Tuesday 29 April 2014

Week 15: Treasure & Life in the Old Oak Yet

The forecast for the next few days is basically a vast sea of cloud, with a smidgen of sunshine and a sprinkling of showers. I managed two out of three in this week’s Oak photograph (I don’t suppose being rained on, whilst waiting T H I R T Y,  L O N G minutes for the sunshine to appear, counts?! If you were around on Monday evening, yes, I was the peculiar person standing the middle of the field, staring at the clouds, willing them to move AWAY from the sun).

The Oak's leaves are just beginning to come through now. It is alive (*wipes sweat from brow in relief that 12 month project wasn’t doomed from the outset*)! I've included a shot of the Preston Hill Oaks for comparison (nothing I could do about the white, cloudy sky there unfortunately, even if I waited all day).

    Dellfield Oak (just coming into leaf)
    Preston Hill Oaks

When I chose the Dellfield Oak as the focus of Project 2014, I had no idea what would develop. I didn’t realise the grazed field was a wonderful treasure trove of wild flowers. I imagine that there are those of you reading this blog who have been enjoying Dellfield’s magic for years. I’m glad I’ve been able to join you. Discovering a couple of Bluebells in amongst the mix today was like turning up yet another jewel.

All along the west side of Dellfield, there are sprays of the tiny-flowered Germander Speedwell. I might have to redo this shot (below) when the weather improves. The Oak between the blue Speedwell and a blue sky would be just lovely, I think.

Sunday 27 April 2014

Week 14, Various: Wild Flower Bonanza

    Bluebells & Stitchwort

    Common Spotted Orchid
    Herb Robert
    Cuckoo Flower

    Bluebell (white, native variety)
    Germander Speedwell

Everything I know about wild flowers can be written on a postage stamp. And, a small one at that. Orchid and wild flower enthusiasts will no doubt wince in pain at my ignorance. With rain forecast for today (the brilliant sunshine streaming through my window right now is obviously just an illusion), I thought I’d put together a selection of some of the wild flowers I’ve photographed this week around Box Moor.

The leading image is of the Bluebells in Hay Wood. This was taken during a momentary break in the clouds yesterday morning. I would have liked a choice of location but this is where I was when the sun came out. Simple as that.

All around Hay Wood, there are areas where Stitchwort (I’m not sure if it is Lesser or Greater?) is mixed in with the Bluebells. It makes for an especially pretty combination.

At the south-western end of Bovingdon Reach, clumps of Bugle (Ajuga reptans) have sprung up and will be a good source of nectar for butterflies over the coming weeks.

Dellfield is awash with Cowslips and Dandelions but there are also now the beginnings of orchid growth. I’m looking forward to photographing the Oak when this particular Common Spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) comes into flower. It is positioned perfectly.

Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) is another common little flower all around Box Moor. This one's from Hay Wood.

Cuckoo Flower (Cardamine pratensis), so called, I think, because it comes into flower during the Cuckoo’s arrival in the UK. It’s another important food source for butterflies, especially Orange-tips. This specimen is on Bovingdon Reach.

Finally, the white Bluebell, which I think is native (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) (rather than a hybrid of the Spanish variety, judging by its pollen colour, structure and scent) was in Ramacre Wood. However, there are also a few in the eastern run of Hay Wood. Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys) is all around Box Moor. This particular plant was in Lower Roughdown.

Right, time for some lunch. Have a lovely Sunday afternoon all.

Friday 25 April 2014

Week 14: A Cuckoo for Company

I was away visiting family over the long weekend and the forecast for today/Saturday/Sunday is basically rain, so, yesterday was my window of opportunity with the Oak. Fuelled by my Easter sugar high (M&S’s toffee fudge and belgian chocolate hot cross buns are, without a doubt, the teacakes to eclipse all teacakes. I recoil in mock horror at the sight of dried fruit in cakes/buns/cereal bars/etc. Replacing it with chocolate and fudge; I say again, chocolate and fudge; is a mouthwatering masterstroke in my opinion). Anyway, where was I (other than advertising for M&S)? Oh yes, I arrived at Dellfield at around 10am, without a teacake. 

The Cowslips have grown and the Dandelions are all now in full flower. Dellfield is a beautiful sea of yellow and green. I even enjoyed a ray or two of sunshine early on, which helped with this week's Oak photograph.

It would appear that the tree I’ve chosen to follow this year is the slowest Oak to come into leaf in the country! Maybe. At any rate, it is markedly behind a number of other specimens that I’d seen over the weekend and is also lagging when compared to the Oaks up on Preston Hill. I suspect its position on the north-facing slope is the cause. I may have to wait another couple of weeks for leaf burst. Anyway, the Oak bud from Preston Hill has advanced (13 days since the last photograph).

    April 11th
    April 24th

Overhead, a pair of Buzzards were being mobbed by a crow. I left them to it and ventured into Hay woods to take in the Bluebells. They are now at their peak, having begun flowering nearly 3 weeks ago. The scent of Spring. And the woods were alive with the song of birds. Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Wren and Great Tit were the most noticeable but I could also hear the delicate ringing of Goldcrests. As time wore on, and I became more and more engrossed in photographing the flowers, it was the sudden call of the Cuckoo which shattered my concentration and filled me with joy. There’s nothing like it. Having spent the previous 7 weeks fairly unwell and confined to the local area, I’d not had the opportunity to go anywhere a Cuckoo might be. This was my first of the year. I couldn’t have asked for better company. The whole experience seemed to epitomise the loveliness of Spring. Crouching carefully in a shaded woodland, taking in the scent and sight of Bluebells, whilst listening to the hollow, plaintive call of a Cuckoo reverberating around the canopy. Perfect.

If I'd had a little bit of sunshine, I'd have included a photograph of the woodland floor and the carpet of Bluebells. As it was, the light was flat and dull so no chance of a nice shot, unfortunately. One for another day, perhaps.

By late morning, it was time to squeeze in a quick visit to Bovingdon Brickworks. The gully containing the frog spawn has dried up considerably in the last 2 weeks. Hopefully, the water will last long enough for the tadpoles to sprout legs!

There were a few butterflies on the wing, including at least 4 beautiful, male Orange-tips (Anthocharis cardamines). Sadly, they were far too energetic, and not inclined to settle, so no luck with photographs.

The Common Whitethroats have arrived. I counted at least 6 displaying males around the complex. I also came across a pair of nesting Linnets, which was rather lovely. The female was carrying a freshly collected feather to line her nest. A single Swallow flew through, overhead, and a male Great Spotted Woodpecker darted past me at one point. Even at midday, the songs of Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Wren, Dunnock, Chaffinch and, now, Whitethroat were all mingling in the Spring air.

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Week 13: Leaf Buds & Jazzy Flies

Something a little different this week. Not planned. More a case of responding to circumstances. It's a bit of a hotchpotch, really. The good news is that I did manage an Oak photograph (above) and another snap of the wonderful Cowslips (below). It was bright, crisp and utterly glorious yesterday morning with the frosty air around the Oak filled with the song of Blackcap, Dunnock, Wren and Blackbird, amongst others.  However, visiting the Oak was as much as I could manage, so, everything else is gleaned from the previous few days.

The irresistable carpet of Cowslips covering Dellfield

The Oak's leaf buds are finally making a move.

Below, is a heavy crop of the shot taken on February 19th. Right, is Friday's shot of the same cluster of buds. The terminal bud has begun to lengthen. Leaf burst won't be far behind.

        19th Feb
    11th April

On Friday, a few of the Ash buds were similarly just beginning to expand and break open their sooty bud cases.

After the Oak and Ash, the Beech tree is the last of the UK native species to come into leaf, I think, but I could be wrong. Anyway, it's lovely to finally see them responding to the lengthening days and increasing temperatures.

On Monday, I was able to get out briefly around Bulbourne Meadow and, in another patch of lively stinging nettles, I came across a number of Yellow Dung Flies (Scathophaga stercoraria). The mention of “dung” and “flies” is no reason to stop reading and skip to the picture, ok….(unless you’re eating, in which case, do, please, skip to the picture!). The name derives from the fact that females lay their eggs on animal dung and the newly hatched larvae then burrow into, and feed on said dung, before moving off to pupate. Now..., there’s a creature I do not envy! The males spend the majority of their time hanging around on cow pats (or similar!), waiting for frisky females to be attracted by the stench, I mean scent. It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it! In fact, as with many processes and relationships in the natural world, the Dung fly’s role is vital. Breaking down and recycling the faeces of large animals is decidedly helpful, especially where irresponsible dog owners have clearly passed through (like Monday). The flies feed mainly on other smaller insects and on nectar. Human food doesn’t interest them and, unlike other types of fly, they do not come indoors, so they are not likely to be responsible for the spread of disease etc. All in all, a handy little bug to have around and a cheerful bright yellow, with matching fur, to boot. Need a girl ask for more?!

Finally, a very happy Easter and, if you’re looking for a short-ish wander over the weekend, the Bluebells and Lesser Celandine are flowering beautifully in Hay Wood (I just haven’t been able to get there to photograph them yet). You could try one of the Box Moor Trust walks. Both the Green Walk and the Orange Walk take in Hay Wood.

Friday 11 April 2014

Week 12, Take Two: Sparkly Spawn & Sparring Songsters

I needed a second bite at the cherry. You probably guessed that I wasn’t altogether convinced by my Wednesday effort at the Oak photograph. With improving health this week, I returned to the scene of the crime yesterday morning. I give you “Dellfield Oak and Cowslips”....take two.

Length: approx 8mm. Dellfield, more Life amongst the Common Nettles 
The other itch that needed scratching was a desire to get some singing Blackcap footage. They really are little tinkers. Either, he tucks himself away in a bush, sits still, and sings his tiny heart out. Or, he flits from branch to branch, bursts of his discordant song left in his wake, and no sign of him settling for more than a second or two. Either scenario is entirely soul destroying when it comes to shooting video. Yesterday was no different! Almost.

At Bovingdon Brickworks, in the same area as I filmed the Chiffchaff last week, I came across 2 male Blackcaps going toe-to-toe over territory and mate. There is clearly something desirable about this location as Chiffchaff, Blackcap and Dunnock have all set up territories here. Lots of insect life, I expect. Anyway, the two male Blackcaps were chasing one another in and out of bushes. Up and down branches. From one tree over to another tree. Into the open. Then back into cover. Explosions of song from both contenders filling the air. I tried and failed miserably to get anything on film and walked on to see how the Common Frog spawn were doing. At least they couldn't fly away.

The tadpoles look as though an over enthusiastic 5 year old has come along with a tub of gold, silver and bronze glitter and made them All Pretty. The speckled appearance at this age is a sure sign that they are the Common Frog species.

When I returned to the Blackcaps, they had stopped chasing one another (a good start!), and, eventually (meaning, after getting lots of wobbly images of empty twigs and skinning my knuckle on the tripod, trying not to miss The Moment), I managed to get the footage below. Unfortunately, I was the wrong side of the gate when the bird flew into the bush beyond. It was a case of catching some distant footage....with an awkward viewpoint....through heat haze, or likely get nothing at all. If you spend the whole video wishing you could move the twig out of the way, you're not the only one! The sound of the brickworks in the background doesn’t help...and the Chiffchaff above my head drowned out the Blackcap at one point....but, hey, I think it’s better than nothing. Incidentally, a lady Blackcap arrived on the scene this morning so hopefully one of the males did enough to impress her.  Not to be left out, the Chiffchaff features at the end of the clip. Ironically, the Blackcap tried to sing over him! The Chiffchaff's reaction was priceless…complete indignation. I don't think the death stare was fatal but it made the point.  Singing louder seemed to be the weapon of choice.

P.S. The leaf buds on both the Oak and Ash trees are now just beginning to lengthen and/or expand, soon to burst. It feels as though almost every other tree has beaten them to it. More on that next week, perhaps.

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Week 12: Ladybirds and Creepy Crawlies

The thick pea soup, sloshing around inside my skull where my brain should have been for the past 4 weeks, is slowly but surely giving way to a firing neuron or two. Don’t get too excited though. The process of composition is still faltering and glacial. Let’s just say you’re exceedingly fortunate not to receive the words in real time. Truly! You. Are.

I have been on the look out for ladybirds (Coccinella septempunctata) for a few weeks and finally discovered one of their hang outs. In a patch of succulent stinging nettles, by the north entrance to Dellfield, I unearthed numerous seven-spots (more than a dozen).

I was particularly careful not to disturb them. Why? Well, according to the internet literature, if these little creatures are startled or threatened, they secrete a foul smelling, toxic fluid (hemolymph) from their leg joints. If a predator is unlucky enough to encounter a Ladybird larvae, it will be faced with even worse, an abdomen oozing the sticky alkaloids. Grim. Best to steer clear of gobbling up brightly coloured red and black beetles. They are decidedly unpalatable and most birds, and other potential predators, will know (or quickly learn) to avoid meals that come in red and black packages.

A little more about Ladybirds before I move on. Traditionally, they are a gardener’s friend. They feed on all the little “pests” that vegetable and flower growers seek to be rid of: white flies, aphids, scale insects, mites and so on. In fact, legend has it that the prefix “lady” stems from this beneficent role. In the middle ages, European crops were plagued by pests. Farmers prayed to the Blessed Lady, the Virgin Mary, and along came Ladybirds, ridding the crops of the infestations and saving the Farmers’ livelihoods. From then onwards, the beetles became known as Lady Beetles or, in Germany, Mary Beetles (Marienkafer). The name eventually morphed into Ladybirds and Ladybird Bettles.

If you’re scared of spiders, beware the next few photographs. Once you get down and dirty in a patch of stinging nettles you will find all sorts of marvellous creepy crawlies. I lost count of the number of Nursery web spiders which had positioned themselves in warm, sunny spots on nettle leaves. I also came across this curious tiny “thing” (photographed right). It was approximately 2mm in length and, according to the clever people on the internet, it is a mummified aphid. Essentially, a parasitoid wasp has laid its egg in the aphid. I wonder if a Ladybird will come along and eat both the aphid and the incubating wasp egg *shudder*. I’m reminded of the song “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly”...perhaps it isn’t so unrealistic after all.

Clearly, the nettles were the place to dine. A common species of hoverfly also turned up, which was no doubt on the look out for aphids as well. (To enlarge the photographs, just click on them).

    Nursery Web Spider
    Hoverfly (Platycheirus albimanus)
    Nursery Web Spider

It was all too easy to get absorbed into the microcosm of life within the nettles. But, elsewhere, all around the moorland, there are glowing Meadow Buttercups (the photograph below was taken on Station Moor)

Not far from where I found the Forget-me-not last week, a profusion of beautiful Hidcote Comfrey has burst into life. And, Cowslips are out in abundance now. Dellfield, the London Road verge (along Snook's Moor), and the Bovingdon Brickworks are suffused with the tiny yellow flowers.

    Hidcote Comfrey (Bovingdon Brickworks)
    Cowslips (Bovingdon Brickworks)

Walking through Snoxall's Moor, it's hard not to notice the pair of striking trees (photographed below, left). From a little research, I think they are Acer pseudoplatanus (Sycamore Maple) but happy to be corrected, if anyone can help. Whatever they are, when caught in the right light, they look most elegant and dramatic. Finally, to this week's Oak photograph. I can't say it's a roaring success but in as much as I wanted to capture the Cowslip-rich slope, leading down to the Oak, it works. As a footnote, for the birder in me, I've included a shot of the Grey Heron which frequents the canal by Bulbourne Moor.

    Acer pseudoplatanus
    Dellfield Oak
    Grey Heron

Friday 4 April 2014

Week 11, Extra: Singing in the Smog

In a rather dark, shady spot at Bovingdon Brickworks, a swathe of Forget-me-nots

Just a couple of videos from yesterday at the Brickworks. The light wasn't great for photography/video making but smoggy air couldn't stop the birds from singing. A Blackcap accompanied my frog spawn filming and, later, I grabbed some footage of one of the many singing Chiffchaffs. At this time of year, both birds are driven to establish territory and attract a female. I love how Spring is as much about the sounds as it is about the sights.

Singing Blackcap 

Singing Chiffchaff 

Elsewhere, over in Hay Wood, the first of the Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) are flowering.

Wednesday 2 April 2014

Week 11: Misty Morning & Willow Patterns

Yesterday’s forecast: bright with sunny spells all day. Perfect, I thought. I’ll get out around Boxmoor and visit the Oak. I am still frustratingly below par so venturing out requires a degree of psyching myself up and a little forward planning. Of course, the day dawned, complete with a thick blanket of fog. A more sensible individual would have postponed her jaunt into the gloom until the sun had burned its way through the moisture. Not me. Like an oil tanker, my course was set and there was no turning back. So, off I went into the mist...

The backdrop to the Dellfield oak (below) was the murky trees of Barnfield. The leaf buds are due to open this month so I shall keep a close eye on them.

Walking along Two Waters Road, it’s easy to spot a variety of willows on the adjacent moor, with one particular tree rising up from the river and overhanging the footpath. Its fresh leaves were still carrying the raindrops from the night before.

Through Two Waters Moor (west) and all the daisies were still fast asleep, their heads closed up to the dark, dank morning. I hadn’t realised this, but the name daisy is thought to be derived from a corruption of “Day’s Eye”. The flower retracts all its petals at night and opens them up again in the morning.


Over the weekend, I had noticed a rather lovely pattern in the dead stump of one of the willows, growing by the river, on Bulbourne Meadow.  I returned to this spot and, not long into my photo session, the Kingfisher came to join me. He announced his arrival and perched on one of the low hanging willow branches, just centimetres off the ground, right on the river bank. Less than 8 metres from me, at ankle height, he looked around and then flew a short distance up river, where he hovered like a humming bird before diving to catch a fish. The whole encounter was over within a couple of minutes but was utterly delightful. I shall now always associate the willow pattern with the Kingfisher’s company.

In the past few days, the Chiffchaffs have been joined by singing Blackcaps. I heard at least 2 birds on the moor yesterday. The Grey Wagtails were around too, over on Station Moor, and the floods on Snoxall’s Moor don’t look to be subsiding yet. I had hoped to find a migrant wader, waiting for the fog to clear before carrying on its journey, but no luck. There weren't even any gulls to look through!

Finally, as I was walking back through Station Moor, the Little Egret was fishing in the company of 5 rowdy Woodpigeons, all bathing in the shallows. Unfortunately, by this point, I'd run out of steam but decided that if the light improved, and I had the energy, I'd return in the afternoon to get some video footage of the Little Egret. Needless to say, the sun came out and raw enthusiasm fuelled the video below (it’s a shame it couldn’t also provide a steady platform to stand the tripod on. You’ll have to forgive the occasional wobble in the footage - keeping everything level and steady on rough, boggy grass is harder than I thought!). Interestingly, it isn't the same Little Egret that I photographed last month. That bird had two wonderful, long breeding plumes emanating from its nape. Yesterday's bird only possessed a short plume at the back of its head.

It turned out to be the day of the willow. By the afternoon, the Little Egret had moved to Bulbroune Meadow and was below the tree of my reflection obsession. The Kingfisher couldn't help but put in a cameo appearance or two...