Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Nature Notes 2012


Colours in winter
Today at Severn Beach: On a very low tide only crows and a few curlew were apparent on the foreshore.
Male bullfinch
by Silversyrpher from Scotland, UK
However the shrubby areas southwards were full of small birds, including chaffinch, goldfinch, linnets, reed buntings, and six beautiful bullfinches lighting up the day. One male did something I haven’t seen before: a hummingbird-style hover before a hawthorn branch which superbly showed off its smart black and white plumage accessories to the ‘red’ breast (there should be a colour called ‘Bullfinch’ to more accurately depict this cross of hot peach and tangerine...).
I feel that in winter one is more sensitised to any natural colour that is about, and that little glimpses of bullfinch or goldfinch plumage can give a thrill and uplift that someone from a tropical climate might find ridiculous!

Fox by Des Bowring
A fox was running down Muller Road from the Filton Avenue junction last night at 7pm. It crossed the road at the lights, rather like a person...

Magpie bath
Today at Kingsweston House after the torrential hailstorm,I watched a magpie take a bath in a large puddle - a sight I have not witnessed before. It leant backwards, presumably resting on its tail and with its breast puffed outwards, and softly shook from side to side in a most endearing fashion. I have never seen a magpie look so approachable!

Purling water
I have long been drawn to a quality of water which seems to have no technical name but is perhaps
described by ‘purling’. It’s the exquisite silky surface shivering and rippling, the dainty vortices and playful little arabesques you get in clear clean natural water. You see it in chalkland streams where the fineness and delicacy of the vegetation seems matched by an extra purity of flowing water. It is not ripples and waves in a conventional sense, but must be related to surface tension and the water meniscus. Flowing green water weeds may enhance it.
I have, more rarely, seen a similar quality in the sea. When I was a child we holidayed at the French seaside village of Rotheneuf near Saint Malo, where the rocks were bright granites similar to the Brittany Rose Coast further west, the sand sparkled gold with mica, and the sea and air had the turquoise purity of Cornwall’s Atlantic coast. I vividly remember paddling at the sea’s edge very early in the morning when everything has an inimitable cleanness and quiet, and being entranced by the softly purling pastel water. I still feel like that child if I walk alone here on a quiet beach very early in the morning.

Descriptions of ‘little waters’ from R D Blackmore’s ‘Lorna Doone’
Following on from my previous watery message, I thought the group might enjoy the extracts below from ‘Lorna Doone’ by the Victorian RD Blackmore, which includes some of the best and most beautiful nature descriptions you’ll ever find, from extremes of weather to tiny details of commonplace scenes. He loved water and obviously studied it with close attention and affection:
‘There was a little runnel, going softly down beside me, falling from the upper rock, by means of moss
by welshbabe
and grass, as if it feared to make a noise, and had a mother sleeping. Now and then it seemed to stop, in fear of its own dropping, and waiting for some orders; and the little blades of grass that straightened to it turned their points a little way, and offered their allegiance to wind instead of water. Yet, before their carkled edges bent more than a driven saw, down the water came again, with heavy drops and pats of running, and bright anger at neglect.’
‘All by the hedge ran a little stream, a thing that could hardly name itself, flowing scarce more than a pint in a minute, because of the sunny weather. Yet had this rill little crooks and crannies, dark and bravely bearded, and a gallant rush through a reeden pipe – the stem of a flag that was grounded; and here and there divided threads, from the points of a branching stick, into mighty pools of rock (as large as a grown man’s hat almost) napped with moss all round the sides and hung with corded grasses. Along and down the tiny banks, and nodding into one another, even across the main channel, hung the brown arcade of ferns; some with gold tongues languishing; some with countless ear-drops jerking; some with great quilled ribs uprising and long saws a-flapping; others cupped and fanning over with the grace of yielding; even as a hollow fountain spread by winds that have lost their way.’

Goldfinch on teazle
I saw a delightful sight at Orchard Pools today. A flock of goldfinch were feeding on tall teazles, and each time a bird jumped onto a teazle head it sent the whole plant rocking in a pendulum mode, separate heads nodding with a bright little bird on each.

Male blackbird
by Tony Hisgett, Birmingham
A couple of mornings ago I opened my loft window pre-dawn to listen to the birds. 'Our' blackbird was singing sophisticated jazz variations on his signature tune, as well as a medley of other melodies - each year is different. He truly is a marvel.

River Parrett
On Saturday I walked along the River Parrett from Huntworth through Burrowbridge (into the most inland part of the Somerset levels) and on, in wonderfully warm sunny weather.
Along the river I saw:
A cormorant on the very top of a tall pylon.
A small tortoiseshell butterfly on speedwell flowers.
Just one view of a kingfisher, perhaps because the river is virtually bare of overhanging perches – it’s tidal with generally quite deep steep mud banks fringed with reeds, with embankments each side to prevent flooding into the low-lying levels beyond.
Large flocks of starlings between 200 – 1500, forming clouds and patterns as they swirled between fields and trees.
Rooks courting and building nests.
Otter tracks: east of Burrowbridge is a lonely stretch where the river is edged by a more level strip of mud.
Otter tracks
by David Perez
These had a purposeful ‘highway’ of tracks running along them, of different sizes but similar shapes, sometimes coming directly from the water, and most looking very fresh. I looked up the prints on my return and am pretty confident they were otters’ – presumably adult males, females and youngsters?
However, apart from a couple of mallards by the Burrow Bridge, I saw no other water birds along the river – no coots, herons, whatever – which seemed quite surprising.
A couple of thought-provoking interactions between man and nature:
At one spot was an incredibly dilapidated  derelict cottage, surrounded by and overgrown with vegetation like Sleeping Beauty. However it had two large red signs saying, ‘Strictly private! Keep out! Trespassers will be prosecuted!’ I thought, it surely must be many years since there was anyone who’d want to trespass, or anyone to prosecute them...
Nearby the embankments were capped with big concrete copings, sometimes with graffiti drawn into them when wet, but on one were the perfectly-preserved footprints of a small creature scampering across, perhaps a rat...
Also on the Parrett - a sign of the times: where a dead-end little road stopped at the river bank, an official Highways Authority red triangle sign warning: 'Dead end.No turning space. SATNAV WRONG'!!!

I saw a dipper yesterday on the Frome between the ringroad and M4, hunting underwater, flying and calling. It is very interesting how they treat the two mediums of air and water the same, just walking right under the water and then out again.

Yesterday there was a raven perched on top of the black and white wooden tower, of the large Victorian mansion closest to Sea Walls on the Downs. It was cronking very quietly to itself, but the resonance made itself felt almost subliminally from a considerable distance away.

River Parrett
Last week I continued walking the River Parret inland, east and south between Burrowbridge and Kingsbury Episcopi.
The Staith river embankment carries a line of very old apple, pear and other trees. It made me think how this stretch would have been constructed before modern earth-moving equipment, how the material would have had to be carried from outside the Levels - much of which are already well below the river’s level, and the huge amount of men’s work this represents, probably built up and up over centuries.
Water vole swimming
by Hugh Venables
Wherever there were muddy banks I continued to see otter tracks. In just a couple of small areas the banks had water vole-type burrows; it reminded me of our family having a houseboat on the River Avon in the 1950s and 1960s, and all the banks being riddled with water vole burrows, with the Avon full of V-shaped ripples from their heads showing as they swam rapidly from place to place.
A singing blackbird near Burrowbridge had as his leitmotif the first bar of 'Dancing cheek to cheek' - 'I'm in heaven', sung with swing... (from another member: “At last, a reliable record of the elusive Swing Ouzel!”)

Brittany adder
I have just returned from a geology trip in northern France. Whilst there, one member asked what bird (or
'wazzo'* as we say there) was singing and I replied, perhaps over-softly: 'Dunnock'. He asked and I replied similarly, until I realised that he thought I was swearing softly under my breath, and explained that there was an actual bird called a dunnock - I wasn't insulting him!
The beautiful adder on the right was filmed nearby... 

*(For the linguistically-challenged, the French for 'bird' is 'oiseau')

‘Every Path a Pilgrimage’
Having spent another 10 days in Brittany and Normandy (after a week in the Dordogne last year), and experienced again the French lack of ordinary footpaths, I have been ruminating about the power of the footpath. Their lack gives me a sense of unpleasant claustrophobia, partly because everything appears privatised and subject to the whims of (quite probably) materialistic owners; but also because one is separated from the countryside’s ‘deep’ history, the ancient and sacred, the old and humble, consecrated by anonymous people’s footfalls over thousands of years, by their close attention, interest and affection. Every footpath is actually a pilgrims’ way.
I think the English and Welsh footpath network constitutes a heritage of world status. The little short ones that still cut through towns, the ones to the church and round villages, the deeply-cut drovers paths along natural raised ridges that can carry on for scores of miles, the secretive ones going to incredible places – waterfalls, wells, ancient stone rings, staggering views, huge old trees... And in this densely-populated country, if you walk during the week, or out of holidays or in indifferent weather, you can be out all day and still meet virtually no one.
I don’t have a huge experience of the small-scale footpath situation in other countries. Mediterranean lands seem to favour those who like to wander, because of a herding heritage on rocky terrains where rugged goat paths are open to all. Germany has a comprehensive network. But does any other country have quite the magic, mystery and history of ours?
Further to this, I think our Ordinance Survey maps are also world treasures. They are physically exquisite, so delicate and precise, so evocative of the actual terrain. But they are also a treasure house of information, and one can browse them for hours, looking at the old names, the prehistoric remains – and of course, the footpaths! Long live our countryside and the maps that help make them such a pleasure to wander!

- There was a fox in our back garden early this morning. It looked rather strange, with a touch of brindle to its coat and a tail that was thin not bushy. It sniffed around, trampled across the vegetables, and then scaled the perimeter 5' and a 6' fences with more grace and ease than a cat...
- There's a couple of beautiful wild flower bouquets visible at the moment:
- On roadsides: oxeye daisy, poppy and charlock. There's a wonderful display on the steep bank behind the roundabout at Eastville Tesco's.
- In meadows: top storey: plantain in flower; middle storey: buttercup; understorey: red clover.

House Martins collecting mud
by Des Bowring
House Martins
At the weekend I was at Tintern Abbey and the Brockweir Moravian Church on the Wye in Wales; both were full of nesting house martins. They were a fabulous sight flying and perching against deep blue skies, particularly those with nests tucked up up up in the Abbey's highest eaves! I imagine all that nice gloopy mud on the banks of the River Wye makes for excellent nest building.

Young birds & plants
Greater celandine
by Emőke Dénes
There are newly fledged sparrows on our lawn, still with a bit of gape and being fed titbits by their parents.
Yesterday at Clapton in Gordano were more baby birds: swarms of young bluetits in the hedgerows, and a mother mallard with 11 chicks on the rhine, smart in their chocolate and yellow fluffy camouflage outfits.
The verges were full of a beautiful wild plant that I can't remember being aware of before - greater celandine, with bright yellow four-petalled flowers and soft and gentle tendrilly foliage with deeply-lobed very decorative leaves, more like a dicentra or corydalis. I wonder if I've just been unobservant or if this is uncommon, or particularly profuse this year? Wild hops were twining up sturdy young hogweed stems.

Pendower Beach, Cornwall
I just spent a couple of days on the Cornish coast east of Falmouth. The hedgerows were full of the spires of flowering pennywort and the exuberant froth of flowering hedge bedstraw. It's surprising how a little flat plant like the former produces these impressive flower spikes.
Yellow rattle filled cliffside meadows. A tiny cluster of speedwell, scarlet pimpernel and hop trefoil formed a perfect trio of primary colours.
On the cliff down to a small beach towards Portscatho, I saw the following plants flowering within just a few metres of each other: sheep's-bit scabious, thrift, English stonecrop, centaury, kidney vetch, red and white campion, valerian, pennywort, hawkweed, sea plantain, sea beet, charlock, rock samphire, and gorse! And that was just a cursory view.
On a ferry across the sound from St Mawes to Falmouth, a gannet flew incredibly low over the boat while another skimmed the surface almost within touching distance – I've never been so close. I asked the ferryman if this was common locally, and he said no, absolutely not.
In the front garden of a seaside villa up towards Falmouth castle, a very young gull tottered about – just a big bundle of fluff and spots. It reminded me of something I still have a problem with, as do many people new to birds: that fledglings are almost always full-sized, even if their plumage isn't fully developed. It seems rather counter-intuitive, especially as we are raised on pictures of little ducklings and cygnets, more similar to the pattern of other `baby' animals.
In the castle grounds, a blackbird was trying to deal with a slug. First came great wipings of his bill on the grass, then an assault on the slug and the piece bitten off also swiped vigorously back and forth on the sward. Presumably a blackbird would normally leave the slugs to the thrushes.

by Philippa Crabbe, Bristol
Ice cream vans in the mist

On my way down to Cornwall on Sunday late afternoon, I stopped overnight outside Bodmin in a reasonable smart industrial estate that had a nice cul de sac going down to a bit of wasteland. (I was camping in my car, as I do). It was evening by then and all was quiet - except looming out of the mist every now and then, came a little fleet of those very old-fashioned icecream vans, going home for the night!

Walking during some of the warmer and very humid weather this June, wild flower scents became extremely prominent. As a friend pointed out, sometimes it was like entering a bath, or even a whole room of a particular smell which you could almost step in and out of. Particularly wonderful have been elder, rose, honeysuckle - and even blackberry whose gentle almost invisible scent amassed in sufficient amounts to become distinct.

Returning to Paradise Bottom woods in the Avon Gorge recently in poor weather, and expecting little in the way of birdsong, I was surprised not only by the amount, but by the cathedral-like qualities of the valley; which enhanced even the humble dunnock to quite a grand and echoing sound.

Painswick Beacon
On Sunday I attended a joint Bristol/Gloucester Naturalists' visit to Painswick Beacon’s limestone grass, scrub and woodland, a beautiful and surprisingly high area with stunning views. I informally noted all the flowering plants I was aware we encountered, and was impressed that this came to 70 species excluding grasses; though this surely wouldn’t be unexpected to a proper botanist. The meadows were full of marbled white butterflies, but we also saw common blue, ringlet, meadow brown, small skipper and dark green fritillary, and burnet and scarlet tiger moths. It was also a good hunting ground for those like me who love tiny flowers, with fairy flax, squinancy wort, mouse-ear chickweed, sandwort and common milkwort.

Swifts, Pigeons
Swifts: Over the previous few hot evenings, our local swifts have been putting on a tremendous show at dusk. Their numbers have increased to over 20 with this larger group putting on some fantastic aerodynamic displays with outbursts of jubilant singing, sometimes plunging together then exploding apart like a Red Arrows team
Pigeons: Early yesterday morning a flock of pigeons was wheeling against a lucent blue sky. Each time they came round to a certain angle all the wings flashed and flickered silver so they resembled a shimmering school of fish...

Moth names
Old Lady moth, by Mick Talbot
I'm keeping a list of ridiculous moth names that have appeared on the Bristol Wildlife site, and so far I have:
Dark Spinach
Oblique Carpet
Obscure Wainscot
Old Lady
Garden Pebble
Dingy Shears
Buttoned Snout

Yesterday I was sitting watching some traditional single-flowered hollyhocks in the strong wind that blew up. The flowers were blown inside out and outside in, in a way that reminded me of girls' skirts... and umbrellas... and spaniels' ears... and made me think that most flowers are so firmly constructed that even in a high wind the stems may move violently, but the flowers maintain a stillness.

Pistyll Rhaeadr waterfall,
Pistyll Rhaeadr waterfall is in the heart of Wales at the head of a mountainous valley, where a small rocky stream drops 220 feet – greater than the height of Niagara Falls – in three stages. The first fall is into a rock basin, the second into a basin fronted by a rock hoop through which the water bounds when in spate. If you wade through the gently grading shale into the final dark pool at its foot, the force of the falling water creates an aureole of rainbowed spray throughout its deep ferny enclosure, and a constant powerful breeze plays on your body.
I climbed the roundabout path to the top, where the Pistyll stream flows quietly into a shallow pool before slipping gently over the lip and into the falls – it somehow seems strange that the little stream doesn’t realise the dramatic fate that awaits it! I tried to see over the edge but the nearside bank was too close to give
a view; so I waded across the pool to where the far edge projects slightly, and clinging to a small tree I looked down... Oh the vertigo, the force, the power, as the water plummeted down and lost itself to full visibility in arching, tumultuous white spray and noise! I couldn’t take too much of this vertiginous assault on the senses which threatens to pull you and your stomach down down down! ... and I cautiously retreated, trembling...
Later I climbed the other side of the falls  from the bottom pool to where a slippery little path creeps along the cliff half way up. Here you emerge and look up to experience the uppermost fall dropping into its rocky pool. Again it is an utter onslaught on the senses to peer up into the flow, lost in spray, as it hurls itself downwards in a mighty deluge of swirling white spume, dizzying and frightening the onlooker...
In a cold winters the falls freeze and form spectacular ice sculptures. The surrounding rocks are also supposed to hold natural sculptures of their own, which you can see in photos on the adjacent tearoom walls – though erosion and vegetation may have hidden them now.

A bladderwrack bladder from the shoreline south of Clevedon measured 34mm wide by 55mm long - a whopper!

Dodington jackdaws
Round Dodington, South Gloucestershire, yesterday, a pair of jackdaws were competing in fancy flight of drops, twists etc. One flew INTO the bottom of an oak tree, then continued fancy flight up THROUGH the branches, until it perched with a final flourish as if to say, 'Beat that'. A round of applause would not have been inappropriate.

On Saturday morning I was driving along the A38 past Almondsbury. It was a brilliantly cold cloudless morning and for the only time I can remember, the Severn Estuary as far as one could see was coloured a deep Mediterranean blue. It looked amazing! Usually even on hot days it shows silver, pale blue and cocoa...

I was just browsing Des Bowring's 'Wild Monty'* blogsite, and saw that his Halloween entry was titled 'Chick or Tweet'...
*(The wildlife of Bristol's inner city are Montpelier)

A squirrel has adopted my neighbour's bird feeders and is causing the usual mixture of pleasure, admiration and aggravation. My neighbour showed me the feeder he had bought as 'squirrel-proof' - the strong plastic and metal meshes had been easily snipped through by squirrel teeth. The other day I watched it balance on top of the end of a vertical 8' plank, and then effortlessly spring between 4' and 5' straight up into the end fronds of an overhanging pine, and away.

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