Tag Archives: Northamptonshire

Geddington swallows

A couple of months ago I was at my sisters place in Geddington, a small village in the Northamptonshire countryside which is right next door to one of the original release sites for the reintroduction of red kites into the UK. Consequently, one doesn’t have to look too hard to see red kites there, but on this particular trip it was swallows that were the stars of the show.

Geddington is a very old village and the cottages in the middle, one of which is occupied by my sister, are built from Northamptonshire ironstone, which is a gorgeous building material. Not only is her house built with it but so is her very substantial shed. She leaves the door to the shed open all the time because there are bats roosting there, and in the summer swallows use nests built in the eaves there.

A brood of swallows on the verge of fledging

Swallows (Hirundo rustica, Dansk: landsvale) migrate here from South Africa in the Spring and they generally arrive back around the second weekend in May. They return to the same place every year and often refurbish an old nest which can be used year after year, and there are records of the same nest being used for decades.

I usually get an excited phone call from my sister in the middle of May to tell me her swallows have returned. They come back again and again and she comes over all maternal when the first one arrives.

A pair of very recent fledglings which haven’t yet plucked up the courage to venture outside

They have now done all their breeding and feeding up and are congregating on roof tops and power lines and contemplating the enormous feat of flying down through Europe, across the Mediterranean and the Sahara desert before crossing the rest of sub-Saharan Africa to South Africa. Where they will spend the next 6 months before doing the whole thing again in reverse. Awesome!

Butterflies, and all that jazz

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club isn’t where I would expect to find subjects for wildlife photography. And, along with the inside of various other hostelries around the City of London, so it proved. That’s where I found myself this weekend and consequently I didn’t manage to take any photographs. So as the weather is so dull and foggy I thought I’d try to brighten things up with some butterfly pictures which were captured at another, less crepuscular, time of year.

Last year I went to a place called Fermyn Wood near Kettering in Northamtonshire with a friend of mine, to look for purple emperors. For the more ornithological among you, particularly if you like birds of prey, this was one of the original release sites for red kites (Milvus milvus, Dansk: rød glente) , and they are still there in abundance. And sure enough one appeared very low overhead before lazily flapping off across the treetops.

This splendid creature is a white admiral (Limenitis camilla), feeding on the nectar from bramble flowers at Fermyn

We set off early to arrive around 8am because at that time of day the butterflies are sunning themsleves on the ground and taking in salts. They get salts from various sources including animal droppings, carrion, sap runs on trees, and sweat. My friend has a photograph of a purple emperor sipping sweat from his sock by inserting its proboscis through the eyehole of his trainer! We encountered a few emperors but they were all whizzing past higher up in the tree canopy. They live in deciduous woods where they spend most of their time feeding on aphid honeydew, apart from this one who sat obligingly on the path and let us take photographs:

Purple emperor (Apatura iris) taking on salts from the substrata

He was sufficiently obliging to unable us to take pictures of the underside of his wings, which are themselves spectacular, but he wasn’t willing to reveal the full irridescent splendour of the top side, which is where their name derives from.  They are big, with an average wingspan of around 8cm, and the males are the most gorgeous deep purple. Alas for the female of the species, she is a rather less dramatic brown colour. I was therefore on a mission to get pictures of the upper side of the wings in 2011 but they are only around for 1-2 weeks of the year and it wasn’t when I could get there. But that’s fine, it gives me something to look forward to next year… or the year after.

On the ground close by the purple emperor was a small tortoiseshell, which are considerable more common and can be found on buddleia bushes up and down the country, but are also amazingly colourful.

Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

I don’t usually like full on portraits of butterflies, but I like this one because set against the parched earth the flamboyant colours of the butterfly are a sight to behold, all the tiny cells of the different colours in the blue and white peripheral spots are clearly visible. It’s a stunner!

Natural (pre)history

I’m stretching a point here, but if you can cut me some slack I hope you’ll think it’s worth it.

A couple of years ago my brother in law was turning over the topsoil in his garden in Daventry whilst talking to my Dad, when the old man spotted an interestingly shaped stone in a spade full of soil. They retrieved the stone and this is what they had found:

Acheulian hand axe

We originally thought it was an axe head, but the size and shape and the way it fits so neatly into the palm of my hand made me think it may be a hand axe. My Dad took it to the local council finds department to find out its true identity and the lady there told him she thought it was an axe head dating back around 10,000 years, which is right at the end of the Stone Age, but she would send it to the relevant experts and get it properly identified.

Some weeks later a report arrived from the experts and it turned out to be even more amazing than we first thought. It transpires it is what is known as an ‘Acheulian’ hand axe, so called because the first known example was discovered in the town of Saint-Acheul near Amiens in  northern France. It was knapped from a piece of flint using a deer antler during the middle palaeolithic period, between 250-400,000 years ago. The marks created by working the stone are clearly visible in the photographs above and have been beautifully depicted by a scientific illustrator in the report.

It has been crafted so one side is fairly flat compared to the other and all the weight is at the fat end which fits into the palm of the hand making an exquisitely fit-for-purpose handle with cutting edges running along both sides to the tip. It shows signs of having been reworked so I imagine it must have been a good one, and the edges are still sharp – after many millenia.

The cutting edges of both sides are still sharp

The use of these axes dates back 1.5-2 million years, to the overlap of Homo erectus species with archaic Homo sapiens, so it is possible this tool was made by a member of a pre-human species, and they have been used to trace the spread of hominids away from the birthplace of humanity in Africa. The design of this one dates it to the later part of the palaeolithic period at a time when Homo heidelbergensis was evolving divergently into H.neanderthalensis and H.sapiens – us.

H.sapiens dates back  approximately 100-200,000 years and H.heidelbergensis approximately 400-600,000 years. So the dating of our hand axe suggests it was probably made by H.heidelbergensis.

How many woolly mammoth were skinned and butchered by this?

The axe is made of flint, a sedimentary rock found in limestone formations and is a cryptocrystalline form of quartz, formed by compression at relatively low temperatures and pressures. Flint is normally a dark glassy colour but the colour of our axe is yellowy brown because it was discarded into water in Northamptonshire, where the underlying rock strata are formed predominantly of ironstone. The acid conditions in a bog rich in iron has thus caused the stone to absorb iron onto the surface giving it its unusual colour. Interestingly, the flat end where the tip has been broken off is not yellow, suggesting the tip was broken off more recently when it was no longer exposed to iron.

The next person to handle this amazing tool since a member of the Homo heidelbergensis species was my Dad. Which I think is an incredible notion!

So even though this is not contemporary natural history I think there is a place for it in a blog about nature. I hope you agree!