Everything appears to be stuck in a repetitive pattern at the moment. Rain, wind, rain, wind, rain, flood, sunshine, groundhogs having their day over and over again (oh yeah they're meant to). BBC reporting on said weather plumbing new depths of stupidity, making Playschool appear like a health and safety free-for-all (do they still make Playschool? I liked the arched window best). And the frogs are still at it in the pond - more spawn than water again.
To be fair the weather has kept us at the coalface, enabling us to put together the farm exhibition (see homepage) and me to bleat on about it on twitmaster. But it has been fun painting and linocutting the characters at Manor Farm. We're working on new images for the show all the time and plan evolve the contents throughout the three months it's on.
During the moments of sunshine that have coincided with a weekend, we've popped out for a breath of fresh air - along with most of the populace of Hampshire.
The first involved a hike up the River Hamble, from Warsash to Swanwick and back. Part of this route took us along the seawall that protects 'Bunny Meadows', part of the Hook-with-Warsash nature reserve. The 'Meadow' couldn't be less of a bunny magnet if it tried. Instead it is an area of saltmarsh whose low-tide mud is more of a bird magnet and a great place to watch waders and wildfowl. Our visit revealed a good selection of estuary bird vignettes; swirling flocks of dunlin, grey plover relaxing in the winter sun, a confiding kingfisher and a loafing grey heron stirred from it's drowsy state by three roe deer crashing through the marshes.
To be honest it was just nice to be out and stretching those leg muscles again.
Our other excursion from the desks was a more considered expedition to the New Forest. The blue skies told us that we had to be out, but the same message was probably being received by the rest of the world and his dog. So the plan was to take a walk away from the grockle trails - an area north from the car park at Acres Down was our destination. And it worked for two hours we hardly met a soul, the trouble was we hardly met any wildlife either. That was until we were nearly back to car and a distinctive 'chup, chup' call, alerted us to the presence of crossbills. The first calls were repeated and then mixed with a reeling/buzzing call of young birds begging to be fed. All this took place high in the treetops and once they had moved on, we were left with aching necks, but happy to have seen some activity at last. As we made our way back to the car we continued to hear and see more crossbills.
As a finale several hundred chaffinches, flitted amidst the beech trees, feeding on the beech mast, sometimes moving like a mass of discarded litter caught in a breeze. Secreted among them were a few brambling, unveiled by their white rumps in flight, only landing briefly to reveal their handsome orange and black colours before melting back into the mass of the flock.
I'm relieved to say that with Christmas nearly upon us, I've managed to resist purchasing one of those ladyboys advertised on t'telly. Quite why a famous furniture store would be selling them is not clear, but for a moment I was nearly tempted.
It's said that if you look hard enough you will find everything on your doorstep - Readers Digest magazine said it or perhaps I have made it up, somebody must have uttered these words at some stage in the history of the universe, surely.
Anyway, what I wanted to say was, Paulsgrove Chalkpit is pretty damn near to our doorstep and we've never been there before. Actually if I'm honest we didn't find everything there, not even the ring ouzels that the world and their dog had seen. But we did see lots of chiffchaffs and we met some very interesting people and learned a lot about the history of the area. One chap pointed out the caves that had been dug out of the chalk face by the landowner as air raid shelters during WW2 and described Dead Man's Copse, tucked away on the hillside, where several war memorial plaques had been placed. Another man told us that he had them there ring ouzlem birds in his back garden - there's always one. Ok, so not everything on our doorstep, but a fair amount. We'll be back there in the summer to mop-up the rest of everything though, because it's a fine piece of chalk downland, brilliant for flowers and butterflies.
Also in October. Going against our rule of not chasing birds, we did. A semi-palmated plover had been discovered on Hayling Island, a really good American wader and very rare to these shores. Couldn't resist it. However, after a couple hours, all the gnawing factors that lead to the making of the rule had manifested themselves. I won't say what they are, because that would make me appear grumpy and I'm not, no really I'm not.....well a bit. But as luck would have it, after scoffing a lovely sausage roll sat in our car. The deluge that had forced us to take shelter had also dissolved most of the crowds away, leaving a handful of us to watch the bird at leisure. The plover was roosting on the beach with other waders including a beautiful group of sanderling, most of them sporting an assortment of coloured legwear. Gradually the plover revealed all the features that made it what it was, leaving me confident that at least I would know what to look for if I was ever faced with identifying one of these cute critters on my own. Then on an unseen signal the flock of birds was gone. On a hunch we went back to a place where it had been seen before. All the supporting crew were there, but not the semi-p. Gnawing grumpiness began to creep up again, time to go.
Ho! Ho! Ho!
As the dusk cast it's last shadows of the day, once again you shared your secrets.
It began with the arrival of small parties of birds, some from the east, but mainly from the west. Gradually a few groups started to gravitate together, forming a drifting cloud. Others took the opportunity for last a feed of leatherjackets on the grassy banks of the lake. Occasionally the main group swirled. This was turning out to be a lovely end to the day. Then as if re-enacting the final scenes from Close Encounters the mothership appeared from nowhere, thousands upon thousands of birds filled the sky. If I was trendy I would write something like 'totally awesome man', but I'm not so I'll have to put up with wow!
I have no idea how birds were involved, it didn't really matter. The mass drifted over the roosting site, waiting for the right moment to drop in. Something stirred and they moved like a Mexican wave, a peregrine smashed through them causing chaos. Suddenly the sky was full of shapes, each twitch of a wing by the leading bird causing a dramatic ripple. We ticked them off: mushroom, lapwing, lady in a hat, sumo wrestler, sphinx, helter-skelter and two things that I couldn't possibly describe on this page. The spectacle continued, until when on a given signal they funnelled at speed into the trees and reeds, leaving the sky a blank canvas once again. Wow indeed!
We had only popped in on Blashford to see a bittern - how 'so yesterday' can a bird become.
Bye bye shed. Faithful friend to the garden for over twenty years.
Sometimes cranky, but always welcoming to visitors to the garden: large tortoiseshell, barred warbler, wood warbler, firecrest and redstart to name a few of the more exotic wanderers that bided a while. And home to: wood mice, giant spiders, slugs, snails, wrens and third favourite niecelet.
But every now and then things must change and where once a bitsa shed stood, there now stands proudly a brand new outside lavvy.
For once the papers have got something right. Shock horror! It doesn't happen very often, but on this occasion they are correct. I know it is, because I've seen it for myself.
Whinchats and wheatears lining in rows on fences, waiting for the 'all clear' night. Yellow wagtails gathering in groups around cow dung, in search of duty free. Menacing gangs of starlings lurking on rooftops mugging unsuspecting wood pigeons in backgarden diners. Hundreds of whitethroats drunk on blackberry juice - purple poo used as evidence. Thousands of swallows and martins forced to sleep over night in cramped reedbed departure lounges. Hobbys and sparrowhawks ambushing said hapless hirundines. A brown shrike VIP (very important passerine) receives fast-track exit visa, while local birdy dude is stuck in Midlands detention centre.
What can this all mean? Has the BNP finally taken over the asylum? No.........it means winter is coming, time to put the shorts away for another year.
I've also been watching clouded yellows this autumn. On one day at a coastal site I counted them flying past at a rate of one a minute for half an hour. Then a little later what were possibly the same lot flying back again in the opposite direction. Why? Chill-out fellas, take time to smell the flowers - give us a chance to sketch you. Update. Noar Hill clouded yellows much more relaxed - must have been on the nectar.
Apart from a naughty boy singing his hiccough song in my head for most of the autumn and having an uncontrollable urge to sing Status Quo numbers whenever Dan Downs is giving his weather forecast on the local news. Most of our time has been taken with interpretation for the Wildlife Trust.
As I write gentle rain is falling giving the garden plants a well earned drink, it also subdues the seven thousand large whites that of late have been attacking our legumes. Who ever named them cabbage white must have been short-sighted? Surely they should be known as 'eats anything green' white.
Anyway, in complete contrast the previous day was warm and sunny. Just right for a wander about. Going against our cardinal rule of never going into the Forest on a holiday weekend, we headed off for an area we hadn't really explored before - Bolton's Bench, Lyndhurst. Arriving long before the crowds amassed at the Forest's main town, we set off towards Bolton's Cemetery. A peaceful old style setting with mature conifers and gravestones covered in lichens. A coal tit fed not unexpectedly in the conifers and young redstarts flitted among the stone statues and graves.
Out on the calendar picture lilac heath, we soon found more families of redstarts - zipping around gorse bushes, keeping clear of dogs and their owners. The heath was a patchwork of different age structures, from building through to mature - heath management at it's best. Further along we started noting grayling butterflies sunning themselves on bare sandy patches of ground. One took exception to sharing it's space with a pristine painted lady and seemed to invest far too much energy in chasing it off.
We wanted to explore Mallard Wood and we eventually made it in spite of all the distractions on the way. The aim was see ivy leaved bellflower and after a few hours spent sifting among a lot of damp, shady woodland we.......gave up, we had failed miserably. However, lesser water plantain and some more redstarts were some compensation.
Returning to the car, a shallow ephemeral pool buzzed with manic dragonfly activity. Male common darters lived up to their name, being both darty and common. Occasionally so involved were their aerial combats, they nearly became lunch for a patrolling emperor. Further on a 'tchacking' call alerted us to the presence of stonechats posing on the ling. As we delighted in these splendid fellows, we noted yet more redstarts and groups of meadow pipits - more indication that autumn is only around the corner.
To overcome our devastation of failing to see the bellflower, we decided to pop down to Pig Bush to seek out the marsh gentians that grow there. A guaranteed favourite to cheer our souls. Yeah but,...but! They weren't there. Marsh gentian is a fabulous ultramarine trumpet of a flower, but it is susceptible to being overshadowed by maturing heather. So to prevent them being overgrown the area is periodically burnt back, allowing the gentian space to regenerate. The consequence of this is that it can take up to three years before they flower again. Ho hum. As luck would have it this had been a burn and regenerate year (there, you didn't know that marsh gentian was Timelord),so there was no sign of it.
But there is always something else to see. In this case an egg-laying grayling. An oddly awkward affair that involved much twitching and fussing about, that culminated in the female raising her body handstand-like on her forelegs and then slowly lowering her abdomen onto an approved stem to deposit her egg.
Another sure sign of summers end was the appearance of three migrant hawkers gracefully hanging in a head wind in search of afternoon tea. Golden-ringed dragon and southern hawker added to what was quite a good day for big dragons.
Heading home, away from Lyndhurst, we noted the queue to get into the Forest from Southampton stretching miles back to Ashurst.
Oh yes. Schlop! The sound of ones finger being pulled out.
With autumn now upon us it's time for a little reflection on the summer. Well it finally kicked-off for the dragons and butterflies, not before time either. However the joy for us this summer has been the spectacular show of flowers, especially orchids. Thousands of lesser butterfly and heath spotted in the Forest. Carpets of common spotted, pyramidal, fragrant, common twayblade, musk and a few violet helleborine gracing the grassland of Noar Hill - utter delight (it appears that the heavy duty munchers havn't trashed the reserve at all).
It's also been great to note that the local council have kept their mad mowers on a short leash this year and not cut every growing plant to within an inch of it's life. Leaving islands of colour and food for the inverts. Whether by luck or design, good on ya!
Butterfly tip. You know how purple hairstreaks prefer to frequent the tops of giant oaks and you need the use of an astral telescope to make them visible. Well the trick is, find a site where the oaks are stunted and the little beauties will perform their socks off in the tree tops thinking they are miles up, but are really only at our eye-level. Such a place is the Browndown Ranges - watch out for low-flying squadies though.
I've been revisiting old sketchbooks, reliving moments from my twitching days, for a large format art book to be published by The Langford Press in the spring 2014. Blimey what japes! Good fun at the time, but not so tempting these days.
Finally. I was watching the BBC morning news recently, supping me mug of tea. When I spotted one of my old interpretation panels being used to illustrate a feature on the lack of butterflies being seen this year. I was just about to boost to Rosie that my stuff was on't telly, when she piped up 'blimey they're desperate for some decent interpretation'.
Back to the day job!
A little later than planned, we popped back to see how the grebes were doing at Lakeside. On arrival we noted that there was a sporting event taking place, I believe it was called a triathlon - a series of physical tortures thought up by sadists and inflicted on the dim-witted in the belief that it will 'do you some good'. During our short visit there I saw absolutely no evidence that it did anybody any good whatsoever and simply boost the share prices of well known lubricant products.
The was also no evidence of the grebes. Who were obviously alarmed by all the unnecessary sweatiness and had left for more sensibly climes. Which is exactly what we did and at a pace that decorum allowed.
Otherwise lots have been occurring; hare bears, catchflies, bastard balms, bastards, orchids and pearls. Some of which I'll come back to if time allows.
The sun warm on our backs.
The soft notes of a blackbird float gently on the air. Sometimes joined by the scratchy song of newly arrived redstarts.
Brilliant yellow brimstone butterflies flash by on patrol.
Maybe, just maybe spring is here at last.
Mark Ash Woods: wood sorrel, fifteen plus brimstone, bee-fly, two treecreeper nests, willow warbler, cuckoo, seven redstart....
I've been enjoying sketching with Rexel Cumberland, Derwent Studio coloured pencils of late. Sadly my burnt umber is now down to a stub, so if any Rexel reps are out there and like the plug I've given them....................
well you never know!
A meeting with the RSPB at the Hayling Island Oysterbeds to look at future interpretation for the site could only mean one thing. Fish n' chips at the seaside!
We duly arrived a couple of hours before the meet-up and sat like 'Howard and Hilda' munching away, paper bags full of scrummy lunch sat in our laps - if only we had brought a Thermos of tea and a rug, then life would have been an ever decreasing circle!
Scram scoffed, we wandered off for a reconnoitre. The Oysterbeds have long stopped producing oysters commercially, but in recent times they have been preserved as saline lagoons and managed for wildlife by the RSPB and Havant & Hampshire councils among others. And a pretty fine site for birds it is too. During the winter months it acts as a roosting area for many thousands of wader, along with ducks and geese. In the summer the islands are home to nesting little terns, black-headed gulls and of late Mediterranean gulls.
Oddly though, it seems that no matter what time of year you visit, it's always blinkin' freezin'. Temperature aside, it was also clear from the birds we noted that winter was ever clinging on. Brent geese, wigeon and small flocks of
dunlin, grey plover and oystercatcher all vied for roosting space among the gulls, who were noisily setting up home for the summer on the islands.
But all was not ills and chills, a tiny, yet certain sign that spring is finally beginning to reign came in the form of a
steady and most welcome trickle of swallows sweeping Northwards over the meadows. Returning to the carpark along the old Hayling Billy Line, more clues to sunnier times to come revealed themselves. A splash of purple from the flowers of ground ivy, bumble bees motoring indiscreetly around the grassland and three whimbrel passing overhead. Just enough to bring further warmth to our cockles or should that be oysters.
If you're expecting words of wisdom from Dan and Rosemary you may be sadly disappointed. However, if you want to keep up to date with our current projects then pick up the feed at the top of this column.