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.

Never Seen That Before…..

Strange happens…

Over the many years of observing wildlife I’ve heard the phrase ‘never seen that before ‘ uttered many times either by myself or my friends with me. To me, this is one of the joys of studying wildlife and I always know that I will never be bored because there so many facts concerning the wildlife that is around us and without the best memory of our own observations or having so much time to continually observe wildlife we can never know everything about all the species that are present around us. The chance of observing something new is always a strong possibility whenever you go out to look for wildlife and if you see something new it often means you will learn something new as well.

After saying all that, sometimes you get to see things by people telling you of their observations. Over my many years of observing wildlife I have often looked at wildlife that others have told me about. The well-known grapevines amongst birdwatchers have existed for many years and have spread to many other groups of wildlife enthusiasts such as butterflies, dragonflies and moths. These days with internet, mobiles, pagers and various other modern communications; news of wildlife sightings can be shared with potentially thousands of people. However sometimes the old-fashioned way of people actually talking to each other still works and the other day this proved the case when my partners daughter returned home to inform me of loads of large moths in a tunnel by the playing fields in the village. After harassing me for a while, I walked down to the village with her to be directed to said tunnel. I jumped down into the nearly dried out stream and entered the tunnel and turned on the torch on my phone and was amazed to see a large number of Old Lady moths roosting on what you would call the roof of the tunnel.

The Old Ladies

My first word was ‘ wow ‘ quickly followed by ‘ I never seen that before ‘. Previously I had only ever seen single individuals and was unaware that they roosted communally in tunnels near water. I have learnt quite a bit about this species since I observed this roost the other day and the information that was given was by a teenager has also amazed me! It all goes to show that you can never be sure of what you can see out there and its sometimes worth investigating information that people give you as you could see something new or different.

Beauty closer

I was very happy and grateful to observe these Old Lady moths and it re reminds me that you never know what you can see in the natural world. Keep your eyes and ears open and you never know what could happen out there.

For the people ?

One of the privileges of older age, for me, is that I get to walk round wonderful places with wonderful people. Walking a new or familiar place on your on is one good thing but walking in the company of someone who is “part of” a place is just a whole different experience. You share part of the vision and experience of a much more informed and passionate friend whose enthusiasm is thankfully all too apparent.

Over the last couple of weeks amongst my regular haunts

Wey navigation
Evening light

…..and some wonderful wildlife at home

Small Copper

…..some more familiar than required!

Visitor at Work

I have walked with friends at Richmond Park and Norbury Park. Both are, on paper, greatly protected public open spaces but both are sadly showing the signs of the pressures created by the reductions in funding at the “pointed end” of service delivery and conservation need.

It is an admittedly personal view but one of the serious problems with conservationists is that we tend to be nice people who don’t want to cause a fuss. We, the public, get outraged by “obvious” harm to the countryside and wildlife like say, the threat posed by fracking or a new housing development or even fox hunting BUT the more insidious and obscured threat that financial cuts and neglect present to our environment is often ignored completely or invisible, packaged in political rhetoric.

It staggers me that no real comment has been made in response to the Chair of Natural England, Tony Juniper, admitting there is insufficient funding to properly manage the “in house” National Nature Reserves. These are a big share of the  premier wildlife sites in the country. Within the conservation sector this fact has been accepted as reality for some years but now its out there on the wider stage what’s the response from the establishment? Deafening silence, and I don’t believe that’s just because of other priorities (can’t think what!), more that most politicians, local and national, seem to regard the countryside as verging on the irrelevant and a financial burden that shouldn’t fall on the public purse.

In London!

Richmond Park as a Royal Park was funded directly from government but now the Royal Parks are managed by a charitable organisation that receives much reduced direct funding. Yes, the Royal Parks have for years raised income from activities and properties and yes the Royal Parks have become pretty expert in this area of fundraising but, and it is a huge but, though the overall budgets for running the Parks have remained fairly stable the money available for the pointy end of service delivery (rangers, estate workers, policing ) has diminished and will continue to decline as the costs of fundraising and property management increases. This isn’t rocket science, its inevitable when you, in essence, shift funding from direct taxation to a much more indirect tax (charity fundraising and income generation). Crudely you get less bang for your buck! The irony of all this is its seems many politicians believe that making new charities to undertake those jobs that they regard as superfluous saves money, FOR WHO EXACTLY? Taxpayers? I think not.

Glorious Richmond veteran
The other side

Richmond Park is a simply amazing place, full of seemingly impossible contrasts. Herds of large deer and the violence of the Red deer rut surrounded by the most cosmopolitan London. Ancient trees, wonderful flowers ..

Harebells in the grass

We also saw hunting Hobby and nesting terns, Sand Martins and Black Headed gulls.If you haven’t been go, go and walk away from the crowds, its a little piece of wildness amongst all the civility.

Don’t go and behave like the fools we witnessed.

Well meaning stupidity? Or selfish risk taking?

Less budget for service delivery means less police and less rangers which means more illegal parking and more people approaching too close, even feeding, large potentially dangerous wildlife. Without bodies on the ground to educate and to enforce if need, then numbers of fools increase.

Norbury Park, once viewed as the jewel in the crown of the Surrey County Estate , faces a different set of challenges but the root causes are very similar to those at Richmond park. Central as a cause of continued challenges is the abrogation of responsibility by the landowner using the same mechanism of shifting the management of the countryside to the charity sector.

Norbury view

The agreement between Surrey County Council and Surrey wildlife Trust is approaching 20 years old but for the past few years a small number of councillors have decided to renege on the spirit of the agreement and push for  reducing the “cash” contribution to £zero. I am very aware of the political justifications put forward but my bewilderment and anger is that the implications of this action are ignored and even worse disguised with empty rhetoric from ignorant politicians who continue to promote 2 falsehoods; the countryside in Surrey can pay for itself and they, the politicians, know how to achieve this. Defying advice and simple common sense seems to have become “de rigueur” for many politicians together with a complete unwillingness to consider that they might be wrong. For me an admission that a person was or is mistaken is NOT a sign of weakness but of strength and to be both respected and applauded.

So what difference does less money and hence less staff with often less knowledge actually make?

At Norbury Park I would point to the lack of detailed management like at the view point above. The view is now obscured by scrub, one of the benches is now viewless! As a conservationist the signs are there that lack of management affects Biodiversity, the open areas need to be regularly cut to maintain the quality of sward (in the absence of rabbit or domesticated stock grazing).

Ever diminishing Harebells

The remaining pockets of chalk grassland should be managed or they will disappear, with all the attendant species of insects.

Downland glade barely holding on.

Beginning to rage too much so I will write a short post about the wonder of Norbury Park but just want to finish this  on pointing out another problem of lack of funding, the push to use the countryside to produce an income even though it conflicts with what we, the people, have as an image of that countryside.

There is an important conversation to be had to try and answer the questions

How do you adequately fund the management of publicly owned protected countryside?

Is it a legitimate expenditure of the public purse and tax revenues?

 

 

 

Big and small beauty

Please don’t let any conservationists or naturalists like Francis and I bully you in to thinking its essential to be able to identify everything!

For me its taking pleasure in things both big and small, place and the wildlife encounters that you experience. The place can be a small reserve like a chalk pit recently visited which felt extra special as very few people know of its existence and even fewer visit.

Nature given a chance to reclaim.

Sitting quietly among orchids and flowers it would be easy to believe in sprites, it just felt like a space outside normal life, profoundly peaceful.

Did I spend my time trying to identify all the plants and insects? Nope, just drank in the ambience. Yep sounds a bit hippy but assure you it works for me!

Land of sprites?

In contrast to place, it can be individual species or a collection of species that are the attraction.

South of Dunsfold are a group of woodlands and forestry plantations that are well known for the butterflies found there. I’ve written about the birds encountered in these woods, Nightingales included, but a recent visit was to hopefully see a legendary butterfly. The place itself, Botany Bay, is not high (or even on!) my list of beautiful places but there is no doubting the sense of anticipation aroused by an intended visit.

On this occasion there were several other hopeful naturalists, passed by tolerant local dog walkers. The dream, well, to see one of these.

The glory that is a Purple Emperor

Treated by naturalists for many many decades with an almost reverential awe I had never glimpsed more than a flash of a high speed individual before this fantastic creature was tempted down on to a forest track with a cocktail of unmentionable substances placed by a well informed Emperor “addict”. Their life cycle and behaviour is worth reading up on, you may be truly amazed.

Small beauty maybe but completely entrancing to the small group of observers that gathered.

Francis hooked!

There were more, honest!

Intimate close encounters like this allow consideration of the staggering beauty of the form of individual species. From all angles.

Yes we also saw Wood Whites, White Admirals, Silver Washed Fritillary, and many more species. Although the woods are not the most attractive place to walk (limited views, openness or exposed water like streams) the terrific variety of species of butterfly and the rarity of some of the breeding birds are proof that the partnership approach to management adopted here works for biodiversity. It does probably help that these woods are a little off the beaten track, not particularly close to housing or even a main road.

Bucking The Trend

As we have now actually experienced some typical mid-summer weather in the last couple of weeks, I made the most of my not enough spare time and got out for a few expeditions and at four of the sites I visited, one species seemed ever present and that was the Marbled White butterfly.

This striking butterfly has been a joy to watch on areas of unimproved grassland and open chalk downland areas along the Hogs Back. I saw my first ever Marbled Whites over 30 years ago at a chalk site called Folkestone Warren in Kent and remembered being impressed with this eye-catching yet subtle at times species. I’ve had the pleasure to work at a number of sites where they occurred and have always been impressed by their colours and behaviour.

In my recent wanderings I have been really pleased with the numbers of individuals that were on the wing and at one site along Hogs Back well over 150 were present and we also saw them on the grass verges along the A31 as we went home. The visit to Broadstreet Common near Guildford was nothing short of spectacular with 100s being present. It was almost an idyllic image of high summer in an English flower meadow; idyllic apart from the roar of the busy main road only a few 100 meters away!

Me and Steve who was with me, remarked on the good numbers present. I recalled a paper I had read recently saying unlike many butterfly species, Marbled White is a species that is spreading and increasing in numbers in this country.

 

Before we look at why this species is doing well in the UK it’s probably worth pointing out a few facts about this eye-catching species. Its name for a start is misleading although understandable as Marbled Whites are not even in the same family as Large, Small and Green Veined Whites which belong to the family called Pieridae. Marbled Whites belong to the family called Satyridae which contains mainly brown species including Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers and Ringlets which are species that are often seen alongside Marbled Whites. There habitat preferences are similar to with unimproved grasslands often being popular for all of these ‘brown’ butterflies. All of the species just mentioned lay their eggs on various grass species and the Marbled White prefers Red Fescue and Sheep’s Fescue although has been recorded on other grass species. These fine leaved grasses provide the caterpillars with all the food necessary to reach a size to pupate. Marbled Whites over winter as caterpillars and are at a very vulnerable at this part of their lifecycle as disturbance of sites can be life threatening during cold winter weather. They normally bury themselves in grass tussocks in cold weather. If they survive the winter they begin to feed on new grass growth in the spring. They enter pupation late May and early June and can be seen as adults from late June through to August.

So, what has happened in the UK over the last 40 years to create the spread and explosion in numbers in recent years. When I was a teenager and first started taking a real interest in butterflies, I associated Marbled Whites with chalk downland and read that it also occurred in Limestone and sand areas as habitats of preference. Since those days this species has spread into new habitats like the previously mentioned unimproved grass land areas. Broadstreet Common near Guildford is a site I have known of for nearly 30 years and it is only in the last 10 years that Marbled Whites have occurred there. So why is this happening? The answer is a very familiar one and probably won’t shock you to find out the biggest reason for the spread of the Marbled White in the UK over the last 40 years is the heating up of our planet. This is the key reason why there are more about nowadays and to a smaller part their colonisation of different habitats as Broadstreet Common shows driven by the warmer temperature we have been experiencing in recent times. Butterflies across the world are feeling the effects of global warming already as the Marbled White and several other species in the UK are already showing. I feel caught between a rock and hard place over this issue as watching the Marbled Whites has been a brilliant experience and to have seen many so close that you could see the slight variations in the markings between the male and females’ butterflies, the male being smaller and darker than the larger females with their brown/orange hues on the undersides of the wing being noted.

Only in the future will we see how far the effects of global warming can affect our insect populations. I do advise you to go and have a look at some Marbled Whites if you get the chance for they are beautiful butterflies and should be on the wing for a short while yet for you to find them and it’s worth checking the grasslands near you to see if any are about. Good luck and enjoy

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.

 

Free Therapy and Heaths

Most people now accept the powerful positive effects on the human spirit, and body, of enjoying the countryside. For me personally I cannot imagine a life without daily contact with the green environment and recent events have brought in to sharp focus its calming effect on both my mind and body.

In the company of good friends I recently returned to two famous heaths, one of which I know intimately, Chobham Common, and the other, the Devils Punchbowl at Hindhead, less so despite the familiarity of having driven round it for decades. The contrasts between the two sites is worth noting both as to the differences in consequences of different owners and the level and type of public usage.

Most access to the Devils Punchbowl is via the owners, National Trust, car park for dog walkers and site seers whilst there seem to be many mountain bikers taking advantage of some well way marked trails. Unless you are a NT member there is a charge at the car park but this is a long established “destination” car park with a rather good cafe, loos, and the facility to do some fun crafts with kids and interpretation with the adults. Yes it was sunny, the car park was packed! In other words visitors know they are getting something more than “just countryside” for their money unlike visitors at Chobham Common who are largely regulars and not getting anything new or extra for the car parking charges imposed. Not surprisingly many visitors to Chobham Common are now using any alternative parking that is available free!

My brief rant for the day!

Back to therapy. Though I had driven round the Punchbowl many times on the old A3, and drunk many a cuppa at the cafe, I have never wandered much of the site other than close to said cafe. I have a vague recollection of helping with some work with the NT wardens but that was probably over 20 years ago. Always intended to have a look but probably wimped out at the thought of having to climb back up if I went down!

Our friends however guided us up the easy path up Gibbet Hill where the views are just glorious.

Recently cleared view

On the way up you pass a commemorative stone which if you don’t know the story I won’t spoil it by explaining too much, go and discover it yourself!

Sailors Stone

The views from this path are great all the way to the top

but really I should have paid more attention to the pony grazing on the heath to the other side of the path. Though many may still have some reservations about grazing heathlands that are open to the public, most issues can be minimised by using what appears to be a common sense approach. On the NT site it seems that the grazing animals have been excluded from the area of most public use, the path up Gibbet Hill and the path along the route of the old A3. Have to say that the fencing is for the large part well sited and now largely invisible behind gorse and scrub. If I was to get all professionally picky I would probably prefer a little more scrub removal from the Punchbowl but heathland management is often a subjective thing and maybe the site managers have a different vision!

If you have never been to the Devils Punchbowl but you have driven through the A3 tunnel, you really should make the time.

View down to the old A3

The old A3 followed the curve of the Punchbowl and was locally famous for the dramatic view (and for interminable traffic jams exacerbated by the traffic lights just round the bend). The opportunity to erase the road after construction of the tunnel was taken and to be honest its now almost impossible to imagine that a major trunk road has been replaced by a sandy path.

No more traffic jams….

The whole place feels well managed with good sign posting and paths in generally good condition. I am not aware of staffing and funding levels for the place but I would be surprised if the cafe and parking charges make up more than a small part of the running costs of the whole site. More likely is that Agri Environment scheme grants combined with National Trust membership fees core fund the Hindhead Common complex, all of which is in stark contrast to the situation at Chobham Common.

Visiting my old haunt, with another friend a couple of days after the Punchbowl, it is clear that the continued Surrey County Council cuts to the grant made to Surrey Wildlife Trust and the long term reduction in site based staff is now clearly beginning to manifest itself as an appearance of neglect.

It is simply not possible to reduce a countywide workforce of 32 to 12 over 20 years without there being severe consequences. The subtlety of some of these consequences does not mean they are unimportant.

Heathlands have always been prone to both wildfires and acts of deliberate arson but with the lack of site based staff with detailed site knowledge (and some equipment) the risks of more frequent and more damaging fires has greatly increased.

One of this years wildfires

Fire has often been used on heathland for centuries as a management tool, particularly to encourage a flush of grass for grazing animals, BUT was always during the autumn or winter when conditions were more favourable. Happily this approach fitted in with the needs of wildlife unlike spring wildfires that can be devastating for newly emerged reptiles and small mammals.

As always there is an opportunist in the natural world and the fires on Chobham Common appear to have encouraged Woodlarks to breed in much better numbers than previously. We saw several Woodlarks including young birds.

Woodlark

Snatches of song form tree tops and some odd contact calls (which were new to me) were frequently heard and I suspect the high altitude ethereal song will have to wait till early next year when their cycle starts again.

Chobham Common is still a beautiful and wondrous place with regulars like

Female Stonechat

and increasingly rare

Distant Tree Pipit

Dartford Warblers are frankly all over the place! And difficult to catch with a small compact camera!

More unusual plants can be found if you know where to look

Petty Whin

And insect life is beginning to crank up! Always something new.

Black Headed Cardinal Beetle

Heaths and therapy, yes it works for me.

 

 

To Build or not to Build

Much has been written concerning the proposed development of Blackwell farm to the west of the Royal Surrey Hospital in Guildford and I am not well informed enough to speak with authority on its merits or with outrage at its failings.

Last week I did however walk over the land adjoining the proposed site and was frankly rather surprised at what we found (I was with a mate). My intention was to check on the status of 2 rather rare Surrey visitors previously found on a forgotten piece of land near Wood Street Village, Nightingales and Turtle doves. Sadly no burst of song from the scrub or quiet purring from the trees or hedges. I will be repeating the visit next week much earlier in the day as though I expect to be disappointed again the habitat still looks and “feels” right and there is always hope that an odd pair of these 2 threatened species will have returned.

We did hear and glimpse lots of regulars, tits, Nuthatches, Blackcaps but the surprise came on leaving the scrub behind and crossing in to the the farmland that then runs along the southern face of the Hogs Back.

Hedgerows

Well not so much the hedgerows! But what was singing at intervals along the hedges, Yellowhammers, quite  a few for a birder like me who has worked on heaths for years where they are now largely absent. A further surprise were singing Skylarks. I cannot tell you how bittersweet it is to experience the joy of encountering both these 2 birds when they used to be such a normal part of my environment (up to about 20 years ago). The habitat needs of both these species are thought to be well understood but the complexity of their needs is certainly not going to be served by greatly increasing the numbers of local human residents and their accompanying dogs.

Ok, I know the following photo isn’t great but its the best I could do with a compact!

“Could do better” pic of a Yellowhammer!

The fields, paths and small pockets of woodland were also dotted with some magnificent trees including some casualties that have been ignored, hooray!

Fungi and wind victim

Always amazing to me that fungi, so incredibly important, can help fell such strength.

Source of the vulnerability

Take wood and add the wrong/right fungi equals paper like rot.

Precursor to a collapse

Some of the standing landscape sentinels are just awe inspiring

In it’s prime

Some years behind its declining neighbour

You can think of Oak trees like these as almost a whole world on their own. Problem is the rest of the world intrudes on their health, air quality and soil compaction from machinery can be catastrophic.

Yes it was the middle of the week but there really is little sign the paths are heavily walked or ridden. The impact on this wonderful area, with fantastic potential for wildlife, of large-scale adjacent residential development is difficult to underestimate. The farmed landscape is broken up not just by hedges but by copses of trees like Wildfield Copse and the traces of an older planned landscape.

Old planted beech avenue?

Anybody who isn’t filled with wonder at spring colours needs to have a word with themselves! Get out there and breathe deep.

As we walked past a copse a final surprise amongst the Bluebells

Early Purple Orchids

Uncertain future yes but what is certain is that if people don’t get out in their local environment then they won’t know what’s threatened till it’s too late.

The Trouble with Spring

At last Francis and I managed to get out together for a walk and on a glorious day to boot!

Following my purpose of discovering hidden, secret, areas of Surrey  we parked (for free!) in the lower car park at Puttenham Common close to The Tarn lake. Have to admit that for all of my life I had called this whole series of large ponds/small lakes Cutmill and it was only double checking an ordnance survey map  that educated me as to my mistake. All five stretches of water carry separate names and the further irony is that the only one I had never walked near was indeed Cutmill Pond, part of our route!

Cutmill in the sun

Beautiful in the February brief spring we were immediately entranced by a Goldcrest pretending to be a Treecreeper, climbing vertically up a tree. As Francis has written the warmth had encouraged birds to get a little carried away, lots of song and display which included the birds on the water.

Unusual for Surrey was a flock of 11 Goosander, the males in fresh, full on, uniform and the more subdued females paying (not much!) attention to the posturing boys.

Just 3 of the boys

Spectacular certainly but we also caught a glimpse of a Mandarin, Tufted Duck and the ever present Mallards.

Tufted Duck by Steve Duffy

We left the water through gardens and woods where more good fortune found us in the shape of an actual Treecreeper and excitingly , for us, a pair of Marsh Tits. The latter are becoming increasingly rare in Surrey like their close cousins Willow Tits but nobody is quite sure why. Lots of speculation but no clear proof.

Walking through a new landscape is always fun and the countryside we found was really rather lovely and, in places, clearly in good shape. Well managed hedgerows, veteran trees, worked chestnut coppice, protected field trees and peace, blessed peace.

Yep, the glorious weather helped with birds and butterflies all in abundance. Four species of butterfly with Brimstones everywhere.

Brimstone in the sun.

Threaded through the woods and fields were some magnificent trees.

Veteran Oak
Huge outgrown coppice stool

Past, soon to emerge, bluebells and out across the fields near Shackleford, lots to enjoy.

Great hedges

Difficult to fault, honest!

Back through the woods, past lovely wet bits with terrific stands of Alder.

Past glorious gardens and, yes houses, the walk was topped off when arriving back at Cutmill we were greeted with that flash of azure, Kingfisher. Flying over the Goosanders on the lake I am certain there was a pair but I suspect my companion wasn’t convinced!

All this pleasure arising from a long look at an OS Explorer Map and finding a bit of land never walked before. The very best of peaceful fun. A walk to return to in a few weeks when spring has properly arrived.

Lichen jungle on a gate