Here are a few recent photos from the Rowley Hills taken over the summer. Our Bee Orchids returned once again, and we had a couple of new and notable insect sightings – Black and Red Squashbug (Corizus hyoscyami) which has only been recorded once before in the Black Country, and Long-winged Conehead (Conocephalus fuscus), the first time this species has been recorded on the Rowley Hills. Both of these species are thought to be spreading northwards, probably due to climate change, so sightings are likely to increase in coming years.
On a dry and mostly sunny May morning, 27 wildlife enthusiasts assembled just inside the entrance to Bury Hill Park off the A4123 Wolverhampton Road in Oldbury, for our walk entitled ‘Portway Hill – Green Hairstreak Search’. The route planned initially involved the ascent of the grassy slope of Bury Hill Park, which at this time of year is dotted with numerous umbels of white Pignut flowers. Small numbers of Chimney Sweeper moths have been seen here in in the past but council grass-cutting restricts this moth to a few small areas where the tractor’s grass cutting blades are unable to reach. At the summit of Bury Hill Park the ground levels out and excellent views of the surrounding urban landscape can be seen. Once everyone had gathered together, we followed the path that descends into and through the oldest of the Portway Hill quarries dating back to the late 1700s. A Speckled Wood butterfly flew by, but despite a brief appearance by a brownish-coloured butterfly or moth that quickly disappeared into the dense vegetation, which we thought might have been a Green Hairstreak, nothing came of it.
This track eventually opens out onto the lower part of the land owned by the Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country, known now as Rowley Hills Nature Reserve. The group by this time had split up into two, with the serious entomologists straggling behind searching the vegetation for insects which, on what was now turning into a very pleasant day, were becoming quite active. With such a knowledgeable group of people very little went unnoticed, and soon Dock Bug, Hairy Shieldbug and Bishop’s-mitre Shieldbug were found. Discovery of a plant bug with distinctive orange and black markings, black legs and black antennae by one of our group, was later confirmed by Ecorecord as new to Birmingham and the Back Country. Corizus hyoscyami, sometimes called the Cinnamon Bug or Black and Red Squash Bug was until quite recently only locally distributed in sandy habitats around the coasts of southern Britain, but for reasons unclear it is now rapidly extending its range to a variety of habitats inland.
Heading in a south-west direction the leading part of the group paused at the exposed cliff-face where spheroid shapes peel off in layers during weathering, and good examples of columnar jointing, caused by cracks which formed when the magma originally cooled and contracted, can be seen. It was here that a Green Hairstreak made an appearance, alighting on an Oxeye Daisy flower just long enough for two or three of the party to take a photograph. Soon it was gone and for those at the back, sadly they were not to see a Green Hairstreak, our main quarry, as no further sightings were made during the walk. We did however all get a good view of the Small Copper that obligingly settled on a nettle leaf in front of us. Not the freshest of specimens, with a piece missing from the top corner of one wing, but nonetheless always a pleasing little butterfly to encounter.
Onwards and upwards in the direction of the radio masts on top of Turner’s Hill, we passed the remains of the old double-hedgerow which at one time formed part of a track leading all the way up to Rowley Church, about a mile away. Eventually, having reached the expanse of grassland adjacent to Portway Hill at the highest point of the site, where Lye Cross Colliery once dominated the landscape, and of which sadly, no trace remains today, we looked out at a mosaic of rank grassland and flowery meadow. Ever since the land was levelled and graded with spoil from the old colliery days little has changed other than Hawthorn becoming more dominant. The overgrown Hawthorn hedges marking the old field boundaries shelter the grassland from the brunt of the cold and drying easterly winds, and in doing so provide a certain amount of protection for the many butterflies, day-flying moths and other invertebrates found here. A search of the grassland here revealed Common Blue and Small Heath butterflies, and Mother Shipton and Burnet Companion moths.
To complete our circular walk, we headed back downhill, this time taking the track on the southern side of the site, passing close to the back gardens of houses in Kennford and Wadham Close, and following the wide track along the ridge of the water-stressed banks overlooking Wallace Road, to finally exit the site near to the Total garage on Birmingham New Road. As we descended a Holly Blue was seen and a Brimstone flew swiftly by. Last year small Alder Buckthorns were planted here, with the hope that once they have established Brimstones might breed here.
Today’s visit had been very rewarding with nine different butterflies recorded; Brimstone, Common Blue, Green Hairstreak, Green-veined White, Holly Blue, Small Copper, Small Heath, Small Tortoiseshell, Speckled Wood, and also the larvae of Orange-tip butterfly on the two main foodplants of this butterfly, Lady’s Smock and Hedge-garlic.
Several moths were also seen today, Angle Shades, Burnet Companion, Cinnabar, Mother Shipton, Small Magpie, and two micro-moths, Ruddy Streak, and Cranbus lathoniellis. Additionally, both larvae and their papery cocoons attached to grass stems of Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet and possibly Six-spot Burnet moths were seen in places.
As to be expected, many other invertebrates were also seen. Harlequin Ladybird, 7-spot ladybird, 14-spot ladybird, 16-spot Ladybird, 24-spot Ladybird, Violet Ground Beetle, Umbellifer Longhorn Beetle, Thick-legged Flower Beetle, Cardinal Beetle, Common Red-legged Robberfly, Batman Hoverfly, Grey-backed Snout-hoverfly, Thick-legged Hoverfly, Barred Ant-hill Hoverfly, Empis tessellata, Tipula luna, Dock Bug, Bishop’s Mitre Shieldbug, Hairy Shieldbug, Tawny Mining-bee, Ashy Mining-bee, Red-tailed Mining-bee, Honey Bee, Tree Bumblebee, Red-tailed Bumblebee, Common Carder Bee, Early Bumblebee, Buff-tailed Bumblebee, Orange-legged Furrow-bee, Buathra laborator, Yellow Meadow Ant, Azure Damselfly and Common Blue Damselfly.
Tom Hartland Smith, Senior Conservation Officer at the Wildlife Trust for Birmingham & the Black Country, recently wrote us this summary of the past few months’ events on the Rowley Hills:
If you have not managed to come along to any of the events and volunteer days over the last few months you will have missed out on an exciting look into what moth species we have on the hillside, of which the Chinese Character Cilix glaucata was a first spot for me, but all the moths on the hillside were new records for the site – how exciting! The glorious early morning bird walk for International Dawn Chorus day was a great success and we were rewarded with a lovely sunrise with spectacular views and delightful birdsong throughout. We also had another successful and delightful butterfly walk where we were greeted with a kaleidoscope of butterflies on a hot summer day. On one of the volunteer days we popped out some new reptile mats which we have positioned to gauge if there is a population of reptiles on the hillside (no joy yet but still checking).
During the regular volunteer days we have worked on opening up some of the public rights of way, re-installing PRoW way markers and tidying up the site when we can. We’ve also been monitoring the meadow in which we found Common Spotted Orchid, which is a first for the hillside, and spreading Harebell and Yellow Rattle seeds as well as introducing Alder and Purging Buckthorn to try and increase these food plants for the Brimstone butterfly.
A new replacement interpretation panel has been purchased and is ready to be installed on the cairn on one of the upcoming volunteer days. Myself and Mike Poulton are going to be meeting to sort out doing some small mammal trapping; information about this will be posted on the Friends of Rowley Hills website in due course. If you are interested in getting involved in the surveying of small mammals on the hillside, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I hope you are all well and thank you all for making such a massive impact on a cracking site. I always look forward to the volunteer days and events on Portway Hill, as the hillside and people have so much to offer.
The numbers of Marbled White on Rowley Hills had still to peak but nonetheless we still managed a count of 17. In some years hundreds can be seen fluttering above and in between grass tufts searching out mates, or in the case of females, randomly scattering eggs on to blades of grass as they go, across the whole of the hillside. Other butterflies and day-flying moths seen on this first walk were Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Speckled Wood, Meadow Brown, Six-spot Burnet, Latticed Heath and Burnet Companion.
In contrasting weather conditions, our second butterfly walk on Saturday 15th July started off overcast and cool with a blustery wind. This did not deter 21 people from turning out and as the morning passed conditions improved considerably, although we never actually saw any sunshine. When butterflies shelter from the wind and rain they get well down into the vegetation making finding them difficult. However, it wasn’t long before one sharp-eyed group member spotted our first butterfly of the day, a Small Skipper. This small, orange-brown butterfly looks very much like the Essex Skipper. Both are found on Rowley Hills and a close inspection of the underside of the antennae is necessary to separate the two. Good photographs of both can be found in books and on the internet for those interested in seeing the differences. It wasn’t long before we spotted the first Marbled White of the day, soon followed by a Ringlet, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, and Shaded Broad-bar. The distinctive black spots on a red background of the Six-spot Burnet is a warning to would-be predators that they are distasteful and should be avoided. The closely related Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet has very similar markings and both were seen during the walk.
We were fortunate to have Richard Southwell, a well-respected local lepidopterist with us today, and he had brought pheromones along with him to try to lure Six-belted Clearwing moths. This black and yellow moth has long been known from the Portway Hill site, but is rarely if ever seen. To look at, the adult moths are similar in appearance to wasps and hoverflies and this is possibly one reason why they go unnoticed. As we approached the land owned by the Wildlife Trust, Richard went on ahead of the rest of the party and hung the netted pheromone bung close to a patch of Bird’s-foot Trefoil, the moth’s food plant, in the hope of attracting moths to the lure by the time we got to him. Alas, on this occasion nothing came. Not to be deterred we continued our walk, heading upwards along the recently opened route through the old quarry, which brought us out at the top of Bury Hill Park. As we walked, Bullfinch, Goldfinch and Speckled Wood butterflies were noted.
The views towards Birmingham and beyond from the top of the park are quite stunning, and in the unmown grassland, patches of Harebells were now flowering. Bury Hill Park grassland probably has the largest population of harebells in the whole of the Black Country and it was reassuring to see that the council had left the grass uncut giving the harebells the opportunity to flower and set seed.
Moving on from here we followed the track along the rear of the gardens in St Brades Close passing several webs of the unmistakeable Labyrinth spider Agelena labyrinthica. The webs of this spider are constructed in south-facing hedgerows from July to September and are sometimes so thickly woven that they appear white in colour. At the one end is a funnel shaped retreat, and further down the funnel there is a labyrinth of tunnels which gives this spider its name. Hidden deep down in the centre is the egg sac containing the developing young. The females remain with the young until they are ready to leave the web and in the event of the mother dying before the spiderlings are ready to leave the web, the young will eat their mother!
Even in the driest of summers the ground at the rear of the gardens in St Brades Close is always wet. Rushes, sedges, Tufted Hair-grass, Great Willowherb and Reed Canary-grass thrive in these conditions, and as we passed our eyes were drawn to the numerous little whitish-coloured cases attached to almost every flower head on the Compact Rush. These were later identified as Case Bearer moth larvae Coleophora sp. This is a large group of similar-looking micro-moths whose larvae feed on flowers and seeds of various plants from within protective silken cases.
A little further on we arrived at the only known patch of Sneezewort on Portway Hill and nearby, a large Roesell’s Bush-cricket was spotted in the grassland.
Making our way back towards the start point a second attempt with the pheromones this time proved successful and within less than two minutes of positioning the bung near to a patch of Bird’s-foot Trefoil, several male Six-belted Clearwing moths had come to investigate. It was difficult to determine just how many individual moths there were as they fly so quickly but we estimated that there were at least 12. Flushed with success the pheromones were put down in two other spots where Common Bird’s-foot Trefoil was growing, and on each occasion clearwing moths appeared in no time at all. A great finale to another interesting walk.
Mike Poulton, July 2017
We’ve added a couple of fantastic walks to our events programme for this summer. Hope to see you there!
Portway Hill butterfly walk, Saturday 24th June 2017, 10:00am – 12:00pm. Join us and the Wildlife Trust for Birmingham & the Black Country for a guided walk around the Rowley Hills. The flowers on the hillside should just about be at their best by this time and if the day is sunny we will see many species of butterflies, including Marbled White; Portway Hill is one of this species’ hotspots in Birmingham and the Black Country. Meet on St Brades Close; ensure you are dressed appropriately for the forecast weather conditions, and wear sturdy footwear. No need to book, just turn up!
Butterflies, day-flying moths and wildflowers walk, Saturday 15th July 2017, 10:30am – 12:30pm. Join FORH Chair Mike Poulton and Richard Southwell from Butterfly Conservation West Midland Branch for a fascinating walk seeking out the butterflies, day-flying moths and wildflowers of the Rowley Hills. We will even be using pheromones to attract particular species! Walking boots are recommended and binoculars would also be useful. Meet on the roadside near the Total garage on Wolverhampton Road, just below the Brewers Fayre/KFC at the entrance to the Portway Hill site.
The Portway Hill site is really coming to life now with spring flowers appearing and Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Orange-tip, Green-veined White and even Green Hairstreak butterflies putting in an appearance. Here are a few photos of some of the flowers, including a couple of fruit trees – most likely to have been seeded on the hills via bird droppings.
Although summer is over and autumn is now well and truly with us, there are still plenty of fascinating flora and fauna to be seen in the Rowley Hills. Here’s a round-up of recent sightings; don’t forget, if you’ve seen something interesting, let us know!
Bird migration is continuing apace, and taking on an autumnal flavour, with the first Redwings of the season being spotted. This member of the thrush family breeds in northern Europe and migrates south in autumn, escaping the cold weather to spend the winter in the UK and other central and southern European countries. Other migrating species seen recently include Meadow and Tree Pipits, White and Yellow Wagtails, House Martin, Chaffinch, Siskin, Redpoll, Swallow, Spotted Flycatcher, Chiffchaff, Golden Plover and Cormorant. Many thanks as always to Ian Whitehouse for keeping us up to date with his Rowley Hills sightings!
We’ve had more good news following Sandwell Council’s decision to delay cutting the grass on Bury Hill in response to our request. Not only has this allowed the Harebells there to finish flowering – enabling us to collect seed from them to sow elsewhere in the Rowley Hills – another scarce wildflower in Birmingham and the Black Country has been discovered in the same area which would probably never have come to light had the grass been cut as normal. The flower is Trailing Tormentil (Potentilla anglica); it is very difficult to identify as it hybridises with two other members of the Tormentil family, Creeping Cinquefoil (P. reptans) and Common Tormentil (P. erecta). The two hybrids and Trailing Tormentil all look very similar, having flowers with both 4 and 5 petals; however 2 experts have verified that it is Trailing Tormentil. The diagnostic feature confirming this is fully fertile flowers – hybrids are not fertile.
Elsewhere on the hills Mike Poulton photographed a Broom Moth caterpillar feeding on Red Bartsia, and another new botanical record for the Wildlife Trust’s Portway Hill site was a large patch of Sneezewort, so named because its pungent smell supposedly causes sneezing.
Mike and Doug also found an enormous spider whilst working on the Wildlife Trust’s site, which turned out to be a Four Spotted Orb Weaver. This spider holds the record for the heaviest spider in Britain!
It’s turning out to be a great fungi season too. These two species were photographed last week; Blackening Waxcap was near the Wildlife Trust’s Portway Hill site and Verdigris Agaric was on Massey’s Bank.
We’ve had some great wildlife sightings in and around the Rowley Hills recently! If you’ve spotted anything interesting, please do let us know.
At this time of year, the Hills host a continuous flow of migrating birds, which stop off briefly to rest and refuel before continuing their journey south. Recent sightings include Tree Pipit, Redstart, Linnet, Grey, Yellow and Pied Wagtails, Siskin, House Martin, Garden Warbler, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Swift, Spotted Flycatcher, Sedge Warbler, Blackcap, Swallow, Willow Warbler, Mistle Thrush, Raven, Peregrine, Kestrel, Buzzard and Sparrowhawk. Many thanks to Ian Whitehouse who regularly tweets his Rowley Hills sightings and photos!
Local resident Andrew Cook also sent us these brilliants photos of a male Kestrel sitting on his garden fence. The Rowley Hills are a great spot for Kestrels as the grassland provides the perfect habitat for voles and mice, which are the Kestrel’s preferred prey. It looks as though this Kestrel may be resting after having recently eaten, as there is a small amount of blood on his beak and talons.
Another nice local record came from Lukas Large, who recorded this video of a Humming-bird Hawk-moth feeding on nectar from Red Valerian in his garden. As the name suggests, this moth resembles a Hummingbird in flight as it hovers and darts between flowers, its wings humming; Red Valerian is one of its favourite food plants. Humming-bird Hawk-moths migrate to the UK in summer from southern Europe and north Africa.
And finally, some more great news about the Harebells growing on the hillside above Bury Hill Park. Because Sandwell Council very kindly agreed to delay mowing the grass here in order to help conserve these wildflowers, we have been able to collect a large amount of seed from them. For most of the Harebells on that site it is probably the first time they will have produced seed in living memory as by now the whole area would normally have been cut. The seed capsules will now be left to dry out and the resulting seeds sown in suitable locations elsewhere on the Rowley Hills to help to conserve a scarce Birmingham and Black Country plant. This is great news for conservation and biodiversity in the Rowley Hills and we are very grateful to Sandwell Council for their cooperation with our request to put the mowing in this area on hold.
On Saturday SandNats (Sandwell Valley Naturalists’ Club) held a guided walk on the Rowley Hills, concentrating on wildflowers and invertebrates. The weather was perfect – warm and sunny – giving optimum conditions for spotting insects, and the walk was a great success, with several rare insect species being recorded.
The group walked a circuit around the old Blue Rock Quarry. Although the height of the flowering season has now passed for many plants, there were still quite a few in flower including Burnet-saxifrage (Pimpinella saxifraga), Hare’s-foot Clover (Trifolium arvense), Red Bartsia (Odontites verna), Lucerne (Medicago sativa) and others. There were plenty of butterflies around, including a few Marbled Whites (Melanargia galathea), by now looking somewhat worn. As well as these we saw Large, Small and Essex Skippers, Large and Small Whites, Small Copper, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Common Blue, Comma and Red Admiral.
There was a noticeable passage of migrating Swifts heading south at one point, and quite a few House Martins feeding high overhead. We did particularly well for raptors, seeing Buzzard, Kestrel, Peregrine and Sparrowhawk. A pair of Ravens also flew overhead while we were looking around the Wildlife Trust’s viewpoint near the dolerite crags. Small songbirds were relatively quiet as expected for the time of year but we did see quite a few Goldfinches.
The highlight of the day was the discovery of a Six-belted Clearwing moth (Bembecia ichneumoniformis) on the Wildlife Trust’s Portway Hill reserve. This unusual moth mimics hoverfly species with its black and yellow stripes and clear wings, and is patchily distributed throughout parts of the southern half of Britain. It’s a great find for the Rowley Hills and also shows that the management the Wildlife Trust are carrying out on their land is contributing positively to biodiversity.
Another highlight was a Roesel’s Bush-cricket (Metrioptera roeselii), a medium-sized cricket which has been expanding its range north over the past few decades.
After a few hours of enjoyable wandering, sharing of knowledge and great wildlife sightings, it was time to head back home for a late lunch!
The Friends of Rowley Hills are grateful to Sandwell Council Parks and Green spaces for their recent support to protect a rare floral display of Harebells that are growing on the hillside above Bury Hill Park.
Our organisation requested that the grass cutting be delayed while these plants were in flower, until it was time for them to seed. The Harebell, a native plant with delicate blue bell-shaped flowers, was once very common but has declined alarmingly in our area in recent years. Up on the Rowley Hills above Bury Hill Park is the largest population of this plant left in Sandwell and probably the largest population remaining in the whole of Birmingham & the Black Country. Now that the cutting has been delayed, these flowers will have enough time to finish flowering and set seed, to ensure that they continue to thrive on the hills and that local people can continue to enjoy them. It’s great news for conservation to get such support from Sandwell Council.