Monday, 29 June 2015

In Which We Go To Devon To Look For Beavers And Find A Swimming Grass Snake And Beached Barrel Jelly Fish

To celebrate our wedding anniversary, I booked a night away in a village in Devon. It was some time after making the booking that I casually dropped into conversation that the only 'wild' population of Beavers in England just happens to be located on the river that runs through this village.....

Wow (said M), what an extraordinary coincidence.

Otterton is a lovely place. It's a proper old-fashioned village stuffed full of thatched cottages a few minutes from the sea.

It just so happens that friends of ours run the mill by the river. We hadn't seen them for ages so we dropped in for lunch, and while the boys droned on and on about profit margins and business models, I nipped off to their shop which is jam-packed full of local arts and crafts type things and bought some new tins to keep sewing gubbins in.... Badgers and bees- appropriate, no?


After lunch we headed off to walk along the river and look for the Beavers. This small group of animals were recently the focus of much media attention when Natural England ruled that they could remain on the river if they proved to be Eurasian Beavers and disease-free. The Devon Wildlife Trust duly caught and tested them and they were returned to the river with clean bills of health and descent.

Beavers were hunted to extinction in England and Wales by the sixteenth century (for their fur and oils). Populations remain in Scotland but the Devon Beavers are believed to be the first to be established and to be living wild in England in over five hundred years. They are what's known as a 'keystone' species, meaning that they provide a fundamental role in the ecosystem and without them, it changes considerably and not for the better.

Needless to say, we didn't see them. They are mainly nocturnal creatures, and the river has an enormous footfall of people out walking along its banks so the disturbance from people and dogs is considerable. I wasn't duly surprised that they kept away. We did see a Kingfisher (always nice) and a heron...

Some sand martins diving in and out of holes in the sandstone cliffs that line sections of the river...

and also (most surprisingly) a Grass Snake swimming along the river...

We headed down to the sea afterwards, because, although I am a Chalk Girl, I crave The Sea if I haven't been beside it for a while (note the 'beside', not 'on' which is an important distinction :o)). Probably something to do with being part of an Island Nation.

M had every intention of swimming (honestly, you can't keep that man out of the sea between the months of March and October). I don't like swimming in the sea. I imagine octopuses and sharks and people weeing. This is not an unreasonable fear (especially the last part) because several years ago while swimming off a Greek island I watched horrified as a small girl did a poo on the beach which got promptly picked up by the waves and sucked out to where people were swimming where it bobbed about a bit. I have never forgotten the Poo Incident. It haunts me still whenever I contemplate sea-swimming. M just laughs whenever I remind him of this, he laughs too when I get frightened by the possibility of octopi.

My best thing to do by the sea is shell-seek. That way you are most likely safe from sharks, octopusses and unhygienic doings. I like shells Very Much (and bits of driftwood and polished glass and mermaid's purses and strands of seaweed). So we were all set to happily divide into our respective activities when we noticed large jelly-like blobs all over the shore.

An entire fluther (great word, and I much prefer it to the other collective nouns for Jellyfish which include Smack, Smuck, Smuth and Stuck, which are all Rather Unsightly words), were dead on the beach. Apparently, it's been happening all along the Dorset/ Devon/ Cornish coast this summer, something to do with warmer than usual waters. These are Barrel Jelly fish, and their sting is very mild, similar to a nettle. They can still sting after they are dead, although nothing happened when I touched one to see :o)

The Jellies were enough to make my husband change his mind about swimming, so he walked to the end of the rocks (which were slippery and therefore deemed dangerous enough to be an acceptable Manly Occupation for him- he managed to scrape his ankle open on some rusty nails as well, and then poured scorn on my scoldings by saying that cutting yourself at the sea is probably the safest place to do it because of all the salt that abounds).

I went shell-seeking, which is not a manly occupation, but as I'm not a man we won't let that worry us unduly.

Seaside Stuff duly topped-up, we returned to the pub and got changed for supper, which was delicious. It being still light at ten we decided to try our luck with the Beavers again and after walking a mile or so along the river, saw someone coming towards us so I asked him if he knew where the Beavers were.
Sure (he said), I've just been watching them. Come with me, I'll show you where the Lodge is.

So we followed him half a mile further along the path and ducked under some branches and he pointed out the Lodge (Beaver for house). Can you see it?

Nope, nor could I.

Which is just as well because not everyone is thrilled to have wild Beavers back in Britain. The Angling Trust have been very vocal in their opposition, with doom-laden prophecies of disaster for river ecology and fish, most if not all of which (ecologists say) is nonsense. As fish and Beavers have adapted together over millenia I suspect there won't be the problems they are predicting, and certainly not from a handful of Beavers on one river.

Anyhoo, it turns out Mr Beaver had been swimming about not five mins before and we'd just missed him :o( The lovely chap showed me the pictures he'd just taken on his phone and we had a good old Beaver Gossip (which M found very amusing) before he wished us good night and we carried on up the river to try our luck further. To no avail as it happens, but it was lovely to be by the river as darkness gathered and wols started hooting and at least I had seen the Lodge and been within five minutes of a real live wild Beaver.

How did you know he'd know where they were? M asked curiously, as we wandered back under the light of the moon with no torches because by then we'd got our Night Eyes working properly.

He had bins round his neck, I said (in some surprise that he'd needed to ask). What else was he going to have been watching?
It made me realise how very second-nature ecology stuff has become to me. You recognise another one of the species without the information really registering. We all have the same slightly distracted look in our eyes, as if, all the time we're talking to someone, we're still tuned in to non-human sounds- the whisper of the wind, the sigh of the river, the calls of birds, the squeak of a mouse, the flutter of butterfly wings. And we all drop our voices and soften our footfalls instinctively when we draw near to wild things, something I've noticed non-ecologists don't do. By the end of the weekend I had M conversing with me in whispers, although admittedly this was after some considerable piss-taking about sounding like David Attenborough among the Mountain Gorillas...

The very next morning we were up bright and breezy at 6am (no relaxing and lying in bed on our weekends away, eh?) to head off up the river again and see what dawn (ish) might bring us in the shape of large furry people with big teeth and flat tails.


We sat and watched the Lodge for half an hour before I got bored, so we had a nice walk along the river instead before returning to the pub for a full English Breakfast.

On the way home we collected the doggy people and L from ma's where they'd spent the night and when we got back both the dogs collapsed on their beds and promptly fell asleep for FOUR HOURS which is UNHEARD OF. While they were snoozing and M was cutting the grass and L was reading, I made up a pair of PJ shorts, because by that point I was feeling quite tired too and didn't fancy any more zooming about. I can't sit down during the day unless I'm occupied and I only stop to watch TV or read if I'm ill, so sewing gives me something to do while sitting down.

I didn't have enough material for a whole pair, so the front is different from the back. I rather like them. This week at sewing club I am going to make a pair of linen trousers :o)

We were all knackered as it turns out so the house was silent by nine pm, which is unheard of here. Even L was in bed promptly.

What a top weekend, and now I know where the Beavery People are I shall return at dusk another time (with a cushion).....

Hope you all had a lovely weekend too,

CT :o)


Friday, 26 June 2015

A Treasure Of The Woods....The Silver Washed Fritillary

The Butterfly Whisperer and I met up at a local Ancient Woodland this morning to look for Purple Emperors. Despite the presence of a number of Large Oaks and plenty of Sallow and the provision of some smelly dog poo (the butterfly's favourite delicacy) and, by the smell of it, something dead not far away in the undergrowth (another favourite- yuk), it seems we were a tad early as there were no Imperial Majesties to be seen. We will try again next week as I'm on a Mission to photograph a male Purple Emp so I can show you the incredible purple iridescence on his wings.

What we did see was the first Small Skippers and Ringlets of the Season, along with several very beautiful Silver Washed Fritillaries....

The name Fritillary comes from the latin fritillus meaning dice-box. It was given to these butterflies in the mid 1850s, but long before that (mid 1600s) it had been attached to a genus of flowering plants that belong to the lily family - think Snakeshead fritillary, which does resemble a dice-box, or chequerboard, and you can see why.

Possibly, the markings on the butterfly resembled a dice-box sufficiently for them to also gain the name.

Most frits (there are eight UK species) belong to July, with one or two (pearl bordered for eg) coming out earlier in May/ June time. I always look forward to seeing the Silver Washed, although photographing them today proved tricksy as they were Far Too Busy seeing each other off in angry vibrant upward twirls through the air, or racing up and down the woodland glades and rides and high up into the trees trying out their new wings. Next week they should have quietened down a bit :o)

It's unusual to witness a butterfly in the posture of the pic below: he has pushed his wings right down to maximise the light of the sun on them, flutters being cold-blooded creatures.

As mentioned, the first Small Skippers have also emerged....but I didn't get any pictures. The two below are Large Skippers. The Smalls and Essex lack the mottled appearance of the wings of the Large and are smaller by a few mm

I did get pictures of my first Ringlet of the year (once he stopped darting about for 5 seconds). Once we'd seen one loads appeared- evidently a recent emergence had occurred as they were all perfect and all Very Flighty too :o)

There was the odd Comma about. The pic below neatly illustrates how this flutters gets his name- see the white 'comma' mark on the wing?

And a fair few Speckled Woods...

I found loads of spiky Peacock caterpillars on nettle. Wouldn't fancy handling those, eh?

And Dave was led a Merry Dance by a Red Admiral who wasn't all that keen on being photographed....

I found Common Spotted Orchids deep in the woods..

And we watched an Emperor Dragonfly patrolling one of the rides (no pics as he was very busy hunting and had no time to land and sit still).

Today's flutters take my 2015 total so far to 30 species. There are 58 in the UK, a few of which only live in Scotland so I won't get to see them, so I wonder what my total will be by the end of the year? Last year it was 36 and I've already seen a few this year that I missed last. Is that a bit train-spotter-ish of me, or is it not?

All in all it was a lovely morning. Can there be a nicer way to spend time then meandering along sunlit ancient woodland paths beneath the bows of old trees looking for butterflies?

I'll leave you with fields of Linseed growing on The Chalk on the way up to the Woods...

...and wish you all a pleasant evening and a peaceful weekend ahead.

CT :o)

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Grass Snake In The Garden And Eclosing Hawker Dragonflies From Our Pond

I've got a rare morning at home today and am working indoors with the back door propped open with a watering can. I keep getting distracted by Interesting Things walking/ flying/ crawling/ slithering past the door (and by the Emma Bridgewater sale, but we won't mention that :o) ).

The funniest of these distractions was The Squirrel, who never comes within chasing distance of the house for fear of the voracious and committed members of the Squirrel Watching Club. For some unaccountable reason best known to him or herself, he/ she decided Today was The Day and sauntered in a leisurely devil-may-care sort of fashion across the patio, past the door and within inches of two sleeping terriers.

I haven't the heart to tell them.

Yesterday, having a perambulate around the garden with Pop (which is never ideal for wildlife spotting but usually unavoidable, as she is my constant companion and second shadow) I rather absent-mindedly checked the refugia at the top of the garden (it's the side of an old plastic compost bin) for slow worms who are never there, and came face to face instead with this rather lovely person...

I don't know who was more surprised. He (possibly she) is bigger than I realised at the time. I did wonder whether it could be my little bootlace from the tail end of last summer grown all big, but I don't think snakes are particularly site-faithful and anyway, that's a heck of a lot of growing in a few short weeks which can't be possible, so it must be another one.

Luckily, The Pop was off watching voles round the other side of the pond otherwise it could have been tricksy. As it was, I carefully replaced the refugia, crept away and then pelted like a mad woman down the garden and back into the house for the camera, Poppy racing after me with no idea why.

Luckily for me, the snake was still there when I went back and so I got the photos. I know they're not everyone's cup of tea (my mother most of all!) but they are endangered and they are harmless and so scared of people that I'm always thrilled to see them in the garden. 

We sort-of engineered the top half of the garden for them with the pond for swimming, compost heap for egg laying, a huge pile of logs and stones for hibernating and the refugia for shelter all within feet of each other. It seems to be working as this is the third year I've recorded grass snakes in the garden (ever since the pond was made in fact).

This morning, again wandering about with Pop, we discovered two Southern Hawker (I think) Dragonflies eclosing out of the pond. 11am seems to be a good time to see this happening and we were lucky to find them with the dragons still clinging on to the empty exuvia in the final stage of wing hardening. Both took their maiden flights as I watched and one sat on me for a while between flights.

When dragons are ready to emerge from the nymph state, the nymphs gather at the water's edge for a few days/ hours before, then climb up out of the pond and find a suitable bit of vegetation to attach to. They will crawl up to a few metres away from the water.

They climb out of the exuvia and hang from it for three hours or so while the wings fill with liquid and become viable, then they crawl away from the exuvia and begin to vibrate their wings to get them working properly before taking off. 

This dragon's maiden flight was straight and true and strong, but I have known them wobble and take off/ land several times until they get the hang of it...

In the next pic you can see the empty nymph case (exuvia) left holding on to the grass stem while the adult insect climbs up onto some grasses..
I am fairly sure of the ID because of the tail markings, although I don't profess to be remotely expert on dragons so if I'm wrong feel free to shout. I think this one is a male.

The second is the same species but I think female, because of the shape of the pincers on the tail...

And here are the empty nymph cases. I've been finding them up by the pond for a couple of weeks now and had narrowed it down to Hawker, so I was really chuffed to find the insect in mid-eclose (dragon for hatching) so I could narrow it down to species. 

So we have two dragonfly species in the pond now. Southern Hawkers and Broad Bodied Chasers :o)

I also found this digger wasp with a grub. After biting it several times she flew off with it. They dig a tunnel 30cm down, drag prey into the chamber and leave it for the offspring, They then lay the egg, seal the chamber, and when the egg hatches the baby wasp has a ready meal to hand. Fascinating creatures. 

Small volcanoes have erupted all over the lawn during the night so I am wondering if it's actually these digger wasps and not mining bees as I had first assumed. Folks seek treatment for lawns to eradicate these little insects, but they do no harm and will aerate the soil for you. Once the kids have hatched they leave and the holes fill in. They don't bite or sting, so if you have them in your lawn please think twice before putting toxins down to kill them- it'll pass straight into the ecosystem and the bodies of birds, shrews, owls, hawks etc.

We have a resident Meadow Brown (a boy- the girls are more gingery) who has set up home in the new wildflower area, which I am thrilled about. These are grass flutters and that section of the garden is perfect for them. All we need now is a Mrs Meadow Brown...

The first set of Woundwort Shieldbug children have hatched. They are tiny wee at the moment, but just starting to be discernible with the naked eye. They don't go far from their eggs for the first few days and I love the way they all stick together on their nursery leaf :o)
I can count 13 eggs but only 11 children :o(

Moth-wise, we had a couple of nice ones last night. This Buff Ermine (many more of them this year than last)

And this beautiful shiny Burnished Brass...

I'll leave you with Cornflowers (my favourites) which are starting to come out in the wildflower garden (from last year's seed I think which is Pleasing) and Feverfew which was grown from seed last year), and some pics of Miss Pops enjoying the sun.

Ooh, and before I forget, the mystery flower on yesterday's post is a type of toadflax called Linaria reticulata or Spurred Snapdragon (Flamenco). I'm indebted to ispot for the ID.

Hope you are all well and enjoying this lovely weather (in the UK at least).

CT :o)