Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Early autumn spectacles

Although the sun maintains intermittent bursts of summer, wildlife is already welcoming autumn.

I'm lucky enough to live very close to a colony of ivy bees - these are currently a southern specialty, having only recently colonised (as of 2001) the UK, although they're spreading north. They're fairly unique in emerging from their underground burrows in September - the males emerge first, having pupated underground, forming great swarms ready to pounce on females that emerge later. At the moment, the slope down to the River Avon path is abuzz with them in great numbers. The females do sting but as most of the insects are males (non-stinging) and they're all far to busy trying to find a mate, you can easily wander through or sit among them for a great close-up view of this interesting insect. They're called ivy bees as they feed on the nectar of the ivy flowers, which are a late bloomer and hence out now. Another reason ivy is a good thing!

This week I managed a quick walk around Martin Down - some flowers do still cling on, including harebells, and devil's bit scabious. But apart from that, it definitely had the feel of winding down for the year.

And then on Sunday we ventured into the New Forest, this time starting at the popular spot of Fritham. The Oak pub is excellent, but with the sun shining, we had packed our lunch instead, hoping to escape the crowds at this busy spot.

Navigation in the Forest is always tricky - made even harder by my out-of-date OS map. You might think not much happens to make a map inaccurate, but as the Forestry Commission- working with partners such as Natural England and the National Park - clear blocks of conifers, restore streams, and open up enclosures, suddenly landmarks have changed dramatically! All this meant that, although we had a lovely walk, taking in ancient woodland and open heathland, we did get slightly lost. Thankfully, our phone GPS got us back on track - just as well there was reception!

All of our meanderings led us to stumble (sometimes quite literally) upon several spectacular fungal displays. it's still a bit early - and a bit dry- so we were pleased with our finds! A large parasol mushroom (good to eat but even better to take photos and leave behind), some form of bolete (same family as porcini and possibly also good to eat, depending on the species!), as well as some amazing bracket fungi (possibly artist's palette). All of this made possible by centuries of lack of active management by humans, wood being left to rot where it is, and the livestock being free to wander and create unique microhabitats.

And all this at the start of autumn - more fungi please!

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Summer's last hurrah

I know, I keep going on about summer fading, but last weekend was beautiful and felt like it was trying hard to stick around!

We headed off to Old Winchester Hill National Nature Reserve, in the South Downs, for stunning views, some butterflies and fading flowers, and a yomp along part of the South Downs Way and Monarch's Way to the beautiful River Meon near Exton, then looped back. Although most of the flowers had gone over, the clumps of marjoram and scabious provided a last nectar source for the butterflies flitting about - small heath and meadow brown, but with a strongly-suspected sighting of an adonis blue too. It was very active, so I can't be certain, but from the bright azure hue, I can't think of anything else it could be (too bright for a common blue). They've declined dramatically over the decades, favouring south-facing slopes of short turf with horseshoe vetch - still some patches locally in the South Downs and Cranborne Chase thankfully. Our route took us next to a small overgrown pond, where we not only watched (or were being watched!) by a large, patrolling southern hawker dragonfly, but had a great view of a hornet too!

Not knowing what to do with a beautiful Sunday, we decided to brave a foray into the New Forest, to one of our favourite places, Bucklers Hard. despite the autojumble being on and filling the Motor Museum car park (!), the lovely footpath along the Beaulieu River to Bucklers Hard wasn't too busy at all. Last time we had completed the walk, there were signs warning us against attempting it, due to extreme flooding and mud, defying the lengths of boardwalk. We still did it, but yes, oh the mud! This time, not only was it very dry, but the sun shone on the sparkling water, as we watched boats pass by. Arriving in Bucklers Hard itself, it wasn't too busy there either, and we watched the sparrows in the bushes chomping on rose hips whilst we too chomped on our sandwiches. Even though it is a 'there and back' walk, I didn't mind at all, as the views were so gorgeous on the way back, with the sun still shining. We called into a tearooms for a bit of refreshment, to find an attached community garden called 'Paddy's Patch', filled with an abundance of fruit, veg and beautiful blooms, as well as another hornet - an excellent end to the day!

Saturday, 1 September 2018


Well that was an interesting Bank Holiday weekend! despite the horrendous weather, we did venture out on the Sunday, and enjoyed the contrasting dry weather on the Monday too.

Hearing that some friends had sneaked over to the UK from America for a break, and were relatively nearby, we braved the weather for the journey towards Farnham, where we were to meet for a late lunch. Our route passed by the Basingstoke Canal - could this be tolerable in the monsoon-like conditions?

The canal is actually a SSSI - quite unusual for a man-made feature - for its aquatic plants and insects. The section we explored started near the ruins of Odiham castle, just outside of Basingstoke itself. The castle was built between 1207 and 1214 for King John, and after years of being used for royal functions and a hunting lodge, was finally left as a ruin in the 17th century, where part of the site was destroyed during the construction of the canal. Now, what's left is free to explore.

Returning to the towpath, thankfully overhung with vegetation providing some shelter, I remarked on the clarity of the water and quantities of the aquatic plants for which it is so ecologically important. We spied several little grebes paddling among the copious amount of pondweed, and it was indeed nice weather for ducks. This stretch is mostly closed for navigation by narrow boats, allowing nature to take over. Our short route ended at the Greywell Tunnel - home to the largest hibernation roost of Natterer's bats in Europe, and itself a separate SSSI for this reason. Gated off due to collapse further inside, it would have required the boatmen to use their legs to move the boat along the long towpath-less tunnel. We just retraced our route back to the car, returning rather sodden.

Sunday, as I say, was a bit of a contrast! We opted to explore Lymington via a walk from the Keyhaven Marshes on the New Forest coast. This is one of our favourite places - easy walking along the sea wall, great views across the marshes towards the Isle of Wight, and usually good bird life whatever time of year.

Visiting now isn't the best for birds - the summer breeders have finished and the winter migrants have yet to arrive - but we did spy lots of resident waders including lapwing, oystercatcher, dunlin, redshank and curlew, and had some great close up views of little egret fishing. Although our walk into Lymington was the same as the return, due to the turning tide, the views were completely different. As the tide went out on our way back, the waders started to get fidgety, gathering in small flocks, flying from inland feeding marshes to the newly-exposed mudflats full of tasty titbits. As autumn draws nearer, we'll start to see more waders arrive, including the chatty brent goose - something to look forward to despite the proximity of winter.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Ups and downs

It's been another mixed week weather-wise, but in between the showers, I have been able to continue my explorations!

Last Saturday was a bit of a murky day, but perfect weather for walking. We started at Burgate Manor Farm, retracing my old school cross country route along the Avon Valley Path. This old diary farm has now diversified into holiday lets and less-intensive grazing, ensuring walkers no longer have to wade through slurry in the farmyard.

Almost immediately, you come upon the only suspension bridge in Hampshire, apparently built from an old military Bailey bridge, crossing a channel of the Avon as we make our way across the wide, flat floodplain.

Now extensively grazed by cattle, this vast plain was once irrigated watermeadow, with water levels carefully managed to enable early grass growth for livestock. It's now a haven for wildlife, especially in the winter, with flocks of wading birds descending on the wetlands, making it internationally important for several species, and thus legally protected.

Our route continued out the other side of the floodplain, and up a terrace into the New Forest, with amazing views over the wide sweeping meander of the river. We continued on our own meandering route, through small meadows and patches of ancient woodland, coming out at Frankenbury Iron Age hill fort, skirting part of the hilariously-named Sandy Balls holiday park. We then looped back and retraced our steps through the farmyard.

The following day, with the sun shining, and after a lovely pub lunch with friends, we headed up to the Cherhill White Horse north of Devizes. This is apparently the third oldest in Britain, dating from the late 18th century. Right next to it, on the high ridge, is the Lansdowne Monument, apparently built just to catch the eye in 1845, and currently cordoned off while funds are raised to restore it. The views down across the flat land north of Calne are stunning, with the grassland itself a haven for chalk downland species so typical of Wiltshire. Indeed, on our walk up, we spied numerous butterflies including speckled wood (in the shady hedgerow-lined path) and a possible Adonis blue.

And finally, taking a cheeky day off mid-week, I went on a long-ish loop at Grovely Wood, near Wilton. distracted by blackberries (lots - Autumn is coming!) we eventually found our way back onto the main avenue, spying interesting clumps of fungi along the way.

I feel like I've seen the last vestiges of Summer with the very beginnings of Autumn.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Think that was summer...

Yes, it definitely feels like the nights are drawing in and autumn is imminent. The blackberries are nearly ready, the plums on my tree are ripening, and I'm starting to get some raspberries too.

But, on the wildlife side, there's still a lot of summer going on out there. From my quick walks after work down to the river - accompanied by the second brood of speckled wood butterflies flitting along the tree-lined path - to the flowering buddleia attracting tonnes of butterflies in my garden.

And when we walked into town in the drizzle on Saturday, the riverbank was looking beautiful - a mosaic of purple loosestrife and fleabane, proving that nature completely gets the colour wheel (purple and yellow are on opposite sides - a perfect compliment).

However, what with the patchy drizzle, wind, and very-active butterflies, not any pictures I'm afraid.

But on Sunday we braved the weather - and the tourist hordes - and pottered around Bath for the day. One way of avoiding the crowds was to walk through the lovely botanic gardens - the residents of Bath are very lucky to have this enormous greenspace on their doorstep. the highlight of our walk around here was actually the leopard slug hiding in one of the monuments in the park. This large slug is known to pursue other slugs for dinner at the top speed of 15cm a minute (thanks Wikipedia), and mates suspended on a mucus string. I bet you'll all be looking for leopard slugs now!

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Come rain come shine

Of course, it's mostly been 'shine' for the last few weeks, but even when we had that hideous weekend a couple of weeks ago, we still ventured out!

Actually, when we arrived in Mudeford near Christchurch, it wasn't too bad - very windy but only occasional rain. It did mean the Mudeford Arts Festival was much reduced in size, but after a quick amble along the quay and pub lunch, we decided to brave the conditions for a walk. The waves were quite spectacular - lots of windsurfers out in force - as we walked along the beach, passing the colourful beach huts.

Part of this coast is legally protected as a SSSI, primarily for its geology and erosional processes - lots of slumping clays, sands and gravels, which also make excellent habitat for reptiles and insects. Not that they were evident that day!

This weekend was a different story - baking heat as we walked across St Catherine's Hill into Winchester and back via the Itchen Navigation. Despite the sun-baked ground, there were still enough flowers (knapweed, small scabious, wild carrot etc) to tempt the butterflies down for a sip of nectar. So many fighting chalkhill blues, tussling in the air and making it nearly impossible to photograph their beauty!

And I've just got back from a short foray around Laverstock Down on the outskirts of Salisbury. Again, very sun-baked, but still some flowers present - birds foot trefoil, dwarf thistle, wild carrot, ladies bedstraw, knapweed. Unfortunately the windy conditions rather kept the butterflies at bay, but it was still great to see the vivid patches of colour and the various exquisite flower forms. And lots of sloes on the way too!

The weather looks to be taking a turn for the worse again, but don't we need it?!