When I look back on my 2014 in Cornwall, what I see is colour. Poppy reds, heathery purples, bumblebee rusty oranges and sea-green waters…
Here are some photos to illustrate my point.
What colours come to your minds when looking back over 2014?
When I look back on my 2014 in Cornwall, what I see is colour. Poppy reds, heathery purples, bumblebee rusty oranges and sea-green waters…
Here are some photos to illustrate my point.
What colours come to your minds when looking back over 2014?
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
UK Moths. A great website with lots of good photos to help in identification.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Happy National Poetry Day!
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 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.
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.
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.
When your mind turns to butterflies on a summer’s day, it is usually the Red Admirals, Painted Ladies, Silver-washed Fritillaries and Peacocks that flutter across the imagination. I, however, have a soft spot for a more subtle, unassuming bunch – the Browns. This group of, well, let’s face it, brown butterflies might be less showy, but their modest colouring belies a delicate charm. They also have some unexpected talents, and I’m going to sing the praises of five of the Browns.
The clever egg hider
My garden is currently home to a small population (I’ve counted up to 11) of Ringlets (Aphantopus hyperantus). As I sit watching their bobbing, tentative flight, with their deep velvety-brown wings and the fluttering and side-stepping as males and females encounter and greet each other, it’s hard to believe I once dismissed them as yet another boring Brown. They like my garden because the adults enjoy nectaring on bramble, and the females lay their eggs in long coarse grasses such as Cock’s-foot: these plants are plentiful in my rather wild spaces.
The Ringlet’s talent is the ability of the females to carefully hide their eggs by behaving seemingly carelessly: the females scatter fertilised eggs willy-nilly into the grasses. They’re not being careless of course: this method means the eggs drop to the warm undergrowth singly, and are difficult for predators to find and eat.
The ‘now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t’ butterfly
Can you see the butterfly in this photo?
Here’s a closer photo of the same butterfly, to the right of the cropped image – it’s a bit more obvious here.
It is, of course, the Grayling (Hipparchia semele). This is a butterfly that has perfected the art of canny disguise. In flight it is a large butterfly but, on the ground with its wings closed, the lower wings tucked behind its upper wings, the mottled colouring of the underwings makes it hard to spot. At rest it angles its wings in such a way that it barely casts a shadow, completing the disguise. They remain very still when basking – I wish I had the same patience!
The feisty butterfly
The Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) is possibly the most distinguished of the Browns in terms of patterning, with its yellow markings and eyespots. Its dappled colouring ensures it is at home in equally dappled woodland habitats. The males are very territorial, swooping at intruders from their perch in the vegetation. They’re not easy to intimidate – I’ve been swooped at many a time by a Speckled Wood.
The cool butterfly
The Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) must be fed up at being the only one of the Browns with ‘Brown’ in its name (unless you count the alternative name for the Gatekeeper of Hedge Brown). One of our most widespread and abundant butterflies, it can occur in large numbers at some sites. It has a cool talent (one it shares with the Ringlet). Its dark colouring absorbs and retains warmth efficiently, meaning it can stay active when clouds are covering the sun and other butterflies are forced to rest.
It is possible to confuse the Meadow Brown with my next butterfly – the Gatekeeper (Pironia tithonus), but it is both browner and larger than the latter.
The guardian butterfly
This talent may be a bit fanciful on my part, suggested by the habit of this orange-brown butterfly to linger in hedgerows and gateways, along the margins of fields in the height of summer. It’s always a lovely surprise to recognise a Gatekeeper. From a distance you imagine it to be a Meadow Brown, but get closer and its brighter more fiery markings and open wings give the game away. A Gatekeeper it is is, the gentle guardian of mid-summer.
So, I encourage you all to pay attention to Brown butterflies. Not that I don’t like to see a Red Admiral or Painted Lady, and fritillaries are always a delight, but the Browns have their place as well, reminding us of the benefits and surprises of a quieter approach to life.
Find out more about the Browns, and butterflies in general, on the following websites:
I love few things better than walking or sitting in a wildflower meadow on a sunny day, smelling the fresh green scents, feeling the soft brush of the grass, and surrounded by buzzing, chirping and fluttering bees, butterflies, crickets, grasshoppers, hoverflies, damselflies and so many more of our insect neighbours, nectaring, perching or performing their courtship flights in a beautiful display. The more you sit still and listen, the more deeply you can tune into the different layers of sound and scent. Wonderful!
It’s National Insect Week from 23 to 29 June. Run annually by the British Entomological Society, there are events going on around the country: follow this link here to find any close to where you live. There are some in Cornwall and other parts of the South-west.
The warm weather is perfect for seeing insects buzzing and flying about, of course, although they are also much faster and more mobile than in cooler weather. The best time to see them more settled is early in the morning when they are still warming up from the cooler night temperatures, or later in the evening as the night draws near.
National Insect Week is a good excuse for some insect photos, so here goes – enjoy!
Last weekend I went to visit a hidden little corner of Cornwall, and I’ve been trying to decide whether to tell. It was a secret and magical place, and the only human tiptoeing through was me…
But…I visited because I am writing a book about the wildlife and nature of the River Fal, and the Fal flows right through it, so at some point I hope to be sharing the wonder of…Crowhill Valley Woods. This Woodland Trust-owned woodland, part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest near Grampound and an important area of Alder sump woodland, is not that easy to find. Read this entry from the Woodland Trust’s ‘Visit Woods’ site to find out how some visitors spent a long time tracking it down! I was fortunate enough to have spoken to someone from the Trust in advance, so I knew where I was going. And here’s what I found…
The flora was wonderful, and there will be more to come. This is somewhere to visit time and time again. Hemlock Water Dropwort was leafy and green, its umbels of flowers waiting to unfurl. Tiny flowers of Wood Speedwell poked through the undergrowth. Lesser Celandine and the improbably-named Opposite-leaved Golden-saxifrage contributed notes of yellow to the Bluebell-blue, Stitchwort-white and leaf-green hues of the woodland.
There was also birdsong to die for, and I realised (once again) that it was high time I learned bird calls. In a wood, birds are, in contrast to good Victorian children, heard but seldom seen. There are many flurries through the leaves, rustles and darting flights, but the birds don’t hang around to be looked at. Nonetheless, I saw a Blackcap, a Songthrush, Wood Pigeon and several Blackbirds (plus a few small indeterminate brown ones). Bees and other insects were also buzzing – the highlight was a Beautiful Demoiselle damselfly, an immature male, presumably newly emerged, but there were also Green-veined White and Peacock butterflies a-plenty.
So, I suppose I should be recommending you visit this special place yourselves. And I do, of course. Just remember, sshhh, keep it secret!!!
Go to the Loose and Leafy blog and you’ll find a great initiative. People from different parts of the UK, the USA, Europe and elsewhere have each chosen a tree, and have committed to writing about it once each month on their own blogs, sharing how it’s doing as the seasons change. It’s going to be fascinating following everyone’s trees. The project started in March, but it’s not too late to join in, so here’s my tree and my first post about it.
Obviously my tree is in Cornwall and, not only that, it’s in my own back garden.
I’ve recently planted a wildlife-friendly hedge. It includes common hawthorn, beech, field maple, dog rose and some scrambling field rose, and I’m going to follow one of the hawthorns (Crataegus monogyna). It’s never usually of course anything more than a small to medium-sized tree, and this particular one is right now very small, as I planted the hedge plants as bare-root ‘whips’, which ought to establish much better. Rather than just generally monitoring the progress of my hedge, I thought it would be much more interesting to follow this one in detail, to see not only how it grows and develops, but also watch what wildlife starts to take an interest.
A traditional hedging plant (‘hawthorn’ is from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Hagathorn’, meaning hedge thorn), hawthorn and its close relative blackthorn are found in hedges and hedge banks in Cornwall (and across the UK, of course), where their thorns and dense growth have been used as a stock barrier for thousands of years.
Hawthorn is also known as May-tree, with its beautiful white blossom appearing in that month, brilliant for pollinators (apparently it is the only tree in Britain called after the month in which it flowers). The red berries (known as haws) that follow in the autumn are a treat for birds. My own May-tree won’t have blossom or berries this year, but it’s already pushing out its shiny new leaves in bundles of green energy.
And, as I’ve already painfully found out, it’s already sharpening its thorns! I’ll report back again next month on how my hawthorn is doing.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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…
…and in the churchyard cemetery we found snowdrops – a welcome sign of spring!
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.
I’m not long back from two weeks travelling in Kenya. This was a field trip with a brilliant group of lecturers and students from the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus, and there was lots to learn, see and do.
Kenya is very different from Cornwall, needless to say, in many ways. It was sunny, for one thing, unlike the current rather dismal weather we are having here! The animals are different, and the plants are different, and even the night skies are different. The constellation of Orion was much higher in the sky and the wrong way round, for one thing, and the moon was flipped over onto its side.
But, most magnificently, the skies were so clear away from urban areas. Some of us spent a happy time pointing our smartphones at the skies using the Night Sky app to identify all the stars we could see. The Milky Way was visible, arching across the sky, most nights. It was all very, very beautiful.
Now in fact I get a pretty good view of the night sky from my back garden here in West Cornwall, including the Milky Way, on cloudless nights. That’s because I back on to fields and there is very little light spill from neighbouring houses later in the evening. Even so, I don’t think it would qualify for “Dark SkyDiscovery Site” status, an award given by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to places deemed to be of very high quality for stargazing because of the lack of light pollution. But we do now have two sites on the north coast of Cornwall that have recently been successful in achieving this status: St. Agnes Head, and the Carnewas and Bedruthan Steps. Both sites are owned by the National Trust and have had to meet stringent criteria: the Milky Way must be visible, and they must have good access for the public, including people with disabilities.
It’s not the weather at the moment for stargazing (unlike Kenya!), but it’s good to know there is somewhere close by to visit when the skies get clearer and the weather improves…
Link here for a map showing all Dark Sky sites across Britain.
Moving it round the world...
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Mary Oliver
Just another WordPress.com site
Wildlife things to do, see and think about in Cornwall
Admiring the beautiful complexity of Nature.
Discover Cornwalls best trails. With over 250 miles of continuous coast path, areas of outstanding natural beauty, prehistoric burial sites and abandoned mine trails, Cornwall is a great place to go trail running, hiking or walking. Get out there and enjoy the experience!
Stories of a spa town and its people
By joining forces with nature while you garden you help keep the wildlife alive
Ideas from a Suffolk garden
The planet is our home; we need to be more responsible. Here's what I do.
The mythology, history and environmental aspects of Cornwall’s rich landscape embracing the inspiring stories of the many locally led initiatives.
Sharing hints, tips and gardening triumphs!
A nature diary from the Forest of Dean.
For everyone who loves Cornwall's rock pools. Information about great beaches, marine wildlife and conservation.
A permaculture plot in Suffolk
The wild, the curious, the best of the latest wildlife science and conservation
THE BEST OF POETRY
Business, Politics and Culture in Cornwall