Posted by: Ross Gardner | November 18, 2020

A kestrel hovers

Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

There are few finer sights in nature than a kestrel hovering. I watched one today in the gathering dusk. I was standing on a slope so that the bird was almost level with me. It was the old name of ‘windhover’ that came to mind as it steadied itself in the rising wind, staring fixedly on the ground below.

A falcon aligns his head

To the centre point

Of the whole universe

From all angles a hunting kestrel is an image of beautifully sculpted efficiency. As I watched this one through my binoculars I twice saw it turn its head towards me to check that I posed no threat, but with scarcely yielding a centimetre to the wind. It barely need to flap its wings to hold its position in the gusting air, relying only on the deft, sometimes almost imperceptible angling of its tail and wings.

The fanning feathers of the tail

Slanting groundwards,

The primaries quivering

Upon the cloaked span of his wings,

Each are a mockery of the wind.

On sighting its prey it will descend in stages, dropping a few feet, then a few more, before slipping forcefully groundwards, with legs out-stretched and talons splayed open in expectation. If the likes of a vole or mouse proves to be the quarry, the falcon may have tracked it down by following the trail of urine visible to it as an ultra-violet reflection. Many are the adaptations of this most elegant hunter of small things.

(with excerts from the poem ‘A Kestrel Hovers’ by Ross Gardner)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | November 8, 2020

A wood of sounds

The dusk wood is a wood of sounds. Of a stillness infiltrated by the small noises and a silence that stays intact despite the extraneous sounds from without. Somewhere to listen for the lesser sounds absorbed by the daytime.

A thin, quiet, but somehow penetrating whistle as two Redwing pass by overhead on purposeful, rapidly beating wings – wings that have carried them many miles from the north in search of milder conditions and more plentiful food.

Pausing in the dip of small stream valley I can hear the leafy fidgeting of magpies settling to roost. A pipistrelle flickers past me, making good of this unusually mild November weather. This way and that, it flies within inches of me so that I can hear the soft flutter of its wings as it passes.

I walk on in the direction of the sound of shrieking foxes. I don’t see them, but I hear the rustling of smaller creatures in the undergrowth as I pass; a wood mouse perhaps, or a bank vole nosing among the leaf-litter. Or are they just the sounds of autumn leaves tickling through the branches above, the same that shower down when my passing rattles the woodpigeons from their tenuous slumber. It is that softer leafy sound that accompanies me throughout as the dusk easy into night.

Bank Vole (Myodes glareolus)
Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 29, 2020

In a hole in a tree

The numbers of birds down on the marshes continues to grow, all the wildfowl and waders, their hundreds, becoming thousands, becoming tens of thousands. Yet up on a hilltop, from a cleft in an oak tree, the summer glints through the shortening days and gathering shades of autumn. The hole in the trunk reveals the comb of a wild honey bee nest, still very active even as we approach the beginning of November. A privileged insight into the doings of wild things that normally take place out of human view (bee-keepers notwithstanding, of course), but one which scarcely reveals more than a fraction of the intricacies of their lives.

Honey Bee (Apis mellifera)

A bee taken in isolation is a simple enough creature, but as part of the whole they are something remarkable. The ‘waggle dance’ performed when a foraging work returns to the nest is a marvel of non-verbal communication, knowledge of environment and even geometry. The dance is delivered as a ‘figure of eight’. Its duration and vigour transfers information on the distance and plenty of a discovered forage source, the angle at which it is performed giving details of direction. Information that is relayed with accuracy and efficiency. Each is a part of a colony whose very structure is controlled by a single queen, whose ‘will’ alone dictates the ratio of workers, drones and queens-to-be to the maximum and most efficient effect. The analogy of the insect society as a kind of body in itself – as a so-called superorgansim – may be controversial, but difficult to resist.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 18, 2020

A web of intrigue

Every morning when I wake up and go into the kitchen, grabbing the kettle and walking towards the sink to fill it with water, my eyes have for the last few weeks have been greeted with one of true and undisputed marvels of nature. A Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus) has taken up residence on the kitchen window, adorning it each day with the wonder that is its web.

The Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus).

The more I think about spiders the more astounding they seem, purveyors of such ingenuity in such a variety of expression and yet everything contained within a tiny, tiny brain. We cannot, of course, jump to too hasty assumptions about the intellectual capabilities of any of our fellow creatures – we cannot, after all, talk to spiders, mice, haddock or anything else to ascertain what they may or may not know. But surely with something like a spider it is a question of the physical number neurons able to be fitted into such a small space. This is likely to be something rather less than a million, compared to the 90 million or so in a hamster’s brain and the 100 billion in that of a human.

Yet while a spider’s brain is very, very small it has apparently been imbued through near-countless generations of arachnid evolution (fossil evidence suggests a lineage extending back well over 300 million years) with this extraordinary ability to manipulate a substance (i.e. silk – something that is absurdly strong yet pliably stretchy) in such a way as to incorporate a not inconsiderable degree of engineering efficiency. Across spider-kind this is deployed to astonishing and varied effect.

I have watched a Garden Spider constructing its web in my garden. A tight-rope is first extended across an appropriate expanse from which to hang the circular web, abseiling down to run across the ground or vegetation below, before climbing up the other side to fix the line. Then other supporting strands are set onto which the circular threads can be attached. The whole thing can look a haphazard shambles, until towards the completion of the structure tensing lines are put in place to transform the whole into that wondrous and copious retainer of autumn-morning dew.

This all demonstates to me a remarkable distillation of instinct and behaviour into an extraordinary pinpoint of existence. I find it all compellingly perplexing, yet reassuring to consider that as much as we already know about the natural world that there is so much more to be discovered. If only we could ensure that it is all still around in the future for us to realise the opportunities.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 4, 2020

Last days and new dawns

Autumn sunshine;

Falling leaves growing wings,

Lifting them upwards.

The Brent Geese are in. I saw a skein of 200 hundred or so, sweeping in across the low-tide mudflats of the Thames Estuary the other day. Give it a few more weeks and there will be thousands; autumn merging into winter. But those last, summery days of autumn’s beginning have left their mark.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 16, 2020

September

It is September that arguably shows the flux of the seasons more so than any other time of year. It is a time of contrasts, more marked than of the cusp of autumn to winter and also perhaps that of the spring and summer when that wonderful surge of productivity simply continues apace from one into the other. It is a time when we still might see those potent images of the summer still very evident, but when we may receive clear messages of the autumn arriving and even of the winter in waiting. The risk here is that I begin to sound like some sort of premature harbinger of ever-shortening days and the countryside retreating into itself. But the turning of the seasons is, I think, a thing to be embraced, essential to the freshly-engaging and recurring wonders of the temperate natural world.

A Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) bathing.

Living close to the Essex side widening gape of the Thames Estuary, in a single walk I might have the good fortune to admire the rich, yellow wings of Clouded Yellow butterflies, skimming across the sward in search of the few remaining knapweed blooms, while almost in the same breath cast my eyes across the tidal mud to see the probing Greenshank and stooping Curlew scouring the water’s edge. The butterflies are southern migrants unable to survive our winters, the wading birds passage migrants from the north and a whisper of the thousands that will later gather for the winter.

Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus)

Dragonflies are on the wing. We are lucky enough to have the Southern Migrant Hawker hereabouts, a species still scarce, but perhaps in the process of colonising the UK. They have been on the wing here since the last days of June and there are still a couple of males maintaining their territories, but now they might carry out their patrols, low over their pond or length of weedy ditch, against a backdrop of scarlet Hawthorn berries or the mauve of Blackthorn weighing heavy on the branches. It is these fruits of course, that may later lure down the flocks of thrushes, the Fieldfare and Redwing fleeing the pains of a harsh northern winter.

The piercing blue eyes of a male Southern Migrant Hawker (Aeshna affinis).

Just a couple of examples of these seasonal pairings that I have had the pleasure of over recent weeks. Each of you, I am sure, wherever you find yourself looking, will have your own.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 30, 2020

Hmmmmm………

A rather fabulous insect has pitched up on the grassy slopes of Hadleigh Country Park, my much-loved local wildlife hotspot.

The season is a-changing, perhaps more keenly to the naturalist’s eye, who might notice the subtler changes in the countryside, taking place even as we continue to enjoy some summery weather.  The grasslands of The Downs (as I affectionately refer to them) have past their colourful peak.  The white of Wild Carrot is fading on the slopes, as is the yellow gleam of Bird’s-foot Trefoil.  The colour shifts now to the Hawthorn bushes loaded with scarlet berries and the fruit laden Bramble and Blackthorn with their respective shades of dark purple fruits.  Purple also is another flower, the brighter tones of Lesser Knapweed that blooms here so abundantly during late summer.  It’s own haze of colour, like the others, is receding, but still sufficiently present to lure an intriguing visitor.

The Hummingbird Hawk-moth is an immigrant to the UK, arriving in the spring from Southern Europe but unable to survive our winters.  As such they occur here in varying numbers.  Some years they can be seen almost anywhere, while in others their appearance can prove something of a rarity.  Today is the only time so far in 2020 that I have caught sight of the unmistakable orange blur of the hindwings, drifting and then darting in search of nectar.  Spring arrivals regularly breed in the UK, laying their eggs on bedstraw species, and it is perhaps likely that some of these offspring, like other migratory moths (e.g. Silver Y), make a return flight in the autumn.

This one was evidently very fond of knapweed, hovering to a standstill and extending its long proboscis, searchingly into the flower.  It is not diffucult to appreciate how they have earned their name.

Macroglossum stellatarum

Hummingbird Hawk-moth (Macroglossum stellatarum).

Macroglossum stellatarum

Hummingbird Hawk-moth (Macroglossum stellatarum) advancing on a knapweed (Centaurea nigra) flower.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 22, 2020

A few words on a heatwave

A fly's eye

Drowsy green shadows –

Even the flies are struggling

To keep themselves cool.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 5, 2020

Is it a wasp, is it a moth….?

Lunar Hornet Moth 6 (scaled)

The superb Lunar Hornet Moth (Sesia bembeciformis).

It was Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892) who, while exploring the Amazon with Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), first began to realise the startling similarities between certain species of butterfly.  He discovered that a number of species of non-poisonous butterflies very closely resembled other completely unrelated, but poisonous (by dint of incorporating toxins from foodplants consumed as caterpillars) species.  He reasoned that over the course of evolution (which of course his travelling companion Wallace was destined to make great strides towards providing a provable theory for) the harmless species had come to incorporate the warning colours of their toxic lookalikes in order to benefit from the reduced predation that that conferred.  Many instances of this so called Batesian mimicry have since been identified, perhaps most easily observed through mimics of stinging insects.  There are many species of hoverfly, for instance, that resemble bumblebees, honeybees and wasp, and even a few beetles that do likewise.  Oh, and the odd moth too.

I’ve had a good year for clearwing moths, in as much as I have seen two.  Most years it would be zero.  There are perhaps fifteen species of clearwing at large in the UK, some of which a rare, none of which are common.  They are all wasp mimics.  A few years ago I was lucky enough to encounter a fabulous Lunar Hornet Moth, an impressive beast and and more than a half-decent Hornet lookalike.  It was my first clearwing.

This year it was two of the much smaller, but still beautiful species that I happened upon.  The Red-belted Clearwing was nectaring on bramble blossom in a friend’s suburban garden, that I noticed while idly scanning the blooms for bees.  Luckily I had a camera to hand.  The lovely Six-belted Clearwing was new to my eyes, an entirely unexpected discovery while browsing among Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus – the larval foodplant) on the off-chance of some of the scarcer bumblebees I knew to be in the area.

It’s amazing what you can find when you’re not really looking for it.

Red-belted Clearwing - Chalkwell 2

A Red-belted Clearwing (Synanthedon myopaeformis) in an Essex garden.

Six-belted Clearwing

Six-belted Clearwing (Bembecia ichneumoniformis), Hadleigh Country Park, Essex.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 4, 2020

A Welcome Return

Argynnis paphia

Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia)

With so many losses and seemingly ever-steepening declines taking place in the natural world, it is with no small degree of pleasure to report a definite gain, at least in my local area, but hopefully elsewhere also.  It concerns no less than one of our most impressive of butterflies, the Silver-washed Fritillary, a large species that requires  little more than the simple combination of richly orange-brown wings, marked with black lines and spots in striking contrast, to turn the head.  On settling, the partly eponymous silver-green sheen on the underside serves only to enhance their beauty.

They have returned to several of my local, south-east Essex woods, something which appears to be taken place further afield around the county as a whole.  Their absence had stretched across several decades.  In one, well-recorded wood, (Belfairs Nature Reserve) very few observations were taken after the 1950s, extending only into the 1970s.  The insect I had the pleasure of encountering last summer in the Essex Wildlife Trust’s Pound Wood nature reserve was very probably also the first seen there, it could be guessed, since the early part of the 20th century.  So too the butterfly that prompted me to write this post, which I photographed yesterday in West Wood (Thundersley).

The larval food-plants of the Silver-washed Fritillary are dog-violets (Viola sp.).  Interestingly the butterflies don’t lay their eggs directly onto the plants, but are known instead to do so about a metre up the trunk of tree with violets growing about the base.  Certain Viola species are common enough, widely distributed plants.  May the butterfly’s resurgence continue.

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