Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Summer is drawing to a close. As much as many of us wouldn't like to accept it, we all know this to be true. The harvest season is well underway and there are new signs of the approaching autumn appearing in the gardens, woodland edges and hedges, and roadsides every day. 

I am heading 'off-patch' very soon, for my late summer break, which means there will be no posts from The Oak By The Rife for a couple of weeks. 

Before I go, I would like to invite you to join me in a pictorial reflection back over the past nine months since that first walk we took together on the patch, just before the winter solstice. I have collected some of my favourite photos which highlight the changing seasons and some of our discoveries on the patch through the year, I hope you enjoy them. 

Do not fear, I will be back on the patch by the end of September and can't wait to see how the wildlife has coped with and changed though the arrival of Autumn. 
In the meantime, sit back and enjoy the wonders of nature. I will still be online and you can keep in touch via my usual haunts; on Twitter @SophiEcoWild, and on Facebook.com/SophiEcoWild 

Don't forget, as a BBC Wildlife Local Patch Reporter blog, 'The Oak By The Rife' is eligible for nominations in the Wildlife Blogger Awards 2015/ Closing date is 31st August at 5pm, so go to the Discover wildlife website to find out more!

Monday, 17 August 2015

Acorns and Damsons

Have you noticed? Autumn has arrived to cradle Summer through her final days. She rallies in the middle of the day, for a few hours of hot sun, or vents her frustration with thundery showers, but we know her strength will not last long. 
Look at the oak trees when you next pass one, the acorns are forming in their cups and swell with every fall of rain; the jays and squirrels will soon be pilfering them for their food caches. 
This morning when I went for a walk I found some acorns that had been blown down by the wind; they came home with me in the same way that I used to collect 'treasure' on walks as a child.  

The hedgerows and waysides on my short wander were a confused mixture of flowers and fruit. 
Bryony wound its self around the barbed wire, starry flowers held on green tendrils and curled stems. Further along the track, the same plant was adorned with red berries instead of cream petals. 
Yellow toadflax forced its way through the brambles next to blackberries in shades of red and purple. Bumblebees visited them, pale moths fluttered from the bushes and long grass when disturbed, diving back into the vegetation to find a camouflaged hiding place, and the electric chirp of grasshoppers was almost deafening. 
Thistle down clung in fluffy clouds. A harvestman spider tiptoed through the vegetation on spindly jointed legs.
The wild damsons that dangle over the winterbourne behind the farm barns are ripe where the branches are south facing and catch the sun, although the majority are out of reach we can collect a few from the bridge. 
Have you heard the robins singing? There was one muttering a few notes as I picked the purple fruits, a wonderful sound to hear which has been missing for too long from the hedgerows throughout the summer moult. 

This evening the sky is clouded, tinted lemonade colour by the sun already sinking towards the west. The butterflies have abandoned the buddleia bush. It is time for a cup of tea and to research recipes for damson gin. 

Robin song

On Friday morning I arrived at work a little earlier than usual. It was 8am, the morning was cool and the ground damp. Sunshine glinted through the lower branches of the linden tree beside my parking space. Ceasing the chatter of the radio and the heavy breathing of the car's engine with a turn of the key in the ignition, I sat for a moment gazing at this sunlight and searching for the peace and serenity I know it can bring. 
I still had twenty minutes or so before I had to go into work and I decided a short walk would set me up well for the busy day ahead. Crossing the road, through the end of the children's playground, and over the wooden stile steps, I entered the end of a historic avenue known as The Race. Grand old chestnut trees, twisted, gnarled and fissured, stand in line at regular spacing along the path-side. I have grown to love these veteran trees after many walks beneath them, and find it easy to imagine their history and even associate personalities with them. Sometimes out of the corner of my eye I think I see their creased and creviced bark almost seeming to twist and contort as their trunks turn to watch me go by, each ancient tree gently collecting me and passing me onto its neighbour. 
I walked for about ten minutes, at first on automatic pilot but finding with each step I became more aware of my surroundings, raising my eyes from the ground, feeling my stride lengthen and muscles stretch gently as morning stiffness and end of week tension eased. 
Glancing over my shoulder, the gate and its stile by the road, and the cottage beyond with its yellow painted window frames seemed distant, shrunk to insignificance, framed by the trees like a view through a child's toy telescope. 
I stood, hands in pockets, breathing deeply and taking in the scene around me. It was nothing special, or unusual; a simple hedgerow of holly and hazel, a moss covered tree stump, the limbs of a chestnut tree against the sky, but for a brief while it was mine alone and simply lovely. 
Two young squirrels ran through the branches with dare-devil attitudes. Jackdaws chattered and discussed their plans for the day. A flock of blackbirds populated the hedgerow, popping out here and there, waiting for the holly berries to ripen.  
Then the robin sang. A sweet song, hesitant and quiet, from deep within the holly bush, and it was only as I heard those first few muttered notes I realised how much I had missed this voice on my summer walks. Now the moult is over, the robin along with many other birds, is returning to the forefront, and learning to sing once more. Chirps and squeaks of parties of tits and finches fill the quiet spaces in the higher branches. 
The robin song held me enthralled, for just a few moments, completing the effect the cool air and low sun had begun. As I turned back towards work, a single brown leaf floated down, spiralling and dancing to the ground. 

Monday, 10 August 2015

A Fascination with Gardens

I took a shortcut the other day, along a side street I rarely use. When driving I stick to the main route, as speed-bumps and heavy road-side parking do their job and dissuade me from using it as a quick cut through. This day however I was on foot and longed to escape the intimidating and unhealthy rush and choke of traffic that roars past the pavement on the main road. Brick terraced houses jutted up against the pavement, a tiny walled front yard providing a gasp of breathing space between. Each was the same; a path just two or three short strides long, and a doorway set into a brick arch. and yet each was uniquely different to its neighbour. One overflowed with flowers, a rampant buddleia intoxicating a gathering of butterflies. Many were concrete or gravel, perhaps a flower pot or two, but even here weeds found a foot hold in wall or paving cracks. A small child's bicycle lay abandoned by a front step, it must have been time for tea. A rambling rose had decided to go a-visiting the neighbour next door; the perfect hiding place for one of the street's cats to sit beneath and squint at the world as it passed. The grey soil may have forgotten it's fertile roots after centuries of being cramped by brick, tarmac, and tramping feet, but that didn't put off one green-fingered resident. Their optimism inspired the runner beans that climbed a triangle of bean-poles, and a short row of half a dozen leeks beneath the front window. 
I was fascinated by the variety of this row of gardens, and how much was happening in these tiny buffers between pavement life and homely walls. 

In my own garden I too have a buddleia to which butterflies and huge rotund bumblebees have been irresistibly drawn as it hits its flowering peak this week. The slugs and snails continue to munch through my dahlias by night, whilst during the day a host of tiny purple and gold moths bring a touch of fairy dust to the marjoram and lavender where honeybees are foraging. 
Green woodpeckers continue to call in the early mornings and the goldfinches seem to be entertaining another brood of fledglings in the trees across the road. I think it is time to harvest my courgettes. 

Monday, 3 August 2015

Have you ever heard crickets chirp at night?

I walked the long route home this morning. I had dropped the car in for it's yearly health check at the local garage before breakfast, which left me making the return journey from town on foot. 
The feeling of autumn that had been so apparent on that odd day last week, has lessened and faded, but has never quite left. It lingers as an undertone like the musty smell of a room, damp from being closed up  and unused for too long. Cob nuts lie cracked and shattered by vehicle wheels where the hazel bushes overhang the road, and every time I pass the hawthorn hedge along that sunny spot at the end of Pitsham Lane the berries are another darker shade of red. The air was heavy, and finally gave way to a short busts of stop-start rain as I arrived at my back door, grey clouds diffusing the light. So different from the night before.  

When darkness fell yesterday there was a chill breeze and layers of wispy clouds highlighted by a bright moon. This moon had been full a few days ago; a rare second full moon within one calendar month, a celebrated blue moon. Now it was slightly out of shape, one side flattened, giving it a deflated appearance like a child's balloon three days post-party. 

I was out bat detecting. The small hand-sized black box with its dials and light up screen which I had ordered on the internet a couple of weeks previously held so much excitement and promise of discovery of an unseen world. If you have never used a bat detector, the simple explanation of how they work is that a microphone picks up the high frequency echolocation calls of the bats and translates them into a frequency audible to our human ears. By turning the dial, you can set the detector to pick up certain frequencies, and as every bat species calls at a different frequency this reveals who is flying over your head!

There was still a glimmer of light in the sky when I left home. Streets, so familiar and everyday, were transformed by nightfall. Moonlight drained colour from the hedgerows, only the bindweed was unmistakable, a hundred luminous white trumpets. Grey plates of hogweed flowers loomed out from the shadowed path-sides.  
A couple of pipistrelle bats had emerged early, and were using the rooftops of the houses beside the old caravan park as an aerial roundabout, but the entrance of the disused railway tunnel and the gardens of the flats built beside it was strangely quiet. On a previous august night some years ago, the sky here was filled with bats, gathering in their pre-autumn courtship disco, some of their calls just audible to the naked ear. Tonight, the few high squeaks and chirps that turned my head were crickets or grasshoppers, calling occasionally and randomly, like clockwork winding down.
A rustle under the hedge could have been a hedgehog, but then, maybe not. It is easy to see the truth in fairy stories when moths blur and flicker in the torchlight, seeming to appear and disappear at will and dance around you.

When I reached South Pond, the waters were deep in shadow, except where the streetlights were reflected. In these pools of light the water's surface was rippled and puckered by insects above and fish below. A shape crossed our torch beam, fast wingbeats zig-zagging across the water. I knew that both daubenton and serotine bats had been recently detected here. I turned the dial on my bat detector to a frequency of 47.8 and a run of measured clicks belted out of the speakers, falling silent as the bat flew away to the left before banking round and making another pass; daubentons. I turned the dial again setting it at 32.2, the peak frequency of the serotine. An excitable irregular call followed the movement of another bat through the torch beam. 

Now, as the growling of my stomach drags me back to today and reminds me it is nearly lunch time, the rain has stopped again and sunshine is flooding into the garden. As if from nowhere, life takes flight; butterflies, two large whites, a comma, and three peacocks exchange places on the buddleia blooms. A multitude of gatekeepers focus their attention on the airspace around the marjoram and the lavender. The rain hasn't found its way into the pot for the courgette plant, and its leaves are yellowing and dusty, I must find time later to water it. Beside the courgette the sweetpeas have exhausted themselves and droop dejectedly. House martins bubble and burble in the apex of the roof next door, but the swifts have left us now. 

About Me

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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 www.sophieco.co.uk, 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 Facebook.com/SophiEcoWild Feedback, comments and audience participation are always welcome! Sophie May Lewis