Friday 16 January 2015

Week 52: Year's End & Reflections

Well, who’d have thought it?! I’ve managed to keep this thing going for a whole year. I wasn’t sure I would but I’m very glad I did. It was tricky to know whether to do a regular post for this final week or dive straight into a round up. In the end, a lack of energy and various other commitments made the decision for me. I shall bring things to a close with a few reflections and a summary of the most memorable, notable or significant finds. So, grab yourself a cuppa, find a comfy seat and here we go…

The only concrete aim of Project 2014 was to photograph a Box Moor Trust tree, once a week, for a year. After that, my plan was to have no plan. I hoped that by approaching the land with an open mind and heart, I might perhaps explore with as much innocence and curiosity as is possible. I tried not to dismiss areas that one might assume were barren or uninteresting, and, by committing to appraising the land over a period of 12 months, I inevitably had to persevere. Of course, through all of it, I chose the company of the Oak, a weekly appointment, for which I have been richly rewarded. I have so many wonderful memories of wildlife encountered around Dellfield meadow.

And so, here it is, Week 52, the final instalment. I have watched this moment approaching. When the trees began to lose their leaves, and the shadows lengthened, I could see and feel the land gradually returning to its starting point. The arc of the circle was closing. I had no real preconceptions as to what this year would involve or produce. I had no idea that in choosing to follow how an Oak tree changes over time, I would in fact come to appreciate its semi-permanence and stability, whilst the surrounding landscape and skies transformed and evolved. It amazes me that the same view, of the same tree can be so different even seconds apart. A cloud passing over, the shifting of the earth on its axis as the seasons change, and, of course, the colours and textures and shapes that emerge as leaves, buds and grasses grow, reproduce and die off again. The Oak within its landscape has alone been a source of genuine surprise and joy.

And then, of course, there has been everything else “that caught my eye, sparked my interest or tickled my fancy”. Where on earth do I begin!? When I look back, each week contains something which I remember fondly and cherish. I re-read my post on earth worms and it made me smile even now. Nothing like championing the overlooked and under-appreciated! Ok, I shall have to be ruthless. I’ve selected what I hope are the 12 most universally interesting or ecologically significant finds from this year. In chronological order…

Kingfisher Family

Nearly 3 months into the project, at the end of March, I discovered a courting pair along the Bulbourne river and located their nest site. I left them to it but was thrilled when I found in September that at least 3 young (two males and a female) had successfully fledged and were regularly feeding along the river. The family have been a constant throughout the project and I will continue to monitor their progress through 2015.


I was photographing the Bluebells in Hay Wood, in April, when I heard my first Cuckoo of the Spring burst into song. A little bit of Africa had arrived in Hemel Hempstead. Another male took up territory in the woods at Bovingdon Brickworks. They are special birds and it’s almost impossible to resist turning your ear to their arresting, hollow and penetrating song. 

Green Hairstreak & Dingy Skipper

At Roughdown Common, in April, one of the Trust's dedicated butterfly monitors found a small colony (3) of this rare Hertfordshire species. It really was exciting to head out and find my very first Green Hairstreak butterfly right on my doorstep. Over at the Brickworks, a small colony of Dingy Skipper butterflies were also wonderful to discover.

Grass Rivulet

At Dellfield meadow, in May, I was dying for a cuppa and this rare Hertfordshire moth was the last find of the day. Awful photograph but enough to lead to an ID and the hope that others might be found in the area.

Bee Orchids

On Bovingdon Reach meadow, in June, the memory of finding what was likely 150-200+ Bee Orchids will remain with me for ever, I think. There was barely a cloud in the sky and it was the most perfect summer’s day. And then, there they were...1, 2, 3 spikes...and so it went on. Having only ever known of single figure (1-5 spikes), hard-found specimens, I quite literally could not believe my eyes. It seemed almost miraculous!


On the River Bulbourne, late June, I had no idea I would come across five species of Damselfly with a sixth breeding at the Gadespring Cress Beds. It is testament to the ongoing restoration and management of the river, which, even in the 12 months I’ve been visiting it, has been developed and improved.

Grey Wagtail Breeding

By Station Moor, in July,
I found the nest site and the newly fledged family of Grey Wagtails.
This species is resident all year round but it was delightful to find them breeding locally.

Barn Owls

The last week of July, heading out to photograph the sunset and I came upon a magnificent Barn Owl. And later, it wasn't only the one Barn Owl, it was a pair! To say, I felt like I was dreaming is an understatement. If this had been the only significant find all year, it would have been worth every second spent on the project. 

Painted Lady & Silver-washed Fritillary

At the Brickworks, in August, I came upon the first Silver-washed Fritillary and the first migrant Painted Lady butterflies recorded at the site. I am chomping at the bit to find out this year if in fact Silver-washed Fritillary are regular visitors to an area of the Brickworks which is well stocked with mature Buddleja bushes.

Brown Argus Colony

At the Brickworks, late August, I had great fun trying to assess this newly discovered colony. Compared to 2013 records, this was the largest colony (14) recorded in Hertfordshire, outside of Aldbury Nowers. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens this summer!


Bovingdon Reach meadow, early October, a migrant Stonechat spent a day catching insects here before moving on. It’s the closest record I know of to the town centre.

Harvest Mouse jaw bone

November, after hours and hours spent dissecting Barn Owl pellets and identifying teeny weeny delicate bones, it was great to find something significant: the lower jaw bone of a Harvest Mouse. This is an increasingly rare species and although not conclusive, it gives us good reason to keep searching for evidence of its existence on Trust land.

If someone had told me at the start of the project that I’d be treated to up to five different Kingfishers along the Bulbourne; Cuckoos calling through woodlands; Green Hairstreaks and Dingy Skippers; know the thrill of finding a rare moth (Grass Rivulet) and a colony of scarce butterflies (Brown Argus); chance upon a carpet of Bee Orchids; watch Damselflies dancing and Grey Wagtails raising young; come across 26 species of butterfly; have Barn Owls flying over my head; spend a sunny afternoon with a migrant Stonechat, and retrieve a Barn Owl pellet that contained a Harvest Mouse jaw bone, I would have laughed in absolute disbelief! What a year, and all within walking distance of Hemel Hempstead town centre or the village green of Bovingdon! It just goes to show that you don’t need to seek wilderness and solitude for something special from the natural world to cross your path.

Although this blog is coming to an end, I hope to continue volunteering with the Trust and monitoring the land. Dan Forder is developing a new project (which I’ve alluded to briefly in the updated “About” section), and has very kindly asked if I’d like to join him. If/when that comes to fruition, I’ll put links in here.

Thank you to the Trust for its continuing care and active management of the land, balancing the needs of the local community with the interests of the natural world. Over the last 12 months, I feel as though I have fallen into step with the rhythms of its wildlife and I’m looking forward to seeing who or what will turn up over the next 12 months. This blog is, in a sense, a gift to the Trust which I hope will be of use and, if nothing else, will serve as a snapshot into the life on the land.

Thank you too to anyone who read and/or commented on my efforts either online or offline. This was never meant to be a project done in isolation and I was chuffed if anyone else enjoyed it or came along for the ride.

Last but not least, the final Oak photograph
Farewell for now

P.S. The Snowdrops are coming into flower on Bulbroune Moor and the cycle begins again…

Saturday 10 January 2015

Week 51: Mistletoe & Lime

Hay Wood
My head this week has been full of Mabel the Goshawk and the last of lingering flu bugs. However, I have crawled out from under the duvet and I did manage to put down “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald long enough to explore a little of Box Moor. I made it to Lower and Further Roughdown, walked the Brickworks circuit and, of course, visited Dellfield and Hay Wood. Treecreepers seemed to pop up at various points on dull, dark days and transformed hapless wandering into joyful discovery. In the woods at Lower Roughdown, I was following a scurrying little mouse-bird up at nearby tree trunk when I heard the whistling of Redwing. Through the trees, flinging fallen oak leaves this way and that, was a flock of c35 thrushes searching for food on the woodland floor. Amongst them were c12 Chaffinches. Unfortunately, they did a stirling job of disappearing into thin air the moment I moved and I didn’t really get a chance to check for Brambling or other winter finches amongst them.

Over on Dellfield, there were another 67 Redwing and a few Mistle Thrushes probing the sodden earth for worms. Into Hay Wood, I came across another couple of singing Treecreepers along with Goldcrests, Nuthatch and a mixed Tit flock. Already, the shoots of Bluebells have broken through and I can’t help feeling like Spring is just around the corner! This sense of new beginnings was reinforced at the Brickworks, where a number of male Great Tits were in full song, chiming loudly to assert territory and lure a lady. I had hoped that the abundance of Teasels on site there might be too much for any self-respecting finch to resist, particularly Lesser Redpolls. Sadly, no luck. Bullfinches and Goldfinches, along with another small flock of Chaffinches had to suffice.

So, what of the title “Mistletoe & Lime”? Well, hopefully, with more inane rambling, all will become clear. There’s no point to be made, just observations to share. Back at Westbrook Hay, I wandered over to admire the handiwork of the Conservation Volunteers in laying the hedge along the south-west boundary of Barnfield meadow. In doing so, I stumbled upon a rotting tree trunk, complete with its own miniature terrain and curious trumpet-like formations. In fact, they are the podetia (stalk-like growths) of the thallus (the body) of the lichen Cladonia fimbriata, commonly known as Trumpet Lichen. This got me thinking about the relationship between organisms. In the case of lichen, this is a mutualistic symbiotic partnership of a fungus with an algae and/or cyanobacteria. The mycrobiont (the fungus) provides a robust structure and an anchor to a surface, whilst the photobiont (the algea or cyanobacteria) supplies energy (glucose) via photosynthesis. The combination of the two creates a unique form and structure, a composite organism, which is totally unlike either of its constituent parts. Ultimately, both benefit from the marriage, combined they take on a new form and they thrive. This is, of course, a powerful contrast to a parasitic relationship and the one which I had been meaning to briefly include in a blog post all year!

Trumpet Lichen (Cladonia fimbriata): approx height 15-20mm; approx diameter of cup 3-7mm

Trumpet Lichen (Cladonia fimbriata)

During the last 12 months, it has been impossible not to notice the numerous infestations of Mistletoe (Viscum album) on the Lime trees in Ryders meadow. I couldn’t leave this project without mentioning them and, as it happens, Lichen symbiosis seemed a fitting context. From what I understand, Mistletoe is predominantly a parasitic plant, although there is some argument that it does make a photosynthetic contribution, albeit minimal.

According to the RHS, Mistletoe is “a parasitic plant that lives off the nutrients and water from a host tree. Although it is parasitic, it will not kill the host tree but can weaken it. The berries are often spread by birds from one tree to another, and this is how the large rounded clumps of mistletoe form in tree branches. The most common host tree in the UK is apple, but poplar and lime are also frequent hosts.”

It is no coincidence that the Limes on Ryders are frequently rattling with the alarm calls of Mistle Thrushes (Turdus viscivorus). The bird’s scientific name means “Mistletoe eating thrush” [Turdus is the Latin for "thrush", and viscivorus, "mistletoe eater", comes from viscum "mistletoe" and vorare, "to devour"]. The bird loves Mistletoe berries, it’s just a shame the Lime trees have to suffer.

Finally I’ve also included a photograph of some Ivy (Hedera helix) growing up the trunk of a tree in Lower Roughdown. Ivy isn’t parasitic and doesn’t penetrate the tree’s bark or roots. I just liked the way it looked and the sense that the tree leant form and strength to an otherwise flimsy organism. The RHS discuss its relative merits and pitfalls here if you’re interested.

    Mistletoe (Viscum album) in Lime tree
    Ivy (Hedera helix)

This week’s Oak photograph was taken on Monday, in the misty gloom.

Saturday 3 January 2015

Week 50: Bugs & Frogs of a Different Kind

Last Sunday morning, the forecast for the week ahead suggested Monday through to Wednesday morning were going to be glorious. Hard frosts with bright clear skies. Perfect, I thought: Trust land, rendered in dramatic winter light, covered in shimmering shards of frost. I was looking forward to getting back out there.

Sunday evening, as I drove back from Warwick, I suddenly had the most annoying frog in my throat, which all the fishing in the world would not retrieve. Back home, I picked up the exciting news that a Penduline Tit (Remiz pendulinus) had been found at Meadow Lane gravel pit in Bedfordshire. This is a little bird I have wanted to see for a fair old while. In 2013, I was sorely tempted to bribe friend, family or stranger to somehow get down to Stodmarsh in Kent to see one which was wintering in a reed bed there. It was a relief when that bird finally stopped “showing well” and I could stop pining for it.

Anyway, Monday morning, still harbouring my rasping frog and having had only 1 hour’s sleep (for no obvious reason whatsoever), I joined a couple of birding friends for a Trip to the Tit. I figured I could hit Box Moor the following day. The forecast was spot on. Freezing cold, a hard frost but wall-to-wall sunshine. The Penduline Tit rarely settled, moving from one stem of Reedmace to the next, searching for grubs and feeding on the seeds. Views through the telescope were amazing. The sun was behind us and the Tit perfectly lit, its bandit-like markings and colouring irresistibly beautiful. It eventually disappeared into some vegetation and we called it a day, back home in time for lunch.

By this point, I was beginning to wonder if the 1 hour’s sleep, my thumping headache and the frog in my throat were perhaps going to develop into something more sinister. Just in case, I thought I’d better get to the Oak that afternoon and, whilst I was out, I decided I may as well check the small reed bed by Old Fishery Lane for Reedmace. I was fairly sure there wasn’t any but I wanted to be certain.

At Dellfield, the ground was still hard under foot and, even at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, anything that hadn’t been exposed to the sun was still covered in hoar frost. I photographed the Oak and some ice crystals on a fallen stick and hoped that I’d be able to return the following day to make the most of the frozen landscape. Off Old Fishery Lane, on the east side, a Little Egret and the young female Kingfisher were fishing in the narrow channel of the Bulbourne. As I suspected, the pocket-sized reed bed doesn’t contain any Reedmace - it would take a small flock of winged pigs and a minor miracle for a Penduline Tit to tarry here. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a Water Rail is lurking in there somewhere though...

By now, you’re probably wondering why I’ve mostly been prattling on about a bird in Bedfordshire instead of the wildlife in Box Moor. The thing is, I woke up on Tuesday morning with a temperature of 102 deg F and, the rest of the week, as they say, has been a write off. I've barely left the sofa and the comfort of a duvet, let alone the house! The fever broke yesterday but my head and chest are still full of bugs. Anyway, since you’ve come this far in the tale of an out-of-town Penduline Tit, I should probably include a photograph or two, even if the bird was a little distant.

Penduline Tit (Remiz pendulinus)

Ordinarily, you’d expect this species to be wintering down in Spain or Portugal or over in Greece. Maybe this was a Danish bird that got blown west and didn’t fancy going any further, who knows. Either way, it was a splendid late Christmas present.

In the sequence of heavily cropped photographs below, the bird had found a grub in the seed head and proceeded to pick it up with its claw foot and place it in its beak.

Penduline Tit (Remiz pendulinus)

I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll manage more than just an Oak photograph next week.

All that remains for me to do is to wish any readers a very happy new year and to hope that it includes good health and a fair dose of nature’s wonders.