Bumper berries, thrushes and stinks

Bumper berries, thrushes and stinks

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Apparently it’s been a great year for berries due to a warm, dry spring, followed by July and August rains.

On the local roadside slopes I’d noticed a huge spreading mat of red – which I believe is cotoneaster horizontalis! I’ve never seen it so noticeable everywhere before! Quite stunning!

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A good year for berries, is good news for birds. A couple of weeks ago I took an early Sunday walk over Seaford Head and was delighted to see not one but three different thrushes feasting on the harvest! This weekend too at Sheffield Park, there were plenty more thrushes feeding in the trees and shrubs!

The first was a beautiful song thrush, a native bird that has declined by 50% in the 25 years to  1995. I rarely spot a thrush and its always a welcome sight

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Continuing on my walk I spot a couple of redwings too. In my photos the red wing is not really visible but the marked eye stripe is unmistakeable. Redwings are generally Winter visitors, arriving in October/November so my redwings may have just arrived and be travelling north.

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The third one was a fieldfare, also a Winter migrant. Often seen in big chuckling flocks!

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On wet and cold November days it would be easy to get depressed about the onset of Winter but there are some advantages . We may have said goodbye for now to some birds such as these swallows busy feeding and preening before heading south..

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But the arrival of other birds such as the lovely redwings and fieldfares can only be a bonus. One day I also hope to spot some waxwings feasting on British berries too, in a supermarket carpark or wherever they descend! Bring on the berry eaters!

Not all berries are eaten by the birds. This beautiful one is stinking iris (iris foetidissima) I believe,  found in open woodland, hedges and on seacliffs. Also known as scarlet-berry Iris, Gladdon, Gladwin Iris, Roast-beef Plant, and Stinking Gladwin.  The names come from the smell of the sword-shaped leaves when they are crushed or bruised – a smell that is said to resemble rotten raw beef! The plant has a long history of medicinal use but can be rather powerful.

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Another advantage of the bare branches is that birds are getting rather easier to spot!

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I’ve spotted a couple of blackbirds back in my garden too! Hurrah for that, they have finally forgiven me for getting rid of the lawn. Possibly tempted in by the rather pitiful crop of crab apples, and the cotoneaster. As the wind blows and the rain falls, I’ll be filling up the bird feeders and watching out!

 

Sing a song of seasons!
Something bright in all!
Flowers in the summer,
Fires in the fall!

Autumn Fires

Robert Louis Stevenson
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If you go down to the woods today.. Falling, fluttering and flitting

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On Monday I took a walk along the South Downs way which goes through a golden leafed Friston Forest towards Litlington.. and on this sunny November day as I crunched through the fallen leaves, I still managed to spot some butterflies.

This speckled wood was still flitting around quite happily, settling on these fallen leaves! Velvety brown the spots are quite a bright cream colour.

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( 12 Speckled wood, pararge aegeria)

The first one I spotted this year was near Rye harbour, just as I was coming out of a bird hide. Another week in the Summer I took a walk from Falmer across to Ditchling, and where the path passed woodland, there were dozens of them, mostly chasing each other!

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The other thing I didn’t really expect to see was dragonflies (or perhaps damselflies?) They were flitting everywhere in the forest, and then there were dozens down in the rushes by the Cuckmere river.

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What a glorious spot it was. I sat on the river bank and enjoyed a snack at my half way point before I followed the river back to the coast, on an almost deserted path.

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The red admirals still seem to be everywhere at the moment, rushing around with their beautiful wings, far too busy to have their photo taken! The red admiral is a migrant to Britain and can be seen in many months of the year. Though some survive in this country, most arrive from continental Europe  from  May to early Autumn. In the 17th century some naturalists called it the “Admirable” rather than the Admiral.. and I can see why. It really is rather splendid with those scarlet markings.

One Summer day I went out for a walk spotting butterflies, and didn’t see any red admirals, but as I sat down in my living room later, one came right up to my window and on stopped my balcony to rest.. Thank you beauty.

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(13 Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta)

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      Oh, Autumn! why so soon
Depart the hues that make thy forests glad;
Thy gentle wind and thy fair sunny noon,
      And leave thee wild and sad!

 

Autumn Woods, by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

Faith in Flowers.. and a cure for scabs and arrow wounds

 

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One of my recent birthday presents was a book by Faith Anstey called Flowers in the Field. It’s just what I needed really to start at the beginning! There is no point having a huge reference book of wild flowers if you don’t know where to start. So I’m starting my botany at the beginning, and hopefully it will help me to identify at least some of the wonderful wild flowers I’ve seen this year!

The first lesson is the structure of the flower. So in lesson 1, I learned the following about this lovely common centaury. That as it has five petals it is a dicot, it has all round symmetry and that the yellow parts of the flower are the carpel (stigma, style and ovary) and the male Stamens (anther and filament)

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This primrose though having different leaves is also a dicot with all round symmetry but less obvious stamens.

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The lily is a lovely example of a monocot which has petals and sepals in multiples of three. Leaves are normally straight blade or simple oval shapes.

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Taking a closer look at a scabious flower from my garden, lets you clearly see the stamens with the anthers and the end of the filaments covered in pollen, where the bee is happily collecting it. I love to grow these in the garden, but have also spotted a number of wild ones over the Summer which are hopefully correctly identified!

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Devil’s bit scabious, (Succisa pratensis) at Cuckmere. This one is found in damp habitat, and is the main larval food of the declining Marsh Fritillary butterfly (sadly not spotted)

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Small scabious growing in short grassland near Crowlink, Seven Sisters

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Field scabious in meadows at  Lewes railway nature reserve

The name scabious appears to have come from this herb’s traditional usage as a folk medicine to treat scabies, caused by the plague. Indeed it appears to be an essential of the medicinal garden as my old copy of Culpeper’s complete herbal includes:

“Scabious is very effectual for all coughs, shortness of breath and all other diseases of the breast and lungs. The decoction of the herbs and roots outwardly applied doth wonderfully subdue all hard or cold swellings in any part of the body, is effectual for shrunk sinews or veins and healeth green wounds, old sores and ulcers. The decoction also cures running and spreading scabs, tetters, ringworms and the French pox. The juice cleanseth the skin and removeth freckles, pimples, morphew and leprosy. The herb bruised and applied doth in a short term draw forth any splinter, broken bone or arrow head from the flesh!”

Useful to know. I’ll remember that, next time I’m shot with an arrow while out flower spotting.

 

 

 

Still chasing the blues – searching for my adonis!

 

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I was still on the hunt for the Adonis Blue. I read somewhere that Malling Down was a good place to try, so I took a chance, and decided to spend my Monday off walking from Glynde over to Lewes via Mount Caburn and Malling Down. I’d not been up this way for a number of years.

It was not an encouraging start. Drizzle all the way up Mount Caburn and very little wildlife in view except a few sodden sheep. I reached the top and headed north and into Southerham nature reserve. It’s perfect butterfly habitat rich with wild flowers, if only the sun would come out and warm a few butterfly wings. The best I could find were a few moths and a beautiful lacewing in the meadows.

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galium carpet moth

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common carpet moth

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lacewing

I backtracked, trying my best to avoid the golf course where I always seemed to end up dodging golf balls, and carried on around the hill. I ended up rounding the back hill on a path that turned into sheep trails that seemed to get steeper and wilder as I went on! I disturbed a number of pheasants which flew off in noisy protest and also watched a bird of prey (probably a buzzard) hunting in the fertile grassland. It was still gloomy and drizzly and I ate my sandwich walking along.  I eventually came to the edge of a chalk pit, which looked very promising butterfly spotting ground down below (in fact I could see a couple of likely butterfly spotters and their cameras!) However it looked like a steep descent and  I really wanted to start heading back towards Lewes. So I took another path westwards. It’s always a bit difficult to work out exactly where you are on these nature reserves which are open access.  I suddenly came across a sheltered clearing, thick with wild marjoram and vetch, and there at last were some butterflies. Not just any butterflies, but blue butterflies including the one I was looking for!.

Looking at the books the Common blue and Adonis blue can look very similar. However in the field, my first Adonis blue took my breath away. There really is no doubt – what a brilliant blue it really is! Looking more closely, the distinctive black lines that stripe through the white margin and blue wings that also distinguish it. These lines are even visible on the side of the wings.

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Absolutely stunning. You can keep your Greek gods, I was very happy with my Adonis blue butterflies!

The path started a steep descent and I was soon back in a lane on my way back to Lewes to warm up in front of an afternoon film in the new cinema.

(11 Adonis Blue, polyommatus bellargus)

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Adonis – a divine figure in Greek mythology, portrayed as a beautiful youth and associated with fertility

I’m feeling good – searching for the blues

 

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What does the colour blue mean to you? To me it is a happy colour, of serene skies and calm azure seas, of peaceful lagoons and woods full of scented bluebells. It’s peaceful and relaxing colour. But if you are feeling blue.. you’re the opposite of happy. All those blues musicians sure have the blues!

The term “blues” may have come from “blue devils” meaning melancholy and sadness from a one-act farce “Blue Devils” in 1798 or from Britain in the 1600s when the term referred to the intense visual hallucinations that can accompany severe alcohol withdrawal.

When I was searching for the blues under the Summer skies, I was on the hunt for butterflies.

The common blue was satisfyingly common. At Seaford Head, Crowlink and the Seven Sisters I spotted a good many. Beautiful blue they are too when they finally stop long enough for you to take a look at them! The common blue is found in a wide variety of habitats and the male has a wonderful bright blue appearance.

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(9 Common blue, Polyommatus icarus)

The female is mostly brown, but the underside markings are similar (though remarkably like other several butterflies which can make identification tricky!) This (I think!) is a female common blue

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So once I was getting confident with my ID of the common blue, I was on the hunt for some different blues. The first one on my list was the chalkhill blue.

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(10 Chalkhill Blue, Polyommatus coridon)

Not surprisingly, this is a butterfly found on chalk and limestone downland which is the only habitat that supports the larval food plant, the horseshoe vetch. So the plan was to walk along the chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters and look out for the horseshoe vetch! Though there has been a long term decline of this butterfly, in the right sites, thousands can still be spotted.

The meadow fields between Crow Link and the South Downs way along the Seven Sisters was definitely one of the best places and in among the clouds of butterflies flying,  I finally managed to spot some sitting still long enough,  for me to get some photos and a positive ID!

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The male seen here on a fine scabious flower, has an underside that is a lot less colourful than the common blue. When open, the dark fringes of the males, make it clearly different to the common blue.

 

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The females are mostly brown and harder to spot.

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And a favourite picture of the little lovers together, this time at Malling Down. What a lovely pair

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To be continued…

Dragonfly out in the sun you know what I mean, don’t you know Butterflies all havin’ fun you know what I mean Sleep in peace when day is done that’s what I mean And this old world is a new world And a bold world for me It’s a new dawn It’s a new day It’s a new life For me

And I’m feeling good

Written by English composers Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse and recorded in 1965 by Nina Simone, and others!

Golden Brown, basking butterflies

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No not the dismal rather drab soggy brown of this Autumn because I’m still working through my photos the butterflies of Summer! To help me on my quest I invested in a rather nice book “Butterflies of Britain and Ireland by Michael Easterbrook” Apparently one of the first English books of English butterflies was compiled by Merrett in 1666 which included 21 species with obscure latin descriptions but no names. The collecting of butterflies as a hobby began at the end of the 17th century and the first names were given by a James Petiver.

The browns were a bit more tricky to learn. It took a while, but I think by the end of Summer I could tell my meadow browns from my gatekeepers as long as they weren’t flying off too quickly!

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The gatekeeper (sometimes known as the hedge brown) is generally a lovely bright orange and brown, in July there were quite a few around.

(4 Gatekeeper , pyronia tithonus)

When they are perched, its a little harder but it seems the double white eyespot is a bit of a giveaway. I think the one above is a male, which is a little smaller than the female with dark smudges of scent scales across the orange wing. The species was first described by Merrett in 1666

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So the other common one flying around is the meadow brown. This one is actually also bigger, so a good identifier in the field, though not so good once I get an image home and have nothing to compare it too. The male really is quite a dull brown, with a tiny eye spot.

(5 Meadow Brown, Maniola Jurtina)

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The female is a bit brighter. These butterflies are one of most common, often seen in large numbers. I spotted the most between Crowlink cottages and the South Down’s way, where the meadow fields were teeming with butterflies on a mid Summer stroll. Just an amazing sight, hundreds and hundreds of butterflies – most of them on the move!

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Another orange and brown one that I spotted a few times, is the tiny small copper, which favours warm dry sites such as downland and coastal dunes. In 1699 Petiver described it as the “small golden black spotted meadow butterfly”, or later the “small tortoiseshell”

 (6 Small copper, lycaena phlaeas)

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Another rather lovely orange and brown, is the Wall Brown, spotted once at Seaford head, and once on holiday on the Yorkshire coast. Once common, this butterfly has disappeared from much for central and Southern England. It loves to bask on walls, rocks and in this case bare earth! First described by Petiver as the Golden Marbled Butterfly with black eyes, then later the London Eye.

(7 Wall Brown, lasiommata megera)

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The last one of this group, seemed to become more common as the season went on. By September the Small Heath seemed to be only butterfly I spotted up Seaford Head. This tiny butterfly was surprisingly easy to capture with my camera, most obliging!

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(8 Small Heath, Coenonympha pamphilus)

I remember in the 80s that brown and orange seemed to be the height of fashion. We had brown wallpaper, and brown and orange curtains. Tasteful! It’s quite out of fashion now of course, but looking at these little beauties I can now quite see the appeal of the combination. It seems that brown is anything but boring.

“I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days – three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.” 
― 
John KeatsBright Star:

Friend or Foe, Pest or wildlife?

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(2 Holly Blue)

It’s a bit ironic really that a lot of gardeners see butterflies as a bonus, but caterpillars as a pest! We really can’t have one without the other! I was delighted to spot a holly blue butterfly in my garden, and if that means I’ve been hosting a few caterpillars on my variegated holly bush, then so be it (though with the number of birds coming in to feed at the nearby bird feeder at the moment, I wouldn’t like rate their chances!) Maybe if I was trying to grow cabbages, then I’d feel a bit differently!

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(3 Small white)

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Back in May a walk in at Cuckmere Haven I spotted lots of these striking caterpillars, in cocoons in the hedges. It’s taken me a while to work out an ID, but I think they are brown-tail moth caterpillars. These are found throughout Europe and in the UK mostly frequently in the south, especially by the coast. They feed on a variety of deciduous trees including hawthorn and blackthorn. The cocoons and caterpillars should not be handled or disturbed due to the stinging hairs that can cause skin reactions requiring medical treatment. The hairs can even become airbourne in strong winds causing a hazard in public places, as a result of which many councils will deal with an “infestation”.  Anyhow I found them rather fascinating. I believe the stinging hairs also act as an excellent defence against predators such as birds!

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Another day, another caterpillar on its favourite plant, and this time it’s the plant that’s the baddie. What a beautiful beast this is, the cinnabar moth! Just stunning, with those tiger stripes and gorgeous long hairs.

Newly hatched larvae feed from the underneath of ragwort leaves within the area of their old eggs. The larvae absorb toxic and bitter tasting alkaloid substances from the ragwort, and absorb them, becoming unpalatable themselves. The bright colours of both the larvae and the moths act as warning signs, so they are seldom eaten by predators, with the exception of cuckoos.

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The host plant, common ragwort is classified as a pest, but the moth caterpillars can quickly decimate a plant, working their way up from the bottom. I looked this week in the place I took these photos, and the ragwort was almost all gone!

Ragwort is one of five weeds specified by the UK’s Weeds Act 1959, which “requires landowners to take actions as may be necessary to prevent weeds from spreading”. The plant is toxic to horses and other grazing animals. Most animals avoid eating the plant, but if gets into dry hay, it can be eaten by the animals and can poison them. The plant has had a lot of bad press, encouraging the public to pull up this weed wherever it can. However the law does not require that the plant is removed, only that an order may be issued to remove the weed. In fact if members of the public walking across land, do pull up the plants, they are breaking the law that states it is illegal to uproot any wildflower. This is only legal if carried out by the landowner, occupier, someone authorised by them, or a specified official. In any case pulling up the plant is unlikely to prevent it coming back.

Common ragwort (senecio jacobaea) is hugely beneficial to wildlife, providing a home and food source to at least 77 species of insects. Thirty of these use ragwort exclusively as their food source! Of these, seven are officially deemed as scarce. Species depending on this plant include the cinnabar moth, picture winged fly and the Sussex Emerald moth.

So celebrate our ragwort, and our wildlife! It certainly brightened my day!

The ragworts, growing up so straight,
Are emperors who stand in state,
And march about, so proud and bold,
In crowns of fairy-story gold.

Francis Darwin Cornford

Another plant I spotted at the edge of the water in the Cuckmere valley, looked just like the fennel I grow at home, but there was no smell. I’m pretty sure this is wild parsnip (pastinaca sativa).

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Again this plant is very important to the insect life that feeds off it. This plant (like many others) has sap that can cause a skin rash and cause sensitivity to sunlight. It would be advisable to wear gloves if handling it. A recent story in the Eastbourne news featured a four year old that had bad blisters caused by picking the flowers for his grandmother. The grandmother wanted to warn others about the dangers of this plant as “other children may pick it”.

Fair enough, but I would like to add to that.. please do not let your children pick wild flowers. Some sting, some have thorns that can hurt you, some have sap that will irritate, some will have been contaminated by dogs and rodents and most (even the unfairly maligned ragwort) are very precious. Leave them there in their place, for the wildlife that depend on them, and for the rest of us to enjoy. Thank you

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Ragwort thou humble flower with tattered leaves

I love to see thee come and litter gold…

Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields

The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn

So bright and glaring that the very light

Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn

And seems but very shadows in thy sight.

 

John Clare 1831