Monday 27 September 2010

The Moth-er of all blogs

Before I go any further, let's get one thing straight... I know zilch about moths. 

Some of my fellow bloggers and acquaintances do know lots about moths, probably more than is healthy for them. But mothing is a fairly harmless pastime and, as far as I'm aware, it's not against the law (ok, there's probably an obscure bit of legislation dating from 1572 that hasn't been repealed in the tiny hamlet of Nether Bloggington, but apart from that).

Which isn't to say that I'm not interested in moths, it's just that there's so flippin' many of them to identify, the UK alone has something like 2400 species. Where would I start and have I got sufficient time left before I'm headed towards that Big Light Bulb In The Sky? Hmmm, they do say that folk returning from near death experiences often bang on about an all enveloping white light. It must be the same for moths, which is rather reassuring. I would like to think that whatever deity we meet in the next life is also the deity for all other Earthly lifeforms, because if Heaven's just full of humans, that sounds more like Hell.

Anyway... moths just aren't as convenient an insect to study as, say, er... dragonflies. With your average dragon, there's no need to get up early or stay up late, you can have a bit of a lie-in, a leisurely breakfast, a quick check to make sure it's warm enough and hey presto, Oh look! A dragonfly!

But despite my best efforts, every now and then, I find myself poring over a moth ID guide, trying to identify the latest curious creature to bimble into our home. And they do have some magical names. You'd think that with there being so many of the little blighters, it would all be rather repetitive and boring, but not a bit of it. Picking a page at random, there's Stout Dart and Double Dart (possibly drinking moths, as opposed to the Drinker moth), Cousin German (yes, really!), Autumnal Rustic, True Lover's Knot, Pearly Underwing and Barred Chestnut. This is an insect that knows how to get a person's imagination working in overdrive.

For instance, yesterday, whilst looking for damsels and dragons roosting in the undergrowth, we saw what at first glance looked just like another dying leaf. On closer inspection, it turned out to be this...

a Pink-barred Sallow.

OK, a bit of a girly name which means it's unlikely to get a job as a nightclub bouncer*, but a cracking piece of camouflage for a moth emerging in the Autumn. When it comes to creativity, this deity bloke (or blokess, obviously) certainly knows his/her stuff.

I remember years ago when I saw my first Hummingbird Hawkmoth. It was in the gardens of Upton House in Warwickshire and I stared transfixed at this little bundle of whirring wings flitting about a flowering shrub in front of me. My brain knew it wasn't an actual Hummingbird, but my eyes were saying "Are you sure? It bloody well looks like one, y'know!" I was gutted when we returned a year later and the National Trust gardeners had cut the frigging bush down.

So as much as I don't want to start on moths, they've already started on me and a little bit of me is rather glad.

* Nightclub Bouncer, a strikingly-marked black and white moth with a bow-tie pattern on the thorax**

** OK, I made that up

Saturday 18 September 2010

Hedgerow sensual

What a cracking morning. Blue sky, slight breeze, the warmth of the sun gently easing the autumnal chill from the countryside and a perfect day to head to Clifton Reynes.

Located above the flood plain of the River Great Ouse, across the valley from Olney and Emberton, it's a pleasant village to visit at any time of year (and even better if the Robin Hood Inn is open). The surrounding fields, paths and hedgerows are bursting with colour. In these parts, Autumn paints from a lush, rich, fruity palette, contrasting with the overgrown, faded watercolour that Summer became, to give the land a vibrant and heady glow before Winter sets in.

As I walk up the lane from the village towards the river, butterflies and bees bask in the morning sun. Red Admirals and Commas, looking impossibly pristine in the September light, jostle for position as they feed on the cascades of ivy flowers.

The hedgerows are full of the fruit of a fertile season; blackberries, elderberries, sloes, haws and rose hips. In the course of an hour or so, I meet several dozen folk out brambling, laden with free food, who look at me quizzically as I stand empty-handed gazing at the bushes. For blackberries aren't my quarry today. I may be listening to the church bells, pealing across the valley, I may have the fresh scent of the season in my nostrils, but I'm looking for dragons. On an Autumn morning, this is a great spot to find them, roosted low down in the warm sun, but out of the cool breeze.

I am not disappointed (well, apart from the lack of bramble and apple pie in my very near future), for I find Migrant Hawkers and Common Darters at a reasonable height to photograph. A few Brown Hawkers hunt over the brambles, out of range, and I put up a Southern Hawker from the base of a hedge.
This one's mine!
Male Migrant Hawker
Migrant Hawker and Black Bryony
Whilst trying to capture an image of a Red Admiral, I inadvertently spook a Little Owl from a mature Hawthorn tree, and as I wander back to the village, a pair of Buzzards cry overhead as they quarter the fields.

Sunday 12 September 2010

Gardening minutiae

There's not been much to report on the natural history front at Tense Towers lately. It's been one of those weeks where Life seems to get in the way of living.

However, whilst our lass was pottering in the garden today, she found this little fellow sheltering under a plant pot.

I was pleasantly surprised to have the opportunity to take a photograph, as when they're in our pond, the newts are so timid that you can't get anywhere near 'em.

I imagine it's thinking "When I'm all growed up, I'm gonna eat your dragonfly larvae, Mr Photographer Man."

Sunday 5 September 2010

Up the Downs and down the ups

Our second day in Burpham dawns bright and clear. By the time we've finished a leisurely breakfast, it's already rather hot.

There's plenty of walking available straight from the hotel door, so after browsing our Ordnance Survey map of the area, we set off on a steady climb to the top of the South Downs ridge at Rackham Hill. We're huge fans of big skies, and the hills of Sussex offer a plentiful supply. However, the effect is somewhat ruined by all the bloody con trails...

AONB = Area of Outstandingly Noxious Boeings
Reaching the high point of the ridge, we're met with a grand view over the Arun valley, taking in Amberley Wild Brooks, Pulborough Brooks and Wiggonholt Common. A breeze is whistling up the scarp of the hill and the bushes at the top are full of birds feeding on insects. We identify a couple of dozen Spotted Flycatchers, half a dozen Redstarts, a few Whitethroats and a Wheatear.

Flotted Spycatcher
We follow the South Downs Way west, dropping off the ridge to Amberley Station. The fields hereabouts have wide margins, planted for wildlife and full of birds. We put up a huge charm of Golfinches, getting on for a hundred individuals. We stop for a spot of lunch at the Bridge Inn and as neither of us are driving, we can both sample a pint of local ale. Leaving the pub, we follow the River Arun back towards Burpham. At North Stoke, we see a Hornet seize a wasp from a bramble flower and carry it off. Skirting South Stoke, a pair of Whinchat fly up from a Hawthorn bush and our lass spots a family of Treecreepers in a Willow on the river bank. There are Migrant Hawkers and Common Darters aplenty but we only see one damselfly, a Common Blue.

Back at the hotel, we visit the bar to "rehydrate" and sit in the garden, supping our drinks and watching the proprietor's chickens wandering amongst the flower borders. We round off the day with an evening meal in the restaurant and retire to bed, exhausted but happy.

Saturday 4 September 2010

Not so secret argent

Way back on the last day of 2009, I wrote out a few aspirations for the next twelve months. Whilst stating that they were in no particular order, top of the list was "a second honeymoon". Hence the cryptic "if it was a mountain, this year would be Suilven" remark. That's silvern, as in "made of silver" for our 25th wedding anniversary, as opposed to sylvan, or made of wood, which would only be our 5th.

And so to the day itself...

We awake from our slumbers and, as our eyes become accustomed to the daylight once more, we remember that we have spent the night in a shepherd's hut. A luxurious shepherd's hut admittedly, but a hut nonetheless. Never let it be said that I didn't know how to spoil a girl.

It has all the necessary features to be defined as a shepherd's hut: corrugated roof and walls; four rickety wheels; wooden steps up to a stable door; sheepskin rug on the floor. However, the list continues in a less sheepy tone: king size bed; ensuite shower room; flat screen tv; fridge. From outside, we can hear the contented clucking of the owner's hens and not much else, such is the tranquillity of this bijou B+B at the bottom of a garden in a sleepy village. The top half of the  stable door is open and an 18 week old kitten attempts to gain entry to Sheep Mission Control. We are in Sussex, on the edge of the South Downs, not far from Worthing, where we were married in the summer of 1985.

After a sumptuous breakfast, we decamp to Arundel to visit the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve. The WWT's UK sites fall into several categories; pure nature reserve, duck zoo or a mixture of the two. Arundel is primarily a duck zoo at this time of year and we manage to put our sanity on hold for an hour, whilst we look around. To be fair, the exhibition showing the numerous uses of wild flowers and herbs was very interesting. Please don't jump to any misguided conclusions about "sanity on hold" and "uses of... herbs"!

After a celebratory lunch in the garden of the Black Horse in Amberley, we then head for the RSPB reserve at Pulborough Brooks. From the smart, new, visitors' centre, it is possible to walk in one direction to explore the water meadows of the Arun valley, which, after years of detrimental drainage, are being restored to their former state. In the other direction is a totally different habitat, as the RSPB seeks to return a conifer plantation back to heathland, and so encourage Nightjars and Dartford Warblers back to the area.

We walk through this part of the reserve in the heat of early afternoon. There is little bird activity at this time of day, so when we arrive at a small heathland pond, half in the shade of trees, we stop to investigate for odonate interest.

Several male Southern Hawkers are patrolling along the banks, occasionally resorting to aerial combat to define their personal space. Ruddy and Common Darters compete for warm spots on logs, fence rails and patches of sand. A few male Emerald Damselflies roost on vegetation near the water's edge whilst the females stay away from all the hustle and bustle, preferring to rest  amongst the bracken and grass some metres away.

Southern Hawkers hawking in the south
Continuing our walk, we potter around an oak woodland and then return to the centre for a pot of tea. Amongst all the usual visitors to the bird feeders, we spot either a Willow Tit or a Marsh Tit, but it doesn't hang around long enough for us to be sure.

Driving down to the picturesque village of Burpham, we check into the eponymously named Country House hotel, where we spent our wedding night all those years ago.

In the evening, we wander down to the River Arun and its water meadows, catching a brief view of a Kingfisher. The light of the setting sun accentuates the warm orangey red of its underside, so that, for once, the electric blue flash is not its most prominent feature. Walking back to the edge of the floodplain, we glimpse a ghostly white shape disappearing behind an Ash tree in the corner of the field. We hardly dare breathe as we wait to see if the Barn Owl has spotted us. Suddenly it swoops down under the branches into view, out across the meadow, passing us without even a glance. Turning at a hedge, it flies straight towards us at head height, at the last second soaring a few feet over our heads and then disappearing behind the Ash tree again. We're unlikely to have such another close encounter with a wild owl without being reincarnated as field voles. Our lass wonders if it was aware of our presence. I think it probably was, but it just didn't give a hoot.

Later, in the village pub, we raise our glasses in toast to 25 glorious years and a wonderful  anniversary day. Watch this space in 2035 for the next instalment!

Wild and windy Wicken

A Bank Holiday trip to Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, on a blustery, showery day, turned into a tougher gig than anticipated. Due to the weather, we had to work rather hard to find any Odos at all, but by being in the right place at the right time, i.e. lucky, we managed to locate eight species.

Six of these were found in one small patch of sunlight, in a glade behind the East Mere Hide. Damselflies (Common Blue, Blue-tailed and Emerald) were roosting low, out of the wind, and even the darter (Common) and hawker (Brown and Migrant) dragonflies were flying close to the tops of the vegetation to minimise encountering any turbulence. This calm, warm oasis, in a sea of waving reeds and trees, even had a few Common Lizards basking on a fence rail.

During one heavy shower, our lass spotted a Migrant Hawker out hunting, which seemed like an extreme sport for an insect.

In the pond dipping area, we were fortunate to see a female Southern Hawker ovipositing in the moss growing on one of the platforms, and several Ruddy Darters were basking in sheltered hollows in the grass, tucked away out of the wind but enjoying a spot of full sun.

Cloud streets over Wicken