Showing posts from 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...

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

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...

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

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

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

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 fav

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...?

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, ente

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

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 whe

Picture post...

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

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 f


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 di

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 we