On a bright, clear morning the slow-witted naturalist has a chance at a half-decent photograph because the temperature is dropping.
As the year progresses, the remaining dragonflies are slowing up, getting up later, flying less frenetically and sitting around more — low in a bush in the morning sun, trying to warm up.
The only other chance is very early in the morning or shortly after they have emerged, as Tennyson wrote,
“…An inner impulse rent the veil
Of his old husk: from head to tail.
He dried his wings: like gauze they grew;”
The broad bodied chaser is common around our little pond in Mid-Wales — appearing early in the summer and active for a long time. The southern hawker is more dramatic and is aggressive, indulging in arial skirmishes with intruding males along the closely guarded stream-side territory along which he patrols. Passing by every few minutes, easily seen but almost impossible to photograph. “A living flash of light…”
I do my best!
The southern hawker (above) looks so alien with his “plates of sapphire mail” — it is only the fact of scale that prevents me running from this sci-fi inter-stellar gunship as he casts his sinister shadow then disappears in a flash to another dimension.
This pristine brown hawker was drying his wings at Woodwalton fen last summer.
Not to be confused with this rare bird!
We spotted him at Hickling broad this year while we were looking for swallowtail butterflies.
If you notice an ordnance survey plane making passes over our valley, I can tell you that they are checking on the previously overlooked body of water below the ancient earth works on the hill.
You might remember that we got our friend to dig us a pond at the suggestion of the ecologist who came last summer. It has an en-suite compost heap and wood pile.
Well, it filled up in no time from ground water during the driest period anyone remembers.
The septuagenarian who ventures down the bank to plant water mint and forget-me-not and flounders in the slippery mud will now be rendered unconscious by a heavy and over-engineered life-buoy chucked in after him or her by an over-anxious grand-child. As the grand-parent is likely to be heavier than any number of grand-children, a winch may also have to be purchased!
As always though, I can’t help interfering, We have planted hornwort, water lilies, frogbit, yellow irises and bog bean, the latter primed to take over in no time, but it is beautiful. Already much of the pondweed escaped down the overflow and had to be rounded up and marched back — it should have been weighted which we realised when we found the little weights in the bottom of the bag!
Fishes, a mixed blessing, have been spotted, tiny and darting about with their shadows.
We gave up sheep-keeping in our seventies to preserve our mental and, increasingly, our physical equilibrium.
Now the sheep that roam the land around our house belong to Lisa who is young and fit and has 2 tail wagging dogs schooled in the mystic art of ovine manipulation. She comes and does what needs to be done, shouting words of encouragement to her enthusiastic assistants which would raise eyebrows in the lane if anyone was there… No one is there. I watch nostalgically, bending to give my new knee a reassuring pat.
Those ewes all went home to lamb and have been replaced by yearlings
Come bedtime we hear a furious baaing — one must have got its head stuck in the fence again. I do not ring Lisa, I don’t go to bed and think “It’s a grown up — it’ll be okay and it’ll be easier to extract in daylight!’ By force of habit I grab my lambing torch and slip on my waterproof trousers over my pyjamas – (slip? That’s a joke — I wipe the sweat from my brow and look for my wellies.)
There she is, by the light of the torch, not with her head lassoed by the fence but trapped between the newly laid hedge which is definitely stock-proof and the new fence. Proper examination reveals that she must have entered the woodland two fields farther up the 45 degree slope, admitted by a wobbly post — I think I will extract her by driving her back into the woodland by dint of my personality then down the hill and in through the gate at the bottom. Simple! Better open the gate first. What about the other 34 sheep. She is very keen to re-join them so I will pen them in the direction that I want her to go. I’ll do that first. Much re-setting of gates and rushing about ensues. By the time Bill comes out to see if I have fractured my femur yet, the other sheep are safely stowed in the field below the house, baaing occasionally and enjoying the excitement. The gate to the woodland is open.
From my side of the fence I drive her up hill to release her from the hedge — it works but she continues up hill. I climb over and drive her down, the other sheep baa and she heads towards them, re-tracing her tracks and forcing herself between the hedge and he fence again.
Now Bill involves himself in earnest. He rattles the fence and whacks the hedge with a stick. The young ewe turns and forces her way up hill again leaving much of her fleece hooked on the hedge. I am placed at the top end of the laid section of hedge ready to turn her as she escapes from its grasp and drive her down to the gate. I shine the torch, wave my stick and bellow — as she passes I drop my tools and lunge at her neck and we proceed, she with her four-wheel-drive, me horizontal, my arms clamped around her neck. The brambles grab at me but are no match for this determined yearling. We continue our down hill trajectory in the pitch black. I decide she should go alone and let go — she is after all going in the right direction.
I am lying in a hazel thicket quite comfortably below the low branches, I shout to Bill that I am alright and to tell him to position himself to make sure that the infuriated sheep that is hurtling towards him turns right into the field at the bottom and not left up into 6 hectares of dense woodland — not easy as I had the torch. I hear crashing undergrowth and expletives. It goes quiet. I retrieve the torch sustaining only minor head injuries.
Woodland, even woodland that one knows, looks very different at night — quite magical and strange. As I walk down though the woods the bracken and bramble give way to a mossy floor with darkness stretching out between the trees in all directions, there is the sound of bird’s wings as I pass and the occasional shriek and tawny owls are calling to each other around the margins of my perception. Bill is ominously silent now.
It is raining, he is sitting dishevelled on the bank, the gate is still open. There is no sign of my nemesis — she turned left! We turn right and retire to bed, leaving the gate open for her.
Next morning she is in the field behind the house asking to be reunited with her sisters — I close the gate to the woodland then re-unite them.
Browsing the plant life near to the beach at Snettisham I found something unfamiliar — a large attractive flowering shrub growing in the midst of stinging nettles and thistles with quite leathery leaves. It was blowing a gale, black clouds were heaving overhead and I had no gloves to explore more closely. So I took some photos and made haste to the car park!
Here it is again, note the tendrils and the ivy shaped matt leaves. This is white bryony, Bryonia cretica — a climbing perennial related to squash and cucumber but is poisonous — deaths have been recorded. Even drinking milk from cows that have grazed it can be harmful. This one was climbing all over its neighbours, pretending to be a dense bush. Black berries in Autumn but not to be confused with Black Bryony our familiar hedgerow climbing vine which has red berries — is that clear?
Black bryony, I don’t know why they call it black, is also known as lady’s seal or black bindweed, Tamus communis. It is a member of the yam family, twining clockwise, some say ante-clockwise — I suppose it all depends which way you look at it, or whether it grows in the southern hemisphere! It has no tendrils, the leaves are heart-shaped and shiny and all parts are poisonous containing saponins. Intrepid or very hungry folk evidently eat the new shoots when cooked — not recommended, as even if it doesn’t poison you, picking it may bring you out in a nasty rash.
To increase our biodiversity we have long wanted to dig a pond in our woodland — we have tried before — it is not easy manoeuvring a heavy digger in waterlogged mud — what you need, we have learned, is an expert.
We know where to dig from the rushes and willow saplings that grow there (and the dents from previous attempts). In the past, discretion has always forced us back onto solid ground, occasionally with great difficulty! Today the weather is dry and sunny and the nearby stream is the lowest we have ever seen. Meurig, a man at one with his machine — he could use it to peel an orange, has come to help us.
By lunchtime we have a big hole and as he predicted water is appearing all by itself.
The one larger willow will be on its own island — ducks welcome,
By teatime its definitely a pond and filling up fast and I’m looking on the internet for life-belts!
We have uncovered a cache of thick, antique Welsh slate — haphazard sizes, mainly broken that were buried in the mud — they might help waterproof the clay banks — if nobody wants them — does anybody want them?
Don’t worry — it will all green up in no time but we might help a bit with some native pond weed and maybe some yellow flags and buckbean.
Today 4 septuagenarians, one carrying a 10 ft ladder, picked their way along a precipitate and thickly wooded hillside in the foothills of the Cambrian mountains. While others waved flags (today was the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee) we looked for bird nest boxes put up at the end of winter and now hidden in the deep foliage of the Welsh rainforest. Bill and I were trying to help ring this year’s chicks.
A right of passage — to get a number before they leave the nest — for us to monitor what is going on and to make sure we are doing the best we can to help the local birdlife! Most of out boxes only went up this year so expectations were not high as Jan and Jon of the local Habitat Protection Group inspected the 12 boxes which were designed primarily to boost our population of pied flycatchers.
Two of the boxes revealed pied flycatchers, one with a record brood of 9 chicks. The total of 16 chicks in the first year exceeded our wildest dreams.
12 boxes yielded 48 chicks of which 24 were blue tits, 16 pied flycatchers and 8 great tits.
Thanks to the Habitat Protection Group for sharing their time, knowledge, expertise and for their patience and for giving us such a memorable jubilee.
However, if of a squeamish disposition — do not continue.
The clue is in the name — it’s not got black and yellow stripes — it’s a ferocious predator and so is it’s baby which lives in a burrow with only its face showing which will grab any passing creature, like an ant, and munch it up with its formidable jaws.
These lavae become fat and juicy on their diet of hapless insects but if they are unlucky enough to encounter their own specific ichneumon wasp, Methoca ichneumoides, they in turn meet a horrible end. Life is like that! Here is one who has met a sticky end, lying on its back showing its terrible jaws.
Methoca ichneumenoides came along and allowed the beetle lava to pull it into its burrow but then stung it, which paralysed the beetle lava, Methoca then laid a single egg in the body and filled up the top of the burrow with sand. Here you see that the the egg has hatched and the live lava of the wasp has eaten its way out and is chomping on the beetle lava. I suspect the pair were both dug up by a nosey human like me and photographed without permission!
We did not find an example of Methoca on Dunwich Heath last week but we did see another interesting wasp there last time we visited, the red banded sand wasp. It has similar habits.
Click anyway — I think it will work — otherwise search red banded sand wasp on Wikipedia!
County of wide skies, windmills and huge oak trees.
Long shadows, full stomachs and an evening stroll to disturb a barn owl — flying, ghostly white on silent wings, low across the field. You can’t photograph ghosts and anyway he caught us by surprise!
We’d gone out to find this little owl that Bill had seen before — we scoured all its usual roosts but it was nowhere to be seen this year.
Neither could we photograph the bittern that occasionally flew up out of the reed bed at Minsmere to have a go at the low flying marsh harrier in a spectacular display of territorial aggression. Its great thick, flexible brown and yellow flecked neck bending back to stab at the flapping bird of prey. Here is the harrier recovering from the shock.
He is not holding up a grade for artistic merit (which was an A) but sitting on a marsh label so that other watchers in the hide can say ‘BITTERN — flying left to right above D’ and I can still miss it. Here is something else I had difficulty in seeing clearly although he was definitely there, flitting about in the reeds: bearded reedling… not a tit!
Wild horses would not drag Bill from the reserve but the promise of a glossy ibis was too much and we ventured out towards the dome of Sizewell B on yet another wild-ibis-hunt but we did see this fine wild polish konik stallion who looked as if he belonged on an ancient cave painting — look at the thickness of its neck. Not really wild but hardy and not picky when they graze and they don’t mind having wet feet — they were purchased to graze this marshland reserve and tick another conservation box.
On to Dunwich Heath for an ice cream and despite the high wind a wonderful view of a Dartford warbler, which came up and looked at us with its head on one side
Above is a female Dartford warbler photographed in Spain — they are very difficult to catch with a camera, rare and fast and well camouflaged — the male we saw was much more purple — the colour of dry heather, with a grey head like this one, brilliant red eyes and the same bemused expression.
In response to my last blog — on rivers, my friend Steve sent me a copy of his favourite river scene…
It set me thinking… As we look out at the world, what we see depends not so much on where we are standing but who we are.
When the children of our reconstituted family were young, I noticed that if they witnessed an event, an altercation in the street, for instance, when they each told me about it they often interpreted it quite differently. It was startling.
My 15 year old step-son came back from town one day and reported, ‘We were going down the Headlands and this hoity-toity lady had a go at a man who was trying to park his car but he wasn’t going to be bossed about by her, he told her where to get off and no mistake!’
Later my daughter described the same incident, ‘We saw this lady, she was a bit like Gran, and when she asked a man to move his car because it was blocking her drive, he went bananas! He was really rude.
Both perfectly nice kids with eyes and ears that worked, heard the same words but what differed was the way they each saw the world — different genders, different characters, different formative experiences, different viewpoint — they saw it from a different angle.
I think we all have an idea of the world and as we look about we mould what we see and hear to fit this view — it is our nature to want to confirm our preconceptions.
So, is this a river, a train, somewhere to fish or a health and safety issue? Steve says it’s 92 Squadron, a Battle of Britain Class locomotive, built in 1948 to a Southern Railway design at Brighton works. Now at the Nene Valley Railway where it is lovingly tended and where you can visit it.