Closer to home

Today I am another year older and wondering on where life is now leading me. I’m not fearful or anxious for myself as I still find awe and inspiration in the small wonders that surround us but I am fearful of what children may miss in our sadly depleting world. An App or new smartphone feature is no replacement for that first encounter with something new in the natural world.

Giant puffball with very large apple!

Life at Hempstead continues to inspire, surprise and amuse. Autumn has seen the biggest puffball grow to be joyfully consumed by my mate Clive and his 2 boys, Rowan and Finlay. Sliced and fried, I have to agree yummy but though tempted I couldn’t post the photos that showed the similarity of the base of the puffball to another kind of bottom!

Yep, big!

I am not the only gardener to remark on the amazing fruit crop, apples, pears, sloes, damsons, blackberries which bodes well for wildlife food but if its a harbinger of a hard winter, God help us!

Fruit and flowers should mean butterflies and lots of other flying insects and yes I’ve had some surprises in the garden.

Female Brown Hairstreak

After living at Hempstead for 26 years I never expected to see a new butterfly species let alone a new species on a plant by our back door.

10 minutes later and an old favourite dropped in.

Ruby-tailed Wasp

Unbelievable as it might seem we suffered our first frost of the season on the 1st September which I took to be another indication of how strange this year has become.

Ice on the 1st!

Sometimes fungi are directionally challenged…..

Large Boletus

And sometimes runs to the dump have an accidental stowaway….

Let me out, said Toad.

Happy Birthday me! And just for the beauty here’s a very late jewel

Just another Autumn?

The strange and disturbing times seem to have become the new normal but I have accepted that rather than continually moan about life or get distressed about our impact on our natural world that instead I should concentrate on the areas where I might be able to make a difference. Actions like moderating how much I consume and considering where exactly does it come from.

Actions like trying to raise and promote local issues that we can all attempt to influence. For Francis and I those issues tend to centre on the countryside of Surrey and we would encourage you to look at, with a more considered eye, your garden, your street, your local countryside. Find out who owns what, who manages what and ask questions whilst offering time to help.

By all means revel in the wonder and joy that countryside and wildlife enriches us with but just maintain a level of heightened awareness about our impact and realise that very little of our environment can be “left alone to look after itself”.

For all the glory to be enjoyed with views to be enjoyed at Newlands Corner

Or St Martha’s

Try and be aware of the details, the last of the summers Chalkhill Blue Butterflies

Sheltering in the grass amidst dozens of people and dogs.

Harebells and Robins Pincushions, the former an increasingly rare beauty and the latter a wild rose plants response to the activity of a tiny wasp larva. Both amazing!

Late summer turf with Harebells
Robin’s Pincushion Gall

Try and remember that your actions impact not only on the wildlife but on other happy wanderers like yourself. In other words its back to behaving responsibly!

I have no idea what the cause of the rash of fires during the exceptionally hot bit of August but I do know from experience most are likely to be as a result of the carelessness or outright stupidity of a small number of people.

Chobham Common National Nature Reserve

Barbecues or a casual disregard as to disposal of a cigarette butt can have devastating consequences. Does anybody actually need to be told not to light a disposable barbecue in the countryside? If you are not in a clearly marked bbq safe area then DON’T LIGHT THE BLOODY THINGS!

Monument on Chobham

The major fire at Chobham Common was covered by the media not because of the damage to a National Nature Reserve but due to the risk of some rather nice housing. Yes, I do understand, but there had already been a big fire at Thursley National Nature Reserve and several other heathlands and a little coverage of these fires possibly relating to climate change and peoples ignorance of fire risk in the south east wouldn’t have hurt.

Watching and Observing

Holly Blue under stormy sky

I’ve been a bit lazy and not written about the progression of my garden reserve for a while now and I suddenly thought that I needed to update you on what has been happening and the visiting wildlife that has been observed. As you will all know, this year has been like no other in our lifetimes and I have read many articles about the affect this has been having on our wildlife. After reading a number of interesting articles I realised that I was seeing some of the results of these situations that were occurring nationwide, in my own backyard. With all the extra time that kickdown has given me I have witnessed a number of amazing species and am seeing the benefits of the work that has already been carried out and as is the normal way, there have been a few surprises. So, let’s have a look at what’s been going on

Greater Burnet

As I previously mentioned I had started to extend the reserve by clearing and planting up the garden on the right-hand side of my area. After I had cleared the whole area and tried to remove problem species I planted up the area with various seeds in my collection. Looking at the area now has taught me a few important points. When I planted up the new area I had a couple of Wild Flower seed packets that had been given to me and these were sown along with seeds that I had collected last year. By mid-May I could see quite a few seedlings emerging and noticed that a few of these species were not familiar to me. As some of you may be aware, there has been quite a boom in the gardening world about trying to protect and encourage Bees and Butterflies into our gardens. This is one of the reasons I started the work on the gardens in the first place but have realised that many of the seeds advertised as Bee and Butterfly are garden plants that are certainly not native to South West Surrey. By early June there were a number of species in flower including Quickweed, an American species and a species of Mallow that were obvious garden varieties. My aim to keep the area native was not going to plan

I weighed up the pros and cons of this situation and decided to leave the alien species as they were quickly noted to be attracting regular visits from Garden and Red-Tailed Bumble bees and Holly Blue, Large and Small White butterflies, so they were playing an important part in helping the local insect population.

Garden Bumblebee on Hemp Agrimony

During the mid-summer over 30 flowering species were found in the garden and it has been interesting to see which species are doing well and how some species have spread to new areas and going back to the insects, I took particular notice of which flowers were the most popular with the local insect populations. It was a very interesting point to observe and I concluded a number of rather points after several weeks of observations. Firstly, every single flowering species in the area from the Creeping Jenny to the Hemp Agrimony attracted some kind of insect to feed or display on. This was one of the major aims of the project, so I was pleased and soon noticed the roles the flowers were having in the insect’s lives.

Honey Bee on Black Knapweed

From the two most obvious insect groups that I observed and that’s Bees and Butteries, the favourite 5 flowering species were Black Knapweed, Foxglove, Lavender, Teasel and Wild Marjoram. From late May to early August when these species were in full bloom there was a constant presence of bees and butterflies and I recorded 8 different species feeding on the many flowering Black Knapweed plants that have managed to spread out from where I originally planted them. It’s interesting to note that Red Tailed Bumblebee are known to particularly fond of Black Knapweed as a food source and as a result of this there have been increased numbers present with up to 10 individuals present on a few days.

Greater Knapweed

This was all very encouraging and part of the plan that I first envisaged and over the past few months of closer observations, I have witnessed a few interesting results of species presence in the area. The most obvious species, and I have fortunately observed them on roughly 20 – 25 occasions since lockdown and that is the Badger’s. Now Badgers can be quite a controversial species whenever they live near humans. When I first knew I had Badgers around me I was firstly thrilled as they are a species that I will never get bored of observing. I had also never seen urban badgers before and this has proved to provide me with many interesting sightings over past months.

When Badgers are hunting for food, very little will put them off their pursuits to get to the food they can smell. I have, as I previously mentioned, been putting some monkey nuts (Peanuts with shells) out in the evenings and I have watched the local badgers happily feeding away on them. When I first started planting the area up, a couple of years ago, with flowers and plants and had cleared the area I was well aware that the Badgers may well have a dig in the soil and earlier in the year I did see one digging for worms in the mud. This was a partial reason why I started to feed them the nuts to try and keep them away from sensitive newly planted areas. It was never going to be a full proof plan and I have observed a number of interesting points including the fact that they may eat the nuts I put out for them but they are always looking for other more natural foods and I have put the nuts in 3 different places in the garden and in-between each area they always wander all over the garden and are seen to catch and eat invertebrates and some nights they don’t eat all the nuts I put down. I did have a mad idea one day when out in the reserve and later that evening I carefully placed some monkey nuts in an area of rank vegetation that I was intending to clear and replant. I repeated this for a couple of weeks and noticed that the vegetation was being weakened and was starting to die back. The badgers had become part time gardeners for me and so far, the only thing they have done that wasn’t planned is made a couple of unofficial paths through the flower beds but it’s no problem really. So, no problems with them so far. These are the most human tolerant badgers that I have ever known and I’m still amazed when the neighbours have come out and put their rubbish in the bins and crashed the lids down and the badgers just sit there and carry on feeding.

Several times I’ve seen Badgers with Foxes and in all honesty, there seems to very little to say as all I have ever seen is them just ignoring each other with a badger eating peanuts and the Fox just walking around looking for food. It was noted that the Fox always kept a few yards away from the Badger and shows who is the top in the reserve.

These top predators seem to be doing well and this is a good indicator to the health of the general area. I have tried to show you in this piece that from the plants in the ground, to the insects that use them and all the way to the top predators the area I have been working on is starting to provide a useful, vital even, resource for the local wildlife. And the plans to improve the site are on-going with a few more plans coming into place.

One major thing is the installation of the pond. Which is currently four days old! It’s just settling in at the moment. We shall see what happens in the next few weeks as autumn starts to creep up on us. Meantime there is plenty to see and not always the most welcomed as I discovered when cleaning my balcony yesterday and disturbed a False Widow Spider. Nature is never boring !

Many smiles

Summer greens

I confess, I can tend to get overly involved with the politics of the countryside but in my defence I never lose site of the joy that the natural world brings me.

We are not entitled to use the countryside as we want, our “rights” do not give us the right to abuse it.

The last few months have reinforced that I am a lucky, a fortunate, privileged man. I live surrounded by wildlife and have some special friends with whom I am privileged to share time with. There is so much pleasure in learning from people who know “stuff” and can communicate that knowledge, whether it’s my friend Adam, sharing his Richmond Park wilderness…

Special discoveries await

or his son Linden showing me the wildlife in his garden.

Just one of Linden’s Grass snakes!

Incidentally, children can often be the best and most joyful teachers. The evident passion in Linden for all things natural, and his frankly humbling knowledge is truly inspirational. Children who catch the wildlife bug early are probably are greatest hope, if we can give them the time they richly deserve.

Sue and I have continued to walk locally often and the new discoveries just keep coming as do the unexpected connections.

More peace in the countryside has meant more visible wildlife.

Roe deer at peace

We have encountered Roe deer in many places and yes , to my wife’s consternation, they have returned to the garden! Lily flowers and now anemonies have been neatly munched. The stag has rediscovered sour apples.

Taste good?

Walking local paths has revealed new pleasures

Tulip Tree

and striking connections

Purple Loosestrife

In a tiny glade next to housing or more predictably along the Wey navigation.

Precarious Purple

The river and navigation have proved a regular joy, always something new or surprising. Countless times we have walked near Triggs lock but the last 2 visits we have seen Kingfishers which is another bird that grabs everybody’s attention. We witnessed a heron fall in the river catching fish, having, we think, forgotten that he was on a raised bank! Didn’t let go of the fish but lost all elegance climbing back out.

Calmer heron!

And not only first Kingfisher along “our stretch” but this discrete surprise

Lady Mandarin

Walking paths new to me across Stringers Common provided confirmation that wildlife will hold on in the tiniest of areas which at first glance look devoid of anything interesting. Next to housing and in urgent need of just a little management are a number of tiny glades.

In the midst of these are just enough of the right plants for some stunning butterflies.

Large Skipper

I was truly gobsmacked to find…

White Admiral

Silver Washed Fritillary

Trouble is my mind then spins off in to all directions, how could you get locals involved? Could you persuade the Parish council to take some responsibility from Surrey County Council? Another challenge for another day.

Further encouragement to get out locally.

Little bit of heaven

Spending much more time in the garden as  summer arrived and the birds got quieter I much greater understood why. Many adult birds are beginning to moult but all birds old and young are concentrating on food. Hempstead’s garden has been alive with family groups, everything from tits, finches and sparrows on the feeders to young Blackcaps, Robins and Blackbirds pillaging the soft fruit. Young Jackdaws and Crows have entertained with a constant cackle nagging for more food, despite being clearly big enough to feed themselves. The lawn has also been the local health clinic, providing ants and sunshine for pest control.

Preparing for treatment

The lawn and ants have also provided food for a couple of old favourites and a novel copy cat.

Green Woodpeckers are well known for feeding on ants and here they can spend hours hopping and using their powerful beak and amazing tongue.

What you looking at?

I find them both beautiful and somehow a bit dumb looking. Maybe they just look like they have been banging their heads against the ground just a little too much.

And they move funny!

Parent and young are in the garden as I write.

The copy cat is that a young Great Spotted woodpecker has also been feeding on the ants which was a new sight for me.

Apologies for the poor quality but the hops were fantastic!

Hopping pecker

The ordinary can also be beautiful, take a look at all the things you often ignore.

Wood Pigeon

Colours and textures on a pigeon really can be stunning.

More to come soon but in the meantime just get out there!

There are Reasons

After you have visited any nature reserve and enjoyed the wildlife that live there, do you ever ask yourself why that particular species is present at that site and what are the reasons why it is to be found there? To understand the reasons, it helps to have some basic knowledge of what a species needs to survive and prosper. From this kind of knowledge, we humans can start to help the wildlife by providing things that it will need to prosper like food, breeding sites, protection from predators (security). Most nature reserves will have a management plan that will work to support a maximum bio-diversity within their given area of management. It’s a lot easier said than done but that is the general aim of them and I have seen the benefits of management plans  carried out on reserves I have worked on and visited over the years.

I adopted this approach when I started work on my own reserve a couple of years ago and already decisions I made two years ago are starting to show some positive results.

When I began working on the site a couple of years ago I decided to try and establish a field edge type habitat that would border the scrubby woodland area.  I had been given some bee and butterfly friendly seeds and as they grew my mind began to wonder about possible species to plant that may attract certain insect species. I thought about butterfly species that I knew were found in the local area and thought about plant and flower species that these species needed. After a few ideas, I chose a couple plant species to try and establish and by the end of the first summer I had sowed some Yorkshire Fog seeds and planted a mature Red Valerian. These two plants are very different but have an equally interesting benefit for the insect community

Red Admiral on Red Valerian

Red Valerian is a flower that familiar to many gardeners and particularly to people of south west England where it commonly grows in walls and railways sidings, in fact all over the place! It is a native of the Mediterranean and was introduced to the UK about 400 years ago and is now relatively common in the southern UK. It has long been noted that a wide variety of insects love it and it was joked when it was given to me that I may get a visit from a Hummingbird Hawkmoth. I secretly hoped that this would happen and contented myself by watching various bee species and the odd Red Admiral paying a visit to this source of rich nectar. Then my wish came true the other week when as I stepped out of my front door a Humming bird Hawkmoth flew in and fed for about 2 minutes on the Valerian and then rapidly flew off. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. I instantly thought of what had been said to me when I was given the plant and thankfully had been able to video the moth and was able to show it a few weeks later to the person who had given me the plant. They seemed quite impressed as well! This little action had paid off and this elegant species had paid me a visit and hopefully they may visit again in future years.

Glimpse of Hummingbird Hawkmoth

 

Now the other species I mentioned earlier is a grass species called Yorkshire Fog, which is quite a common species in native grassland areas and field borders. It is an elegant species that has a delicate feel and look to it with light greens and subtle pink flushes and sand coloured seed heads.

Yorkshire Fog

To a lot of people, grass is a weed and not much use for anything but to the naturalist eye glasses are an important part of the ecosystem they occur in. This is the reason I took a gamble and planted some Yorkshire Fog seeds as I am aware that the Small Skipper butterfly, which occurs locally to me, lay their eggs on Yorkshire Fog. I felt it was a long shot that they may turn up at my reserve due to the availability of sunlight which was limited but none less I planted some seeds and the following year they grew and flowered. This year I noted that it had spread to a few other locations and again thought about the Skipper butterflies. And then one morning when Steve had popped round, he suddenly said look at that skipper and there was a Small Skipper feeding on some Black Knapweed. To say I was delighted was an understatement. Since then I’ve had one other possible sighting and have a distinct feeling that they may colonise the sight next year.

Small Skipper visits

These examples of plants I have put in my reserve show you some of possibilities that can be attained with some planning. When I started planning the area I obviously thought about wildlife I was hoping to attract to the area and up to now it seems to be working. I have been researching other plant species to plant in order to attract more life to the area and it certainly seems to have endless possibilities. I know I won’t be bored. Plants are a vital part of our world and without them there would be no life at all so if you have any space I suggest you plant some flowers and you never know what you may attract.

Access and Conservation, conflict or essential partners?

 

Unsurprisingly,  the impact of Covid has led to lots of research and much media coverage continuing to show what for many is common sense; access to the countryside or at least open space is essential for the physical and mental well being of all us humans.

Yes, I do believe acknowledging and promoting the benefits of the countryside is a good thing but…………it’s just not as simple as that.

We live in a world which seems to feed anger, anxiety, stress, polarisation and this constant and all pervading sense of edginess. It seems we are all expected to have a view on absolutely everything and then defend that view even if we don’t know what we’re talking about and have clearly been shown to be wrong. And under NO circumstances should you apologise or acknowledge a mistake or admit fault.

I just don’t get it!

It is human to make mistakes, to misjudge, to jump to the wrong conclusion but it is essential that these mistakes are acknowledged, even quietly, in order that we can learn from them and move on. There is much truth in the old adage; you only learn from your mistakes. Trouble is we seem to have a decreasingly small communal memory to learn from.

Modern news and social media operates on volume (all meanings of the word!) and turnover and this encourages, almost forces, people to take a view on often incomplete, inaccurate or completely out of context, stuff. Stuff that is often irrelevant to most people or much more important than people realise.

What, you might ask, has all this got to do with Secret Surrey?

Francis and I share many values and may well disagree on a few but central to both our core beliefs are 2 ideas.

Acceptance, and no little joy, that we humans are part of a staggeringly beautiful and awesome world. This world is not there to serve us as some kind of resource larder and will continue to reject us if we continue to treat it as such.

A cohabitee!

Secondly, change for the better is most effective when it starts at a local level and then gains momentum. Recent events have clearly shown the positive power of the individual and local community projects to effect change.

Further discussions on green philosophies can be found elsewhere but will attempt to explain why I am so concerned for the Surrey countryside right now.

As more people had time and were encouraged to get out and exercise more and more people did just that with some clear differences in how they behaved.

Many people chose and continue to choose to use the outside as an outside gym, track and velodrome, no bad thing and clearly good for health but please don’t try and tell me that this is a clear indication that this group necessarily appreciate looking after the countryside and the wildlife that we share it with. I’m sure some do but using the countryside for exercise and leisure can lead to abuse. Don’t get me started about littering or the conflict caused between different “user” groups! Back to the bad old days of cyclists v dog walkers v walkers v joggers and the assertion of one individuals rights over another. Why do we seem to have a minority of blinkered individuals that assert what they see as their rights without accepting any responsibility for their actions or their impact on others, let alone on the countryside?

Why cannot the litter offender grasp the if you arrive in the countryside with “stuff” then take any remaining stuff back home with you? To litter in many places in Europe is simply unacceptable and doesn’t happen. I accept that there also some countries where litter and rubbish is a problem but that doesn’t excuse the supposed enlightened citizens of the UK.If something arrives with you when you enter the countryside either consume it or take it away with you. Its not rocket science, its the same stuff you arrived with just less!

Just at the moment in time that a lot of people are “rediscovering” the countryside where are the Rangers on the County Council Estate? Well, right now there are none!

Let me repeat that, THERE ARE NO RANGERS on the SCC estate. Some of the busiest countryside sites in the county have no site based staff to gently police the public and unsurprisingly a minority of idiots are now taking advantage. More idiots dropping litter, more anti social behaviour, more fly tipping, more wildfires due to idiots lighting barbecues in inappropriate places (will somebody please ban the use of disposable BBQ in the countryside?) and just more unreasonable, inconsiderate and rude behaviour.

Yes I know we are in the mist of a crisis with health and economic but for goodness sake can everybody just behave with a little more respect for the countryside and wildlife. And understand that looking after both costs money, even the basics, and that not having site based staff costs all of us much more, again in every sense, in the long run.

Refuge and playground

 

 

The Nightshift

Buff Tip

I can remember the first time I saw moths in close up and remember being amazed at the variety of sizes, shapes, colours and a whole collection of subtle shades and delicate markings that adorned their bodies. Fascinated that some of their English names are what I can only call funny particularly in my 14-year-old mind.

The Maidens Blush!

I was instantly fascinated by this amazing group of insects and coincidentally returned to work at the site where I had first witnessed them a few years later and my interest grew stronger as I regularly dealt with the contents of a moth trap.

Pale Shouldered Brocade

You’ve all probably heard how moths are described as dull and boring looking and how quite a number of people are actually scared of moths. From what I can make out about human nature this fear is more about the fear of the dark than it is about fear of a small nocturnal flying insect. Yes, moths will bump into your head and face when you light up your mobile but they will not hurt you in the slightest. I’ve seen too many moths get needlessly killed by over nervous humans.

The Mocha

Moths and their relatives butterflies are good indicators of the health of an area and like their more familiar cousins, moth numbers have been falling in the last 50 years due to loss of habitat and the intensification of modern agriculture, an unfortunately familiar story. There have been however some additions to the UK list with the warming of our climate, that has encouraged European species to colonise. A few species have also reached our shores by arriving in food and plant products and managed to colonise and establish themselves which can cause a few issues.

Varied Brocade

The total number of species in the UK is roughly about 2,500. Of these about 1600 are micro and pyralid moths. These are generally very small, often with very well marked patterns on their bodies and wings. Many of them don’t have English names and some are so difficult to identify that the only way to truly identify them is by dissecting their genitalia. Not something I have ever done myself but it shows the intricate nature of this group.

Orange Footman

I personally have only started to look at this group of smaller moths in recent times and am realising, again, just how much more there is to learn.
The larger moths are known as macro moths and there are about 860 here in the UK and these will be the type of moths that people are more familiar with as many have distinctive patterns and colours. These patterns fade as the moth gets older and sometimes they are so abraded they are impossible to identify. Adult moths don’t live much more than a week as after they emerge from the cocoon they dry off and, immediately, there sole aim is to reproduce with maybe some feeding as well!

Small Phoenix

The nocturnal nature of most moths is one their intriguing habits and some species, that fly later in the year, even have what can only described as a fur coat to protect them from cold nights
Not all moths are nocturnal and some day flying moths are very striking like the common Cinnabar and the impressive Hummingbird Hawkmoth which as its name suggests, does resemble a hummingbird feeding and I was truly delighted when one paid a two-minute visit to my reserve a couple of weeks back and fed quickly on the Red Valerian that I had planted to try and attract them to the area. Sometimes plans do come together!

Small Magpie

The people who do not like moths may not be aware of the vital role they play in habitats where they occur. Like many insects that feed on nectar, moths provide a valuable service of pollinating the plants that they feed on. As most species are nocturnal, this service is all carried out in the darkness and not realized by most humans. They are also a vital part of food chains and many moth caterpillars are taken by birds and a good example of this is one of the micro moths called Green Oak Tortrix. The caterpillars of this species are eaten by many small birds in an oak woodland habitat and it has been calculated that many of these bird species rely on these caterpillars to raise their young. If you have ever seen a Blue Tit in spring at a nest box, you may notice the little green caterpillars are often the most numerous food item. This shows the vital role that moths play in the ecosystems around us.
Being nocturnal moths are not easy to observe and apart from disturbing them from vegetation you don’t get to see them often unless of course you happen to have a moth trap.

Moth trap at home

These traps have ultra violet bulbs that attract the moth in and they rest on egg boxes inside the trap, which you can then look the next morning when most moths are less active and then release them later in the day. It is one of the great mysteries of nature why moths are attracted to any light, including ultra violet light. Still to this day there has been no scientific explanation to this behaviour and I think this adds to moths almost mythical status.

Magnificent Privet Hawk Moth

Next time you see a moth it’s probably worth having a closer look as you never know what you may find and you could be pleasantly surprised at what you see. As always nature can surprise you sometimes.

Listen More, Hear More. Look More, See More

Garden Glory Hawthorn

Having already bigged up the year as one of exceptional blossom, showing off my favourite garden tree was irresistible!

The last few days has given many opportunities to walk and enjoy the natural world. Admittedly my work increases my justification to be out and about but fortunately this has only meant travelling a few miles by car on a couple of occasions.

Like many people the increase in time available for a stroll or even just to stop and soak the atmosphere is something I am relishing, the pleasures and joys of discovery just keep coming.

Returning to the military ranges at Ash, with more families than ever before, allows one to appreciate space. Big skies, views , and I mean VIEWS, that I don’t believe can be bettered in Surrey.

Towards London

It’s become a truth that now the overflying of aircraft

Rare sight!

is more unusual than the possibility of seeing special birds like Tree Pipit

Preparing Tree Pipit

Out on the open heath many of the birds are either very discrete or rather unimpressive to look at (like the pipit). Most of the “little brown jobs” make up for their lack of glory plumage with 2 tactics depending on the habitats occupied.

Out on the wide open heath the tactic is to launch up in to the sky and advertise with song. Woodlark, even more than the similar Skylark, take the ascendency to extremes; I have witnessed many disappear out of sight in to a blue sky with the ethereal song drifting on the breeze. A Woodlark song can carry miles, both advertising to a mate and staking claim to a territory to rival males. Not all flying songsters go high, some like the Tree Pipit use a short acrobatic display from a song post to spread the word to a wider audience. Another species that employs this tactic is the Common Whitethroat, a species that looks to be having a good year. Every walk I’ve undertaken over the last 10 days or so has been punctuated with the scratchy song of the Whitethroat. It seems that where there’s a bit of scrub, thorn bush, hedgerow, there’s a plucky bird throwing itself in to the air to deliver, well let’s be kind, the best marketing message to a passing female Whitethroat.

Different place similar view

Whitethroats followed me to Chobham Common! In fact, not really surprising, similar habitat equals similar birds. The land of Woodlark, Dartford warbler, Stonechat, Tree Pipit and soon to be arriving Nightjar also serves up the right recipe for Whitethroat. Another bird also follows the presence of Whitethroat and some of the other highly visible songsters, The Cuckoo.

Distant searching Cuckoo

I had thought that Whitethroat were the most likely candidates for a Cuckoo to parasitise but that may well be assuming a link with Whitethroats on the basis of “visibility”. Goes to show assumptions can be misleading as the research compiled by the BTO indicates that the 4 most frequently recorded host bird species are in fact; Dunnock, Pied Wagtail, Meadow Pipit and Reed Warbler. Still leaves me with a few questions as, of those 4 only the pipit is really found on the open heath. Hmmm, I love a mystery.

During my wanders it seems that its not just Whitethroats that appear to have arrived in good numbers, Blackcaps, Garden warblers and Chiffchaffs are making lots of noise Not strictly “little brown jobs” but certainly discrete and hard to see these three join the group of birds that use the other, a second technique of attracting a mate and defending a territory; stay hidden but shout loud!

Along the Wey

More Whitethroats along the river near Send and Old Woking. The flood plain is dotted with scrubby thorns and bramble patches perfect to display flight from and been seen and heard.

Here the supporting chorus is different from the heath. Sadly Skylarks and Meadow pipits are increasingly hard to see or hear but closer to the river and the wet bits 2 more “hide and shout” warblers can be heard, Sedge and Reed warblers. Often found fairly close to each other neither has what you would call an attractive song, more scratchy stuff!

Home of Reed and Sedge Warblers

If you’ve never walked across this area please do! But do get a map and try and stick to the paths. It’s steeped in history and much of the area is protected both as common land and protected flood plain. It would be a wonderful idea to join up the management and protection of this beautiful are right through from Woking to Guildford and then on to Godalming.

Remains of Henry VIII’s Palace

The value to local people of the river meadows is also reflected in the number and age of churches, worth a visit on their own.

Across the meadows to Old Woking

Some of the meadows are cattle grazed, would be nice if it was all, and of those that are it was good to find the Surrey Wildlife Trust Galloways are back on the land given to SWT by Crest Nicholson, the national construction company. Yes it is possible for big companies to do good things! But it has been quite a while since a gift of this type has been made, sadly.

Sustainable work force

The more you look the more you find. A Reed bunting was no surprise but a Wheatear at the top of a tree (spotted by my wife whilst I was staring up at a Woking Peregrine) was.

Smart male Reed bunting

Top of the tree Wheatear

The more you look……

Beautiful Demoiselle

More and more damselflies are on the wing or waiting in the sun for their new form to dry and harden.

As you may have gathered I am fascinated by all of it, the natural world, and I love the images that are created where the natural and manmade worlds meet. As we crossed the river I noticed these tenacious couple of plants growing in chinks in the bank piling. Nature adapts.

More than just clinging on.

And nature rarely gives up.

Despite pruning, a tree continues.

Remember

Listen More, Hear More, Look More, See More.

I might be a bit angry about some of the things going on, or not, in Surrey’s countryside but if we don’t all get out and enjoy it at the minute how are we going to understand just how important it’s protection and management really are?

 

 

 

 

 

Ah, You Noticed!

Bee and Beauty, thanks to Vala Collyer

 

During these unprecedented times I have noticed a number of unusual activities in our relationships with the natural world. One of the things I have constantly observed is how many people are actually talking about nature and the natural world. Some of the reasons of why this happening are fairly obvious; the fact that people have not got the options that they usually have has actually made many people walk in countryside, a place that many of them have rarely been and possibly never been before. In news articles there has been many references to fact that UK people are noticing birdsong more which is down to fact of less noise from traffic and airplanes whose use has been greatly reduced in the last few weeks. The other morning at dawn I was awake and as I sat and listened to the birds of the dawn chorus, there was very little of the background noise that normally occurs.

The decrease in general noise has been very noticeable to me and I quickly realised that the majority of people who were making comments about bird song were possibly hearing them for the first time or more probably had only noticed them because of the decrease in noise. This point itself is part of a current world situation and if we look at some of the stories from around the world in the past few weeks there are many examples of how lack of human activity/disturbance has benefitted the natural world and the species that live in the world’s habitats and ecosystems. There are already countless examples of how the wildlife of the world has taken advantage of this current ‘ quiet ‘ time and the examples range from the Welsh Goats leaving their natural hill habitats and coming into the villages to forage to Thailand where because of the lack of tourists , large numbers of sharks have been observed for the first time and many years and there has also been Leatherback Turtles egg laying on beaches for the first time in 6 years. To me one of the most amazing examples that has occurred is that the Himalayas have become visible in parts of Northern India for the first in over 30 years because of the massive drop in air pollution over the last few weeks.

These examples raise a number of points. The first is something obvious to me and something that conservationists have been saying for years, and that is that if you give nature some space and quiet, species will recolonise. It also shows how quickly nature will seize an opportunity and benefit from it. For instance, on a more local level, the Jackdaws in Cranleigh have taken over the church and are building nests in locations that they would normally not be able to nest in.
During this unprecedented time there have been many changes in human and animal behaviour and now as I hear the news each day and I listen to various world leaders talk about getting their countries’ economies moving again I wonder if there will be any fundamental changes in the way humanity lead their everyday lives that will have a positive effect on our troubled planet. The signs from various of the world’s leaders does not look particularly promising and the same old boom and bust capitalist rational will continue to be the driving force in America, Brazil, China and most European counties. This has already been tried for many years and the environment and its wildlife has paid the heaviest price for this, as have the millions of people around the world who are still living in poverty. In amongst the various politicians proposed visions of life after the virus, there has been a number of scientists and conservationists raising the potential that we could start to make changes now particularly in light of the situation that most of the world is currently experiencing that will beneficial to our planet, its wildlife and its people. Could the collapse in oil prices prompt a move towards electric cars or the ending of various aircraft companies? Many of which are now requesting help from governments right now. Billionaires asking for government help is too ironic for me!

There are many unanswered questions at this time but there are some positives as I said and I feel the recent connection that everyday people seem to have made with the natural world is a very good thing and as I worked on my reserve the other day I heard a little girl and her dad walking through the woods nearby and suddenly the little girl exclaimed ” it’s really smelly here ” to which her father, who seemed to know a bit, explained that the smell was Ramsons or Wild Garlic and you could just hear her amazement.

In this moment I realised that there is always hope for the future whatever happens after this current crisis we are all currently experiencing.

Small Wonders

For those of us with gardens there can be little doubt that they are probably one of the few calm spaces available to us. Similar to the exercising walk, more time in the garden has meant greater appreciation of the small things, small changes, new life and, for many, greater appreciation of the variety of life that envelops us. That’s not to say life in the garden can lack drama, whether its the daily high speed appearance of madam Sparrowhawk or the almost constant acrobatic bullying of the local Red Kites by any of the local crows.

Lady killer, but this pigeon did actually live to tell the tale!

Much has been made of the great expansion of the recording of garden birds on the schemes promoted by the RSPB and BTO, and this is clearly a good thing. County based recording via Twitter is revealing all kinds of wonderful surprises for the birders and the expansion of recording overflying birds at night is uncovering simply amazing evidence of migration routes that I find staggering and utterly fascinating. Now we know that there is almost no limit to the number of bird species that could be flying over your house at night! Your imagination now really does have justification for running wild.

Back to earth at Hempstead, spring trundles on, oblivious to the anxiety in the world of humans. The details draw me in; it’s fascinating that fruit trees, even those closely related, follow a consistent sequence of blossoming, stoned fruit (blackthorn, plums, cherries), pears then apples (even they have a variety sequence that remains consistent).

Apple blush

How come? Weather is too variable to be responsible, so I’m guessing it’s day length. I love the fact that it seems many plants have means of detecting changes in their environment of a sensitivity that is hard for even our technology to match. Yes I do get that I could probably find a scientific explanation but often I just love to wonder at the complexity and sheer beauty of natural details.

Yellow is still, just, dominating the wild flowers but bluebells and local wood anemones are poised to take over.

Proper Cowslip

Having planted a couple of Cowslip plants over 20 years ago they have proliferated in to most areas of the garden. As a species they are ready hybridisers with Primroses, of any variety. Difficult to see how you can stop this hybridising occurring in a garden context and I suspect the bluebells, which were here when I moved in, wouldn’t meet the genetic standard for a native species. Hmmmm….. that reads like a future topic for Francis to tackle!

Cowslip hybrid

When the wind drops the buzzing of bees has been getting louder.

Bumbles love Pulmonaria

I know I have several species of Bumbles and a collection of many smaller species. Masonry bees in the brickwork, mining bees in the veg plot (actually in the flower bed in the veg plot, there to be kept safe from marauding deer!). Bee flies chasing their host species of bumble and hoverflies beginning to appear.

Don’t ask me bee!

A few butterflies are braving the cool wind but the lack of moths is becoming a  concern to me, as is the absence of the bats that normally circle my lawn at dusk.

Holly Blue on the Bay Tree

This little piece started with the joy that birds can incite but I’m going to voice my sadness which partners this joy for me in my little patch of garden.

My joy, and puzzlement to be honest, at the appearance of a 40 strong flock of Starlings in the surrounding fields is matched with a sadness that Starlings haven’t bred in the garden or house for a couple of years.

The joy of glimpsing 4 Swallow flying over is tinged with the sadness that this is no longer a daily event, no locally breeding birds any more. Rarely will I see or hear Martins or Swifts yet when I was young our road had tens of House Martins nests tucked under the eaves, my school had dozens of nests and I even did a project on them. Swifts used to barrel down the road screaming, a real joy. I’m so sad that local kids just won’t see these things and experience life to its fullest potential.

Curious Jay by Steve Duffy

Watching a pair of surprisingly gentle and caring Jays has been fascinating but where are the missing smaller less obtrusive birds? Linnets nested in this garden and the adjacent hedgerows for much of the nineties, now gone. Skylarks could be heard whilst enjoying a cup of tea, not any more. No pipits and only rarely a Pied Wagtail. I will look back over what’s been seen in and from our garden, it is frankly amazing but what matters is where we are now and what we can do to help and to celebrate the everyday.