A spring epistrophe? 🐝

Another week of some sun, some showers, and some temperatures that got close to freezing. That sentence may turn out to be a spring epistrophe, but more of that later. In Scotland it reached as low as -5C. April 2023 has been a mishmash of seasons. Here’s what I encountered in my garden on 22nd April.

One of the joys of this time of year has to be the red mason bee. They are tricky to catch up with sometimes away from their bee boxes, but I managed to get close enough to this red-haired male in the skimmia hedge.

This is a mining bee that I can recall seeing each year early in the season. I’m not sure of the species, but it has a likeness to the chocolate mining bee.

I tried with this rather slender-shaped mining bee, but it didn’t like Homo sapiens approaching with a camera and macro lens, however small that equipment is nowadays.

He’s not quite in focus but this hairy-footed flower bee stopped for a snap. Never mind his hairy feet, look at those legs! They do look a bit like tiny Highland cows to me.

To finish this week’s post, I noticed this medium-sized hoverfly in the skimmia. Putting it on iNaturalist I received a quick response, identifying it as spring epistrophe. It has a huge range, from Sweden to northern Spain, and then as far as Ireland to the Caucasus (Russia). Its name obviously means it’s a spring arrival, but ‘epistrophe’: “repetition of a word or expression at the end of successive phrases, clauses, sentences, or verses especially for rhetorical or poetic effect” – via Miriam-Webster.

I’ll have to listen to the hoverfly more closely next time.

Thanks for reading.

Macro

Apaches over the Downs

Steyning, West Sussex, February 2023

A walk from Steyning, along the field edge with those lumpy Downs caught in a smoke-like haze. The sun beat over the hilltops, the trees naked, grey and brown without leaves. Hazel catkins were the only decorations.

We walked through an old farm replete with buildings that seemed to be crumbling. The ground underneath was churned up with that grey gloop where the downland chalk meets the Wealden mud, a Sussex special.

The woods were cold and quiet except when labourers felled a tree somewhere in the shade of the Downs. It crashed down and broke into pieces. No doubt an ash tree, dead or dying like so many of them across this once ashy landscape.

On the banks there were the first signs of woodland spring, with dogs mercury leafing and some flowering.

Rising up towards Chanctonbury Ring, the views north were dulled by a dense grey fog that looked like London’s winter pollution belt.

A stand of dead ash trees led to the top of the Downs, where a pair of marsh tit passed between the brittle branches, calling as they moved from tree to tree.

A new vista opened out with the views south, hills folding away into the haze. Black trees breaking the lines.

Further along the South Downs Way a great roaring emerged from the south and an Apache helicopter flew low overhead. It felt too low. A flock of what I thought were starlings were spooked and seemed to fly right at the helicopter.

A second helicopter appeared, banking north and turning 90 degrees as it slid over the edge of the Downs and dropped out of view into the Weald beyond.

A man came past on a bike and stopped to speak to us, registering our surprise: ‘Have you never been here when they do that? I just hope they’re training Ukrainian soldiers and that they’ll be sending them out there.’

We heard stories of accidents that had happened when the appearance of sudden, low-flying military aircraft had disrupted the flow of civil life in the wider landscape.

Up ahead beyond the enclosed South Downs Way, cattle grazed the green hill, unperturbed by the helicopters. In the valley to the south one of the few hedgerows to be seen jangled with the key-song of corn buntings.

Thanks for reading.

The South Downs

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A tale of two hedges in the South Downs

Amberley, West Sussex, February 2023

The light was low over the Arun valley. To the south the Sussex coast was a band of grey concrete, the horizon between sky and sea broken only by the pale sticks of the offshore wind farms. The Isle of Wight rested out at sea to the west like a great sleeping sloth.

The Arun’s floodplain had traces of silver, the remains of January floods. The rain had gone quiet in recent weeks, and so the wetlands were receding back to the river.

The birds were quiet, too. Every now and then a small flock broke and reformed in leafless branches, possibly linnets, goldfinches, chaffinches, it was hard to tell. A red kite followed the crests of the Downs for much of the seven I walked along the South Downs Way that day.

When I first turned off the main road onto the trail, I saw a couple planting out the fresh green leaves of cherry laurel, no doubt to screen their farmland. I gasped but said nothing. They worked at speed, focused intently on their planting. 

Cherry laurel is one of the most invasive and ecologically destructive shop-bought species in the UK. I’ve spent much of my recent working life removing it from oak woods. I firmly believe it should be banned from sale. Holly and yew do just as good a job as screening hedges and are nowhere near as destructive. England’s most ecologically rich and diverse woodlands are usually oak, a tree that loses out every single time to cherry laurel. It can also become established in downlands, of which the South Downs are famous.

A couple of weeks ago I was working with a group of volunteers pulling cherry laurel saplings from an ancient oak woodland that holds a diversity of broad-leaved tree species, namely: oak, ash, wych elm, hazel, holly, yew, field maple, hawthorn, guelder rose, and more. Where cherry laurel has become established in this woodland, all of these species would disappear without intervention. So the task was very clear – remove the self-seeded laurel saplings before they become established and reduce the woodland to a monoculture of one species.

That is the fundamental issue with monocultures of invasive species: the diversity of plants, fungi and animals dies out. That is bad for everyone and everything, even laurel eventually.

This is a tree that originates in the Balkans and is available in most garden centres as a quick-growing, glossy evergreen to create a screen in a garden. It’s also toxic.

Of course there are many species which have toxic chemicals in them, and humans are experts at introducing them to the environment, but I’ve personally felt the impact of laurel’s toxicity. 

Some years ago I somehow got a very small laurel splinter into the vein in my wrist. The following day my wrist swelled-up and a line appeared down the middle-underside of my forearm from the site of the splinter. I went to the accident and emergency and was forwarded through to a care unit where they injected my hand with antibiotics and took several tests, including an ECG. They puzzled over the issue and sent me home with a prescription of more antibiotics. Laurel wasn’t even on their register of toxic plants on that December day in 2017. The infection dropped away after the NHS’s treatment and a few weeks later a miniscule, redundant piece of laurel splinter appeared from my wrist.

Cherry laurel contains cyanide in its leaves and is used by entomologists, or so I’ve heard, to create kill jars for trapping invertebrates. That said, yew is of course also toxic, and the cherry family (which laurel resides in) holds cyanide as a defence mechanism in many of its relatives. The laurel is just doing what’s in its nature, its our role in spreading it to places where it causes harm that is an issue.

Along the South Downs Way, there was much better news. For miles I observed a trench dug into a farmer’s field and saplings of hawthorn and other native hedgerow species planted. This new hedgerow spread for several miles, an incredible contribution from the farmer, or perhaps volunteers who had been involved. Britain has lost 50% of its native mixed hedgerows since the Second World War and, in a landscape home to declining farmland birds like corn bunting and yellowhammer, this new habitat will make a huge difference.

In this case, the difference will be a positive one.

Thanks for reading.

The South Downs

SOLVED: Mystery sea creature drama in Worthing 🦀

A new year walk on a very busy stretch of the West Sussex coastline. Proof, if you needed it, that I can do watery blogs.

Now, I am a total novice when it comes to marine ecosystems. I know mostly where the sea is and that the moon has convinced it to sway back and forth. It’s also made of water, among other things.

When it comes to crabs, however, nah.

My partner is a beach scourerer, snapping into squirrel-of-the-shore the moment she steps foot on a beach. She found this bizarre-looking shell/casing/wild packaging. I took a pic and then popped it onto iNaturalist. No dice.

I asked ‘marine ppl’ on Twitter. It appears this kind of person is particularly active on a Monday evening! Many replies later it turned out that it was a likely reproductive pouch of a female spiny spider crab. Thanks to everyone who helped.

Interestingly, a couple of other people had posted the exact same thing on the Worthing coastline in recent days. It shows the power of social media for community science and ecological learning, not just the misinformation, hate and division it seems famous for.

Sometimes iNaturalist doesn’t get the job done, often because the photos are technically inadequate. The very active ‘nature communities’ on Twitter can reach many people with helpful info, and very quickly. I find that with identification it’s a matter of several avenues of knowledge and information. In the same way that there is no one winning wildlife field guide, and definitely not for fungi.

On another note, I was kicking myself after forgetting to try and find Mercury and Venus slipping away with the Sun out at sea. Then again, a band of cloud on the horizon may have blocked any views. Maybe another time.

Thanks for reading.

December leaves 🍂

One of my favourite things to photograph in winter is a frost-encrusted leaf. Where the frost remains long enough it allows for us non-early risers to enjoy some at lunchtime (to look at, rather than eat).

On the morning of Thursday 8th December I could hear sycamore leaves falling in the garden. There was a thick frost, the trigger for these leaves to let go.

At a nearby nature reserve I found this yellow hawthorn leaf, a colour hawthorn isn’t really known for. It’s one of the most underrated trees, despite its prevalence, and ecological and cultural value in England.

The image doesn’t do the real thing justice but even lichens get frosty sometimes. This is a little cluster of oak moss lichen that had fallen from a tree.

Thanks for reading.

Sussex Weald

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A spring epistrophe? 🐝

Another week of some sun, some showers, and some temperatures that got close to freezing. That sentence may turn out to be a spring epistrophe, but more of that later. In Scotland it reached as low as -5C. April 2023 has been a mishmash of seasons. Here’s what I encountered in my garden on 22nd…

Is this England’s national mushroom? 🍄

On a recent visit to the National Trust’s Nymans Gardens I spotted some big, cream-coloured things in the lawns near the car park. No, these were not scones or cream cakes, or even pasties discarded by visitors.

Muggeridge Field path 🍂

There’s a field I pass by on walks near where I live. Recently I was walking along the path next to the field and took the photo above, the oaks turning to yellow across the landscape.

The shadow of trees to the right, combined with the sunbeam, make it look like half of the Green Man’s face. At least that’s what I see.

There is a campaign called Keep Muggeridge Field Green where you can read more about attempts to protect it from being built on: https://keepmfgreen.wordpress.com/

Thanks for reading.

Oak timbers: Old Stack Cottage, Amberley

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In early December I was passing through the village of Amberley in West Sussex. It’s a very quaint village at the foot of the South Downs in West Sussex. This rather well updated cottage is located at the roadside, at the end of the village’s main throughway. It was surrounded by rather sinister, leaden skies, as rain threatened to pass through. Thankfully it didn’t.

It’s very difficult to get photos of these buildings without cars nearby, but I feel that it gives a sense of the cottage’s place in time. The model and type of vehicle will likely be very different in 50 years time, when the cottage should still be there, such is the level of investment and care that goes into these buildings in this area.

On the left hand side you can see part of an old barn, with its sloping thatched roof and its clapboard-style entranceway, where wagons would once have been drawn in to unload.

Historic England have dated the building to the 1600s.

Thanks for reading.

Oak timbers | South Downs

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What this hoverfly doesn’t know 🐝

On Sunday 16th April my garden thermometer (kept in the shade, don’t worry) read 16C, and the garden was alive. Here’s what I found in the space of about half an hour.

Bogshrooms, and a life lived wild and free 🍄🐐

I went for an evening walk down the old trackway to the foot of the mountain. The track was flooded, meaning that without wellies I had to find tussocks and rocks to move further. Where the track turned, I noticed a ram of some kind grazing up ahead. After a time, I realised it was…

Grey heron at woodland edge

A grey heron (Ardea cinerea) at the edge of a woodland at Warnham Nature Reserve in West Sussex, Sunday 4th December 2022.

The heron was looking back and forth across the reeds and wetlands. The temperatures have dropped to more typical winter levels, meaning birds and mammals that don’t hibernate will be under added pressure to find food.

Recent mild Decembers have been replaced this year with colder than average temperatures.

Thanks for reading.

Further reading: Sussex Weald

White saddle: one of the weird ones🍄

On 24th October 2022 I spent the morning taking photos of fungi in the Sussex Weald, and was treated to one of the final flourishes of the season. There had been heavy rainfall in recent days and the beech leaf fall had begun, meaning that the mushrooms were beginning to disappear. This often marks the end of the main mushroom glut in autumn, from my experience.

To fast forward to the end, just as I was on my way out of the woods and putting my camera away, I noticed what looked like discarded tissue in a ditch at the edge of the track.

I soon realised that these were white saddles (Helvella crispa).

This is a very unusual looking fungus and isn’t the typical gilled mushroom despite their appearance of having a stipe and something resembling a cap. They’re actually ascomycete fungi, so spore-shooters, rather than the often gilled basidiomycetes.

Here’s an update on the status of the violet webcap which I blogged about again in 2022. It won’t thank me.

The sun shifted into the line of this false deathcap (Amanita citrina – about to become several different species!) and made a very nice autumn scene.

Brittlegills are some of the most photogenic little mushrooms, largely due to their clean stipe and gills, and fruit gum-like caps. I’m not sure of this species but I like it.

A Medusa-like group of honey fungus (the most feared fungus in the world).

A younger patch of fruiting bodies, where you can see the lovely honey colour.

I’ve not encountered much stagshorn this year, perhaps only during this walk, which seems unusual.

A puffball at the point of puff.

Elsewhere in the weird fungus stakes is this scalycap growing out of a hole in a beech tree. It was as large and intrusive as it looks here.

Thanks for reading.

Further reading: Fungi | Sussex Weald

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Apaches over the Downs

A walk from Steyning, along the field edge with those lumpy Downs caught in a smoke-like haze. The sun beat over the hilltops, the trees naked, grey and brown without leaves.

The Sussex Weald: Autumn sunset at Cowdray Park

A new blog post series of single images, maybe, to counteract the decline of Twitter and the TikTok-isation of Instagram?

This image was taken at Cowdray Park near Midhurst on Monday 14th November. It was a stunning autumn evening, with trees in shades of gold, yellow and orange all the way to the sumptuous Downs.