10 December, 2017

Wistman's Wood in winter

Last weekend I teamed up with budding botanist Alex Mills for a brief stomp around Dartmoor. We dumped the car by the side of the road at Two Bridges and headed off north across the moor towards Wistman's Wood, weighed down with backpacks full of camping gear and bryophyte field guides. The sun was beaming down through the oaks but it did little to subdue the freeze. Noses were running and fingers were numbing, but it didn't stop us thoroughly enjoying a few hours of daylight searching out the primitive plants that thrive in a really unique and enchanting upland habitat.

Alex won find of the day with Tunbridge Filmy-fern, thriving in sizeable numbers amongst various cracks and crevices high up on the slopes.

Spot the botanist

Tunbridge Filmy-fern

In truth, it was hard to look in any direction and not pick out something interesting to stare at. Every tree was plastered from head to toe twig to trunk with bryophytes and lichens that challenged my already extremely challenged knowledge of them. Between us we did recognise a handful of the more conspicuous species.

Scapania gracilis (Western Earwort)

Rhytidiadelphus loreus (Little Shaggy-moss)

Plagiothecium undulatum (Waved Silk-moss)

Thuidium tamariscinum (Common Tamarisk-moss)

Racomitrium lanuginosum (Woolly Fringe-moss)

We pitched up for the night on Longaford Tor; Alex had bought along his trusty Vango Banshee but I'd decided earlier that day to bite the bullet and go with a lighter (and more exposed!) bivvy bag in order to save enough room to bring along the Mosses and Liverworts of Britain & Ireland. In the end it was a gamble that paid off. The frost was already setting over a spectacularly super-moonlit landscape as we scoffed down a wholesome supper consisting of a mix of baked beans & hummus, but that was about as cold as it was going to get. The clouds rolled in and temperatures rose a bit. Cracked open a couple of beers and took in the moorland vista. Not a bad way to spend a Friday night.

01 December, 2017

Nothing does autumn like a beech

There's a quiet, tucked away patch of beech woodland on Esher Common and this was the scene there early last week. The turning of the beech leaves is something I look forward to every autumn. It'd take a lot to convince me that there's a more beautiful species of tree out there.

24 October, 2017

One of those nights

Moth trapping has been desperately poor in the garden this autumn. A bright LED streetlight illuminates the garden for half the night which is something I can cope with during high summer when there's enough moths to go around, but I'm sure it has an effect of drawing moths away in the quieter months. Last week I was about ready to pack away the trap for the year after yet another catch of just Lesser Yellow Underwing and Tachystola acroxantha, but the appearance of the garden's second Merveille du Jour managed to persuade me otherwise.

I'm very glad it did because this morning, following a night of perfect weather conditions, I woke to a trap full of moths. Underneath the egg boxes were Red-green Carpet, Feathered Thorn, Black Rustic and Red-line Quaker; classic autumnal moths that don't show up in the garden half as often as I'd like them to. It was exciting. Felt like I could stumble across something unusual at any moment.

Perched on top one of the egg boxes was a tiny but quite strongly marked moth with two distinctively huge white strigulae (a fancy word for stripes) along its dorsum (another fancy word for the moth's back). I recognised it instantly, but only because I'd recently been drooling over pictures of the one that Bob Arnfield caught in his Putney garden last year. It's Cydia interscindana, a tortrix that feeds on the Mediterranean plant Juniperus oxycedrus. Bob's one from last year was the 1st UK record, and I believe he's caught another this autumn too. The species' natural distribution covers much of the Mediterranean, but like many insects it has almost certainly been given a helping hand northwards with the cultivation of its foodplant.

As far as I know we're the only two people who have caught one at the moment, but it seems likely that there's a low key population flying around the London suburbs.

Also new for the garden but slightly overshadowed was this Vestal, one of two caught last night.

27 September, 2017

Grey Phalarope

Things have been a little slow burning since my summer contract with the Lulworth rangers came to an end two weeks ago and I moved out of the caravan at Durdle Door that's been home for the past four months. Saying goodbye to a great bunch of people (and a great part of the world) is always a kick in the teeth, and the challenge now will be to find the next gig - preferably as good as the one I've just left!

On Saturday I was back down on the south coast, dropping my brother off in Southampton for his second year at university.  After fulfilling said brotherly duties I twitched the juvenile Grey Phalarope that had made landfall in a small ditch near the picturesque village of Keyhaven. It went about its business in the typical manner you'd expect from a displaced young Phalarope, frantically bobbing around and feeding on aquatic invertebrates without batting an eyelid at the families, dog walkers, cyclists and birders out enjoying a beautiful evening alongside the saltmarsh.

30 August, 2017

I got lost

A few weekends ago I nipped over to Aberystwyth to catch up with some old school friends. I got horribly lost on my home and ended up first at the Dyfi Osprey Project...

Then on the Minffordd Path heading up into the spectacular Cadair Idris mountain range. Nightmare!

Llyn Cau

Twin-spot Carpet 

Fox Moth

Parsley Fern

16 August, 2017

A night on the moors

Lulworth Cove is a popular tourist hotspot all year round but during the August summer holidays it becomes a whole new level of manic. The car park, over flow car park and back up overflow car park are filled by midday at the moment and the coast path to Durdle Door attains the kind of people traffic you'd expect along the Southbank in the run up to Christmas.

Walk anywhere off the beaten track (or up a steep hill) and you pretty quickly shrug off the majority of tourists, but the other weekend I opted for a complete change of scenery and took my tent down to Dartmoor for the night. I've been waiting for a chance to return ever since visiting for the first time back in June. The landscapes are entrancing and it's only an hour or so's drive from my base camp at Lulworth.

I parked up at Two Bridges, a secluded hamlet deep in the wilds of the Moor, and waved goodbye to the car. With tent, sleeping bag, tomato soup, tea bags, a stove and a pair of binoculars all crammed into my rucksack I set off off down a track and then onto a well-trodden path towards Wistman's Wood.

The sun was wavering just above Beardown Tor to the west as I reached the wood, gradually dipping below the hillside. I watched the shade line slowly creep up through the woods towards me and the dappled rays of sunlight on the moss-cladded oaks and boulders. I'd heard good things about Wistman's Wood, but this was magical beyond words. As much as I wanted to be able to say I'd kipped in such a bewitching spot, I've also heard creepy stories of pagan rituals and ghosts that encouraged the superstitious side of me to resist pitching the tent quite yet!

From the top end of Wistman's Wood I headed north-west up onto the moors. There was a Grasshopper Warbler singing somewhere amongst the tussocks of sedges and rushes, and a herd of testosterone-filled Dartmoor ponies were busy chasing each other around the hillside.

I set up the tent on a rocky outcrop which turned out to be Lydford Tor, so called because the ancient track that runs alongside it was used by 13th century residents of local farmsteads as a route by which to carry their dead across the moor for burial at Lydford church. Luckily I had no such processions pass by me during the night as far as I'm aware and I woke up at 5am to a positively freezing, misty and completely silent moorland landscape.

Amazingly there was an owl hunting in the distant gloom. It was too dark to make out any detail, but the size and flight pattern perfectly matched an Asio species. Short-eared Owls are strictly winter visitors in the south-west so one hunting over Dartmoor in the middle of summer would be unheard of. Long-eared Owl on the other hand does breed on the Moor in very small numbers, although it is strictly nocturnal and rarely seen.

Without decent views or a photo, the owl sighting will have to remain a mystery. An apt way to end an eerie, magical and atmospheric night on Dartmoor.