Botanising: A walk above Brynna


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Last weekend I enjoyed another full day’s walk with the Glamorgan Botany Group in the hills and vales above Brynna, in south Wales, and, though I am the first to admit that I came home with more photos of insects than plants, I am learning. It’s just that, for someone who wasn’t brought up in Britain and so didn’t learn from an early age the names of even the most common wildflowers, there’s a huge amount to take in.

170528 Brynna

So, what have I learnt? I can now tell the difference between Common vetch (Vicia sativa), on the left, and Bush vetch (Vicia sepium), on the right below.

I know this is Field horsetail (Equisetum arvense) because the first joints of the leaves (which form a skirt around the stem when you break them off) are longer than the stem section (the little dark v-shaped marks on the stem in this photo).

170528 1 Field horsetail

Though the two species are very similar, I know this is not Red clover (Trifolium pratense) but rather Zigzag clover (Trifolium medium) partly because the white marks on its leaves are not as obvious but, most definitively, because at the widest part of the leaf the veins meet the edge at a 90 degree angle.

I know that the plant on the left is Mouse-ear hawkweed (Hieracium pilosella) and that beautiful flower on the right is my very first Welsh poppy (Meconopsis cambrica) growing in the wild!

Two orchids


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Of the estimated 25,000 different species of orchid that can be found around the world, 56 are native to Britain and, as some of those 56 are now coming in to bloom, I thought I’d share a couple for this week’s Floral Friday.

Twayblade (Neottia ovata)
First up is the Twayblade I saw growing quite prolifically in the woodland at Merthyr Mawr a couple of weeks ago. It’s one of Britain’s most common species but is often overlooked, perhaps because its yellow-green flowers often blend in with their woodland, scrub or grassland habitats. Twayblade means two leaves, as there usually are just two leaves, from the centre of which sprouts the flower stalk, though, like all living things, there are exceptions to the rule and plants with three to five leaves are sometimes found. The thing that most fascinates me about these orchids is the manikin-shaped flower.

Heath spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata)
Luckily I was with a group of botanists when I saw my first Heath spotted-orchids last weekend, as they can easily be confused with Common spotted-orchids, though the fact that we were in a damp boggy field at the time was probably also a good species indicator. As the name ‘heath’ implies, this orchid likes to get its feet wet, relishing the sogginess of peaty moors and boggy heaths. As well as being common throughout Europe, this orchid can also be found throughout the British Isles, though it does show a marked preference for northern and western areas. Its gorgeous flowers can be seen from around the middle of May through to mid July.

Two go cuckoo at Camber


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I celebrated my birthday, with my friend Jill, with a quick morning romp around the bird hides at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, followed by an afternoon Sussex Wildlife Trust guided walk around the inland part of the reserve, including a peek inside the normally locked Camber Castle. And what a superb day it was!

170524 Rye Harbour fauna (10)

I’ve already blogged about one of the highlights, the gorgeous Avocets and their chicks; another was hearing, and catching a fleeting glimpse of my very first Cuckoo. Here are a few more (not so crisp) photos of the wonderful (but mostly distant) wildlife we saw: Common terns, Skylark, Oystercatchers and Dunlin, Black-headed gull, Ringed plover, Gadwall and Shelduck, Lapwing and a Pied wagtail, Marsh harrier, and a number 72; plus, not pictured, Redshank, Coot, Cormorant, Tufted duck, Mallard, Little ringed plover, Grey heron, Kestrel and Whitethroat, as well as the more common birds. A birthday to remember!

The booby prize


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During the eighteen months I lived and worked in Peru, back in 2011-2013, I took a short trip up to see some of the amazing sights in the less-visited north of the country. Late one afternoon, after a day packed full of incredible archaeological sites, we paid a short visit to the sleepy Pacific resort of Huanchaco, twenty minutes’ drive from Trujillo. The beach ran for miles and would be perfect for long strolls, but we contented ourselves with a short walk to the end of the very Western-looking pier, where we encountered these boobies.

170524 Blue-footed booby Peru (1)

Though you can’t see its feet in my photos (and it was too late in the day to get better shots), this is the Blue-footed booby (Sula nebouxii), living at the southern extent of its range in northern Peru. It’s a big bird, with a wingspan of around 1.5 metres (5 feet), perfect for a creature that spends much of its life at sea, diving and swimming underwater to catch the fish it likes to eat.

170524 Blue-footed booby Peru (2)

The chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters


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The white cliffs of Dover get all the publicity but, personally, I prefer the magnificent chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters, near Eastbourne.

170523 Seven Sisters chalk cliffs (1)

It seems unbelievable to me that the chalk is actually the microscopic remains of plankton deposited here as much as 90 million years ago, and that the darker bands, of flint, were probably formed from the remains of sponges during those times when sponges were particularly abundant in the warm seas that once flowed here.

170523 Seven Sisters chalk cliffs (2)

My photos were taken on two visits and from both directions (east to west, west to east), and you can see how different the cliffs look in different weather conditions. They sparkle and glisten in bright sunshine and smoulder like burnished steel on grey days.

170523 Seven Sisters chalk cliffs (3)

The chalk is soft, erodes constantly and there are frequent large slips (as you can see in the photo below) so, if you’re visiting, stay away from the cliff edge!

170523 Seven Sisters chalk cliffs (4)

A lunchtime fossick at Cuckmere Haven


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170522 Cuckmere Haaven 7 sisters

To me, this is one of the most beautiful views in the world so what better place to sit and enjoy a picnic lunch after our wildlife walk around Seaford Head.

And, of course, I couldn’t resist a little fossick to see what the sea had washed in. Jill found the first Mermaid’s purse, one of the leathery brown-black egg cases of rays and sharks, then I found two more. The cream-coloured egg cases of Whelks were scattered all around, and Jill also discovered a sizeable chunk of Cuttlefish bone. Empty seashells lay everywhere amongst the shingle and flint, with limpets and whelks the most numerous. But then my eyes were drawn back to just soaking in the views of the incredible chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters.

170522 Cuckmere Haven sea fauna

Seaford Head wildlife walk


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One of the highlights of my recent short break in Sussex was a guided wildlife walk around Seaford Head, organised by the Sussex Wildlife Trust and led by knowledgeable and amusing local naturalist Michael Blencowe.

170521 1 Seaford Head walk

The day was very windy and scattered showers kept us clad in rain jackets until lunchtime but that didn’t spoil the walk. The scenery on this coast is magnificent and it’s one of my favourite places in the whole of Britain so, even if we’d not seen any wildlife, I would’ve been happy. As it was, we saw more than I expected, and our guide was a mine of funny stories and fascinating facts.

Our flora and fauna sightings included many different plants in flower, like Green alkanet, Hound’s-tongue and Thrift; plus several Stonechats and Linnets, and Rock pipits and Rooks aplenty. We had Fulmars soaring up from the cliffs to the left of us and Skylarks serenading us high in the sky to the right. A grass snake was discovered snoozing under a sheet of corrugated iron, the webs of Brown-tail moth caterpillars adorned the bramble bushes, and Green-winged orchids provided striking bursts of colour in the rough alongside the local golf course. If you ever get the chance, I’d highly recommend this walk.

170521 11 Seaford Head Thrift

The Russian who came in from the cold


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That title sounds like something from a James Bond movie, sorry, but the sentiment is true enough. I’m referring to the White-fronted goose (Anser albifrons) I saw hanging out with a flock of Greylags during my recent visit to Rye Harbour Nature Reserve in Sussex (on the left in the photo below).
170520 White-fronted & Greylag geese (3)

The ‘white front’ in its name refers to the white patch on the front of its head around the beak and, as you can see, it’s quite a bit smaller than the Greylags, though its diet is similar: grass, clover, grain, wheat and potatoes.

These birds don’t breed in Britain but geese from two separate races frequently over-winter here; the birds with orange beaks breed in Greenland, and those with pink beaks, like the one I saw, breed in Siberia. The Greenland birds tend to over-winter in western Scotland and in Ireland, while the Greenland birds prefer southern England. They’re usually only seen from October through to March but the ranger said this one appeared with this flock of Greylags and has stayed on at the reserve with them. Maybe it doesn’t like the cold!

170520 Greylag geese

More Greylags flying in

The phenomenal poppy


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170519 poppy

For Floral Friday this week, a most remarkable flower. Did you know
> a single poppy seed head contains 1000 seeds and each plant can have as many as 20 heads?
> of those 20,000 seeds as many as 85% (that’s 17,000) seeds will germinate if conditions are right?
> prior to farmers using chemical weedkillers, a one-acre cornfield could potentially have contained 100 million dormant seeds?

Facts garnered from Richard Mabey, Weeds: How vagabond plants gatecrashed and changed the way we think about nature (Profile Books, London, 2010), a most fascinating read.