What’s been flying in?

When I think of autumn migrations, it’s the Whooper Swans, Fieldfares and geese that first come to mind. Or I might think of the birds that leave us in the autumn – the Swallows, Arctic Terns and warblers that have been here for the summer. The distances many of these birds fly is astounding, from the Arctic Terns crossing from one polar region to the other, to the many species that travel between northern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), one of our migratory butterfly species (photo: Amanda Scott)
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), one of our migratory butterfly species (photo: Amanda Scott)

If these migrating birds make us marvel, then what about the even more fragile creatures that cross to our shores through the summer and autumn? I mean the butterflies and moths, of course. It’s hard to believe that these insects with their delicate wings make it here intact across the sea, buffeted by winds and yet flying strongly. And make it they do. The Monarchs of North America are perhaps the most famous migratory Lepidoptera, but they are far from alone in their travelling habit.

Buttercup-coloured Clouded Yellows (Colias croceus) are a beautiful sight through summer and into milder autumns (photo: Amanda Scott)
Buttercup-coloured Clouded Yellows (Colias croceus) are a beautiful sight through summer and into milder autumns (photo: Amanda Scott)

Here in Cornwall, we are still getting new arrivals. Some are regular migrants, like the Hummingbird Hawkmoth (Macroglossum stellatarum) or Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus) butterfly, while others are more exotic and rare, blown across on prevailing winds. We’ve even had a handful of sightings of Monarchs in Cornwall over the last few weeks, carried here across the Atlantic.

I’ve just been reading a press release from Atropos (the UK journal for butterfly, moth and dragonfly enthusiasts) about the visiting moth species sighted here around Halloween. It’s well worth a look at the Atropos website – they have a page dedicated to recording new arrivals. From their list, I can see that someone saw a Hummingbird Hawkmoth – a moth associated with the sunny days of summer – in their garden in Penzance on 2 November. It was a warm day for November, but if a moth could shiver…

Slender-burnished Brass moth (), a rare visitor to Britain (photo: By JMK (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Slender-burnished Brass moth (Thysanoplusia orichacea), a rare visitor to Britain (photo: By JMK (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
Also visiting Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly in the last few days was a rare immigrant – the rather exquisitely named Slender Burnished Brass moth (Thysanoplusia orichacea). A native of the warmer Mediterranean and Africa, there are only about 100 records ever for Britain (and now five more this year in Cornwall!), where it cannot survive the cold winters.

I also learned from the press release that Cornwall has received some less welcome moth visitors this year. The Box Tree Moth (Cydalima perspectalis) is an Asian moth, introduced to Europe over the last decade. The moth itself is rather lovely, with white, almost transparent wings. It’s the caterpillars that are the problem, with their ability to rapidly defoliate the Box shrubs (Buxus ssp.) beloved of topiary and ornamental gardens. The first British records of this moth were made five years ago, and this year there are two records in Cornwall. Oh dear.

But let’s console ourselves by remembering that, in our mild-to-date autumn weather, everyone is still reporting sightings of our regular migrant butterflies – Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta), Clouded Yellows and Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui). It’s already turning colder, so let’s enjoy them before we finally have to wrap up warmer for the winter.

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) near Kynance (photo: Amanda Scott)
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) near Kynance (photo: Amanda Scott)

If you want to find out more about butterflies and moths, and/or migrant species in particular, here are some useful websites.

Atropos, the journal for butterfly, moth and dragonfly enthusiasts. This website has information about new arrivals, how to get involved in recording and sharing information.
http://www.atropos.info/site/index.php/

Butterfly Conservation. This national charity’s website has information about butterflies and day-flying moths, how you can help, including recording, and news on their research and conservation projects.
http://butterfly-conservation.org

Cornwall Butterfly Conservation. The local branch of the national charity. If you live in Cornwall, you might like to go along to their annual AGM and members’ day on 7th March 2015, when Paul Waring, a nationally renowned moth expert, will be giving a talk. Details are on their website.
http://www.cornwall-butterfly-conservation.org.uk

UK Moths. A great website with lots of good photos to help in identification.
http://ukmoths.org.uk

National Poetry Day


Today, 2 October 2014, is National Poetry Day.

I love poetry, I love Cornwall and I love the natural world, so this is a chance to celebrate with a trio of verses (proper poet’s verses, not my own!).

Let’s start with the Chough, a potent symbol of Cornwall with its red beak and legs and poignant cry over the cliffs. The nineteenth century poet John Harris, the son of a miner from Bolenowe, near Camborne, wrote about this wonderful bird in his poem ‘The Cornish Chough’, beginning with the lines:

Where not a sound is heard
But the white waves, O bird,
And slippery rocks fling back the vanquish’d sea,
Thou soarest in thy pride,
Not heeding storms or tide;
In Freedom’s temple nothing is more free.

Chough, Kynance (photo: Amanda Scott)
Chough, Kynance (photo: Amanda Scott)

John Harris, speaking to us from the past, would have had no idea that the Chough was to disappear from our shores in the twentieth century, followed by its dramatic reappearance in Cornwall in the twenty-first century. He would have been pleased, I’m sure, to see it getting itself established again.

Looking south from Sandymouth Bay on the north Cornish coast (photo: Amanda Scott)
Looking south from Sandymouth Bay on the north Cornish coast (photo: Amanda Scott)

The cliffs of Cornwall are rightly renowned for their spectacular scenery and wildlife. John Betjeman loved the cliffs of Cornwall, and is buried at St Endonoc Church, close to his home in Trebetherick. His poem ‘Cornish Cliffs’ brings to mind Cape Cornwall and Gwennap Head, although I expect he was writing about the north Cornwall cliffs he loved so well. It is a special sight in the late summer and early autumn when the rich yellow of the gorse and pinks and purples of the ling and other heathers roll away over each other across the hilltops, but Betjeman chooses to describe the scents of the plants.

 

Nut-smell of gorse and honey-smell of ling
Waft out to sea the freshness of the spring
On sunny shallows, green and whispering.

I can definitely smell the coconut scent of gorse and the honey smell of ling as I read those words!

Ling, Bell-heather and Gorse in waves of colour across Gwennap Head (photo: Amanda Scott)
Ling, Bell-heather and Gorse in waves of colour across Gwennap Head (photo: Amanda Scott)

And to finish, some lines from the famed Cornish poet Charles Causley. Writing in the twentieth century, he described his love for his homeland in many of his poems. Pertinent to the current season, his description of autumn in ‘The Seasons in North Cornwall’ is one of my favourites, especially the vision of the tall woodland trees as ship masts.

September has flung a spray of rooks
On the sea-chart of the sky,
The tall shipmasts crack in the forest
And the banners of autumn fly.

Late autumn tree silhouettes in Devichoys Wood (photo: Amanda Scott)
Late autumn tree silhouettes in Devichoys Wood (photo: Amanda Scott)

Happy National Poetry Day!

From the lower path, Devichoys Wood

Sun, boggy places and sundew: a trip to Newlyn Downs

Recently, I went on a trip to Newlyn Downs on a sunny day in North Cornwall, not far from Newquay and St Newlyn East. It’s a Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation, and it’s not hard to see why.

Newlyn Downs
Newlyn Downs (photo: Amanda Scott). The rusty red of the soils is derived from iron-rich mining spoils.
Dorset Heath
Dorset Heath, Newlyn Downs (photo: Amanda Scott)

Newlyn Downs forms the largest area in Cornwall of a vegetation type known as Southern Atlantic wet heath. It’s also the largest area of heathland in Cornwall that is rich in the nationally rare Dorset heath (Erica ciliaris). The SSSI citation gives more detail if you want to do a bit of fact-finding about what else is there. It’s a site influenced by past mining; capped lift shafts are dotted about, and the soils are a rusty red in the wetter parts of the Downs due to the iron-rich mining spoils.

My main observation, however, was that a lot of it is very boggy, and that’s fine by me as I love bogs and bog-loving plants! I was very happy as I tramped across the sphagnum.

We were on a Cornwall Butterfly Conservation field trip, and saw a fair few butterflies, moths and other species: butterflies – Gatekeeper, Brimstone, Small Skipper, Large Skipper, Meadow Brown, Small White, Large White, Small Heath, Green-veined White, Grayling; moths – Drinker (and some eggs), Magpie, and a marvellous Emperor caterpillar; other – Golden-ringed and Keeled Skimmer dragonflies. There were lots of Yellowhammers as well, perching, singing and dashing about for the benefit of the birders amongst us.

Emperor moth caterpillar
The wonderful Emperor moth caterpillar (photo: Amanda Scott)

The beauty of a field trip with a group of fellow enthusiasts is that everyone has different things to bring. We had moth, bird and plant experts with us, as well as folk who know their butterflies, and everyone was friendly and willing to share their knowledge. I learned more about how dragonflies lay their eggs in the water as we all watched a Golden-ringed female doing just that, guarded by the male.

But my main focus, I have to admit, was on the plants. It was great to see comparative rarities, such as the Dorset Heath and Babington’s Leek, but best of all was the Round-leaved Sundew, one of our native carnivorous plants. I have never ever seen so much Sundew in one place. We were all trying very hard, but without much success, not to tread on it as we walked across the boggy areas. It was flowering, but the leaves were even more impressive, postbox-red against the rusty-coloured soil, and with their sticky ‘dewdrops’ glistening prettily but with sinister intent as they wait to trap unfortunate insects.

I tweeted a photo of the Sundew, and Plantlife tweeted it as their wildflower of the day.

It’s well worth a visit to Newlyn Downs – there are clear footpaths throughout – but take your wellies or a good pair of waterproof boots! The grid reference for where to park is SW8368355209 – in the ‘lay-by’ in front of the gates to the old golf course. Cross the road and follow the signed footpath.

Bell Heather
Bell Heather, Newlyn Downs (photo: Amanda Scott)

If you’d like to come along to a Cornwall Butterfly Conservation field trip, there are still a few more this year. Link here for a list. Everyone is assured a friendly welcome: you don’t need to be a member to attend.

Link here and here to find out more about wonderful Sundews: Plantlife’s Wildflower of the Day on 30 July, and my favourite wildflower on most days!

Gatekeeper butterflies

Two lakes, a wood and a meadow…a day out on Bodmin Moor

Earlier this week I was going a bit stir crazy cooped up working in the house. I love being freelance, but boundaries can get blurred between work and play, so I took myself off into the fresh air to clear away the dross and breathe deeply for a few hours.

Colliford Lake

For ages, I’ve been meaning to spend a bit more time on Bodmin Moor, so off I went with a few possible destinations in mind.

The River Fowey as it passes through Golitha Falls
The River Fowey as it passes through Golitha Falls (photo: Amanda Scott)

First of all, I went to Golitha Falls, a National Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), the name of which alone is enough to stir the imagination. Park your car in the car park at SX 228692, and then step across the road to enter a delightful steep valley retreat that follows the path of the River Fowey as it drops in altitude, forming a gorge amidst the ancient oaks of the woodland. Golitha Falls is known in particular for bryophytes and lichens, but there are also dormice, otters and kingfishers here. I didn’t knowingly see any of the rare bryophytes, nor, unsurprisingly, the otters or the dormice, but I did see two kingfishers whizzing down the river in a flash of colour so fast I had to think twice about whether I had really seen what I thought I had just seen. Pretty amazing!

Golitha Falls

What is fantastic about Golitha Falls is that, even though there were a few cars parked, the place felt empty and peaceful. Although there is sort of a main path wending its way through the woods, there are many twists and side turnings, some ending in crumbling stone walls, some disappearing beyond the overhanging branches and going to who knows where…a place to come and explore again, I think…

I did pause as I walked through the woods (down one of those side turnings) to enjoy watching a couple of hoverflies doing their thing.

Episyrphus balteatus (photo
Episyrphus balteatus (photo Amanda Scott)
Sericomyia silentis (photo: Amanda Scott)
Sericomyia silentis (photo: Amanda Scott)

My next destination was Dozmary Pool, a bit further north. You can pull your car off the road at SX 190743, and follow a public right of way down to the pool…or, at least, you can if your way isn’t barred by a crowd of stern looking cows protecting their calves. Now, those who know me are well aware that, while I like cows in principle, I am actually quite scared of them. Don’t ask me why – I will happily deal with fierce-looking dogs and stare out buffalo – but that’s the way it is. So that day wasn’t the day I was going to squeeze past the cows in the narrow lane to get to the pool. But I took a few photos at a safe distance, and determined to visit again.

Dozmary Pool

Dozmary Pool is one of the sites reputed to be where Sir Bedivere threw King Arthur’s sword Excalibur to be reclaimed by the Lady of the Lake. Loe Pool is another contender for the honour, but I think I prefer Dozmary. This ancient place, the largest inland freshwater lake in Cornwall, carried an air of hush, of wistfulness, of patient expectancy. One could almost find oneself believing or, at least, wishing to believe, that somewhere close by the once and future King slept, waiting for his call.

Foal, Colliford Lake (photo: Amanda Scott)
Foal, Colliford Lake (photo: Amanda Scott)

From an ancient pool to a modern lake…next I headed off to Colliford Reservoir, owned by South West Water and managed for conservation by South West Lakes Trust. There are a few spots to park round this lake, but I stopped at SX 164730 and pottered about for a few minutes. I had been hoping to see a few birds on the water, but I wasn’t in luck. This will be a great place to come when our feathered visitors arrive to spend the cold winter months with us.

There were some horses grazing round the lake (I’m not scared of horses, so that was fine…), including this delightful foal. And here he is with his mum…

'Keep up, junior'. (Photo: Amanda Scott)
‘Keep up, junior’ (photo: Amanda Scott)

After that, I intended to head off home but, as I motored down the A30, I saw a sign to Blisland. ‘Ah, Blisland!’ I cried. Well, actually, my thought process was, ‘Hey, I’ve got time and I’ve heard it’s pretty, so let’s go!’ So I did, and very lovely it was, too. Blisland is a delightfully charming village, with a good pub and an interesting church.

Blisland Church

I found my feet drawn towards the churchyard, presumably because churchyards are often home to butterflies and bees and flowers. But, in hindsight, I wonder if I was subconsciously drawn by the lure of a footpath leading away beyond the old gravestones. I ignored it for a bit, and detoured into the church building itself. I love simple architecture, so I enjoyed this stone window framing the greenery beyond.

Blisland Church

When I left the church, I really meant to find my car and continue home, but that footpath would not let me go. Like the Secret Garden or Narnia, it pulled at my feet until I found myself descending some steps, walking down a slope and along a grassy path, until…

Flower meadow, Public footpath from Blisland Churchyard

…I found myself in the middle of the most wonderful meadow, full of knapweed, grasses, crickets chirping, bees buzzing, birds singing and butterflies bobbing about from flower to flower. I saw my first Small Copper of the year…

Small Copper, Public footpath from Blisland Churchyard

I also saw this Red Admiral…

Red Admiral, Public footpath from Blisland Churchyard

…and this Small White nectaring on the knapweed.

Small White, Public footpath from Blisland Churchyard

Magic! A perfect end to a lovely relaxing day.