Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The day that got lost

(Monday 27th July)

At last we have had some rain. All day Friday and again on Sunday grey skies and heavy clouds poured fresh water onto the parched ground. The garden, in the sunlight that forces its way through broken clouds,  is somewhat battered, but every leaf and petal drips with droplets that seek the soil and the plants' roots. I hope the crops in the fields have not been flattened by the wind and rain before the harvest.
I was sure the change in the weather would have brought some changes on the patch, and headed out eagerly, no set route in mind but simply enjoying wandering, stretching the legs and breathing fresh air after a weekend indoors.

I was immediately aware of an altered atmosphere, maybe it was the dampness of the ground or the smell of ripening berries or the rattle of wind-tattered leaves on the oak, but something in the air felt almost like autumn. It was as though a day from early September had gone for a wander and got itself lost in late July.
Rowan berries are passing from orange to scarlet and below them I spotted the first purple-juiced ripe blackberries, as ever, just out of reach. Hoverflies practiced their vertical take-offs and landings from the platforms of those bramble flowers still in bloom. Spires of wild arum, or 'lords and ladies' jutted up from the bank, the berries turning red from the top downwards, like a procession of burning flares marching along the hedgerow. Gatekeeper butterflies basked in sunspots.

I am pleased to see, when I emerged from the housing estate onto Pitsham Lane, that the farmer here at least has managed to harvest his most vulnerable crops before the rains came. I almost expected to see pheasants, and flocks of wood pigeons, picking through the stubble that remained in the field, but of course it is only July and those birds are still busy with their summer lives.

The water of New Pond was disturbed only by the wake of a half-moulted duck paddling from one clump of rushes to another, and the house martins that dip low for a drink on the wing. Most activity was happening on the bank-sides, blue tailed damselflies at the edge of the water, bumblebees barging their way into the pink flowers of greater willowherb or clambering over the purple blooms of an escaped buddleia. Bryony wound itself throughout the vegetation on either side of the path, its tendrils and stems twisting and draped, already adorned with berries which will soon ripen to glorious garlands of red jewels. A juvenile grey heron sat hunched forlornly on some dead branches in the far corner of the lake, picking at his feathers, contemplating life, the weather and the curious nature of fish.  Chiffchaff, wren, blackcap and whitethroat each scolded my passing. 

The sheep on the neighbouring farm, viewed through a view between two grand oaks as I paused at the the top of a stile, were grazing peacefully, their fat lambs now near full-grown. Sometimes on quiet nights when the wind is in the right direction I can hear their bleated warnings of imagined predators in the dark. There are three stiles on my route, at the next I stop to watch a host of house martins swooping over the maize crop and around the trees in the low corner of the field. Perhaps they were feeding on a hatch of insects from the oak trees there. I reached the third stile in a squally shower and hurried over it onto the plank bridge under the shelter of the trees. This bridge not only provides a crossing above a winterbourne but also a safe passage through the blackthorn hedge. Defended by vicious thorns, each branch was laden with promise of a grand sloe year; the little green unripe fruits will swell and become purple-blue globes with a soft dusty coating. 
Soldier beetles performed their duties atop pink-tinged hogweed flowers.

At first glance I thought the low flight, pointed wings and long tail was a hunting sparrowhawk, gliding barely a foot above the yellowed fallow field, powered by a couple of short strong flaps. It perched on a cattle feeder and turned to me, as if trying to work out my identity as much as I was intrigued by it. I raised my binoculars. Cuckoo. A juvenile, no doubt feeding up and building strength in it's wing muscles in preparation for it's long and mysterious migration. I would expect it to leave any day now, swopping England's patchwork farmland for hot african skies. It seemed somehow fitting, appropriate, on this day of autumnal character, to stand and exchange a stare with this young cuckoo, and wish farewell to this symbol of Summer. 


Sunday, 26 July 2015

At the convergence of day and night.

Neither of us had planned on meeting. The unexpected encounter was a simple case of us both happening to be in the same location at the same time, for totally different purposes. The badger crossed the road beneath the street lamps, just as I stepped out of my front door. A couple of insignificant seconds in a lifetime, a few anonymous moments in two very different and separate existences, suddenly take on an importance, a magnitude far beyond their inherent potential, through their convergence on a single point in time and place. Although I doubt the badger was thinking anything more deeply philosophical than "where's my next worm?". 
My world exists in daylight. I work and play between dawn and dusk and think nothing of the light, I take for granted movement and sight and colour. But there is a time when my world converges with another existence, the crossover of night beginning whilst my day is still finding its ending. There is something magical about these overlapping hours, when one might unexpectedly bump into another creature who's activities are just beginning. The badger for example will continue to be busy right through the hours when I am sleeping, oblivious. As my senses switch off, his are just switching on. 
The ceiling light in my room creates an artificial imitation of day, juxtaposed the darkness falling outside. The young tawny owls have awoken. An army of slugs and snails push home the retreat of the sun with a slimy advance, marauders in the borders. It was at this hour, the night before last, when a hedgehog ran past. He was in a hurry, four little legs running like the clappers - with a rapid motion like clockwork, or one of those toy cars you pull back and let go, he whizzed off straight down the middle of the road, before eventually veering off into some front gardens several houses away! 
A black cat with glinting eyes, possibly the culprit who disturbed the hog out from the hedge, stood a short way further up the road, watching, clearly baffled by this bemusing apparition of spines, snuffles and surprising turn of speed.
A moth blurs around the window, attracted by the light. 

Another night, and this time I am waiting for the badger. Just as I turn to step back indoors, a sixth sense stops me. A bird is disturbed from its roost on a low branch and suddenly the badger appears, white stripes on his face remind me of headlight beams, his sandy-grey coloured back is the perfect shade to blend with the night. He follows the route of the night before, across the road and into the darkness. 
As I retreat indoors the rain begins to fall heavily. 
A last look out an upstairs window. The hedgehog, presumably having gorged his fill in the gardens and woodland edge, scurries past with the air of somebody who has forgotten their raincoat or umbrella hurrying home out of the rain.  

It has become a nightly habit, to stand for a few moments in the cool freshness of dusk and wish the badger well on his adventures, before bringing my own to a close at the end of the day. I hadn't noticed before the week's rhythms; the way a fine Saturday night is busier and noisier than any other day of the week. Cars pass up or down the road twice as frequently, there is chatter in gardens and movements along the street. 
The badger's head protrudes from the bushes at his appointed time, but he obviously was bumbling along without paying attention as he seems startled by the sudden presence of a young couple walking past. They spot the badger as he turns and ricochets back across the rife into the fields beyond, but they don't spot me sat on a low wall in the shadows.
The hedgehog didn't spot me either until he was within a foot or two of my own two wellington-booted feet, but to give him credit, I didn't spot the hedgehog any earlier either. Hedgehog froze and I held my breath. 
A neighbour's cat came to say 'hello' and was intrigued by the spiky creature crouched at my feet, and jumped up onto my lap with a confused meow when a stern word informed him that he wasn't allowed to investigate further. 
Hedgehog sensibly came to an eventual decision, turned around and shuffled off back the way it had come. 
I breathed. Neighbours cat went home for his dinner. 

Who knew that snails were a fan of Friday Night at The Proms?

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Subtle changes under the sun

Here on The Oak by The Rife patch it has been a dry summer so far. Even forty-plus miles away in London, the June Wimbledon Tournament passed without hardly a drop. 
On the northern end of the patch, sandy soil is fickle, allowing itself to be blown on the wind as the grass yellows. All across the countryside and roadsides the trees are dusty, they sound brittle in the wind, and the hedgerows have taken on a slightly raggedy look, loosing that co-ordinated vigour of spring. Instead the plants are jostling and leaning across one another, or else weighted and bowed having outgrown their strength. 

In the dry weather, the bramble flowers are not lasting long, dropping their petals soon after a suitable visit by a bee to reveal promise of blackberries. Other berries are forming too, the thorn-protected sloes, the hanging clusters of elder and the bunches of rowan. We will need some rain for the fruit to swell.  Beside the brambles, the hedgerows are festooned with bindweed; each bridal-white trumpet shaped flower may only last a day, but in summer days are long, and when one flower fades it seems there are three more buds waiting to replace it by the following morning sunrise. 

Those summer sirens the swifts still scream over the town rooftops; I counted a party of 20 or more on Friday evening, but I can't help but wonder how long it will be until the day I look up and find the skies empty, as the swifts are always the first of our migrants to sense the approach of autumn. 

Some birds have already changed their habits. The blackbird hasn't been heard singing for days, and the dawn chorus volume has been turned to mute; evenings are just as quiet. A few early-ripe nightshade berries attracted a blackcap in the bushes beside South Pond at lunchtime today, perhaps a tasty divergence from a diet of caterpillars and insects. 

The water of South Pond itself was teeming with small fish, and between the newly planted rushes and reeds, pond skaters skittered across the surface. A red damselfly danced buoyantly around the vegetation, mirrored by a blue tailed damselfly. An impressive female emperor dragonfly was egg-laying in the shallow margins. All very positive sightings following the recent and ongoing restoration works (see 

A male mallard, his previously showy plumage dull and muddy-coloured as he enters 'eclipse' or post-breeding phase, crossed the central expanse of water. He did not notice how ripples in his wake disturbed and fractured a row of white reflections. A raucous cry, an easy flickering flight. Monochrome plumage, a bright eye in a dark chocolate head fronted by a red beak and matching legs a-dangling ready for landing as the birds twist and turn and tumble. Water droplets sparkle as they are shaken free. The black-headed gulls have returned, their breeding attempts over for another year, to their inland wintering-harbour. I wonder if they were successful with their nests. Over the coming weeks they will loose those chocolate velvet heads and just a dark smudge behind the eye will remain until next spring. 

Back home in my garden even the buddleia, its flower-heads about to turn purple, looks like it is wilting a little under the intensity of the sun in this hottest part of the day. Yesterday the humid air leaked a fine mist which finally turned into a thick drizzle that clung to the night. Every surface, whether leaf or flowerpot rim was damp, conditions which the slugs and snails were quick to make the most of, but that moisture could be a distant memory now. The fruit on the brambles, the sloes and the elder will have to wait a while longer yet for rain. Perhaps the rain is the sign the swifts will be waiting for too, before they fully trade places with the gulls come the autumn. 

In a little over a week we will enter August, a month of low sun at the bend in the road, and tractors keeping pace with combine harvesters who in turn keep a wary eye on horizon clouds.

Friday, 10 July 2015

The absent breeze

There was a breeze when I left home, but it has dropped by the time I have made the short drive through town, and as I get out of the car the air is noticeably still. Even the topmost leaves on the trees are unruffled, the sweet chestnut weighted down with braids of flowers. The only movement below was the familiar trudge of my footsteps across the car park from car door to office door, and above is the summer-signal swirl of swifts and house martins, like magnetised iron-filings constantly re-aligning themselves with the northern end of the sky. A thin pale moon, waned by the strain of its night’s journey, sits weakly above the rooftops. Nearby a small gathering of insipid clouds imitate the moon’s pale complexion, the way schoolyard bullies whisper and copycat in corners.

Emerging from the shop doorway on route to completing a list of tasks, the sun hits my face with a surprising force, hot and bright. From the scrap of soil at the base of the car park walls bronzed fennel brazenly jostles tall verbena, their yellow and purple flower heads seeking to distract at least a few hoverflies and wasps away from the lime (linden) trees that load the air with sickly sweet aroma, and their stems with strange winged flowers.  A blackbird sensibly keeps to the shadows, his low dart turning my head as he shyly attempts to keep out of my view. I have time to pause just long enough to observe a beak filled with worms and a frantic, exasperated attitude, clear sign that this bird was desperately trying to satisfy the unceasing begging of a brood of chicks, probably hidden somewhere in the nearby garden. Duty calls, and wandering thoughts of birds are replaced by ordered lists, grocery products and errands, at least for the time being until the next moment when a pause is possible.

Later, it is smaller life that catches my attention; the larva of a ladybird, shaken from the seeding grasses by my passing crawls across my knee. I return the tiny black and orange, six-legged dinosaur-like insect to his vegetative kingdom, albeit probably several hundred yards from were he hitched a lift. As my eyes readjust to the longer focus of outdoors, other insect life catches my attention. Soldier beetles march up and down the grass stems. Unidentified beige or brown featherweight moths zigzag through the lower levels, whilst a foot or so above them the butterflies seem to dance with aimless direction. Ringlets, meadows browns, small whites, gatekeepers, small tortoiseshell all make their random entrances and exits. In the corner of the field through which I am lingering, the purple of knapweed punches through the sea of tawny yellowed standing hay. On closer inspection, these flowers too play host to visitors; skippers, minute orange butterflies that fold their wings in a strange fashion, half raised like a tiny paper aeroplane.

The evening is a pleasant one, but the morning’s waking breeze still remains noticeable by its absence. The blue skies have given way to grey, the clouds textured, tousled and fluffed in a way that suggests that there must be some air movement somewhere high in the atmosphere. A flight of house martins over the garden seems to exist in a parallel world, unaffected by the busy lives below them.  They remind me of those little triangular winged summer-marvels that twitter overhead at work. Perhaps even now they are swooping in and out of the eaves of the priory beside the shop and aligning themselves with the northern end of the sky.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Treasure hunting

Do you remember connecting with nature as a child? Perhaps it was collecting shells on the beach, pressing wildflowers between heavy books, catching grasshoppers on the school field? 

On Saturday I was joined for a walk, from home, along Pitsham Lane through the farm, by a family of cousins including three children. 
Youngest made a collection of pine cones and other treasures, eldest was intent on gathering stinging nettles for nettle tea. Middle one chatted to some large black and white cows, who continued their peaceful grazing, barely lifting a head to gaze with curious eyes at the blonde girl lingering at the fence. 
On the horse chestnut tree at the bend in the track, conkers are beginning to form, and although still small, the green spiky fruits thrilled children both young and older with their promise of joy to come in the near-future autumn. 

It was a delight and a revelation to see this familiar, regular walk on my local patch through the fresh, new eyes of my young companions. 

A sparrowhawk crossed the sky overhead between the hedges, escorted by irritated martins and swallows. A whitethroat sang its scratch son from deep in the brambles and small tortoiseshell butterflies competed with eldest for the tastiest nettles. 

Back home, we picked huge ripe strawberries from the flower beds where they grow randomly, tucked amongst geraniums and herb robert beneath the towering, ever-growing buddleia bush. Sweetened by the sun, they were wonderfully tasty!

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Hello! Thank you for viewing my blogs and profile. I am passionate about the countryside and british wildlife and I hope that this comes through in my blog. I am a nature writer and have been pursuing photography since early teenage years, whilst building a career in conservation. Helping people to reconnect with the natural world is very important to me, whether through direct hands on interaction, education or literature. Please also visit my website, for more information, my current CV, and further examples of writing and photography. You can contact me or keep up to date with new blog posts via Twitter @SophiEcoWild and/or Feedback, comments and audience participation are always welcome! Sophie May Lewis