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

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!

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.

 

Back to basics

Its no longer possible for me to excuse lack of posting  by claiming too busy, but I promise that Francis and I will try and avoid constant reference to what seems to fill most media space at present.

We are both fortunate to have access to gardens and exercise through walking locally. So back to some simple truths and the basics of our joy in the countryside.

Spring has been rushing forward with only short pause for some pretty hard frosts, with the first wave of white and yellow wild flowers.

Stitchwort

Early blooms are at least a food source for the early mergers of the insect world, bees and overwintering butterflies in particular. In some ways these early flowers are often ignored, unless they are part of a mass display of primroses or cowslips, because they don’t really contrast in colour against the grass.

King cup

Overwintering butterflies like Peacock, Tortoiseshell, Cooma and Red Admiral are all on the wing when the wind drops.

Comma

Survivors like these show their age with worn or faded colours but have can have the advantage breeding early. Just as likely that the weather can catch them out and if they don’t find a sheltered spot will perish.

Bees are a lot harder to photograph but we will try, as the variety is amazing and in my garden the mimics, fly species, are also active often following true bees around presumably waiting for an opportunity to parasitise their host species.

Stay safe and get back to basics, find a little joy in the small local things wherever you are.

 

 

After a pause.

 

Glorious stroll along the Wey navigation.

Suspect both Francis and I now suffering a little guilt that we haven’t written for a while but there are times when the demands of life allow for little distraction.

Yes, we have been wandering about a bit and no it’s not because late summer and the advent of autumn is a quiet time for wildlife and we are short of subjects!

It would be easy to launch in to a rant about politics and the issues around biodiversity to which only lip service is being made but thought I would first quickly share the joys and places enjoyed over the last few weeks.

We walk the Wey navigation as pictured above, probably more often than anywhere else. The stretch we haunt never ceases to soothe my thoughts whilst providing endless little surprises.

Unusual planter!

The lure of Chobham in late summer on a fine day is too much to resist. Purple and pink pleasure…

 

And unbelievable blue..

Some of the colonies showing very poor numbers and others the best for several years. Rarely are wildfires good for heath but by chance one fire 2 years ago led to a great increase in flowering plants. Not all beneficial management is deliberate!

More annoying than distressing is the reappearance/germination of alien Pitcher plants which were thought to be pretty much eradicated  3 or 4 years ago.

Unwelcome return

Some alien or introduced species are harder to tolerate

 

False Black Widow

Whilst wandering about on the NNNR it was pleasing to find another rarity

Marsh Clubmoss

Not really a moss but a miniature fern, this lime coloured “tail” of a plant has been identified as meriting its own species recovery plan. Small doesn’t mean insignificant.

Autumn rains shouldn’t put any one off exploring, as we discovered.

Effort brings reward.

The beginning of a rather wet walk was in Surrey, the National Trust car park at Black Down, but we did stray across the border in to Sussex.

Rain but with a light sky creates wonderful effects with the light through the canopy of trees and initially the walk along the ridge was sheltered under old beech giants.

As we arrived at the southern end of the ridge the rain eased and the view was breathtaking.

Temple of the Winds

Standing high enough to be above fast moving cloud in the south of England felt truly surreal. The place is well named and celebrates the poet Tennyson who spent much time here. I like to think that his first reaction on arriving at this point was similar to mine, awe and wonder.

Though clearly a special place, one of the most beautiful I have ever been to (yes really), it simply doesn’t feel heavily visited. Please go, in any weather it will put an enormous smile on your face!

Memorial stone bench for the view

The views continued as the sun woke through and we returned through an open area of heath.

Almost sunshine

And yes I have also been out of the county for holiday……

And not even I can pretend that this was Surrey!

And yes wildlife still surrounds me at home.

The new boss?

Next post likely to be a tad more stroppy so here’s a photo of dawn 2 days ago to engender a little peace.

And There’s More

It seems summer is reasonably intent on remaining glorious or is the wet summer just waiting for the school holidays?

Most birds are in scruffy mode, adults a bit worn out and in need of a moult and young birds gradually changing in to adult plumage. In the garden, woodpecker year has continued with the arrival of the Greens feeding on the numerous ant nests in the turf.

Thought I had someone with me?

To me, there is something endearing about woodpeckers appearance, they always seem to look rather “too sincere” or , less politely, a little dumb. It might be to do with their rather direct gaze but I love them.

 

There you are!

Over a number of days the spotty young bird was taught and fed about ants nests. As I write the young bird is now flying solo and seems to be making a good job of mining ants.

Surprises round the house has included one inside when I noticed a gem like wasp trapped on the inside of the window above my desk! Though I have seen these wonders in the garden they are usually so active, bordering on frenetic, that they are impossible to photo. As you can probably deduce being caught inside allowed photos whilst covered by a glass.

Ruby Tailed wasp

Even the photos I have don’t really do justice to the amazing colours. Beauty can’t disguise behaviour as they are parasites on other insect species, this one I think on solitary bees which nest in my brickwork. Tiny but definitely a designer insect for everybody!

The flower meadows on Broad Street have moved in to a further glory with mass Knapweed attracting hundreds of Marbled White butterflies.

Butterfly heaven.

There are definitely losers amongst the natural world as the UK experiences climate change but there are also the occasional winners. Marbled Whites used to be an uncommon species, a special sight when I was young, but this year numbers really are exceptional.

Enjoying the blooms.

Broadstreet has provided surprise after surprise. Round the corner from the meadows is a woodland glade that has been managed “by accident” as it follows the line of some electricity pylons and stretches of path. The first time I have walked down this path, ridiculous as this sounds after 25 years of living locally, to immediately encounter a sunbathing White Admiral butterfly.

 

My wife was thrilled and Francis was well chuffed on subsequent visits to see not just the White Admirals but the orange glories that are Silver washed Fritillary’s.

In fact we have now seen 14 species of butterfly which for a local patch is really wonderful. patience and  a bit of sun really pays off but do remember there are losers in the fallout from climate change. Just for 1, ask yourself when you last saw a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly?

Surprises haven’t just come butterfly shaped or flower shaped. met an old friend Brian whilst walking round the meadows and he showed me an unusual tree in the adjacent woods.

Wild Service Tree

Thanks Brian! Hope to write a little piece about this “stranger” in the woods so I’ll leave it here for now.

Babies and Blooms

Sadly I have the kind of mind that readily gets distracted by the politics of life, but over the last few weeks, following a series of family dramas, pleasure and peace has been found in the living world which surrounds all of us. Rather than write a logical and sequential piece about walks and wildlife, thought I would simply share a rather random number of thoughts, experiences and encounters. Late May and early June is the time for young birds and hopefully a display of natures fecundity.

Couple of weeks ago my wife, good friend Jo and myself repeated a walk, in reverse (always a good idea, looks and feels rather different) starting at Cutmill.

Cutmill Grebe

Woods a little quieter as many birds are now in the midst of breeding and spending less time on singing but the lake busy with breeding birds. There were already a couple of family groups of mallards with very small ducklings and interestingly there were 2 pairs of Tufted ducks.

Mallard family by Steve Duffy

Though the Bluebells were over, and much of the hedgerow blossom, the Surrey countryside feels rich and burgeoning at this time of year.

Near Shackleford

There is such simple joy in encountering  and observing the living world so don’t walk with me or my ilk if you want to get anywhere quick! Though I am impressed at those who use walking as serious exercise or as a means to get some where I am always going to want to stop and stare. A long walk with me means time , not distance!

Our garden, like many others, is full of young birds and very harassed parents. Poor weather has meant fat balls and sunflower seeds are disappearing at an incredible rate! Both feeders are designed to restrict the size of the feeding birds (Jackdaws are capable of emptying normal fat ball feeder in under an hour!) and I am amazed at just how many birds you can squeeze in to a cage feeder with the record so far being 12 tits! As usual our tits, Great and Blue , have apparently done well but the entertaining surprise this year has been a Great Spotted Woodpecker family that successfully bred in a very neat hole made in an old apple tree. One of the young birds has remained in the garden and still continues to be fed by mum, whilst generally lounging about.

Waiting in the sun for food

If birds have character……..

What to do when bored

Persistently lazy and incredibly persistent in calling for mum, who has cleverly figured out how to access the fat balls (upside down from underneath!), this young bird even survived a collision with our back door.

My head hurts!

Yes, that is our door mat.

Pleasingly both the House Sparrows and Green Finches have returned to the garden as breeders but no Starlings or Song Thrushes this year. It’s also now the second year without a cuckoo around which coincides with a lack of Whitethroats in our hedgerows. Might be a link but declines of species are as a  result of complex factors and rarely a single pressure. It is clear that, locally, there is a shocking lack of Swallows, Martins and Swifts.

To repeat myself, larger birds doing well often disguise the underlying trend, downwards.

 

Little Egret in Chobham stream

It is however a real thrill to sit outside our back door and watch a Red kite spiral to the ground and pick up food scraps!

Red kite by Steve Duffy

Whatever the reason it does seem that this year and its weather has proved to be great for triggering flowers whether its on hedges with fantastic blackthorn and hawthorn or wonderful Cowslips and meadow flowers.

Our usual visit to the Hogs back illustrated this “bloom” year with unexpected and rather large Bee Orchids.

To further surprise me (or so it felt!) I then glimpsed some purple in a roadside verge on our return journey which the following day proved to be dozens of Pyramidal orchids.

In close up….

I suspect this verge has by chance been missed off a mowing schedule as the verges along the Hogs back have been cut, leaving a couple of similar orchids in the long grass away from the road. So unexpected were these glories that I submitted a record to find that they had not been recorded before!

Some flowers are much less obvious but on closer inspection just as beautiful. Nearby Broad Street common is clearly going to outstanding for grassland flowers and hence, if the weather gets better has huge potential for butterflies.

On a recent stroll I was surprised at the number of a little often missed vetch

Flashes of fuschia pink

On closer inspection…

Grass Vetchling

More flowers more butterflies

My first Common Blue this year

And more moths…

Forester Moths

In between the showers do get out and look, you will find little gems like these.

 

A Not so Gentle Reminder

Spring and Easter were rudely interrupted for me by a probable mini stroke and assorted family dramas that left me with a temporary loss of desire to write about the joys of life.

Have to say that a reminder of ones own mortality soon led to two thoughts.  Firstly, get on with your life and enjoying every moment that you have. Secondly, and for all it’s present woes, it really is a beautiful world.

As an expression of all that it could be summed up in happenings at home. During the last couple of days; my wife witnessed last years twin Roebucks play fighting on the back lawn like a couple of teenagers just released from mum’s apron strings, this years Roe deer babes have arrived and a Red Kite has now joined assorted crows, magpies and “our” young male fox (truly glorious he is) in the argument over any meat scraps we put out!

One of last years twins before growing up!

 

Yes I know some will cry foul over the feeding of meat to a fox or other predators in a garden but to honest I don’t care! The privilege of seeing wildlife close up is such a thrill, a glorious joy! And it’s probably the high point of my elderly mothers day which is reason enough.

More time in the garden and the planting of some new wildflowers also had a speedy insect response.

Female Orange Tip homing in on newly planted Cuckoo Flower.

 

 

To Plant or not to Plant?

There are, and always have been, many joys of living in our little slice of countryside for approaching 25 years but some dilemmas return every year.

I have a somewhat imaginative (my wife would call it lazy) approach to gardening and outside the deer fenced veggie patch and a few small formal flower beds tend to rely on mother nature and a sense of curiosity as to what is going to appear each year.

It’s fascinating to speculate where some of the plants have originated from. I confess I have assisted nature over the years with planting and seeding some native species but others have both arrived and multiplied all on their own. A few primroses when we moved in is now a lot but they are outnumbered by cowslips and now the odd oxslip (I think) are beginning to appear.

It is likely that there are some conservationists who would disagree with planting native species if they were to be outside of their normal recorded geographic range, hence the dilemma of plant or not to plant. I am not such a purist and tend to lean in the direction of “if the conditions are right and the plant grows” then its ok!

I love Snake’s head fritillary flowers! There are famous meadows full of these glorious blooms and every year I fail to go and visit them. I make do with my mini meadow where 6 plants, 23 years ago, have kept spreading.

 

The name, incidentally, refers to the growing stem which seems an odd choice when of many other country names include the “chess” flower which I think is a lot more obvious.

Though the temperatures as i write do not exactly feel spring like the pulse of life is beginning to beat faster. Nests are well under way for many species of bird and blooms in the garden are already attracting lots of insects, in particular my neighbours honey bees, hooray!

My old pear tree has been humming with activity, weeks ahead of the apple trees as usual, and has yet to be caught by the frosts.

More importantly perhaps is that the blackthorn flowering has been fantastic this year.

Just past its best but still glorious the adjacent hedge is now spreading in to the field to create an excellent bit of habitat. Some years ago the owners of the fields, a nearby college, ill advisedly  cleared a new fence line (leaving the old fence buried in the hedge!) but left the cuttings in heaps nearby. Unsurprisingly much has now taken root, ‘bobs your uncle’ new scrub thicket.

Our (sorry can’t help but be a little possessive ) Roe deer seems certain to birth in this patch again and I’m hoping for a more unusual avian visitor to arrive, finger crossed.

Early Signs

New year always feels out of sync for me as nature never seems to recognise dates and the increasing variability in seasonal change throws up anomaly after anomaly.

New year violet!

We have commenced with the slash and burn in the garden, making sure that there are no hidden guests in the bonfires. Looking after hedges and ditches is one of those tasks which both landowners and local authorities seem to frequently ignore. Most hedges locally to our home are either overgrown or grazed out, usually by horses. Happily though, the “accidental” wilding of the fields and hedgerows immediately round our home is allowing the hedges to expand into the fields, creating a wonderful scrubby edge. Looks like Merrist College are also choosing to ignore the fly grazing horses on the site which is resulting an improvement in the sward. How do I know this? Well, the coarse grasses were becoming so long that predators were having problems and now the Barn owls are back!

It’s always a joy to see the feeders and surrounding trees crowded with birds but it might seem churlish to complain as for every smile there’s a frown as to where are the missing species?

A variety of tits is great….

My mums favourite! By Steve Duffy

The Boss tit. By Steve Duffy

But where are the Chaffinches, Green Finches, House Sparrows, Starlings? I get excited if I see just 1 or 2 of these species and even 4 or 5 Goldfinches seems ridiculous as there was a time where there were flocks of up to 500 consuming vast quantities of sunflower seeds in my back garden!

It’s sad that people often equate the increase in predatory species with the decline of small birds, its simply not true.

The other difficulty with the success of highly visible species like

Red Kite by Steve Duffy

and Buzzard or even Little Egret is that a casual observer thinks “everything is ok” and the conservationists are just some kind of extremist eco nutters.

With apple trees come Fieldfares, beautiful but incomparably aggressive!

Fieldfare

This particular bird defended the last few apples on our trees against all comers, other thrushes, Jackdaws, Jays and even tried to scare off our deer! Aggression can be an effective survival tool for a bird and Fieldfares are truly expert. They nest in loose aggregations  and will cooperatively attack any predator with lots of noise, dive bombing and yes aerial pooing!

You just have a to love Fieldfares.