Posted in nature

False Autumn

It might be the start of meteorological autumn but it’s still too early for leaves to start falling from trees; yet over the past few weeks this has been occurring. Referred to as false autumn, this leaf (and acorn) drop is occurring as a result of the extreme temperatures and drought we’ve experienced this year. It is a sign of stress as trees attempt to conserve water and energy. Current lower morning temperatures have also lead to an autumnal feeling. Thankfully we are now experiencing rainfall so perhaps this will prevent trees from showing further signs of stress even though it doesn’t stop us being in drought. Hopefully autumnal colour won’t be affected too much and we will still witness the spectacular seasonal colours this year.

A couple of weeks ago my partner and I went for a walk to spot Saturn ascending in the sky at dusk; we visited the local woodland park. At nine o’clock, on one of the hottest days of the year, the temperature was quite pleasant. As we walked through the woodland to an open area, where we could view the planet, we got to experience bats flying close by (the following videos is of some footage I managed to obtain).

Without a Bat detector, I have no way of correctly identifying the species out of the 18 that roost in the UK. According to the information I found on the Hertfordshire and Middlesex Bat Group website, the ones we most likely encountered in the area are either the Common Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) or Soprano Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus). Regardless of the species, just experiencing the creatures flying nearby to capture insects was amazing. I haven’t witnessed bats in fight since I was a child.

It’s still possible to see some butterflies and bees at this time of year so late year flowering plants are essential.

A Common carder bee visiting a group of Aster flowers.

White tailed bumblebees (Bombus lucorum), Buff tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris), Red tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius), Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) and even some Honey bees (Apis mellifera) still forage in September. The Butterfly Conservation charity produced a photo (see below) of common butterflies and moths to see at this time of year.

During the previous week I was still noticing several Hummingbird hawk moths (Macroglossum stellatarum) too. These moths have been quite prevalent this year.

On one occasion I managed to get a video of a Hummingbird hawk moth visiting a Buddleia.
Posted in Allotment, nature

Very Very Hot Summer Days

Within the past month the temperature has reached the highest on record in the UK at 40.2 Celsius. Here in the south, rain still evades us leading to hosepipe bans in some counties. Plus as I write this blog another heatwave begins. While the parched grass will recover once rain eventually falls, and some insects may benefit from these conditions, this drought is not good for nature in general (including humans due to amber and red heat warnings for health issues and fires). We need to use resources more thoughtfully and manage the land better so that nature (to me humans are part of nature not separate from it) isn’t placed under unnecessary pressure due to extreme weather conditions anymore.

Most wildlife isn’t adapted to this current weather and certainly has no chance against wild fires, especially Badgers (Meles meles) and Hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus– whose numbers have been in decline for many years for other reasons too). Even birds with second broods will be finding these times difficult; that is why it’s so important to place water sources at both ground level and higher up for birds and Hedgehogs at this time. Plus insects like Butterflies and Bees suffer when flowers start to whither early due to water shortage. Nature can recover from the odd hot dry year but unfortunately this is a trend, year on year, due to climate change so we need to be concerned and act now. Stephen Moss has written a wonderful article regarding this issue recently, it can be read here.

Given the information from the article mentioned above, it will be interesting to see how this prolonged drought will affect the results of the Big Butterfly Count this year (which took place from the 15th July to the 7th August) and consequently next years results too.

I have undertaken a few counts this year. The first time I looked out for Butterflies was on a warm afternoon, in a garden containing a Buddleia along with some Lavender (Lavandula) and Mint (Mentha) that was flowering. During that time, I identified;
5 Red admirals (Vanessa atalanta)
5 Commas (Polygonia c-album)
2 Peacock (Aglais io)
5 Gate keepers (Pyronia tithonus)
1 Meadow brown (Maniola jurtina)
2 Small tortoishell (Aglais urticae)
together with 1 Hummingbird Hawkmoth (Macroglossum stellatarum). The Hummingbird Hawkmoth is fascinating. I have observed two individuals visiting Buddleia this year in different gardens that I work at. It is so amazing to watch it collect nectar as it hovers next to flowers.

On separate occasions (at the previously mentioned garden) I also noticed a Large skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus) and a Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus) too. That garden also has an allotment attached to it where I got to observe the full lifecycle of a ladybird on one bean plant (thanks to the Blackfly being present). On this occasion it was the Harlequin (Harmonia axyridis) ladybird.

Larvae (on the right, looking for Blackfly to munch on) and on the left a pupae (from which the adult emerges).
An adult Harlequin ladybird.

My second Butterfly Count was during a morning as I picked Blackberries (Rubus) at the local woodland park, where I saw
5 Gatekeepers, 1 Speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) and 1 Small copper (Lycaena phlaeas).

Speckled wood
Small copper

The Small copper is one I had never seen before. It is a small butterfly with a wingspan of 32-35mm. The caterpillars feed on Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa), Sheep’s Sorrel (R. acetosella) and sometimes the Broad-leaved Dock (R. obtusifolius). They can be found in heath, moor and grassland together with woodland clearings or on waste ground.

At my allotment I have seen lots of Cabbage whites, along with the odd Peacock and Small tortoishell as well as a small blue Butterfly (that never settled so I was unable to identify it properly but was most likely a Holly blue- Celastrina argiolus). Thankfully I have also noticed plenty of bees during my butterfly observations, including honey, bumblebees and solitary bees.

Lughnasadh (also known as Lammas) a time when harvests begin to be ready for picking, occurred at the beginning of August. During this time I love to wander through natural environments, spending time observing the changes of the seasons. On my walk the previous weekend I observed Sloes (from Blackthorn- Prunus spinosa) and Elderberries (from Elder- Sambucus) already ripening alongside the Blackberries.

I must confess that I often struggle to enjoy the hottest days of summer. To me extremely hot temperatures are often overwhelming and I would love nothing better than to hibernate underground during the hottest times. I find the days exhausting and uncomfortable (due to the constant itchiness and sore skin). At these moments I rely on my mental strength to keep in mind that ‘this too shall pass’. I also try to remind myself that I love the changing seasons, including summer, and all they bring with them. Gratitude helps as each day I look for the little things that bring me joy such as the shining sun, the amazingly beautiful wildlife around me and the cooler night time temperatures. So until the heat reduces significantly I will keep taking things slowly, keep hydrated, take plenty of rest and be kind to myself. I am under no pressure to get things done at this time which is why this post took so long to complete.

Posted in Allotment, nature

The Long Wait

I have been watching a wild flower grow, in the small garden that I look after in front of my flat. Initially unable to identify it (as I didn’t recognise the foliage) I patiently waited throughout autumn and winter to see what emerged. Then in late spring it developed stalks and flowerheads enabling me to see it was a Field scabious- (Knautia arvensis).

This perennial is blooming now. Bees are loving the flowers.

Field scabious is usually found in places such as grassland, meadows, grassy verges and hedgerows. This self set is obviously enjoying similar conditions in my little plot; thriving in an area against a brick wall with dry, partially shady conditions. It is wonderful to see it attract so many beneficial insects so am happy for it to remain where it is.

The allotment is coming on leaps and bounds. The strawberries (which rarely make it home) were a sweet reward as I watered daily through the recent heatwave and continue to ripen. The Blackflies on the Broad beans were eventually joined by seven spot (Coccinella septempunctata) and Harlequin (Harmonia axyridis) ladybirds, together with lots of their larvae; proof that if you leave pests, predators will appear to deal with them; nature really is wonderful.

The recent higher temperatures have encouraged butterflies to fly around. Lately I have seen Small tortoishells (Aglais urticae), Peacocks (Aglais io), Marbled whites (Melanargia galathea) and Speckled woods (Pararge aegeria).

Also on one sunny day last week, while eating lunch outside, I heard a bird song that I didn’t recognise. I recorded it on the Chirp-o-matic app (the name makes me think of Wallace and Gromit) to discover that it was a Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella). The rhythm and length of notes makes it sound like they’re saying ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’. In fact this phrase is used by birders to identify it by the song alone and can be heard on the RSPB website.

Unfortunately I couldn’t see the bird which was a shame as I would have loved to see its yellow plumage. Part of the bunting family, both males and females have yellow colouring mixed with some brown (the males can be distinguished as they are more vibrant). These birds are currently on the red list for UK conservation status and therefore
Protected by The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Found on farmland, they
eat seeds, insects, worms, caterpillars, spiders and snails and weigh in at about 25-36g weight (a similar size to a sparrow).

To encourage yellowhammer numbers, the RSPB has produced information for farmers so they can take action to help these birds; However the actions can be applied by anyone living near farmland, and can be found here.

Posted in nature

Deer in Bluebell Woods

It was lovely to have a week off a few weeks ago. On one day I spent time walking around a Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) wood with my partner. The sun shone through the deciduous trees giving a beautiful dappled light; perfect conditions for both Bluebells and Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) which bloom at the same time (sometimes together) in deciduous woods during May. However on our walk we only saw bluebells. I have come across Wild garlic before though. It is important not to confuse Wild garlic with Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) before these plants bloom, as they have similar foliage and while Wild garlic is edible, Lily-of-the-valley is poisonous.

Blooms of Wild garlic are like all from the Alium family; completely different to the tiny bell shaped flowers of Lily-of-the-valley.

Once in bloom, Wild garlic is clearly identifiable (as shown above), plus it has a clear garlicky aroma when it is disturbed. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked (blanched and eaten on their own like spinach or used as an ingredient). The flowers (wonderful for pollinators) are also edible and can be used in salads. An example of a recipe found on the Woodland trust website can be found here (together with information on responsible foraging). Wild garlic is one plant used to identify ancient woodland, with damp chalky soil, as it takes a long time to establish itself in great quantity.

Also along the walk, a male Tawny (Strix aluco) owl could be heard in the distance. Plus, on one Oak (Quercus) tree a Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) was seen moments before it hid on the far side of the trunk. As we watched closely, we noticed a couple of Tree creepers (Certhia familiaris) too. These birds were climbing as well as flying to and from a hole left from where a branch had snapped away from the trunk. Presumably they had a nest there and were finding spiders and insects to feed their young. I was engrossed as I watched them for some time. Unfortunately the Woodpecker never returned into view but I thanked it for showing us the Tree creepers.

Around the edges of the woodland (near some fields) lots of ferns were unfurling. It was lovely to notice a Click beetle (Athous haemorrhoidalis) resting on a frond.

About 15mm in length, these beetles can be found in May through to August, amongst headgerows and in meadows. Their young larvae eat roots which means this insect can become a pest on root crops in this country. They received their common name due to the noise they make as they flick themselves into the air to upright themselves if they ever land on their backs (unfortunately we didn’t witness this).

As we were leaving, we eventually saw two Fallow deer (Dama dama). Even though deer are difficult to spot due to their cautious nature, I was hoping to see some on our walk (they are common in the area we visited). It was so amazing to have witnessed them eating, completely unaware of our presence. Fallow deer eat trees, grass, flowers, shrubs and brambles.

Another deer I have seen, in woodlands attached to gardens where I work, are Muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi). Both Fallows and Muntjacs were introduced into the UK from Asia and thrive in the UK. Deer can be seen as a nuisance if they enter gardens, however information on wildlife friendly ways to keep them away, the height of fencing required as well as deer resistant plants can be found on the RHS website, along with the British Deer Society .

Posted in Allotment, nature

What’s up Buttercup?

With May finally here, spring is now in full swing. Lots of things are growing on the allotment from seedlings to fruit, even the Rhubarb is almost ready to pick.

During a woodland walk, on the Easter weekend, I observed the first Speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) butterfly of the year. Plus local ornamental Cherry trees (Prunus) began their spectacular show at the same time; later joined by the flowers of the Hawthorn (Crataegus) , Rowan (Sorbus) and Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum).

Over the last few weeks, more wildflowers have started to bloom, including Buttercups (Ranunculus), Stitchwort (Stellaria), Ground-ivy (Glechoma hederacea) Honesty (Lunaria annua) and Hedge garlic (Alliaria petiolata) along with Cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis).

Cuckoo flower

Another butterfly that began to emerge recently is the Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines). Hedge garlic and Cuckoo flower are important food sources for Orange-tip caterpillars, so it is lovely to think these butterflies will be laying eggs on the plants I’ve noticed to ensure future generations; the verge not being mown, allowing both plants to develop, enabling this.

The ‘No mow May’ campaign is back this year. Encouraging us to avoid mowing lawns in order to encourage a wide variety of wildflowers to bloom (including rare ones), thus increasing the availability of pollen and nectar for pollinators as they start to emerge (along with helping butterfly populations, as discussed above). After several years of this campaign together with the every flower counts survey, improvements in wildflower growth have been recorded, as people report their sightings taken at this time.
An article from the Plantlife charity discusses their findings in more detail here.

Even leaving the humblest of flowers to flower on lawns, like Dandelions (Taraxacum), Daisies (Bellis perennis) and Buttercups helps.

Posted in Allotment, nature

Slugs and Snails

What a mixed bag of weather we’ve had in the UK recently. It seems strange experiencing the current dry, warm weather given the snow, frost and april showers we had during the previous weeks.

Deciduous trees are turning green, as leaves unfurl and wildflowers continue to bloom. Snake’s-head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris), Speedwells (Veronica), White Dead-nettle (Lamium album), Red Dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum), Yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon), Forget-me-nots (Myosotis) and Cowslips (Primula veris) are all flowering at the moment, with English Blubells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) beginning to open up too.

Dainty Cowslips found on a verge.

Last week I caught a glimpse of a blue butterfly, my first sighting of the year, most likely a Holly blue (Celastrina argiolus). I also found another Red kite (Milvus milvus) feather as I worked last Tuesday (see below).

Even Tadpoles have begun to emerge, including in the pond we have near our plot on the allotment; hopefully they will help keep the slug and snail numbers down this year.

Slugs and snails have been in the news a lot this month because the Metaldehyde slug pellets ban has finally come into force in the UK. Perhaps we could view these creatures in a different way, after all they do good in nature; we can’t blame them going for an easy meal of soft tender leaves which just happen to be our prized plants. Interestingly only a small number of the 44 species in the UK are responsible for the damage we experience in gardens while the others feed on dead organic matter. I read an interesting article by Dr Andrew Salisbury, from the RHS, in The Guardian on this subject.

On my allotment I find wool pellets, copper barriers and cloches are helpful; along with growing seedlings on in pots before planting them out. Transplanting larger, stronger plants is better as they are able to withstand any damage, I also spend time collecting slugs and snails from hidden damp dark places and moving them to an area far away where they will cause less damage to crops. Encouraging predators (frogs, toads, hedgehogs, birds, slow worms (Anguis fragilis) and ground beetles) is always a great idea too, along with not having areas for them to hide near vulnerable plants.

A biological control that can be used, for slugs only, are Nematodes (Phasmarhabditis hermaphrodita). Watered into the ground these eventually kill the slugs as they infect them with bacteria once they’ve entered the slugs body. I have never gone for this option as I find the other measures suffice.

The other option is to grow plants which slugs and snails do not eat. Ones I’ve noticed they avoid include Ajuga, Aquilegia, Digitalis, Fuchsia, Geum Penstemon and Pulmonaria (further examples can be found on the internet).

Posted in nature

Worm Moon Shining

The full moon in March, is commonly named the Worm moon in the UK as it coincides with the appearance of worm casts. Worm casts begin to appear as the soil warms up enabling worm activity on the top layers of soil. They are often the bain of those who love prestine lawns but easily dealt with by raking, to break them up before mowing (thus preventing small bare soil patches that encourages wild flower and moss growth). However, apart from this slight inconvenience for some, obviously worms are hugely beneficial creatures in nature. They help create a healthy soil ecosystem, aid the decomposition of organic matter, improve soil structure and increase available nutrients for plants.

In the UK there are 27 species of earthworm, which can be categorised into three types, Anecic, Endogeic and Epigeic. The latter are surface dwellers which breakdown vegetation lying on the ground. These small, usually red worms (or stripey in the case of Tiger worms- Eisenia fetida) are often seen in composts. The other two types of worm burrow. The most commonly seen in gardens are the Anecic worms (which pull leaves down into the soil). These large reddish brown worms are responsible for worm casts in lawns and burrow vertically while the paler coloured Endogeic worms burrow horizontally and live further down in the soil.  More information on earthworms can be discovered here on the Earthworm Society website.

Another notable date that occurred last week on the astronomical calender (in the northern hemisphere) was the Spring equinox. The moment in March when day and night length are equal and officially the first day of spring.  (Meteorologically this already occurred on the first of the month). Whichever date you prefer to observe as it’s start, Spring has definitely arrived here in the UK.

Nature seemed to celebrate the arrival of Spring with several days of unseasonably warm weather, together with the appearance of more butterflies, with Peacocks (Aglais io), Commas (Polygonia c-album) and yet more Brimstones (Gonepteryx rhamni) fluttering about, together with lots more bumblebees. So far I have seen lots of Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) and a few Red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius). Even Seven-spot ladybirds (Coccinella septempunctata) came out of hiding last week.

More trees are blossomimg too. Magnolias, Camellias, Forsythia, Gorse (Ulex) and Willows (Salix) are flowering now, joining the Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). Plus yellow and green carpets of Lesser Celendine (Ficaria verna) have been popping up everywhere.

Posted in nature

An Interaction with a Blackbird

I can’t believe March has arrived already. Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), Sweet violet (Viola odorata) and Daffodils are in full bloom.

It wasn’t so long ago that we had the stormy weather and Snowdrops were at their best; the year seems to be advancing in leaps and bounds now.

The temperature last Thursday reached 16°C which encouraged butterflies to flutter about. I noticed several Brimstones (Gonepteryx rhamni) as well as the Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) below.

A Red admiral feeding from a Daphne, a delight for the senses, both visual and aroma.

Along with these beautiful sightings, there were a couple of amazing nature experiences that particularly stood out over the past few weeks.

The first was due to the recent storms. While clearing up tree debris a few days later, I found a Red kite (Milvus milvus) feather which had blown to the ground. I have since added it to my version of a nature table (a vintage printing tray) along with my other treasure finds.

I love the shape, colour and pattern of this Red kite feather.

The second took place last Wednesday. While carefully tidying up another garden, to allow for the new spring growth which is already appearing, I noticed a young male Blackbird (Turdus merula) following and closely foraging next to me, just like Robins (Erithacus rubecula) often do in gardens. At one point, it appeared to watch me as I worked (seemingly unphased as I kept my movements to a minimum, so as to not alarm him). Eventually it moved further away but started to make a low repetitive ‘pok pok’ call, at both me and my colleague who was a short distance away (presumably thinking we were predators). This interactive experience was particularly moving; I am used to Robins being close by and making themselves known but never a Blackbird before. The call I heard the blackbird make can be heard on the Sussex Wildlife Trust website.

Posted in nature

Patience is a Virtue

February has a duality to it; on one hand plants have begun to bloom (bringing the excitement of Spring around the corner) while on the other, the weather reminds us that it’s still Winter and we must be patient for a little longer. Last week three storms arrived, including Eunice with high strength winds leading to rare red weather warnings for wind and floods in the Bristol channel area and South East (with the after effects still being experienced in other areas of the UK). Bad weather usually arrives in February, in fact last year we had snow.

However, while nature continues at its own pace, Spring activities still occur earlier as decades pass. I read an article by Miranda Bryant in the Guardian recently regarding indicators of Spring, flowering and bird activities, occuring earlier since 1987. Pre 1987 plants flowered a month later than they did between that year and 2019 (In fact this was particularly evident in 2019 and yet again in 2020). The Woodland Trust’s Natures calender also shows this trend. The article can be accessed in the following link- The Guardian .

It is too early to notice any indication of patterns in this blog yet, although one thing I have witnessed this year, not seen before are daisies appearing in lawns already.

Other cultivated plants that have begun to bloom in gardens, as usual at this time of year are:

Anemone blanda
Cyclamen and
Iris reticulata
Posted in Bookworm review, nature

February Arrives

As another month rolls on, an initial glance may suggest that nothing is changing. Bare trees and quiet gardens with cold weather still nipping at fingertips and noses still persist, while sunny days bring glorious colourful skies.

A stripey sunset.

However, upon closer inspection small changes can be seen. The striking yellow of Winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) as well as delicate Early crocuses (Crocus tommasinianus) are beginning to bloom alongside the snowdrops (Galanthus).

The tiny red female flowers of Hazels (Corylus) have opened joining the male catkins. Plus, Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) buds are ready to burst open (in fact on one walk, I saw a single flower already blooming).

I even witnessed a Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) visit a flowering Mahonia on one sunny day; clearly making use of the milder weather before sheltering once again.

However the main focus of my attention, over the past few weeks, have been birds.

In one garden, I discovered a lovely little nest, from the previous year, in a shrub. Upon investigation I discovered it was either a Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) or Greenfinch (Chloris chloris) nest (most likely the former); it can be seen below.

I also saw a Lesser spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos minor) perched on a tall tree in the distance. I was able to follow the sound of the drumming to watch it move around the trunk before flying off. Given the length of drumming and location of the red on it’s crown I was able to identify it as a male Lesser spotted woodpecker.

Then later in the week, while pruning roses, I watched a Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) forage around the base of a hedge; I managed to film it briefly before it disappeared fully into the undergrowth.

I am currently reading ‘The Wren: A biography’ by Stephen Moss.

This charity shop find is a fascinating read. Chapters are set out month by month, each concentating on an aspect of a Wrens life. Included alongside facts about the Wren, are their involvement in human history, culture, literature, art and folklore together with beautiful illustrations. The chapter entitled February, for example, focuses on courtship and population. As with other books written by this author, such as ‘The Robin’, this book is definitely worth emmersing yourself in.

Lastly, once again I partook in the Big Garden Birdwatch. My results this year were-
7 Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris),
4 Magpies (Pica pica),
2 Bluetits (Cyanistes caeruleus),
2 Blackbirds (Turdus merula)- a male and female,
2 Wood pigeons (Columba palumbus),
1 Dunnock (Prunella modularis) as well as a Carrion crow (Corvus corone).

Although there weren’t any major surprises in what I saw, it was lovely that the Dunnock made an appearance (usually I only get to hear them). However the Red Kite (Milvus milvus), Ring-necked parakeets (Psittacula krameri), Great tit (Parus major) and Robin (Erithacus rubecula), that I regularly observe, all decided to have a lie in the previous weekend, most only making an appearance once my chosen hour had ended.