Saturday, 29 May 2010

May sunshine in hawthorn lands

Last weekend provided an great opportunity to experience the sumptuous hawthorn landscape on the northern edge of the Somerset Levels.  I was keen to capture the creamy white blossom which can never have been more prolific than it is this year - it fair drips off the bushes!

Hawthorn hedgerow

The cow parsley is a common sight along roads and in areas where grazing is more "relaxed".

Sunshine across a meadow with a cow-parsley boarder

Cow parsley

There are numerous unadopted lanes between the flat fields of the Levels.  In the dazzling sunshine there was a constant hum of bees and hoverflies, along with a warm, musty smell of the hawthorn was like a hugging blanket.

A country lane and apple tree

Another view of the lane

Oak canopy filtering the sunshine

Mature willows and hawthorn across a meadow

Another hedgerow

 A rhyne - a fence and a drain - plus a habitat

Buttercups in profusion

Where there is open water the pussy willows are frequent.  They spread their seeds in a light fluff that fills the air.  Poplar trees also adopt this method and create a light snow shower building into drifts along the pathways.

Willow fluff filling the air

Out on the lakes the geese, duck and swan families drift around avoiding one another if possible.  This swan decided that the raft was too small for his family and the coot!

A coot making way for a swan family

The wetlands were alive with insects, which in turn attracts birds such as hobbies and persuades the fish to leap for their dinner.  Dragonfly couples, linked in an egg laying embrace , hovered low over the still water in their thousands.  Whilst the more dainty  blue damselflies perched along nettle fringed footpaths, carrying out frequent, restless sorties.

A blur of damselflies

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Our newest national park - The New Forest

With the temperatures soaring, there's no better place to visit than a woodland (apart from the beach perhaps!).

We spent the day amongst the majestic trees of the New Forest National Park in Hampshire...and what a day it was!  This 1000+ year old Forest owes its existence to the rather insatiable need to hunt by William the Conqueror, who forbade the taking of deer and wild boar by the "commoners".

It is hard to describe how beautiful this place is with all the new spring greens, luminescent in the sunshine.

 New Forest woodland

Towering beeches and holly

The trees are allowed to get to a very old age and as a result limbs naturally fall off and rot on the ground.  This provides a rare habitat for many wood boring beetles and other insects.

Trees and fallen wood

Between large patches of ancient oaks and beech (in what is actually referred to as wood pasture and woodland enclosure), there are extensive areas of open heath supporting gorse and heather.  These are grazed by cattle and a large number of horses which are able to roam freely.

New Forest heathland and woodland

The main target species were redstart and Dartford warbler.  After a long search I managed to see the former, but quite quickly gave up the search for the later in the roasting sunshine.  The New Forest also supports hobbies, which hunt the many dragonflies present, plus a great number of small birds such as warblers, pipits and chats.

Small red damselfly

There are also some significant areas of very short grassland grazed by rabbits, which also have rare and interesting plant species - these areas are called "lawns".  Where the ground in wet there are areas of peat bog.  At the moment the bright blue flowers of common milkwort, yellow pimpernel and the pink lousewort dot the sward with colour.  On the really wet areas where sphagnum moss grows, you can find the carnivorous, insect eating sundews, which gobble up unwary flies in order to make up for the lack of some essential nutrients.

Insect eating sundew

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Orchards and apple blossom

Last Saturday provided a sunny window to enable us to take our planned tour of Somerset's fabulous cider orchards - perfect timing as the weather was fine.

We roughly followed a loop around the beautiful village of Coat, and rather strangely named Kingsbury Episcopi, dropping in on the amazing and now legendary cider maker: The Somerset Cider Brandy Company Ltd. & Burrow Hill Cider.

Barrels of cider waiting for a buyer

Apple orchards provide a valuable and exciting wildlife habitat for insects and the birds that feed on them.  The older trees have nesting holes used by woodpeckers and jackdaws, whilst many trees support thick clumps of mistletoe, sold in local towns at Christmas.

Right now they are aflame with pinky-white blossoms.  Here are some of the 250+ images taken on and around this company's orchard on their way-marked walk, along with a few from the local area. They have very helpfully placed notices scattered around the place, explaining which variety of apple is which, and what particular qualities are useful.  We were enraptured by the whole place.

Big balls of mistletoe

Most orchards are grazed by young cattle or sheep

Sunday, 9 May 2010

A cold day on the marshes

Today's Somerset Level's visit was a corker...I walked 100yds from the car park, lifted my new bins to test them on a flying heron, and it turned out to be a bittern! The bird showed itself again flying low over the reeds.

Thousands of swifts and some swallows were hawking over the water, obviously finding the insects low down - probably struggling a bit today in the cold and overcast conditions.

A swift

Noah's hide gave me great views of 6+ hobbies and six whimbrels, plus warblers, gc grebes etcs. but I got really cold, so walked back to car to warm up.  I then thought that I would cross road to the next area (Ham Wall RSPB reserve) just in case there was something special around before I went home.

An old guy approached me and asked if I knew the area and what was about...I was able to turn round and point out a marsh harrier being mobbed by crows!  My camera is at its limit here, as are my picture taking skills!

 Marsh harrier

Wandered back and then saw another bittern (had already heard it booming). Walked further along and it rose from the reeds like a phoenix.


Saturday, 8 May 2010

Local beauty spot

There's a beautiful georgian manor house near where I work, nestling in a limestone valley with a river.  The valley supports areas of ancient woodland and flower rich grassland.  Here are some of the pictures from a short evening visit:

Green-winged orchids of various colours showing the green veins in the flowers
 Cowslips in the grassland

Orchids scattered acorss the grassland

The local lanes are boardered by high, lush hedge-banks full of ramsoms, cow parsley, greater stitchwort and many other plants.

Bush vetch

Red campion

Red campion

Evening sunlight - this photo has NOT been edited

Ramsoms carpetting a woodland

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

A quest for bluebells

This weekend saw an earnest quest for bluebells in Gloucestershire.  However this was no random sortie...but a perfectly timed military manoeuvre with destination, sturdy footwear, camera gear and refreshments carefully thought out (well the last one was a quick dip into the local CO-OP).  The destination was Lower Woods, near Westonbirt, which is a local wildlife trust reserve...and what a place it is.

There are a number of walks which take you on a circular route.  Ours started by entering a fine unimproved meadow, which supports a great array of interesting plants.  At the moment the two of note are the dainty cuckoo flower (or lady's mantle) and an unusual fern called Adder's Tongue.  The fern is especially picky and can only be found on grassland that is not only very old, but also has not been fertilised and has been traditionally managed.

Flower rich meadow

Cuckoo flower

Adder's tongue fern

The fern is only a couple of inches high, at most, and consists of a single leaf ("frond") - weird eh?

So what about the woodland then...

A bluebell woodland

The woodlands are not only exciting for their bluebells, but as they are ancient woodlands  also play host to a myriad of other woodland species.  My previous blogs show images of some of the flowers that have already been in bloom, but now there are a few more to see.

One spectacular species is the early purple orchid, which can be found as scattered individuals or small groups, where ever the woodland canopy is open enough.

Other notable plants include the uncommon herb paris and the more common yellow archangel.  Where primroses and cowslips are present they combine to form a hybrid called the false oxlip.

 Herb paris

Yellow archangel

False oxlip

An old house sits in the middle of the woodland; at one time there must have been a well tended garden.  Now only an ancient tree stands, along with a tall pear tree.  Next to the house is a large apple tree in full blossom.

Apple blossom

The woodland still provides charcoal from the charcoal burner and bean sticks from suitably straight hazel coppice.  Here are some poles cut this winter and not yet sold:

Coppicing is a practice of managing woodland by repeatedly cutting the hazel understory every few (7 -12) years to produce wood for hurdles, charcoals, bean sticks etc..  It lloks drastic but hass been practiced in the majority of English woodlands for centuries - the hazel grows back just as strong.  The large trees (the "standards") are selectedly left to grow for about 100+ years then felled for timber and replanted.

Here is what an area of open coppice woodland looks like after it has been actively managed - the ground flora loves this, as do a number of butterlies.  Without this practice the woodland becomes dark and the ground flora significantly deminished.

An ancient coppice (ash) stool

All in all a successful mission!