draining infertile, acidic soils and is characterised by open, low-growing woody vegetation” – in other words our peaty moorland is probably ideal. Gorse loves acid soil, as does bilberry.

That said, Birds-Foot Trefoil is common too in our White Peak valleys – which is limestone and not acidic. However, I would certainly focus first on open moorland, probably in the Gritstone areas where we head from what is known locally in Derbyshire as the Dark Peak.

 

So, what we are aiming to do therefore is to go out sometime from April onwards, on a relatively warm day (Butterflies need to warm up to fly), hopefully not too windy, (They may fly but they will be buffeted all over and photography will be all the more difficult) and on health land where there is an abundance of the caterpillar’s favourite foodstuff – heather, gorse, rock-rose, bilberry etc.

Streams. Butterflies don’t really need a stream, although you will see some species drinking occasionally on a glistening rock when it’s hot. But many plants tend to congregate naturally along streams for obvious reasons, especially shrubs and cover plants. Butterflies lay their eggs such that they are relatively protected – under the leaves for example and the more vegetation the better. More water – more vegetation.

I found too they loved to settle on the long grasses basking in the weak spring sunlight. They did tend to bask with wings closed at rest so it’s extremely unlikely you will get a picture of one with wings open unless it’s in flight. So a side-shot was inevitable which meant a low angle and that meant me grubbing about on the ground. I did get wet and muddy (In fact, I actually fell down the bank and landed in the stream but that was a separate story!! ) I intend to cover waterproofs as part of several gear blogs later on. Suffice it to say, wear waterproofs to avoid getting wet and messy if you like.  

 

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