Thursday, 19 April 2018

Looking for spring in Provence

We went looking for spring in Provence - and found it briefly. Just a bit early, just a bit windy, and certainly too wet - the locals complained in January that there had been no rain for six months and it has made up for it since then, so it was very lush.

But we had some good sunny warm days, and bizarrely saw alpine swifts before martins or swallows, and heard nightingales before chiffchaffs or blackcaps. There was much history to see
 and there were early spider orchids (ssp passionis) by the pool.

The drive down through France revealed many joys: the towns of Troyes and Tournus were delightful in different ways, the former a university city that came alive on Friday evening, while the latter is quiet and peaceful - both had water and history, as well as fascinating nature reserves:

Outside Troyes the Foret d'Orient had masses of spring flowers as we know them, including many many oxlips. It also has a salamander trail!
Near Tournus is the Truchere nature reserve, a marvellous collection of woods, etangs and heaths which shows what a healthy ecosystem looks like - middle-spotted woodpecker and wood warblers gave me my best views ever, and the chateau that we stayed in had nightingales and a cuckoo at the bottom of the garden.

Back to Provence, the number and variety of birds in the countryside were disappointing, and again we were too early for rollers or bee-eaters. We staying the Alpilles hills (pronounced "Alpeeees" according to our strict guide and interpreter) and there is an impressive project to encourage rollers by the LIFE group.

The limestone flora was beautifully full, prior to burning off in the summer sun.

I just love limestone, leaping from rock to rock, my best girl by my side....

The Alpilles are part of a so-called Golden Triange which also includes the Crau desert, which apparently has little bustards, sand-grouse and stone curlew but which is about the most difficult birding terrain I've seen (think Dungeness on a windy day, and then some), and the Camargue which needs no introduction.
 Yes you can see greater flamingoes from the road, and yes there's lots else to see including terrapins crossing.
 There is also the marvellous Capilliere reserve where you can see wild nature up close, including white storks, glossy ibis, wood sandpiper, tree pipits, nightingales (and more flamingoes) - all for 3 euros.
There's so much to see.... best go back again sometime (preferably in later-April/May).

Friday, 19 May 2017

Habeo Blogdt

It's a bit late for a New Year's Resolution but I really must keep this blog up-to-date. If nothing else it's a good way of keeping a diary and I often look back to see what I saw where and when.

After a dry April, we now have a wet May, so today's note relates to a historical book, Hanbury and Marshall's Flora of Kent (1899), available online here.

It's noticeable, of course, that many of the records show that specimens were "collected", sometimes in armfuls, which must have cleared some Just-About-Managing species from an area.  This quote is relevant, but probably not correct in many cases:

George Chichester Oxenden (1797-1875) an author of satiric verses and parodies, was also an orchid enthusiast who had provided Darwin with several specimens. Oxenden was included on Darwin's presentation list for Fertilisation of Orchids (1862), and his assistance is noted on pp 31 n., 43, and 78 of the same.
Unfortunately he would not have known Jocelyn Brooke (1908—1966) who lived nearby at Bishopsbourne and collected plants in early life before reforming later on.

Hanbury and Marshall were obviously impressed with our part of the county, and the last sentence of the description is particularly glowing.

Most species entries are fascinating, such as that of shepherd's needle, Scandix pectin-veneris,
which is recorded as "colonist, common throughout the county".  Not so now, with just a handful of sites.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

An Orchid for Spring

Laurie Lee's A Rose for Winter retraces his steps through Andalusia, and we were pleased to retrace some of ours to see more of this fascinating land. Spring is well under way in Spain in mid-March so I'll call this trip An Orchid for Spring.

Travelling conditions in Spain have improved immensely even since the 1950s, and we were, of course, able to drive into the mountains in comfort. The first stop, after a civilised arrival at Gibraltar airport, was at a migration watchpoint near Tarifa where we were lucky to watch seven black storks and an Egyptian vulture fly in from Africa, astonishingly close across the straits.
Even luckier, a large boulder by the dirt road held a group of griffon vultures, which had presumably also arrived that day.

Our plans were to explore some new areas along the Atlantic coast and into the hills, looking for birds, bugs and botany, encouraged by reports of a wet winter and a warm spring that should bring on the flowers that we missed on our earlier drier trips. We would be guided again by John Cantelo's Birding Cadiz website and publication, as well as by a new Crossbill book Western Andalusia which he also co-wrote.

We were also inspired to return to Andalusia by a tantalisingly distant view five years ago of a pueblo blanco which we resolved to visit sometime -
...  and Olvera did not disappoint. A marvellous setting with church and Moorish castle on a rock, which could be visited for a pittance, with a fascinating museum included.

The scene is set - the weather (mostly) fine. What will we see?

Friday, 30 December 2016

Review of 2016 - mostly arable

This year, so eventful politically, was spent quietly in the south of England, and almost all in east Kent. The Border Agency was only troubled once, by a day-trip to France (it rained).

The review of the year is therefore rather less exciting than previous ones, especially since much of the time was spent trudging around arable fields looking for weeds. But that kept us happy!

I'll list the general highlights, then a review of the arable weeds for those who have made it that far:

  • Best birds - easy! In a year where I added nothing to my spreadsheet (life, UK, Kent, garden etc) the lucky sight of a dozen red kites feeding over the windmill field at Upper Walmer is the clear winner.
    I had taken a day off in May as it was sunny, and as we drove past the mill we saw them wheeling and diving over the newly-cut hay, taking the mice, voles, rabbits and other victims of the mowing.  This flock were reported elsewhere in the area that day, but no similar sightings were made during the year so we really were in the right place at the right time.
  • Second best bird - nicknamed Hengist, a male sparrowhawk that staked out the garden and took a few of our specially-fattened sparrows and (regrettably) one of the pair of collared doves. It was instructive to see the two "eyes" on the back of his head.

  • Best mammal - a hedgehog at Tilmanstone - my first for years!
  • Best reptile - adders at Samphire Hoe.
  • Best bugs - also at the sun trap of Samphire Hoe, were shield bugs and a number of other bugs that enjoy a lengthy season basking in the sunlight reflected by the cliffs and the sea.

  • Best butterfly - a couple of dozy graylings that posed for photos in Wareham forest. Finding this species is usually difficult and time-consuming so these two were a real pleasure.

  • Best moth - n/a

  • Best views - the Dorset coast from Tyneham - stunning!  This is helped, of course, by the immensely varied geology of the area which gave hours of interest.

  • Best habitats - also in Dorset, I was taken aback by the heaths around Wareham which are extensive, unspoilt and beautiful.  I could have spent weeks just pottering around, with the favourite spot being Wareham forest with sundews, Dartford warblers and graylings amongst others.

  • Best reserve - Broadham Down near Chilham, a new one to me, that we stumbled upon while out exploring. A fine place that deserves more visits.

Commendation for Kimmeridge Bay, with an underwater reserve that can be explored with a snorkel.

  • Best general plants - a tie between oblong-leaved sundew and bog gentian, both on the lovely heaths around Wareham, Dorset. The latter took some finding, but eventually a swathe of hundreds was found.

  • Best orchids - I've not been a great fan of lady orchids (must be spoilt) but the show this year at Bonsai Bank was superb.  

  • Best arable weed - but first let me tell you a story.........
In an attempt to "give something back" I signed up to survey local sites for both birds and plants with BTO and NPMS respectively.

The bird survey was desperately dull as it covered green concrete farmland, and there's only so much interest you can generate with skylark territories. As it is next to a large new housing development, however, it will be interesting to follow the trends in the next few years.

After this, the prospect of surveying further farmland was not attractive, especially as it was on the prairies of east Kent with barely a hedgerow in sight. But wait! A little research on the Plantlife site shows that this area is a species hotspot of European importance, as shown below.
So why is this? The first survey gave us corn parsley (an early favourite for best plant as it was a first for me), venus' looking-glass and other unusual species.

These finds inspired an obsession with arable weeds and the stewardship schemes that are intended to help their survival. I was surprised what could be found when a little space was allowed by the farmer, and of course appalled at the dreadful practices that generally prevented any diversity. I must admit that I despair for the future.

But back to the Best arable weed:
  1. Weasel-snout - not going to say where it is in east Kent, but there's plenty of plants there so with some sensitive management it should thrive (and maybe even spread);
  2. Shepherd's needle - just one small site, and it seemed to have been attacked by spreading oil over it - can't believe it! It should have set seed by then, though, and we'll see whether it returns next year.

  3. Corn spurrey- a real star plant, once very common but now it takes some finding.
  4. Corn parsley - just a nice plant, putting other umbellifers to shame.
  5. Poppies - lots of rough poppies and a few pricklies - always a joy.

So that was 2016. Predictions for 2017 will so fraught with uncertainty that it is difficult to be optimistic, and New Year's Eve parties may be morbid affairs. Perhaps we will be able to tackle the challenges positively, but I see threats to so much that we hold dear.

As Dave Allen might have said:  May your MP go with you.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Very appropriate!  Great singer - great support.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Another year


So it's 2016, and the year-list has to start again. It didn't get past February last year, but there was little to report so it didn't miss much. So far, three days in, it's up to an unimpressive 50 but that's without trying and with mostly foul weather. This year, I promise to do better.

Highlights so far are:
  • sparrowhawk on the windowledge;
  • coal tit on a feeder (uncommon here);
  • 16 goldfinches eating up my pension fund; and
  • 24 little gulls in an hour, flying south into the wind at the rifle range.
A fond farewell was said to the Prince of Wales pier which has provided bracing walks, good food and occasional birds in the past, but which will be redeveloped by Dover Harbour Board with questionable intentions.

There were a good few kittiwakes and turnstones, and a shag conveniently-placed next to a cormorant for comparison purposes.

The weather has been weird with monthly temperature records broken, no frosts and plants flowering ridiculously early, including a single coltsfoot on the range, which normally appear at the end of February.

What will happen next who knows (two months of snow, or a 1976 summer?).