The lackey in the Cuckmere valley ๐Ÿ›

I was out and about in the Cuckmere Valley in May and had the chance to learn a little bit about some of the species found there. Here’s a small selection of images, a blend of phone pics and some from my camera.

Once again I was treated to the sight of early spider orchids, a plant I blogged about only recently. This was a big surprise, having spent a lot of time looking for them elsewhere. This is a nationally rare plant and I won’t be giving away its location. I did get the chance to learn that the flower mimics the scent of the buffish mining bee. The male bee is lured in and attempts to mate with the flower, thereby pollinating it. In the photo above you can see the pollen grains that have been helpfully, accidentally, applied by the visiting bee.

The mining bees live in the nearest exposed areas of chalk where they drill their burrows. It’s a short commute to their deceptive orchid neighbours.

The blackthorn hedges were holding populations of moth caterpillars that cover the branches in webs of silk. This is the kind of thing that pops up in local newspapers as some kind of wild clickbait. The moth is known as the lackey in English. What the significance of that name (or any of the number of weird moth names) is unclear to me.

We found this proto-Mesolithic (Stone Age) scene, with a discarded King Alfred’s cakes fungus. The fungus had probably been used to maintain the fire of one or more disposable barbecues. The stones were littered across the scorched earth like the throwaways of some prehistoric stone mason.

On the banks of the Cuckmere’s static meanders are ranks of hoary cress. At first I thought they looked like a type of sedum but in fact they’re in the cabbage family. This is an introduced species.

A view back up the Cuckmere meanders, at very low levels for the time of year. Two little egrets can be seen here.

Thanks for reading.

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The South Downs

April flowers at Nymans ๐ŸŒน

My partner and I made a couple of visits to Nyman’s in West Sussex recently to drown our sorrows after the death of our lovely rescue cat. We drowned those sorrows in flowers. Nymans is one of the jewels in the Sussex Weald, with amazing views across woodlands towards the South Downs.

I usually photograph less formal landscapes than National Trust gardens, but perhaps I am too particular sometimes. The stark colours against the grey backdrop of the day (literally) make for really pleasing images. All the pics here are ‘straight out the camera’ and I haven’t edited them. Olympus cameras produce beautiful jpeg files which my experience with Nikon equipment has never matched.

Thanks for reading.

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The homefires burn in the mountains of Mayo ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ช

Here are some landscape images from a March visit to Mayo which I’ve been posting a bit of recently. This landscape fascinates me in many ways: the cultural history (of which my family has links), the ecology and geology. My family’s cottage is located near a mountain range that would probably be classified as hills… Continue reading The homefires burn in the mountains of Mayo ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ช

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Early spider orchids ๐Ÿ•ท๏ธ

Chalk grassland is an incredible habitat. It’s extremely rich in plants and animals, with high cultural value from the historical assosciations with human activity over at least 8000 years. In the UK it defines the downlands of Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset and Wessex. Sounds like an episode of The Last Kingdom. Thankfully I was spared the sword (this time).

In early May I was fortunate enough to visit a chalk grassland site near Brighton with two people who knew the landscape extremely well. I had been invited to visit this area to help find early spider orchids 3 years ago but the pandemic got in the way of travelling there.

A landscape raked by stone, bone and iron

I visited on a sunny day in what was a very dry spring indeed (I hate how dry winter 2021/spring 2022 have been). We had heard of hundreds of orchids in recent weeks at the site but only found 3. It was baffling. Perhaps we were just too late and the dry conditions had brought an end to their season earlier than expected.

These orchids get their names from the fact their flower looks like a spider. You may be familiar with the names of bee, fly, man, lady, lizard and monkey orchids also.

They are truly beautiful.

During the survey a woman came over to talk about orchids. Her knowledge was incredible, with known locations across Kent and Sussex. She travelled by train from her home in north London.

She showed us a gentian, a type she said was only found at this location in the UK.

Perhaps the most abundant plant was milkwort, appearing in white, pink and blue.

This is some kind of daisy (probably hawkbit) with petals that look like hands shielding something.

There were a fair number of small beetles in the grasslands, including this click beetle (I think).

A nice surprise was finding a small blue, one of the rarest butterflies in the UK. This is a very small blue, though most of them in Britain are small anyway. They’re pretty much tied to chalk grasslands from what I know.

Thanks to Phillippa, Jan, James and Monica.

And thanks for reading.

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The South Downs

Tooth of the lion ๐Ÿฆ

Back in London and a chance to see what my Mum and Dad’s garden had to show for itself on the first day of May. This is when we really start to get into the pollinator season, which peaks in July. The weather was perfect for macro with no harsh light.

The forget-me-nots were still on fine form.

I noticed how the dandelions in their pre-flowering phase also look like lions. Their name actually means tooth of the lion from the French “dent-de-lion”, which is one of the great common plant names in my view. Also a reminder of how the English language takes from so many others (did you know English also contains ‘Viking’ words like sky, eggs, and happy?!) The leaves look like teeth but the flowers look like lion’s manes. Iโ€™d love to learn more about the history of the name in England.

The ladybirds were quite active. We may be looking at the invasive harlequin here.

I saw this micro-moth on a few occasions, if they are the same species. Their behaviour was similar and their patterning is also.

It’s always nice to see a bee-fly, unless you’re their prey. They can’t have much longer left of their season.

This cucumber spider was hiding away in a buddleia leaf.

This is one of the first green shieldbugs Iโ€™ve seen this year. They are a really common garden bug in England.

Mirid bugs are a quite big group, but this is definitely one species Iโ€™ve encountered often in suburban gardens.

My Dad spent ages trying to control the Spanish bluebells that were running rampant. They are a difficult species to remove. That said they are attractive both for photos and some pollinators like mason bees.

My final image was of a hoverfly I see quite a lot that holds its wings in to its body, making it difficult to observe its markings. I think this one looks like a metallic robot from a 1980s sci-fi movie.

Thanks for reading.

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Forget-me-nots and tawny mining bees ๐Ÿ“ท

I spent Good Friday with my Mum in London and managed to sneak in 5 minutes of macro photography in her garden. It was a warm but fairly overcast afternoon, which is pretty perfect for macro. This is because the light is softer, creating less contrast in images, and not so hot that insects are hyperactive.

Every spring my Mum and Dad’s garden explodes with self-seeded forget-me-nots, lesser celandines and garlic mustard. The forget-me-nots are truly stunning flowers.

Up close and under a macro lens they are even better. I didn’t get a photo of their full spread, but this tweet completely sums up how I feel about them:

I think it’s a good idea to normalise calling certain things ‘wildflowers’ rather than ‘weeds’.

Years ago my Dad used an old enamel sink to make a pond. We put some marsh marigold in which has proven very content indeed in that small basin. It’s a good nectar source for bees in particular.

One of my Dad’s favourite plants in the garden was the smokebush which grows outside the kitchen window. The colours are incredible when in full swing, but the plant is no less beautiful when it comes into leaf. One of the last proper conversations with my Dad was when I told him I had cut this back (it was getting quite big) and he thanked me for it. I can’t tell you how significant that is now.

I noticed a familiar bee whizzing around the gooseberry bush – another of my Dad’s favourites, which he would pick fruit from and put into desserts, but also curse the woodpigeons who sometimes ate all the crop in one go! This little red bee is a tawny mining bee, one of the early solitary bee species that we get in southern England. Here you can see it pollinating the gooseberry flowers, that highly valuable ecosystem service you may have heard about. Also note the ant approaching!

The ant is clearly approaching the bee, which in turn is shifting ready to fly. You can just about make out the ant’s mandibles opening in a threatening manner.

The ant has done its job and the tawny mining bee has fled the scene. I can only guess that the ant sees the bee as a threat to any aphid farming operations which are taking place on the plant, or happening nearby. The mining bee is no threat to the ant or the aphids. It only wants nectar and pollen.

I didn’t know that I had captured this scene – it is out of focus after all! But it is a reminder if you spend even a few minutes looking you will find some drama going on out there.

Thanks for reading.

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Is it safe to come out yet? ๐Ÿ‘€

Two years ago I began posting a weekly macro blog, mainly because of the UK Covid-19 lockdowns, which only allowed us to leave the house once a day. I kept to those rules to protect other people, ultimately sacrificing much of the time I would have been able to spend with my Dad in the final two years of his life. If you’re in the UK and in touch with current affairs, I think you probably know why I’m making that point. During the lockdowns I spent a lot of time in my garden, in a house we had only just moved into, and relished the opportunity to get to know the tiny lives being lived in the small space of my back garden.

I mention all this because I now have nothing like the same amount of time to spend outdoors in the garden. So what time I do have out there is precious. One thing that hasn’t changed too much is that I am one of those privileged people who is able to work flexibly and I can visit my garden on breaks. I’m yet to receive a passive aggressive post-it note from a bespectacled Somerset MP.

I popped out one morning recently and found a neighbour had returned, though they were rather nervous about leaving their own quarters. For many people, it’s a similar issue.

Last June I got some of my best ever macro photos as I leant over my fence, straining my lower back to capture photos of a fencepost jumping spider. I was pleased to see this beautiful spider in the same spot once again this year. It was rather timid and if I got too close it would dart back in. The photo above has been edited to bring out the shadows so you can see those beautiful cartoon eyes. I think this species is mainly interested in hunting the flies and other winged-insects that bask on the hot spot of the fence top.

The spider did venture out on occasion, but after a couple of minutes I felt it was best to leave it to do its work, what is of course key to its survival.

Thanks for reading.

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Fungi ๐Ÿ„: March smatterings

Last week I went for a walk in rather grey and glowery weather. It was in hope of seeing some earlier spring signs but was more a reminder that winter persists.

I found a small collection of glistening inkcaps, along with one of my favourite large brackets. Those are pictured here with my hand for scale.

Otherwise there were some small polypores (probably turkey tail) and a few lichens that had been enriched by recent rain.

Life is rather full-on at the moment so Iโ€™m not finding the time or energy to write something longer or more detailed. Itโ€™s also a mental thing, just donโ€™t have a lot to say. Photography will be the focus in posts for a little while.

Thanks for reading.

Solidarity with the people of Ukraine ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ฆ

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Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: the glowing bracken

One morning recently, I spent a couple of hours wandering around my local tract of the Sussex Weald. The bracken and beech were glowing as the sun edged its way up through trees. The sun had blown the world wide open. After a personal self-imposed Omicron lockdown to protect a significant event, it felt like the sun had ripped up that anxious feeling of being locked away. Life was in full flow:

Sun rising, melting the frost and ice in the woods. Winter bird flocks – blue tit, nuthatch, siskin, lesser redpoll. Great spotted woodpecker hammering to mark out its territory. The chirp of a skylark passing over the canopy, perhaps on migration, maybe heading to the South Downs. The hollow sound of the M23 and aeroplanes connected to nearby Gatwick. The strategic calls of crows. A jay screeching. Gunshots pop beyond the woods.

The light in January and February appears at a fairly sociable hour, and after frost the landscape glistens even more. At this time I seek out beech leaves, with their patchworks of fading cells and arrowing veins.

I was using my 12-100mm f4 zoom lens, with more a mind for landscapes, when I spotted this bracken frond dangling down with a droplet of water at its tip. The sun was creeping up through the pines in the distance. The melting frost in its path upon reaching the bracken providing the lush bokeh circles that bed the image down.

I read recently that the photons of sunlight that touch our skin take 200,000 years to travel from the sun itself. That’s around the time that our ancient Homo sapiens ancestors were evolving. So often we can barely see weeks or months ahead when the world we live in is so ancient in its making, it can feel impossible to comprehend. Taking the time to stop and think about it makes life so much richer.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: hoar frost

I am a big fan of Russian film and literature. Nature, wildlife and the landscape is often at the forefront of this great field of art. It’s the beating heart of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the poems of Anna Akhmatova and the short stories of Anton Chekhov. The vastness of Russia’s landscapes is central to much of the art to have come out of that amazing and poorly understood country (especially in the UK & US).

In Chekhov’s short stories there are simple, beautiful descriptions of nature. Chekhov travelled widely as a doctor, treating people across Siberia. It’s where he also found time to write his short stores, and much of that work was inspired by his encounters with ‘ordinary people’. The first place that I ever heard of hoar frost, was in one of his short stories.

Living in cities for most of my life where the heat-island effect quickly melted frost and ice, I didn’t really have the chance to see this until moving out to Sussex.

Ground frost forms when the air is still and cold, usually on clear winter nights. Water vapour in the air condenses on solid surfaces, and as the surface temperature drops below 0ยฐC, ice crystals form.

The Woodland Trust: What is hoar frost and how does it form?

The other day on a morning walk before starting work, I saw something close to it. The night before had been clear and full of stars. In the morning I was walking near the river Arun when I began to notice the heavily-frosted grass heads of bent, on the edge of a tennis court where the strimmer can’t reach.

Frost will always remind me of my dad telling us as children that if you put your hand down the sides of the bed Jack Frost would get you (I wrote about this almost exactly a year ago). The cold down there felt so real. Dad got this story from his childhood, when he and his siblings would wake up in their house in Liverpool to find frost inside the windows. My grandmother would greet them all and say that Jack Frost had been to visit. Apparently they absolutely loved that he’d dropped by in the night!

I didn’t have a macro lens with me on this walk, but I pushed my camera’s capabilities to that point. Looking closely at a frosted web which was beginning to lose its frostiness, I noticed a non-biting midge that had become trapped probably days before. The beads of the melted frost were trapped in its hairy antennae and around its limbs. It would look spectacular in extreme close up, but without that equipment at the time, a view of the ‘unfortunate’ insect’s final resting space will suffice.

Thanks for reading.

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My fungal year 2021 ๐Ÿ„

Happy New Year! Another pandemic year in the bag (yay) and a chance to look at some of my fungal highlights of the year that was.

I do appreciate that this post title does sound like I’m updating people on how my infection is going. That’s not the case.

My first fungi post was during England’s winter lockdown when we had to all stay at home again. Options for fungi photography were not great so I delved into my own wood-wide web. The post was about a favourite subject of mine, lichens on Dartmoor in SW England:

January 2021 also turned out to have a little mushroom boom:

Dark times continued through February 2021, but some brightly coloured jelly fungus provided a light in the dark:

Being privileged enough to work from home during the winter lockdown, I spent a lot of time at a computer. Behind me was a yukka plant that had spent the summer months outside. I was amazed (and a bit disturbed) to see that mushrooms were fruiting over my shoulder!

As winter drew to a close one fungus stood out in the woods:

A dry spring until April came with heavy rain. I finally worked out what common inkcaps were:

I gave two lockdown Zoom talks about fungi in 2021, one for London Wildlife Trust (video didn’t materialise) and one for Bell House, a learning charity based in SE London:

In July I found some very nice mushrooms and tried a bit of camera focus-stacking:

One of the few trips I managed to Sussex’s more remote ancient woodlands was in July:

A quick whip round an area of Ashdown Forest in August revealed some early signs of autumn:

I notice perhaps more deathcaps than I’d seen before when out and about in September:

A slow start to the autumn fungi season was dominated by these purple mushrooms in October:

One of my highlights of the year was encountering the stunning violet webcap:

At the crossing of October and November I was lucky enough to spend a couple of nights in Dartmoor National Park. It was dripping with mushrooms, a really special experience:

Thanks for reading and for your support in a challenging year for all.

Daniel

Previous ‘my fungal years’: