Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Arts and Crafts botany

Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) is a native plant that I can easily find growing on the chalky soils surrounding Banstead. This morning's visit to Park Downs was improved no end by the presence of this species, mostly individuals with blue-mauve flowers, but also some showing white and a very few a pale pink. It is a common plant of gardens, the cultivated varieties exhibiting straighter spurs (apparently) and these can be found spilling out onto pavements and grass verges across the country. My downland plants are truly wild, although they do exhibit a mix of colour as described above.

It is an elegant and graceful thing, all curves and swirls mounted on a thin natural fretwork. It is as if the species were the creation of the arts and crafts movement, or maybe from the drawing board of Charles Rennie Mackintosh or William Morris. It has the stamp of Victoriana all over it.

The grassland was starting to smell like summer - the whiff of thyme regularly catching me off guard. Salad Burnet and Germander Speedwell are bossing the proceedings, but there is the unmistakable feeling that spring is beginning to give way to summer, a passing of the season's baton if you will. The butterflies were celebrating this seasonal build-up, with Common Blues and Small Heaths most numerous, although the smaller numbers of Dingy Skippers really caught my attention. The flowers of high summer are currently like resting actors, waiting in the wings to be called on stage - they are there, but keeping out of the way, either in a non-descript vegetative state or still hidden underground. It is a time of the year heavy with expectancy.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

One grave, 125 men and 250 bird's nests

Back in December, wildlife author and blogger Jon Dunn (above) asked me if I could help him out with a few orchid sites this summer. He was keen to see both Bird's-nest Orchid and White Helleborine - both species that 'my' part of the North Downs is blessed with. I was only too pleased to help him out, especially as it was to be research towards his new book project. Today we finally met, after being 'virtual' friends for a couple of years - this social media is a strange beast when you really think about it. Two strangers, meeting for the first time in a car park, who know that they have a lot in common, but have never spoken or clapped eyes on each other! Luckily we both hit it off very quickly and the day was an absolute pleasure.

I had set up an itinerary that took in a number of Bird's-nest Orchid sites (in the Box Hill - Mickleham - Ranmore area), several of which also boasted White Helleborine. I also included the southern slope of Box Hill where a sizeable Man Orchid colony is found.

The timing of the Bird's-nests varied greatly. The Mickleham and Box Hill populations that I know were still only just emerging, but had grown noticably since my visit on Tuesday. The same could be said of the Juniper Bottom White Helleborines, that had only a few in bud, although one plant had a fairly advanced flower.

The Box Hill Man Orchids (left) were a delight. Up to 125 spikes were on show, some of them quite tall, although others were only just emerging. Once we got our eye in spike after spike emerged ahead of us, a single here, a group of a dozen there. We didn't cover the whole slope but there must be more to find. Nearby, in a brief moment of sunny weather, a pristine Adonis Blue butterfly stole us away from the plants, the first that Jon (now a resident of Shetland) had seen for many a year. He should have obtained some frame fillers, as the insect was quite sluggish and stayed put upon a flowerhead for several minutes.

Ranmore was where the main show took place. We found 150+ White Helleborines, mostly a way off from flowering, although one or two were doing so. The Bird's-nest Orchids were spectacular. For more detail, including information about one particular special group, I'm afraid you will have to wait until Jon's book comes out in 2018! I can divulge that we came across 250+ fresh spikes in varying stages. Some show indeed.

The beech woodland at White Downs that is host to plenty of Bird's-nest Orchids

I had one last surprise for Jon. In a previous correspondence he had admitted to an admiration of the work of artist and lepidopterist Frederick William Frohawk (1861-1946). It just so happens that he is buried in Headley churchyard, very close to our orchid sites. I took Jon along to pay respects to his hero. Frohawk's grave is marked by a carved wooden cross, which has a Camberwell Beauty as its centrepiece. As we stood by the grave the church bells sounded. And as we left, Jon patted the cross in a show of appreciation towards the great man...

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Getting ready

I needed to recce a few sites in preparation for a visit, this Thursday, from Jon Dunn, who is currently writing a book on the UK's orchids. The good news is that the particular species that he is targeting this week are present, with some only just flowering - it seems to be a late year. I will hopefully have a full post about what we get up to later on in the week.

Back to today - I made a whistle-stop tour of Juniper Bottom, Juniper Top, Mickleham Downs, Box Hill (several sites) and White Downs. The targets were present, in varying stages, with few out in flower, but producing a spectacle non-the-less - in fact some of these orchids look more fascinating even before reaching full flower.

Birds were not to be left out, with the lower slopes of Boxhill producing a singing Firecrest and two croaking Ravens along the scarp. Butterflies were few, the temperature being quite inhospitable for them whenever the sun went in, which it did more frequently as the day wore on.

Green Hound's-tongue - a bit of a North Downs speciality.

Man Orchid - a spectacular gathering on Box Hill
Bird's-nest Orchids - almost there, maybe fully out by Thursday!

Monday, 16 May 2016

Going to see the Lady

Last Saturday, with Dungeness stuck in a nagging, cool, NNE wind, the observatory faithful abandoned ship mid-afternoon and went into the narrow green lanes of east Kent in search of orchids. With Gill H at the wheel, Dave W with the map and David C about to be assaulted by things with leaves (rather than feathers), our first stop was Park Gate Down, home to the Monkey Orchid. Would they be out yet?

The answer was a firm "No". This was the most forward of the lot, and there were only a dozen to choose from. Some compensation was on offer with over 1,000 Early Purple Orchids at their best, with two of them being pure white in flower. David C started to fidget so went off and located a Marsh Tit.

Next stop was the marvellously meandering reserve at Yockletts. By now the late afternoon was turning into a calm, bright evening. The scene was set and the orchids put on a fine show.

First up were at least 50 Fly Orchids, all in good flower. This diminutive plant is a favourite of mine, not as decadent as most orchids, happy to hide in the darker parts of the woods, almost apologetic. But when you look closely at the flower... they are as good as any of the others I think.

Talking of decadence, the first of 75+ Lady Orchids came into view, beacons of white and raspberry on the dappled woodland floor. Orchid royalty, maybe the true queen. We lingered awhile, happy to take photographs, to sit and drink in the scene before us. David C was itching to use his binoculars, but had to make do with a calling Tawny Owl and another Marsh Tit. I hadn't completely lost the ability to think about birds and located a purring Turtle Dove. With the crystal clear evening light, the orchids and the dove's special sound, so redolent of summer, it was an effort to tear ourselves away from here and head back to the shingle.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Bogey laid to rest

There were Red Kites to the north of us, west of us and east of us. At one point there were two of them between me at the observatory and the Dungeness new lighthouse, but I somehow conspired to miss them. Mark H and I decided that the best place to see one would be at either Boulderwall (short stop was a negative) or the viewing ramp at Dengemarsh (almost the first bird we saw!) A bit of a tatty individual, but who's complaining?

A long overdue 'Dungeness tick'. Now, where's that Spoonbill...?

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Skywatch harrier

With neighbouring Sussex enjoying a modest invasion of Red-rumped Swallows, it seemed prudent to position myself and watch the sky. After spending an hour or two on the beach, then the moat, my bottle went and I headed onto the RSPB reserve, the most likely place for these hirundines to put in a performance if they were to pay us a visit.

From the visitor centre it was blindingly obvious that there were few hirundines on show. A snap decision was made to take root on the viewing ramp that overlooks Dengemarsh, and within five minutes this had paid off - but not with a hoped for Red-rump...

A ring-tailed Harrier appeared briefly over some close bushes, then went behind them and, through snatched views, appeared to be heading towards Boulderwall. I knew Steve Broyd was nearby, so alerted him before resuming my search. The bird soon returned and proceeded to give superb views, allowing the identification to be clinched as a Montagu's. The bird spiralled high and drifted west, entering 'Plodland' air space... Mr Casemore was duly alerted! The harrier then lost height and started to drift over the fields at a lower elevation, then regained height before lowering once more. A growing crowd, including Steve, Dave Eland, the reserve staff and Martin (who was over on the Dengemarsh Road), were able to watch it for maybe 15 minutes. It decided to head off west, passing within 30 feet over Martin's head. We thought that that was that, but Mark Hollingworth relocated it 45 minutes later, south of its last known position.

Only my second Dungeness Montagu's, both ring-tails. Without being greedy, I'd like my next to be a male. Please.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Tap turns on the wader...

Hands up who identified the play of words between the 1971 CCS hit single 'Tap turns on the water' and the blog post title above... no, thought not, too obscure, to tenuous, all smacking of trying to hard... sorry, but I couldn't resist it.

As a lapsed sea-watcher, when I return to Dungeness I am only too aware that I am,

(A) rusty, and

(B) surrounded by experts and competence.

However, what I am able to do is to sit back and watch the sea watching-obsessed locals with some understanding of their mental processes as to how they read the weather conditions, weigh up the pros and cons as to how much effort to put in and where exactly to sea watch from. Even at a prominentary such as Dungeness, you don't just walk to the tip and assume that it is the best place to sea watch from. If you do, that is Mistake Number One. Time of year, wind direction and how much effort that you want to expend all play their part.

Today was one of those days that tested even the most experienced reader of the sea watching tea leaves. A very slow morning was followed by a soporific middle of the day but then ended with an afternoon of interest. The wind direction seemed to remain in the NE quadrant, at a modest force 1-3, so why did the birding gods turn on the tap and allow over 4,000 Common Terns, a modest passage of mixed waders, a few Black and Little Terns and the added bonus of a sprinkling of skuas to move eastwards? And then to turn it off again by 18.15hrs? The turning on and off of this ornithological tap does not always conform to a change in the wind or the weather. If there is a black art to the understanding of the processes involved in dictating which way the tap is turned, then few have grasped it. Even the grizzled old Dungeness sea watchers find themselves scratching their greying beards in contemplation over this one.