Once upon a time, in a wild garden in the heart of Cornwall, there lived a ringlet.
The hero of our tale loved to bask in the sunshine, spreading his velvety brown wings to enjoy the warmth. He loved taking his gently dipping flights through the waving grasses of his home. If he caught sight of his reflection in a dew drop, then he loved to admire the beautiful yellow-rimmed eye-spots on the underside of his wings.
This, however, was a very sad ringlet. It was all very well admiring his own wings, but he longed for a lady ringlet who could share his adventures in the long grass. He would much rather admire her beauty than his own, and he yearned to be loved in return.
Every day, the fairy godmother of the garden would visit the ringlet’s grassy home. She, too, was heartbroken to see his lonely life. The sunny weather turned to rain, as if the lonely ringlet’s mood had even made the skies sad. But the rain meant it was even less likely that another ringlet would arrive. The future looked bleak for our despairing hero.
Then, one morning, there was a glimmer in the sky, the clouds were swept aside, and the sun came home after a long time away. The fairy godmother looked out of a high window in her castle at the edge of the garden, smiling at the feeling of sunlight on her face.
Then something caught her eye. Over the long grass of the ringlet’s home, two brown butterflies were bobbing and pirouetting round each other. Could it be? – yes! Two ringlets, spinning happily through the grass, overjoyed at finding each other, at long last. Each ringlet admired the chocolate of the other’s wings, and especially the beautiful yellow-rimmed eyespots.
They danced together all day until the sun went down.
And so, my story of the lonely ringlet has a happy ending. Fanciful it may be, but it is based on truth. I keep a patch of long grass set aside in my garden. It is a good spot for frogs and invertebrates, and who knows what else, to tuck themselves away. Plenty of wildflowers grow on the wall behind – foxgloves, biting stonecrop, pennywort, vetches, spearwort plantain and brambles. It’s a small patch, but it’s a haven for wildlife.
In previous years, this spot has always been alive with ringlets, lovely velvety butterflies that need long grass: to shelter in, to lay their eggs in, and as the food plant of their caterpillars. This year – maybe because of the unseasonal weather – there have hardly been any. I was waiting for the first to emerge at the usual time of year for ringlets (mid-June onwards), but eventually only a single ringlet appeared (I’ve made it a ‘he’ in my story, but it could equally have been a ‘she’). Call me soft, but I felt very sorry for it.
It was a whole week later before a second ringlet emerged. This may also have been a ‘he’ or a ‘she’, but by the way the two danced round each other in a courtship flight, followed by one of the pair bobbing through the grass to lay eggs, they must have been of the opposite sex. So, even if there are only a few ringlets in the ringlet home this year, and maybe only these two, I’m hoping for a successful generation in 2017.
In other wildlife garden news, I have enjoyed watching a hardworking blackbird pair forage in the garden to feed their offspring. Then this young blackbird appeared on the roof of my woodshed, looking all fluffy and a bit nervous. It seems to be doing well: I’ve seen it a few times, looking more grown-up and brave with each successive sighting.
Other butterflies spotted include the usual crop of whites, speckled woods, red admirals and painted ladies. The tearaway flock of goldfinches have been speeding about, chasing each other from shrub to shrub to wall to fence to tree to shed…and so on, endlessly. Do they ever stop to rest?
And all the seedlings I tended so lovingly in the greenhouse this year are doing amazingly in the outside world of the garden. On sunny days (remember them?) they are alive with bees and hoverflies. I’ve got an entire flowerbed filled with bishop’s flower, emilia, verbena, marigolds, hedge woundwort, sunflowers (just opening), sweet peas, black-eyed susan and tobacco plant (great for moths). All I need is a warm day so I can relax in the garden with a good book, surrounded by my plants.
Hopefully, I’ll be joined by at least two ringlets, dancing together in the sunshine.
In the world of plant-fancying, it’s often the showier plants that take the glory. However, I have a real fondness for smaller plants that are less distinctive at first glance, but which, on a closer look, are really beautiful.
Last week, I was walking a very squelchy, at times very splashy footpath through a small local nature reserve close to where I live in West Cornwall. I was delighted to find thousands of small Crowfoot plants, strewn out along the path, clinging to the sticky mud and floating in the puddles.
Now, the members of the Crowfoot sub-genus (which belong to the Buttercup – Ranunculus – family) are notoriously tricky to tell apart. The BSBI has an entire (and excellent) Plant Crib dedicated to their identification. It contains ominous phrases such as “Most species…are impossible to identify in the vegetative state” and mentions the dreaded “hybridisation” word. It is my firm belief that plants should not be allowed to hybridise – it’s hard enough trying to ID them as it is! Ah, well.
Having said that, from location (in the southwest) and general leaf shape, I am fairly sure the Crowfoot I found on my muddy walk will be Round-leaved Crowfoot (Ranunculus omiophyllus). Here it is, to the right, snapped on the iPhone. It’s a little too early for the delicate white, yellow-tinged flowers to appear, but a little later in March and early April they’ll be putting on a pretty show, given the numbers of them I found.
The Crowfoot I’m most familiar with is Three-lobed Crowfoot (R. tripartitus). This is much rarer than its Round-leaved cousin, and is largely restricted to Wales and sites in South and West England. Here in Cornwall, The Lizard is one of the best places to go looking for it, and I blogged about it recently in the context of the Grochall Track, a good place to find it. The tracks from Predannack down to Kynance, as well as Windmill Farm, are also fine Three-lobed Crowfoot sites.
If you compare Round-leaved Crowfoot in the above image with the photograph of Three-lobed Crowfoot to the left, you can see that the former is much ‘chunkier’ than the delicate R. tripartitus (the images are at different scales, but you can still see the differences in leaf shape).
I’m not at all sure, mind you, that the BSBI would approve of using chunkiness as an identifying feature. There doesn’t seem to be any reference to it in the Plant Crib.
In winter, it’s as if everything is waiting. And, of course, it is. Waiting for spring. February is still winter, but trees already have buds ready to unfurl, early birds are beginning to pair off, on milder days overwintering butterflies and bumblebees make brief appearances to find food, and rosettes of plant leaves are beginning to unfurl from the earth. Spring is just round the corner.
One of the places I love to visit in the winter is Loe Pool and Loe Bar, near Porthleven. When I first came to Cornwall this sandbar, separating the waters of Loe Pool from the sea, was just down the road from me, and I’d be there at least once a fortnight. In my view, it’s best approached by parking at the National Trust’s Penrose Estate and walking down along the woodland path above the waters of Loe Pool. That way, your first sight of Loe Bar is from above, glimpsing hints of it through trees before the roar of waves announces your arrival at the seashore.
A walk along the bar is strange in winter. It’s wide enough that, if you walk along the middle, you can’t see both sea and lake at the same time, and with very few people about it feels as if you are on your own betwixt and between two landscapes, but belonging to neither. Occasionally a lone soul will be fishing at the edge of the sea, long poles poised skyward, sitting patiently. Move to the lakeside and there will be swans or mallards floating quietly on the water, against a background of bare trees on the far shore. Stand on the crest of the bar, however, and you’re nowhere, neither land nor sea, and, apart from the cold wind, it could be any season, winter or spring.
At other times of the year it feels different. Still beautiful, but also more immediate and lively, with children playing, walkers and their dogs, tourists and locals alike enjoying the warmth of the sand and sun. In summer, the woodland path down to the Bar is populated by joggers and cyclists (I used to jog there myself when I lived closer). I’ve met and chatted to loads of people as I’ve explored the Loe and Loe Bar, through rain and shine. It’s clear that a lot of people, like me, are very attached to this spot.
And yet, it still feels like my spot, my first haunt in Cornwall and the one I keep coming back to. The house I lived in then that first winter, just outside of Helston, overlooks the Cober Valley. The view was wonderful. One of my first mornings there I spotted a pair of swans flying eastwards, heading towards Helston’s boating lake. That evening, back they flew again, seeking the west and the quieter waters of Loe Pool. And that’s what those swans did, every day. I used to watch out for them, and worry if I missed seeing them fly by. The image of the two swans has become something of a symbol for me of my earliest months in Cornwall. The small repetition of their daily flight, day in, day out, was mysterious, even mystical to my city-attuned eyes, but with familiarity became something comfortable and welcoming. I hope they’re still making the daily commute.
One of my favourite things to do, whenever and wherever I am, is to sit and watch. Rather than seeking out the world, I like to let the world seek out me, or let it pass on by. One of my favourite places to do this is at a beach café. It doesn’t even need to be summer – indeed, preferably it’s one of the cooler, less populated seasons.
I like to write down my observations when I’m out and about, doing my sitting and watching. I was going through my notebook recently, and came across some scribbles from a visit to Maenporth Beach. I’d even drawn a couple of sketches and, together with the words, I was reminded vividly of a lovely couple of hours I’d spent there last year.
Maenporth Beach nestles close to Falmouth on Cornwall’s south coast. Read the publicity material, and you will find that it is sandy, offering sunbathing, rock pooling and boating trips. There are views across the broad sweep of Falmouth Bay. There is, of course, also a beach café. Busy as hell in the summer, I was however there in early April, with no sign of sunbathers or rock-poolers.
After parking right next to the beach, I sniffed expectantly, but for some reason there was no strong smell of salt or seaweed. There was hardly any breeze, either – maybe the lack of sea-scent was linked to this – and I was doubly disappointed. Feeling cooped up back at home, I had left the house and my desk in search of a bit of bracing air and shoreline smells.
Ah well, there was still the café, with its quirky name: Life’s a Beach. As I approached, heart and taste buds set on a cappuccino, I noticed a black-and-white sheepdog sitting outside, proudly wearing a luminous yellow dog-coat. The dog did not register my presence at all. Its eyes were resolutely fixed on a grizzled man in waterproofs (definitely a local, you could tell not just by the accent, but also the look and self-confidence) standing chatting to a couple of visitors. Standing waiting to be served by the young man behind the bar, I saw the reason for the dog’s unwavering gaze: the dirty tennis ball clamped in its mouth. Please throw my ball, please throw my ball – I could almost read the dog’s thoughts.
Cappuccino successfully bought, I perched at a table outside. The tide was out, and the sand glistened in the bleak sunlight. Ripples and rivulets meandered across the beach, capturing sparkles and forming patterns of incredible intricacy, temporary details to be lost with the water’s return. The sky was a fresh blue but somehow the beach beneath was grey and beige, and the sea beyond was dark. Now at last I began to smell and taste the sea as salt on my lips and sour seaweed scents mingled with the smoky flavour of the cappuccino. Distant gulls bobbing on the water were silent, but behind me in shrubs I could hear small birds singing – a robin, a blackbird, perhaps a wren. Beneath everything there was the muffled rush of the waves, breaking up into smaller cadences, crescendos and decrescendos.
Two horses and their riders – one older lady, one younger – burst on to the scene, trotting up and down at the tide’s edge, waves lapping at hooves, until they disappeared just as suddenly. A few minutes later and they were back, this time the horses being led without saddles. The riding ladies let the horses loose, and I watched amused as the animals, rather than charging away, rolled and rolled in the sand, all legs and hooves thrashing in uncoordinated abandon.
It was almost time to leave. I had come with no mind or need for company. I wanted to sit and reflect and be ‘in the now’. But company I got. The luminous sheep dog gave up on the waterproof man and joined me instead. Now I could see the black writing on the yellow dog-jacket: Beach Dog. Well, there’s an occupation that must be fun for your average canine. Being a sucker for a pair of soft brown eyes, I threw the tennis ball several times, grimacing slightly at the saliva-fuzzy feel.
As I left, returning to my car and the journey home, I could feel the dog’s entreating eyes boring into my back. Please throw my ball. Don’t worry, friend, I thought. This is a place where every visitor has time to throw balls for endearing sheepdogs.
Crowhill Valley, which lies not far from Grampound, is one of my favourite woodlands in Cornwall. I wrote about this wonderful place back in May, 2014, when the bluebells were blooming merrily and the sun was shining (read about it here). The path through the wood wanders along by the side of the River Fal. It is a very watery place, with an old mill race running to the west of the Fal, just out of sight behind the trees, and numerous small man-made and natural streams chuckling along between the two main watercourses.
I was in the area today, so I decided to call by and have an afternoon walk. There was a particular tree I wanted to get a photograph of, and I had my camera with me, so it made sense. Hmmm…I should maybe have thought ahead, or even read the SSSI citation for the site, which states very clearly that “the water table fluctuates and in periods of high rainfall much of the woodland is inundated”. We have had quite a lot of rainfall recently.
Here’s what the path through the woods looked like in May…
…and here’s what it looked like today.
The path is in the foreground of this photo, I promise you. Occasionally it made a brave effort to break the surface, but mostly it was forced to lurk beneath all this water. I did walk (wade) a bit of the way in to the woods – the water was fairly shallow – and it was quite fun, in a wet sort of way. Eventually, I gave up. I was the only person there and, being quite a risk-averse soul, I had visions of tripping over a submerged bramble branch and spraining my ankle, or worse.
The tree I wanted to photograph was way ahead, so I’ll have to go back another day. Maybe I’ll wait until May.
The more traditional way to visit Kynance Cove on The Lizard is to park in the National Trust car park, walk down the footpath to the cove itself and enjoy the shimmering sea and serpentine followed by a cup of tea and slice of cake in the cafe. Then follows the steep but short slog back up the hill to the car.
It will be spring or summer, and on a sunny day there will be many other people at this understandably popular spot. You might take a walk along the cliff top, either north towards Soapy Cove or south towards Caerthillian and Lizard Point. You will be rewarded by the wonderful flora of The Lizard all along the tops of the cliffs, from the Thrift that is everywhere to sweet-scented Chamomile to the rarer clovers that The Lizard is rightly renowned for.
The warmer months are, however, not my favourite time of year to make a trip to Kynance, and neither is this route the way I prefer to arrive there. I like to make the journey in winter, or early spring, starting from further east, taking a route across the Lizard Downs. The footpath is called by many the Grochall Track, though it does not call it that on the OS map, and it starts next to Kynance Garage petrol station at Mile End. It is not the most enticing of entryways, and on a dull winter day even less so.
Bear with it, though. Two or three minutes along a hedge-bound path and you arrive at a gate announcing you have arrived at the Lizard Downs. Enter, and find a wonderful world. The track heads pretty much straight south-west. To the north lies a small-holding (marked Grochall on the OS map), now managed for conservation and owned by the National Trust since 2009. Walking westwards you find yourself on the National Nature Reserve, managed by the local Natural England team. In summer, when there has been enough sunshine, the track itself will be largely dry, its pale buff-coloured soil firm beneath your feet. There will be the beautiful Cornish Heath blooming in later summer, pink flowers of Common Centaury and, if you keep your eyes peeled, its tiny cousin Yellow Centaury, opening its petals to the warmth of the sun. Around you the Downs stretch out, coconut-scented gorse, heathers and grasses, in an expanse of green. Summer is a nice time to go, I admit.
It is a bit bleak, though, even in summer. Not many folk walk this way, away from the cliffs and coast. You cannot even see the sea until you get a mile or so further west. In winter, though, it takes on a bleakness at quite another level. A brisk, cool and bright day is great, but I much prefer it when it is vaguely misty and mizzly. The path is clear enough that it is impossible to get lost, but with your eyes cast downwards and your collar up, dim shapes hover at the edge of sight and the world contracts around you. The ubiquitous Purple Moor-grass takes on a whole new purpose: its knobbly clumps serve as stepping stones as you stomp and splash along what is now a path of sticky mud and puddles.
It is wonderful. Rather than lifting up your eyes to seek the horizon and the first sight of the sea, with Kynance the end goal, you are focussed on the ground, and so you notice things closer to your feet. Early frogspawn, for example, or the fine filaments of stoneworts in the puddles. And it will also be impossible to miss the winter treasure of my title: Three-lobed Crowfoot.
It hardly looks like anything in the cold winter months, compared to some of the showier plants with which it shares the Downs. When I was studying at Tremough, I spent many weeks, in both winter and summer, surveying for Crowfoot on the west side of The Lizard, including the Grochall Track. Despite saying a few sentences ago that it is hard to miss, you do need to get your eye in. At first, I would stop at every puddle along the track looking for the plant hopefully: separating out its delicate small leaves from other vegetation could sometimes take several minutes. Eventually, though, the distinctive crowfoot shape imprinted itself firmly into my brain and I would find it quickly and with ease. As I closed my eyes at the end of a day surveying, lying pleasantly exhausted in bed, I would see crowfoot leaves floating before me.
“It grows into your soul like a favourite song”
I came to love it. I love the sight of a few of its leaves lying on the surface of a puddle as if they have been placed there, hidden in full sight for the weary traveller to find. I love it when you find a place where it has exploded, carpeting a shallow pool with exuberant abundance. I love the shape of it: the graceful smooth notches in the leaves creating the three-lobed form, the fairy-like gentle green colour. An unpretentious little plant, it grows into your soul like a favourite song.
Then, in the earliest days of spring, it blossoms. Tiny, white, yellow-centred flowers held on stiff little stalks above the leaves. I remember the first time I saw its flowers, after weeks of searching for and counting the leaves. My amazement was out of all proportion to its diminutive petals. Maybe I was brain-fuddled by all the surveying, but I think it was rather that it was so precious to see this brave flower, holding out in the still cold depths of the downlands.
Three-lobed Crowfoot is a national rarity. Its range has reduced considerably over the last few decades. It is still found in western Pembrokeshire, the New Forest, and on some sites in Devon and West Cornwall, but The Lizard remains one of its last strongholds. It is one of a few plants growing on the trackways that benefit from a low-level of disturbance, something that once would have been provided by the horse-drawn carts carrying serpentine from The Lizard’s quarries to the serpentine craft workshops (the Grochall track was one of these routes, before the toll road – now the main vehicular access to Kynance – was created in the 1930s). Disturbance reduces competition from other plants, so in order to conserve the Crowfoot, conservation managers now need to recreate similar levels of human activity, either by using grazing stock or by driving vehicles up and down the tracks – a fun thing to do, but with a serious point to it.
When I walk the Grochall Track in winter or early spring, arriving at Kynance is almost incidental. Sometimes I walk down the switchback path at the northern side of the cove, in order to feel the sand beneath my feet and admire the serpentine rocks. More often, though, I find a sheltered place to sit at the top of the cliffs and eat a sandwich, looking down on Kynance and Asparagus Island, at peace with the view and reflecting on the tranquillity of the Downs. Then I pick up my rucksack and head back along the Grochall Track, looking for more Crowfoot.
Getting to the Grochall track:
Travelling south through The Lizard down the A3083, at Mile End you will see Kynance Garage on your right (SW700145). Turn left immediately opposite and there is a small area on the left where you can park. Cross the A3083, taking care to avoid cars which shoot up and down the road here, and you will see the footpath starting to the left of the garage. The track (which is clearly marked on Ordnance survey maps) heads straight from here, bearing south-west until you reach the cliffs and sea and the road switchbacking down to the cove (SW685134). If you have left the car at Mile End, you will need to walk back the same way, unless you take the National Trust access (toll) road back to the A3083 and then walk north along the main road until you get back to Mile End. I would not recommend it, however – the A3083, although seldom chock-a-block full of traffic, is a straight and fast road. There is nothing to complain about in enjoying the Grochall Track twice – and it is safer.
I blogged before about a walk starting on the Grochall Track, but which then turns north before you get to Kynance and visits Lower Predannack and Kynance Gate prehistoric village. It was a summer walk, and I wouldn’t recommend it in winter (or summer) unless you have a good map and possibly even a compass if you are unfamiliar with The Lizard, as the paths away from the Grochall Track are not always as clear. In winter, if you think the Grochall Track is muddy, some of the other tracks leading away from it are spectacularly boggy. Sturdy walking boots are essential, and it is amazing how disorientating just a bit of mist can be.
Find out more:
Bates, Robin and Scolding, Bill, 2002. Wild Flowers of The Lizard. Cornwall Council, Truro (a great and accessible little book that will fit in your rucksack, written by two local experts, with good photos and available from most bookshops and gift shops in the area).
Find out more about Three-lobed Crowfoot on the Discovering the Natural Lizard website here, or on the Plantlife website here.
For anyone that wants to find out more about how low-level disturbance is of practical use in conserving Three-lobed Crowfoot and some of the other Lizard rarities, here is a link to the one scientific paper I have to my name, which explains the positive outcome of conservation work at nearby Windmill Farm. I may be the lead author (it came out of my university project study), but my co-authors are infinitely more knowledgeable: Scott A, Maclean IMD, Byfield A, Pay AR and Wilson RJ, 2012. Artificial disturbance promotes recovery of rare Mediterranean temporary pond plant species on the Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall, England. Conservation Evidence, 9, 79-86
Well, it’s near the beginning of 2016 and I haven’t written a blog post for a while, which gives you a big clue about my New Year’s resolution. Yes, it was to get back to blogging regularly about Cornwall’s wildlife and the places I’ve been as I continue to explore this wonderful end of Britain.
In order to ease myself back into it gently, in this my first post of 2016 I’m sharing a few photographic memories of some of my best Cornwall wildlife moments from last year. It serves as a quick catch-up on some of the things I got up to when I should have been blogging.
There were plenty of special moments – finding a rare Western Bee-fly, climbing Godolphin Hill (what an unexpectedly wonderful view!), discovering local woodlands, meeting the improbably but aptly named Swollen-thighed Beetle for the first time (and then seeing them everywhere). The weather wasn’t always great, but there was still plenty to see and do.
I am one of the kinds of people that I get really annoyed by.
Well, there’s an admission. Let’s narrow it down a bit. In the world of nature conservation, one of the most important, but often unsung, activities is recording what you see. And then, even more importantly, sending in those records somewhere central. Somewhere that other people, people who are just as concerned about wildlife as you are, can use and act on them. And I, up to now, have not been one of the country’s best recorders, to put it mildly. Hence, my annoyance with…me.
Quite frankly, I get a bit bored by recording. Writing it down, sending it in – it’s so much more fun just being out in nature enjoying everything. It’s a chore to take notes and tell other people about what I’ve seen.
Well, that’s what I used to think. But I am now a convert to recording and to sharing my sightings. Here’s why.
Number one. A record of a sighting that is not shared is no use whatsoever. And yes, I mean that, no use at all. OK, it may have been thrilling that I found a new site for a particular declining species of insect, and I may feel protective of that site for very good reasons, but if I don’t send that sighting to the relevant people what might happen? (NB. the ‘I’ is rhetorical here – I may be not very good at recording, but I’m not that bad!).
Well, firstly, if the site in question is put up for development in the future, the appointed ecological consultant will ask for records from the local biological records centre which will, of course, have no records of the population of the declining species because the person who found them has failed to submit them. The worst case scenario is that development plans for the site will take no account of what might be important populations of a particular threatened species. That will be, and I’m not mincing my words here, at least partly the fault of the person(s) who failed to record what they’d found. Secondly, any national or local scientific surveys of how a particular species is doing will be incomplete, and that may lead to imperfect or even doomed decisions on future landscape-scale management for that species.
Number two. In these days of intensive farming and lower biodiversity we need to record not only rarer species but, in fact, any species. Today’s common species are tomorrow’s rarities. Go back 50 years and skylarks were abundant. Now, they’re not. If we weren’t recording skylark numbers we’d have no idea of how far they’d declined but, thanks to the BTO’s and RSPB’s excellent recording schemes we can calculate what’s happening. It’s depressing, but at least we know what we’re dealing with.
It’s actually not that hard to record. There are apps, there are simple forms and email addresses. No-one is expected to record everything. Just record the groups of species in which you are interested. Every bit of effort helps. If every single person – man, woman, boy and girl – in the UK was to send in just one or two records a year each, I bet that would significantly increase the number of species records overall.
I am going to make two recording-related commitments for the rest of 2015. Firstly, I will record all species of butterfly (common or rare, adults or caterpillars) that I see and send them to the County Butterfly Recorder. Secondly, given my wildlife garden is in its second year, I will record any wildlife I see there, in my own backyard, and send it to the local records centre. I now have a notebook allocated specifically, with a few records already pencilled in (nothing extraordinary, but common species, as I say, are important to record, too).
At least this means I know my records will be contributing to everyone’s understanding of biodiversity, both nationally and locally, in my own patch in Cornwall.
…and I could list all the ways of recording for various species in Cornwall, but there are various different ones, which is, I guess, what might put some people off. So, if in any doubt, always send to the ERCCIS address above. They share their records with other interested groups in Cornwall, so you know your results will count.
Rare species, common species, all species. We need to know how they’re doing. Keep those records rolling in.
You don’t always have to wander very far in order to find joy in beautiful things. Place your feet outside your front door and simply walk, and who knows what you’ll discover?
There is a lane leading away from the village where I live. At this time of year it doesn’t look very interesting at a first glance, even on a sunny, blue-skied day. Here it is – it’s just an old bridleway, lined by hedges, trees and fields. A single splash of gorse invites you in.
But, of course, peer a bit closer and there are many, many things to see. A Seven-spot ladybird was scurrying across the ground. Nearby a hoverfly perched on a leaf, basking in the warm sunshine. I saw my first Speckled Wood butterfly of the year – two of them in fact, guarding their territorial boundaries fiercely. They were spiralling across my path, both on the way out and the way back. I love these feisty butterflies, determined as they are to see off all-comers, from other Speckled Woods to humans. Common Dog-violets were poking out of the grass and Lesser Celandine flowers were cheerfully opening out to the sun. Both Gorse and Red Campion were out, but is there a season when they’re not?
I also spotted what I at first thought was Yellow Archangel, a plant of ancient woodland, but then noticed it had variegated leaves, making it a garden variety – sometimes known as Aluminium Archangel – which is invasive so nothing like as welcome in the wild as our native species. You can see the variegation pattern on the leaves in the photograph. Find out more about the problems it can cause here.
The flowers are just like the native species, however – they manage to be both lovely and rather weird. Look at the photo and you’ll see the round yellow blobs – these are actually the flower buds. When open, each flower has a ‘hood’ and a lower ‘lip’, the latter of which has brown stripy markings. These have a purpose – just as markings and lights on an airport runway guide planes into land, so the Archangel flower’s markings guide honeybees into the nectar at their centre, collecting pollen along the way.
Neither the wild nor garden forms of Archangel are supposed (according to my flower key) to bloom until May, but it is very warm and this is Cornwall…
Next time I spot Yellow Archangel, I hope it’s our British species. In the meantime, here’s a combative Speckled Wood glaring sidelong at my camera.
I went out to Goonhilly Downs on the day of the recent partial eclipse. I thought the wide open plateau of these ancient downs – farmed since prehistory and now a National Nature Reserve – would provide an excellent spot to view the eclipse. Goonhilly has so much sky.
It was a gorgeously sunny day here in the south-west. Arriving about half an hour before the eclipse was due to begin, I pottered about taking photos of the soft yellow catkins that were everywhere, and of the water droplets clinging to them.
In fact, given I had neither eclipse-watching glasses nor the proper filter for my camera, I spent quite a bit of time lining up an image of the sun in a water drop, using my macro lens. It would have made for a fantastic photo once the eclipse started…or at least it would have if the sun hadn’t edged into a new position just a little too early. As I tried to realign my set-up, the water drop duly dropped and was no more. Ah well, the best laid schemes, and all that…
Instead, I found a muddy puddle that held a reflection of the sun. The light breeze rippling its surface was very pretty, but did make for a fuzzy eclipse shot. Here’s the best I could do, in a very under-exposed sort of way.
So, at this point I gave up and decided to enjoy the atmosphere. And it was very eerie. It didn’t get that dark. It was just a little greyer, a little more chill. But…everything also felt just a little different, like stepping slightly out of phase with the rest of the world. The birds began to sing their evening songs and flowers closed up their petals. I sneaked some split-second glances at the sun as the moon passed over its face and, even though I know all the scientific things that are going on, I felt just a little uneasy. For a moment, it became possible to step into the shoes of those Goonhilly ancestors of ours from prehistory and to share a little of their awe and fear.
What awed me most of all was seeing the edge of the moon’s shadow – the penumbra – high above me. The sun’s part of the sky was bright and blue, but northward it was clearly a darker, more grey-blue colour. The narrow boundary between them was an arc across the sky, from horizon to horizon. It’s a cliche to say it, but I felt very very small.
And then the eclipse finished, the birds and flowers got on with their daytime activities again, and I trotted back to my trusty old car. But that sense of strangeness, of wonder even, given me by the eclipse had lifted my heart for the rest of the day.
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