The Windhover

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September 15th – Little Orme – Angel Bay

15:00 – Walking towards Angel Bay, it was sunny and eye-squintingly bright but as always of late it felt cool as there was a strong wind blowing in off the sea. Heading for the cliff edge to see if there were any seals about, I was distracted by the sight of a Kestrel hovering almost motionlessly at the edge of the cliff peering intently down. I have had some of my best views of these charismatic little falcons here on the Little Orme, but it’s not every day that you’re graced with such a close presence of one that was clearly totally absorbed in hunting mode and seemingly oblivious to the small audience gathered beneath it. 

As I got closer the bird swooped away to land on the rocky cliff to the right of the bay.  I tried to get some shots of the landed Kestrel, failing to get the images I’d have liked as I was distracted by a lady asking if I would use my zoom lens to check out the details of a far distant ship! If only I was better at saying no! I did see that the bird had a chestnut head though, which is the colouration of females of the species; males have a blueish-grey head.

Fortunately it didn’t fly far away, just headed for the other side of the bay, now mostly in shade. It suddenly looked small and fragile against the bulk of the cliff, but despite being buffeted by the strong wind it held its position, hardly moving.

Another brief landing then it rose again into the air, hovering in front of us at not much more than eye-level. Perfectly beautiful and an amazing opportunity to see the bird from all angles.

The bird dropped down slightly, showing off the lovely rich chestnut-brown plumage of its back. A similar shade beginning to colour its tail feathers further confirmed this was a female, a young one I think. Young males also have a chestnut head but grey tails and adult males then have both a grey head and tail. Females are slightly larger than males.

Common English name: Kestrel, Common kestrel Scientific name: Falco tinnunculus Welsh: Cudyll coch Local and other names: Windhover, Hoverhawk, Standgale, Creshawk.

The scientific name is taken from the Latin falco = falcom, which translates as sickle, referring to the birds’ hooked talons and the Latin tinnulus, which translates as shrill-sounding. The old country names Windhover, Hoverhawk & Standgale all acknowledge the birds’ unsurpassed mastery of the hovering technique.

The next image is not sharply focussed but I love the way the bird is looking back over her shoulder as if to check if we were all still watching.

HUNTING AND HOVERING TECHNIQUE

A hunting Kestrel typically flies along until it either spots prey or a spot where it is likely to find something. It pauses, then hovers with deeper wing-beats and tail fanned out and pointing downwards for stability; they always keep their head into the wind when hovering. For a few moments the bird remains perfectly motionless in mid-air except for the rapid vibration of its wings. It may then shift its position by a few metres and hovers again, intently scanning every centimetre of the ground below for the slightest movement that may give away the presence of a small rodent; little escapes its telescopic vision. Once prey is detected the bird drops down in stages before making a final pounce and grasping its target with its talons.

During the course of my watching the Kestrel was harassed several times by Jackdaws attempting to drive it away and even by a pair of larger Crows, but she was undeterred and held her position, barely flinching.

CONSERVATION STATUS

Apart from the Game Laws, no measure for the protection of wild birds in Britain existed before the year 1880. Prior to this date, gamekeepers and farmers were responsible for destroying all kinds of birds they suspected as being injurious in any way. Kestrels, along with Barn Owls and Tawny Owls, all of which would have been doing far more good than harm in their controlling of rodents, were accused of taking young Pheasants and therefore on the ‘hit list’ in areas where game birds were reared.

Even twenty years ago the sight of a Kestrel hovering over a motorway verge used to be a fairly common sight, but sadly not so much these days. Drops in Kestrel population figures caused concern in the late 1950s and 1960s when they were reduced to low numbers: changes in farming practices are believed to have been the primary cause. Their numbers have subsequently recovered somewhat and according to the British Trust for Ornithology(BTO), the Conservation Status of the Kestrel in Britain is now Amber and their breeding population is currently estimated at 45,000 breeding pairs. Across the rest of Europe numbers are greater and generally the Kestrel population is currently of ‘Least Concern’.

Kestrels are to some extent migratory. Other than during the breeding season they  move from one part of the country to another, and large numbers cross from our southern coasts to Europe and beyond during the winter to be replaced by others that come here from farther north. Despite being a protected species, Kestrels are as vulnerable as any other species of bird on migration that passes over countries still permitted to shoot certain wild birds. As recently as 2015, the hunting season in Malta was brought to an end three days early when a man shot dead a Kestrel.

Maybe the one I watched was here feeding up to make such a journey herself, in which case I wish her safe passage and a safe return next Spring.

 

 

Michaelmas Day

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September 29th

Today is Michaelmas Day; the feast day of Saint Michael and All Angels. For many of us the significance of this date will most probably have faded into the mist of times past, but there are ancient customs, traditions, festivals and folklore surrounding it that I find fascinating.

The Archangel St. Michael is the patron saint of the warrior, who Catholics have designated as the protector of those who strive to preserve security, safety and peace.

Michaelmas Daisies

HARVEST

In the British Isles the harvest season used to begin on the first day of August, which was called Lammas, meaning ‘loaf Mass’. Farmers made loaves of bread made from the first of their new wheat crop which they then gave to their local church. This custom ended when Henry V111 broke away from the Catholic Church and instead it became tradition to hold Harvest Festivals at the end of the season close to Michaelmas Day, which traditionally marked the last day of the harvest season.

QUARTER DAYS

Michaelmas Day is one of the four “Quarter Days” of the year. They are spaced three months apart on religious festivals close to the solstices or equinoxes: Lady Day is the first on 25th March, then Midsummer on 24th June, Michaelmas is on September 29th and the final one is Christmas on 25th December. These four dates marked the days on which rents were due and bills had to be paid up. Michaelmas, or Goose Fairs were ‘Hiring Fairs’, attended by both those seeking employment and to hire new staff. On the day after Michaelmas every year, agricultural labourers presented themselves, along with their tools, at the nearest market townto offer themselves for hire for the coming year. Here too Geese were brought to market for sale and tenants seeking a delay of payment traditionally bought a goose as a present for their landlord to help seek his indulgence.

GOOSE DAY

The old saying goes:

“Eat a goose on Michaelmas Day, Want not for money all the year”.

Michaelmas Day is sometimes also called Goose Day, when particularly in northern England and Ireland, it was thought that if you ate goose at Michaelmas you would have good luck for the rest of the year and a fat roast goose was the traditional Michaelmas treat. This was supposedly the best time of the year to eat goose, when the birds had feasted on the stubble of the harvested wheat fields but had not yet put on the fat they needed to get them through the winter. Goose was eaten to protect against financial need in the family for the next year another saying is:

“He who eats goose on Michaelmas day shan’t money lack for debts to pay”.

Goose Fairs

Goose Fairs are still held in some English towns, but geese are no longer sold. The most famous Michaelmas fair is the Nottingham Goose Fair which was originally held in September on St Matthew’s Day, but moved to early October in 1752. The Goose Fair goes back so far in history that no one knows for sure how it got its name, but it’s probably from the hundreds of geese which were driven there from all over Lincolnshire to be sold in Nottingham. Most historians agree the fair probably started just after 1284 when the Charter of King Edward I referred to city fairs in Nottingham.  Goose Fair started as a trade event, although nowadays it is better known for its fairground rides and games.

OLD MICHAELMAS DAY or ‘DEVIL SPITS DAY’

After the calendar reform of 1752, some activities traditionally associated with Michaelmas Day (29th September) moved forward eleven days to October 10, which is sometimes called ‘Old Michaelmas Day’. Old Michaelmas Day used also to be called “Devil Spits Day”, which according to old British folklore, is the last day that blackberries should be picked. It was said that the Devil was kicked out of heaven on St Michael’s Feast Day, falling from the skies onto a blackberry bush. Already rather cross, he then proceeded to curse the fruit, scorching them with his fiery breath, then according to where you’re from, he either stamped on them or spat on them, thus ensuring they were unfit to eat! Legend has it that he renews his curse annually on Michaelmas Day and therefore it is very unlucky to gather blackberries after this date. An old Irish proverb says:

“On Michaelmas Day the Devil puts his foot on blackberries”

This particular piece of folklore certainly persisted into my Northamptonshire 1950s-60s childhood, when we were warned by my mother to be sure not to pick or eat blackberries after the end of September as “the Devil spits on them”. I wouldn’t have dared risk it and I’ve told my children the same thing! I do hope they remember and pass it on. I must remember to tell the grandchildren myself, and will keep the date as I know it, even though I now know that it’s safe to pick and eat them for another ten days. Although in my experience they’re usually past their pick-by date by now anyway, being a bit blown or mouldy or even maggoty.

MICHAELMAS DAISY

Late summer and early autumn wouldn’t be the same without Michaelmas Daisies. Ours have been flowering in the garden for a few weeks now and as always at this time of year are doing a brilliant job of supplying pollen and nectar to a range of insects still out seeking it.

Michaelmas Daisy-Aster amellus with Common Carder bee

Michaelmas daisies were first introduced into Britain from North America around the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Victorian’s love of wilder gardens encouraged their wider planting and from there they escaped into the wild, becoming naturalised in an array of habitats.

The Michaelmas Daisies, among dede weeds,
Bloom for St Michael’s valorous deeds.
And seems the last of flowers that stood,
Till the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude.

(The Feast of St. Simon and Jude is 28 October)

In the language of flowers, the Michaelmas-daisy symbolizes a farewell or a departure.The act of giving a Michaelmas Daisy symbolises saying farewell, perhaps as Michaelmas Day is seen to say farewell to the productive year.

MICHAELMAS WEATHER-LORE

‘If St Michael brings many acorns, Christmas will cover the fields with snow.’

If the breast bones of the goose are brown after roasting the following winter should be mild, but if the bones are white or have a slight blue hue then the winter will be severe.

‘A dark Michaelmas, a light Christmas.’

The Victorians believed that trees planted on this day would grow especially well.

Curfew

Michaelmas used to be a popular day for the winter night curfew to begin – the first hint that winter was on the way. Curfew took the form of a tolling of the church bell, usually one strike for each of the days of the month that had passed in the current year and was generally rung at 9pm.

September Hillside

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September 8th-Bryn Euryn

As I’ve already said, it was mighty windy out here on the not-quite-summit of the hill; not the day for hanging around gazing at the views, no matter how stunning they may be.

Windswept not-quite-summit of Bryn Euryn

A quick look around showed there to be little left in the way wildflowers in bloom, but there was colour on a wild rose – a whole colony of bright red Robin’s Pincushion galls. I don’t recall ever having seen as many on a single plant. The fuzzy growths will gradually fade to brown and the little wasps that cause the growths will emerge in June. If I’m lucky, one of these days I’ll catch them coming out, although the galls also attract ‘squatters’ and there can be a dozen or more species lodging in there!

I was to keen to keep moving, but when I spotted this lovely patch of Eyebright I couldn’t resist stopping again.

The dip between this part of the hill and the slope up to the summit is usually sheltered and offers a brief respite from the wind and the noise of traffic from the A55 below, but not so today. Yarrow likes this spot and there was quite a good large patch of it still in flower here. As with Eyebright, Yarrow is a plant designed to withstand tough growing conditions and is pretty persistent, as anyone that has tried to eliminate it from a lawn will testify; you cut it down and it grows right back! Personally I prefer the ferny-leaved Yarrow to the boring grass! Funny how we discriminate against certain plants, this wildflower Yarrow’s taller-growing golden-yellow flowered relative, Achillea, is a cherished garden plant!

Some insects rather like its flowers too, I found a tiny bee motionless on a flower today and recalled I’d seen a similar looking insect on Yarrow in the Rhiwleddyn reserve a few weeks ago.

Tiny bee on Yarrow – enlarged

On the summit a patch of purple Knapweed was fuelling a few Common Carder bees that were managing to cling on and fly short distances despite the best efforts of the wind to dislodge them. The little bees had varying appearances; some were practically perfect, others a bit more battered, their ‘fur’ worn away and at least one that had a bleached appearance like it had spent too long out in the sun.

There was another lovely clump of Eyebright up here, this one framed by the distinctively-arranged pods that give the Bird’s-foot trefoil its name.

More Yarrow too, this plant sheltering a tiny fly.

I was hoping that the other side of the hill would be a bit more protected from the wind, but alas, most of it wasn’t. The sun was putting in sporadic appearances though, so at least it felt a bit warmer. Ironically, the sea looked to be calm, was coloured in shades of beautiful blue and its surface merely ruffled. The blades of the wind turbines were motionless.

Looking over in the opposite direction to te sea, the view to the oddly-shaped hill at Deganwy, was fairly clear, although beyond it, Anglesey and the Menai Strait were shrouded in a light haze. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it before, but the hill is named the Vardre and gets its unusual appearance from having two rocky summits. It has a little less height than Bryn Euryn, it being 108m, (354 feet) while the Bryn is 131m (365 feet). It was once home to fortifications that included Deganwy Castle.

On the woodland edge leaves are beginning to change colour. Hawthorn is one of the first to go

along with Silver birch as I mentioned in the previous post. Out here in the open it was easier to appreciate the combination of yellow leaves against a clear blue sky.

Next to the Silver birch is a single Whitebeam, which bears berries. The berries are orange in colour now but will gradually turn red.

In the short grass there are still a few Rock-roses in flower and here and there are big fat ‘penny-bun’, or Bolete mushrooms. At least they would have been big and fat before they were nibbled away. I like the different shades and textures such nibbling has left on this one; there was a little black spider on it too.

I have often wondered what nibbled the mushrooms. A picture I took a few weeks ago, at the end of July may have the answer. The sight amused me and I wondered if it was a romantic al-fresco lunch for two? Of course there is more to slugs than meets the eye. No gardener is ever going to welcome them onto their plot, but out in the wild they are another important cog in the wheel of the natural waste-disposal system. Although one slug may look rather like another, there are rather a lot of different species of them in our British Isles. I submitted this image to the very helpful folk that run the Slugs and Snails of the British Isles Facebook Group, who responded that to be accurate they need to see the undersides of the slugs too, but from other features that it is likely they are juvenile Arion flagellus – the Green-soled slug.

poss. Arion flagellus- the Green-soled slug

The bottom of the grassy ‘downland’ hill was still flowery with Hemp Agrimony, Knapweed, touches of Scabious and a sprinkling of Ragwort.

I walked down to where it meets with the woodland edge and lo and behold, for a few glorious minutes the sun came out. Suddenly it was warm and bright and the scene came alive with a whole host of insects vying with one another for the best blossoms.

Speckled wood on Hemp agrimony

I hardly knew where to look first, but then couldn’t resist the sight of a pristine Speckled wood feasting on Hemp agrimony. There were several of them, all looking freshly beautiful; most were nectaring on various flowers while some rested on the leaves of nearby trees basking in the sunshine. The only other butterflies in evidence were Red Admirals which unusually stayed out of range of the camera.

Speckled wood on ragwort

There was a good variety of hoverflies,large and small, a Common wasp and more Common carder bees too.

Common Carder bee on Scabious

Volucella zonaria

A beautiful cast of insects, but the star of today’s show was a big handsome hoverfly, which surprisingly doesn’t have a common name, but whose scientific name, Volucella zonaria makes it sound a bit like an Italian pasta dish. This is the largest British hoverfly and is quite a recent addition to our native list, appearing on the south coast of England during the late 1930s. According to my Hoverfly bible, from there it has spread upwards and outwards across the country as far as Cheshire and Humberside and South Wales in the West. We’re not so far from the Cheshire border here, so they must still be spreading, this is the second one I’ve seen this year, the other was in my daughter’s garden a few weeks ago.

The spell of sunshine didn’t last long and the wind was still blowing relentlessly; time to set off in the direction of home.

Wind-blown ash tree

 

 

 

 

 

 

September Woods

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September 8th – Bryn Euryn

Woodland Path

Yet another windy day with intermittent sunshine, so I’m seeking shelter in the woods. It is almost eerily silent and the damp soft earth of the path absorbs the sound of my footsteps. Something detects my presence at the last minute; loud rustling sounds from the undergrowth startle me and a panicked grey squirrel shoots out in front of me, sprints rapidly along the path and launches itself up the trunk of the nearest large tree. It pauses when it feels safely hidden behind foliage, but I spied it through the leaves, its mouth filled with an acorn, still green and unripe.

There are ripe blackberries, but on the early fruiting brambles some are already mouldering, and a feasting greenbottle fly reminds me why I don’t eat too many unwashed wild berries.

Chains of scarlet berries drape shrubbery. This one twined through holly reminded me of a Christmas garland; I wonder if sights such as this sparked the idea for festive decorations?

The berries are those of Black Bryony-Tamus communis, and will continue to ripen until they are black. A perennial plant described as twining, but often it’s more of a scrambler.

Woodland Trail

There are rose hips here

and a bramble whose leaves look as though they are almost ready to drop.

The gorse bushes have fresh golden blossom and clever spiders have spun webs in the hope of capturing flying insects drawn to their nectar and pollen. Gorse flowers throughout most months of the year prompting the old saying, “When gorse is out of flower, Kissing is out of season!”

Summit Trail – backtracking

The last time I walked here I took a slightly different route to the summit of the hill, taking an unmarked track up through the woodland to join the Summit Trail. I hadn’t planned to that, but at the junction of the paths I usually take I’d stopped to try to locate Jays that I’d heard screeching in nearby trees and a man with a dog stopped to ask me what I was looking at. We had an interesting chat comparing notes about what we both see here and where, but I didn’t catch the Jays. I waited to see which way he would go to continue his walk and seeing it was the same way I was headed, decided to go the opposite way. Not that I’m unsociable of course, rather that I see far more on my own and in my own time; and he had a dog! Anyway, the upshot was that I ended up on a narrow upward track through the trees on another windy day that was sunny but still damp from the previous night’s rain.

Spiders’ webs lit by the sunshine filtering down through the leaf canopy caught my eye and I stopped to admire the artistry of their construction and to try to find their makers. Looking more closely I saw most of the webs were broken and apparently abandoned, although this one had captured a beautiful rainbow.

As so often happens, my slow progress and in this instance, last-minute change of route brought forth a magical few moments. Until now the only sounds had been mainly of the wind rushing through the trees, but I began to hear bird calls that got gradually nearer and suddenly I was surrounded on all sides by excited little birds – a travelling feeding party! I had been standing still and they seemed not to notice me; I’ve described a similar experience in a previous post and this was equally as joyous and uplifting. It was a large party too, impossible to count the numbers of birds within it as they scattered amongst the trees, but Blue tits were probably most numerous with at least a dozen Long-tailed tits; Great-tits were there too. I didn’t see Tree-creepers as before, but was thrilled to see a Nuthatch that chose to explore a tree right in front of me.

Nuthatch-Sitta europaea

Taking photographs in the darkness of woods is rarely successful, but a Nuthatch did pause briefly from its foraging near a patch of sunlight, giving me a reasonable chance to record this bird for the first time here. Watching a tiny Blue-tit searching through ivy high up in another tree I realised it was looking for spiders, which are an important part of their diet. Perhaps the birds’ regular forays are the reason I couldn’t find any.

Blue tit seeking spiders

Back to the present 

Sycamore leaf with spots of fungus

There was no feeding party today, but there were other signs of a summer ending. Sycamore leaves, amongst the first to break their buds in the Spring are amongst the first to change colour and fall. Most of those I see nowadays are marked with dark spots; this is Rhytisma acerinum, the Sycamore Tarspot. It doesn’t look attractive, but although it is suspected that the darkened areas reduce the photosynthetic capacity of affected trees, the fungus doesn’t seem to affect the tree’s health and vigour. One consolation of the fungus’ presence is that is shows the air here is fairly clean as it is apparently particularly sensitive to sulphur dioxide air pollution. Trees growing near to industrial centres with high levels of sulphur emissions do not show any sign of the leaf-blackening fungi.

If you look at the undersides of the fronds of most ferns, their seeds, spores or more correctly sori  are now ripe. The Male Fern is the most common fern found growing here; its sori are round and normally run in two parallel rows.

There’s a large patch of Hart’s Tongue Fern growing in damp shade on a steep bank. Its leaves and sori take a different form to those of other fern species. Their ripe sori accentuate the marks on the underside of the leaves and it seemed to the person that named the plant that they resembled the legs of a centipede, so he gave it the scientific name ‘scolopendrium‘, the Latin for centipede.

Hart’s Tongue Fern-Phyllitis scolopendrium

The track passes a sheer cliff of limestone. Its surface is frequently damp, sometimes wet and its base is covered with a lush, bright green shag-pile carpet of moss.

There’s a small grove of Silver Birch trees on this shady, damper side of the Bryn that are also beginning to lose their leaves, which stud the dark mud of the track with specks of bright gold.

Nearing the end of the path the trees thin and give way to scrubbier vegetation, mostly blackthorn and hawthorn. The blackthorn has beautiful purple sloes and its leaves too are beginning to turn colour.

A number of the blackthorn shrubs here also have clumps of pretty grey-green lichens. Some looks like a tangle of moss, which I can’t accurately name.

Other blackthorns have a lichen in a different form, this one, photographed on a nearby shrubby hawthorn tree with dark red fruits (haws), has the appearance of Reindeer moss, but I can’t yet be species-specific.

Emerging from cover onto the exposed summit I braced myself for another confrontation with the wind. The sun had disappeared behind clouds that were shutting out its brightness, leaving the landscape in shadow, dulling its colours. Part of the view across the valley from here takes in buildings and fields that belong to the Welsh Mountain Zoo, located above Colwyn Bay. There are sometimes interesting animals grazing in the fields; today it was some kind of cattle.

With or without sunshine I love this hillside view of small fields bounded with hedges and trees with the mountains in the distance. It reminds me a little of a David Hockney painting.

The mountains are topped with billowing clouds that permitted some sunshine through to lighten slopes here and there and to brighten the water of the river Conwy.

On days like this you can only hope for at least a little sunshine to brighten the rest of a walk…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Windy Wildflower Trail – completion

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August 3rd

Part 3 – Rhiwleddyn Nature Reserve

It is wonderful to wander through places that have been left alone and to find indigenous plants that could have been growing there for hundreds of years, or in some cases, even thousands. But areas that have in one way or another been ‘disturbed’ often bring forth species of flora and fauna not seen in areas that haven’t, as in the next part of my wander around the reserve.

Brambles and nettles threaten to take over this small, scrubby area in the midst of the reserve, but there are plants tough enough to hold their own there, one being Common Sorrel.

Common Sorrel Rumex acetosa

The tall stately Great Mullein with its large beautiful grey-green velvety leaves sometimes graces a disturbed scrubby patch. It’s a biennial plant, so flowers appear during each plant’s second year. It is a locally common plant, but its appearance in a specific area each year is not predictable; which makes it more of a treat when you do find it. Each plant usually produces a single flowering spike; one with multiple spikes may indicate that it was nibbled by rabbits in the early stages of its growth.

Great Mullein – Verbascum thrapsis

White horehound, is one of the scarcer plants to be found within the reserve. Its presence here is tenuous year on year, as it is constantly under threat of being out-competed by rampant ‘coarse’ vegetation such as nettles and brambles; its survival largely dependent upon diligent scrub-clearing and management by the reserve management team and Wildlife Trust volunteers. The plant is also found, in greater amounts, on the Great Orme.

June 2017-larva of the Horehound Moth – Wheeleria spilodactylus on foodplant

White horehound is important as it is the only food plant of the larvae of the Horehound Moth Wheeleria spilodactylus. Inhabiting chalky soils, this is a localised species of plume moth, largely confined to the Isle of Wight and a few scattered localities in Wales and Southern England. The exceptionally well-camouflaged caterpillars appeared on plants here earlier in the year when I took this photograph; they are evidence that the battle to maintain its ongoing presence is important to this species of moth.

I haven’t seen the moth myself, but found this perfect picture of one, appropriately taken on the foodplant on the Great Orme by John Martin. Respecting the copyright of the image, this is the link to it. http://www.ukmoths.org.uk/species/wheeleria-spilodactylus/adult-on-foodplant-2/

A little grasshopper sat basking, sheltered from the wind and very well camouflaged on a bramble leaf. I doubt I’d have seen him if I’d not caught sight of him land there.

Grasshopper on bramble leaf

This is him/her greatly enlarged

Grasshopper on bramble leaf (enlarged)

Another tough plant here is the Lesser Burdock. I like the plant with its round prickly flower heads and tufts of purple flowers that will soon dry into ‘burrs’ and stick to anything that brushes against them. I approached the plant to photograph it; as I did so, I got excited to see that a little butterfly had the same idea and had only my second sighting so far this year of a perfect little Brown Argus.

Brown Argus Aricia argestis

The poor thing was fighting to stay put in the strong wind and I was struggling to keep my camera lens focussed on it. I was vaguely aware of a small fly sharing the same space on the plant as the butterfly, but was too intent on the matter in hand to pay much heed to it. It was small and yellowish and flitting about a fair bit, but at the time it didn’t click that this might be a fly I’d been hoping to find for the past few years that is a burdock specialist.

Brown Argus & Banded burdock fly

Banded burdock fly-Terellia tussilaginis

It wasn’t until the next day, when I looked at my images properly that I realised this little fly was indeed most likely a Banded burdock fly-Terellia tussilaginis and that I’d almost missed it!

At least it gives me good reason to show more images of the lovely little butterfly.

Brown Argus & Banded burdock fly

I was getting a bit fed up with the wind now but battled on towards the top as I wanted to get an image of the stunning view of Llandudno that you get from this side of the Little Orme headland. It was only when I got there I remembered that I had actually been somewhat sheltered from the full force of the wind! it was still so strong it took my breath away and I had to lean against a rock to brace myself, not only to steady the camera but also myself. Worth it though, what a view!

I didn’t stay to lingeringly admire the view, and was quickly on the way back down to seek a calmer spot. Facing now in the other direction and looking down onto the fields below I had the random sight of a male Pheasant, not a bird I see often. He was looking a bit bedraggled and was clearly limping. Had he been been shot and survived, hit by a car, or even attacked by a fox or dog? Fortunately he seemed still to be able to fly well enough.

Limping pheasant

A little further on I spotted a little splash of blue in the short grass in front of me and much to my surprise here was one of the Reserve’s special treasures – a single stem of the lovely little Spiked Speedwell. This is a plant that is cultivated and grown in gardens, but only grows in the wild in the Breckland grasslands of East Anglia and very locally in Wales and Western England.

Spiked Speedwell-Veronica spicata

A few metres away, standing a little taller, a single flower stem of Dropwort, another specialist of calcareous grassland, this one being bent almost to the ground by the strength of the wind.

Dropwort – Filipendula vulgaris

Hawthorn is one of the few species of tree that is not nibbled by rabbits or sheep in its early stages and that can also withstand exposure to the strong, salt-laden winds the headland is subject to. Most are contorted into weird and wonderful shapes, but this one, although short has grown large and spread fairly evenly.

I met up with the young Robin again on my way back down.

Young Robin

And a beautiful Comma butterfly landed on the bare earth of the track.

Comma

The sheep were where I’d left them, settled down comfortably now for an afternoon siesta in the sunshine.

Looking up from the track below I saw they were still watching me, with definite smug, self-satisfied smiles on their faces.

I was more than happy with my final wildflower tally for this walk, which included (in no particular order!): Common calamint; Common rock-rose; Black horehound; White horehound; Hedge woundwort; Water mint; Lady’s bedstraw; Spiked speedwell; Dropwort; Wild thyme; Common cinquefoil; Centaury; Carline thistle; Goldenrod; Lesser burdock; Common sorrel; Great mullein; Harebell; Perforate St John’s Wort; Wild clematis; Yellow-wort; Wild fennel; Marjoram; Wild carrot; Hemlock; Ragwort; Ploughman’s spikenard; Yarrow

 

The life of a Yellow Dung-fly

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This post is possibly not one for the squeamish, but lately I’ve become more aware of these bright little flies and given thought to the vital role they and their kind play in maintaining balance in our environment, so decided it was time to learn more about them. Yellow dung-flies are one of the most familiar and abundant flies here in the United Kingdom and indeed throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere. They are out and about from March to November and at their peak in the summer. Anyone that walks in the countryside, particularly in areas where there are large mammals will undoubtedly have seen them. They may look a little fearsome close up, but are harmless to us, they do not sting or bite people or other animals!

Common Yellow dung-fly or Golden dung-flyScathophaga stercoraria

Yellow -dung-fly male

As its common name suggests, the life of a Yellow dung-fly, particularly that of the males is centred on, yes you’ve guessed it … dung! They spend most of their lives either upon it, or looking for it. They favour cow pats, but are adaptable and will settle for the dung of other large mammals such as horses, deer or wild boar if that’s what’s available. Unsurprisingly here in Wales they mostly have to settle for that of sheep.

 

Male and female yellow dung-flies

Dung-flies belong to the Scathophagidae family of flies which are integral within the animal kingdom in the role of  assisting in the process of the natural decomposition of dung in fields and grasslands. 

Description: 5-11mm long. Average lifespan is 1-2 months. Sexually dimorphic, males are golden-yellow with orange-yellow fur on their front legs and are larger than the females. Females are generally duller in appearance, more of a green-brown colour and have no brightly coloured fur on their front legs.

Behaviour 

Males and females are attracted to fresh dung by its scent and actually approach deposits flying into the wind. Males spend most of their time on the dung waiting for females to mate with and being predatory insects, sometimes feeding on other insects that visit the dung, such as blow flies. Females on the other hand spend most of their time foraging in vegetation and only visit dung to mate and subsequently deposit her eggs.

Reproduction 

Rival male dive-bombing a mating pair

The male-female ratio of flies on a dung pat is typically heavily biased towards males. Often several males can be seen waiting for a female to arrive, so if and when one does, competition to mate is high: the smaller, outnumbered females don’t have much say in choosing their mate.

The act of copulation lasts 20 to 50 minutes during which the couple may be subject to aerial attacks from rival males attempting to dislodge the male. When the act is completed, the male attempts to guard the female from the attentions of other males, although both males and females often mate with several individuals.

Life-cycle

The adult dung-fly is mainly carnivorous, catching and eating smaller insects, but they also eat nectar. After mating females lay their eggs on the dung, where she selects small ‘hills’ on its surface, deliberately avoiding depressions and sharper pointed areas. This strategy is aimed at preventing desiccation and drowning thus giving eggs and offspring the greatest chance of survival. Depending on ambient temperature eggs hatch into larvae after 1-2 days. Larvae burrow quickly into the dung for their protection and proceed to feed on it; they also predate on other insect larvae also living in the dung. They grow rapidly and after 10-20 days the larvae burrow into the soil around and beneath the dung where they pupate.

Environmental influences 

The Yellow dung-fly has a short life cycle, a factors that has made them of interest to scientists, who have been able to study not only the insects themselves but also the effects various environmental factors has on them. For example:

The viability of a clutch of eggs depends strongly on the environment. In warmer climates a sharp drop in population occurs during the summer when temperatures increase to 28° or above. This does not happen in places with a colder climate such as Iceland, Finland and the north of Britain, nor at higher elevations.

The health of juvenile dung flies is in turn affected by the quality of the dung they inhabit, factors such as water content, nutritional quality, the presence of parasites & drugs and chemicals given to the animal that excreted it may all contribute.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Windy Wildflower Walk II

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August 3rd

Part 2 – Rhiwledyn Nature Reserve -The main track

Onwards and upwards; a flight of shallow stone steps make a steep rocky section of the path a little easier to climb (except when it’s wet & they get a bit slippery).

Pause here to admire the views back down onto the road and the many shades of green of the fields and woodland on its opposite side.

Looking down onto the road into Llandudno

Facing around to the way I’m going, the views to the right of me, seen over a rampant tangle of brambles and wild clematis on the reserve boundary, are extensive and stunning. At once pastoral and contained and wild and open to the elements.

On the other side of the track is the biggest and best patch of harebells that I have seen for years, a truly beautiful sight.

Harebell- Campanula rotundifolia

I can’t resist sitting to watch them being blown and rippled by the wind and am captivated by their charm. For me this little flower has it all. Beautiful in colour and form, they have delicacy and fragility but also great adaptability and resilience to an often hostile environment. Each flower had turned its bell back to the wind to reduce its impact; their slender but tough and wiry stems having the flexibility to bend to the wind, not break. A life lesson in a wildflower!

There were yet more of the little beauties a little higher up on the slope contrasting delightfully in colour and form with frothy lemon-yellow Lady’s bedstraw. I clambered up rather inelegantly to take a closer look. Amongst other plants, these had grown taller and in a more sheltered spot, their bells were turned to the light rather than away from the wind.

Before going back down to the track, I take another look at the glorious view across the bays to the Clwydian Hills and with sheep where they are supposed be.

click to enlarge

Back on track there is a change in ambience and habitat. There are small trees and shrubs on the boundary with the farmland sufficient to cast shade, and the sloping ground on the other side provides a windbreak. The trees are mostly hawthorn, prevalent throughout the headland as its one of the few plants not grazed by sheep or rabbits and again, tough enough to withstand exposure to fierce salty winds.

I spot a movement and see a small Grasshopper jump onto a lichen speckled rock catching dappled sunlight; the perfect place to soak up a little warmth whilst staying camouflaged.

I round a bend in the track and see – sheep! Five naughty trespassing sheep! They are strictly banned from the reserve unless invited in as their indiscriminate grazing may damage or even destroy the rarer wildflowers that grow here. Fencing prevents them wandering into the higher part of the reserve from the rest of the Little Orme where they are not restricted, so I think they got in at this field level, no doubt irresistibly tempted by the sight of the lush long grass over here. I tell them they should return to their field, but can’t see where they may have got through and they pay me no heed anyway, just amble away showing me their bottoms.

I let them get ahead, the last thing I want to do is frighten them and send them scattering and concentrate on the patch of golden flowers I see amongst the long grass on the slope. I thought at first it may be Goldenrod as I’d seen some on the roadside earlier, but soon realised it was a Hypericum – St.John’s Wort.

Another plant with several species that share the same common name, but this is the one I am most familiar with and has all the right features to be Perforate St John’s Wort – Hypericum perforatum.

St John’s Wort-Hypericum perforatum

click to enlarge

Black horehound – Ballota nigra

I apologise, but need to digress a little here to explain the significance of my next plant. Earlier on in the summer a group of NWWT members were treated to a walk around this reserve guided by its manager, Rob and a guest expert botanist, Nigel. It was a brilliant walk on many levels and we learnt a lot about our special flora and its history, about its fauna and the trials and tribulations of modern Reserve management. Typically as on any walk, even guided group ones, I lagged behind snapping interesting stuff and in a rough bramble-and- nettle patch (in the pic above), spotted the plant to the right, which is still going strong. Yet another minty-looking one I didn’t recognise. I took hasty photographs and hurried after the rest of the group. No-one else immediately recognised it either, so Nigel suggested I email the pics to him later on so he could have a better look. From them his best guess was that it was Black Horehound, reservations having been that this was a vigorous, tall specimen of a plant that usually is, in his words, ‘much scruffier-looking’ He also mentioned it smells unpleasant, so this time I had a closer look and bruised and smelt a leaf. It definitely did not smell pleasant and as all its other important bits match the botanical specs, I’m taking that as another one to add to my list of wildflowers-I-will-know-how-to-identify in the future. (Unless anyone has a different idea……?)

It’s amazing what you can see in five minutes along a short shady stretch of track. I watched a dragonfly patrol up and down at speed, pausing only in his labour several times to ‘buzz’ me and let me know I was in his space. I was hoping he’d stop so I could at least see what he was, but no, much too busy. There was yet more mint here, and one I recognised from the distinctive scent of a crushed leaf – this is Water Mint-Mentha aquatic. A similar-looking plant is Corn Mint, but it grows shorter than this and doesn’t have a ‘terminal’ flowerhead (one that crowns the top of the stalk).

Water mint-Mentha aquatica

A fresh-looking Speckled Wood rested on a sun-warmed stone on the path

Speckled Wood

and a Red Admiral flew across to seek out the nectar of bramble flowers

Red Admiral – Vanessa atalanta

There is a farm gate here which I checked for security, but tightly closed there would have been no exit for sheep. Another great Clematis-framed view from here, considerably enhanced by the clouds I think, although they were blocking out the sun at this point.

click to enlarge

At the side of the gate another member of the Lamiceae (mints & dead-nettles) family, this one I know well, the Hedge Woundwort Stachys arvensis.

Yellow Dung Fly – Scathophaga stercoraria

I moved on and round the next bend found evidence I was still on the trail of the errant sheep; a smallish neat and fairly recent deposit of fresh dung. And where there is dung there may be Dung-flies, one of my favourite insects, although I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps because I’m keen on recycling? As I hoped, a single male Yellow Dung Fly had laid claim to the heap of treasure and was intent on guarding it. A bit of a drama then ensued, but I’m saving that for later.

To the top

I had reached the Reserve boundary, marked by a gate through which the two marked ‘Trails’ continue on to cross the rest of the Little Orme headland. There is no marked official track up to the top reaches of the reserve from here though, so getting up there is a matter of a)wanting to; b) paying attention to where you are putting your feet; c)taking care not to slip on damp grass and d) watching out for rabbit holes.

Rock-roses are still fresh and lovely up here, as is the fragrant Lady’s Bedstraw.

I followed the path chosen by the sheep; they almost always know how to find the best way upwards. They were up there now, all standing facing the view. I may have thought they were admiring it, but one of them who seemed to be in charge, maybe the mother of some of them, was bleating loudly, eliciting a response from the field below. Was she calling to her friends telling them about the feast to be had on this side and inviting them over?

Once more I reminded them they were not welcome here, but Mrs Boss Sheep just gave me ‘the look’ that clearly said “mind your own business and what are you doing up here yourself?” Once past them it became more overgrown and not as clear where to head, but I kept going in the general direction of where I wanted to be and hoped for the best. I heard a bird making some squeaky sounds and spotted him as he perched atop a gorse bush, a speckly young Robin beginning to get his adult feathers. I realised this was the first bird I’d seen and heard so far on this walk apart from gulls and the occasional cormorant flying overhead.

I also realised it was lunchtime, so time to find a sheltered spot, take a break and sit and admire the sheep’s-eye view.

 

 

 

A Windy Wildflower Trail

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August 3rd – Weather – intermittently sunny, warm but with a very strong cooling wind. 

As August began I wanted to get out to see wildflowers. This is one of my favourite times of year for that, when there is every chance that there may be earlier flowering plants still around and the late-summer bloomers should be at or reaching their best. Most of the sites I visit regularly are good for wildflowers, but as they are mostly located on hills or headlands and exposed to the elements, they would not be particularly enjoyable on a strongly windy day like today and taking photographs would be difficult. I decided on Rhiwledyn Nature Reserve, one of my favourites as it covers a range of interesting habitats within its 12 acre site and as it is located on the eastern side of the Little Orme there was a chance that much of it would be sheltered from the worst of the wind.

There are three ways to access the reserve, all of which require a bit of an uphill hike. One route is from Llandudno, another from the other side of the Little Orme, but for me the most interesting route to its main entrance is along the path at the base of a section of the Orme that runs up Penrhyn Hill. Marked as a 10% gradient, this is a steepish stretch to walk, but worth the effort as the rock supports an array of plants, both wildflowers and some garden escapees, and is a nature trail in itself. This provides me with the perfect excuse to amble up the hill and take frequent excusable pauses for breath rather than stride purposefully along.

Looking back along Penrhyn Hill towards Penrhyn Bay. The hill in the centre background is Bryn Euryn

Part 1 – Penrhyn Hill roadside to the reserve

My first sighting was of a male Common blue butterfly taking a break from his battle with the wind on the flower of a hop trefoil, low down in the vegetation. Amongst long grass and ivy, a grey leaved Yellow-wort; this is an annual favouring short calcareous grassland but is found in a variety of spots throughout the headland.

There were several clumps of a plant that was definitely a member of the mint family with strongly aromatic leaves. I don’t know what it is yet.

  • since publishing this Suzanne has kindly suggested in a comment that it is Common calamint Clinopodium ascendens. This is a mint that grows in dry grassland, hedgerows and verges, often on chalk or limestone soils, so habitat fits perfectly.

Common calamint – Clinopodium ascendens

And another aromatic plant – Wild Fennel, growing as tall as me, in front of gorse.

A pretty snail clung to the leaf of a Valerian plant; I lifted it gently to check the colour of its underside lip – brown – then replaced it. A few bees were braving the breeze, mostly Buff-tailed bumblebees. I photographed one on marjoram, which may or may not be a wild plant.

There is Wild Carrot in various stages of flowering from tight buds to maturing seedheads. Most often found in rough grassland, near the sea and again mostly on chalky soil. This is one of the easier of the white umbellifers to identify, with feathery leaves and bracts beneath the flowerheads and always a red flower in its centre.

Windy days are not good for butterflies, but I did see a couple of Gatekeepers. Both sticking close within the vegetation, one found Marjoram to nectar on, the other attempted to bask on a Wild Clematis leaf. Both were faded and looking a little the worse for wear.

A flowering Goldenrod plant sprawled out across the edge of the path.

Goldenrod – Solidago virgaurea

So too a sprawling patch of Montbretia

Montbretia

and this one with its flowers like small dandelions, which I think may be one of the Hawkweeds. Another one to work on.

A stone wall marking the boundary of the farm’s land breaks the vegetated path edge, but behind it the small field is golden with Ragwort and long seeding grass. There were butterflies in there, mostly Whites, but it’s off-limits so couldn’t get a closer look.

Trees on the edge of the small wood in the background of the photograph now cast shade over the path and its edge and there are less flowering plants. There is plenty of ivy, Wild Clematis a flourishing Wild Cabbage, more of the not yet id’d mint and a clump of the usually sun-seeking Rockrose.

Rhiwledyn Nature Reserve

Half an hour after parking my car I finally reach the entrance to the reserve. The sun is shining and a fly basks in the warmth reflected by the glass of the narrative board.

A pretty clump of Marjoram flowers at its base.

I turned left to first walk the short length of the path at the base of the headland where it meets Llandudno Bay. The strength of the wind here took my breath away and walking into it head on was a challenge, but now I’d got this far I wanted to carry on to the far end of this eastern side of the headland as far as I could. 

Up on the cliff a patch of harebells gave a rare opportunity to get close to these lovely little flowers without having to lie on the ground. They look delicate and their thin stems seem fragile, but they are tougher than they look and were holding their own in today’s wind.

Spiky starry Carline thistles caught my eye. Kneeling to photograph them I see they are growing amongst bird’s-foot trefoil and that there is another little star there too – a tiny white flower of Pearlwort.

There is Yellow-wort flowering next to Wood sage which is setting seed.

Another Carline thistle, this time with Eyebright and an unwelcome invader, cotoneaster, one of the banes of the lives of hard-pressed reserve managers.

Nearby, more Harebells with a little pink Centaury and the grey felty leaves of Mouse-eared Hawkweed.

I was almost relieved to reach the end of the track and be blown back to retrace my steps to the beginning of the upward track.

First I went ‘off piste’ a little to reach a stand of golden yellow Ploughman’s Spikenard.

Ploughman’s Spikenard – Inula conyzae

Then a scramble back down to the start of the track proper. A badged wooden post here reassures you that you are officially following both the Wales Coast Path and the North Wales Path.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little Beings of Summer Woods

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Sunday July 30th-Bryn Euryn

The Woodland Path

11:00am  It was cooler than I’d anticipated in the woods this morning. The sky was cloudy and gusts of a chilly breeze blustered between the trees of this usually sheltered mid-slope of the Bryn; less than ideal conditions for the insects I was hoping to see. And I wished I’d worn a thicker fleece. But the sun was intermittently winning through the clouds and ever the optimist I assured myself it would get warmer for me and the little creatures. 

There are a few places on my usual trail that I think of as ‘hotspots’ for insects, even on cool days such as this. The first one is an untidy, brambly-nettley spot, where opportunistic plants have filled a gap in the tree line and spread across to the other side of the path too. Dappled sunlight reaches and warms the spot, aphids thrive here, there’s nectar and pollen to be had while the bramble is in flower, followed by its fruits; the perfect ingredients for a hoverfly hangout. If I’m patient and hang around for a few minutes I’m often rewarded with sightings of a few hovering customers and sometimes less expected visitors too.

Hoverfly (syrphus sp) basking on a sunlit hazel leaf

Insects need sunshine to warm up their flight muscles to get them going, so cooler, cloudy days can be surprisingly rewarding for sightings of basking individuals slowed down by the lack of warmth. There were a few hoverflies here today, also other common flies which I’m trying to take notice of and appreciate more; well, at least I’m aiming to put names to some of them. Most of those I saw were common ‘houseflies’, a generic name that covers quite a few different species. I think it’s their habits that most of us dislike; some of them look quite pretty.

A long-bodied black insect with pretty iridescent wings scurried erratically over the surfaces of leaves, a wasp I think, definitely a hunting predator, maybe a Digger wasp.

About to move on I spotted a dot of colour in the shade of some leaves. Sitting motionless was another more recognisable predator, a male Scorpion Fly.

Scorpion Fly-There are 3 species of Scorpion Fly in Britain, apparently difficult to separate other by examining genitalia; the most common being Panorpa germanica. They frequent shady places almost everywhere. All are scavenging insects and completely harmless despite the males’s scorpion-like tail. The female’s body lacks the tail, simply tapers to a point. 

The closed tree canopy excludes most flowers now. An exception is the woodland grass, False Brome, which grows prolifically here and is flowering now.

False Brome-

A splash of colour took me by surprise – a holly tree with red berries!

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Perhaps relics of the days when this path was part of the grounds of a Victorian manor house, are large clumps of two attractive ferns. Both species are evergreen, maintaining their green fronds throughout the seasons, but both look particularly fresh and verdant now and the Polypody has new fronds unfurling.

Polypody fern

Black spleenwort

 

Dwarf Cream Wave-Idaea fuscovenosa

A tiny pale-coloured moth swirled by the breeze spiralled down to land on a bramble leaf low to the ground, settling with wings spread butterfly-like under the shelter of other leaves. It is a Dwarf Cream Wave (photograph probably not far off its actual size)- the lines that show grey-mauve are where its original pale brown scales have been worn, or washed (!) away.

 

A home in a leaf ….

The pale patch on this holly leaf is probably the result of the work of an insect, the Holly leaf miner Phytomyza ilicis. This is a fly whose larvae burrow into leaves of this specific species of tree and leave characteristic pale trails or mines.

Interestingly, I learnt (from Wikipaedia) that “the holly leaf miner has frequently been used in ecological studies as a system to study food webs. Examination of the leaves can show whether the leaf miner has successfully emerged, been killed by a parasitic wasp, or been predated by blue tits.”

I’m not sure what the perfectly round hole in this one indicates. It could just be the original entry point of the egg-laying adult female’s ovipositor, but maybe too big? It looks too small and neat to be an exit hole and blue tits leave a triangular tear when seizing a miner as prey. Maybe it is the mark of the work of a predatory wasp? 

Speaking of wasps, I spotted another on an ivy leaf – a bit more distinctive than the black one I saw earlier due to its long antennae, so I asked the experts at BWARS and they say it’s a member of the Ichneumonidae family. The whole of this family are parasitoides and most species attack the caterpillars of butterflies and moths. It’s a dangerous life being an insect.

The Woodland Trail, Bryn Euryn Nature Reserve 

A big old oak tree marks the junction of my ‘Woodland Path’ and the Woodland Trail that circuits the Nature Reserve. It’s lost a few of its branches and the big lower branch has a split right through it that provided a safe home to nesting Great tits earlier on in the year.

 

 

Happily, the tree seems to be going strong and is currently nurturing some baby acorns. They have stalks, which indicate this is an English, or Pedunculate Oak.

 

 

 

Stepping out from the cover of the trees I realised how windy it had become; windy enough for birds to be able to just hang in the air and ride the air currents with minimum effort. Two buzzards were overhead, mewling and swooping around in the air currents, one being harassed by gulls, poor thing.

The unmistakable bulk of a Buzzard

My second ‘hot-spot’ is almost at the junction of the two tracks. It’s a huge bramble entwined with gorse and over which wild clematis scrambles. That blackberry & wild clematis combination is one of my favourites, even if it is another of the sights that I associate with summer’s approaching end. The clematis is just coming into flower and, the bramble already has ripening fruit, so not much for insects here today.

A lovely Speckled Wood butterfly sat on a smaller bramble nearby which still has flowers. The butterfly let me get very close, hardly moving in the coolness of the day.

There are few flowers along the sides of the Woodland Trail now, due in part I’m sure to their having been strimmed back in June – this part of the path is maintained by the local council who are wont to get these ‘jobs’ done before people complain about paths being overgrown. All kinds of good stuff was cut back, including orchids, and much of the hogweed that would now be giving nectar and pollen to hoverflies et al. I hoped they were finding sustenance nearby.

A few odd plants have survived, or revived, to flower here and others are fruiting. There are a very few hazelnuts that have thus far escaped the jaws of voracious grey squirrels, who usually eat them while they’re still soft and green.

Cool windy days may seem unpromising if you’ve set off hoping to see insects, but if you keep paying attention there is never ‘nothing to see’ (pardon my grammar). I spotted a tiny movement on the surface of a leaf and caught sight of an even tinier leaf hopper. As I got closer with the camera lens I noticed another movement under the leaf; a tiny spider had spotted the leaf hopper and was vibrating her web to try to get its attention. The leaf hopper disappeared under the leaf….. I wonder if the spider got her lunch? Apologies for the less-than-good photo, but I’m sure you get the drift!

So, I’ve reached the steps leading up to the field now and looking forward to what it has in store….

 

 

Curlews are Back in the Field

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July 17th 

Curlews are back. That is to say I’ve just noticed some in the field as I drove past, I don’t know when they got there exactly. There were just a few for now, a lot of Curlew that return here will have been breeding, or bred in Iceland, but their return here following a few months away each year is one of the signs that summer is rapidly coming to an end.

More used to seeing these wading birds solitarily stalking amongst the rocks of Rhos Point, I was amazed the first time I saw them gathered together in a significant number in this field, although it did go some way to enlighten me as to where birds go when the tide’s in. That initial sighting was was back in 2011 when I came here to live and each year since I’ve looked out for them, hoping they’ve had a successful breeding season and that their numbers will be good. (Not that I know what would be classed as a good number; nowadays the curlew is a threatened species, and I have no idea how present day numbers compare with historical ones for this site.) I’m not confident counting birds, but last year by my reckoning there were somewhere around 80-100 of them here at any one time.

17th July 2017-Curlews and cows

I’ve wondered about the attraction of this particular site as a gathering place. In the present day, as fields go this is not a particularly large one and it probably qualifies as ‘rough pastureland’ having coarse grass, a generous sprinkling of thistles and not too much else. It is farmland, so the birds often have to share the space with large grazing animals; presently it’s cows, earlier in the year it was sheep. It is bounded on one side by the Llandudno Road, by houses on another two with another field fenced off behind it.

February 2017-Sharing with sheep

On the plus side, it’s conveniently close to the shore & a short flight gets them them there in minutes.The ground here is probably rich in invertebrates as the animals keep the ground well manured, and much of it it floods easily and holds the moisture, keeping it soft for probing with their long bills. 

The birds must feel safe here too, when not foraging the flock takes time out  to rest and preen their feathers.

Curlew resting, preening & bathing

They seem to be here during times of high tide when there is no accessible shoreline for foraging. They seem to instinctively know the exact moment the tide is optimally in or out and some trigger suddenly alerts them to take off as one and head back there.

Heading back to the shore

Maybe that’s all there is to their choosing this spot, but it could also be connected to the past history of the land within which the field is located. Going back to the beginning, a clue lies in the meaning of the name of the village, Rhos-on-Sea, or more properly Llandrillo-yn-Rhos: the Welsh word rhos, translating as ‘marsh’. In the distant past, before the construction of sturdy sea defences, high tides would have reached further inland than now and flooded much of the low-lying ground here between it and the hills, forming an extensive salt marsh. The flat area between the Little Orme and Bryn Euryn, from where I took the photograph below is the northern end of the valley of the Afon (river) Ganol, once a significant river which flowed into Penrhyn Bay and also into the tidal river Conwy at its southern end. Along its length several small streams also fed into the river. 

July 2017-Looking down onto the ‘curlew field’ from Bryn Euryn

Looking down onto the well-ordered village of Penrhyn Bay with its network of roads and the modern-day golf course, it’s hard to visualise the wild place this once was, although following sustained heavy rainfall it is easier to see how wet it must have been.

January 2014 -Looking down on the flooded field where curlew, oystercatchers, redshank may be seen feeding amongst sheep

The Afon Ganol was by all accounts a dangerous tidal strait, and it formed a natural barrier rendering the land beyond the valley, then known at the Creuddyn Peninsular far more more isolated. Crossings were difficult; the river could be forded here, although the area was extremely marshy. Then in the 1800s, embankments were built at either end of the valley to allow land reclamation.

The effort and work undertaken to drain the marsh must have been massive, and hugely expensive, but by 1912 the OS map shows the Afon Ganol as being culverted under the Llandudno Road to the golf links, with a culvert going out to sea, but with still a large marshy area remaining. The establishment of the golf links then required further improvements to drainage and a new outlet for the diverted river was constructed. Dug 2′ below the bed of the river and the link’s ornamental lakes, this outlet then enabled the river and the lakes to be emptied during intervals between tides, keeping the golf course dry.

Today the Afon Ganol remains as a culvert with tidal outfall structure, which was updated in 2011 to decrease the risk of flooding.

A section of a remaining water course bends around the back of the rugby field

Interestingly, although the original river is now just a meandering waterway and ditch, in part diverted and culverted, it remains still the county boundary between Conwy and Denbigh.

Welcome back Curlews, the place is not the same without you.