Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Benefits Of Saying Yes

Most of us, by nature, stay well within our comfort zones. We worry about what will happen if we don't. We worry about failing, looking stupid, being upset, getting nervous. It can take a huge amount of courage to do things we wouldn't normally do, and yet the benefits of stepping outside your comfort zone are so enormous that they easily outweigh the alternative- which is that nothing different happens at all.

I have decided, now I'm in my fifth decade (!)  to say YES to opportunities that present themselves, even if they are a wee bit scary. I don't want to reach my end days with regrets for things not done from lack of courage. It's good to push yourself, to do things outside your comfort zone, because if you don't, you never learn what you're capable of. It's healthy, see? Most of the time you come out smiling and your confidence raises a notch or two as a result. I always think: if other people can do it, then it can't be impossible, so I can do it too.

I'm toying with the idea of lecturing in conservation when I've finished my degree.

I often get mistaken for a teacher, which makes me smile. I figure the Universe is dropping hints, and I am listening.

To that end, I gave my first proper, solo, two hour lecture to the first years at college on Tuesday. It took me three days to prepare it and in the end I had a serviceable and reasonably thorough power point presentation on the Ecology of butterflies and moths, with life cycles, scientific terminology, flight seasons, larval food plants and IDs all listed. 

I learnt some new things while I was writing it. For instance: did you know that Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) make up 10% of all known described species in the world?


And did you know that a Blue Tit chick requires 100 caterpillars A DAY to survive? It's not uncommon to get 10 chicks in a nest- that's ONE THOUSAND CATERPILLARS A DAY!!!! SEVEN THOUSAND CATERPILLARS A WEEK!!! And that's just one nest!

I may have got slightly over enthused and amazed by those facts when I was telling the class about them.

Have you ever talked to a large group of people who are all sitting waiting to listen to what you have to say before? It's a strange experience.

It promotes adrenaline. It also apparently renders you incapable of producing certain words sensibly that you've spoken confidently for the entirety of your life. I blame my mate Harvey who calls 'Butterfly Conservation, Butterfly conversation, which is what I did. I've never called it that in my life before. In the end, I gave up trying to say it properly because the word just wouldn't come. I referred to it as BC after that instead, which worked, and everyone smiled. Mysteriously, I could say conservation perfectly well again afterwards. Funny thing, the Brain.

Murd Wuddling (see what I did there?) aside, I really enjoyed it. I had worried that I might not have enough information to fill two hours, and that the thirty students listening (ages 18 to late fifties or so) would be bored, that I might be monotone and mundane and dull to listen to. 
I'm used to talking to the public about flutters in an informal setting, and I did do a bit of in class teaching about the transect to this group a month ago, but that was only 40 mins, was mainly me showing them pictures and talking about the logistics of the transect and it was also shared with one of the senior lecturers. I have never given a two hour academic presentation by myself that was part of a degree course before. I tried not to think too much about that and just enjoy talking about what I love: fluttery folk and why they matter, and hoped to inspire 30 people to do likewise. 

And it seemed to work. There were questions, and answers, and some jokes, and suggestions, laughter in the right places, lots of writing down as I was talking, and even some offering of bits of knowledge from them too. There was a feeling of lightness in the class that doesn't always exist in lectures. I finished with an ID test and was amazed when two of the students got full marks and more than half the class got 15 out of 20- and this for a group who really don't have much butterfly knowledge.

They are a lovely bunch: when I finished, they all clapped. So I bowed. And they laughed. I gave the two with full marks in the test a chocolate frog each and we joked about which species it was (Common Frog, I said. Obviously).

They told me it had been great, that they now understood things about flutter ecology which before they hadn't, that it had piqued some of their interest to learn more and to go looking for flutters this summer, that the explaining of scientific terminology far from being patronising (as I had worried) was what they had wanted and needed, and (best of all) they assumed I was already a teacher used to giving lectures and expressed astonishment when I said I wasn't (they also said I should have got paid for it, which made me smile) :o)

Afterwards, a young girl I have never noticed in the class before because she is so quiet, told me she'd never done as well in a Test before as she had in mine. She beamed. I was so proud of her. I find that young girls don't use their voices much in lectures- too many older people in the group perhaps, who already have the confidence to speak and own their own words, so the younger ones worry that they'll sound foolish if they offer their thoughts. Three of the people who offered answers to my questions were from the young lasses part of the class. I feel very strongly about the education of women and encouraging younger women to find their voices and use them, so this too made my heart glad. Go, Girls!  

And d'you know what's happened since then? Offers to give more formal talks have begun to find their way to me. Which means more people will know about butterflies and moths and why they matter and what they can do to help them. It's All Good, you see?

You know what I'm going to say don't you? If you've got the chance for a challenge but you're worried you might not be up to it- Go For It. What's the worst that can happen?  If it all goes horribly wrong, you can go home, pour an enormous glass of wine, laugh it off and you need never do it again. But it probably won't go horribly wrong- it's much more likely that you'll discover something beautiful you never knew was there.


CT :o)


Monday, 27 April 2015

The Duke Of Burgundy And The Pearl Bordered Fritillary

It's that time of year when my husband is glad that I've got a Butterfly Buddy. It's not that M isn't interested, he is a Country Boy and he loves walking through the land, but he's not  obsessed with the minutiae, and the thought of spending three or four hours looking for and photographing (in his words) 'blades of grass' leaves him a Little Bit Cold.

Luckily, I have my pal Dave to go Butterfly Hunting with. We spent many happy hours together last summer visiting various sites staring at the ground or up in the trees or squatting down with cameras in our hands trying to get the perfect shot of these beautiful insects. We had a bit of a competition going to see who could get pictures of what first. He beat me in the end by a Silver Spotted Skipper and a Clouded Yellow, but I think I trumped him ultimately with my Purple Empress and my Clifden Non Pareill :o)

This morning, we met up to go looking for Something Very Special that doesn't exist outside of The Chalk and The Limestone any more. It is a species that is declining so rapidly that if we aren't very careful it'll soon be gone for good. It's an early Spring flutter that lives in small colonies and it is tiny so it's very easy to overlook.

I've never seen one before. Those of you who've been reading my ramblings for a while will understand therefore that excitement levels were just a tiny bit high this morning at the prospect that I might actually, finally, get to see this amazing little insect.

Thanks to The Butterfly Wizard (I think I'm going to call him that from now on), who knows the alchemy necessary to find one of these marvellous creatures, I was finally introduced to the diminutive Duke of Burgundy......

He is the sole representative in the UK of the sub-family known as 'metalmarks' because his South-American cousins have a metallic appearance (well, this one isn't the sole representative obviously, otherwise there would be none left at all after him, I meant the UK species is, obviously).

They are tiny-wee, with a wingspan of only 29-34mm and the boys only have four legs to the female's six, so they are unusual insects in that regard. This one is a boy. The underneath of the hind wing has this beautiful white chequered pattern.

Unfortunately, because they are so rare, they are a target for Butterfly Hunters. Grrrr. I am Cross About This. They need protecting, not exploiting. There really is NO EXCUSE to kill adult butterflies and keep them as specimens when we have digital photography to provide us with clear and detailed records.

Anyway, you will imagine that I was grinning from ear to ear and you'd be right. The Butterfly Wizard was pretty chuffed too, and he's seen them before. We were just congratulating one another when something small and orange flashed past us. We glanced at each other in puzzlement and Set Off In Hot Pursuit, only to nearly fall over one other in astonishment when we realised it had landed and was another rarity who is also highly threatened and has experienced rapid population declines in recent decades.

Allow me to introduce you to the Pearl Bordered Fritillary...

There were actually two of them squabbling over territory and one of them was so distracted by the argument he flew right past my nose. I've never had a Pearl Bordered Fritillary brush my nose before. It is something to be proud of, I suspect :o)

We decided we couldn't sustain any more excitement at that level, so we took ourselves off for a walk over the Downs to Calm Down. 

There were White Throats and Willow Warblers singing, and the cows were Curious, as cows always are....

Friends have been reporting seeing Grizzled Skippers and Green Hairstreaks for the last few days. Despite keeping my eyes peeled, they had somehow both eluded me, so I was hoping we might find them on the Down. Sure enough, it wasn't long before The Butterfly Wizard spotted something small and grey in the grass at his feet....It was the first of six Grizzled Skippers that we would encounter.

A little further on and a flash of orange caught my eye...This was the first of five Small Coppers...

There were lots of other flutters, the Usual Suspects of Brimstone, Peacock, Green Veined White, Small White, Large White and Orange Tips, both male and female. This poor chap has come off worse after a fight with a bird, judging from the rip in his hind wing. Amazingly, butterflies still have viable flight with large sections of their wings missing.

We walked back through the Juniper, keeping an eye out for Juniper Shield Bugs (didn't see any) and then, just as we were about to head back to the cars, a flash of light on tiny bright green wings caught my attention and there he/she was: my first Green Hairstreak of the year, perched on a bramble leaf (see how tiny they are?).

He/she sat obligingly still on his/ her leaf for ages while I faffed about with the bloomin camera, trying to persuade it to focus on the flutter when all it seemed to want to do was focus on everything else.

There's something about Green Hairstreaks. I love them. They are friendly souls who will tolerate a person shoving a camera in their face at a distance of 1cm and (as much as a butterfly can) they manage to convey an impression of complete self-control and calm assurance in their own existence.

Aren't they glorious? Easy to overlook when the wings are open as they're a dull grey/ brown colour, but once they close them- wow!

I am now off for a lie down, because it isn't possible for one person to sustain the level of excitement I have had all morning and not be worn out by tea time :o)

Hope you're all well, my friends?

CT :o)

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Botany Of A Lane

Walking the dogs down our lane a few days back I was struck by the huge number of wild plants now growing on the banks. I decided it would be a good idea to record them and write them up.

Every year, an organisation called Plantlife runs a campaign here in the UK to teach councils, who have the guardianship of these significant and precious resources in their hands, the importance of our roadside verges to biodiversity, and encourage them not to mow all the banks to within an inch of their lives during May. 

Many species rely on this vegetation to complete their life cycles. Skipper butterflies are a good example. They lay their eggs in grasses, so cutting them back before the summer ends and the caterpillars have had a chance to appear, feed and grow sufficiently to survive the winter diapause (hibernation) is a disaster for them.

A great many of these plants are vital for pollinators. They also represent an enormous bank of free seed, have strong aesthetic value and their root structures help prevent erosion and consequently nitrate run off into water courses (a big problem as it leads to eutrophication and algal blooms which disrupt freshwater habitats and the organisms that live in them, not to mention the drinking water that we all rely on).

So, bank-side plants have an intrinsic value that goes way beyond adornment. They also represent a stock of British Wild Flowers that, like everything else in the natural world, currently faces the threat of population decline, and they can also let you in to a secret world of insects, reptiles, birds and molluscs: the wild life that goes on all around us that so many of us miss because we don't stop to look for it.

All these things are of tremendous value and on their own are good enough reasons to celebrate and protect wild verges, but there is one other thing that wild flowers growing in our banks and ditches can do: they can tell us the story of the past.
If you know how to speak the language of plants they can take you back through hundreds of years of history, right up to the last Ice Age, and show you what it was like before there were roads and houses. Through them, the echoes of a dim and distant past reverberate like whispers on the wind. It doesn't take much to adjust your ears to be able to hear it.

Our village dates from Saxon times, so the lane is potentially 1300 years old. There are tales of ghostly goings-on from several centuries ago told about it. I'm sensitive to these things and have to say I've never encountered a runaway carriage drawn by six black horses with a headless coachman steering them screaming along the lane at midnight on the last day of the year, or indeed the restless spirit of one of the men who signed Charles I's death warrant :o) They serve, though, to illustrate the point that the lane has been here in more or less its present condition for several centuries.

But the plants tell a much older story.....

Our lane is about a mile long. I started at the top and got about half way. I took pictures of every plant species I knew, with the exception of tree species established in the hedges (although that too can tell you a great deal about a place). There were several I didn't know and will have to return to ID when they have flowered, or grown up a bit more.

I photographed fifty different species in that half mile stretch. I am astonished!

Here they are....

Arum Maculatum- Lords and Ladies

Barren Strawberry





Butcher's Broom



Common Dog Violet

Ivy Leaved Speedwell

Field Speedwell

Common Mouseear

Common Nettle

Cow Parsley

Creeping Cinquefoil

Cuckoo Flower or Lady's Smock





English Bluebell


Goosegrass (south) or Cleavers (north)

Greater Stitchwort

Ground Elder

Ground Ivy


Harts Tongue

Hemlock Water Dropwort
Herb Robert


Jack in the Hedge or Garlic Mustard

Jack in the hedge

Wavy Bittercress

Lesser Celandine


Oak sapling


Red dead nettle

Rush spp

Sycamore sapling



Thyme-leaved Speedwell

Water forget me not

Large Bittercress

White Clover

White dead nettle

Yellow Archangel
What these plants tell me is that the lane is indeed an ancient place, and that, long before it became a hedge-lined trackway, it was deep inside a wood. 

For the purposes of modern Ecology, ancient woodland is that which is agreed to have been present since 1600. This is not an arbitrary date, it was chosen because that is the date mapping is considered to have become reliable and reasonably accurate.

So, ancient woods in the UK officially date from 1600, but the reality is that in most cases they are much, much older, perhaps even stretching back to the days of the Wildwood which covered much of the UK after the last Ice sheets retreated some10,000 years ago.

As well as looking on maps, ancient woodlands can be identified by the presence of particular flowering (vascular) plants, known as ancient woodland indicators. These vary according to regions.
Hamshire has a strong presence of ancient woodland, and I found enough ancient woodland indicator plants along the verge to tell me that our lane was once one: Yellow Rattle, Butchers Broom, Primroses, Bluebells, Large Bittercress, Hart's Tongue, to name but a few.

If this has whetted your appetite, there is an excellent article on ancient woodland indicators, along with a comprehensive list of the plants, written by the Godfather Of Botany, Francis Rose (whose ID book complete with keys is my wildflower bible). You can find the paper here  

So now you've got no excuse not to go out and study the flora in your local vicinity and work out what the area once was :o)

I'll leave you with some shots of a female Orange Tip who was Very Interested in a patch of Jack in the hedge growing along the lane while I was out noting all the plants. Jack in the hedge is the food plant for Orange Tip caterpillars. Lovely, isn't she?

Hope all are well and enjoying the weekend?
CT :o)