Monday, 31 May 2010

That's it.....I'm emigrating

Early one morning last week, we noticed out of the window a cluster of colourful balloons, like in the film Up. Apart from taking a picture, I thought no more of it until I read that the little dot at the bottom was in fact an American, who successfully floated from England to France.
This seems a good idea to me, as the weather in the south-east has been almost unremittingly dreadful since October.

I think this spring could be more damaging to wildlife than the relatively hard winter. Goodness knows what insectivores are eating - there's hardly any insects around.
However, this bloated bug might make a good meal. I saw some this time last year too, but have no idea what they are.
Some weeks ago I posted a photo of a crab spider, camouflaged in white. This one is in its yellow guise - perhaps a changeling female or a standard-coloured male.
On Sandwich Bay the early Bedstraw Broomrapes are appearing - their identity can be checked by sniffing, as their other name, Clove-scented, suggests. It is not a dignified operation, though.

A brief spell of sunshine produced some Silver-Y moths, immigrants from across the Channel. This reminds me - where are all the Painted Ladies this year? I saw my first on 9th May last year and by the end of the month we were inundated. None have been reported in Kent I believe, suggesting that none have overwintered.
At last, as I write, a glimmer of sunshine - maybe I'll stay after all.

Friday, 28 May 2010

The Last Days of May

Then along came the Last Days if May...... and it was still cold. The quick blast of warmth on the weekend has been forgotten, but the Highland Cattle managing the grasslands around Park Gate Down are dressed appropriately.
Monkey orchids have started timidly to flower on stunted stalks.
I was surprised that news of Lady's Slipper orchids flowering in Lancashire have been given national publicity, and recalled a nicely-turned passage in Peter Marren's book Britain's Rare Flowers:
The Lady's Slipper orchid is the prodigy, if not the monstrosity, of our wild flora. Its huge exotic bloom - those clashing colour, a golden clog or slipper held in the clasp of four purple banners - is a triumph of natural bad taste. It looks like some archetypal jungle plant, or the sot of thing a romantic poet might invent after a session on the opium.
The Lady's Slipper orchid has something in common with King Henry V: it became 'too famous to live long'. Our Lady's Slipper was dug up and dug up again, until none but a single plant was left.

So now that single plant is guarded by police on a golf course.

I was pleased to talk with David Arnold, descendant of Jarvist, from Vancouver, who has had a good holiday birding in England. He hadn't yet seen a yellowhammer, so here's a picture of one of the many on the face of the North Downs.

I was idly leaning on the parapet of a bridge over the disused Ealham Valley railway, a few yards from my office, when I saw a dull brown bird fluttering its wings and almost falling off its perch. A youngster I thought at first, then it flew to another and mated with it, then they flew into the undergrowth, flashing reddish tails. Nightingales - cool.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Survey in the sun

Sunny Sunday was a good opportunity to count Small Blues along Kingsdown beach. Taking it easy, time was taken for the occasional paddle, and a little sunbathing was enjoyed.
It must be summer, as I donned my shorts and sandals, making sure that my white socks were clean.
The first site by Walmer Castle held two Small Blues, feasting on the new rash of Mouse-ear Hawkweed.
On the main site by Campbells Garage, a good total of 56 were counted, which is similar to the maxima seen in the last few years. This is a lovely piece of habitat, with hot dry shingle and a rich variety of plants, a credit to its owner who has kept it safe.
The two small patches of Kidney Vetch on the rifle range held one butterfly each, while that on the golf course had none.
So far as I'm aware, this is the only Sea Kale in Kingsdown although there are more plants along the beach in Walmer. The good weather on the weekend brought the trippers, including some who bravely ignored the "No camping on the SSSI" notices.
A long-antennae'd bug visited the garden in the warmth, having apparent difficulty flying behind these great feelers. Any idea what it is?
Some weeks ago I forecast that this would be a good year for flowers, once they finally emerged from the grip of winter, and so it seems to have become. The Coldred colony of Man Orchids and White Helleborines seems larger than last year, and the plants seem strong, if rather short because of the low rainfall.

Similarly, a search for Nottingham Catchfly was not as difficult as some recently, as there are veritable drifts of this rare plant on the cliffs above Dover Harbour.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Flies and butterflies

The combination of light easterly winds and warm sunshine had the usual effect on the east coast..... a sea fret kept the village cold and clammy. Time to head inland, then, to the splendid Yockletts Bank where I hoped to find Fly Orchids for the first time.
Success eventually, when one of the numerous orchid-spotters kindly pointed one out - as is often the case, once you have seen one specimen and understood its character and habitat, finding others comes relatively easily. This despite the fact that they are small (most spikes were about 3" high), unassuming and have developed a camouflage method of looking like spent bluebell shoots.
I saw about 20 altogether - they were well worth the trip - lovely little things.

Lady orchids are plentiful in the wood too, including two adjacent light coloured ones.
A red campion plant struck me as not-quite-right, and I belatedly realised that it had a black centre to the flowers instead of white.
Common Gromwell reinforced the wide variety of species in the wood.

A Brimstone looked bright yellow when it flew, but duller of course when it landed. It was surprisingly keen on being still which is unusual for this type of butterfly - egg-laying perhaps (I didn't look too closely, as privacy should be respected at such times).
The Brimstone was a big brute, and I was pleased to see the smallest - Small Blues - had emerged on my return to Kingsdown, where the mist had finally rolled away to expose blue skies.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Seek beauty and - sometimes - ye shall find it

A few more piccies from the weekend in Hampshire, a bucolic county of rolling hills and beech hangars, sandy commons and lush hedgerows.
Under the brow of Butser Hill is a recreated Iron Age village, with a cluster of roundhouses built according to archaeological finds (you can just hear Tony Robinson getting excited about the post holes). The techniques required just to put up the rooves are impressive (take about 30 long poles in a star shape, bind them together and infill with spars and thatch).
There was a clump of woad which is used to test Julius Caesar's view that the Ancient Britons that he met at Kingsdown (well, maybe Walmer) in 55BC were painted blue with indigo woad dye. The skills required to dye cloth are on this site if anyone's keen on the style.

The largest colony of Narrow-leaved (Sword-leaved) Helleborines in Britain is in Chappetts Copse, near West Meon, and fortunately they bloom early - but not quite early enough this year for my visit. Thanks to Nigel J for the identification.

Hidden in the bluebells are two very young fawns, whose mother was disturbed by the close passing of walkers - going to investigate, my friends saw them up close - mother hopefully will have returned, to avoid a tearful Bambi end to the story.

And for another picture of beauty - did you ever see anything as lovely as this Dingley Dell?

Water violets in full bloom in two shallow ponds not far from houses, railway and motorway - may they survive and prosper.

Sunday, 16 May 2010


"I well remember that dreadful winter of 1739-40, that cold north-east wind continued to blow through April and May...." wrote the Rev. Gilbert White in a letter to the Hon. Daines Barrington.

And the cold wind is still blowing, although one good day was had from the weekend, and I spent part of it kicking up leaves on Selbourne Hangar, looking for a needle in the proverbial - a small brown shoot in a dark brown wood.

We've been to The Wakes before, where the good parson spent his time investigating nature and writing advanced thoughts about it, and about birds in particular.... whether they migrate, what drives their behaviour, how many willow-wrens there are.... If only he could have met Charles Darwin working a century later.
So instead of visiting the house again, there was time to explore his village and its surroundings, including the Hangar, a hill covered in beech trees which give such shade that little can grow beneath. The new leaves shone fluorescently, but the woodland floor was dark.
But with a little fortune I found what I was looking for - a Bird's-nest Orchid.
Not very prepossessing - like a small shoot of asparagus blanched under a pot. The flowers had yet to open, but I think that will not change the plant much.
Also in and around the woods were plants that aren't seen in East Kent, despite being on chalk.

Sweet woodruff

A commotion of strange mewling calls made me look up at a hole in a beech tree, in time to see a large brown bird flying off - a buzzard or an owl? A similar noise from a nearby yew gave away the position of a ball of fluff and confirmed the parent's identity.
The parent flew again and perched - I wish it luck in dealing with the troublemaker in the yew.
Gilbert White wrote that "the young of a white-owl are not easily raised, as they want a constant supply of fresh mice: whereas the young of a brown owl will eat indiscriminately all that is brought; snails, rats, kittens, puppies, magpies, and any kind of carrion or offal'.