MORECAMBE BAY, LATE JULY 2007
Although this article describes a time some 14 years ago it was ‘like yesterday’ when I reviewed my old trip report recently. Chris Winnick had asked me if I’d be prepared to write something for the Cumbria Butterfly Conservation Spring 2021 Newsletter and this account of my first visit to Morecambe Bay with BC ex-Chair David Dennis feels appropriate. I have edited-out most references to the various pubs, pints, cafés and Bed & Breakfast tales considering them to be of marginal interest to you! So, here we go:
Friday 27 July 2007, first visit to Arnside Knott
In a brisk north-westerly and in patchy sun we left the car park at the Knott and almost at once were greeted by a High Brown Fritillary nectaring at ground level on Bramble blossom. Another appeared close by sitting on Bracken. Almost immediately David saw a male Scotch Argus that gave us some photo opportunities as it rested on Bramble leaves. We spent another three hours on site never completely escaping the wind and found a solitary Grayling on the south-facing crag, and added Dark Green Fritillary, Common Blue male, Speckled Wood, Red Admiral, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Small White, and Small Skipper to the day’s tally.
Saturday 28 July: Meathop Moss and Whitbarrow
Today dawned sunny, though still breezy. With the imposing limestone outcrop of Whitbarrow on our right we quickly arrived at the narrow lane on the left signposted to Ulpha, down which lies Meathop Moss. Over the noisy cattle grid and less than a mile down the lane is the entrance to the Moss and I tucked the car into the hedge as parking was limited. A Peacock was basking on the track and there were several very dark Speckled Woods flying with the occasional Green-veined White. The marshy area at the end of the track looked ‘interesting’ but only contained the species we’d already seen. The path through the woods was lovely and quickly gave way to the boardwalk constructed across the first part of the Moss. With our wellies on we began to quarter the area military-style keeping 12 feet apart and looking ahead by the same distance as we knew that Large Heaths are spooked early. We did this for 45 minutes without seeing anything other than the occasional moth, probably Latticed Heaths. After all, it was late in the season for tullia…and then it happened: a Large Heath flew to our left and quickly settled – and posed - and flew a few more feet away, and posed again, nectaring on Cross-leaved Heath. We even shifted it a few times to get it into a better photographing position. With many good shots of this new ‘lifer’ in the camera, and with wet knees and happy hearts, we finally left this insect to get on with the rest of its life and went looking for other things at the woodland edge. Small Copper was the only new species. And there were no other Large Heaths seen. We took our time to photograph Speckled Woods that were abundant at the eastern – sheltered – edge of the wood on our way back to the car.
As Whitbarrow’s presence was too great to ignore we decided to pay it a visit and thought the south-east facing corner looked good as it would be sheltered from the wind and would catch the best of the afternoon sunshine. We tucked the car off the road near the farm at Low Fell end to avoid hindering the milk tanker that turned up just as we were parking and to give the cows plenty of passing space. Our route took us through the woods until it emerged at the foot of a long and high limestone scar dotted with buddleia and a bushy hypericum. The area was busy with butterflies and on our stroll below the scarp we noted Grayling nectaring on Marjoram – Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Peacock, Red Admiral, all three big fritillaries, Small Heath, Large White, and Meadow Brown, many of them feeding on the Buddleia. The best of the sunny weather now seemed to be over as we made our way back to Milnthorpe en route to Gait Barrows. We made a short stop at Milnthorpe to record ‘Grisleymires Lane’, a name that had particularly tickled us.
Gait Burrows NNR sits in the middle of the natural area known locally as ‘Bittern’ and boasts limestone pavement and rich woodland. A Comma flew near the gate and several dragonflies buzzed about but the cloud cover reduced insect activity to near zero. We followed the ‘Limestone Route’ across the heavily shrubbed pavement and donned our kagools as rain spots began to fall, but fortunately for no more than a minute. A Gatekeeper was the only other species to reveal itself in this lovely habitat.
Sunday 29 July: Smardale
Couldn’t believe our luck in this miserable summer to be greeted by a lovely sunny morning, but I was not too happy about the four tics discovered in pairs above each hip!
After a good breakfast, we headed for junction 38 of the M6 that would lead us east to Smardale and hopefully, Northern Brown Argus. The 50-minute drive up the M6 through Cumbria was spectacular and we reached the Cumbian Naturalist Trust car park by the disused railway in good weather. The first part of the walk leads north/south through wooded habitat and we did not see a single butterfly until the vista opened out at the second viaduct, the Smardale Gill Viaduct, where we were met by a female Dark Green Fritillary on thyme and a possible Northern Brown Argus, but challenging to identify with certainty given its battered condition. The air temperature was still cool (10.30’ish) and the breeze remained with us. We decided to cross the viaduct so that our return leg would have the sun at our backs. The south end of the viaduct is a sun trap and contained Scotch Argus (we had now found this species in both of its remaining English sites) Dark Green Fritillary, Common Blue, a definite though worn Northern Brown Argus with white forewing discoidal spot, Small Skipper, and Ringlet. We continued to walk along the track past the disused lime kilns until the packhorse bridge came into view in the valley to our left. This became our turning point and I photographed the wonderful banks covered in Betony, Fragrant Orchid, Melancholy Thistle, Devil’s-bit Scabious, Rockrose, Bloody and Meadow Cranesbills, Knapweeds, and Salad Burnet – nectar heaven! Flies had been a nuisance all day and continued to be so.
Close to this morning’s ‘sun trap’ we found a female Northern Brown Argus in excellent condition that allowed us many photographs and a lovely female Dark Green Fritillary with white spotted outer margins was also co-operative. There were many walkers treading this route today and we chatted to several of them, particularly those that were curious about what we were doing!
Back at our B&B, the sky was clear tonight and a chilly wind blew up the estuary as a curlew and other distant waders called.
Monday 30 July: Arnside Knott and Gait Barrows
Dobshall Wood Pasture was our first stop, in effect a low-lying part of the Arnside complex. It was still early for much to be on the wing but we did see Red Admiral, Meadow Brown, Green-veined White, High Brown Fritillary, and Small Copper in the flowery meadows. The weather was not turning out as forecast being quite overcast and cool as we disembarked at Arnside Knott car park at 10.30. More photos of Scotch Argus and Dark Green Fritillary were taken and a female High Brown offered good upper and underside. We were later to have a very good photo session with a female Scotch Argus, moribund now that the sun had gone. A single Grayling and a male Gatekeeper completed the morning’s work
David suggested that we should enter Gait Burrows from the southern end by Hawes Water so we parked by Challon Hall Hotel and crossed the field and damp meadows into the wood. Peacocks were abundant and in mint condition. The small triangular plot at the north-west corner of the lake was now to produce the highlight of the trip, spotted by David – an albino Small Copper, the rare form alba, nectaring on hemp agrimony. Wow! And wow again!! We pursued it for countless shots as if it was about to disappear from our lives for ever. Simply stunning! The Peacocks around the top end of the lake, although beautiful, were something of an anticlimax now.
We used the car to re-enter Gait Barrows in the formal car park and set-off at 4.30pm down the track turning right after passing between two large oaks. Small Skipper, more High Brown Fritillaries, many dragonflies and a Large White were seen as we entered the damp meadow at the bottom of the track. Horse flies found me here, and didn’t seem to like David very much either, and we became impatient to escape them.
Tuesday 31 July: Whitbarrow
Another sunny start! We spoke to Matthew Oates of the NT (who was staying at the same B&B as us) to do some Duke of Burgundy/habitat work with Sam Ellis on Arnside Knott and told them where to find alba.
They suggested a visit to North-East Whitbarrow and on arrival we were greeted by a pair of Silver-washed Fritillaries feeding on Thistle. As the track reached the open grassland at the woodland edge a number of Grayling were seen on Thyme ‘humps’ along with Common Blues, some of them initially confusing because the first impression they gave was of Chalk-hill Blues. Neither of us could get a decent photograph as they were continuously on the go.
The moor top was open and breezy so we struck across to the north-east corner of the distant wood. A boggy depression on the way revealed several Dark Green Fritillaries both nectaring and egg-laying, the latter at ground level around the stems of Bracken in unexpectedly shaded sites. We used the high stile to cross the wall into the reserve and took time out to take in the fantastic panorama north to the Lake District. David pointed-out to me the large Common Goldenring dragonfly perched on a gate which I duly snapped. On the top of Whitbarrow there were many Graylings and the occasional Small Tortoiseshell. Lunch was taken with our backs to the wind at the summit known as Lord’s Seat from where the 360º vista is hard to beat.
On the way back to the stile a couple of old Northern Brown Argus got blown along by the wind and in the lee the Graylings reached superabundance level. Some unusual and beautiful, very blue female Common Blues were noted just before the stile and further examples were photographed further on. In the boggy dip three smooth newts hung in the water of a small pond, dug-out for the benefit of sheep. More time was spent in the Thyme ‘hump’ clearing tracking and photographing these stunning blue female Common Blues.
Back into the wood and once again to the small clearing there were now four Silver-washed Fritillaries including a pair ‘in cop’. A Dark Green Fritillary kept buzzing the pair for reasons best known to itself.
We got back to the car at 5.30pm and stopped at The Ship at Storth fronting the estuary and enjoyed a pint of Theakston’s sitting outside with the evening sun warm on our backs, arriving at the B&B at 6.15pm. At 7.10 we left for the Wheatsheaf at Beetham for our last night’s dinner and very fine it was too, both the quality of the old building and the food. After dinner we walked in the dusk down a quiet country lane where an ‘old boy’ walking his dog said ‘ow do’, an expression I hadn’t heard for a long time since moving ‘down south’ from my Northern roots. The day came to a close as we spent a while gazing across the estuary in fast fading light realising that we would miss it in the days ahead.
My abiding memories of this trip, in no particular order, are the special landscapes, the concealed jewel that is ‘Bittern’, the straightforwardness and plain values of everybody we encountered, the culture surrounding walking boots, and of course, some wonderful butterflies.