Monday, 30 May 2016

Rubies scattered in grass

Borne singly on thread-thin stalks, the Grass Vetchling flower nods coquettishly on even the lightest of breezes. The intense, pure magenta can be seen from some distance, belying the smallness of the bloom. To see them dotted through grassland, like scattered rubies, is always a delight. So it will come as no surprise to you that my afternoon walk through the orchid fields of Park Downs was greatly enlivened by plenty of newly emerged Grass Vetchling. If I were so crass as to come up with a 'botanical top ten', it would be there. The Bee and Pyramidal Orchids are yet to show their glory - I've got that joy to come...

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Bryony Ladybird

The Bryony Ladybird (Henosepilachna argus) was not recorded in the UK until 1997, when a five-year-old girl found a 'strange' ladybird in a north-west Surrey garden, and kept it for her grandfather to look at (who had a keen interest in such things). Once the identification had been established, and the 'beetle jungle drums' were sounded, field workers were then on the look out - and within a year two large colonies had been discovered. The north-west corner of Surrey has remained a happy hunting ground for those seeking out this insect, and since then it has spread ever so slowly from there, with the furthest specimen recorded away from this core being in Oxfordshire.

I do not go out of my way looking for such things, but I have now stumbled across the Bryony Ladybird on three separate occasions, all from 'my' bit of Surrey - 2012 (Bockett's Farm, Bookham), 2014 (Chipstead Bottom) and 2016 (yesterday, pictured above, Langley Vale Farm). Each time the ladybird concerned has been resting conspicuously on the top of a leaf, my attention being drawn to the distinctive browny-red colouring, most unlike the blood or pillar-box red of some of the other species. If I can stumble across three, just like that, then you can rest assured that there are plenty out there. Keep an eye out for it and extend the species known range!

Saturday, 28 May 2016

If Renoir did Langley Vale Farm...

Now and again you come across a sight that demands your attention, lifts your heart and makes you thankful for the gift of the senses - please feast your eyes upon a field full of Red Campion, at Langley Vale Farm, this morning. The link between what was set out before me and the Impressionist artists is not difficult to make. And all within a half hour stroll from home - who needs to get into a car and drive off miles elsewhere when you have this on your doorstep?

There were a few more bits and pieces from today's visit, but I'll just let the show above play out for now. Too good to dilute with other stuff...

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.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Spangled beauty

Back in the days before PC's, mobile phones and Leicester City being the best team in England, I was studying poetry as part of 'O' level English Literature (today this is referred to as GCSE). One of the handful of poems that still stands out some 41 years later is an ode written by Gerard Manley Hopkins entitled 'Pied Beauty', which was basically the author thanking God for bestowing upon the world pied patterning and colouring in nature. I can even remember the first line:

"Glory be to God for dappled things"

Not bad memory recall for an ageing atheist...

This came back into my mind today whilst birding at Dungeness. It was a fairly quiet day punctuated by the unfussy migration of waders, mainly those headed for the Arctic Circle (or less fancifully, Scotland). The birding PR machine in this corner of Kent will remind us all ad infinitum that this is the time of the spoon-tailed Pomarine Skua - and it is. But to me, far more importantly, it is when many sea watches are enlivened by the eastwards passage of mixed wader flocks, mainly Bar-tailed Godwits, Whimbrels, Sanderling, Dunlin, Knot, Turnstone and Grey Plovers, a heady mixture of winter sobriety and summer brashness. Hugging low to the water, twinkling in the harsh light, the observer is treated to the spangles of black, white, orange, brick-red, chestnuts and silver-grey. They pass as a display in a high-class jeweller's shop window, unattainable beauty, here now but gone so fast that you want more.

This passage was also carrying on inland, over the RSPB reserve, where unseen migrants called from a pearl-grey sky - Whimbrels, Grey Plovers, Dunlin - either too high or hidden in the glare of a cloaked sun. We're these birds heading truly inland, or were they just taking a short-cut across the shingle peninsula to shave off a couple of minutes of their northern trek?

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Picture post...

... almost literally. Both from this morning, and both from Chipstead Bottom - Green Hairstreak (top) and Fly Orchid (bottom).

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Gromwell double

Gromwell. Sounds a bit miserable, doesn't it, like 'grumble' I suppose. Predictive text tries to turn it into 'growler'. But Gromwells are smart plants and not at all common. There are three species in the UK -  Common, Field and Purple. I've been lucky to see all three and have the first two quite close to home. I saw both of these today.

First up is this Common. A few plants, not yet in flower, were found in a small copse at Walton Downs. It's the closest to home that I've seen them and was quite pleased with these. I'll go back to take some pictures of the flowers, not that they are showy, just neat.

Next up is Field (also known as Corn) Gromwell, a decreasing plant and one that is a real find. One of my personal highlights of last summer was finding a large colony along the edge of a field at Langley Vale, on the edge of Epsom Downs. This was the first Surrey record for 25 years. Today several hundred were on show, many starting to flower, and this will continue for a few months yet. Last year, thanks to the diligence of Rosy and Dennis Skinner, this population was estimated to be in excess of 3,000 plants!

Not a Gromwell, this is Rue-leaved Saxifrage. I posted last week about this species, saying how it was going from the place that I knew it on Epsom Downs. Guess what? Not 50m away is another compacted area of stony ground, and it's covered in it!

You can tell that things are hotting up on the plant front, as my posts have been heavily botanical as of late. So, now for a bit of birdy observation. Walking around today got me reminiscing about making this same walk 40 years ago. The overriding song at this time of year was that of Willow Warbler - there would be so many that their songs overlapped to keep a continual silvery cadence. Whitethroats, on the other hand, were still recovering from the 1969 population crash. I wondered at the time what it would have been like to have Common Whitethroat as the commonest warbler species, as they had been only a few years earlier. And now I know. Although their scratchy mutterings were not omni-present today by any means. Also missing today, but certainly around back then, was Tree Pipit, House Martin, Cuckoo and Turtle Dove. Does make you wonder, doesn't it...

Monday, 2 May 2016


The UK is blessed with some of the finest Bluebell woods in the world and now is the peak time to get out and see them! Earlier this year there were quite a few early flowerers reported, but a combination of a dull and cold spell soon kept the masses in check. This past week has seen an injection of urgency into the world of the Bluebell, and yesterday Katrina and I paid Margery Wood, (close to Colley Hill), a visit. It couldn't have been better timed.

We were not the only people who had made a special trip to take in this wonderful sight, as couples and families were wandering the simple paths that meander through the woods, cameras in hand, all entranced. The slender, nodding, one-sided stalks were literally in their millions. There were hardly any flowers that had gone over and plenty were still in bud. This show should last a good while yet. The hue of the flowers changed when viewed in full sunlight or dappled shade, from misty mauve to intense blue. I didn't see a single white-flowered plant, but know of a population not a mile away where this colour form is regularly encountered. To be able to look across a woodland floor and see nothing but a blue foggy haze stretching into the distance must be one of the greatest natural sights that the UK possesses.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Plants save the morning

For some daft reason I found myself at Canons Farm at the ungodly hour of 05.00... a calling Tawny Owl slightly convinced me that it was all worthwhile, but it slowly went downhill from there, with just a couple of Greylag Geese (patch goodie), a Swift, three House Martins, 4 Swallows and a Wheatear trying desperately hard to turn ornithological water into wine. It didn't work...

However, at times like these I can put another of my natural history hats on, so the 'botanical' one came out and I went to check the freshly ploughed strip at Fames Rough. This disturbance is irregularly carried out to help maintain the two ultra rare species that grow there - Ground Pine and Cut-leaved Germander. And the good news is that they are both present again this year, although the 11 GP and 3 C-LG plants that I found were on last years strip, roughly in the same place where the GP grew in 2015. This made me feel very happy indeed, as I understand that both species are not doing very well elsewhere.

Ground Pine, 01/05/16, Fames Rough
Cut-leaved Germander, 01/05/16, Fames Rough