Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Nature Notes 2011

Grey squirrel
by Des Bowring

Daring squirrel
Yesterday I was watching woodland from a cabin in Cadbury Camp (prehistoric fort near Bristol), with tall (over 120') pines dropping steeply away down the hillside. A squirrel did a daredevil leap from the ends of a topmost branch of one pine to a flimsy one on the next. Its grip failed and it hung briefly by front paws only till recovering itself and bounding away. I wonder if squirrels gauge if there's the odd branch below to grab onto, when they make a daring leap like this?
Herring Gull
by Des Bowring
I saw this odd sight yesterday at the junction of City Road and Stokes Croft in the middle of Bristol: a coach had drawn up at the traffic lights, and a herring gull was perched on the roof! It obviously didn't care if its perch was moving or stationary - perhaps because gulls perch on moving boats as easily as stationary objects?

by Teresa Reynolds
In a country lane near Bristol I watched a large flock of fieldfare in the treetops - maybe up to 100? - filling the wood with their murmurations. I sometimes think that fieldfare are another of those slightly unsung beauties: when you view them up close from the front, their apricot-tinted breastplates are just beautiful, lightly but clearly delineated from the paler plumage below, and a delicate contrast to the other fine greys, darks and chestnut patterns of their head and back.
(Later note: A fieldfare formed one of the winning entries in a subsequent Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition)

There is quite a colony of jackdaws down our street in Filton, but they are rarely ground-visitors. This morning I watched one perch on our back garden fence for ages, eying up a crust on the patio. Its whole body yearned towards the food but its terrific nervousness prevented it flying the few feet to get it. It constantly shifted from foot to foot, craned all round for hazards, then yearned towards the food again. Finally - it plucked up courage for the briefest dash, got the crust and was gone.

by Des Bowring
I was at New Passage a week or so ago when we had that stormy weather but without rain. There’s a large reed bed behind the Severn Way embankment and it was moving in a hypnotising manner in the strong wind, with swathes bending and shaking powerfully in one direction while parallel swathes bowed and shimmered back in the other. The whole effect was somehow counter-intuitive and therefore almost hallucinatory, and I’m guessing this was because of the unusual physics of an extra-strong but mostly dry wind acting on those long stems and heavy seed heads.
Yesterday at Chepstow I watched a catkin-covered willow backlit in the early but strong Spring sunshine. The supporting branches were so fine as to be almost invisible and the very long catkins appeared to float, golden, in the air as they danced gracefully together in a gentle breeze.

Spring in the Forest of Dean
Bluebells in Forest of Dean
by Richard Haworth
- How amazing is this Spring? I've just been away for two weeks, in New York where it was still very cold and  wintery, and in the Utah desert with extremes of hot to cold and spring still only just starting to emerge with tree leaves peeping out and delicate desert flowers. To come back to this lush English April is stunning!
- I went walking in the Forest of Dean woods north-east of Staunton village, where I saw and heard redpolls going chink chink chink; a cuckoo calling; orange tip and speckled wood butterflies; clouds of St Mark's flies - emerging accurate almost to the day  for the April 25th saint's day they are named for. Sheets of wild garlic and bluebells scented the air; yellow archangel, lady's smock, cowslips, campion, cow parsley bloomed profusely; and hawthorne and chestnut blossom were out in dense masses.
- Just behind Staunton was maybe the most magical display of bluebells I'll ever see. The trees there are small low young beech, and beneath them little paths wind through such a blazing continuous mass of blue that it's like being afloat in a fairyland sea.

Crow descending
At Orchard Pools on Monday with the wind blowing strongly from the west, I watched a crow about 100 feet up descend slowly vertically to the trees below, with outstretched wings and barely a wing movement, facing into the wind - it was quite a flying tour de force.

I have just been in north west Wales in the rugged Rhinog mountains.
Driving there, the verges were a startling mix of acid green and yellow grass and buttercups, overlain with a rust-pink glow from docks in flower. The hedges above echoed the pink tint with new shoots of hawthorne and hedge maple.
There was much lovely vegetation in the Rhinogs and Cambrians, including:
- A miniature nosegay from beside Cwm Buchan lake amongst heather, new bracken and blueberries: pale pink English stonecrop, yellow tormentil, tiny white heath bedstraw, and the plush glowing pink bells of ling .
- Another posy from higher up the Rhinog mountains amongst blueberries and heather: miniaturised meadowsweet and lady’s mantle, with the nodding dark red heads of water avens, and tiny dainty blue milkwort.
- A delicate white posy amongst moorland bracken in central Cambrians: heath bedstraw, white clover, pignut and stitchwort.

The Collecting Bug / Umbelliferae
Azure Damselfly 
by Andreas Trepte
It’s a funny how this learning thing kind of creeps up on one. A couple of year ago I tried to get a handle on dragonflies and damsels by reading a book, and just recoiled in bafflement at their excessive similarities. Then someone described how some damsels were ID’d by the black bars on their tails – too difficult. But recently I was looking at a damsel through binoculars which give insects such starling high definition, and realised I could see the black bar pattern really clearly. ‘Wow’, I thought, ‘I must look up which one it is’ – and so the bug sets in!
Equally I’m working hard to learn common wild plants, but still tend to think of many families generically. Thus if it had white umbels waving in the roadside it was cow parsley as far as I was concerned, never mind what month it was. Then I learnt wild carrot, and wild angelica, and that hogweed was different... and a new world opened out. My goodness, some are tiny and dainty, some big and strong, some dished, some domed, some feathery, some pink, they flower at different times... I plucked some different leaves at Ynis-hir to look up, and was alarmed to see one was almost certainly the deadly poisonous hemlock water-dropwort – chucked it out quite fast...

Mighty walls
Unlike many surrounding areas in the Welsh Snowdon/Cambrian Mountains where all is slate, the Harlech Dome area has rocks of monolithic metamorphosed sand/gritstones, fractured by ice age frosts. In the Rhinog Mountain the land is crisscrossed with beautifully constructed drystone walls of this material, so massive they could be ‘cyclopean’ walls from ancient Mycenae. Many are over 5’ high and 3’ wide at the base with corner stones up to 3’ by 2’ big, and run for miles up and across steep mountain sides. Imagine the months or years of arduous work it must have taken to construct them – and how did the original builders even move these massive blocks? (An esteemed member replied, ‘Rollers, levers, simple wooden tripods with block and tackle, a few large hammers, and a horse or two- just like the pyramid builders. Because we use motors for everything we have forgotten how much human or animal muscle power can easily be multiplied by unsophisticated devices.’ )

More from Filton front gardens
Selfheal, by Lazaregagnidze
This year my small front garden lawn developed such pretty meadow vegetation that I didn't cut it for ages - it had buttercups, daisies, white clover, selfheal and lovely dainty grasses. It's only a short way down to the limestone bedrock up here so perhaps it's natural for it to go that way; but it hasn't previously, and also I noticed many other generally duller grass areas developed this way, this summer. Something else to put down to the two hard winters we have just had?
(A botanist member wrote, ‘It is a combination of the cold winter and the dry spring, this reduces grass growth during the winter / spring period, which reduces the competitive advantage of the grass. What you really want is a series of cold winter/springs and summer droughts which will kill of the more mesotrophic grasses, but not effect the deep rooted rosette plants etc. It will also create gaps for annuals like Dove's-foot Cranesbill to germinate into. A couple of lawns locally where I live have sported Bee Orchids in the last couple of years, because the lawns have been tight mown for years, reducing the soil fertility, and then left to grow in the spring due to the ill health of their elderly owners. If you want a biodiverse lawn (and I certainly do) you need to do the exact opposite of traditional lawn management. So no fertiliser, remove all the cuttings and an extremely hard mow early in the spring to create bare patches and weaken the grass growth. After that leave to grow until at least the end of June and ideally mow in patches. The effect you want is a long, short and bare mosaic.’)

Young crow
A young crow was just silhouetted front-on, sitting on a chimney pot, enclosed in a circle of fluff!

North Cornwall
I’ve just been in north Cornwall, walking south and north of Padstow.The flowers were as beautiful as always. In a secret valley running to the sea with bracken slopes coming down to a wet valley floor, were great swathes of yellow fleabane, blue water spearmint and purple knapweed, interspersed with higher heads of white meadowsweet and pink hemp agrimony.Other flowers along the cliffs included heath and lady’s bedstraw, wood sage, betony, common toadflax and golden samphire.
Wild carrot flowers, by Ceridwen
But most noticeable were the wild carrots. Driving down, in a service stop, I saw a bank completely covered with huge specimens with great heads of creamy white-pink bloom. The cliffs and clifftop meadows were also full of them, and it was interesting how they varied from the big and lush to miniaturised; and their seed heads which transform into that interesting furry cup form, ranged from the size of a fist to a 10p piece.

North Cornwall hedges
The stone chevrons of the cliffside ‘Cornish hedges’ were covered with great bosomy mounds of thrift. I had not seen them grow so prominent before, nor realised that they seem to develop like coral, growing on the outer surface of the mound which they have created over time. This was visible where the mounds had died back and left just the browned bases.Dotted through the thrift were scabious and sheep’s bit scabious - the mesmerising deep blue of a newborn baby’s eyes...

Modern life
On my recent Cornish cliff walks, I saw many young people in the midst of all that natural splendour, walking along while looking only at their Ipads, Smartphones, whatever. I have to say it made my blood boil, and the urge to MARCH up to them, to TEAR the offending electronics from their grasp, and to HURL it over the cliff - was almost irresistable...

Silly season question
A silly-season question: Darwin's wonderful and thought provoking book, 'The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animal', covers a list of expressions that have been found ubiquitous in humankind, and tries to trace their origin in animal behaviour. You'll find all the ones you'd expect there, but sometimes I can think of others and wonder if any work has been done on them. For instance, expressing extreme irritation at someone else by clicking ones tongue and rolling ones eyes? In the Caribbean the former is called 'suckteef', and I think it's probably international in some form or other. At a slight tangent, when toddlers are extremely annoyed they forcibly protrude their lower lip in a ferocious pout; however we seem to outgrow that one and substitute a more adult scowl - the female sexy pout is really a reprise of the child. So, any other contributions?

I just experienced a sparrowhawk strike directly above my head in my loft room! There was a massive thud and screaming (I instinctively thought 'Cats fighting!' – hardly likely on roof ridge of two-storey terrace house...) I looked out of the Velux window to see birds scattering in all directions, and a sparrowhawk hovering high above. Exciting!

Red Admiral butterflies on ivy blossom
by Andrew Curtis
Brean Down
I was on Brean Down (a prominent coastal headland south of Bristol) from early on Saturday morning. Have others noticed how full of blossom the ivy is this year? I saw one terrific sight of a large ivy bush blossoming in the sun, absolutely covered with red admiral butterflies and other bees and hoverflies in constant motion. The activity was incredible, as though the insects couldn’t believe their luck at the banquet! Also the sea buckthorn along the Brean road are more laden with berries that I have ever seen before, so the bushes look oddly orange and drooping with the weight.
Walking out on the vast flat Brean sands towards the mud zone, I noticed how that area was not only full of the larger round depressions and mudcasts of whatever worms and molluscs make them, but virtually every square centimetre of the fine muddy sand was traced with intricate patterns by whatever other creatures graze these bottoms when they are submerged. Higher up were wide tidal bands of those pretty tiny shells that come in pastel colours – pale pinks, yellows, oranges, greys, browns and bluey-greys – as though designed for the pleasure of little girls. Still higher, the fine shiny black coal sands create their own particular watersilk tideline, with fascinatingly defined edges and contoured streaks that create odd trompe l’oeil effects,  making one think there are real 3D contours when the surface is actually as flat as a piece of paper...

Dove & starling
I saw something funny this morning: I was watching a robin on the roof ridge opposite my loft, as strangely it's very unusual to see one up there. Adjacent, a collared dove flew in to perch on a chimney stack aerial, and a starling already perched there actually jumped on the dove's back to drive it off again – which it did, the starling flapping and kicking!

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