Blowing in the Wind

At the weekend, we finally got to go and see the Snake’s Head Fritillaries at Lugg Meadows near Hereford. I’ve been wanting to see these for ages now, but something always seems to crop up to stop us (last year the meadows were flooded for a start). So this year we booked on a guided walk with Herefordshire Wildlife Trust to go in search of these nationally scarce plants. Lugg Meadows are part of a very old system called Lammas Meadows, where the meadows are left through the summer to grow hay, which is then cut in late July (in time for Lammas Day 1st August), then animals allowed on to graze until the following year. In places like the Lugg Meadows, this practice has been going on for hundreds of years, possibly back to Roman times. So the history of these meadows predates Hereford Cathedral itself; they were even recorded in the Domesday Book.

Lammas Meadows were once much more common, but now very few remain in as good a condition as those by the river Lugg. The meadows were divided into strips of land, the hay from which would then be harvested by different people. These strips were marked by “dole stones” like the one below.

Our guide Peter was very entertaining and knowledgeable and despite the efforts of Storm Hannah trying to blow us over, took us straight to the relevant patch of the meadow to see the Snake’s Head Fritillaries. The meadows flood regularly, resulting in a rich soil and diverse flora. The fritillaries are nationally scarce, but are still doing well here. In most other similar sites, the Snake’s Head Fritillaries tend to be predominately purple, with just a few white ones. For some reason in the Lugg Meadows it is the other way around – the white flowers dominate with just a few purple ones.

With Storm Hannah blowing, it was perhaps not ideal conditions for taking photos of delicate flowers that were literally blowing in the wind, but we did our best.

The Latin name for the fritillaries Fritillaria meleagris apparently refers to the chequerboard pattern of spots on the normal purple variety.

I made a brief video clip to show how much the wind was making life difficult for steady photography.

Once we got our eye in, there were actually quite a few of the flowers nodding around in the wind. Apparently they had peaked a week or two before, but since the walk was pre-booked for today, we were happy to catch them at all.

While we oohed and ahhed over the flowers, we heard our first cuckoo of the year, which was a nice surprise. We couldn’t actually see the cuckoo, it was behind us somewhere in the trees. But we did see lots of these cuckoo flowers – one of the favourite food plants of the Orange-Tip butterfly – not that any butterflies were flying while the wind battered the meadows.

We returned to the car by crossing the meadows and walking alongside the river. We got the very briefest glimpse of a kingfisher as we walked. Such a brief glimpse, I’ve had to blow up the section of the photo just to prove there was really one there!

Herefordshire Wildlife Trust do a great job of managing these meadows. There is an area that has curlews nesting – access to this is restricted during the breeding season to try and help this struggling species. So all in all a very pleasant way of spending a Saturday afternoon.  Next year we can maybe go back under our own steam, now that we know the right area to look for the fritillaries and we can hopefully pick a weekend without a storm blowing!

Scilly Isles – Tresco

Here’s the second bloggy instalment from our recent trip to the Scilly Isles – this time covering Tresco. Tresco is the second largest of the islands and was just a short boat ride away from where we were staying on St Mary’s. As with all the Scilly Isles, you can’t really move for beautiful beaches and stunning views.

I particularly liked some of the rock formations which looked like they’d come out of a Flintstone movie!

Tresco is perhaps the most touristy of the “off islands”, but within minutes of getting off the boat we were all by ourselves on a butterfly filled lane crossing the island. I’d visited the Scillies as a child with my parents and one of the things I remember most vividly was the abundance of butterflies (of course there were generally many more butterflies around everywhere back then in the 1970s).  So it was a delight to walk down lanes and be surrounded by them again. Meadow Browns were by far the most common species.

We saw lots of Red Admirals all over the Scilly Isles – far more than we ever see in Malvern. This is probably because most of them are migrants that get blown or fly over to Scilly from mainland Europe.

The lanes had plenty of the other common species too like Speckled Woods, Large Whites and Holly Blues.

My favourites though on Tresco were the Small Coppers and Common Blues – both small jewel like butterflies. It was blue butterflies in particular that I remember from childhood, so seeing those here was lovely.

Tresco also supplied us with another new bird species – the stonechat (thanks to Neil for the identification). We saw lots of these little birds and heard even more.

Tresco has a very tropical feel to it, with lush vegetation pretty much everywhere. There were loads of these absolutely massive Echium plants – many of them at least twice as tall as me, although admittedly I am only about 5 foot 1!

Many of the stone walls were covered in large succulent plants, like something off an alien movie. They are Aeonium plants and there were several different varieties around the Scillies.

Tresco seemed to have far more of these bright yellowy orange flowers  (Gazania – thanks Neil!) than the other islands.

Blue (and white) agapanthus were common everywhere; whether in gardens and verges like this,

or seemingly naturalised on open ground.

The areas further from habitation tended to have more natural, as in more British looking flora. Lots of the island was covered in gorgeous purple heather which was teeming with insects.

Bees were abundant everywhere – Tresco and indeed all the Scilly Isles must be bee paradise with all those flowers. Most of the ones I saw looked fairly familiar, but Tresco had a lot of these ones which seemed a bit different. The good people of the Facebook bee group suggested they might be Cliff Mining Bees (Andrena thoracica), although apparently we can’t be sure about this one as it had collected so much pollen it has obscured the vital bits for identification!

Tresco is famous for its tropical Abbey Gardens. Unfortunately we spent so much time dawdling around the island looking at butterflies (and admittedly eating a very good lunch at the Ruin Beach Café) that by the time we got to the Gardens there wasn’t really time to go in. So the entrance below is as close as we got.

Although it would no doubt have been nice to look round the gardens, there was so much tropical plant life all over Tresco that I don’t feel we missed out too much. And it’s always nice to leave something new for the next visit!

 

 

Scilly Isles – St Mary’s

After the rush of 30 Days Wild in June, I thought July would be a quiet month and I’d be able to blog at a leisurely pace. Somehow that doesn’t seem to have happened and we are now two thirds through the month! The good news is that we managed to squeeze in a fantastic holiday in the beautiful Scilly Isles. We took so many photos (over 2000!) that I’ll split them (not all of them obviously!) into blog posts for the different islands we visited.

So first up are some of the many things we saw on the main island – St Mary’s. We were staying on St Mary’s, so spent our first full day getting to know it (via some crazy golf buggy driving thanks to my brother-in-law), before taking boat trips to the other islands later in the week.

The Scilly Isles are off the southern tip of Cornwall and have a much more tropical climate than we get back home in Malvern. This was immediately apparent from the lush vegetation – palm trees, giant Echiums and Agapanthus everywhere.

The rocky walls were generally covered in all manner of stunning flowers and the hedgerows were overflowing.

No idea what these massive yellow and orange flowers were, but they were like pina coladas hanging everywhere. (now known to be Angel’s Trumpets or Brugmansia sanguinea, thanks to Neil Anderson and Jo at Me and My Hats)

As we trundled around St Mary’s at the breakneck speed of 12mph on the buggy, the views were pretty much stunning from all angles. Beautiful beaches and some amazing rock formations.

I tried one of my usual shaky videos to give some idea of the panorama of islands all around us:

View from St Mary's

Normally Chris and I focus on the natural history, but the Scilly Isles have been inhabited since Neolithic times, so it would have been rude not to pay a visit to at least one site.  This is Halangy Down; a village inhabited from the Iron Age through to the early Medieval period when it was abandoned as the area got buried in sand.

And this is me inside Bant’s Carn – a 4000 year old burial chamber, just up the hill from the ancient village.

Fascinating as the ancient history is, Chris and I always end up looking for the wildlife. The islands are of course full of birds, who have not only adapted to island life but to tourist life as well. The sparrows in particular had learnt that tourists were easy picking and wherever we went to eat they were there – greedy opportunists, making the most of us greedy visitors. So here I am doing my sparrow whispering bit – sacrificing a bit of my lunch to my new friends. If only I could get the robin on our allotment to do the same, I’d be very happy.

Of course we saw lots of other birds besides the sparrows. First new species for us was this Rock Pipit seen down on the shore near the Old Town area – please someone tell me if this is actually just another sparrow!

We saw lots of our perennial favourites – oystercatchers. I’m not sure I’d ever noticed before how disproportionately long their beaks are – although they are clearly well evolved to successfully fill the biological niche that would require such a beak!

We got this one fleeting glimpse of a gannet, although they do occur all round the islands.

I always struggle to tell cormorants from shags, but apparently the latter are much more common on the Scillies. Having said that I think this one seen bobbing about in the water just out of decent camera range was a cormorant.

Gulls were of course present pretty much everywhere. This I think is a Great Black-Backed Gull – the largest gull in the world. The Scilly Isles have over 10% of the UK’s breeding population of this gull. Apparently they can swallow puffins whole, but this one was making do with pecking at a crab shell it had probably nicked from a local restaurant.

Birds may be great, but we can’t go anywhere without looking for insects. Possibly the most interesting ones we saw on St Mary’s were these Ichneumon wasps (Heteropelma amictum – thanks to Bob on Twitter for the ID) – which were fairly common lumbering around the bracken with their yellow back legs dangling behind them.

I had been tempted to take the moth trap to the Scillies, but common sense prevailed and I was reduced to looking for day flying ones. Fortunately six spot burnett moths were sufficiently common around the islands to satisfy the mothy nerd in me.

As St Mary’s is the main island and therefore the most populous, we hadn’t really expected to see too much wildlife. We thought St Mary’s would be our foodie base and we’d use the outer islands for serious wildlife watching. But without really looking we stumbled upon loads of plants and animals that caught our interest – most of which was accessible from a golf buggy. Who knows what we might have seen if we’d got out and explored on foot!

More soon, when I’ve ploughed through the next 500 or so photos from our trip to the Scilly Isles! xx

30 Days Wild – Day 29 – Fine Crop of Flowers on the Lottie

It’s Day 29 of 30 Days Wild and since I didn’t get home until quite late and it was raining when I did, the choices for today’s “wild thing” were a bit limited. Fortunately my friend was still staying and I’d promised to show her the lottie, so we headed up there to see what we can find. Although not everyone at the allotment site gardens organically, enough do that there are plenty of wildflowers to see amongst the deliberately planted plants.

First thing we spotted was Pineapple Weed (Matricaria discoidea). I’d never noticed it before but my friend identified it and got me to crush a flower – it really does smell like pineapples! Does what it says on the tin!

Next up was Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), a pretty wild version of Geraniums.

Another new one for me was a member of the Bistort family, possibly Redshank, but my dodgy rainy photo wasn’t good enough to be sure.

Next one we were a bit more confident about – Green Alkanet. The blue flowers were almost glowing in the rain. All these plants (weeds in some people’s books) were growing along the path as we walked down to our plot.

These pretty daisy-like flowers were actually Feverfew. As the name suggests, this plant has been used in traditional medicine to cure all manner of things. Like the bindweed photobombing in the corner!

Another medicinal herb growing around the plots was this St John’s Wort.

It had been a few days since I’d been down to the allotment, so it was really nice to see how some of the deliberate plantings had come along. The runner beans were going great guns – hopefully we’ll get a good crop.

Really chuffed to see one of our sunflowers was out despite the complete lack of sun today.

As is so often the case we had a surprise on today’s walk – we found 3 huge puffballs. Thought at first they were footballs, but they were way better than that – giant fungi. Seen here with a foot for size comparison! If it hadn’t been so wet we might have been tempted to take it back to try fried puffball steaks.

So even on a unpromising wet work night, there was still plenty to see and enjoy if you get out and about. Get your wellies on and get out there!

 

 

 

30 Days Wild – Day 17 – Blue is the Colour!

It’s Day 17 of 30 Days Wild and with blue skies above we went in search of the Large Blue Butterfly. The Large Blue is probably Britain’s rarest butterfly. It actually went extinct here in the 1970s, but thanks to great efforts by conservation bodies, it was reintroduced to a few sites in 1984. One of these sites is Daneway Banks in Gloucestershire and that’s where we headed today. Butterfly Conservation’s Gloucestershire Branch had an organised walk on and very kindly let us tag along.

Large Blues have a really intriguing life cycle. The eggs are laid on wild thyme or marjoram. The tiny caterpillars hatch and secret a substance that attracts a particular species of red ant. The ants carry them to their nests, where the caterpillars feed on the ant grubs. Eventually the new adults emerge and have to crawl out of the ants’ nests before they can open their wings!

Daneway Banks consists of limestone grassland that is carefully managed by the Wildlife Trusts, to support the Large Blue butterfly, which of course has the side effect of supporting lots of other wildlife too. It is up a steep bank and looked stunning today in the sunshine, with wildflowers and butterflies galore!

Apart from the chatter of excited would-be Large Blue spotters, the predominant sound for me was the chirruping of grasshoppers. There must be hundreds there judging by the noise, which I love – it is one of the true sounds of summer for me.

So two whole posses of us set off in search of the Large Blue. There is quite a camaraderie about going out with a bunch of people all interested in seeing the same thing! Over the day we saw about 13 species in total, but initially the Large Blue remained elusive. But there were other blues to tempt our fancy. There were several Common Blues, including this particularly tatty one.

Small Blues were also reasonably common, although very difficult to get a decent shot of.

While we searched for our elusive target we saw plenty of beautiful orchids, which at least don’t fly off! Most were these ones (possibly Common Spotted Orchids).

There were a few of these pretty purple ones, which I think may be Pyramidal Orchids?

We spotted this one perfect white one – not sure if it was a different species or just a colour variant.

Prize of the day went to this Bee Orchid though – absolutely gorgeous and unlike any we’d seen before.

But back to the butterflies – Meadow Browns & Marbled Whites were present in abundance, but none would pose for a photo. This Ringlet and Small Heath were more agreeable to it, although still a bit flighty.

Chris and I eventually spotted a blue butterfly that looked larger than the rest. It flew off towards another enthusiast who was much more knowledgeable than us and confirmed it was indeed a Large Blue. All three of us set off after it, joined by others as we hurried, only to lose it over a grassy bank. But at least we’d seen one, so that was progress!

Eventually we saw Andy – the group leader – waving us over. Unbelievably a mating pair of Large Blues had been found! Chris and I hurried over to join the excited throng. None of us wanted to get too close to disturb the loved up pair, but we did manage to take some photos at least. So here are our Large Blues.

We saw a couple more Large Blues over the next hour, but despite our spirited pursuits, none stopped long enough to be photographed. So unfortunately we never got a shot of one with its wings open  – perhaps that’s something for next time.

As we headed back towards the entrance though, Chris managed to grab a shot of one of the Large Skippers we’d been seeing all morning.

But the final surprise came right near the end – Chris spotted a Green Hairstreak! I didn’t believe him at first, but sure enough there it was –  a very definitely green butterfly.

I’d say seeing the Green Hairstreak was the perfect end to the trip, but actually the cold drink in the very nice pub (Daneway Inn), finished off a boiling hot day just perfectly too.

So we’ve bagged our 42nd species of butterfly and one of the most interesting ones to boot! Huge thanks to Butterfly Conservation Gloucestershire for letting us midlanders tag along. I hadn’t really dared hope that we’d ever see a Large Blue, but to see a mating pair is simply amazing. Fingers crossed it was a successful union and that Daneway Banks is blessed with many more generations of blues to come!

 

 

 

 

30 Days Wild – Day 16 – Plant Pots for Pollinators

It’s Day 16 of 30 Days Wild and this evening I’ve been Planting a Pot for Pollinators. This isn’t just me randomly planting up a pot with more flowers, but part of a nationwide scheme to encourage people to do their bit for pollinating bees, hoverflies and butterflies etc.

It’s being organised by the Butterfly Conservation Society – for more information go to: http://www.plantpotsforpollinators.org The aim is simple – to get as many people as possible to plant up at least one pot in their garden with flowers that are good for our insect pollinators.

If you go to their website you can download instructions, but basically all you need is a big pot, some peat-free compost and some flowers. There’s a list of 6 suggestions – calendula, catmint, cosmos, French marigolds, Shasta daisies and dahlias (but only the single flowered varieties as these have pollen that is easy for the bees to get at).  You can of course choose others, provided they are good for pollinators.

Of the 6, I bought, Cosmos (left), French marigolds and a Dahlia – all of which had bees on in the garden centre when I bought them – a good sign! I also supplemented these with some wildflower plants that I’d had sitting waiting to plant on for a while – Verbena bonariensis, Anthemis and Achillea.

 

It only took 5 minutes to fill the pot with compost and stick the 6 plants in. With hindsight I could probably have squeezed a couple more in and I may well do so at the weekend. Even if I don’t buy more, hopefully those that are there will bush out to fill the pot up a bit more. Hopefully the mix of different colours and shapes will attract a variety of pollinating insects.

So here is the (sort of) finished article, nothing fancy, but hopefully the bees will appreciate it. Ideally I would have liked to include some photos of insects actually on the pot, but since I did this after work, it was getting a bit late and there was not much buzzing about. Assuming I get something on them, I will add more photos when I can.

Having planted a pot, the website encourages you to plot your pot on their map. Butterfly Conservation hope to cover the UK in pots for pollinators. So being a good citizen scientist, I plotted my pot on the map. It is reassuring to see that ours isn’t the only one in Worcestershire!

Of course our garden being a weedfilled paradise for insects, you could argue that it didn’t really need another pot of flowers for pollinators. But you can never have too many, so why not? And by participating in a scheme like this, we are hopefully helping to spread the good word.

 

 

30 Days Wild – Day 15 – Mother’s Day

It’s Day 15 of 30 Days Wild and once again my plans for today’s theme took an unexpected turn. I had intended to do a review of the wildlife picked up on my trail cam that I’d left in my Dad’s garden overnight. His garden is packed with wildlife, but typically none of it chose to walk in front of the trail camera in the last 24 hours. However yesterday at Dad’s I’d found a little sketching notebook belonging to my Mum. One of the Random Acts of Wildness suggestions for 30 Days Wild is to “Unleash Your Inner Artist”. Well I’m not sure I’ve got an inner artist, but my Mum certainly had. I’d been thinking about her paintings on Day 12 of 30 Days Wild, when I’d taken a photo of a view with flowers in front which reminded me of her.  Then to cap it all I watched Springwatch tonight which had a couple of features from the Scilly Isles. My parents loved the Scillies and Mum painted a lot there. So today’s Act was reconnecting me with my Mum’s paintings and the Scilly Isles and through them with my mother herself.

The notebook is full of little sketches and watercolours of flowers. They are all just simple little pictures, intended I presume to jog her memory for the details when she later wanted to paint full paintings. But to me they are beautiful in their own right.

There is more to so many of them though than just a flat picture of a flower. She drew or painted them from different angles, front and back, to get the feel for the whole plant not just the obvious view.

She painted them in full flower in bud, clearly realising that in any natural group of flowers, they don’t all open at the same time.

Although not a great gardener, she clearly knew the names of a lot of the plants. The artist in her noted the subtle colour differences.

Mum made notes about the arrangements of the leaves around the stems and how they changed with age, which way they faced and how the group together might form a mound.

So many of them are dated, it looks like she was using this notebook in the early 1990s. Sometimes places were named too; my parents always went to the Scilly Isles in May, so even if it doesn’t always say, I can guess some of those dated May were painted there.

This is one of my favourite completed paintings – not taken from the notebook, but hanging on my wall. It is the view from Bryher looking across the water to Tresco. It may only look like a simple watercolour, but if you’ve ever been to the Isles of Scilly I reckon it would conjure up the view perfectly.

I know I am biased but I think Mum was rather good. Looking through her notebook and seeing not only her sketches, but her familiar handwriting and thinking of her and Dad on the Scilly Isles together was quite emotional.

It struck me looking through Mum’s notebook, that she had made these little sketches as an artist, but they could equally have been done by a botanist. Her eye for the details of the plant and the notes she made would have been perfectly at home in a naturalist’s notebook. As a child I was always interested in animals and nature and Mum was always very encouraging; but what hadn’t occurred to me until tonight was that I didn’t just get supported by her, maybe I got it all from her in the first place? So tonight’s post is for you Mum – thank you for everything. xxx

30 Days Wild – Day 9 – Factory Fields

Day 9 of 30 Days Wild and it’s Friday night! As I was working again today, I needed something to do after work. As I’d already looked at some of the wildlife around my work (Clee Hill), I decided to meet up with Chris and we’d have a look around his workplace in Malvern instead. He works at a factory on a business park, which may not sound too promising, but actually has an amazing variety of wildlife. Chris often takes the camera to work and comes back with all sorts of exciting finds (gold crests, nesting woodpeckers, White Letter Hairstreak butterflies to name just a few).

Of course it was about 6pm by the time I got there – not ideal, but still plenty of wildlife around. The factory is set in large grounds, bordered by a small wood. There are several large mounds of excavated earth that have been left to go wild and look like great habitats.

The first thing we noticed in abundance was Harlequin ladybirds, both adults and larvae.  There were several colour morphs of the adults, including the two below. I know Harlequins are the bad boys of the ladybird world, but it’s hard not to like their cheery little bodies.

There were also lots of clumps of frothy cuckoo spit – the home of froghoppers. I don’t know which species as I didn’t want to destroy their home just to find out. The frothy mass acts not only as insulation/water retention, but hides them from predators as well.

Despite it being relatively late in the day, there were loads of bees about. The factory has lots of wild areas still, with brambles, wild roses, red dead nettles and assorted other wildflowers.  All were buzzing with bees.

The bees and ladybirds weren’t the only insects we found. Once you get your eye in, they are of course everywhere. Many of the wild roses had small beetles in the centre, as did the thistles (albeit different types of beetle).

There was a patch of large daisy like flowers, many of which had beautiful green bugs resting in them.

And at the less glamorous end of the insect spectrum you can always find aphids! They actually look much better and far more interesting viewed close up like this.

Lots of birds were audible in the woods nearby, but the only ones we saw well enough to get even half decent pics, were a wagtail and a thrush. The thrush didn’t turn round, so I’m not sure if it was a Mistle or a Song Thrush.

We did get a tantalising glimpse of some kind of bird of prey, just as we were leaving. We may not have got a photo, but it’s good to know that the fields around the factory support enough wildlife that they attract not just us, but a bird of prey too!