A verdant jewel, serene and scintillating, helicopters above a heathland brook. A split-second later, a winged warrior – its black body banded yellow – plucks it from mid-air. As summer heightens and breeding birds go undercover with their broods, another life-form accelerates into the skies with a riot of colour and pace... dragonflies! Come July, Britain's skies are filled with winged wonders: butterflies and dragonflies, hoverflies and moths. This month also excels for lolling in meadows, letting the orchestral strum of crickets and grasshoppers wash over you.
But, first, dragonflies. Not for nothing are they known as the 'birdwatcher's insect'. High-octane predators, dragonflies have unrivalled powers of flight and sight, dexterity and determination. Their names evoke flight styles: hawkers and skimmers, chasers and darters. With 40-odd species active, electing where to focus is not straightforward. July is the swansong for demoiselles (the opening paragraph's gem-cum-prey), but the best month for golden-ringed dragonfly (their predator). The heathland habitat also hosts keeled skimmer and black darter, plus uncommon damselflies such as southern, small red and scarce blue-tailed. Ruddy and common darters flutter into the air, freshly unfurled wings glistening. All three emeralds are flying, even if seeing northern means visiting the Scottish Highlands (not a hardship!).
Even without damsel(flie)s in distress, July sees a profusion of aerial action, notably butterflies. The glowing embers of fritillaries are airborne, with silver-washed, dark green and small pearl-bordered the most widespread, and High brown the most localised. This month, target butterflies favouring specialised habitats: marbled white on chalky grassland; mountain ringlet (rugged northern uplands); white admiral (wooded suntraps); and silver-studded blue (heathland). White-letter and purple hairstreaks descend from the wooded canopy to slurp sugary solution on low-lying scrub.
July is the busiest 'moth-ing' month. Day-fliers proliferate, so look for carpets and burnets plus attractively named critters such as purple-bordered gold, July belle, and silver y. Notwithstanding such diurnal riches, it is dusk that get moth-ers' juices flowing. A balmy midsummer night sees up to 50 species divebombing traps in gardens, with double that in woodlands. Prepare for a quartet of yellow underwings plus various footmans, arches, waves and wainscots. If you don't own a mothtrap, make sure you attend a moth-trapping event at a nature reserve!
Arguably the finest profusion of all British flora is found on certain Hebridean islands such as Coll, and July is its focal month. This is the machair, one of Europe's rarest and most botanically diverse landscapes. An amazing 45 plant species may inhabit each square metre – creating a vibrant mosaic of pink, white and yellow. July is also a sterling month for orchids, notably the willowy, aloof group known as helleborines. Among other orchidaceous treats, creeping lady's-tresses twirl in Caledonian pine forests and chalk downlands are flecked with various magenta and lilac orchids, whilst seeing the tiny bog orchid requires tiptop vision.
Insects are not solely aerial this month. Drop to your hands and knees to marvel at mini-beasts. Tiger-beetles provide some of the most intoxicating encounters. These are fleet-footed, ferocious predators worthy of their feline moniker. Green tiger-beetle is the most sumptuous, widespread and common. Its cousins are rarer, with precise habitat requirements enshrined in their names. My favourite is the dune tiger-beetle, which scurries along sandy coasts in East Anglia, Kent and around the Bristol Channel. And then there are grasshoppers and crickets. Listen to their clicks and wheezes, then track them down on the ground or in low-lying vegetation. I know nobody who has not gasped at the size of a great green bush-cricket when they first clap eyes on it!
Our marine environment is fun during July. Whether you fancy a rockpool ramble, snorkelling with sharks or a visit to a hectic seabird colony, there's an exciting day out awaiting you somewhere along the British coastline. Talking of birds, this is also the month to catch up with some of our scarcer breeding birds if you have not done so already: but will you choose to look for honey-buzzard on the North York Moors, dotterel in the Scottish Highlands or cirl bunting in Devon? Or why not all three: you have 31 days available, after all...
These dragonflies are gigantic, ostentatiously black and yellow, and take no prisoners. With limes for eyes, it looks for ferocious – and so it is... for smaller insects. As a hunting machine, this dragon takes some beating. The best places to catch a glimpse of it this month are the heathlands of Ashdown Forest in Sussex, New Forest National Park and Dowrog Common, Pembrokeshire.
Helleborines are orchids, but not as you know them. Between ten and 13 species of helleborine grow in Britain – the uncertainty stems from controversy on what constitutes a ‘species’ – and most are undemonstrative, understated plants. Not for vivid helleborines the pinks of marsh orchids, the ostentation of bee orchids or the reptilian idiosyncracy of lizard orchids. Helleborines are leggy, willowy and aloof. Aristocratic orchids, if you will. Head to Sheepleas in Surrey's North Downs to spot narrow-lipped and broad-leaved helleborine.
If the day is warm, head to Prees Heath (Shropshire) or Cannock Chase (Staffordshire) and scan upwards for hobbies. These falcons are all angles, all speed: agility in avian form, with Prees dragonflies at their mercy. To watch one plummet from upon high, only to pull out inches above heather or waterbody, a dragonfly clasped between its talons, is a quintessential – and, joyously, increasingly common – summer wildlife experience.
Great-green bush cricket
The great green bush-cricket is by far Britain’s largest example of either cricket or grasshopper. This insect is precisely what it sayson the tin: huge and intensely verdant. Spotting one munching in juncus along ditches perpendicular to Benfleet Creek (Essex) may startle even the expectant. Better to listen for this bush-cricket’s penetrating, rattling ‘song’ that carries an impressive distance, then track it down with hands cupped over your ears to serve as parabola.
The badger is familiar to us all – yet those who have seen one alive are surprisingly few. In general, our badger-encounters are with cylindrical, motionless lumps on the roadside, victims of our motorised lifestyle. Accordingly, your summer of British wildlife would be incomplete without bringing to life these mysterious mint-humbugs. There are three main ways to watch badgers intentionally. You could follow countryside clues – spotting badger walkways or tell-tale bare earth riddled with holes like a Gorgonzola cheese – to discover your ‘own’ sett, near home. Second, seek landowner permission to visit a known sett, closeting yourself into the crook of a trunk in pursuit of concealment and comfort. Thirdly, pay to view from an established watchpoint over a sett – Dorset’s Old Henley Farm is one such location.
The dune tiger-beetle is as fearsome and fleet-footed as its feline namesake. It’s also excitingly rare, occurring locally on dune systems in East Anglia, Kent, Wales and beside the Bristol Channel. At Holme Dunes in Norfolk, you should spot several ‘tigers’ scurrying across the sand, occasionally taking to the air for a few metres, as if the substrate scalds their feet too much for them to remain still. All are big-eyed and striped violet-black and cream. Stunners.
For more wildlife experiences to enjoy this summer, check out James Lowen's book: