Tempus fugit..


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Please forgive me dear reader, for a whole month has passed with no comment from me, and yet it has been the month of fastest seasonal change yet! Now, as I sit here in the campsite at Eric’s in Tremadog, The slopes of the hill nearby ( where I am slowly relearning to trad climb again) are carpeted in the almost unreal bright olive green of new Oak leaf and flower, and everywhere around me the trees have burst forth into leaf, singing verdant praises to rising sap and sun. A pair of Ravens are honking like geese as they playfully chase one another around the crags, and I am surrounded by the sweet morning song of the birds.
Hawthorn is well in leaf now and already beginning to flower, and the first pink Campion flowers are appearing in the woods, along with other flowers bearing exotic sounding names; Alkanet, Archangel, Ransoms, Lords and Ladies; all vying to grasp the last of the Spring sun before the leaf burst closes in and blankets the forest floor in shade once again.

Argh….WordPress just decided to delete half of my post, so I’ll re write it soon, but just to add that I’ve seen my first Swallow of the year now (4th April, Swanage).

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Rise of the Prunes part II. Spring has Sprung!

Since my last post, Spring has really begun in earnest here in Sussex, with pink cherry blossom everywhere now. Most of it seems to be from the Winter flowering Cherry (aka Japanese Flowering Cherry), of which there are many different species including Prunus nipponica, Prunus sargentii and Prunus campanulata.

All of these have many varieties, and some are crossed with our native (whiter flowered) species too. Other Prunus (hence the Prunes reference in the title, which are actually dried plums) coming into flower soon will include Almond, Apricot, Plum and Peach too. Quite an amazing family, and our oldest native is of course the Blackthorn, which is looking beautiful right now (a full two weeks earlier than last year), and smelling wonderful as well. Here is a beautiful example from the Jevington church cemetery, taken on the 9th March.

As well as that, I’ve now seen the first young Hawthorn in flower, Horse Chestnut trees are in leaf bud, with the first leaves now out, and Willow and hazel are both flowering as well, look out for the tiny bright yellow flowers of the willow as the catkins open. Lots and lots of flowers are starting to make an appearance now, some are incredibly early this year, but as one of you had said that I don’t do enough about animals, time to redress that imbalance I think.

My first Small tortoiseshell sightings this year, on the 14th March, and already mating! This is great news for a species that has been in rapid decline recently, and according to UkButterflies, part of the reason why is pretty gruesome indeed.

Apparently a parasitic fly called Sturmia bella, which has been on the rise due to global warming (funny how persistent pressure from right wing media has forced us all to adopt the more neutral ‘climate change’ instead), lays its eggs on leaves near to tortoiseshell caterpillars,  which are then eaten by the caterpillars, and then follow a typically wasp like behaviour of hatching inside and then consuming their host, until pupating and then hatching forth, Alien style,  as  adult flies from the Pupa.

There has been some contoversy online as to how much of the decline is due to this one fly (itself now apparently in decline too).  As always,  by clear the biggest factor is still us,  and loss of habitat. 

Walking along beside Wallers Haven last week,  I found several dozen of these huge fresh water mussel shells (Swan mussel; Anodonta cygnea) on the bankside.I’m not aware of the predator that could be doing this, but I do know that Carp fishermen use them for bait.

Funnily enough this mussel is also a parasitic species during part of its life cycle, as it has a unique larvae called a glochidium, which after hatching,  spreads long sticky lines out into the water to try to catch a fish! Most fail,  and die as a result,  but a lucky few are successful and then attach to the skin of the fish, tapping into it’s blood supply. Eventually they drop off, several weeks later, and also usually several miles away from the parent, so it’s a good dispersal mechanism as well.

Wallers Haven at Wartling, East Sussex.

My next bit of zoology also features another first plant sighting,  as I spotted Carder bees (a small solitary Bumble bee; Bombus pascuorum) freeding on early Lungwort flowers, 

As well as some Garden snails still hibernating (many are active now and seeking mates),

And this interesting bug.. 

Answers on a postcard please! 

Finally,  as well as a definitive sighting of Ravens, buzzards, Sparrowhawk and Kestrel, all on or around the Downs,  what could possibly be a better signifier of Spring than this..

The lambs are out at last!

To finish with,  a few very exciting early plant sightings.. 

Primroses out on the 13th March.

Equisetum, the Horse Tail.

Coltsfoot on the Pevensey shingle (9th March),

Ladys Smock, also known as the Cuckoo Flower, and finally,  on the 19th March..

The first Cowslip (Primula veris) of the year! These don’t usually appear until mid April, so a great early sighting indeed. I’m spotting something new daily now, so I’ll need to write again very soon. Now that we have passed the Equinox,  it is officially Spring, and it is a wonderful time of year indeed.

Imbolc and the rise of the Prunes.

Oh, isn’t it lovely when Spring finally shows its flowery face? Amidst the hail and the rain we get so much of currently, we’ve had some beautifully sunny days as well, about one every five or so, and it’s been mild too, averaging 9°C now. Everywhere the signs of the changing season are evident, from trees in bud, through Spring flowers, to birds in song and mating mammals. The sun is out for much longer as well, eleven hours in fact, and the Spring equinox is now only three weeks away.

Crumbles Sewer. You don’t have to go far to see beauty at this time.

So we are now officially in the Gaelic time of Imbolc, and the neo pagans among us can celebrate the start of Spring (this festival is traditionally placed midway between the winter and spring equinoxes, at the beginning of February), as the Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa…literally the spiny plum) is finally in flower, and some sources mark this as Imbolc rather than on a fixed date. I always look out for this, the first native shrub to flower (yes, I know Almond with its beautiful pink blossom is the first, but it’s an introduced species so there), and this year the Blackthorn is early, with the first four sighted flowering along roadside verges between Willingdon and Lewes on the 25th of February (no photos yet!).

Roadside verges have the same urban island effect as cities, usually remaining a degree or two warmer than the surrounding countryside due to the heat of vehicle exhausts, and are good places to spot early flowering. At least, amongst the less pollution sensitive species, and Blackthorn is as tough as nails, no wonder it’s wood is favoured for witches staffs and walking sticks. Its foliage is also hugely important for many moth species as well, being a food source for a staggering 84 species!

Blackthorn is one of several native Prunes in Britain, which also include the Plum and Cherry (and Peach and Almond too), often mistaken with another common, but unrelated hedgerow species, the Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna). Both are small dense shrubs, although when seen together, Blackthorn is darker, with more and longer thorns on the branches. An easy way to distinguish them in Spring is that Blackthorn flowers before its leaves, and Hawthorn has leaves before flowers. Today, on my run in Princes Park, here in Eastbourne I spotted a really early sighting, the first young Hawthorn whips in leaf.

In Autumn another easy way to distinguish them is their fruit. Blackthorn produces the little blue plums called Sloes (used to make Sloe gin throughout Europe), which are incredibly acidic and quite unpalatable until they’ve had a good frost on them, after which they are remarkably sweet and tasty, as I discovered after reading about this only last year. The process is a type of fermentation known as bletting, and apparently also improves the edibility of Quince, Wild service tree and Rowan, which I have yet to try.

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Another classic marker of Spring is of course the Daffodil, and whilst the cultivated hybrids have been in flower for a little while now, I’ve finally spotted a native on a sheltered spot on the Downs last week, along with another really early marker of Spring, sheltered in a sunny spot amidst a Bramble bush, the Primrose.

I’ve also now spotted many other first sightings over the last fortnight, including;-

16/2/17 Battle; Buzzards practising courtship displays, saw first honey bees, Celandine in flower

and Crocus,

as well as Hazel,Willow, and Poplar catkins.

Poplar catkins near Battle.

17/2/17 Herstmonceux; heard the first Woodpecker of the year, saw several Long tailed tits, heard Goldcrests but couldn’t spot them, lots of Magpie pairs, Rooks paired and looking for nest sites, and the first male Yew flowers forming.

18/2/17 Willingdon; First Ladybird, big black Bumble Bee, Dog Violet

24/2/17 Coombe valley; Grey Wagtail, Shellduck, Greylag geese, Dandelion in flower, Blackberry leaf burst, Daisy flowering on grass verges

28/2/17 Foyle way near Beachy Head; Wild Daffodils, Primrose, male Yew flowers

Male Yew Flowers near Beachy Head

2/3/17 Eastbourne; Ash leaf buds, Elm in flower (Ulmus species are all hermaphrodite, so the flowers are both male and female).

Buddleia in leaf, Ornamental violets, Goose grass, Rapeseed, and finally another first for the year for me;
Nursery Web Spiders (Pisaura mirabilis), which aren’t usually out and about until April or May! They are well known for running about carrying little white egg cocoons, and for building little tent like webs for the young, hence their name.

This was one of two I spotted enjoying the morning sun upon a discarded piece of roofing felt, alongside the Crumbles Sewer.

Phew! If you have any sightings of your own I’d love to hear about them, and if you are really keen, you can join the Woodland Trust Spring Survey here..

http://www.naturescalendar.org.uk/survey

The study of Spring sightings, by the way, is known as Phenology, making me another amateur phenologist stepping carefully in the footsteps of the field’s founding father, Robert Marsham, since 1736. More on that next time. Until then, keep your eyes and ears open, and you may be surprised.

Seals, Squirrels, Skylarks, Sharks and Squid!

Living in the South East of England we are blessed with having the most sunshine in the country, and warmest temperatures too. Despite the wet weather recently, we have had about one day a week average of sunshine, and on one of those glorious days earlier this month I decided to do a beach clean on a local section of beach near me (I remove two to three carrier bags of mainly plastic waste every week).

This trip was especially rewarding, for it is shark mating season off our southern shores, and the intriguing egg cases of those species that don’t give live birth, known as Mermaids’ Purses, are a common sight on the strand line at this time of year. 

This is the egg case of a Ray, most likely the Thornback Ray (Raja clavata), a widespread species. I didn’t realise that you should soak them before trying to identify. The Shark Trust produce an excellent ID key here, as part of their Great Eggcase Hunt.

The familiar egg ball next to it is from a Mollusc, the Common Whelk (Buccinum undatum) which also produces beautiful large spiral shells. They are also called sea wash balls, and were used by sailors for washing. I am always pleased to see them, as Whelks suffered major decline in the nineties, with whole populations collapsing due to a strange condition called Imposex. This caused sex organ abnormalities such as females developing make gonads, and is believed to be linked to marine pollutants. This makes many Marine gastropods like this good indicator species for ocean health. The common whelk has a dual role here, because they are also thermophobes, and cannot exist in water above 29°C, so expect to see them migrating North soon!

Nearby was another familiar egg case, that of the Smallspotted Catshark / Lesser Spotted Dogfish (Scyliorhinus canicula). Much smaller, easily fitting in the palm, and with the delicate tendrils that are needed to secure it to algal fronds.

I understand that the whole family has been renamed as Catsharks, which I guess was to raise awareness, but I think it’s ridiculous, and to me our commonest shark species will always be the Dogfish. I also found a whole one at Beachy Head recently too.

This was a lucky day for a beach comb. For only a few steps further on I found this…a life time first!

No, I’ve no idea what it is either. At first I was excited thinking it might be a squid beak (hence the title reference), but soon realised it couldn’t be, as they are composed of chitin, just like the exoskeletons of insects (think of a large beetle for example). I’ve now decided it must be a partly decomposed bony fish jaw. Any further help in identification would be greatly appreciated. 

Walking around to the harbour, I was very pleased to see both our local resident Grey Seal pups ( Halichoerus grypus), on the tidal mud flats. They are usually alone, as their mother can be gone for days at a time on hunts for food, unfortunately leading to some people thinking they have become abandoned and calling the coast guard. These two have been tagged however, and are a familiar and friendly sight, as shown by the fact that I was able to take these pictures with my phone from the harbourside wall, at high tide, on another day out running.

So that’s the Seals,  Shark and Squid done. What about the Squirrels and Skylarks I hear you cry? 

For Christmas I bought my Mum a supposedly Squirrel proof bird feeder..It lasted less than two months, before one of their most tenacious youngsters finally worked out how to grip the shiny metal outer canister and then repeatedly re clasp whilst working down the shaft, hanging from one foot, to avoid it closing over the nuts. It took several attempts as we luckily witnessed, but sadly, the feeder is squirrel proof no longer!

Which leads me finally to add Skylarks to my list, for last Sunday, whilst running over the Pevensey levels, I heard then singing for the first time this year. I have many more sightings to share, but that’s for next time. 

Finally, before I forget, it took a while, but they are definitely out now.

The snowdrops are back!

That’s all for now, it’s another lovely sunny Sunday morning, my run is calling me, and it sounds just like Spring!

Wet Westham Wanderings..

And here we are once more…the second week of the second month and my first new post. Whoops. I seem to spend much time writing blog posts in my head, and taking pictures for them on my phone, and then forgetting to actually write and post them. Ah well. Onwards and upwards.

It’s been typically inclement here recently, lots of depressions tracking across the Atlantic from the Eastern seaboard of the US. In fact on one weather report last week they counted five of them in a row, each spread a day or two apart. A classic sign of unsettled weather and plenty of wintry showers. Luckily, a blocking high over the Baltic has deflected them and so the south east (where I am) has remained largely unscathed, albeit pretty wet at times.

Still, on a very damp afternoon last week I managed to take Ginny (my parents’ dog) for a walk around Pevensey castle, and saw some good further signs of Spring, including young Nettle shoots, Dog Mercury, Lords and Ladies, Daffodil and several ferns all in leaf.One unexpected sight was some Elder whips already in leaf sprouting from an old trunk.

The graveyard of the old Norman church, St Marys, Westham..

A Very wet Pevensey levels with some rare Elm trees.

A green swathe of Dog’s Mercury.

First nettles..tea anybody? 

Very early Elder leaves…

An early Cow Parsley.

Ivy berries are a good winter food source for small birds.

A beautiful stalked cup Lichen.

Another damp and misty walk on the South Downs last week..

Where I also spotted Daffodils,

and Lords and Ladies..

There is plenty of Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) around now, all along roadside verges and cycle paths, bringing a little brightness with its pale pink compound flowers, but I have yet to spot any Snowdrop in flower. Primrose, Lesser Celandine and Dog’s Mercury are all noted winter flowers, as well as Mistletoe, which is easy to spot whilst its host trees are still leafless, so keep an eye out for them too.
The birds have all started singing and pairing up now, and in the last two weeks I’ve spotted pairs of Wood pigeon, Collared dove, Gold finch, Herring Gull and lots of pairs of Rooks in the Pevensey rookeries noisily getting the old nests ready again. If you are unsure, although they are about the same size as the Crow, Rooks have a tell tale greyish bare patch around the beak, that I call the ‘Rook’s Ring’ to help remember, as well as shaggy feathers around the legs that I think always make them look like they are wearing plus fours (aka knee length shorts).

The Spring songs of the birds are quite a stark change to the drab surroundings, especially the amazingly talented Starlings, which, as well as being famous for their noisy murmurations, are one of our most vociferously varied birds at this time of year (along with the beautiful song of the Robin, the chatter of the Tits and warbling Finches in the hedgerows). Many people are unaware that the familiar Myna birds, prized by Victorians for their mimicry are in fact another member of the Starling family (Sturnidae), and close relatives of our common Starling. The range of calls a Starling can actually mimic is quite phenomenal, and I couldn’t resist recording them…

 (Doesn’t seem to want to upload now, so I’ll try again later  😃 )

 

Next time: Seals, Squirrels, Skylarks, Sharks and Squid!

The Hottentots of Galley Hill…

There is a lovely spot out by Bexhill, near Glynde Gap with its quaint little dog friendly cafe, called Galley Hill.

During the last war it had a gun emplacement upon it which was patrolled by no less a luminary than Spike Milligan apparently. Nowadays it is almost exclusively the province of dog walkers, and a beautiful invasive plant from South Africa known over here as the Hottentot Fig (Carpobrotus edulis).

It’s a beautiful and perfectly adapted plant of tidal margins and saline environments, found all over the world. I first discovered it in Melbourne, and was quite surprised to see it here as well, an exotic, out of place plant, with beautifully coloured succulent leaves and bright pink or yellow flowers.The whole plant is edible apparently, but it’s the fig like fruit that gives the name.

It is listed in the UK sadly as a schedule 9 invasive species, due to its aggressive colonizing behaviour and ability to carpet a cliff, which means it is a criminal offence to plant or disperse, but I find it beautiful, and have always struggled with the whole concept of invasive species anyway. To me it always feels slightly parochial, and often bizarre to spend so much effort removing invasive species, when they are only doing what they have always done, which is to colonize new territory. I suppose the argument is that this is a human mediated transfer, which when combined with the drastic habitat loss occurring globally can be devastating for many native species. 
Personally I think that almost all conservation measures are human mediated actions for the benefit of humans primarily, in much the same way as the National Trust conserves an idealistic image of the past. Having been an active conservationist for most of my life, I certainly understand the effort, but often question the motives.

We also spotted a couple of Bramlings, my first sighting this year of a pretty little Winter migrant finch from Scandinavia. Not the best picture, but then it was only my phone.

Lots of birds have started pairing up now, and I also saw my first pair of Herons out waking over the Pevensey levels, which I was pleased with, as they are one of our earliest nesting species. 

The foxes are very active, and every night now you can hear the plaintive call of Vixens as they announce their availability to any nearby males. I didn’t realise before that It’s actually the Vixens that have the home ranges, and the males that often wander nomadically amongst them seeking mates, and it’s not unusual to find a litter in which all the cubs are from different fathers.

It’s a great time for fungi right now as well, including this one I spotted in the woods at Herstmonceux, which I’ve had some trouble identifying. 

I also spotted this nest in some birch coppice on the same walk,  at about 1.5m height, and covered in fresh moss, which I first thought to belong to a field mouse, but now think is probably the home of a long tailed tit. Any other suggestions would be most welcome.

The woods were  certainly populated by long tailed tits, as well as chaffinch, blue and great tit, robin, thrush, blackbird and another first for the year, high up in the conifers, goldcrests. Easy to hear, harder to see, and impossibly difficult to photograph. Still, I like a challenge, and will try again later in the year. 

Finally, if you are in the UK, you still have time to take part in the great garden bird watch, which finishes on Monday. More on that next time.

https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/birdwatch

Last week, foxy behaviour..

Oh dear, such high hopes for this blog, and a serious backlog of pictures taken, but the one Nature event that stands out for me from the last two weeks is the behaviour of our local foxes. First of all were the barking calls, since the end of December, which I think were males, and I have noticed several nightly territorial displays between what appears to be the same pair, one of whom clearly thinks this area is his, and another who is either looking to gain or increase his own. Saturday night (21st Jan) I heard the first distinctive, otherworldy howls of a mating pair.

There is an interesting observation about this mating behaviour. It is most traumatic in virgin pairs, as the female can become easily spooked after intercourse, but is unaware that her vagina has clamped around the male (we think this is an evolutionary response to save sperm loss and is common to all Canids, see here for more… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canine_reproduction#Copulation), just as the base of his penis has swollen, effectively locking the pair together in a coital tie. An inexperienced female can then try to run off at this point (which can last for up to an hour), dragging the unfortunate male along with her.

To confirm that our local foxes have begun mating, I was lucky enough to spot a pair together in the middle of a field on my run yesterday morning out on the Langney levels. The picture isn’t the best, but at least you can see the pair..

And, as it was a lovely day for a run, and also my first run over 10km in a year…some  more pictures..

 Pevensey castle (above the Norman keep, below part of the Roman outer wall)

West ham village

The Langney levels looking across to the old Priory lane farm

And finally…not at all narcissisticly, here’s one of me. 🙂