Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Under the Greenwood Tree

I've just started to read Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree and the phrase seems appropriate as a bit of shade is welcome as the temperatures climb again. The great trees of the woods are standing tall and broad in the early autumn sunshine, showing off their fruits and (in the case of the oaks) showering the ground and passers-by with them too.
It is, therefore, safer to sit under a hornbeam whose seeds are rather less bullet-like.
No doubt others are finding fungi, but the dry leaf-litter is giving up few secrets around here, with just this one to be found - and I'll continue my policy of not guessing their names, as I have few enough readers without killing some off by misidentification.

Cranesbills are flourishing on the woodland verges but in this case my lack of identification is due to ignorance, not discretion.

The statuesque Sweet Chestnut avenue at Acrise is showering the road with spiny seedcases, but the harvest is not good this year, and the nuts are thin and shrivelled.

After the farmers' harvest, preparations for the next crop are moving quickly. With care you might be able to make out two twitchers walking along the clifftop, about the spend a couple of hours failing to find a Common Rosefinch.
Whitebeam berries are giving a fine show, and on ivy flowers our new friend the Ivy Bee can be seen.
Under the Greenwood Tree opens on Christmas Eve - which with this lovely weather seems a long way away.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011


I was fortunate to be caught in a twittering, fluttering swarm of swallows and martins at Restharrow, in the low sunlight of evening. They resembled a plague of locusts when they flew up from the fences.
Although in flight they mixed and mingled, when they chose their perches they segregated into type - swallows in this case, with these two comforting each other before the long journey south.
There have been many reports of such flocks this week, and Ian at the observatory reporting one of 1,900. Such accuracy is beyond me so I'll settle for over 1,000.

The last blog about miner bees has stirred some interest, and thanks go to Claire and Duncan for identifying the scrum as Ivy Bees Colletes hederae. It's a bee with an interesting story only discovered in 1993 in southern Europe, but then it spread rapidly and turned up in Dorset in 2001. Since then it has marched along the coast and arrived in my friends' garden last year in small numbers. It is now present in its hundreds so the cold winter obviously caused them no problems. I predict that they will reach plague proportions, that will send sensitive lawn-keepers running for the insecticide.

They fly in September, which most bees don't so it's easily recognisable. I might have id'd it myself if I had anything better than an idiot's guide to insects.

A similar bee cropped up in a couple of photos I took of Sea Aster on the rifle range this weekend, but this one looks rather different (and isn't on ivy). Hopefully further edification will be forthcoming, thanks.
[Stop press: Fred was hinted that as the bee is on Sea Aster, it may be the Sea Aster bee Colletes Haliophilus. He's a clever bloke, that Fred. And so subtle - I missed his hint]

Sunday, 18 September 2011

In place of skuas

It's not often I correctly predict weather conditions favourable to good birding here on the south-east corner but Saturday was one of those rare days, as the Bockhillers reported on Birdguides.Unfortunately I couldn't be there to witness it - a list of sightings that far exceeds anything I've seen in my few years of seawatching at Kingsdown.

But having spent a few hours gnashing and grinding my teeth, I admit that there were a few compensations on the weekend:
Devil's-Bit Scabious is now almost at its best at Lydden, and the blue sky and buzzards overhead added to the beauty of the place. And nobody about - I can't believe it. This is surely one of the most stunning sights of the year. Does the public spend all weekend in front of the TV?

A quick visit to the ARC pit at Dungeness gave some interesting views, with a plethora of little waders to identify including Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers, a Little Gull and a visit by three Black Terns, flying in their ethereal floating way over the lake in search of food.
There was also a female Goosander that paddled slowly past the hide, generally with head under water - now one of my books says that the Goosander is "usually a shy bird, easily scared off even at long range". Not this lady.

At the point the long-stay Long-tailed Skua had, of course, flown, but on the shingle some of the lovely tiny plants were still flowering,
and a Leopard Slug crossed my path.
If you want to know more about the fascinating procreational techniques of this species, please use the usual search engines - I don't want hits from unwanted visitors on this blog, thank you very much.

And finally, the garden of some friends has been occupied by large numbers of miner bees that have excavated burrows in the lawn, flower beds and paths. Judging from the photo supplied (many thanks) they are here for the Rugby World Cup. "The fly-half is hovering......"

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Sea Carrot

I was sent on a mission to find a colony of Sea Carrot plants, under the lowering cliffs, beyond the cliff-falls, over slippery sea-steps, across the long boulder-strewn shingle beach.... it's tough down south.
A little comparative study eventually revealed the plants to be different from the far more frequent Wild Carrot.
Fleshy but brittle deep green leaves, hairy stem and umbels that curl into themselves less, and they are generally smaller than the main species.

Hopefully I'll be able recognise the plant in more accessible places in future ......... like on the rifle range where two Wheatears shared a sign post.

Sea Carrot reminded me of an old Jasper Carrot joke and I foolishly posted it here, but in the interest of good taste I have now deleted it. I hope that any offended Brummies and Millwall supporters will not hold it against me. Dylan please take note.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Botanic men

Once upon a time, David Bellamy was the smiling face of botany, enthusiatically leaping from tussock to tussock extolling the virtues of some obscure sedge. Then he was gone, leaving the science to fade from popular view only to be resurrected by the occasional worthy talking head.

Apparently good old David chose the wrong call on the climate change debate and was dropped
from the media, after decades of blameless and influential work.

I've been reading one of the his books from earlier happier days, when pollution, population, famine and energy shortages were the targets, and global warming hadn't hit the headlines.
The book traces botanical evolution from the year dot to the present time (well, 1978) and I learnt plenty. Just in time for a trip to Down House.
Since we all carry a picture of Charles Darwin in our pocket or purse (on good days at least) it's unforgivable that I hadn't visited his house, which has been restored to a close approximation of how it was when he lived there. The study is fascinating, and upstairs rooms have set up as a small museum.
One of the most memorable points of Darwin's great works emphasised by David Bellamy was that when conditions are right, it is predictable (not chance) that species will adapt to occupy them. When a wind-blown flock of finches arrived on the Galapagos islands, a variety of habitats and food sources were there, unexploited, and over time the birds adapted to take advantage of them. In the isolation of islands, that adaptation was bound to happen.

The gardens and greenhouse have been stocked with varieties that are known to have been grown under Darwin's direction, and the vegetable patch is most impressive even though it's not growing the latest F1 strains.

On the greenhouse staging are the carniverous plants that Darwin studied; round-leaved sundew Drosera rotundiflora, long-leaved varieties, Venus fly-traps and pitcher plants.
Emma Darwin commented "At present he is treating Drosera just like a living creature, and I suppose he hopes to end in proving it to be an animal".
When at Down you must take a walk, like the great man, around the Sandwalk, and it was a pleasure to do so. The path gives a sense of peace and on a warm day it was a joy.

The last paragraph of The Origin of Species describes a tangled bank - we all know such a place, and we should all have to recite this, savouring the words slowly to increase understanding:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

He was describing the interaction of habitat, ecology, evolution - the whole damn life thing, to a world that hadn't even started to consider it. In 1859 the book was published, and despite popular legend it was generally accepted in a relatively short time. 150 years later, unfortunately, a powerful force is trying to discredit and disprove it. Can we send David Bellamy to the States to teach them again?

In the garden was a grand specimen of White Mullein, only the second one I've seen after one in nearby High Elms wood. This is the lair of another great naturalist, the Greenie Man, but he wasn't spotted lurking behind the trees - it's a fine place full of interest, and the south-facing bank held the warmth, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with various insects flitting about. Perhaps this was Charles Darwin's tangled bank? I'm sure the Greenie Man will know.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The way things were

Browsing in a second-hand bookshop I saw this little paperback, by the influential birder and author James Fisher, with illustrations by Fish-Hawk, and it was published in 1947. I dare say some of my readers cut their teeth on it.

It's "only" 60-odd years old, but there are some striking changes in breeding locations. Stone-Curlews are recorded as breeding quite widely across the south-east (although even then this was a substantial contraction from the previous century, shown on the right-hand map.
Now there would be just a blob on the Brecklands.

Similarly the map of Little Tern breeding shows a continuous line around the coast, indicating that breeding might occur on appropriate habitat almost anywhere. No longer, regrettably.
There are, however, some improvements. Little Ringed Plovers had just started to breed at Tring Reservoir, paving the way for their subsequent expansion along reservoirs and gravel pits across Britain now.
Fulmars are now such a frequent sight around the coast that we hardly spare a glance. This map, however, records the years in the first half of the Twentieth century when Fulmars started to breed at locations away from St Kilda, which until the 1890s was their only breeding-ground.
They had reached southern Ireland and Bempton cliffs by 1930, but were only "taking an interest" in Wales and Cornwall by 1939. When the book was written, the author could not have conceived of Fulmars or Kittiwakes on the White Cliffs.

An almost contemporary book (The Flower in Season - 1952) by Jocelyn Brooke understandably shows more that plants are in much the same place, but unwittingly and sadly illustrates losses to our natural world.

The chapter on September includes a paragraph on "an Autumn species, Galeopsis ladanum, the Red Hemp-nettle..... which covers large areas in stubble fields with its bright, rose-pink, white-spotted flowers, and is rather local, though common enough in many places."
That must have been before the post-war devastation wreaked by agricultural weed-killers.
"It is not to be confused with the true Hemp-nettle, a much larger, coarser plant found in the woods."