Tag Archives: wildlife

A special winter visitor

When the snows came a few weekends ago an influx of birds came to my garden to feed up on the seeds and fatballs I put out for them. I also threw out some squidgy grapes which had been getting overripe at the bottom of the punnet. And as well as all the usual species a winter visitor from Scandinavia also appeared.

Fieldfare – Turdus pilaris (Dansk: sjagger)

The fieldfare is a species of thrush from Scandinavia which migrates to overwinter in the UK. They’re hardy, feisty birds and utterly resplendent in their psychedelic finery! I’ve seen large flocks of them flying above the countryside around Histon but rarely within the village itself. And then this handsome bird arrived in my garden to feed on the squidgy grapes.

Dismembering a grape

It finished the grapes and then took up residence under a bush in the garden and repelled all comers. Whenever another bird came within striking distance it would emerge from its refuge at speed and chase it off. Which sufficed for everything smaller than a blackbird.

After the grapes had gone I augmented its diet with some apple, which coinidentally is also a favourite food of blackbirds. And within minutes there was competition for the fruit. The fieldfare adopted a very distinctive stance when the blackbird, or anything bigger, like a collared dove or a wood pigeon came within range and several fights ensued. And the fieldfare wasn’t always the winner because blackbirds are also accomplished pugilists when they need to be. So it all worked out evens, they both got some apple and a good scrap would keep them fit too:

The’repel all boarders’ stance, wings down, tail in the air. If that didn’t suffice then all out assault ensued

The fieldfare, I assume it was the same one, appeared in the garden after first light every morning until the rain washed away all the snow and it hasn’t been seen since. At the same time the trees and bushes in the village were also frequented by the fieldfares during the snow but they all disappeared with the snow too.

Mating Mutes

The sun is shining a lot now and the snow has totally disappeared. Unlike two weekends ago which was bitterly cold and the lakes at Milton Country Park were partially iced over. It’s not always easy to see all the water birds but they had been coralled into smaller areas by the ice. Ducks abounded at the park with teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand), gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand), wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand) and tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand) in numbers, as well as the customary mallard (Anas platyrhynchos, Dansk: gråand). There were two highlights of the trip, a goldcrest was busy hunting in a bush just a few feet away and seemed undisturbed by our presence. Goldcrest (Regulus regulus, Dansk: fuglekonge) are beautiful little birds, they are our smallest breeding species, weighing 4-7 grams, and the northern populations migrate south in winter with Scandinavian individuals crossing the North Sea to overwinter in the UK.

Mute swan pair with a male tufted duck in the background

I didn’t manage to get pictures of the goldcrest, which is a pity, but I did manage to get pictures of the second highlight, which was a pair of mute swans (Cygnus olor, Dansk: knopsvane). And if the goldcrest is our smallest breeder, the mute swan is one of the biggest (if  not thee biggest), weighing in at a hefty 10.5-12kg, and breeding is what this pair had in mind.

Mute swans pair for life and the courtship dance is delightful to watch, they gracefully circled each other, repeatedly intertwining their necks:

And the dance culminated in mating. The male climbed on board the female and grasped the back of her neck with his beak, the whole thing lasted just a few seconds, which was just as well for the lady as her head was held underwater and she actually disappeared from view.

And after mating they rose up, breast to breast out of the water and continued the necking dance:

Finally, they relaxed back into the water and finished the ritual by bobbing their heads towards each other, and apart from the mating moments the whole thing was very calm and sedate. I think mutes are simply regal, they are very big, powerful, animals and I can’t hink of any creature which is quite so pristine.

And shortly after mating the male climbed out of the water onto the ice for a post-coital stretch up to his full height and opened his wings, surrounded by a retinue of coot (Fulica atra, Dansk: blishøne) and gadwall. A fitting finale to this series of captivating natural events.

Alas, no bullfinch, but…

The weekend before last I went for a walk around the lakes of RSPB Fen Drayton. It was a customarily grey and cold morning and there was a lot of water standing where there wouldn’t normally be. But the lakes were full of ducks, waders and other water birds and the trees and hedgerows were thronged with other birds, but alas no bullfinch. To explain, the approach road to the car park is lined with hawthorn and other trees and they are home to many bird species including bullfinch, so I was hoping to see one or two and get photographs. But on this occasion alas, they were conspicuous by their absence.

No bullfinch, but hey ho, woodpeckers there were:

Green woodpecker (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) mining ants next to the car park at Fen Drayton lakes and fastidiously refusing to look up

And the green woodpecker wasn’t the only woodpecker hanging around the lakes:

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

There was also great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker), a large flock of mixed waders including bar tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica, Dansk: lille kobbersneppe) and several flocks of greylag geese (Anser anser, Dansk: grågås). And lots and lots of lapwing:

A small fraction of a much bigger flock of lapwing, I make it 84 in this group

In the 1970’s lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe) were a common sight in the English countryside. Huge flocks consisting of hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals weren’t particularly unusual. My Dad used to call them plovers, or ‘peewits’, a name they acquired because of their distinctive call. But like many species, they have suffered hugely from habitat destruction as a result of modern farming methods. On this particular morning at Fen Drayton there was at least one flock and possibly two, at opposite ends of the lakes, there were a heck of a lot of them and they were frequently rising into the air en masse. And since the snow arrived this week there has also been a small flock of 30-40 birds close to Cambridge Science Park which I spotted on my way to work, and a small group of them alighted on the field right outside my lab.

A blue tit deftly plucking seeds from a swaying reed seedhead

On the last part of my outing round the lakes I headed for a hide overlooking an expanse of water where I was hoping to see water birds. A flight of four goosander containing a male and three females flew over on the way there and seemed to be a good omen! Outside the hids this blue tit (Cyanistes caerulius, Dansk: blåmejse) was busy hopping from stem to stem in the reeds outside acrobatically harvesting the seeds.

And on the water there were A LOT of birds. The flock of lapwing higher up this post were on the ground at the far side of this lake, and the water was hosting gulls, ducks, swans and a lone heron. One of the loveliest ducks, easily identified by it’s triangular black head, white cheek spot and his regal black and white plumage is the goldeneye.

Goldeneye drake – elegance personified

There were a pair of goldeneye here, (Bucephala clangula (great name too!), Dansk: hvinand) and as with other duck species the lady is drab in comparison with the resplendent males. I spent half an hour waiting for them to paddle into the gap in the reeds just infront of this one for a clear shot. But they never did, so this is the best picture I could get. But isn’t he a beauty!

What a difference a frost makes

Having bemoaned the lack of wildlife in my garden, last Saturday the weather turned very cold here and after replenishing the bird feeders they were flocking in in droves! These resilient little guys were obviously finding sufficient sustenance elsewhere until the cold set in but now they’re here in numbers daily, and today we have had 10-15cm of snow and it hasn’t stopped yet so I reckon they’ll be around for a while longer too.

One of the species which I have missed because they are normally here all through the winter is the chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke):

The cock chaffinch always adds a splash of welcome colour

Chaffinch are resident breeders in the UK and can generally be seen and heard in trees and hedgerows all year round. Another resident breeder I hadn’t in the garden or in the countryside much this year was the dunnock (Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernsurv), the archetypal ‘LBJ‘ or ‘Little Brown Job’. When viewed closely they’re anything but LBJ’s. They feed on the ground so I always throw a handful of seed in the undergrowth for them. This little guy has been terrorised by my resident robin, but the arrival of a second robin has given him respite as my resident no longer has his eye on the ball.

My dunnock keeping one eye on the ground for seed while the other looks for the robin

The coal tit (Periparus ater, Dansk: sortmejse) is a pine tree specialist, seeking insects and spiders in the summer and seeds in the winter. This makes it a bit of a mystery here because we have very few conifers in the vicinity, but there are at least two flitting in and out of the garden all day:

The coal tit waiting it’s turn to get on the seed tray

A blue tit (Cyanistes caerulius, Dansk: blåmajse) about to join the coal tit and grab a seed

Starling – (Sternus vulgaris, Dansk: stær)

Starlings are a bird that used to be very common and would murmurate in humungous numbers but this only happens now in a very few places. When I was an undergrad in Liverpool they would gather on icy winters evenings over Old Haymarket in vast numbers. The aerial manouvres were breathtaking, as was the acrid ammoniacal stench from the guano left behind on the pavements! I generally only see them in small flocks of a few tens these days, but they regularly come and avail themselves of the fatballs in my garden. And they’re more than welcome!

And finally, usually the most visible diner at my avian restaurant, the ubiquitous blackbird. Even they were conspicuous by their relative absence until very recent weeks, but now they’re back in  numbers:

And no English garden is complete without a feisty blackbird (Turdus merula, Dansk: solsort). Having said that, according to the British Trust for Ornithology the blackbird is a ‘Migrant/Resident Breeder, Passage/Winter Visitor’ and they migrate within the UK but also in winter we get an influx from Europe coming from Germany and Poland and other parts of eastern Europe. It makes me chuckle that whilst us folk moan about the weather and then jet off to the Canary Isalands in the winter, the blackbirds are coming here to make the most of our balmy winter climate. Just goes to show, everything’s relative!

New Year Ducks

For the last 14 months or so I’ve been saving my spare pennies in order to upgrade my photographic hardware and the plan was to put the money towards the Canon 100-400mm telephoto zoom lens which I mentioned in my last post.

(I’ve bought several items in the last 7 or 8 months or so from an online second hand camera shop and I’m going to give these guys a free plug because they have been very good indeed. They are called ‘MPB Photographic‘ and are based in Brighton, UK. I got a cheap Canon 18-55mm lens, a Manfrotto tripod, several filters and the battery grip for my Canon DSLR. All were good prices and the quality has been excellent and exactly as described on the website, so I’ve saved between £5-600 so far! Apparently, the pictures of items on the website are always of the item you are actually buying, not a new one, and the images are zoomable so you can get a good look at it too. So after buying my lens there and it being in mint condition I’ve decided that I’ll buy second hand if they have what I’m after).

The good lady wife gave me the lens for Christmas and I was very excited about getting out and about with it between Christmas and New Year, and then on Christmas Day I came down with the lurg and was incapacitated for a week. But on New Years Day I was feeling a little more human, and the sun came out, so I was determined to get to a lake and try to take photographs of distant water birds.

Tufted duck (Aythya fuligula) – the male of the species, with his reflection and his piercing yellow eye

I drove the short distance to Milton Country Park on the north side of Cambridge, which was full to overflowing with folk walking off their New Years Eve hangovers. I’ve been on a mission to get a good photograph of a tufted duck because they’re handsome birds and I’ve taken many sub standard pictures which simply don’t cut the mustard, so I was pleased to get these pictures in lighting conditions that were challenging. It was a very cold but sunny day and by the time I got there in the mid afternoon the sun was already behind the trees, so the light was starting to fail and I needed high ISO to get a picture. But despite that the quality of the images is pretty good I reckon!

The male tufties were grouped together, there were around half a dozen of them, and a way distant was a female, paddling around on her own and she seemed to be avoiding the males.

The female tufted duck and a black headed gull in winter plumage

The lady of the species is dark brown on top with mottled brown flanks and is rather less noticeable than the male. Bit I really like this picture of her because of the colour of the water. She was 60-70m beyond the group of males in the pictures above and I really liked the difference in the colour of the water due to the sun shining on the trees behind her and reflecting on the water, but where the males were the water was the colour of the reflected sky.

So I’m very satisfied with the performance of my new zoom lens and I’ll be posting lots more pictures to show you in the very near future.

(P.S. I’ve been really struggling to keep up with all your blogs and it’s been a source of major irritation, but I’m now going to try to catch up with you all over the next week or so. See you soon. F)

All the other garden birds…

In the last post I described the tits visiting my bird feeders. But of course they’re not the only species fattening up in the garden so this post is about the others. The berries and other food from the countryside are now becoming rather more scarce so greater numbers of more species are appearing.

One of the first to arrive, which has been around for a couple of months now, was my resident robin (Erithacus rubecula, Dansk: rødhals). Robins are fiercely territorial and this little guy being  no exception makes it clear that my garden is his manor, in fact it’s fair to say he’s a complete thug. He only picks on birds of a similar size or smaller and he won’t tolerate them for even a second. The two species he seems to dislike most are the dunnocks (Prunella modularis, Dansk jernspurv) and the coal tits (Periparus ater, Dansk: sortmejse) who have the temerity to enter his domain and he chases and beats them up remorselessly. Earlier this afternoon another robin turned up and I expected real fireworks as I’ve heard stories of rival robins fighting to the death and scalping each other! The fighting this time was restricted to a short chase and a bit of posturing and then it was all over, fortunately no injuries or fatalities were sustained.

A source of much concern this winter has been the absence of goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits). I have a niger seed feeder for them which I keep full, but they ignored it until a few weeks ago, but even then there was only ever one or two making the occasional visit whereas previously they would be feeding there every day, often five or six at a time. And then a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) attacked a goldfinch on the feeder and I didn’t see another one until a few days ago. I don’t know if the memory of the sparrowhawk was enough to keep them away but they have been conspicuous by their absence.

A lone goldfinch feeding on niger seed

There is a tall old tree 10 metres from my garden which I often see flocks of 20+ goldfinches in but they just don’t seem to want to drop down onto the feeder. Maybe if the weather turns icy they’ll alter their behaviour as food gets even more difficult to find.

Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris, Dansk:  grønirisk)

I’m always pleased to see greenfinches because they’re one of my favourite small birds and also because their numbers have been under threat from a nasty parasitic infection called ‘trichomonosis‘ which I posted about last year. So this little chap was very welcome. I was surprised to see him sitting on the niger seed feeder, but he wasn’t eating the seed, he was waiting for an opportunity to descend onto the seed tray which was already occupied.

The small birds usually have free access to the seed tray but occasionally it’s fully occupied by a pair of collared doves:

Collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto, Dansk: tyrkedue)

This was one of a pair and its partner was just out of shot further along the fence. A lot of folk seem to be very unimpressed by collared doves but I like having them around and I particularly like this guy with his feathers ruffled by the wind.

Previously I’ve been taking my close ups with a Nikon D40x and a Nikon 70-300mm zoom lens. This has been a really good combination, it’s small and light and therefore easily portable and has performed really well. But last year I bought a Canon 7D because I wanted to upgrade my camera body to one which is more robust and with more capability. I chose Canon rather than Nikon because the lens I thought most appropriate for what I needed was the 80-400mm telephoto zoom, but every review I read of it was that it was no good at all for wildlife photography because the autofocussing speed was much too slow. So I reckon Nikon missed a trick there because Canon have the 100-400mm L series telephoto zoom for around the same price as the Nikon lens which I decided to go for because it is supposed to be good for wildlife.


Wood pigeon (Columba palumbus, Dansk: ringdue) keeping the small songbirds away from the seed tray all by himself

All the photographs in this post except for the greenfinch were taken in murky conditions using my new Canon lens and I’m very pleased with the image quality. So now I’m looking forward to experimenting with it further afield. I’ll post the results as soon as I can.

Anachronous insecta

A few posts ago I showed you some of the spider I encountered in the short spell of good weather we had in the late summer and early autumn. I think maybe some species were making hay whilst the sun was shining because there were also a lot of hoverflies around at that time too. And here are  three of the species I found. It’s the wrong time of year to be posting about hoverflies, hence the title of the post, but I haven’t been able to get out with my camera so I reckon a hoverfly post is better than none at all! Identifying hoverflies can be tricky because there are species which look very similar to each other and I’m no expert, so I hope my identifications are accurate but if any of you spot an error please let me know.

Eristalis tenax

Eristalis tenax is a type of hoverfly known as a ‘drone fly’, so called because they mimic honey bee drones. They are common throughout the UK and the females, which mate before overwintering and laying their eggs in the springtime, can be seen in any month of the year because they emerge from hibernation to feed when the weather warms up sufficiently. The larvae of this species are called ‘rat-tailed maggots’ and feed in sewage outflows and rotting carcasses – the more putrid it is the more they seem to like it! They are aquatic and the reason they are called ‘rat-tailed’ is that they have an extendable tube which can protrude up to around 5cm which they poke out of the water and use to breath air.

Tapered drone fly – Eristalis pertinax

The tapered drone fly is so called because the male has a tapered abdomen which is visible on this individual. It is otherwise a similar species to E. tenax and it’s larvae are also known as rat-tailed maggots. Apart from the taper it’s also distinguishable from E. tenax by it front legs which are pale.

My favourite hoverfly I found this year is this one:

The footballer – Helophilus pendulus

It’s called ‘the footballer’ because it’s colours are likened to a football shirt. It’s scientific name means ‘dangling sun lover’. The larvae of this species feed on detritus and have been found in wet manure, drains and in very wet sawdust. It’s widespread throughout the UK and can be seen throughout the summer in bright sunny locations in hedgerows. Despite the unsavoury but indispensable habits of the larvae of all of these species they transform into the most handsome adults.

I haven’t done a dedicated Christmas post this year so here’s wishing you all a very merry Christmas and a happy and healthy 2013!

The Four Spot and the Strawberry

Regular readers of The Naturephile may have noticed numerous references to the loopy weather we have experienced in this part of the world this year, in particular the wetness of the spring and the subsequent brevity of the summer. And you may also have cottoned on to the fact that I have a spider fascination.

Despite the unusual summer weather conditions, later on in the summer and into the autumn I found lots of spiders including two species which I haven’t seen here before. Common garden spider webs (Araneus diadematus) adorned every surface in my garden in the autumn and this particularly nice example was strung between two hawksbeard stems in the local meadow:

Garden spider web bejewelled with dew

One of the most intricate webs I found was that of the labyrinth orb weaver (Agelena labyrinthica), they’re amazing constructions and most of them aren’t very visible until there’s a cold morning and the webs are laden with dew, then it’s possible to see that they adorn all the hedgrows and undergrowth.

The two species I found which I hadn’t seen before were the four spot orb weaver (Araneus quadratus) and the strawberry spider (Araneus alsine, aka orange wheel weaving spider).

The green body of the four spot orb weaver

Both my initial encounters with these little beauties were a little unnerving because I was unaware that spiders with these colours were lurking in my local undergrowth. The four spot flew past me at high speed when I snagged it’s trip line when I was trying to get in position to photograph a male common darter dragonfly:

https://i1.wp.com/farm9.staticflickr.com/8066/8155314987_f0c0087b41.jpgA male common darter dragon – non-arachnid interloper in this post

And a strawberry spider dropped down a few centimetres from my eyes when I was unlocking my gate! All I saw was a bright red bulbous abdomen so my first thought was “Bloody hell, it’s a black widow!”. So I ran to get my camera before it disappeared. Both of these were females and around the same size as a regular garden spider, but as you can see the colours were very different.

The bright red body of the aptly named strawberry spider

Another spider I found in my garden this year was the missing sector spider (Zygiella x-notata). I was intrigued by the name of the missing sector spider and it transpires it comes from the design of the web. If the planar, circular web is a clockface, the part between 11 and 12 o’clock has no spiral threads, so is effectively a ‘missing sector’.

The missing sector spider making a meal out of a cranefly

This particular individual was busy securing a cranefly and it seemed to take great pains to ensure the fly was maximally envenomated. It spent a couple of minutes running around the struggling fly, inflicting multiple bites before wrapping it up in a cocoon of silk and carrying it off to be hung from the window frame and consumed at leisure.

Crabs and Compasses

As a fitting coda to our trip to the Isle of Wight we had been invited to join some friends in Lyme Regis for the weekend. As I mentioned in my Isle of Wight post the eastern half of the English south coast was tipped on its end by tectonic forces so the geological history of that part of the world is exposed for all to see. In fact, moving from east to west is literally going back in time, heading as far as the Lower Jurassic era at Lyme Regis and Bridport, which is around 183-200 million years ago.

The Jurassic rock strata of the south coast westward from the Cobb at Lyme Regis

Those of you with a cinematographic interest may recognise the sea wall at Lyme Regis, it’s known as the ‘Cobb’, and was the location for the famous scene in The French Lieutenant’s Woman where Meryl Streep stands gazing out to sea. Which incidentally, is the only thing that myself and Meryl have in common, albeit for rather different reasons.

All our activities whilst we were in Lyme were marine orientated, I even managed to spend a couple of hours sea kayaking and peering into the crystal clear waters. The clarity of the water was incredible, it’s difficult to judge depth but I reckon at the deepest point I saw it was probably 15-20 feet deep. I could clearly see the bottom and the kelp fronds waving in the current, fish were darting in and out of the kelp and jellyfish were floating at the surface. I resolved to get up early the next morning and head out on the kayak to go snorkelling off the boat. So I got up and paddled out into the bay, but overnight a swell had risen which was swirling the sand around on the seabed and there was zero visibility in the water. So I need to make a return trip in the not too distant future so I can get in the water for a snorkel.

My son Jake and his friend Sam inspecting the contents of their crabbing bucket

Glancing over the sea wall while the children were crabbing I saw this handsome compass jellyfish (Chrysaora hysoscella) gently patrolling the periphery. I’d seen several of them in the bay the day before when I was kayaking and they’re common around English shores. They can pack a nasty punch for any poor unfortunate who makes contact with the tentacles which can cause a stinging, burning sensation and red raised lesions on the skin. I don’t know if it can get worse than that but it’s apparently fairly unpleasant while it lasts.

The compass can grow up to 30cm across which is about the size of this one.

Eyeing up the progress of the crabbing exploits was a hungry herring gull (Larus argentatus). He was very interested in any potential meals the kids may catch for him and he was ready to swoop onto any escapees.

Looking eastward from the Cobb are more cliffs and the rocks here are full of fossils. We were staying in the white houses on the left and just round the corner from there lies a prime fossiling beach which alas we were cut off from by the tide. There were lots of folk busy cracking open rocks on the part that was accessible but I think most of the fossils from that spot had already been found.

The cliff on the right with the yellow patch is called ‘Golden Cap’ and is the highest point on the south coast of England, rising to 627 feet (191m).

The catch:

Shore crabs – Carcinus maena

The bait for the crabs was bacon, they’re mad for it, and there was a prize for the first crab caught, the largest crab caught and the most crabs caught. My daughter won, every time she dropped her line into the water it was a couple of minutes or less before she hoicked one out. So, much to the chagrin of the boys, she won all three prizes and was as smug as hell for the rest of the day!

And as the bucket filled with crabs the gull got braver and braver:

But he was to be disappointed. At the end of the competition our bucket of crabs was emptied into the water at the bottom of those steps and they all scuttled away to freedom.

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.