Raindrops

Not many of them – yet – but they are beautiful.

Raindrops.jpg

Cracked leaves, dusty footpaths, yellowed fields: they’re all waiting. 

Fox in grass 27 Jul 2018

There are always winners and losers with weather. Week after week of exceptionally high temperatures and almost no rainfall have boosted butterfly numbers, but everything that depends on earthworms is having a tough time finding them in iron-hard earth.

Badgers thrive on earthworms, but they are omnivorous and will take insects, bee nests and carrion too. This one was visiting a water dish that I’ve had out in the woods for the last week. (Ignore the date – camera was not set correctly.)

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Potentially, foxes may be impacted more than badgers – earthworms are a big part of the diet of cubs.

Shrews are surviving at high speed, as they always do. Pygmy shrews need to eat up to 125% of their body weight each day. That’s 125% of not very much, admittedly; at 2 to 6 grams, they’re our smallest terrestrial mammal.

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One of the most frequent of my thirsty visitors is the bank vole. The trail camera caught one drinking for a full twenty seconds without a pause.

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They’re clinging on. The rest of us are watching the sky in hope.

Dawn sky 27 Jul 2018

Heathland

Western Surrey is a very different world to the North Downs where I live. We have ancient woodlands, flowery meadows, steep slopes of chalk downland, and traditional hedgerows linking them all.

Out there, they have heath.

Heather in bloom 18 Jul 2018

Lowland heath is a national treasure. The UK holds 20% of the world’s total, and one of the best surviving fragments is on the common land of Thursley. Now a national nature reserve, for thousands of years this landscape has been used by humanity: gorse was cut for fodder, bracken was turned into potash for glass-making. Turf was cut for roofing. Hardy livestock wandered here and there.

Thursley Common1 18 Jul 2018

The people who lived in this harsh and exposed landscape were – reputedly – the original heathens, heath-dwellers, which presumably back then had less to do with religious values and more with social class. Regardless, their agriculture and the land’s natural qualities combined to produce a tough, sandy, prickly ecosystem. Or, some would say, Bronze Age humanity provided an unexpected niche for wildlife that would naturally have thrived in heath-filled forest glades opened by our extinct megafauna.

But Britain urbanised itself, and people lost their connection with the land. Most of our heathlands were overrun by development and commercial forestry. Now they’re recognised as a priority habitat and are a major focus of conservation.

Heathland is harsh yet subtle. Gorse fires roar with depressing frequency and the sun beats hot. The soil can be pure sand, and blows into your hair and trips your boots. But in the shadows, small living things lurk.

Sand lizards are one of Britain’s rarest reptiles. 

Sand lizard 9 May 2017

And this might be our strangest plant – the carnivorous sundew, which eats insects.

Sundew Thursley 18 Jul 18

Dodder is scarcely more conventional. Sometimes compared to pink spaghetti, it is a parasitic plant that taps into the vascular system of its host.

Dodder Thursley 18 Jul 2018

Marsh clubmoss is less dramatic, but it is an endangered species in the UK.

Clubmoss Thursley 18 Jul 18

It likes heaths that flood in winter. That may still happen this year, but after months without rain, much of Surrey is looking like the Kenyan savannah. We need a good storm or two soon.

Fox-and-Cubs

The wild species commonly known as ‘fox’ has been represented this afternoon by One-Eye, who never needs a second excuse to recline on the patio.

One Eye2 14 Jul 2018

One Eye1 14 Jul 2018

Or peer into the house, for that matter. Foxes are profoundly curious creatures.

One Eye being nosy 14 Jul 2018

I should stress that he is not ‘tame’. I strongly believe that foxes should never be allowed to enter houses – one householder might enjoy it, but the fox is likely to repeat that behaviour with a neighbour. Indoor foxes cause bad press at best, and serious human-wildlife conflict at worst. One-Eye sits by the glass because he is highly intelligent and understands that humans and dogs cannot reach him even when they are inches away. If the door is opened, he backs off at once.

Anyway, we do have a second species of wild fox here, somewhat. It is orange and very furry, and in its own way, just as adaptable as its namesake.

Fox and cubs flower 14 Jul 2018

Fox-and-cubs is a member of the daisy family. It is not native to Britain but has lived wild here since at least the 17th century. It is quite tenacious and often grows on roadsides. This is the first one that I’ve found in my parish, and I will have to go back next year and photograph it before it goes to seed.

It will be interesting to see how the social dynamics of the other species of fox have changed by then.

One Eye3 14 Jul 2018

The Mystery Fox

Fox One eye sleeping1 170117

I’m trying to remember when One-Eye first appeared in the garden. I can certainly remember my first sighting of him – it was in a local pasture, when he was a slim reddish yearling travelling with his brother. But the date is eluding me.

I didn’t guess then that this sleep-loving visitor would become the top fox of the Horse Meadows Group, whose territory includes my garden. But all kings have rivals. The HMG has a problem: another fox family just overlaps their territorial border.

That second group – I call them the Across the Road foxes – has produced the most irrepressible vulpine characters in my parish. Here’s One-Eye facing off against one of the Across the Road vixens.

One Eye and White Socks 11 May 2017

He loses, regularly. Any doubt about the Across the Road group’s supremacy was extinguished last year when they produced four of the most bullish cubs that I’ve ever met. At the same time, the HMG suffered habitat loss from overgrazing and development. Then its veteran vixen Pretty Face joined the Across the Road group! It’s like a fox soap opera.

As for One Eye – he vanished in January, no doubt because the AtR cubs were so domineering. None more so than this chap: Cavalier Cub, who has a swagger that a cat would envy.

Fox Cavalier cub 24 Feb 2018

Weeks turned into months, and still no sign of One-Eye. I was sadly concluding that he was probably dead. But at the end of June, there he was, resting on the parched lawn!

One Eye 28 June 2018

Where did his travels take him? Potentially many miles away, possibly even into Kent or Sussex – foxes can wander far. It is also possible that he was living quietly on the edge of his territory all this time, waiting for the AtR youngsters to release their grip on the garden. Cavalier’s mob are still around, but less fixated on the garden than they used to be.

Anyway, One-Eye is a regular visitor again. But he’s prioritising sleep, and not sharing his mysteries.

 

Meadowland

I recently blogged my time in Romania, a country that still has sprawling meadows crammed with wildflowers. In Britain, we’re not so lucky; 97% of our lowland meadow is gone, swallowed up by the industrialisation of farmland.

The surviving fragments – that 3% – are often small and isolated. But some of those relics are magnificent.

North downs1 110807

Today is National Meadows Day in the UK – a celebration of those bits of wild grassland that we still have. I have some of the best meadows in England on my doorstep, some of which are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest or Sites of Nature Conservation Importance. Others are just sitting there, unprotected, which is not the most comfortable feeling.

What lives in them? Everything! Harvest mice, small reptiles, gorgeous butterflies, rare snails, bizarre fungi, and enough insects to befuddle my identification skills. I hardly have space to show all the flowers; a single square metre can host 15 species. Here’s a sample, anyway:

Pyramidal orchid

Pyramidal orchid2 23 Jun 2018

Bee orchid

Bee orchid S Tolls 31 May 2017

Meadow cranesbill

Meadow cranesbill 23 Jun 2018

Field scabious

Field scabious STolls 10 June 2017

Scarlet pimpernel

Scarlet pimpinel STolls 2 June 2017

Perforate St John’s wort

St John's Wort HV 4 Sept 2017

Sainfoin and buttercup

Sainfoin and buttercup 18 May 2017

These are places to walk softly and listen, and be dazzled by the sheer splendour of life.

Hawk

Australian falcon

Australian hobby, and it sees everything that moves in the Top End.

It’s been estimated that raptors have eyesight up to eight times as powerful as that of a human. So much information gathered with every glance. What would you choose to remember? Not an easy choice, in this fantasy forest of fire and graves.

Termite mounds3

Well, not exactly graves, although they certainly startled the first Western explorers. These bizarre monoliths are the work of compass termites, which align their mighty constructions with the poles. It is thought that they do this to prevent their nests overheating, which might easily happen if one side faced the full wrath of the southern sun. As it is, only the narrow side is cooked.

Termite mounds1

But everything here is strange to a non-Australian eye.

Agile wallaby

Agile wallaby1

Agile wallaby4

Night falls and wakes the dingoes – one lopes across the road in front of our car, but there’s no time for a photo. Australia’s only native canid leaves us with a memory in our minds instead.

Other hunters do tarry. A southern boobook – a small owl – pauses in a tree.

Boobook

It has only been a brief trip to Australia, but the tantalising glimpse of the forest leaves its mark.

Fire, water, termites and heat.

It is good to know that somewhere out there, right now, a hawk is watching them all.

Water Watcher

The forest has Fire, but it also cradles this:

Wangi Falls

Water roars off Litchfield’s sandstone plateaus, but like everything here, it is seasonal. May is still early in the Dry season and the land is ridding itself of the liquid acquired in the Wet.

Or call it Yegge, if you prefer; the Aboriginals traditionally recognise six seasons in Australia’s Top End.

Traditional seasons

The high rivers support saltwater crocodiles – and other, more delicate living things. None are more beautiful than the rainbow bee-eater, which swoops over the pool hunting insects.

Rainbow bee eater

Rainbow bee eater2a

Wherever there is water, there are birds. And they just keep getting stranger.

Masked lapwing

Masked lapwing Darwin Jun 2018

And more entertaining.

Rufous fantail

Oz Fantail

And more impossible in hue.

Forest kingfisher

Forest kingfishers1

Firebird

Fire. These forests are built on it.

Litchfield overview

It destroys, but it also cleans. Flames flicker in Australia’s Northern Territory in May – deliberate small fires sparkling under a thousand stars. To the minds of people, this prevents catastrophic wildfires later in the dry season. To the minds of birds, fire brings food.

Black kites1

Black kites swarm over fire fronts, seizing small fleeing things. Traditional Aboriginal belief claims that kites set new blazes by dropping smouldering twigs. It has never been scientifically documented, but if true would be almost the only example of fire being managed by something non-human.

Black kite2

Red-tailed black cockatoos hunt in the ashes.

Red-tailed black cockatoo2

And one of the bush’s strangest creatures looks after itself as best it can.

Short-beaked echinda LNP 30 May 2018

I met this ball of prickles as it waddled down a road in Litchfield National Park. Not a hedgehog, not like anything else on earth – it is a short-beaked echidna, one of only four species of mammal that lay eggs. It is also quite intelligent and can live for 50 years.

That is many years of watching the forest burn and regrow.