Thursday, September 2, 2010

Butterfly Haven

Today's Guardian Country Diary is an account of a visit to Hawthorn Hive on the Durham Coast, just south of Seaham. As soon as you start to descend the steep steps down to the beach you leave the cool south-westerley prevailing wind behind and find yourself in a sheltered bay, looking outwards towards the North Sea horizon. Until about thirty years ago the bay was used for dumping colliery waste (you can still detect a whiff of coal and find colliery artifacts, like bits of conveyor belt), but since that stopped it has gradually recovered. The shelter and warmth at the base of the cliffs provides a haven for wild flowers and insects - notably butterflies.


Down at the cliff base the warmth and shelter encourage early flowering and rapid seed development. These downy rose hips were ripe and already beginning to soften.

This is the seed head of a greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) plant. It's particular warm close to the limestone cliffs, thanks to the reflected heat of the sun, and there the dry seed heads open into this star-shaped conformation, releasing the seeds. You can see a couple of seeds, with their pappus of bristles, still there in the centre.

There's a wealth of limestone-loving native wild flowers down on the beach and one notable alien introduction - a massive clump of montbretia (Croscosmia x crocosmiiflora). The parents of this garden hybrid orginated in South Africa. It's a bit of a mystery how the plant reached this bay, which is a long way from the nearest house garden, but it thrives at the base of the cliffs, where the temperature when this photograph was taken must have been close to that of its ancestral home.

Bees visit the montbretia flowers but most of the butterflies, like....

.... this peacock, which was drawn to the knapweed ....

... and this one, feeding on the dense patches of devil's bit scabious just below the cliffs ....

.... feed on the native wild flowers. On this visit we counted 16 species of butterfly, including commas (above), small whites, large whites, green-veined whites, small coppers, common blues, red admirals, peacocks (in large numbers), small tortoiseshells, meadow browns, a single painted lady, wall butterflies, speckled woods, small heaths, ringlets and a large skipper...............................but definitely no heath fritillaries - the photograph of these butterflies that accompanies the piece in the on-line Guardian is pure fantasy on the part of the newspaper's picture editor - there are no heath fritillaries in the north east, or indeed anywhere north of Essex.

 There are more accounts of the flora and fauna of Hawthorn Hive at http://cabinetofcuriosities-greenfingers.blogspot.com/search/label/Hawthorn%20Hive

16 comments:

  1. This looks a great place. Beautiful photographs. Something for me to aspire to.

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  2. Fascinating posting, Phil, and beautifully illustrated as usual. Your mention of Devil's Bit Scabious reminded me of many years ago, when butterflies was a major interest to me, coming across a good sized colony of Marsh Fritillary when on holiday in Sussex. I took a dozen caterpillars home (about 160 miles away) - something that I felt quite guilty about after the event. I had the Devil's own job, finding enough Devil's Bit Scabious to feed them on. I had one near disaster when my cat clawed the netting of the cage, and by the time that I found it, all the caterpillars had escaped (the cage was in a sheltered position in the garden) . It took me a couple of hours to round them all up again, but all were accounted for and rescued. I did not feel so bad about my actions when, the next year, I was able to return all twelve as healthy butterflies to their point of origin - probably a far better survival rate than they'd have had if left in the wild. However, this still does not justify my actions, and I have never repeated such an exercise since.

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  3. Phil,
    Is this the beach known as Blast Beach?
    If so , i visited it a little while back and remember reading that it used in some scenes from one of the Alien films. Also, i remember the strange coloured pools of water!!!!!
    John

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  4. That's a lot of butterflies to visit one place Phil. A real haven for them. Cracking pictures too.

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  5. Great shots of the flutters. Here I have seen very few of any variety this year not even to the lavender they visited last year.

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  6. Hi Adrian, funny how sites like this, that have been knocked about a bit, are often the most interesting for wildlife. Some of the best known 'beauty spots' can turn out to be quite disappointing for everything except the view..

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  7. That's really interesting Richard, because I've just read a book called Butterfly Farmer by L.Hugh Newman, who bred butterflies as a profession, taking over the business started by his father in Edwardian times. It's full of insights into the problems of breeding butterflies in captivity - including keeping the parasites at bay. Well worth getting hold of a copy if you haven't already read it - it was published in the 1950s.

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  8. Hi John, Blast beach is the bigger one a bit further north at Dawdon,just south of Seaham Docks. I know what you mean about the colour of the water in those pools - it looks like it would dissolve your feet if you paddled in it. Hawthorn Hive is the one at the mouth of Hawthorn Dene - you can reach it from the Dene, under the railway viaduct, or down the steps on the cliff..

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  9. Hi Keith, it must have been an extra-good year for peaccocks there - never seen so many.

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  10. Hi John, funny how butterfly numbers fluctuate so much. Last year we were infested with painted ladies from early June onwards - yesterday I saw only the second one this year...

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  11. Phil, I sometimes wonder if Daphne Du Maurier visited. In 'Rebecca', the way she describes the woods at Manderley leading to steep winding steps going down to the cove..... well, it sounds just like Hawthorn Dene! :)

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  12. The peacock butterfly is beautiful. I haven't seen one. It is heartening that the land restores itself and the plants take over even the colliery dumps.

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  13. Thank you for that info. Phil. I know the viaduct you mention. Will definitely call next time i'm down that way.
    Thanks again
    John

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  14. Hi Lesley, I guess little isolated coastal coves like this are ideal locations for romantic novelists..

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  15. Hi lotusleaf, some of the peacocks hibernate over the winter and are often amongst the first butterflies to reappear here in spring..

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  16. Hi John, you're right about the filming of one of the Alien movies at Blast Beach. The closing shootout scenes of Get Carter were filmed there too...

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