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A Cornish Cornucopia…

The last knockings of a remarkable summer, as September slides into October: Cornwall – landscapes, both ancient and modern, and those innerscapes we so rarely take the time to see, let alone appreciate. Thank goodness for holidays, time to wait for lighting, perspective and detail to illustrate and illuminate the world around us.

     

St Michael’s Mount: even as the summer fades, flowers, both wild and cultivated, are still in bloom, some so bold they wouldn’t look amiss on the walls of Tate St Ives up the road. Natural Modernism, complementing the bold colours and shapes of the Patrick Herons. And where there are flowers there are insects…with spiders waiting their turn.

    

At St Ives, ‘twixt cobalt skies and azure seas, traditional seaside pursuits run alongside modern art and architecture. While everywhere there is natural art: rocks splashed with lichens; dappled sunlight filtering through Japanese anemones, illuminating the hairs on a Tobacco flower, and the start of next year’s hoverfly population.

Truro Cathedral – only a century old, but beautiful and artistically inspiring.

Revisiting the delights of rockpooling, with topshell and limpet.

 

 

Windswept, salt-pruned hedgerows, and hidden hollow-ways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

Ivy everywhere, its intoxicating scent attracting insects galore to late-season riches: Honeybee, Ivy Bee and Painted Lady.

Oaks also demonstrating their role in supporting the web of life: galls on every leaf and branch – artichoke, silk-button and spangles, miniwasps with very different larval homes.

   

In the race to feed before leaves fall, plants being pierced by bugs – Squash, Spittle and Green Shield – and munched by leaf-beetles and caterpillars – Alder Sawfly in its woolly extruded coat, and a Pale Tussock moth larva in defensive posture.

Even on a fairly dull day, Hedge Bindweed seems to generate its own sunlight.

 

And finally some birds. Kingfisher and Dipper in the River Fowey, loved by all. Not so perhaps the ubiquitous Herring Gulls, but really it is us intruding in their space, not the other way around. Struggling in the ‘natural’ world, who can deny them a piece of their pasty?

 

Late Summer in the French Pyrénées

Last week I was lucky enough to be leading a tour for Naturetrek to the French Pyrénées. It was especially interesting for me as the first time I have led a trip to that area for more than a decade, and all my previous tours there have been in May and June. How would it have changed, over the years and between seasons?

Firstly, it’s great to report that overall the area looks pretty much the same as when I last saw it: the magnificent mountain scenery, like the Brèche de Roland, is of course still there, and the scars of ‘civilisation’ (ski development and the like) are no more intrusive than before. Like rural settlements all across our continent, though, our base of Gèdre seems to be in decline, many properties boarded up, even falling into disrepair, and services closing down. But our hotel at least seems to be bucking the trend, no doubt supported by its unique view up the valley to the eponymous Brèche.

Comparing the seasons produces more marked differences, a landscape of snow beds almost continuous above 2000m in some years being replaced by cliffs, rocks, screes and sparse vegetation. Bird-wise, many of the summer visitors had departed already – no swifts and shrikes, and few warblers aside from Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps. And arguably the latter may well have been southbound migrants, along with Pied Flycatchers, Whinchats, Tree Pipits and a lone White Stork, standing incongruously amongst cattle high up in the Ossoue Valley.

Grounded migrants are always exciting, but nothing quite compares with the thrill of migration actually happening before ones eyes and ears. For us it was 20 minutes before lunch at the Col de Boucharo, one of the low ways (only 2200m up!) into Spain: under cobalt skies, we were treated to flickering parties of Swallows, hugging the turf, some 60 in total, along with a Sand Martin, five Meadow Pipits, two Linnets and 20 Yellow Wagtails.

And just prior to that we had bumped into a party of scientists from the University of Exeter who have deployed themselves there for two months to record the details of insect migration, especially hoverflies, over the pass. Just as remarkable as these feats of migration was that  one of the researchers was someone from my rather short list of ‘Twitter friends’….

The ‘big bird’ stars of the show – vultures and eagles – were also in good numbers, seemingly more than on my past visits, good news for the conservation efforts that these birds benefit. We even saw a Lammergeier, that icon of the Pyrénées, demonstrating its prowess at traversing the skies with barely a twitch of the wings over our base in Gèdre, well away from its core breeding areas. Potentially worrying though, the suite of high mountain passerine specialities – Alpine Accentor, Wallcreeper and Snow Finch – could not be found in previously expected locations: this may well represent a genuine change over the years, climate change having moved them up and out of easy reach.

My previous late Spring visits normally coincide with the transhumance of grazing stock to the high pastures, some of it still on foot, and the first hay cut. So not surprisingly, after a summer of munching and two hay cuts, the flowers were much less showy this year. But what was there was sometimes spectactular: damp, flushed hillsides swathed in Devil’s-bit Scabious and Grass-of-Parnassus, and high mountain tracksides with patches of two Pyrenean endemics, the Thistle and Eryngo, sustaining resident and migrating insects alike. Best of all, dry, cropped turf studded with pink stars of Merendera, opening wide on the sunnier days.

  

And then there were the insects, admittedly past their peak but at least as good as in late May, as numerous and often larger as in the case of the bush-crickets and grasshoppers. it was especially exciting to see three Camberwell Beauties, two very confiding, and an equally pristine Map, along with fading summer species such as Swallowtail and Apollo.

 

One of the best insect attractants was Buddleia in the towns. Contrary to often-quoted views that non-natural colour forms are less attractive than the wild type, one white-flowered bush close to Gèdre swimming pool clearly hasn’t read the books. Numerous Large Whites, Silver-Washed and Dark Green Fritillaries, Swallowtail, as many as 30 Hummingbird Hawk-moths at a time, Jersey Tiger and Hornet Hoverfly: a constant roll-call, even in overcast and blustery conditions.

Taking advantage of late-season nectar, pollen and warmth, the best of the rest included a range of tachinid flies, wasps, longhorn and chrysomelid beetles, Saddlebacks, and Great Green Bush crickets which serenaded the setting sun every day in the valleys.

  

Not forgetting those unexpected moments always encountered on a trip such as this, like the dead Asp Viper being ‘dealt with’ by Sexton Beetles, and the Alpine Marmots, ever alert, acting as our eyes and ears for passing Golden Eagles….

A wonderful, diverse week in a simply stunning part of the world.

A full tour report with lists can be found on the Naturetrek website: click here.

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: September – Grange Wood & Whitehouse Beach

 

The sun shone and breeze was pleasant for our walk this morning: thank you to everyone who came along. The main focus this month was the various salt marsh plants, found both along the slopes of the sea wall and on the marsh at Whitehouse Beach. Each is specially adapted to live in the salty conditions, some by virtue of their fleshy, succulent, leaves which preserve moisture (e.g Marsh Samphire and the Seablites), and others by processing salt water and excreting the excess salt (e.g. Sea-purslane). Many of the plants we saw are members of the Spinach family, the most halophytic (salt-tolerant) of families worldwide, mostly edible, and all with unfortunately ‘subtle’ flowers…..

…but there were some species with more showy flowers, including three oft-confused members of the Daisy family: Golden Samphire with yellow rays, and occupying the upper tidal limit, and Sea Aster, in both its forms, one with with purple rays, the other lacking rays completely.

 

Other plants included Cord-grass, in full flower with its feathery pollen receptors poking out, leading to a discussion about its unique and really quite recent formation as a species (come along next year if you’d like to know more!). Likewise provoking a chat about the sex-life of (some) flowers, a Hawkweed was flowering in the wood, and along the highest level of the marsh, Common Toadflax was in lovely flower, a special plant for us as a main foodplant for the Toadflax Brocade moth, one of the highlights of last month’s walk (see here).

 

Due to the exceptional conditions of the summer, and delay in the start of autumn there was very little in the way of fungi in the wood. In fact we only found rather dull example of Wood Mushroom and Parasol, and not the spotty red and white Fly Agaric which we had hoped for,  but which can often be readily seen along the woodland trail, near Birch trees.

As always we were on the watch for bugs and beasties … a few nice examples included the smart red and black sawfly, an Arge species, although difficult to narrow down to an exact ‘Make and model’, there being many similar  versions of this little wasp.  Another sawfly, in the form of a gall caused by it, was found on the leaves of Willow: the gall even had the exit hole showing it had been vacated. Galls, along with fungi and fruits are likely to be the main focus of next month’s walk. A rather splendid Forest (also known as Red legged) Shield bug was discovered,  basking in the sun and enjoying his lunch, by means of his specially adapted piercing beak-like sucking mouthparts. This species is omnivorous,  also preying on caterpillars and other insects.

 On the marsh it was good to see a good number of the rare stripey-bottomed Sea Aster Mining-bee, which feeds almost exclusively on Sea Aster. It therefore emerges only in August-September when is food source is flowering. Its nesting colonies, on sandy ground above the reach of spring tides, cannot be too far away.

 

So what else did we see?  Um, let me think…..oh yes!, thanks to a tip off from our friend Glyn, we were very privileged to witness the majestic flight of a magnificent Osprey, circling at length above us. It was mobbed  by a couple of Buzzards, as one of our group exclaimed ‘3 birds of prey in my binoculars at once!’.   Although our walks being ‘non-birdy’ ( Richard Allen’s successful monthly bird walks are the place for a birding experience in Wivenhoe on a Saturday morning), we had to make an exception!  This bird was probably a migrant, on its way back to Africa. We can’t help thinking that this will be the lasting impression of our September outing. We managed just the odd snatched photo but no doubt Glyn’s magnificent efforts will be posted on the Wivenhoe Forum before too long!

And true to form, check out Glyn’s excellent photos of the bird here, on Page 31…

The Shingles of Orfordness

Truly one of the great shingle structures of the world, rivalled in the UK only by Dungeness and Chesil Beach, Orfordness is a place I have visited professionally over the past twenty years or so. But now in retirement is the time to enjoy it for what it is, rather than as just another item on my ‘to do’ list…..

And so earlier this week we paid a visit under skies of almost Mediterranean blue, the forecast cloud remaining a few kilometres inland and a smudge of sea fret a similar distance offshore among the windfarms.

As a naturalist, it is the natural aspect of the Ness which takes top billing. A series of low shingle ridges run through it, each the result of a severe storm event some time during its several hundred year history, since the landward port of Orford lost its open sea aspect. Smaller stones thrown up to the highest points of the ridges influence the colonisation by plants such that the natural Ness now presents itself as a series of alternating open gravel and vegetated stripes on the gently undulating surface.

But just as interesting is the overlay of human history, largely military use over much of the 20th century. The litter of history – concrete, wire and metal, and iconic buildings – was imposed on the naturalNess and left its scars on the fragile landscape, but now under the benign management of the National Trust it is gradually melting away, a metaphor for the impermanence of Man.

Shingle structures exist in a state of perpetual tension, both created and eroded by the sea. Orfordness is no exception, still extending southwards through longshore drift, but becoming narrower year-on-year by erosion. The lighthouse, now redundant as a light but still a much-loved land- and sea-mark, teeters on the brink and will soon be reclaimed by the sea … just as happened with the two previous lights built in 1637 and 1780.

Living on an ever-shifting site, and subject to severe drought stress every summer, the wildlife of the Ness is necessarily specialised and able to thrive with little water. But after a summer with no rain for most of June and July, it isn’t surprising that flowers were few and far between. Still though Yellow Horned-poppy was clinging to flower on the ridges, with Babington’s Orache on the slopes down to the sea.

And likewise the insects, few to be seen save for a few bumblebees seeking out the meagre flower supply. But as we waited at the quay for the ferry to return us to civilisation, a Large Velvet Ant came from a hole in the low concrete wall upon which we were sitting. The available records don’t show this as a known site, and indeed its previous East Anglian records are only from a couple of sites further north on the Suffolk coast and a scattering of more inland sites in Essex.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If anything even more exciting, although equally obliging, was a black ground bug that just happened to alight on Jude’s arm as we sat outside the beach café in Orford, awaiting the ferry in the morning. Unknown to us, a few quick snaps enabled Tristan Bantock, the national expert, to identify it as the nationally scarce, south-eastern species Drymus latus, which Nigel Cuming, bug recorder for the Suffolk Naturalists Society, confirmed as the first record for the county.

 

 

Two  superb insects showing why it is a good idea never to switch off looking. Hundreds of hectares of natural habitat, but the stars of the show came to us!

 

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: August – Whitehouse Beach

Those who read our reports regularly will know that they are usually upbeat affairs, rejoicing in the wonders of the natural world….well bear with me and there is a fair amount of that to come… but first I have something negative to comment on, namely LITTER ON WHITEHOUSE BEACH!  Why is it considered OK to leave several picnics’  worth of rubbish in a decomposing-in-the-sun black sack on the grassy sward of the beach?  Don’t worry, someone else will deal with it…..and in fact we did as we didn’t want all the contents to spill and allow yet more rubbish into the surrounding countryside… but couldn’t the revellers have taken it home with them?

Anyway, back to the lovely walk this morning.  The sun was slightly less overpowering than of late and we had a bit of a breeze and cloud cover.  The main focus was the many and varied salt marsh plants, and a walk along the seawall shows the different sections of saltmarsh according to how often the plants are covered each tide, ie on every tide, or only when there is a high spring tide, and every stage in between.  The different vegetation reflects how much the plants can stand being inundated by salt.

Two of the three UK species of samphire grow here in Wivenhoe, ‘Golden’ ( a member of the daisy family), and ‘Marsh’ (a spinach), whilst the third type ‘Rock’ is a carrot.  All show similar characteristics – succulent in that they store moisture in their leaves and stems, and good to eat with a wonderful salty taste (if you can be sure of the water quality where it grows of course).  The question comes to mind, If they do not share taxonomical links, then why are they all known as ‘Samphires’?  Well, an interesting theory is that this is a corruption of ‘Saint ‘ or ‘San Pierre’, ie St Peter, the fisherman.  And as we know samphires go remarkably well with fish.

Sea Purslane is an interesting plant, its cells are mini-desalination processors.  They take in salt water, convert it into fresh and eject the excess salt in little crystals, which coat the leaves causing them to look grey and shiny. Sea Lavender was in flower, the patches of purple clearly in contrast to the generally green saltmarsh flora.

Washed up along the shore line was a veritable blanket of dead vegetation, looking rather like grass cuttings.  This was the Gutweed, a rather (it must be said) unattractive little plant, looking rather like intestines, hence its name , but one which is considered a delicacy by our feathered friends who are soon to return to these parts from their summer vacations.

Other plants worth a mention, some illustrated below, were the pretty Lesser Sea Spurrey , Sea Wormwood,  and Shrubby and Annual Seablites.

A few butterflies and dragonflies fleetingly captured our interest, but we did stay and linger looking at a well-disguised moth on a seed head.  A Toadflax Brocade.  In  fact it was only when we looked at the photographs at home that we realised that there were actually two moths  – such was the remarkable camouflage.

Other interesting beasties included a mating pair of picture winged flies.  There are many types of such flies, each with distinctively and attractively patterned wings, and these guys go by the name of Campiglossa plantaginis, which breeds on Sea Aster, a common salt-marsh plant hereabouts.  Several male Ruddy Darter dragonflies sparkled along the sea wall, but although we searched we did not find any Wasp Spiders.

We hope this has whetted your appetite, as we are planning on re-running the walk next month, by which time more of the salt marsh plants will be in flower, and who knows we may be able to spot that elusive, but magnificent spider.

Mothman returns….

Sometimes I feel my email address and Twitter handle @chrismothman contravenes the Trades Descriptions Act. They came about several years ago when I was actively garden trapping on a regular basis, and it’s fair to say that  for 17 years, 400,000+ moths and 1015 species later, it took over at least the spare time in my life.

Times have changed, my life has changed, very much for the better. But in our third floor flat in Wivenhoe, we have no garden, and mothing is generally limited to public events in the town, and some of the wildlife tours I lead. So it was a great pleasure last week to have a couple of nights trapping in a large garden in north Norfolk just for our own entertainment and interest. A well-vegetated garden, close to the coastal marshes, dark, warm and humid nights, and very hot days when sitting around in the shade identifying and photographing moths was the only thing to: the perfect relaxation recipe….

Without too much effort, just one MV 125W trap for two nights pulled in at least 130 species, from large Poplar Hawks to tiny micros. Tiny, but often beautiful – see the purple sheen on Coleophora deauratella, the reflective silver-white patches on Catoptria pinella, and the liquid orange-pink checkerboard of Lozotaenioides formosana. ‘Formosana’ appropriately meaning ‘beautiful’ in Latin:

Other ‘big game’ included Garden Tiger, Oak Eggar and Leopard…anyone else think ‘Badger’ would be a more appropriate name than Leopard?

Although nothing rare turned up, I was especially pleased to see some species which rarely used to appear in my garden trap, whether a function of habitat or geography – Gold Spot, Nut-tree Tussock, Fern, Antler and True Lover’s Knot, for example. And also Kent Black Arches, a south-eastern coastal specialist, here at the very limits of its natural range:

 

And then a whole series of other interesting/lovely ones like Pebble Hook-tip, Chinese Character, Rosy Footman, Swallow Prominent and Campion,  the latter a very fresh specimens, showing its soon-lost purplish tracery of scales to advantage:

Last but not least we mustn’t overlook the other nightlife, in the trap represented by Sexton Beetles and Summer Chafers, along with numerous Forest Bugs:

All in all, a great way to spend the warmest nights and hottest days of the year!