Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 16, 2018

Still Summer

Black-tailed Godwit flock (scaled)

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa) gathering on the Essex coast.

But for the subtler signs of the seasonal change in the countryside, yesterday was a day plucked from a week in mid-summer rather than one in mid-September, delightfully warm and full of small, summery life.

The Essex coastal marshes are bearing the slow shift towards autumn, with their steadily growing hordes of birds that will have amassed to impressive quantities come the days of autumn proper; the likes of the Black-tailed Godwit gathered in their hundreds and the Teal scattered already plentifully along the low-tide water of the creek.  Yet a couple of hundred metres inland, among the grassy habitats and the woodland edge, butterflies flitted, maybe not with the intensity and number of a month previous, but all the same in a most pleasing number and diversity.

I was pleasantly surprised by the eight species I saw given the lateness of the season.  Among these were a number of Meadow Brown, somewhat unexpectedly as they rarely seem to fly far into September in these parts.  Less surprising perhaps were the Small Copper, Small Heath and Common Blue, the latter which seem to have enjoyed a particularly good year.  The Speckled Wood could still be seen, patrolling and basking in the lea of the woods or within their pool of light filling a gap in the tree canopy, while another Wall Brown fly by cautiously leads me to hope that this much declined butterfly is, locally at least, enjoying improved fortunes.

Pick of the day though was a certain Clouded Yellow, one in particular from the several that I encountered.  These are migrants to Britain, unable to survive our winters.  This one just seemed to gleam a sharper, brighter, almost lemon-yellow than its nevertheless beautiful fellows that I had seen earlier.

I don’t lament the gathering influence of the autumn as some folk might, but I am still given to cherish whole-heartedly these bonus days of summer

Clouded Yellow 4 (scaled)

A stunning Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus).

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Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 9, 2018

Bush-crickets and Books

I hope you will forgive me the indulgence of staying with the subject of my last post for a bit longer so as to allow me to sing the not inconsiderable praises of one of my all-time favourite creatures.

It is not back to the New Forest I take you though, but to that special part of my home patch which I wrote of a few weeks before, the place I affectionately call ‘The Downs’, a wonderful area of wildlife habitat existing almost cheek by jowl with the urban sprawl of South Essex.  The creature in question is Britain’s largest species of Orthoptera (crickets and grasshoppers).  Muscling in with a length of 50mm or more and large enough to deliver a painful bite if not handled carefully is the undeniably impressive Great Green Bush-cricket (Tettigonia viridissima).  I had heard them on several occasions on my recent trip to the New Forest and Dorset and was delighted to finally lay eyes on one on my own doorstep……

Great Green Bush-cricket 5 (scaled)

Great Green Bush-cricket (Tettigonia viridissima)

They are not a particularly common insect in the UK, being restricted to the southern reaches of England and the extreme south of Wales and decidedly local within their distribution.  Where they do occur they may do so in number, a state if affairs which I am happy to say is the case over The Downs.  Even so – and despite a loud, far-carrying ‘song’ (that has been likened to the sound of a sewing-machine) – they can be surprising hard to locate.  Their song can be frustratingly ventriloquial and they are superbly camouflaged for a life clambering among the brambles and bracken.  It is always a treat to reacquaint myself with them and well worth a few thorn scratches on bare legs in doing so.

While I’m here, a quick note as regards a talk I am giving on my book ‘The Greater World of Little Things‘ for the Essex Wildlife Trust, Maldon and South Woodham Ferrers group on 12th September.  Click here for details.  If you happen to live near by it would be great to see you there.

Front cover WLT

Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 2, 2018

A many-jewelled crown

Mottled Grasshopper 6 (scaled)

Mottled Grasshopper (Myrmeleotettix maculatus). Ross Gardner 2018.

The New Forest is a special place.  It is special, of course, as a beautiful and historic landscape, but for the naturalist it is in many respects exceptional and, in a UK context, quite unique.  There are many of those inhabitants of The Greater World of Little Things  that find a British stronghold here and a few that have been found nowhere else in the country.  It seems that whenever I visit here I find something I’ve never seen before.

This summer it was with an eye for its Orthoptera (but not, I should add, exclusively) that I returned the place.  While some things may have passed their peak – the butterflies for example, or the early summer flush of wildflowers – mid-August is high-time for crickets and grasshoppers.  There was one in particular that holds a special enigma for me, the Large Marsh Grasshopper (Stethophyma grossum) – at up to 36mm our biggest grasshopper and being more or less restricted to the counties of Dorset and Hampshire also one of our rarest.

It was also one I’d never laid eyes on.  Being inhabitants of decidedly squidgy quaking bogs on acid heathland they are not exactly the easiest to track down.  Yes, I could go squelching in search of them, but I’d rather not be one of those people who risk precipitating potential damage to the habitat of the creatures they seek.  Restricting my searches to the edges of appropriate habitat I was thus reducing my chances of success.  But hey-ho, there was much else to be found.  Mottled Grasshopper (Myrmeleotettix maculatus) for one, certainly no rarity, but in their own way quite stunning little insects that come in a bewildering variety of colour schemes but quite easily identified with practice (very sharply indented side-keels are a most useful feature).  The Heath Grasshopper (Chorthippus vagans) is a something of a rarity, but one which in some areas of the dry heath were decidedly numerous.  And even being frustrated by a lack of Large Marsh sightings, finding the impressive Raft Spider (Dolomedes fimbriatus) was always a treat.

Raft Spider 4 (scaled)

Raft Spider (Dolomedes fimbriatus). Ross Gardner 2018.

And yes, just when I thought I had run out of time and opportunity, I did find my prize beastie.  A movement out of the corner of the eye and a rather fabulous creature settling down to munch on a grass-blade.

Large Marsh Grasshopper 4 (scaled)

Large Marsh Grasshopper (Stethophyma grossum). Ross Gardner 2018.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 30, 2018

The Watcher in the Rain

Redstart 6 (resize)

Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

I love having a campervan in the rain, not perhaps something that many would find normal.  Sat here in a wet New Forest car park in late August and I can see a decidedly forlorn looking icecream van, without its queue of sugar-hungry kinds (and adults, of course).  I’ve watched people head off, in couples and families, ponchoed and raincoated, striding away with that distinctly British demeanour of ‘making the most of things’ and maybe uttering to themselves a mantra something like “we’d never do anything if we were worried about a bit of rain.”  I’ve watched a few head back too, some who had evidently seen a weather forecast before they had started off – appropriately attired as they were – and others more bedraggled, having been led into that fateful summer sense of security.

I have watched also a Redstart, flutter onto a perch in  a curiously globular, stunted little holly tree; a perch made for bird and birdwatcher alike and curious in itself by the way it protrudes just perfectly for a bird to land upon and for the watcher to observe it.  It may not be one of those very sharply dressed spring-time males, but still a beautiful little bird for all its subtlety of plumage.  It hops away from view, but I can still hear it uttering its soft phweet of a call from somewhere inside the spiky foliage.  Then I see it again, fluttering around the silver-barked bole, trying, it appears, to hover long enough to snatch tiny flies out of the air, all the while flashing its richly-red rump and tail.  It alights once more on its protruding perch and remains there for a minute until seen off by a Robin.  Room enough for just one rufously adorned bird in this patch of the Forest it would seem.

Thus passed one of those memorable 5 or 10 minutes that happens every once in a while to those with an inclination towards the things of nature.  A simple exchange, effortless in its proceeding, yet profound in its significance.  I borrow for a few moments this window on the world and see, in a glimpse, a small part of its inner workings

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 11, 2018

The Greater World of Little Things – book review

A few quotes from a recent review of my book in ‘The Biologist’

“the chapters… are enlightening”
“it definitely makes you think about the world around you”
“A thought-provoking book”
                                                     Janet Preece CBiol MRSB, in ‘The Biologist’

Front cover WLT

 

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 7, 2018

Feel the heat

I think I may have mentioned on these pages before about my immense good fortune to have grown up and still live close by to some wonderful wildlife sites despite a close proximity to the South Essex urban sprawl.  If I not on here, this always been something and the places somewhere never far away from the books I have written over more recent years.  They are places that may carry a very personal significance, but the philosophies that they have helped to shape and the deep sense of wonder for the natural world that they have nurtured is, I think, relevant to other places and hopefully other people far distant from here.

SONY DSC

Fair-weather clouds over the Thames-side slopes of Hadleigh Country Park.

There is one place that rather stands out, an area that I affectionately refer to as ‘The Downs’ and which is more popularly known as Hadleigh Country Park.  It is a fantastic and varied area and one which comprises a part of quite an expanse of open country along the northern shore of the Thames Estuary.  It has ancient woodland and thorn scrub; splendid flower-rich grassland and pond studded, ditch crossed grazing marsh; even also a seawall with views over saltmarsh and estuarine creek.  It is somewhere that perhaps I have spent more time in than any other and one that still has the capacity to amaze me, despite it great familiarity.

Indeed, it is my recent wanderings there, beneath the absurd heat of our currently quite un-British summer, that has prompted its appearance here.  The life of the place is in part subdued.  The bird-life presumably finds the heat as stifling as any human and any mammalian residents that might be given to diurnal movements would surely reserve them for the relatively cool of the evening or early morning.  But with the smaller life it is a-buzz.  The swathes of knapweed are full of the diligence of bees and the more ponderous intensity of butterflies – of the likes of common blue, brown argus and gatekeeper, perhaps a Clouded Yellow, conspicuous in its yellow-ness.  The ponds and weedy ditches are never without their attendant dragonflies, energised tirelessly by the heat – foraging and fighting, foraging and fighting – territories must be maintained.

Such as these, of course, are the most obvious.  There is much to be found…

Philanthus triangulum (bee-wolf). 3 (scaled)

A Bee-wolf (Philanthus triangulum) hunts among the knapweed flowers for honey bees with which to stock the underground cells where their young will develop.

Eristalis nemorum - pair 2 (scaled)

The hoverfly Eristalis nemorum is very similar to other Eristalis species, but the habit of the male of hovering a guard over his neactaring mate can make it easily identified.

Southern Migrant Hawker - male 2 (scaled)

The Southern Migrant Hawker (Aeshna affinis) is something of a rarity in the UK which may be in the process of colonising Southern England. This is a stunningly blue male.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 30, 2018

From Heartland to Heartland

Kite country (scaled)

Kite country in the Welsh uplands

Thoughts were cast back to about a year to a corner of Mid-Wales and the UK leg of our Big Trip.  We found ourselves in one of those places which I sometimes like to describe as ‘nowhere in particular’ – somewhere that doesn’t tend to turn up in guide books, but which is no less (or perhaps more) wonderful for it.  Here the sight of Red Kite held a particular significance.

It was in such hidden Welsh Valleys as this that this stunning bird found its final stronghold when by the end of the 19th century persistent and misguided persecution, largely attributable to game preservation, had made them extinct elsewhere in Britain.  There were perhaps only a dozen or so birds hanging on in Wales at the beginning of the 20th century.  The 50 odd birds present in the 1950s was for subsequent decades considered high.

With our thoughts moving away from the Welsh Hills and back to about a week ago and we find ourselves in the Chiltern Hills of Oxfordshire.  Here we find the formerly ailing raptor in a heartland of a different kind and markedly happier times.  This part of the Chilterns was chosen in the late 1980s as a reintroduction site intend to revive their fortunes.  Efforts were successful, as has been the recovery of the Red Kite in general.  They are a regular sight to travellers on the M40 and M4 motorways and the bird is seen widely across the southern part of Britain as well as increasingly to the north.  There are now 1600 pairs across the UK.

A short stay in the wonderful countryside around Watlington (a fine place whose superb chalk grassland may well feature on these pages again) brought us closer to these impressive birds than ever before.  It was hot, but the sweltering air resonated with the whistling cries of several birds on the wing at the same time.  They were ever-present, but an image not to be tired of.

Red Kite 5 (scaled)

A Red Kite (Milvus milvus) surveys Oxfordshire countryside.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 19, 2018

The Monarch

It still seems strange, when I find myself reflecting on our recent travels abroad, to consider that this time six months ago it was, well… summer; for July in the UK read January in New Zealand.  The thoughts of the butterflies that have recently been gracing these pages have taken themselves back to that mid-winter summer (!) and wings of its own.

The wings in question belong to the Monarch, that butterfly of the Americas made justly famous for an incredible migration that carries it from as for north as Canada to wintering grounds in Central America.  There are traditional hibernating sites in Mexico where areas coniferous forest are burnished with the deceptively autumnal tint of millions of dormant, orange and black wings hung in great clusters from the branches.  It is a power of flight that with the aid of favourable wind has taken them across oceans.  They have, for example, colonised the Canary Islands and might also have done the same in the UK had their larval foodplant ever been in ready supply.  And they have, of course, also found their way to New Zealand, even if there appears to be some disagreement as to whether they found their own way by means of ‘island hopping’ or through more direct human assistance.

Monarch - Hamilton Gardens 8 (scaled)

One of several Monarch (Danaus plexippus) we saw at Hamilton Gardens.

Either way, they are firmly established in New Zealand.  Our delight at encountering them for the first time on the east coast of the South Island at Kaikoura I think drew the odd bemused glance from the locals; the Monarch for many New Zealanders is a common garden butterfly and a presumably familiar sight and on that they might garden for with the provision of foodplants and nectar sources as we might by planting Buddleia in the UK.  We were thrilled to see them.  They are a large and impressive butterfly, with boldly marked, orange-brown wings, edged with a black margin set with white jewels.  The colours of the underwing are more muted and the black veins more thickly traced, but arguably with more beautiful effect than the upper.  They are wings that facilitate flight which is both powerful and graceful in equal measure, moving with speed and great purpose one moment, swooping in easy, parabolic glides the next.

In Britain the sight of a Monarch making our shores is a great rarity and would be a special thing to witness.  We saw them again on our travels and sometimes in fair number.  Would it ever be possible to tire of them?

Monarch - Kaikoura (scaled)

Our first encounter at Kaikoura.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 15, 2018

Denizens of the Dark Wood

The UK summer so far has been a fairly extraordinary one.  We’ve had good summers in the past, of course, but 2018 has been as consistently hot and stubbornly dry as any I can remember for a long time.  It brings butterflies to these pages once again.  Two in particular spring to mind indirectly (for one of them at least) because of these uncommonly hot and dry conditions.

The Speckled Wood and Purple Hairsteak are both very much woodland species, occurring in woodland where even the open clearings that might bring other butterflies into the woods are missing.  Of the Speckled Wood, I have long attributed to them a sense of companionship to my walks.  A Speckled Wood appears and a sense of things working properly comes to mind.  They need their share of warmth and sunshine, just as any butterfly does, but for them the shard of light pouring in through even the smallest gap in the tree-canopy might suffice, so long as ample grasses are present on which their larvae can feed.

Speckled Wood (underwing) (small)

Speckled Wood (Parage aegeria)

Speckled Wood - face on (close-up)

Speckled Wood – up close and personal

The Purple Hairstreak is a thing very much of the tree-canopy, so much so that their presence in a wood can very easily go undetected if not for purposeful searching among the tree-tops.  Their eggs are laid in the tops of oak trees and the adults even feed there, preferring the honeydew (the sweet leavings of aphids) that coats the leaves to any nectar to be found at ground level.  This is a habit they share with the Speckled Wood.

While the Speckled Wood is an insect frequently observable on the ground, as they defend their territories from would-be challengers, so often resulting in those flickering spirals at butterflies in combat, spinning madly up into the crowns, it seems also that the Hairsteaks have been particularly evident over recent weeks.  This is something that is very likely a result of the prevailing weather.  I have occasionally in the past seen them feeding on thistles and the Speckled Wood may also be found nectaring on flowers.  It is when things are particularly dry and the honeydew unobtainable as a result that they may be forced to seek other resources, to benefit and added delight of any human onlookers below.

Both butterflies are common to a much of our woodland, even if we don’t necessarily realise it.  Long may this continue.

Purple Hairstreak

Purple Hairstreak (Neozephyrus quercus) – male. The extent of purple iridescence depends on the light.

Purple Hairstreak-underside

Purple Hairstreak – underside. The silvery grey of the underwing and their rapid flight around the tops of oaks have caused some to liken them to ‘spinning coins’ – one of those turns of phrase that you wished you thought of yourself.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 1, 2018

Abel Tasman National Park

It’s been quite a while since I posted about our Big Trip overseas last winter, so here’s a quick return from the sights of a UK summer ongoing to the sights of a New Zealand summer passed.

You may remember that the last NZ post took in the glories of Tongariro National Park on our way southwards, ultimately to the Cook Strait crossing and our arrival on the South Island.  Having done so, our first port of call was the town of Nelson.  It was from here that we intended to pay a visit to Abel Tasman National Park.  Having only a single full day to spend in the area, we endeavoured to make the most of things.  With a water-taxi along the length of the park’s eastern shore, a drop-off at Apple Tree Bay and a hike along to Anchorage Bay for collection (a most convenient little itinerary for those with little time), we left well happy with our experience……

Abel Tasman NP 3 (scaled)

The forested coastline of Abel Tasman National Park.

Fur Seal - Abel Tasman (scaled)

The coast is scattered with small islands, one of which gave us the first of many views of Southern Fur Seal.

Abel Tasman NP 7 (scaled)

A view from within.

Weka (scaled)

The Weka appears to be one of New Zealand’s indigenous, flightless birds to have faired the onslaught of European colonisation better than others. This is not to say that they haven’t experienced their own significant declines and,  despite their familiarity, are absent from large parts of the country. Renowned thieves and opportunist scroungers, this own seemed quite indignant at our occupying the track in front of it and refused to be put off of its course.

Abel Tasman NP 10 (scaled)

From the many bays indenting the shoreline views of the wooded hills offered much to make the imagination wander……

 

 

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