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

 

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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.

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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……

 

 

Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 27, 2018

Butterfly times

Painted Lady 8 (resize)

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

There was a time, not too long ago, when butterflies were everywhere.  I suppose it’s not always exactly the case that we don’t see them in the places we used to (although for some UK species this far too true), rather that even though we still see them we used to see more.  Forgive me a moment’s wistful nostalgia, but I am given to recall a large Buddleia (aka Butterfly Bush)  in my parent’s back garden.  Going back to the 1980s I can remember summers when I could count the assembled Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock, Large White and Comma, Painted Lady and Red Admiral in their combined dozens sating themselves on the massed blooms.  At peak times there must have been 50 or 60 butterflies, perhaps more, crowded onto the bush.  Even if the intervening years have served to exaggerate the memory, it would not be by much.

Sadly nowadays a like bush would attract but a fraction of that number.  The reasons for this decline?  The familar faces of habitat destruction and intensive agriculture show themselves once again.  Who knows what effects the widespread use of the same neonicitinoid pesticides attributed to the infamous plight of the Honey Bee may be having on our butterflies too?

Spots of light amid the gloom are there to be found however.  Butterfly Conservation have reported the success of “landscape-scale conservation projects” in halting some of these declines.  A glimmer of my own I found on the North Downs a few days ago.  A visit to an old favourite – Kemsing Down.  The sunny slopes were quite teeming with butterflies.  There were Dark Green Fritillary flying purposefully among the sward and Common Blue attracted by the swathes of Bird’s-foot Trefoil, their larval foodplant.  Small Heath seemed to flutter up in places with every other footstep, with Meadow Brown present by the dozen.  And the Marbled White – what a show!  It almost sometimes seemed as if there were as many of them as everything else put together.

Kemsing is a wonderful area for butterflies; I have seen 30 species here over the years, Dingy Skipper, Grizzled Skipper and Chalkhill Blue included.  Are such sites as this the repositories from which we many replenish the repairs to our broken countryside?

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Marbled White (Melanargia galathea)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 17, 2018

Love is…… a cowpat

What better place to go a courting than on a nice, sun-dried cowpat?  If you happen to be a dragonfly this might be exactly what you will find yourself thinking.  This pair of Black-tailed Skimmer were positively singling out this particular fecal disc as the ideal to spot to soak up some extra warmth on a cloudy day the other weekend.  Like many species of the Libellulidae (that family of dragonflies also containing the Chasers and Darters) they are creatures of habit, returning frequently to favoured perches, much to the benefit of those attempting to photograph them.

Black-tailed Skimmer pair on cowpat (scaled)

Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum): male (left) and female.

The Dragonfly season is well and truly upon us.  Territorial rights disputed and settled; bonds made and cemented; the wheel turning through its terrestrial realm before submergence again amid the monster-populated, weedy shadows.  The last couple of weeks have seen something of a concerted emergence of Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum), numerous as they seem to be at least around my local, Essex wetlands.  No doubt this is also the case across their UK range, covering the larger part of the southern half of England, as well as scattered areas of Wales.

Black-tailed Skimmer (female) 2 (scaled)

Black-tailed Skimmer – female.

Further afield they are a widespread insect, being found across much of Europe and well into Asia.  Such an expansive range is perhaps reflected in the apparently far-reaching influence of the Orthetrum genus as a whole, also having representatives in Africa, Australia and Japan.  Fittingly perhaps, the very first dragonfly encountered on our recent trip to Borneo was one Orthetrum pruinosum, the Crimson-tailed Marsh Hawk.

Orthetrum pruinosum.JPG 2 (scaled)

Orthetrum pruinosum photographed on the hills around Mount Kinabalu, Borneo.

 

Posted by: Ross Gardner | May 31, 2018

Closer to home

Mention the southern reaches of Essex along the north bank of the Thames Estuary and most folks will not be inclined to picture wide open spaces, filled with woods, flowery grassland, bird-busy scrub and teeming marshlands.  It is perhaps, on glancing at the map, the urban spread of Southend and Benfleet, Canvey and Basildon that dominate the scene.  True enough, they are sizeable towns with plenty of people, but those grasslands, marshes and other wildlife rich habitats cut a swathe amid the concrete.

Together the Hadleigh and Benfleet Downs, Bowers and West Canvey Marshes and those of Vange and Fobbing beyond comprise a huge area of open country.  One may walk for miles – easily seven or eight, much further if you wish – and barely put a foot on the road.  This is just what occupied me for a day last Saturday.  It was a barmy, beautiful day, yet I could almost have counted the people I met on one hand.

I sometimes decry the increasingly crowded nature of the place I have grown up and still live and the apparent indifference that some people seem to have for the world beyond their bubble.  But such opportunities as offered by the wild places on my doorstep is one I can never take for granted.  My minor indignations would be a paradise to others in some parts of the world and indeed also my own country.  One must keep ones complaints in perspective.

While some reading this won’t recognise the place names mentioned above, I am quite sure they represent for many a familiar state of affairs.  Another could list places I don’t recognise, but what they would mean for them is something I know and cherish.  Somewhere which I hope, which I’m sure, are cherished by others.

Some images from my walk.

Wall Brown 3(scaled)

Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera)

Hadleigh Marsh (scaled) (3)

A weed-filled dyke on Hadleigh Marsh – spot the Grey Heron and Mallard.

Broad-bodied Chaser - head on (scaled)

An alternative view of the Broad-bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa), one of the year’s earlier dragonflies.

Yellow Rattle - mass (scaled)

Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) en masse.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | May 24, 2018

Mount Doom!!!

Taranaki Trail (scaled)

A view of the woods and Tussock-land of Tongariro National Park, taken from above Taranaki Falls

The Big Trip was now orientated well and truly southwards as we continued our way, eventually to southern reaches of the South Island.  The North Island however, would continue to impress us for a little while yet.

Tongariro National Park, set fairly centrally on the North Island of New Zealand, is I suppose something of a taster for the mountainous wonders that await the traveller further on.  It is an area of upland and mountain that can appear almost incongruous.  All of a sudden, it seems, do the snowy ridges and peaks appear on the horizon.  A taster maybe, but a superb expanse of wild country this is in its own right.

Tongariro Mountains 7 (scaled)

Mount Ngauruhoe, aka Mount Doom.

Most of our time walking in the Park was spent on the Tama Lakes trail, a 14 kilometre hike across lonely tussock-land and beneath lofty, snow-topped mountains, not least the perfect volcanic cone of Mount Ngauruhoe, better known to ‘Lord of the Rings’ fans as Mount Doom.  The eponymous lakes are located in old volcanic explosion craters

This is haunt of skylark, introduced by British colonists to provide a taste of home and plentiful here.  What better sound than the drift of lark-song to ease the mind of its home-sickness?  As we walked the larks seemed only to share the tussocks with New Zealand Pipits (or Richard’s Pipit, as might be more familiar to British and European birdwatchers).  A mewing call and the dash of falcon wings, low between the slopes of a stream valley, told us that the small birds up here need to be wary.  This pair were the only New Zealand Falcon we would see on the whole NZ tour.

Richard's Pipit (scaled)

New Zealand or Richard’s Pipit (Anthus richardi).

Sigaus sp. TBI 4 (scaled)

Sigaus grasshoppers were commonplace among the tussocks

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