Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Get your retaliation in first

Last evening, I enjoyed a late Vimto in the garden as darkness decended. The cat was nearby, hoping for some cheese. A male tawny owl was calling some way off, but the youngsters nearby had not yet woken up.

The cat seemed ill at ease, looking towards an overhanging tree.
Suddenly, there was a loud "weep, weep, weep" from the tree, and the cat ran off across the garden. It was swooped upon by an adult owl, which swatted it with an audible thump, then circled low over the garden a couple of times before landing at the top of a nearby tree, silhouetted against the sky.
After some minutes of standing sentinel, the owl (presumably the mother of the twins) was reassured that the cat had been scared away from her youngsters, and flew off. Soon after, the twins started their familiar wheezing calls.

Elsewhere, another pair of twins (little owls this time) emerge blinking in the bright sunlight, with a parent scanning the fields for food.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Sweet Gale

A herd of Highland cattle helped me to confirm the miracle reappearance of Sweet Gale (or bog-myrtle, Myrica gale) at Hothfield Heathlands, as they have grazed away the surrounding willow scrub, leaving the odorous shrub alone in the bog. Apparently this plant was lost from Kent in 1957, but has reappeared here recently.
It has a number of herbal uses, including flavouring food and beer (gale ale?) , as well as an insect repellent. Unfortunately I discovered this too late to avoid the usual summer bites. It smells pleasant, so on future visits to this fascinating reserve I'll rub it over me..... keep your distance.
The Heathlands were the subject of a walk led by the warden, Ian Rickards, who gave an interesting commentary on the history, fauna and flora of the area. As well as the usual stars of the show, like southern marsh and heath spotted orchids, sundew and bog asphodel, he pointed out some of the less showy inhabitants, often in mud that made Glastonbury seem like a picnic.
Thyme-leaved speedwell and the delightful bird's foot were some of the tiny plants that we would otherwise have walked upon.

Marsh cudweed

Heath milkwort

One of my favourite plants, Marsh St John's-wort
Bog pimpernel

A good variety of fauna was seen, including plenty of toadlets and froglets, upon which the many grass snakes no doubt feed.
A bark beetle, which I tentatively call sinodendron cylindricum was seen, as was a hairstreak butterfly which will be a first for the reserve, whichever one it turns out to be.
And the final picture is a quiz question..... answers in the comments section please (as I've had enough of my guesses being proven wrong). The small group of plants, about a foot high, was found in the oak wood next to the Hothfield car park.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011


At Park Gate Down, the red clover seems larger and more brightly coloured than the usual strain. Is this a subspecies, or just a reflection of the glorious place?

Fragrant, common spotted and pyramidal orchids pepper the hillside, making up for the earlier dearth during the dry weather, and also, finally with a little help from my friends, I found a patch of musk orchids, tiny little things that are overshadowed by bedstraws, salad burnets and clovers. I counted 23 spikes, including many that were just emerging, flower buds first, from the greensward.
Also with considerable assistance, this time by Kingsdown beach, I found two moths which may be bright waves. My life is now complete.
Back home, the local tawny owls have succeeded in producing two youngsters who wheeze their way through the evenings, much to the noisy disgust of blackbirds and magpies. Last year it was just one, jumping and flying around the garden through the summer nights.

And on the stump, two little owls have emerged, blinking into the light. Photos of these fluffy little munchkins will, no doubt, follow.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Cattle protecting the land

The regular reader of this blog will be aware of the writer's yellow streak, especially towards things that might hurt him - he dabbles in botany, for Christsake.

The prospect of crossing a field with a bull in it, or (worse) protective cows with calves, is a daunting one. I know they are known to be docile, but you never know when one might go feral.

I overcame my fear (with assistance from one braver than I) and sure enough came to no harm.

I took up the subject of summer grazing with the helpful people at White Cliffs Countryside project, who told me of the success of the management strategy employed after recovering the site from arable: "The first late spider to reappear here was first found in 1999, since then they have gradually increased to the current total of around 90 plants. The Man Orchid has been around for about the same length of time there – for many years it was just one plant, but has now increased to 12 flowering spikes this year."

Even if certain spikes are eaten the plants will flower more strongly the next year. The biggest threat is tor-grass, and a rotation of early and late summer grazing keeps this down.

The first marbled white of the year was found on the downs on 7th June, and then there was a pause due to the weather; today, ten days later, I saw the first ones on Kingsdown beach, and these will hopefully be followed by a couple of hundred more.

A few posts ago I showed an unopened orchid spike which has now fully unfurled:
and sure enough it is a bee orchid, much later than late spiders this year. I've never found a bee orchid in the Kingsdown parish, but I'll keep looking.

Musk orchids [perhaps you mean musk thistle? Ed.] are frequent on the downs, and in the name of science the blooms were sniffed. Yes, very musky but a word of warning..... don't sniff if it's covered in bees.

Young blackcap, requesting food.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

To Sandwich Bay and beyond!

The man from North Downs and Beyond is in town, so I went to meet him - and it's true, he does indeed look like Brad Pitt. His quest to see every plant and beast on the planet has taken him to a very respectable total, but a week's solitary confinement at Sandwich Bay observatory may be giving him time to reflect on the wisdom of his quest. He does, however, have an impressive breadth of knowledge, and I was unable to help him as he knows the locality better than I do.
In fact, he showed me a plant that I had never heard of - sea milkwort (glaux maritima, not a milkwort at all), with just a few tiny plants in a slough at the tip of Sandwich Bay point, which was where we looked in vain for the county's other population (allegedly) of Deptford pinks.
The amount of sea bindweed was greater than I remember, and when you're with experts you tend to see obscurities like long-bracted sedge, at possibly its only Kentish place.

Butterflies were at a premium, but a common blue appreciated a warm paw, and a small skipper looked good on southern marsh orchids.
A long walk in good company, and my few meetings with fellow-bloggers have all been very pleasant. You reap what you sow!

PS the photo at the end of the last post was of a deformed stem of purple toadflax. It was not a discarded bathing hat, though Rob gets the prize for his valiant attempt.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Pounding the shingle:- invasions

Much of the weekend was spent pebble-bashing, assisting in or hindering surveys.

As part of the attempt to get local agreement to control the Red Valerian invasion I recorded its populations along the shingle between Kingsdown and Walmer. The recording was done very scientifically, with 100m sections being described as having Few, Occasional, Some, Plenty or Lots of plants. If this is not good enough, I'll translate these categories into a more formal one .... for example Some reflects about 20 to 50 plants per 100m².
The colourful show is very impressive, especially when the Red Valerian is mixed with other escapes like Silver Ragwort, Narrow-leaved Ragwort, Red Hot Poker etc, and some locals understandably anxious not to lose the pretty plants (although their way of expressing the anxiety is less understandable).
The threat that these invasive weeds pose to the indigenous plants and the insects that depend on them is, however, very real, as they march across the shingle crowding out the mosses, vetches, lichens and hawkweeds.
A further complication is that bees and butterflies enjoy the flowers - hopefully we can reach a compromise that satisfies all parties, by controlling the invasions near the more fragile and valuable areas.

Another invasion was seen on the shingle at Littlestone and the dunes of Greatstone. The members of the Kent Botanical Recording Group had to put up with a useless incompetent, while they identified the more difficult plants along the way - in this case differentiating Toothed from Bur Medick, both of which are on the Red List.
They speak a whole new language (Latin, natch) and fortunately I'd seen the Botany, a Blooming History programme on BBC4 earlier in the week, to brush up on my classification.
Among the many things I learned was the name of this plant, Knotted Hedge-Parsley. Many thanks to Geoffrey and Owen for leading the walk (or rather, crawl), and for the patience and information of the members.

Being so close to Dungeness, I took the opportunity to seek out Red Hemp-Nettle, and to confirm what English Stonecrop looks like, just in case I find some at Kingsdown.
It looks like that, and Red Hemp Nettle looks like this (and presumably it will bear flowers in a few weeks time).Still some Nottingham Catchflies were flowering, including some of a purplish hue.

On the dunes, Sea Buckthorn has been stripped by a plague of Brown-tailed Moth caterpillars, that have then moved on to local gardens, washing lines and into houses, causing considerable irritation, both mentally and physically, as the caterpillars' hairs break off as barbs . Some residents have moved out for the summer, to get away from them.
And finally, can you see what this is?
Answer next time.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Dartford Pinks

The largest of the (small number of) Deptford Pink sites is nearer Dartford than Deptford, where it has probably never been seen, and certainly nearer West Kingsdown than its eastern cousin.

I'd been told where they might be found so, passing by, I made a short detour. Within 200 yards of the car, I saw a lovely cerise blob in the hedgerow, then another, so that was a good result. Eventually I counted 12 plants and thought "if that's the largest colony, this plant's in trouble".
A little further along the path, there were another two, then a bit further another group of 12. Pressing on, just around the next corner, some more..... then..... I lost count. I started estimating in tens and reached about 300, with more clearly pushing through.
Now that's what I call a population - sprinkled along a hedgerow by a path, where the disturbance they need is given on a regular basis. The crop in the field looks strong and healthy, but is kept about 10' away to avoid spray-blow.

Bizarrely, the roar of the nearby M25 is ever-present, yet they seem to thriving.
The bad news is that, now I know it's the Pink season, I'll have to flog my way around Sandwich Bay looking for an elusive population there. Probably hidden under the marquees being put up for the Open next month.