Category Archives: Wild flowers

When the sun stood still

The plane through the centre of the earth and the sun is called the ‘ecliptic‘ and it describes the apparent path of the sun around the earth. And the plane through the centre of the earth – on the earth’s equator – is called the ‘celestial equator‘. There is an angle between these two planes of 23.4o and this angle is known as the ‘obliquity of the ecliptic‘.

It is the obliquity of the ecliptic which gives rise to our seasons, because as the earth moves around the sun a point on the surface will be closer to the sun in summer and further away in winter. The mid winter and mid summer solstices are the midpoints of those two seasons and at the  midsummer solstice the perceived height of the sun in the sky is at its maximum ‘declination‘ – the angle between the ecliptic and the orbital plane. So whereas the solstices occur when the angle is at its maximum  23.4o, the vernal and autumnal equinoxes occur when the angle between the two planes is at its minimum, i.e. 0o, or when the celestial equator intersects with the ecliptic.

The summer solstice occurs in the northern hemisphere on June 21st and on this years solstice I found myself walking in the countryside late into the evening. It was a proper midusmmer day; sunny, warm and sultry, and the fields were full of wild flowers.

Field poppy – papaver rhoeas -my all time favourite wild flower. There’s nothing quite so spectacular as a field full of red poppies!

The field poppy is also known as the ‘Flanders poppy’ from the battle fields of WW1 – which seems wholely appropriate as I’m writing this on Remembrance Sunday. I find it difficult to photograph poppies and get the colours just right, but I really like these flowers against the green background. They were snapped in the field below, which was a riot of floral colour throughout the summer:

Looking along the drainage ditch which divides two arable fields

The old oak tree in this picture was home to a barn owl nest this year and I spent several evenings sitting in the undergrowth watching the toing and froing of the adults bringing prey to the nest. I didn’t get to see the fledglings but I’m hoping they were successful and return next year. And it was along this stretch of ditch where I photographed the yellowhammer, linnet and whitethroat I posted recently.

Not quite sunset, but the colours were breathtaking

And of course at that time of year, late in the day when the sun is getting low in the sky, the skyscapes can be magnificent .

Another flower which was sprouting in the hedgerows was woody nightshade, Solanum dulcamara, which is closely related to deadly nightshade, and the potato which is rather less toxic than it’s relatives – unless the potatos are green when they contain the same toxin. So don’t eat the green ones (or nightshade berries)!

Woody nightshade flowers with a dog rose in the background

Toward the end of my stroll it was getting darker and in the midst of a line of imposing horse chestnut trees is this dead one silhouetted against the crepuscular blueness of the western sky after sunset.


On another dead tree stump adjacent to this one was a kestrel eating its prey and it let me stand close by and watch it for several minutes which was remarkable in itself, but to give you an idea of how close I was I could actually hear it tearing the flesh off the bone! He must have been very hungry.

The moon emerging from behind a horse chestnut tree

And right at the end of the walk it was night time proper, and on midsummers day this year there was also a full moon.

The word ‘solstice‘ is derived from the Latin for ‘the sun stands still’ because the sun has stopped rising in the sky and begins it’s journey back across the ecliptic to bring summer to the southern hemisphere, leaving winter for us in the north. But I wasn’t thinking about that as I soaked up the summer warmth on midsummers day.

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Impington Lane

In the summer I posted about the desire of our local council to build houses on the green spaces around our village. One of those green spaces is a small area on Impington Lane which is between 5-6 acres in area, and a friend of mine who lives adjacent to this unassuming piece of scrub told me there were reptiles on the site which would be evicted if the proposed construction took place.

So with my campaigning hat on I set off very early one Sunday morning to try to capture some photographs of the resident reptilia to promote the argument that this diminutive fragment of green belt should remain unmolested.

Hedge woundwort – Stachys sylvatica

The reptiles were staying under cover but there were wild flowers in abundance along with the accompanying insects. Hedge woundwort, as the name suggests, has medicinal properties and was used to staunch bleeding.

At 6am the sun was rising and it was already warm so damselfies were basking in the early morning sunshine to warm their bodies to enable them to go hunting. I found two species of damselfly:

Common blue damselfly – Enallagma cyathigerum

Variable damselfly – Coenagrium pulchellum

(I’m not totally confident of my damselfy identifications so if you spot a mistake please let me know).  The undergrowth in the field was waist high in most of it and it was full of these particular flowers:

Carder bumble bee landing to feed

It’s very similar in size and shape to another wild flower called jack-go-to-bed-at-noon which is yellow (Tragopogon pratensis). But all these flowers varied from pale pastel purple to rich dark purple. I don’t know what species these flowers are, or if they’re related to jack-go-to-bed-at-noon, or whether they are wild or escapees from gardens, but they are very pretty and the bees like them.

Fluttering amongst the stems of all the wild flowers were numerous examples of this handsome creature, which I first thought was a butterfly:


Subsequent research revealed that it’s not a butterfly at all, it’s a latticed heath moth, Chiasmia clathrata, and is one the moth species that is active by day in May and June in this part of the UK. They were fiendishly difficult to photograph as they were skittish and hunkered down close to the ground on the stems of the flowers, and any slight gust of wind rendered any photography impossible. But fortunately the wind abated for long enough to get one half decent portrait.

Herb bennet – Geum urbanum

Herb bennet, also known as wood avens, is a very pretty flower which prefers to grow in the shade and was lurking at the edge of the field out of direct sunlight.

Despite all the flora and insectivora, no reptilia put in an appearance on this outing. But in the weeks after my exploration my friend told me of two separate occasions where reptiles ventured into houses which are on the edge of this field, and as luck would have it both times someone managed to photograph the intrepid creatures and were good enough to send copies to me:

Common lizard – Zootoca vivipara

Despite the fact I very rarely see a common lizard they’re the UK’s most common reptile and can be found in most habitats including heathland, woodland,  grassland and gardens, from March to October. At my last house a quince bush grew around my front door and I found common lizards in there on a couple of occasions, showing that they can coexist with humans where suitable habitat and a lack of interference prevail.

Grass snake – Natrix natrix – rescued in a sandwich box and restored to the wild

It’s not common to find reptiles in the UK and it’s extremely rare to find them in ones house! So the second invader, which I’m told caused much consternation, was a grass snake.  Grass snakes like to frequent damp recesses, they are proficient swimmers and feed mainly on amphibians.

My favourite grass snake story occurred some years ago when another friend of mine lived in Kent and had an enormous back garden with two small lakes in it. On a visit there I was helping declutter the edge of a lake by removing the offending undergrowth with a grass rake. And on shaking the rake to remove a big clump of weed a sizeable bright yellow snake fell off the bottom. I jumped out my skin and may even have uttered an involuntary yell (in fact it was probably more of a squeal), because I reasoned we don’t have big yellow snakes in the UK, and if it’s a foreigner it may well be less benign than Natrix natrix, and be unhappy at this unwanted intrusion. But a somewhat digruntled grass snake uncoiled itself, flipped the right way up and, glided into the lake and swam across to the opposite bank to take cover where the undergrowth was still undisturbed! I’m not sure who was most taken aback, me or the serpent.

Both the reptile species here are listed as priority species by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP). So I hope this will be taken into consideration when decisions are being made whether or not to destroy the green lungs of our village!

The busiest burdock

In my last post I wrote about the wildlife to the north of Histon. This post is about the wildlife to the west of the village. The two areas are divided by a main road and they are quite different in character. The north is very open with big open fields lined with ditches and hedgerows and the west has more trees and scrub.

In mid June I ventured there to compare the birdlife with that to the north, because I normally see less farmland birds like skylark, corn bunting and yellowhammer here, but more finches and migrant warblers like chiffchaff, willow warbler and whitethroat.

Dog rose (Rosa canina) bejewelled with raindrops

There had been a refreshing shower shortly before I set out which had left the flowers on a rose bush bejewelled with raindrops. It was a good time of year for the wild flowers as the ground had not dried out and there was plenty of sunshine. And of course, if the wild flowers are in good shape, there’s plenty of food for insects and therefore abundant sustenance for birds too.

(And on the subject of insects there was a news report from the BBC today regarding the short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) which became extinct in the UK in 2000, but was reintroduced to an RSPB reserve at Dungeness in Kent and is now successfully breeding. Great news!)

But I digress. The dog rose flower was in the local meadow, but passing through there to the farmland beyond there is a field which is lined with drainage ditches, hedgerows and wide unmown borders which support a wealth of wildlife including wild flowers, bumble bees, dragon flies and birds. One of the wild flowers there is the burdock, Arctium minus, which has enormous spiky leaves and big burs which get stuck to your clothes, and on this walk there was a burdock patch that was full of songbirds:

A cock linnet resplendent in his sumptuous breeding regalia: the crimson bindi and rosy breast

The linnet (Carduelis cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk) were omnipresent here throughout the summer, and occasionally a yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv) appeared too. It’s easy to find yellowhammers if they’re in residence because of their characteristic song (a-little-bit-of-bread-with-no-cheese).

The striking colour of the male yellowhammer

And the yellowhammer song carries on the wind for hundreds of metres and because they are so colourful they’re easy to spot with a pair of binoculars.

A male whitethroat watching an adult linnet feeding a fledgling

At least one pair of whitethroat (Sylvia communis, Dansk: tornsanger) were nesting on the edge of this field too. The whitethroat are amber listed and the conservation status of the linnet and the yellowhammer is red list due to decline in their numbers. And in a very old oak tree just a few metres from here was a pair of barn owls (Tyto alba, Dansk: slørugle) nesting, and their status is also amber, but more about those in a later post.

Red clover – Trifolium pratense – the national flower of Denmark

The birds were twittering, and so am I

When the summer eventually arrived this year it arrived with a bang and three months of glorious sunshine ensued which finally came to an end last weekend (but I’m still hoping we have an Indian summer). In early to mid June I spent a lot of time catching up with the local migrants, and all the other wild creatures around the village. I saw more swifts, swallows and house martins over Histon than I’ve ever seen and migrant numbers seemed healthy. This maybe because I was out and about and able to see them, or, hopefully, because more of them arrived and bred successfully this year.

The pictures here were taken one weekend in early June when I ventured across the farmland to the north of my village. Because of the wet spring followed by proper sunshine the verges, hedgerows and meadows were verdant and laden with fruit and flowers.

Cow parsley in the meadow against a summer sky

Many of my walks in these fields included lots of sightings of brown hare. I see occasional hares here so it’s no surprise, but what was surprising this year was the sheer numbers.

Brown hares (Lepus europaeus) – males chasing off rivals for the attentions of the ladies

There are four hares in shot here but there were more in the field to the left and more in the same field to the right. It wasn’t unusual to see ten or more on one of these excursions; they also seemed to be enjoying the hot summer. Fingers crossed they had a successful breeding season too.

One of the migrants I’ve been hoping to see for the last three years, and which hadn’t put in an appearance was the yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava, Dansk: gul vipstjert). These little birds are spectacular and completely unmistakeable, and despite being a species of least concern in mainland Europe it is red listed here with only 15000 territories recorded in the UK in 2009.

Yellow wagtail perched on an old farm machine

This handsome chap was my only sighting of a yellow wagtail this year. They are one of those amazing small creatures, like the swallow, which spend the summer here in the UK but overwinter in South Africa. When they’re here they tend to frequent fields with livestock where they feed on the accompanying insects. Whilst there are no adjacent cattle or sheep here there is an enormous pile of manure which also attracts clouds of insects. I’ve seen wagtails here before but not for a several years, so it was good to see one again.

Cock linnet (Carduelis cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk)

And another red listed bird, which I’ve also posted about recently, is the linnet. Unlike the yellow wagtail, despite their red listing, I see linnet in the fields every year, and the occasional flock of several hundred in the winter. They get their specific name from their like of cannabis. Not for it’s pharmaceutical properties (at least as far as I’m aware) but because in the old days when hemp was grown to make rope they fed on the seeds.

The wildlife on this weekend was abundant with a few rarities, so very high quality, but from a photographic point of view it was rather less auspicious. But I hope this skylark (Alauda arvensis, Dansk: sanglærke) makes up for that:

Skylark singing in the sky above my head

Skylark are not easy to capture because they’re ususally too high in the sky, or  moving too fast, or in a sky which is just too bright for good photography. But on this occasion the lark was very accomodating and there is just enough light to give the plumage a diaphanous quality which I really like, without overexposing it. The skylark is also red listed due to collapse in its numbers as a result of intensive arable agriculture, but there is a healthy population of them round here and there are often too many to count on a warm sunny morning!

By the way, I’ve just linked my blog to a Twitter account which you can have a look at here: @Thenaturephile. There’s not much in it yet as I only set it up at the weekend, but if you fancy taking a look please let me know what you think.

Cowslips and corn buntings

When spring sprung this year it sprung in style and it was quite glorious. At that time of year the migrants return from distant lands and recolonise the countryside.

One bird that also returns to the farmland around Histon, but from closer to home, is the corn bunting (Emberiza calandra, Dansk: bomlærke). The corn bunting is a resident breeder in the UK, but as with most other species local to me it disappears from the fields round here as soon as the harvest begins, usually during the first week in August, not to return until March or April.

Male corn bunting taking flight from the top of the hawthorn blossom

The corn bunting is a lovely creature which is very distinctive when you know it. From a disatnce it looks like another random little brown bird, but it sits atop the wheat stems and the hedgerows calling and the call can be heard from many metres away. And like most little brown guys, when you see them close up they don’t appear quite so uninteresting.

A few months ago I got involved with a group of local people here who were working to prevent the development of this farmland for housing by our local council. The council said they had done an environmental survey and they provided us with a copy. It was an interesting insight into how these people work. The survey was commisioned by the agent the council had employed to manage the development (conflict of interest?), and it was undertaken the week after the harvest. The  conclusion in the survey was that there would be little or no damage to the local environment and no red listed or BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) species would be affected. But I know from my recordings over the last five years that virtually all the wildlife – birds, mammals and insects – disappears as soon as the harvest starts. But my records, which I made available to the council,  also show that I have recorded 74 bird species there of which no less than 13 are red listed! Including the humble corn bunting.

The plan to develop the land was subsequently rejected and I hope my data played a part in the decision making process.

All the pictures in this post were taken on a sunny Sunday aftenoon at the end of April and another handsome bunting which frequents the drainage ditches and the hedgerows and was much in evidence was the reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv).

Male reed bunting resplendent in his black cap and moustaches

Whilst the buntings, finches and other small passerines were announcing their availability from the top of the undergrowth a buzzard patrolled the skies above looking for prey:

Buzzard, Buteo buteo, (Dansk: musvåge)

And one of my favourite harbingers of fair weather to come is the cowslip:

Cowslip, Primula veris

Cowslip flowers were picked in the not too distant past to make wine with, but as it is no longer common this practise has waned. Despite that, the seed is now included in commercial wild seed mix and the cowslip can be seen in large numbers on seeded motorway verges. This one is not one of those though, it is one of thousands lining a drainage ditch on a farm in Histon.

A carrion crow (Corvus corone, Dansk: sortkrage) was perched precariously on top of the hedge along the cowslip ditch and a hare was also close by and watching intently to make sure the dog kept a safe distance! The local hares seem fairly relaxed about the dog even though he’s a lurcher and can still move pretty rapidly. May be they can see that he’s too old to pose a real threat.

European or brown hare (Lepus europaeus)

This year seems to have been good for hares and I see them in many of the local fields in good numbers almost every time I venture there. There are also plenty of rabbits, but the hares are easily distinguished by their size, they are much bigger than rabbits, and the hares have very long ears with distinctive black tips which the rabbits don’t.

This was my first real sunny warm outing of the year and it gave me a good feeling that this year may turn out to be a good one for wildlife. And generally it’s living up to its billing. So far…

Flowers for all seasons

Last year in springtime the weather was dreadful and I didn’t many chances to take photographs for weeks. So I trawled back through my archive and found these old pictures of wild flowers which I thought I would post to brighten things up a tad. But by the time I got round to posting it was too late in the year so the post got parked until this year.

And the flowers are now blooming again, so two years after I took the pictures now seems like a good time to share them! I won’t bore you botanical minutiae this time, but I hope you enjoy the pictures!

Greater periwinkle

(Vinca Major)

Greater celandine

(Chelidonium majus)

Common vetch

(Vicia sativa)

White campion

(Silene alba)

Jack By The Hedge

(Alliara petiolata)

Herb bennet

(Geum urbanum)

Ever the optimist

The font of all wisdom in my area for what birdlife is around is the Cambridge Bird Club ‘What’s About‘ blog. A short while ago there was a report of a sighting of a bittern at one of my regular nature walks, Milton Country Park. This was an exciting development because I’ve never seen a bittern before, so on the following Saturday morning I set off before dawn to be in situ at sun up to try and see it. The bittern (Botaurus stellaris, Dansk: Rørdrum) is a small brown heron which lives in reedbeds and is so perfectly camouflaged it is almost impossible to find until it breaks cover. It’s famous for the ‘booming‘ call of the male which can be heard up to 1km away, so I set off hopeful of not only seeing one but maybe hearing it boom too. Ever the optimist!

The conservation status of the bittern in the UK is red, meaning it is scarce and under threat. Alas, the chap I was hoping to catch a glimpse of was very scarce indeed, to the point of being completely absent. Oh well, next time maybe. But every cloud and all that, even though the bittern had absconded there was other birdlife in abundance.

And not only birds, snowdrops were blossoming on the forest floor

The Country Park is made up of old gravel or quarry pits surrounded by a mixture of grassy scrub and mature woodland. Up in the treetops great spottted woodpeckers were hammering holes…

Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocops major, Dansk: stor flagspætte)

I think this one is a female – the male has a red patch on the back of his neck which I think was absent on this one. The woodpeckers drumming sound results from the frequency of drilling rather than the power. They have energy absorbing tissues in the head to prevent brain damage and they strike at a frequency of 10-40 times a second which makes the tree trunk resonate, and that’s how they create their unique sound. Treecreepers were spiralling up these trees too, but they were just too quick to get a photograph.

But on the lakes there were hundreds and hundreds of water birds of all types:

Courting great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker)

The full mating ritual of the great crested grebe is a wonderful sight. I’ve only ever seen it a couple of times and it involves swimming away from each other to a distance of 20-30m or so, then turning and swimming rapidly towards each other and when they meet they rise up in a vigorous display of necking before settling back into the water facing each other and creating a heart shape with their heads and necks. This is repeated mofre tha once and is utterly absorbing and delightful to watch. I was fervently hoping that my pair here were going to perform but they were content to simply preen, commune and doze. Still lovely though.

Another male great crested grebe with a pair of male pochard in hot pursuit (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland)

Two male tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand) eyeing a lady with bad intent. Love, or something, was in the air!

Both pochard and tufted duck are divers and the rapid spread of the tufted duck in the UK in the 19th century is though to be the result of colonisation of UK waterways by the zebra mussel which originates in southern Russia.

A male gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand)

On a grey murky day the gadwall looks like a dull grey/brown duck but when the sun shines on them they are quite handsome birds, easily recognised on the water by the black rump, general brown plumage and the grey/black beak.

Coot and moorhen (Fulica atra, Dansk: blishøne and Gallinula chloropus, Dansk: grønbenet rørhøne, respectively) are both members of the family Rallidae along with water rail (which I saw on a previous recent visit to the Country Park, but not this one, even though I spent 10-15 minutes quietly looking where I saw one before) and crakes, which aren’t to be found in these parts.

The coot…

…and the moorhen

The male coots were in the mood for love and fighting out on the water on all the lakes, and were too numerous to count, and the occasional, more secretive and less aggressive, moorhen ventured into view from the reeds at the lake edges.


The brown heads are male wigeon, the black and white ones are male tufted duck, the two brown ones in the foreground are a pair of gadwall and out of focus at the back is another gadwall and a coot

As the sun came up the birds on the water semed to spring into life and large groups of various species busy feeding. All the pictures in this post were taken in a couple of hours or so from dawn until 10-11am and within a 300m radius. But as the sun arose and the light changed the colour of the water changed dramatically and gave some wonderfully varied backgrounds.

I stopped at a gap in the undergrowth to photograph the various species above and as I stood snapping the robin hopped into view between me and the water pecking at the seeds on the ground left by a benevolent walker for the ducks:

I think the most colourful, and therefore my favourite duck of that morning was the wigeon:

A pair of wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand), the male behind, the lady in front

The male on his own – resplendent in his psychedelic finery

The wigeon is a resident breeder in the UK and it’s conservation status is amber, which surprised me because I see plenty of them on the lakes around Cambridgeshire. They are vegetarians feeding on leaves and shoots and rhizomes, and in my view they are one of our prettiest ducks.

So no bittern on this trip but lots of other wildlife on the water and in the trees!

The Isle of Wight, Part 2

My first view of the Needles, at the western tip of the Isle of Wight, was a long time ago when I flew round them in a light aircraft. The weather was much like it is below and it was quite a spectacle!

The Needles looking across to the Isle of Purbeck. Old Harry Rocks are the thin sliver of white chalk in the distance at 11 o’clock from the lighthouse

I’d heard it said that the Needles were at one time joined to the Old Harry Rocks at the southern end of Studland Bay, around 15 miles away on the Isle of Purbeck. I’d thought it entirely possible but never had it confirmed. And then just after I took this photograph I overheard a very knowledgeable old gentleman telling his companion all about the local geology, so I stood close by and earwigged the conservation.

As you can see, the Needles are made of limestone and apparently they were once a single strip of rock with a gap in the middle from which a single calcareous stack protruded, known as ‘The Needle‘. And then in the 18th century a storm caused a collapse which resulted in the Needles of today.

But before that, Old Harry and the Needles were a single limestone structure and the Isle of Wight wasn’t an Isle, and the Solent – the stretch of sea which separates the Isle of Wight from the mainland – was the River Solent. But around 4-5000 years ago a storm breached the limestone wall and the River Solent became a seaway overnight and the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight were cast adrift on a new island. And interestingly, all the rivers on the mainland from Poole Harbour in the west eastwards to Portsmouth: the Meon, Itchen, Test, Avon, Frome and Piddle all flow southward, and those on the Isle of Wight: the Eastern Yar, Western Yar, Newtown, Wootton Creek and Medina all flow northward, and they all drained into the River Solent.

Pyramidal orchid – Anacamptis pyramidalis

The terrain all around the Needles is chalk downland which has very characteristic flora and fauna, amongst which is the pyramidal orchid and this lone flower was lurking at the edge of The Needles carpark. It thrives on the chalk downs to such a degree that it has been chosen as the county flower of the Isle of Wight. In the air high over the car park was a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus, Dansk: vandrefalk) but I didn’t have a telephoto lens with me on this trip, so alas, no pictures. From the car park it’s about a mile to walk to The Needles themselves and on a sunny day it’s a terrific walk, the views are magnificent.

To the east, north and west the air was full of falcons, songbirds, bees and butterflies, and when we got to the very end there was a historic naval gun emplacement. In WWII the gun guarded the Solent and the strategically important ports of Poole, Southampton and Portsmouth against enemy shipping, and just over the top of the cliff from the gun emplacement was a test site for missile engines which had been hewn from the rock – a hangover from the Cold War. The whole thing was fascinating, geologically, biologically and historically!

Teasels – Dipsacus fullonum

Whilst trying to photograph a stonechat which was darting around next to the path I noticed these teasels which were still sporting their downy purple flowers. I have lots of photographs of the dried out brown seedheads of teasels after they’ve flowered but but I’ve been after a good one of the flowers themselves. And I think this is the best backdrop I could have found, looking out across the Solent towards the New Forest on a sunny day.

Also flitting around in the chalky grassland were hundreds of chalkhill blue butterflies. It was a very windy day and I think the butterflies may have been staying down low becausse of the wind, preferring to be stationary rather than risk being blown away. Consequently they were fairly easy to get close to:

Chalkhill blue male (Lysandra coridon)

I absolutely love blue butterflies. In fact anything living and blue – insects, flowers, fish reptiles – blue seems to convey a unique beauty on a creature, so to see so many of these blues was a real pleasure. And the chalkhill blue is a big butterfly too, with a wingspan of 33-40mm.

One of the curious facts about blue butterflies is that some of them are actually brown, and with chalkhills as with common blues, the females are brown:

The female chalkhill blue. She’s brown, not blue, but still a beauty!

Chalkhill blues mating, the brown female is on the left

Apparently this year was a particularly good one for the chalkhill blue. Despite being a devastating one for most other butterfly species in the UK, there were huge numbers of breeding chalkhills recorded in their traditional territories, and in my humble opinion that’s very good news indeed.

The view along the north of the island looking east towards Southampton, with yachts racing toward us

The geology of this part of the south coast is remarkable too. Limestone was formed at the bottom of oceans by the compaction of dead shellfish over millions of years, so it may seem odd to find it at the top of the cliffs. Or indeed whole cliffs made of it. There is a clue to how this happened in the cliff below, which is looking round to the southeast from The Needles, in which there are clearly delineated strata in the rock running upwards from left to right at around 45 degrees. The reason for angled strata is that in this part of the world tectonic shifts have concertinad the rock strata all the way from the east of England along the south coast as far as Dorset to the west forcing them upwards.

This folding of the rock means that in the east the rock is relatively young but the deepest, oldest, layers have been exposed in Dorset around the town of Lyme Regis. So the region around Lyme is referred to as the ‘Jurassic Coast’. Of which more in a subsequent post.

The Isle of Wight, Part 1

This summers holiday took myself and the family to the Isle of Wight. I’ve often sat on the mainland and gazed at the island wondering what it was like, but apart from a sailing weekend from Cowes some years ago I’d never been there. Prior to the trip, several folk I spoke to who had been there said, ‘It’s very nice, but very 1950’s’, implying that were a bad thing. I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant, so I set off expecting bakelite telephones, knobbly knee competitions and casual racism. But the reality was nothing like that, in fact the Isle of Wight turned out to be a lovely place, very green and full of cool wildlife.

Shanklin Bay looking over the garden of out holiday abode

Within a day of arriving at our destination at Shanklin, on the southeast corner of the island, we’d encountered a pair of ravens who were keen to share our fish and chips on the seafront, and several red squirrels running around the trees in the garden below our apartment. Red squirrels are delightful creatures and the island is one of the few places in the UK where they haven’t been ousted by the bigger and more aggressive North American grey squirrel. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get photographs of these but there was plenty of other flora and fauna to keep me occupied.

The weather on the island during the first week in August was remarkable, it was hot and sunny virtually the whole time we were there, but that coincided with continuous heavy rain and big floods a short distance to the west in Devon and Cornwall. As well as the trees in the garden, there were flowers and butterflies basking in the glorious sunshine:

Wild pansy (Viola tricolor)

The wild pansy is a lovely little flower and has been used as a herbal remedy for eczema and asthma and it was believed it was good for the heart, hence its other name of ‘heartsease’. It’s laden with potentially beneficial chemicals including salicylates (aspirin), antibacterials and antiinflammatories and has many amusing common names such as ‘love lies bleeding’ (!), bullweed, ‘tickle my fancy’ and ‘love in idleness’.

Gatekeeper

Also frequenting the garden was the equally beautifully coloured, but less poetically named, gatekeeper butterfly (Pyronia tithonus). I was pleased to see lots of butterflies here because the dreadful spring weather meant I’d seen very few around Cambridge, a horrid situation which, alas, prevailed for the rest of the summer.

Below the garden at the bottom of the cliff was lots and lots of beach with lots and lots of birds, including the ravens I mentioned earlier. And amongst them was this gull youngster. It wasn’t at all fazed by me and my son running around and seemed more curious than nervous.

A young gull – either a herring gull or a lesser black backed

Alas, I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about gulls to be able to differentiate the first year herring gull (Larus argentatus, Dansk: Sølvmåge) from the lesser black backed gull (Larus fuscus, Dansk: sildemåge), even with my Collins bird guide to assist. And while the gull was peering at us a sandwich tern patrolled the shallows occasionally diving into the water:

Sometimes returning to the surface with a fish… and other times not:

Sandwich tern (Sterna sandvicensis, Dansk: splitterne) fishing off Shanklin beach

From our limited explorations around the island it seemed to be quite distinctly in two halves. The eastern end, where we were based was green and agricultural with wide sandy beaches, and the western end, at least on the south side, was more chalk down rising to imposing cliffs toward the Needles at the far western tip. All the photographs in this post were from in and around Shanklin in the east and I’ve divided the IoW into two posts, so ‘Part 2’ will be from the western end.

Flowers and frogs at Milton Country Park

Not long after my lunchtime spin around Cambridge Science Park I paid a visit to Milton Country Park which is about a mile from where I work, as the crow flies. Wild flowers were everywhere, the sun was out, and there was lots to see including a family of treecreepers (Certhia familiaris, Dansk: træløber). Prior to this I’ve only seen treecreepers individually but this time a whole family of at least five birds was flitting around a tree trunk before flying to an adjacent tree. Treecreepers are fun to watch, they begin hunting low down on a tree trunk and climb up it in a spiral pattern to ensure they don’t miss any insects lurking in the crevices of the bark, they are very aptly named. I didn’t have my long lens with me so I couldn’t get any photographs of the treecreepers, but I did capture some gorgeous flowers on this outing:


Scarlet pimpernel flowers

I’ve never noticed scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) growing around Cambridge before but I’ll be happy if it spreads. The flowers, which were less than a centimetre across, open in the morning and close mid afternoon and were shooting from amongst the short grass. It’s common in England but less so in Scotland.

The purple and yellow flowers of the woody nightshade flowers (Solanum dulcamara) were illuminating the undergrowth:


Woody nightshade

The flowers of the woody nightshade are beautiful and eventually give way to berries which are green before they ripen into a lovely deep red colour. As the colour may suggest they are toxic, the main ingredient being an alkaloid called ‘solanine‘ (an alkaloid is a plant-derived nitrogen containing compound which can exert a physiological effect on humans. More infamous members of this category include opium, cocaine and marijuana).

The glycoalkaloid ‘solanine’ found in members of the Solanaceae family including the nightshades and potatoes

Solanine is also the active ingredient in deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna, and is the compound which makes green potatoes toxic! The green pigmentation is due to chlorophyll which is produced when potato tubers become exposed to light and is not therefore toxic, but it is produced along with solanine. Solanine isn’t degraded by cooking so eating lots of green spuds is a bad idea.

As you might expect, solanine has physiological properties which make it a useful compound. Ancient Greeks would take it before consulting the priestess Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi, to utillise its halucinogenic properties. And Italian ladies used the sap of the deadly nightshade in days of yore to dilate their pupils as they believed this made them more beautiful. Hence the specific name of the deadly nightshade ‘belladonna‘ (‘beautiful lady‘ in Italian). It was also used by torturers as a medieval truth drug to extract confessions. In more recent and enlightened times therapeutic doses have been used to treat a range of conditions incuding inflammatory eye diseases such as uveitis, and it has also shown inhibitory properties when applied to melanoma (skin cancer) cells. It’s amazing stuff!


Common frog – Rana temporaria

A frog hopped across the path in front of me and hunkered down in the undergrowth to avoid being spotted and/or predated, so I got up close to capture some portraits. I was within 8-12 inches and it didn’t flinch, so I took half a dozen pictures before it hopped off deeper into the bush.

Rosebay willowherb – Chamerion angustifolium

At the edge of a lake a stand of rosebay willowherb was just coming into flower. The flower spikes and leaves of willowherb have been used to treat grumbly bowels and apparently it makes a good mouthwash too. The willowherb was interspersed with spears of aarons rod:

Aarons rod – Verbascum thapsus

This aarons rod was a very fresh example and was only just coming into flower but when in full bloom the spear is full of yellow flowers from the leaves to the apex. They have been lining my route to work since June and there are still some hardy individuals lingering on into the autumn. Aarons rod has been used medicinally as an expectorant to treat coughs and for numerous other conditions including colic, eczema, boils and warts. It’s a very versatile plant.

Tufted vetch – Vicia cracca

Many shrubs and bushes were festooned with the flowers of tufted vetch which is a European native and has also been introduced to the Americas where it is a weed. The flower heads were several inches long and a rather fetching blue/purple colour. It grows over other plants by shooting out tendrils which grasp stems and provide an anchor for further encroachment. It can grow up to 2m tall and can strangle smaller plants. But the flowers are lovely