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.

 

 

One Plant

Idly staring out of our bedroom window and glancing down my reaction was “oh no, not again” for there were so many bees flying round an ivy “tree” that I thought a swarm had settled in the plant growth.

On closer inspection it was clear no swarm of honey bees but a swarm of lots of species; bees, flies, wasps and even the occasional hornet. Why the feeding frenzy? One plant, Ivy, with a plethora of tiny nectar rich flowers. Standing close and attempting to take some photographs wasn’t even scary as all visitors only had one obsession, to find the flower with the fresh nectar. Or if you are a Hornet a meaty snack to carry off.

Know there’s flowers here somewhere

 

Maybe here?

 

Despite the frequent bad press Ivy is seldom a villain (endangering trees by weighing them down), far from it as it provides a rich food source for many insects throughout the year. A bit like Common Gorse there always seems to be an Ivy plant in flower somewhere, even in the depths of winter. Not just a food source either, a refuge for hibernating/dormant butterflies and a preferred nest site for several species of birds, Ivy has many roles.

Hoverfly

Everything was moving so quickly and I am not that good a photographer so I resorted to taking pictures of the slower guests!

 

Speckled Wood

And even slower….

 

Shield Bug

On a sunny day you really can spend hours in the company of a flowering Ivy just make sure you take plenty of patience if you intend to take pictures!

Old friends and new acquaintances.

Having promised myself to keep my ramblings, both literal and physical, to Surrey I hadn’t figured out that this leads to problems if I am away! However I am now pleased to say that it is now very likely we will be staying at Hempstead for at least a further year.

What’s changed in and around our patcher the last couple of weeks? Well physically, and rather sadly, the elderly and substantial apple tree in the front garden has quietly subsided to the ground. Still attached with bark and laden with fruit I am not going to clear yet in the hope that we can use the last crop. (they are the best apples in the garden). I suspect this tree dates from shortly after the house was built, 1911, and as you may know the best Bramley apples grow on an old tree. To my knowledge this wonderful tree has hosted a tit family every year for the last 24 and some years has also provided home for families of House sparrows, Blackbirds and Robins. A good friend and supplier to me and to the birds.

After a short pause in bird activity round the feeders, probably whilst many were in moult, numbers are rising again with the addition of some “non Hempstead breeding” species. A family of Starlings seem to have discovered the fat balls and my pleasure is tinged with sadness as Starlings nested regularly in my loft till a couple of years ago. The nest hole and habitat round us still looks good enough to me but it now seems unlikely that we will ever again see the autumn and winter flocks develop over the field rounds us.

Much is being said about declining numbers of some breeding birds and how that relates to the massive drop in flying insects across Europe and the further loss of marginal land from agricultural landscapes. It seems the blame is frequently attributed to intensification of agricultural practices and this is often in turn attributed to EU legislation embodied in CAP. To me this explanation is far too simplistic. There is very little intensive agriculture anywhere near where I live and there is still much undeveloped land including large areas of uncultivated military; yet there are still only a tiny proportion of the flying insects about as there used to be. I am old enough to remember it wasn’t long ago that ones car windscreen would be covered in squashed insects particularly during a summer like we have just enjoyed/endured.

I have little doubt that the causes for declines in insects and hence birds are largely anthropogenic but they are going to end up being a cocktail of atmospheric pollution/habitat fragmentation/interruptions to migration routes/hunting/climate change as well as industrialisation of agriculture  and subsidy driven farming. Most real farmers instinctively understand the arguments for conservation, most profit driven agribusinesses simply don’t care enough.

Hedgehogs and absent friends

Unusual happenings in my life always seem to involve wildlife and last weekend was a pretty strange coincidence…..

An afternoon with Roy and Vala, they of of the garden of wildlife and peace, is always an intense pleasure with talk of family and the creatures and plants that they share their life with. July and early August is the quiet time for most birds with an almost complete lack of song whilst birds undertake moults which require discretion to reduce the threat of predators during the periods of reduced flying ability. Birds concentrate on feeding and keeping safe rather than advertising their presence with song. So quiet gardens everywhere including Roys! Still got hand tame Robin though!

High summer is the time of flowers and insects but this really hot dry weather presents problems for both. Plants including flowers are obviously having a shorter life , unless watered, but it is an unseen knock on effect which is likely to cause a longer lasting ripple to insect populations. On the surface it looks like a good year for most butterflies (yet again those that overwinter as butterflies have done poorly) but there is a serious problem for the larvae, not enough food of good quality. A year of boom in some butterflies this year may be followed next year by a crash due to a lack of  healthy larvae to overwinter.

Deptford Pink

Before we left our hosts I had the opportunity to have a quiet chat with their resident Hedgehog. Have to say he, she, is the biggest hedgehog I have ever seen! A delight for me as I have never seen a Hedgehog in my garden, 24 years and nearly everything else you could expect but no Hedgehog but then……

As we pulled in to our drive at home my wife remarked that “wouldn’t it be nice to find a hedgehog in the garden?” The words were barely out of her mouth when we both spied a dark shape on the lawn next the drive… Yep our first ever hedgehog at home!! Smaller and speedily hid in the honeysuckle stems at the base of a pear tree, hence no photo, but a joy nonetheless.

Do remember that planting native species in your garden is great for wildlife and makes common sense as they are likely to be best adapted to UK conditions (Ok there is little that can cope with this heat and drought!).

Spring Snakeshead Fritillary

 

New friends

Always surprises me just how nature provides a peaceful moment of wonder when you need it, even not invited. Difficult and busy few days but “our” young doe is spending plenty of time eating round the garden. We had noticed she was enjoying any low hanging apples and accompanying leaves, surely indigestion must follow……..

Our regular gardener!
Too many apples?

A delighted call from my wife pointed out that this week our young doe revealed that she was in fact a mum with twins. I will never tire of such encounters.

Where’s mum?

The youngsters gradually relaxed and commenced further pillaging of the garden.

What’s a Tayberry?

On a serious note, we all (particularly politicians) grossly underestimate the role of the natural world in maintaining our mental, let alone physical, health. Whatever the mechanism is , ecosystems services, green pound or many other ways of monetising the natural world, it still strikes me that they all obscure the basic truth; most of us ordinary folks instinctively understand the value of the natural world and accept that we should spend taxes when necessary in order to maintain and improve that natural world. We are all part of the natural world not just consumers of it.