After confirming my suspicions that Stigmella aurella is pretty much as common as muck…

Sigmella aurella vacated leaf mine, Slidderyford, Newcastle

Vacated Stigmella aurella leaf mine at Slidderyford

… I headed into Murlough yesterday to see what the Marsh Fritillary caterpillars were up to. As I did I heard the chuck of my first Stonechat of the year.

The last brood (2010-11) saw healthy numbers of caterpillars at the entrance to the No Dogs area at J398338. This time round I only found two webs where there had been six or seven before. And only one of those was up and about yesterday:

Marsh Fritillary caterpillars, Murlough, 25 Feb 2012

They're back!

Marsh Fritillary caterpillars feeding on devilsbit scabious, Murlough, 25 Feb 2012

Eat! Eat!

There were about 40 caterpillars here – mostly clustered together for warmth, but a few were getting tucked in to some devilsbit leaves, as you can see.

After a fruitless check for any other webs nearby, I walked north to J405343 – the main Marsh Fritillary colony in the reserve. It was cold, overcast, and there seemed to be dead rabbits around every corner. When I reached the south-facing bank where I had seen a web last brood, it didn’t take me too long to find another mass of black caterpillars like spilt caviare on the slope.

Pretty soon my camera ran out of battery, which mercifully stopped me filling my SD card with dozens of caterpillar photos! They really were common. I wasn’t sure whether to count individual masses as ‘groups’ of larvae, so I decided to count a group as any caterpillars within 1m of each other. To be sure I was giving an accurate idea of their abundance, however,  I basically counted them caterpillar by caterpillar. They amounted to 470 in total.

Finally I left the little caterpillars and dead rabbits and headed back to the caravan for lunch. The sight of a Kestrel hovering over the golf course greeted me when I arrived back.