Sunday, 19 August 2012

August in Little Linford Wood

I can report that this weekend has been the hottest of the year so far in sleepy north Buckinghamshire. Would this mini heatwave have an effect on the wildlife seen on my monthly sojourn to Little Linford Wood?

Not half!

For August, the visit was spread over two days; a few hours on Saturday afternoon and a similar time on Sunday morning.

The most obvious habitat feature in the woodland rides was the amount of Common Knapweed, Centaurea nigra. This plant is an excellent source of nectar and pollen for a myriad of invertebrates, its bright pink/purple flowers, reminiscent of a thistle head, being a magnet for butterflies, bees and hover flies.

The butterflies were fairly queueing up...

Small White, Artogeia rapae
Brimstone, Gonepteryx rhamni
A battered-looking Silver-washed Fritillary, Argynnis paphia
As well as the above species, there were Small Skipper, Thymelicus sylvestris; Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta; Peacock, Inachis io; Speckled Wood, Pararge aegeria; Meadow Brown, Maniola jurtina and Comma, Polygonum c-album.

Our Lass spotted a very late White Admiral, Limenitis camilla, which was foraging for the few remaining Blackberry blossoms that hadn't already turned to fruit.

From the western side of the wood, it was possible to look across the river valley to the centre of town. The numerous roads and housing estates lost amongst the trees and through the foreshortening of the photograph.

Theatre on the left, cinema and ski slope on the right
In the car park, which is in effect a woodland glade, about two dozen Migrant Hawker dragonflies were feeding in a mesmerising aerobatic display. With very little birdsong audible, the only sound was the rustle of dragon wings as the hawkers pulled incredibly tight turns in pursuit of their prey.

Occasionally, a few of their number would roost for a while in the surrounding vegetation, but the  heat of the day meant that they were very flighty and difficult to approach.

Migrant Hawker, Aeshna mixta, female
As we left the wood, down a farm track, a flash of white ahead alerted us to a Wheatear. A different type of migrant, one that has begun its return passage to Africa to spend the Winter in warmer climes. This seemed somewhat odd on the day that the UK hit 30+ degrees C.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Vegetarian raptor

Staring out of the window whilst breakfasting this morning, Our Lass suddenly called out  "Sparrowhawk!"

Sure enough, one of the scourges of bird tables everywhere had swooped down onto the lawn and seized a Yarrow in its talons. Eh? A vegan raptor on a health kick? Or one seeking to augment the latest Greenfinch with Sunflower Hearts dish with a few choice herbs?

The truth was more prosaic. Though we did not see the intended victim, I suspect that it was a Dunnock, which had taken cover in the only place in the garden that appears to be hawk-proof, a low-growing compact shrub. We've been here before, see this post from November 2010.

To the unimaginative residents of Tense Towers, this plant is known simply as The Dunnock Bush.

Today's attack was less dramatic, and after rummaging about on the fringes of the shrub for a while, the Sparrowhawk gave up and left empty clawed.

A swift perusal of Wikipedia, showed that there aren't, in fact, any solely vegetarian raptors, thought the Palm-nut Vulture comes close.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Destiny or free will? Er... you choose?

On waking, have you ever discovered a decision ready-formed in your mind, an answer to a conundrum of which you weren't even aware? It hadn't happened to me before this weekend, so it was a bit of a shock.

Mind you, there was the time when I knew I wanted to name our wedding day, but that was whilst fully awake, stuck in a cramped Army minibus, cold, wet and miserable, after a particularly arduous orienteering competition in the Lake District. It's funny how Life grabs you by the collar sometimes, stares unnervingly deeply into your eyes and then raises an inquisitorial eyebrow as if to say, "Now do you understand?"

Anyway, I woke up on Saturday morning, and as my eyes struggled to focus on the grey clouds outside the window, I simply knew that today was a Long Mynd day.

We hadn't visited Shropshire since last October, so the beckoning call of the nearest moorland habitat to Tense Towers was like a klaxon in my head. Fresh air, no tarmac or concrete underfoot and wall-to-wall (OK, not actual walls) Odonata. Bring. It. On.

Our Lass received the news gleefully. She's enjoying a spot of time off at the moment, after completing her course, and was equally keen to sample the heather, bracken and big skies. We bundled the usual accoutrements into the car, breakfasted once we arrived in Shropshire and were gazing at Salopian odes before lunch time.

We spent several hours exploring the water bodies and vegetation at Wildmoor Pool. Golden-ringed Dragonflies, Common Hawkers and Black Darters being the larger insects on the wing. There were plenty of Emerald Damsels, as well as Common Blue and Blue-tailed Damselflies.

Lestes romance
Golden-ringed Dragonfly, Cordulegaster boltonii
We left the Mynd for a while and drove across to the Stiperstones ridge, ending up at a cafe at The Bog, an ex-school room for the mining community that lived and worked here in the 1800s. Make all the jokes you like, but the home bakes are delicious and just up the road is a large pond with the occasional winged jewel.

Having quenched our thirst and sampled the cake, we pottered along the bank of the pond, watching an Emperor Dragonfly, Emerald Damsels and several Common Darters. When we sat on a bench, we shared it with one of the latter, who was only too keen to take advantage of a warm and elevated roosting spot...

Sympetrum striolatum, sat on my hand. The black speck is the remains of a fly that he'd just eaten.
He repeatedly flew off to catch more prey, returning to my hand each time to devour his meal. I just love the fact that the situation was of his choosing, to him I was simply a warm thing at a useful height. I was so blissed out, Our Lass had to take the photo.

Following a brief visit to Pole Cottage and the ditch system, which provided more Common Hawkers, Black Darters and Emerald Damselflies, we drove into Church Stretton and enjoyed a pleasant meal in Berry's. After a postprandial wander through the fields by Rectory Wood, we returned to Tense Towers, listening to the final night of Olympic athletics on the radio. A gold medal day on many levels.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Willowherb Wednesday

For a very patient lady...

Greater Willowherb, Epilobium hirsutum
Also known as Codlins and Cream
This plant self seeds in the garden at Tense Towers, but in 2012 it chose a very shaded location. The result was a rather late flowering (I was expecting it weeks ago). Still, a promise has finally been honoured, a weight of expectation lifted, and in a kind of Yin and Yang way, I reckon that would appeal to Mr Cobweb.

Sorry, but if you've not been paying attention, then this post will make even less sense than normal!

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Lift off!

Today was one of those days where you set off with a bit of a plan but things turn out very differently. In a good way!

As we were running low on bird food for the squadrons of finches, tits, doves and pigeons that visit our garden, Our Lass and I decided to head over to The Lodge shop at RSPB HQ to stock up.

Walking up the path to the shop, I texted JD to see if he was about, as he only lives a few miles from The Lodge. It wouldn't do to miss out on the opportunity to hear some Rotton Yarns at first hand.

JD phoned back to confirm his availability and we agreed to pop in after our shopping trip and a quick visit to the gardens of The Lodge.

The main feature of the garden is an old swimming pool that is now home to an impressive array of wildlife, as well as a hungry shoal of carp. Despite the presence of the fish, this pond is excellent for Odonata and, at this time of year, is good for close up views of Small Red-eyed Damselfly. We have this species in Milton Keynes, but it is often out in the middle of large water bodies and not so easily seen.

On our first lap of the garden, cloud cover was keeping the dragons and damsels quiet, so that all we saw was a Migrant Hawker, plus a few Red-eyed, Azure and Blue-tailed Damselflies. Continuing our circuit of the smaller water bodies, the sun finally put in an appearance, so that by the time we returned to the swimming pool pond, some Small Red-eyes were out on the lily pads. I only had the camera on my phone to record images, so didn't attempt a risky leaning-out-over-the-water shot!

Mind you, carefully stalking a Common Darter on a wall delivered impressive results. Just as I pressed the shutter release button, the dragonfly took off, resulting in possibly the best in-flight odo shot I have ever taken.

So why do I usually lug around several kilogrammes of Canon's finest? It's enough to make you weep.

Walking back to the car along a woodland path, I remembered a promise I made to Katie from Nature ID. Following a post about willowherb plants in California on her blog, I said that when next the English varieties were in flower, I would photograph them and post too. To be fair, they aren't a patch on the razzmatazz of the colours of the American species, but my word is my bond.

Rose Bay (Willowherb), Chamerion angustifolium
Some internet sources list this plant as a true Willowherb in the genus Epilobium, either way, it wasn't a common plant in the UK until the expansion of the railway network in the first half of the  19th Century, which helped it to spread. It is often found on waste ground and also goes by the name of bombweed or fireweed.

We do have Great Willowherb, growing in our garden at Tense Towers, but the weather this year has really confused it. It is nowhere near flowering yet. The quest continues.

We met up with JD and explored the fine array of wildlife in his garden at Fort Soixante Neuf. A wonderful spread of corn field annuals harboured all manner of invertebrates, butterflies, moths, beetles, grasshoppers and shield bugs. We then sat by the pond for ages, entranced by all the aquatic goings-on. As thunder rumbled away to the west, we risked setting off on a walk along a few bridle paths in search of butterflies and dragons. JD's excellent route planning ensured that we ended up at an eatery, the Coach House in the town square, where we enjoyed a roast lunch from their Sunday barbeque menu. The only slight downside was the fact that I was driving and couldn't partake of any ale from the local brewery. Oh well, next time :o)

Saturday, 4 August 2012

TMS: View From The Boundary 04 Aug 12

It wasn't the cricket, it wasn't the humour, it wasn't even the poetry.

Perhaps it was a mixture of all those things and some other indefinable quality.

The "View From The Boundary" interview with Murray Lachlan Young during the lunch interval on the third day of the second Test, England against South Africa, was the most absorbing piece of radio that I've heard in ages.

Fortunately, it is now available as a podcast and can be downloaded for the next seven days.

Stick with it, it is worth every precious second.

Well done too, to Simon Mann of the Test Match Special commentary team.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

In which we discuss the merits of the predator/prey relationship

We had arranged for a delivery to Tense Towers on Saturday morning. As is the way of the modern world, with all its myriad methods of communicating, the courier could only provide a time slot somewhere between 7am and 2pm. Undaunted, we made no plans and anticipated a lengthy, if leisurely, wait whilst we pootled about the house.

Fortunately, I was up early, and dressed presentably, when the van appeared at 07.20.


So... what to do with the rest of the day?

Our Lass phoned the Admiral, who was, or at least had been, fast asleep. A plan was hatched to high-tail it over to Welney, for a pleasant stroll through the summer meadows of the Ouse Washes.

You can see where this is going, can't you?

We arrived at the WWT reserve shortly after 11am to the news that the summer meadows were still under water and a few of the viewing areas, including a hide, were out of bounds. Consoling ourselves with a pot of tea and a round of blueberry muffins, we discussed whether to cut our losses and try RSPB Lakenheath or the National Trust's Wicken Fen instead. To be honest, Welney was very quiet, which rather appealed to our grumpy natures, so we stayed put and went out into the reserve along the only path available.

Walking along a hedgerow between banks, we were amazed at the number of dragons and damsels on the wing. Ruddy and Common Darters were everywhere, there were goodly amounts of Black-tailed Skimmers and several Brown Hawkers were spotted. Most of the damselflies were Blue-tailed, with the occasional Common Blue to break the monotony. The Admiral found a very late Scarce Chaser and a couple of Southern Hawkers occupied a ditch behind one of the hides.

A sudden screeched call brought us out of this odo-tastic reverie and we were just in time to witness a Sparrowhawk fleeing the scene with a presumed Blackbird in its talons.

Yep, birds eat birds...
Towards late afternoon, exploration of a patch of grass sward revealed all manner of roosting insects. Butterflies (Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Green-veined White, Small Skipper), beetles, grasshoppers, a Roesel's Bush Cricket and most of the odes mentioned previously. Including a female Emerald Damselfly, the only one we saw all day.

insects eat insects...
After a bit of a chat with one of the wardens, we were wandering back over the bridge to the Visitor Centre, when another photo opportunity presented itself.

and, predictably, birds eat insects
On the left, a Pied Wagtail, Motacilla alba, with, on the right, a Common Darter, Sympetrum striolatum.

Happily, this wasn't my last ode of the day. A swift trip (with Swifts!) to Wicken Fen produced a few more darters (very much alive) and yet more Blue-tailed Damselfies.