The lonely ringlet, and other garden tales

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.

Ringlet
A very sad and lonely ringlet…

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.

***********************

Foxgloves and Biting Stonecrop
Foxgloves and Biting Stonecrop adorning the wall behind the ringlet home

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.

Blackbird fledgling_2.jpg
Fluffy blackbird fledgling

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.

Water-crowfoots

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.

Round-leaved CrowfootHaving 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.

28/2/11 R. tripartitus, Lizard Downs

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.

Loe Bar in February

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.

Loe Pool and Loe Bar
Loe Pool and Loe Bar

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.

5/3/11 Loe Bar
Sea fishing from Loe Bar

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.

5/3/11 Loe Bar

 

The joys of an out-of-season beach café

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.

Maernporth Beach

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.

Shells on Maernporth Beach

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.

Maernporth cafe sign

A winter treasure: Three-lobed Crowfoot and the Grochall Track

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.

Kynance Cove
Kynance Cove

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.

The gate onto the Grochall track
The gate through to the Lizard Downs National Nature Reserve

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.

28/2/11 R. tripartitus, Lizard Downs
Three-lobed Crowfoot, Lizard Downs

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 Water Crowfoot in flower
Three-lobed Water Crowfoot in flower

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.

Kynance Cove

 

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.

Related walk:

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

A walk down the lane

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.

Lane

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?

Aluminium Archangel - note the variegated leaves meaning this is not our native Yellow Archangel
Aluminium Archangel – note the variegated leaves meaning this is not our native Yellow Archangel

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.

Speckled Wood

Goonhilly, catkins, water drops and an eclipse…

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.

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.

Willow catkins at Goonhilly (photo: Amanda Scott)
Willow catkins at Goonhilly (photo: Amanda Scott)

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…

Water droplet (without reflection of eclipse…) (Photo: Amanda Scott)
Water droplet (without reflection of eclipse…) (photo: Amanda Scott)

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.

Partial eclipse in a muddy under-exposed puddle (Bad photo by Amanda Scott!)
Partial eclipse in a muddy under-exposed puddle (photo: Amanda Scott)

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.

Gorse

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

Hayle Estuary and Porth Kidney Sands

Hayle Estuary

There’s something about an estuary. I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Maybe it’s the simplicity. Open expanses of mudflats, silted islets between meandering water channels, clear salt air and receding horizons. An estuary sits in the here and now. It is a very mindful place to be.

Contemplating Redshank, Ryan's Field, Hayle Estuary (photo: Amanda Scott)
Contemplating Redshank, Ryan’s Field, Hayle Estuary (photo: Amanda Scott)

That’s certainly what I and my friend Anne found last weekend when we headed off, on a cloudy but dry day, to visit Hayle Estuary, Britain’s most south-westerly estuary. We went to practice taking photography, but we also found real companiable pleasure in sitting quietly in the hide, taking photographs, yes, but also peering through binoculars and using our own eyes to watch the birds go about their business. It was all very tranquil.

Hayle Estuary is an urban reserve: lift your eyes from the sand and mudflats and you find the buildings, homes and industry of Hayle. It makes the estuary no less tranquil, confirming how important these oases of nature are in our busy lives.

Redshank, Ryan's Field, Hayle Estuary (photo: Amanda Scott)
Redshank, Ryan’s Field, Hayle Estuary (photo: Amanda Scott)

We found ourselves in the Eric Grace Memorial Hide looking out over Ryan’s Field, part of the RSPB Hayle Estuary nature reserve, and were entertained for some time by Redshanks, Curlews, Black-headed Gulls, Lapwings, a Cormorant and a pair of Shelduck. As novice birders, I’m sure there was plenty else we missed. We were very fortunate, however, to be joined for a while by a real birder, who was happy to chat and confirm what we were seeing, as well as telling us a bit about the estuary and its birds. Thank you, Mr. Birder!

Curlew, Ryan's Field, Hayle Estuary (photo: Amanda Scott)
Curlew, Ryan’s Field, Hayle Estuary (photo: Amanda Scott)
Grey Herons, Lelant Saltings, Hayle Estuary (photo: Amanda Scott)
Grey Herons, Lelant Saltings, Hayle Estuary (photo: Amanda Scott)

After Ryan’s Field, we headed a bit further westwards round the estuary towards Lelant, and had a welcome cup of coffee in Birdies Bistro (Griggs Quay, Hayle, TR27 6JG) which we found quite by chance. It hasn’t been there long, apparently, and is a place to be recommended, not just for the cheerful atmosphere, but also for the way the back garden is set up with viewing ‘slits’ in its fence, just like a hide, looking out over Lelant Saltings. We spotted some Grey Herons doing their standing completely still act, as well as a load of gulls doing their standing still with heads tucked under wings act.

After that, we headed off to Porth Kidney Sands, which sit at the mouth of the Hayle Estuary, somewhere that Anne has been to before with her family, whereas it was my first visit. There is limited parking, but you can park just before St Uny Church and then take the footpath down towards the beach (instructions at the end of this post).

Porth Kidney Sands, looking west, with St Ives in the distance (photo: Amanda Scott)
Porth Kidney Sands, looking west, with St Ives in the distance (photo: Amanda Scott)
This streamlet made some beautiful patterns in the sand as it ran across the beach (photo: Amanda Scott)
This streamlet made some beautiful patterns in the sand as it ran across the beach (photo: Amanda Scott)

At low tide the beach here is vast, with an expanse of sand stretching to the sea in front of you, and dunes ranging inland behind you. We didn’t spot much in the way of bird life on the beach or out to sea but, in the distance at the sea’s edge, there were surfers enjoying the waves and dogs bounding about happily in the water. Even so, as we turned west to walk along the sands a little way, staying close to the dunes, the depth of the beach still gave an air of seclusion and separation. After a few minutes walk along the beach, there is a clear track, doubling back in terms of direction but making its way along the top of the dunes: this is a section of the South West Coast Path. Follow this and cross the railway over a footbridge, and eventually you rejoin the path that took you down to the beach.

On the way, we saw a female Stonechat, perching on bramble and surveying her world…

Female Stonechat, in the dunes behind Porth Kidney Sands (photo: Amanda Scott)
Female Stonechat, in the dunes behind Porth Kidney Sands (photo: Amanda Scott)

…and in the churchyard cemetery we found snowdrops – a welcome sign of spring!

Snowdrops, Lelant (photo: Amanda Scott)
Snowdrops, Lelant (photo: Amanda Scott)

This was a lovely, peaceful way to spend a few hours – the grey skies if anything suited the tranquillity and mood, though I never say no to sunshine!

See below for how to get to the places we visited.

Hayle Estuary RSPB reserve, including Ryan’s Field: link here to directions on the RSPB site.

Birdies Bistro: link here to their Facebook page. The Bistro is on the right on the A3074, just to the south of Lelant.

Porth Kidney Sands: This link to the Cornwall Beach Guide gives good directions about where to park.

Patterns on Porth Kidney Sands