Tag Archives: Hampshire

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.

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Passerines and Ponies

One weekend in the middle of July we took off down to the New Forest for a couple of days. The New Forest was originally a hunting forest for King William in the 12th century and 800 years later was eventually awarded National Park status in 2005. It lies along the south coast of England in Hampshire in a triangle delineated by Southampton, Salisbury and Bournemouth, and covers around 150 square miles, which in the context of southern England is a fairly sizable area. As the name suggests it consists of ancient forest which is interspersed with large areas of heathland and it’s renowned for its wildlife, being home to many less abundant species of birds, butterflies, mammals and reptiles.

One day while we were there we found a secluded spot on the edge of Stoney Cross to eat our picnic. We parked the car adjacent to some woodland where the canopy was so dense it was nearly dark on the forest floor and impossible to see in. There were lots of small birds darting around and I could see that some of them were chaffinches, but there were others that it was simply too dark to see properly and identify. So when one of the kids had finished their sandwich and there was some left over I broke it up and put it on a rotting tree stump on the edge of the forest and sat in the boot of the car with my camera. Within seconds the stump was full of birdlife, and now I could see them properly most of them were chaffinch:

Hen chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke) eyeing up a crusty morsel

It was challenging photographically because it was starting to rain and as you can see above, looking into the forest it was very murky indeed, so I increased the ISO to 800 and hoped the shutter speed would be fast enough. Shortly after the chaffinch descended, there were great tits (Parus major, Dansk: sortemejse), marsh tits (Poecile palustris, Dansk: sumpmejse), a robin (Erithacus rubecula, Dansk: rødhals) and my favourite of them all:

Nuthatch (Sitta europaea, Dansk: Spætmejse)

I like nuthatch and I rarely get to see them. Occasionally my parents have one visiting their feeders in the winter but it’s a long time since I saw one in the wild, so this was a treat. And this one liked sausage roll:

The nuthatch is a woodland bird which nests in holes in deciduous trees and is the only bird I can think of which I have seen walking headfirst down a tree. The marsh tit is also a bird of dense deciduous woodland which nests in cavities in old and rotten trees, so it was no surprise to see either of them in this particular spot. But I can highly recommend taking an old baguette or sausage roll to entice them down out of the tree canopy to get a good view.

Marsh tit (Poecile palustris, Dansk: sumpmajse)

The most famous and charismatic residents of the New Forest are the wild ponies. They are common in the forest and can be seen wandering around the towns and villages:


My daughter making friends with a New Forest pony

We were standing on the terrace of an ice cream shop tucking into our soft-ices as a small herd of ponies sauntered down the road from the direction of the car, top left. They spotted us and three or four of them came up the slope to join us on the terrace and attempted to share our ice creams! They are completely wild but they’re accustomed to humans being about. But if you happen to be in the forest when a herd come thundering past at high speed it’s an alarming experience, as we found out shortly before this picture was taken. They came by around 25m away and a few minutes later came back even closer. I’ve stood on the rail at Cheltenham watching the Gold Cup as the horses come past on their way to the finish line, and it’s extremely exciting – but it’s a lot more exciting when there’s no rail and no jockeys to keep them in a straight line!

A trip to the coast

Last weekend I found myself poking into the nooks and crannies of Fareham in Hampshire. My only previous visits to Fareham had been when I was playing rugby against them some years ago. So it was fun to go back and explore it in a more leisurely fashion and find out what flora and fauna are there. And I was very pleasantly surprised. (A bit of a digression, but as I’m sitting writing this, back in Histon, I can hear a muntjac deer barking somewhere along our road).

Our friends who we were staying with live a short 10 minute walk from the town centre, a route which took me across a piece of ‘managed wasteland’ called the Gillies. This is a mixture of scrubby woodland and is thick with flowers and an abundance of insects and birds.


A common blue damselfly – Enallagma cyathigerum perched on a grass stem

I was hoping to see some species which I don’t see in Cambridgeshire, but alas this was not the case. But I guess that’s a tad churlish as I saw lots of great wildlife. The approach to the Gillies took me under a bridge which I think carries a railway line and glancing up as I passed under it early on the Saturday morning a pair of fallow deer sauntered across. I can’t think of any other town in the UK where I’ve seen that! Alas. I’d left my camera behind.


A somewhat tatterdemalion gatekeeper sipping nectar from yarrow flowers

A glance skyward in the midst of a butterfly hunt with the children, with several blackcaps singing in the bushes, revealed this buzzard circling lazily in the scorching sunshine over Fareham town centre:

…and then a few minutes later:

Shortly after the buzzard had disappeared we had ventured into some adjacent woodland where the quiet was shattered when a pair of fairly big birds chased each other into the top of a big old oak tree screeching as they went. They continued their slanging match for a couple of minutes and it turned out to be two sparrowhawks, and this one appeared in this gap for just long enough to snap a photograph. It’s not the best shot ever of a sparrowhawk but I really like it as it was in the midst of a fight and it sat still for just long enough for a single shot.

One creature I didn’t see but which my host told me she saw during a run through here earlier in the afternoon was a slow worm which slithered across the path infront of her. I haven’t seen one for many years but there are rare reptiles frequenting this place too. It’s a truly remarkable location.

So if you ever find yourself in Fareham feeling a tad disappointed by the 1950’s town planners’ attempts to rectify the damage done by the Luftwaffe, ask a local for directions to the Gillies and go and marvel at all the local wildlife.