Written by St Nicks Wildwatch members who meet every Wednesday to record wildlife in the nature reserve. All photos were taken at St Nicks by volunteers, including Lewis Outing, during the given period.
Painted Ladies star in abundant butterfly summer while Shieldbugs and Hoverflies are everywhere. Warblers stay to sing all summer and feed their young. Star of St Nicks’ summer flowers was the Bee Orchid.
The summer months were warm and mainly dry at St Nicks, but on 10 out of the 13 Wildwatch days there had been heavy rain the day before and overnight, so the reserve was often damp on Wednesday Wildwatch mornings. Even so, almost all our walks were rain free and most included some sunshine, enabling us to see good numbers of butterflies.
After an interesting and busy spring for the reserve’s birds, summer felt a lot quieter with noticeably less birdsong in July and August. Resident birds became more wary of drawing attention to themselves and their young, though the begging calls of juveniles were often heard. Our overseas visitors, with a slightly later breeding cycle, were more in evidence vocally, with the songs of male Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps continuing throughout the summer. We also heard the occasional singing male Whitethroat and Garden Warbler (the latter’s song difficult to distinguish from Blackcap, though practice makes almost perfect). Sadly there was no evidence that either Whitethroat or Garden Warbler stayed to breed. Several pairs of Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps did breed on the reserve, with young of both species seen.
The regular Wednesday morning Wildwatch group logged an average of 20 bird species per visit, with a total of 34 seen during the period. This total included nine species seen only in flight over the reserve: Grey Herons, Herring and Common Gulls, Buzzards, Sparrowhawks, Jackdaws, a single Jay, House Martins (but no Swallows), and Swifts. A group of Swifts on 21st August was late for this summer visitor which usually departs around the end of July.
The other 25 species seen or heard on the reserve included a Ring-necked (aka Rose-ringed) Parakeet which put in an appearance once in early August, and the occasional Whitethroat and Garden Warbler mentioned above. The remaining 22 are our ‘resident’ population, many of them in good numbers: Carrion Crow, Magpie, Woodpigeon, Collared Dove, Mallard, Moorhen, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Robin, Wren, Dunnock, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Bullfinch, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Greenfinch and House Sparrow.
Disappointingly no Kingfishers, Grey Wagtails, Goldcrests or Treecreepers were recorded by the Wildwatch group during the summer, though these are regular or occasional at other times of the year (Coal Tit young were seen in May). Some other species are surprisingly scarce at St Nicks, with Starlings and Pied Wagtails rarely seen, and not at all this summer.
At St Nicks a butterfly bonanza began at the start of July, and from then until the end of August we logged at least 10 species on most Wildwatch Walks, and 13 and 14 on two July Wednesdays. The summer total was 18 species with many in good numbers – a welcome contrast to last year’s poor totals.
Painted Lady was our star showing. This was a ‘Painted Lady Year’ – the first major influx of these migratory butterflies since 2009 – and in a few weeks in the summer an estimated half-million individuals (30 times as many as in 2018) crossed into Britain, reaching as far north as the Shetland Isles. We first spotted one at St Nicks on July 3rd, which also happened to be the date of the year’s first sighting of Large and Small Skippers, Meadow Browns and Ringlets. Skippers usually emerge some weeks apart, with the first Large Skippers seen in June, so their first appearance together is unusual. They continued in good numbers through July. Ringlets were abundant and Painted Ladies also showed well with up to a dozen individuals some weeks. For more about Painted Lady butterflies at St Nicks look for the ‘Spotlight’ on them in these blog pages.
The first Gatekeeper logged was on 17th July, and these lively and attractive butterflies stayed with us in good numbers until the end of August. In addition to those already named above, our other species seen were Brimstone, Small, Large and Green-veined Whites, Small Copper, Common and Holly Blues, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Comma and Speckled Wood. The latter is our longest-staying butterfly, seen every month at St Nicks from early April to late October.
By contrast, Damselfly and Dragonfly numbers seemed lower than usual, perhaps partly owing to the low water level in the environment centre pond. Our usual Azure, Blue-tailed, Common Blue and Large Red Damselflies were present around the reserve, while of the dragonflies we recorded only Common Darter, Broad–bodied Chaser, Southern Hawker and (a new species for St Nicks) a single Migrant Hawker.
During the summer 35 species of day-flying moths were recorded, some of them for the first time at St Nicks (e.g. Thistle Bell, Satin Grass Veneer and Buff Ermine). An interesting finding was a Narrow-bordered Five-spotted Burnet. Assuming all our burnet moths were the usual Six-spotted, one of our volunteers counted the spots and found only five on each wing. We then looked back on all our Six-spot photographic records and found some of them (from 2015, 2016 and 2018) were in fact Narrow-bordered Five-spotted. Six-spotted Burnet numbers were much higher than in 2018. One puzzle is that we see the characteristic tiger-striped Cinnabar Moth caterpillars on ragwort plants most years (quite a number this year) but it is some years since we have seen an adult of this species on the reserve.
Of the Orthoptera, Common Field and Meadow Grasshoppers were seen, but numbers of these insects are usually quite low each year.
True Bugs (Hemiptera) are a feature of the St Nicks reserve with many species recorded each year (40 this summer, five of them new to St Nicks). The most frequently seen are Shieldbugs of which we have recorded 12 species in total, and 9 this summer.
Beetles had a reasonably good year with eight new species recorded. One bright favourite, the large Red-headed Cardinal Beetle, was here in greater numbers than usual, though being a Spring species it only just crept into June. Lily Beetle was a surprise new find for St Nicks – being far from any lily plants with which it is normally strongly associated. It was good to find the striking False Ladybird beetle Endomychus coccineus for the first time since 2015. Its larvae feed on fungus.
Flies in summer at St Nicks are abundant, and few are more attractive than the many kinds of Hoverfly. This summer we recorded about 30 different species of our St Nicks total of 54, though we still have over 200 to go before finding all those on the British list! Notables included only our second record of Scaeva selenitica and several of the spectacular large Hornet Hoverfly Volucella zonaria. This species has spread from the south. One we found in 2015 was one of North Yorkshire’s first sightings. Now they are more frequently seen this far north, perhaps the result of climate change.
Over a dozen new Sawflies, Parasitic Wasps and Solitary Bees were found on the reserve, and three new Spider species. Altogether over 30 new invertebrate species were recorded at St Nicks this summer, and more than 50 for the year to date. This is a good achievement, and reflects the generally warm summer we enjoyed as well as the regular team’s increasing familiarity with species and growing identification skills.
Star of St Nicks’ summer flowers was the Bee Orchid. About fifteen of these beauties flowered here during June, in three places. They have been observed sporadically at St Nicks before – most recently in June 2017, though at different locations. Such flowery fickleness is normal for this orchid. Its dust-sized far-dispersed seeds require the presence of a symbiotic mycorrhizal fungus to germinate and grow. So when and where these gorgeous flowers appear is always going to be unpredictable.
Bee Orchids are fascinating in another way, too, that has stimulated scientific research. They have evolved to look like (and smell like) females of the solitary bee species Eucera longicornis. Male bees keep on attempting to mate with the bee-mimic flowers, thus passing on pollen to other Bee Orchids instead. But… this particular bee is scarce in Britain – and extinct in Yorkshire. Needs must. And so, despite having evolved as sophisticated floral mimics in an intricate plant-pollinator relationship, St Nicks’ Bee Orchids – like most of those of northern Europe – fall back on to the strategy of self-fertilization. However, most flowering plants do rely on insects (and not just bees) to reproduce, such as the Knapweed and Teasel seen below.
There were plenty of other flowers to enjoy at St Nicks this summer. It was, according to the Met Office one of the hottest years recorded in the UK – and York, and was also rather rainy at times – unlike 2018. Warm and wet – just what most plants like.
Too many flowers, really, to list. Most of the meadow plants showed up well. Yellow Rattle, Bird’s-Foot -Trefoil, Red Clover, Yarrow, Tufted Vetch, Lady’s Bedstraw, Ribbed Melilot, Wild Carrot… etc. Garden-escape Dusky Cranesbill did well near the Dragonstones: this is just one of several cranesbill species to be found at St Nicks. Some flowers planted last year are surviving, such as Common Fleabane, Common Toadflax, and Small Teasel. Cornflower, Poppy, Corn Marigold and other annuals provided bright splashes of colour in patches where they had been sown in previous years. Let’s just remember how unusual such species-rich grassland is nowadays. On a former landfill site, moreover.
St Nicks’ trees and shrubs continued flowering into the summer months, notably Bramble, Dog Rose, Common Lime, and the non-native “Butterfly Bush”, Buddleia. It seems that this summer’s plant-friendly weather has lead to an unusually abundant crop of berries and seeds for winter birds to feast upon. (As well as providing some of us with blackberry-and-apple crumbles). On woodland edges later-flowering plants such as Wood Avens, Hedge Woundwort, Enchanter’s Nightshade, and Greater Burnet-saxifrage showed well.
Wetland is an important habitat at St Nicks – not only at the Environment Centre pond, but also around the becks. There were big bold plants like Purple-loosestrife, Hemp-agrimony, and Yellow Iris, as well as less conspicuous species such as Gipsywort and Branched Bur-reed.
What a blooming summer at St Nicks!