Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On Conkers, Kingfishers and Noticing Things (plus a few chips)

I went for a walk yesterday to the post office. Well, I went out with the intention of going to the post office, but it took me rather longer to get there that one would expect, and by the time I was turning for home, a visit to the chip shop was required for a paper-wrapped parcel of fuel to propel me up the hill! 

This week a high pressure system has settled over the UK, bringing a period of fine, bright and dry weather. Clear skies overnight mean temperatures drop, but once the morning mist rises and dew burns off, the uninterrupted sun sheds layers of jumpers and coats buy early-afternoon. We are now past the autumn equinox however, and the days are shortening, so the echo of summer doesn't last long, rapidly chilling as the sun sinks towards the western horizon.

This weather pattern, and the decrease in daylight hours, has triggered the first hints of copper and gold in the trees as they prepare to shed their leaves for winter. We will have to wait for the frosts before the full autumn colour change happens. It is not only the leaves which are responding. Amongst the branches of the horse chestnut, the tough spiky cases that protect the conkers are beginning to split open, spilling their polished treasures into the damp grass below. Do children still collect conkers these days; competing for the largest ones or the shiniest ones, and going home with school-trouser-pockets bulging? 

The horse chestnuts here have been hit hard this year by a leaf-mining moth, and already look as brown and shrivelled as though we were nearing the end of autumn not the beginning. 

My walk took me along the river path, and gazing down to the fast flowing waters I could easily dream of views of otter playing and fishing on the sandy banks, green weeded rivulets and singing tumbles and eddies. In the end it was a kingfisher that brought a moment of magic to the scene, bolting downstream in characteristic angular flight. A few seconds earlier and it would have found itself flying down the middle of my camera viewfinder, alas, that shot was not to be this day. 

I ate my paper-parcel dinner on a bench beside South Pond, watching a number of mallard ducks on the water. The males outnumbered the females substantially, as tends to be the way on this particular pond, possibly as a result of over feeding (unfortunately mostly with bread which is actually bad for the ducks' health) causing over population in past years. There was a mixture of activity; some were feeding 'bottoms up', others were preening and bathing, and some, predictably, were keeping a sharp eye on me incase I might be the sort to throw them a few chips. 
It had been a while since I had had chance to simply sit and watch their antics. I was puzzled by a strange whistle call, which seemed to be coming from the mallards. It was very different from the usual 'quacking' calls I am familiar with. I eventually tracked it down to one or two drakes (male mallards) and found that it appeared to be accompanied by an odd head bobbing movement. This call and 'display' reminded me distinctly of the behaviours of wigeon, a duck species that often crowds onto the wetlands in this area (RSPB Pulborough Brooks is a good example) over the winter, having migrated from lands to the north. This is the first time I have noticed it in mallards, I wonder if it is recognised behaviour for this species? 

Chips demolished, I left the ducks to their whistling and turned for home. Low sunlight streamed through the trees along Jubilee Path, highlighting spider's webs and their occupants with shimmers of gold. I noted that the yew tree was now bearing bright red berries between the forest-green needles, and reminded myself to keep an eye open for thrushes here, when the cold weather sets in.  

A multitude of squeaking calls in the bushes marked the progress and activity of a flock of tits. The sight of a blue tit making its way off through the twigs, holding in its beak a sprig of two elderberries (from a clump of berries on which it had been feeding), each bigger then its own eye, was certainly another sight I had never seen before. 

It is amazing what you notice, when you take the time to pause and watch those little everyday things that perhaps we all normally take for granted. 

Monday, 21 September 2015

September Spiders

Are you a fan of the spider? 
Even if these eight legged invertebrates don't make you recoil in horror, you may perhaps have not ever paused to study one too closely. 

Autumn is a fabulous time to seek out a close encounter with spiders; damp misty mornings or heavy dew highlight countless silken threads in gardens and hedgerows, or in shimmering tapestries across the grass. 

The confusion of brambles and scrub along the roadside through the industrial estate near my home, provides the perfect tethering point for the complex webs of orb web spiders; those 'traditional' spider-webs that we are all so familiar with. I lost count of the number of spiders I spied, waiting in ambush for unwary insects along the stretch of just a few hundred metres hedgerow this morning. Each web was an intricate construction, unique and seemingly intelligently designed. Looking closely each spider was equally unique with its own design of patterns across its body. 

Each of these spiders is of the species Araneus diadematus (or 'Garden Cross Spider' to you and me!) They vary hugely in colour, but have a characteristic pattern of pale golden spots which form a cross on their backs, hence their common name, and are one of our largest spider species in the UK. (The Buglife organisation's website has some more information: https://www.buglife.org.uk/bugs-and-habitats/garden-cross-spider

Spiders will continue to to be very obvious in our gardens, parks and countryside throughout the autumn. These Garden Cross Spiders in particular are active until November. Even if you find these eight-legged marvels 'creepy' or intimidating, I am sure you cannot deny they are fascinating creatures or that the sparkle of dew on their cobwebs adds a seasonal beauty to our landscape. Why not take a closer look yourself next time you are out and about? 

(Don't forget, you can share your photos or sightings on the new patch Twitter-feed @OakByTheRife!)

Industrial Nature

This week I have been noticing nature close to home. My back garden and those of my neighbours, and the short stretch of road from my front door through the small industrial estate, have provided a number of autumnal moments and even a new species! 

The road follows the route of a disused railway line, closed in the early 1950s, which emerges through a gateway opposite my house where it has been running along an embankment above the rife. Most of the industrial estate road is lined with pine trees; a mixture of Scotts Pines and Douglas Fir, beneath which is a mass of bramble and scrub on one side of the road and a wide grassy slope on the other. The soil is dry and sandy, trampled daily by countless factory-workers, dog-walkers, and to-school-or-the-shops-walkers, as buses, tractors, lorries and cars rumble past on the concrete road. 
Not the most productive wildlife watching spot you might think? Well...you might be surprised!

A tawny owl was calling at 4.30 am a few days ago. Yesterday morning a flock of tits visited the garden; Coal Tits taking turns to visit the bird feeder, Great Tits investigating the wild hop that climbs the fence and picking out spiders around the nest boxes, Blue Tits tumbling through my neighbour's shrubs. The Robin sat atop the washing line, flicking his tail in consternation at this multitude of birds invading the garden he has so recently re-claimed. The Wood Pigeons have produced yet another set of squabs from the rafters of the car ports. I think the few House Martins that have been lingering at the rooftop of the house at the end of the terrace, have taken the chattering of the starling flock, gathering on a dead branch that sticks out of a pine at the entrance of the industrial estate, as their cue to leave. 

Just beside the speed bumps, beneath that tree where the starlings have been flocking, a mass of ivy is bursting its buds. Flowering late in the year from now well into early winter, ivy is a favourite and invaluable food source for late flying insects, and often the last port-of-call for butterflies such as Red Admirals for a final nectar drink before hibernation. 
In warm early afternoon sunshine on Thursday, a number of small insects were checking on the ivy's progress to full flowering; hoverflies, wasps, and a slim, perfectly striped, little bee. There were a couple of these small bees feeding on the blooms, and they clearly were not honey bees or the red mason bees I see in my garden in the spring. I didn't have long to hang around and study them so snapped a photo and promised myself I'd look them up. 

 Record shots of Ivy Bee (Collete hederae), Holmbush Way Midhurst West Sussex, Thursday 17th September 2015

With the help of some friendly folk over on Twitter, it turns out that these bees on the ivy are in fact the aptly named Ivy Bee (or Colletes hederae if you want the scientific name!). Ivy bees are a recent coloniser in the UK, from Europe and have been spreading across the southern counties of England. They feed almost exclusively on ivy, as they are active September to November, and the females use the pollen and nectar of the ivy to supply the chambers of her nest burrow, found in soft warm soil. Although a solitary bee, many burrows may be found in close proximity. 

Dark cloud and a cool drizzly morning hampered my efforts to re-find these intriguing insects today, or indeed any ivertebrates on the ivy save for a few wasps and spiders, and so instead I turned to the Industrial Estate's other autumn speciality: fungi. 

I had noticed that a scattering of toadstools had sprung up across the grassy area beneath the Scotts Pines  whilst driving past on my way home from work yesterday. A distinctive and instantly recognisable Fly Agaric was the first to catch my eye, but as I wandered (probably raising a few eyebrows in the factory windows as I stood about staring into bushes or at the ground!) I came across numerous others. Sadly many had been uprooted, whether by passing boots of bored dog walkers or by the clumsy foraging of foxes I couldn't tell. The foxes had clearly been there last night, as there were several pointed snout holes and scrapes in the grass. I am yet to identify all the species that were pushing their way up though the soil, but they certainly made interesting photography subjects.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Launching the new "The Oak By The Rife Local Patch" Twitter feed!

Do you use Twitter? 

There is now an easy way to keep up-to-date with The Oak By The Rife blog, and no excuse to miss a link, or an exciting wildlife moment! Just pop onto Twitter and give the new Oak By The Rife Twitter-feed a follow at "@OakByTheRife"!  Share in wildlife sightings direct from the patch, a daily (hopefully!) photo and of course, the links to every new blog post.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I find enormous pleasure and fascination in watching wildlife on my local patch. Nature is a passion of mine, but I find much of that pleasure comes from being able to share my experiences with others and inspire them to find similar awe and intrigue in the natural world around them, where ever they are. 
So of course, it isn't all about me, or even all about my blog. I'd love to hear from you, whether you share my patch or part of it, or live many miles away. Have you had similar moments in nature, or experienced something that amazed, baffled or entertained you? Please do share it! 

I have learnt much of my knowledge of nature from other people and continue to do so every day, and I am more than happy to share what I know with anyone who asks questions - and I know I will be asking many questions myself!

Some of you may already be familiar with my long running Twitter-feed "@SophiEcoWild", don't worry, it's not going anywhere! This new twittering is simply linked more directly with the nature of The Oak By The Rife patch. 

At "@OakByTheRife" I plan to share a daily(ish!) photo from the patch, inspired by previous Twitter challenges such as #100DaysofNature and #30DaysWild, and most of these will be taken either on a pocket compact camera or my smart phone (occasionally my SLR) as I want to capture what could be anyone's #EverydayNature.

If you are not a Twitter user, please do not panic, I will certainly continue to share my blogposts in all the usual places including the BBC Magazine's Local Patch Reporter's forum at http://www.discoverwildlife.com/forum/local-patch-reporters-f47.html 

I hope you will be able to join me and follow @OakByTheRife in this new adventure; see you there!

Monday, 14 September 2015



Time has stopped ticking, the rural scene has paused. A meagre breeze does little to disturb the warm air that hangs suspended. Even the cattle in the field have been lulled asleep by the slow dreaminess of the day, a few swallows drift low over their backs, reluctant to leave just yet. The harvest here is almost complete and there is a lull in activity on the farm, the way Sundays used to be. 
It is clear all around, in the hedgerows and woodland edges, that summer has ended but it seems for today at least, autumn has been distracted by something away over the hill. 

In the past week whilst I have been away, the first hint of die-back has crept into the wayside vegetation. The bramble leaves are rusting and even the trees, once such a verdant summer green now show a hint, a tired tint. On the oaks, acorns hang between leaves that are dusty, holed and in some places beginning to dry and curl. It is these acorns which attract the jays. Raucous harsh calls announce their arrival, rampaging in complete contrast to the stillness of the surrounding day, seeming almost to catch the day-dreaming oaks unprepared, plundering their bounty.

The hours are stretching past lunch time and the day is beginning to stir, perhaps woken by the shouting jays. The breeze is growing in confidence and clouds gather on the horizon. A flurry of high pitched calls accompanies a multitude of bouncing flights along the hedge; an autumn tit flock. I watch the progress of bird after bird across a gap in the bushes, but soon loose count. Most are the comically proportioned long-tailed tit, but I also spy the larger great tit and the cheeky coal tit. A slender greenish bird is a warbler, clearly attracted in to make the most of the concept of safety in numbers. 
As the tit flock bounces on into a further hedgerow and the jays depart on their next marauding party to an oak in the distance across the fields, it is time for me too to walk on. 

Back at home the berries on the pyracantha have ripened a few shades further, and there are many deadheads to clear from the dahlias. My neighbour's lawn is scattered with fallen leaves. 
In the gutter of the carpark behind the house I discover a surprising find, the sad body of a house martin. Everything seems wrong about this fragment of feather and bone; so still and grounded, in stark contrast to its usual agile flight, high and unreachable. I wonder at its cause of death, a rare clumsy moment from a passing bird of prey perhaps? The rest of the family still chatter around the apex of the roof at the end of the terrace, I hope they are more successful than this individual on their coming migration. 
The changes in the hedgerows and the garden and the mystery of the martin murder remind me that a week is a long time in nature. I can't help but feel I have been away too long. It is good to be back on the patch. 

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