A humble bramble patch may not seem to offer much to the casual walker. But for anyone interested in butterflies it can be rewarding. I was in Titchfield Haven, a National Nature Reserve on the Hampshire coast. I had joined one of the coach trips organised by the RSPB Central London Local Group. After alighting from our coach we walked to the ‘Cottage’ which despite its humble name housed a good visitor centre of a fair size with amenities including a café serving a mix of hot and cold food. On a warm June day, some of the locals who had arrived earlier had elected to sit outside in the small garden. Although the centre does not have inside seating with a sea view, it is just a few metres away from the Solent. Opposite the centre, many small sailing craft were berthed in a marina next to the road. Two juvenile Shelduck swam past just a few feet away from the sea wall which was being pounded by waves driven by a strong wind. Windsurfers road the waves and a kite surfer went skidding fast across the waves.
Having paid to enter the reserve, we entered it from the east entrance. I stayed close to the group leader Andrew Peel as he is full of useful tips. I could not keep pace with him and the main group for long as we chanced upon the bramble patch soon after entering the reserve. I was initially struck by the bramble flowers being visited by numerous bees and bumblebees. Generally, with most animals including insects, they are more numerous in the tropics. But this is not the case with bumblebees which are animals of temperate latitudes. Britain is a sort of hotspot for bumblebees with 10 percent of all the species recorded in the world found here. Bumblebees are quite tricky to identify and I had not planned to linger long until a flash of saffron delicately patterned with black markings caught my eye. A Comma butterfly at the back of the patch came to my attention and then I began to notice more butterflies. Two small species of butterflies which are subdued and brown overall; Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers, were also busy visiting the flowers. The Comma gets its name from a small white comma shaped mark on its underwing. The underwing in the Comma as with many species of butterflies is dark and often coloured and patterned cryptically to help it avoid predators. When they are resting, the wings close upright with the nondescript colours camouflaging it. Another butterfly was present which had an even darker and plainer underwing but nonetheless is a dazzling little jewel to look at when its upperwings are stretched open. This was a Peacock. A few Whites flitted around. In the path which continued through wooded patches Speckled Wood butterflies held territory, sometimes spiralling tightly into the air as they fought each other. Woodland rides with dappled light and shade is a typical place to find them.
Titchfield Haven is known as a good place to see Water Voles. As a result of changes to habitat mainly from land use changes from agriculture and water management and the introduction of the Mink from North America, it has been lost from over ninety percent of sites it previously occupied in Britain. Although it can be locally common, most Britons have not seen one. Conscious that I had travelled two and a half hours by coach to see things that are not so easy to see within London’s nature reserves, I caught up with some of the group that were vole watching. An adult Water Vole was making regular forays into the centre of the pond to make off with juicy aquatic leaves. One member of the group told me that it was the first Water Vole he had seen. The Water Vole is known to many Britons as Ratty in the popular children’s story Wind in the Willows. Whilst we waited for its reappearance, I fell into conversation with a local wildlife photographer. Wildlife watching can be a social pursuit with strangers often swapping notes and sharing anecdotes. We turned our attention to the many Azure Damselflies. One pair was in tandem with the female having her abdomen submerged whilst she felt about the aquatic vegetation with her ovipositor to lay eggs. The male grasped her firmly from the head to ensure no passing male could snatch her. At least two males investigated their chances of stealing the female before deciding to give up.
A photographer from the group who had been to the other side of the reserve told me that Black-tailed Godwits and Dunlins could be seen close to one of the birdwatching hides. I hastily rushed out of the east entrance of the reserve, along the main road running past the sea and back in through a pair of steel gates to enter the west entrance to the reserve. A large area of Phragmites reed beds bordered the water and the wind rolled through them forming waves just like those on the sea. At the first hide was a small flock of Black-tailed Godwits with many of them still sporting the rust red of their summer plumage. A small island on the water was shared by Redshanks, Oystercatchers, Common Terns, Black-headed Gulls, Avocets, Teal, Gadwall, Shoveler and a Black-tailed Godwit in breeding plumage. A small flock of Dunlin was in fairly close range. I could see the black on the belly which they acquire in breeding plumage. The majority of Dunlin breed during the summer in the Arctic circle. In the winter when the Arctic tundra is frozen, they migrate South to temperate and tropical latitudes. During the northern winter it is one of the more common waders on Britain’s coastline.
The coach trips run by the nature groups in London are timed to allow at least five hours in the field. On a summer’s day in July this meant the coach returned to the Embankment tube station in central London by 6.30 p.m. with plenty of summer light still left in the day. I decided to take a forty-five minute walk home along the River Thames with the ragged outline of the city piercing the sky and the haunting calls of Herring Gulls mingling with the music being mixed by DJs on the South Bank’s riverfront.
A number of groups in London organise a range of birdwatching and other nature walks as well as day trips by coach or using public transport to sites further afield from London. Three groups which are especially suited for residents and visitors in central London are: London Natural History Society, Marylebone Birdwatching Society and RSPB Central London Local Group.