25 August, 2015

Esher Common

It's amazing how long a day feels when you cut out the lie-in, which is exactly what I've had to do since starting a dissertation based around moth-trapping. 05:00 is never going to be a nice time to be interrupted mid-dream (no matter how soothing the alarm sounds when you set it the night before) but it does mean that after driving to each reserve and emptying the traps I feel awake and ready to the start the day; and all before 7am. This is a level of productiveness/organisation that I rarely feel during the summer holidays, and especially not before midday. Hell, I've even been remembering to take those 'one-a-day' vitamin supplement tablets things that you buy at the start of the year, swear by for a week or so and then completely forget about.

After packing up the traps in Nower Wood last Friday during one such productive 'phase', I decided to pop in to one of my nearest and dearest local patches - Esher Common - for an early morning stroll in the sun.

It's no secret that the boggy areas around Black Pond rank amongst the top spots in the UK for watching dragonflies, and it didn't take long for this to show through. A bulky pair of Brown Hawkers were patrolling the pools whilst lower down nearer the water's surface, smaller species like Small Red-eyed Damselfly, Emerald Damselfly and Small Red Damselfly were holding onto tiny territories of their own - the latter species being particularly confiding. Around the outskirts of the pond, the scarce moth Crambus hamella could be disturbed from heather, whilst Woodland Grasshoppers were absolutely everywhere. A Hummingbird Hawk-moth stopped to rest briefly along the main path heading back to the car park, rounding off a fantastic late summer session on the patch!

Small Red Damselfly

Small Red Damselfly

Black Darter

Woodland Grasshopper

Crambus hamella

Hummingbird Hawk-moth

20 August, 2015

What have I got myself into?


I started my dissertation field work back on Monday (a.k.a the fun bit). If all goes to plan (it probably won't!) I'm going to attempt to compare the differences in abundance and diversity of moth populations between coppiced and non-coppiced woodland, which means I get to spent the next couple of weeks running moth traps in three top quality nature reserves run by Surrey Wildlife Trust in the North Downs.

Unfortunately, it also means that at some point before the end of May 2016 I'll need to write thousands and thousands of words on a subject which although fascinating to me, isn't exactly teeming with previous literature ready to back up any kind of trend or correlation I try and squeeze out of the data. It'll be hard and long-winded, but I'm too busy marvelling over some of the fantastic moths which have turned up (such as the nationally scarce Mocha & Square-spotted Clay pictured) in the first couple of sessions to worry about the computer work and statistics that are inevitably going to come later.

Square-spotted Clay

19 August, 2015

A bike ride to Bunessan

Mull is an island of indescribable beauty and contrast. It didn't take more than a bike ride to the nearby village of Bunessan for me to realise this,  a couple of hours after I first arrived at the croft...

14 August, 2015

Wildlife on the croft

When signing up to the WWOOF scheme, you generally agree to around 5 hours of work every weekday in return for accommodation and food. Being on a small organic croft on Mull meant that nature was never far away from where we worked, and with around 20 daylight hours in June there was still plenty of time to explore after we'd finished for the day. I'd dig flower beds, cut bracken, grow veg and pick strawberries whilst at the same time watching Hen Harriers display in the sky above, and pods of Bottlenose Dophins swim past on the horizon.

Hen Harrier

Dolphin watch-point

On an average day, if I wasn't drooling over displaying Hen Harriers, slobbering over calling Cuckoos or spluttering over the vast expanse of flowering bluebells that carpeted the hillsides, I could usually be found by (or in) the wildlife pond where the likes of Golden-ringed Dragonfly and Palmate Newt have made their home...

The 'wildside' of the garden

Palmate Newt

Golden-ringed Dragonfly

Yes... the croft had moths too:

Silver Hook

Hysterophora maculosana

Coleophora glaucicolella/alticolella (a tricky pair, both of which feed on Wood-rush and look identical)

Neofaculta ericetella

Green Silver-lines

Depressaria daucella 

Glyphipterix forsterella

Hedya atropunctana

08 August, 2015

This week in moths

My tendency to escape to far-away, isolated islands every summer means that I rarely get to sample the delights of summer moth-trapping in the garden back at home. It's just dawned on me that I haven't actually trapped in the garden at this time of year since 2012, so inevitably the moth trap has been on at every possible opportunity this week and there have been some interesting finds to show for it.

The highlight so far has been a Small Mottled Willow which turned up on 3rd August along with several very fresh Bordered Straws, four Diamond-back Moths and two Rush Veneers. Yet more evidence of the unprecedented migration event that has taken place this year across the country, with far more immigrants reaching this far inland than would be expected in a normal year.

Whilst there's little doubting that the Small Mottled Willow is a 'primary' immigrant, the two Bordered Straws looked like they had just emerged, and chances are they probably had. Many of the female moths which reached our shores back in May and early June, having mated across the water in southern Europe, would have been heavily laden with eggs ready to lay once they reached our shores. I've read that their offspring are noticeably darker, and that certainly looks to be the case with this one...

Bordered Straw

The resident species have also put on a good show, with Double Lobed, Mouse Moth and Pammene aurita all being added to the garden list. Jersey Tiger and a nice form of Tree-lichen Beauty added some colour to the trap, whilst numbers of the infamous Gypsy Moth and Oak Processionary - both known for their caterpillar's destructive habits towards deciduous trees - are starting to peak.

Jersey Tiger
Double Lobed
Mouse Moth
Tree-lichen Beauty
Gypsy Moth & Oak Processionary - two of the government's most wanted 'pest' species, subject to numerous eradication attempts in recent years. Despite the nasty chemicals dropped over woodlands to try and kill off establishing populations, both species are now common in south London and here to stay!

Pammene aurita

06 August, 2015

Back from the Hebrides

Almost two months later, and I'm back from the Hebrides! I arrived back last Tuesday, and have spent the majority of time between then and now quietly slagging off weather forecasters under my breath for their use of the word 'moderate' to describe wind speeds that wouldn't bother a leaf up north, and shaking my head at the continued presence of Waitrose. Basically I've come back thinking I'm a northerner.

A large part of my time in the Hebrides was spent working on an organic croft on the west coast of Mull; reached via a spectacular train journey through western Scotland, a ferry to Craignure from Oban and then an hour's bus ride through Mull - passing alongside remote upland forests, lochs, mountains and cascading waterfalls until the road came to an end at the small fishing village of Fionnphort. From there it was another 3 mile drive to Kintra, where the croft - worked and maintained for the past 40 years by the extremely resourceful and experienced married team that is Rosie & Nigel Burgess - nestles into a small remote valley, well sheltered from harsh northerly winds and providing ideal growing conditions for such a small-scale farm.

From the moment I stepped into the garden it was clear that I was going to be in heaven for the duration of the month. Four main polytunnels make up the bulk of growing space, along with various vegetable beds and fruit trees. The rest of the garden is left to grow as it pleases, with a healthy wildlife pond at one end and a small area of birch/hazel woodland nearby. Spring arrives later than in the south, and by early June  the bluebells were in full swing along with swathes of Pignut & Bird's-foot Trefoil. As well as bursting with colour, the farm was also absolutely teeming with wildlife - beetles, bees, moths, butterflies, newts, frogs & birds everywhere. The croft was like a little oasis in an otherwise windswept, heather-dominated landscape, but a truly stunning landscape at that.

Home came in the form of a small converted barn attic which I shared with three fellow WWOOFers - two sisters from Iowa who were travelling across Europe, and a guy from Reading who'd come to escape his office job. Everyone was easy-going and jolly (invaluable traits to have in remote places - you meet a lot of different personalities on islands, and bossy/grumpy people don't make great housemates!), and we all hit it off immediately - working, cooking and eating together on a daily basis, all of which was done using local ingredients. The fact that there was also a baker living on the farm was an added bonus.

The various landscapes I encountered whilst exploring the island - and the wildlife to be found within them - were quite overwhelming. I'll no doubt dedicate several blog posts to the natural side of Mull, but just as important for me when island hopping is meeting new people and getting 'stuck in' to their respective island communities. Mull is absolutely massive, and each village gives off a different set of vibes. Many evenings after 'work' were spent in the local pub enjoying local music and getting to know the locals (it was all tactical - the more people you know the better chance you have to getting a lift on the road).

Living in remote island communities is a way of life that seems so normal when you're doing it, but becomes surprisingly hard to explain or fully understand when you look back on it. It makes you realise just how isolated most people are in cities. Out of everyone along our street, the only people I know are the next door neighbours, and even then only on 'hello' terms. I certainly wouldn't consider walking into their unlocked house on a Friday night with a bottle of whisky, whereas in the Hebrides I wouldn't think twice!

But enough of the thoughtful, reflective crap. Moths next.