Monday, July 20, 2015

Lady's Slippers, Dukes and a Ghost Deer.

In the north of England, on the borderland between Lancashire and Cumbria lies a hidden kingdom rich in strange wild creatures, exotic-looking butterflies and mythical plants. Known only to a few, but passed by many as they journey to the honeypot that is the Lake District. But if the weary traveller heading north to the land of mountains and lakes on the M6 were to accidentally leave the motorway a junction earlier they might discover this hidden land of reeds, mosses and limestone pavements and its abundant wildlife.
Most well-known in this fabulous land is the RSPB reserve of Leighton Moss with its secretive Bitterns, squealing Water Rails and gliding Marsh Harriers. But venture further down the narrow winding roads flanked by dry-stone walls and you will find other natural wonders.
My trip last May was to the Natural England reserve at Gait Barrows; an area of Carboniferous limestone pavement; rock formed before the great age of the dinosaurs. This beautiful area is home to scarce butterflies and some even scarcer plants. Not long ago the beautiful Lady's Slipper Orchid was on the verge of extinction in this country, so close that the only known site where it was found was a closely guarded secret; the site itself being closely guarded as well! But this beautiful plant has been part of a Species Recovery Programme and seedlings from the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew have been planted at various suitable locations, Gait Barrows being one of them.

Gait Barrows' limestone pavement (iPhone photo)
The footpath from the small car park was signposted with images of the orchid so finding them was a piece of cake. Although the first plants that I photographed were a cluster of Herb Paris, an unusual-looking plant that was used by medieval herbalists to ward off witches.

Herb Paris
I hardly saw a soul at this gem of a reserve never mind any witches, but that might have been due to the dull overcast conditions, or maybe everyone had gone to the Lake District that Saturday.
The Lady's Slipper Orchids were an amazing sight, their gaudy yellow "slippers" contrasting markedly with the claret-coloured petals and the dark green leaves. I took many (careful!) photographs and, I although |I know it is impossible to capture the true beauty of such a rare and exotic looking plant with a mere camera sensor, the images failed to do justice to these exquisite yet gaudy rarities. The clouds failed to clear and as I prefer natural light to flash I decided to visit nearby Foulshaw Moss and hope that the weather improved by the afternoon.
Retracing my steps along the footpath I heard the breathless song of a sylvia warbler, and was pleased to confirm what my ears were telling me when I glimpsed a Garden Warbler secreted in the centre of some bushes; its song being very similar to that of a Blackcap.

Garden Warbler
Fowlshaw Moss is an area of lowland raised peat bog and Cumbria Wildlife Trust are doing a sterling jobof restoring this habitat back to its former glory. They have introduced the rare White-faced Darter and Ospreys also nest on the reserve. From the raised boardwalk, with the aid of my 'scope I could see the two Osprey parents in trees near their nest. But what was that ghostly white shape moving through the reeds below the trees? Eventually the apparition moved into the open and revealed itself as a Red Deer, only it was white! I took a few distant record shots of this unusual animal. The warden later told me that this albino deer had been present in the area for a number of years and it had even shocked an unsuspecting motorist by dashing across the main A-road to Barrow; the driver thought he had seen a giant sheep!

Red Deer at Foulshaw

Willow Warbler

"Ghost" Deer
The day was brightening up so after photographing a confiding Willow Warbler, I returned to Gait Barrows to try and photograph the orchids again.
It was well worth the return visit as the sun was now shining and I managed some nice back-lit shots of the Lady's Slipper Orchids. Not only that, it was now warm enough for a few butterflies to emerge from their hiding places and tempt me to break out the macro lens.

Gait Barrows is home to some rare butterflies including the beautiful Duke of Burgundy, which was once thought to be a fritillary but most authorities now place it with a group of mainly neotropical butterflies called the metalmarks. All this is beside the point because the Duke is a stunning little butterfly, and even better a few were feeding on flowers right by the footpath. The areas of the reserve which contained their caterpillars' foodplants were roped off to avoid trampling, and rightly so. But the adults were no respecters of safety and flew jauntily over the tape and gaily flaunted their checkered upperwings at all passers-by.

The Duke
I also found another sadly-declining species hunkered down in the leaf litter, a gorgeous Pearl-bordered Fritillary. It is named after the seven "pearls" that edge the border of its underwing.

Pearl-bordered Fritillary
Pearl-bordered Fritillary's underwing
And after a fabulous day enjoying the stunning wildlife of the area I finished off by photographing a singing Chiffchaff against the now blue sky. A fairy-tale ending after all.



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