Monday, 17 October 2022

Steart Marshes - Dragonfly hotspot

I've had a week off work, postponed from the end of September when I'd come down with covid. Having time to relax at this time of the year is a pleasurable experience, schools have returned after the summer vacation, the holiday season is winding down, therefore like today, we had the huge Steart Marshes re-wilding landscape pretty much to ourselves.

At just under 500 hectares this recently named super reserve is vast, and it is only the second time I've visited. Though saying that, I'm not being strictly accurate. I used to come here when it was simply Steart, a hotchpotch of farmed fields, freshwater rhynes filled with reeds, jutting into the Bristol Channel which battered it twice a day with its huge tidal surge. It felt then like a forgotten corner of Somerset, quite wild with a single track leading the visitor to a windswept pull-in of a car park as the tarmac petered out. It was empty of people other than birdwatchers and dog walkers and the odd farmer.  Birdwatching could be either exceptional or dire depending on the tides, seasons or weather. But that all changed around 15 years ago.

Climate change and rising sea levels were already having an impact along the Somerset coast. Following a storm in 1996 after a breach in the protective shingle ridge at Porlock, it was decided not to repair this damage as sea levels were rising, and allow the farmland behind the ridge to be sacrificed. Here at Steart, it was a more managed decision to sacrifice the farmland and let the sea take over in a more controlled way. Or put simply a massive landscape-based undertaking which after years of planning, nature mitigation, research and of course heavy machinery carving out channels, the plan was realised when the sea wall was deliberately breached in 2014 and the first tides flooded over what had been until then agricultural grassland. 

My last, indeed my only visit to Steart Marshes, had been in the winter of 2018. That day was cold, windy and for the return walk miserably wet. Today the sun shone, skies were blue and for mid October it was pleasantly warm. High tide was 11.25 hours. It's a four kilometres walk from the main car park to where the breach had been made on the banks of the River Parrett. Leaving it a little too late to arrive by high tide Julie and I set off on what was a rollicking scamper along the footpaths. Plan 'A' then was to get to the breach as quickly as possible, see what was happening then take our time on the return leg to observe any wildlife. Birdlife on the way to the hide was at best scarce, the highlight being skylarks singing on the wing as they drifted higher and higher. Unusual for October in my experience.  We got to the breach hide just after high tide, which today was not high enough to flood the landscape.

And when I said hide, it is simply a viewing screen with a couple of benches. The wind was quite strong now so the slatted structure provided a very welcome respite from the endless buffering. Wind we had plenty, birdlife very little. Actually this didn't matter. We'd hoped to see lapwing as Julie is trying to do a painting of these enigmatic waders, but we were here a bit too early in the autumn for the big flocks to have coalesced. In fact I only saw one wader the whole day, which aside from a flash of white along its tail as it flew into the sun could have been anything. There were however a lot of little egret and shelduck, the main incumbents of this new landscape I had read. 

Everything was watchable through binoculars, but at a real distance for my camera (even the shelduck above were on a x 150 telephoto) and facing into the sun didn't help. I did spy a marsh harrier and buzzard at some distance, and a wren behind the screen, but in reality that was about it, other than the ever present meadow pipits and black headed gulls. But then one bird popped up, which still intrigues me.

Stonechat or whinchat? I'm undecided. Initially I dismissed this as a female/immature stonechat when viewing it through the binoculars (it was about 100-150 m away). Of course a photograph was needed for this write-up which I took quickly without thinking. Later at home in the evening I looked a little closer. Hmmmm? female whinchat in winter plumage? The eye stripe is quite prominent. To that oracle then, Google. Big mistake. I descended into a rabbit hole of internet birdwatchers having the same difficulties. Questions asked, replies not definitive, seemingly the differences between female stonechat and female whinchat in winter garb, especially first winter females are subtle, obvious in a field guide, but in the field, tricky!  I think I'm erring towards whinchat, though the white covert might be stonechat... I don't know, if I'm wrong so be it, it brought joy anyway seeing it.

By now we'd been at the breach for about an hour. I'd been scanning a landscape mostly devoid of action, and while I scanned the horizon Julie sat on a seat by the hide sketching. The fact that there was so little birdlife was mostly my mis-timing of the season, wetlands are best in mid winter,  and partly my lack of knowledge of this site, assuming there'd be pools or scrapes with a smattering of waders. A mental note was then made to return here in December or January on a spring tide when the best views are to be had I believe. And I have to remember this is a developing landscape, it may take 20-30 or more years to find its ecological equilibrium. 

Julie's sketch completed, we walked at a more sedate pace back to the car park. It really is remarkable what's happened here in less that ten years. As we walked back, to our left were browning agricultural fields slowly reverting to saltmarsh. To our right the remaining agricultural fields, still being grazed and managed. The two separated by the cinder path provide complementary habitats.


This trio of roe deer were in a farmed field, while the magpie sat on the boundary observing us with a suspicion only corvids have.

At one point we deviated off the reserve and looked out over the coffee coloured Bristol Channel which today was quite choppy in the wind. Adjacent to what was once the only car park here, a seat had optimistically been placed to look out over Hinckley Point Nuclear Power Station, and the works there to build the new reactor. A stark reminder that this whole coastline is man made and man managed, with the wildlife taking advantage of any work being undertaken

The sun was putting out some warmth now as we walked the 4 km back. This kestrel was over some fields and while not fabulous image, it pleased me as I took this hand-holding my camera on telephoto lens. Kestrels are such wonderful birds to observe.

I began this with the fact that we had the huge Steart Marshes re-wilding landscape pretty much to ourselves. I think in the entire 4 hours we were here we only saw 4 people in the reserve, though there were a dozen or so cars parked up. However we did see hundreds of dragonflies. I'd been reading before we visited that Steart Marshes has recently been awarded a dragonfly hotspot status. Going on the numbers we saw today, I can understand that. Given this was October the 17th, everywhere we looked they were flying. Always too quick to photograph, I'd read the site is now home to 19 species. The star performance for us being these enveloped southern migrant hawkers. We watched them fly conjoined in front of us for quite a distance, before alighting on a blackthorn branch when they stayed for a few minutes before flying off, still conjoined. 

To see this landscape coming alive with increased biodiversity is a great achievement and result for what must have been thousands of hours of work, both in planning and implementation. It may have only been my second visit, but being 40 minutes from home it wont be my last this winter. Hopefully there'll be more birds next time though, and I hope as few people as here today.

Friday, 14 October 2022

It is strange seeing rain again

It was reported on the BBC News website today that the summer of 2022 will go down as one of record breaking temperatures. This report by the Met Office doesn't mention the lack of rain, July was the driest since 1935 in England. 2022 was very dry generally in England especially, yet as I write this outside it is pouring. For the first time in months it feels cool, autumnal and damp. And that is something to celebrate.

In that BBC News article it states the following,

"More than half of the UK's oldest active weather stations recorded their hottest day ever in 2022, according to Met Office data."


"The new UK high of 40.3C was recorded at Coningsby in Lincolnshire on 19 July 2022."

Like many I remember that first heatwave very well, and the one which followed in August. Looking back in my diary, I note that on July the 17th I wrote 

"First hot day. It was cool at 7am, by by 10am we could feel the heat building...... curtains drawn windows closed we remained indoors until 10pm ... when [we] watered the garden in the darkness"

I remember sleeping outside at night, a pleasant experience lying there watching the stars and night sky yet warm enough to be comfortable. The heat was intense but it was bearable as the landscape was so dry, dry heat is so much different to humid heat. It was around this time we spent a few nights to watch nightjars on the Quantocks. Sunset being around 21.30hrs, it was a late few Fridays we ventured there to witness these remarkable birds. I noted at the time the landscape was bone dry. Dust billowed everywhere and the footpaths over the Quantocks were cracked and as hard as stone. Vegetation looked tired, really tired.

The heatwave which followed in early August was not quite as ferocious but lasted longer.  Flicking back through my diary we visited family in Salisbury on August 6th noting that in the afternoon we were exhausted by the heat and the grass around the cathedral was the colour of stubble. The heat built, and continued through to the 14th when for the third day running my car thermometer showed 39oC. Car thermometers are not accurate of course, but nevertheless, even reducing this by a few degrees, it was a hot couple of weeks.

However the following day, August 15th, I wrote. "It was forecast, but around 7am it started to rain - nice light rain, which carried on until lunchtime

The previous entry of rain in my diary had been July 2nd and I needed to search back to April to find reference to rain, and only then rain showers. The winter months were no better, January and February in this area of Somerset were dry, but not obviously though as it was cloudy, thick cloud, most days.

As I watched the rain this morning I began to think back to the dry summer, in reality it was only a few weeks ago. It seems odd to be looking at something so common again, but rainfall is so important to everything yet we take it for granted. "oh it raining AGAIN!". As if this was a life and death situation to be avoided at all costs.

Only when the rain stops do we think of how life would be without a steady trickle of moisture through the year.  As we read in news reports this year 2022 was a bad one for wildfires across the Planet, long-term stable weather patterns altered through Climate Change now backed up by science. Locally however the changes are just as evident.

Today as I write this I can see rain falling steadily on a mild autumnal day, but look at the trees, established trees that is. 

Many deciduous trees have shed some of their leaves already. We'd expect this in October as shortening days trigger seasonal change in metabolism and eventually leaf fall. Back in August however a False Autumn occurred in many parts of England. Not something I believe I've ever known before, and it seemed to happen within a few days. When the heat subsided a little suddenly lanes and paths were strewn with crisp shrivelled leaves, often still green. Walking through them and hearing their rustle, was akin to childhood memories kicking leaves about at Halloween. In the canopy, autumn colours mingled with high summer green, while swallows flew overhead. Quite strange. Shedding leaves in summer is of course a way of surviving for a tree, transpiration through stomata in the leaf is a constant which can only be stopped by jettisoning the leaf itself. It is survival. However shedding leave too early is risky. 

Deciduous trees and a few conifers use this year's energy production to lay down next years leaves. Those future leaves are in the buds which remain after leaf fall quietly awaiting a sunlit Spring day to literally 'bud-burst' and begin the cycle all over again. But, leaves falling in August? It is only to hope that those buds formed early too. Failure to provide viable leaf buds this year will mean no leaf canopy next year, or at least compromised cover and possibly a weakened transpiration system. A compromised leaf cover in spring is a problem for the tree but also for the wildlife which relies on that leaf-burst, invertebrates emerge, providing food for nesting birds and the problem expands beyond the canopy.

Next year many trees may well have a decent bud burst from a distance, but is it enough, will the tree actually survive? That is a waiting game that we'll only know next summer. What trees need now is to hopefully gain enough moisture this autumn while setting down their buds, and hope for a wet (or is that normal) growing season in 2023. Of course not all trees are affected as other species. Oaks are fairly robust for a few dry years at lease, whereas beech or birch will suffer quickly.

Today though I just enjoyed going out into the garden in the rain. Garden spider and their webs are everywhere today bejewelled with fine raindrops. The same raindrops making wonderful patterns on the foliage and flowers around the garden. The clover in the lawn was especially uplifting, like a verdant miniature rock concert, everyone having their phones out waving bright lights to show appreciation for the H2O show.

I like rain a lot, and it is good to see it come back into this part of Somerset. Yesterday it felt autumnal for the first time, cool misted vegetation, damp leaves clinging to pathways, pathways that never really dried out in the still quite warm sunlight. I arrived home from work to the feintest aroma of woodsmoke. It's autumn, autumn as it should be. And for that, I like it. Thank you rain, I hope you keep falling and keep life turning.

Tuesday, 11 October 2022

A Cross Walk and Art in Nature

After a long absence from regularly updating the blog, what topic is suitable for the Prodigals return? I think maybe a summary of a walk and a visit to the Art in Nature Museum this weekend. A gentle return then.

Saturday October 8th: Walk Cross to Compton Bishop and back

What a superb Autumnal day this was. Virtually no wind, not a cloud in the sky and the October sun in this part of Somerset still packed a punch. Perfect walking weather. I'm still post Covid, therefore in terms of my fitness levels this gentle 3-4 mile saunter was a most suitable length. 

Cross, the village, nestles at the base of the Mendip Hills and always seems to be sunny. A former coaching hamlet bisected by ancient roads to Bristol and Wells, hence presumably the name. There is mixed information over the origins of name, either the village was at the crossroads, or the village cross was a meeting place. Doing a little further research failed to establish any other historical evidence for its name. The village was however for the last 20 years of his life home to Frankie Howerd, and his house Wavering Down is now a tourist attraction - in fact today as we passed we watched a man cutting the grass. A highlight of the walk.

Julie had completed this walk the day before with her friend and enjoying it so much suggested it for today. Soon after leaving the village centre we entered a field running along the banks of the Old River Axe. Technically a drain rather than a small river this didn't matter, it was teeming with wildlife. I'm not great at identifying fish, certainly there were trout we could see, but possibly bream and tench in there too. They were everywhere. And hundreds of pond skaters and whirligig beetles. I can't ever recall seeing so many in one place. This seems a healthy habitat, so pencilled in as a place to definitely return to and do some proper natural history exploring.

Continuing along the Old Axe the countryside here is what I'd term gentle. Or even flat! There were a lot of corvids about in the trees, mainly rooks, carrion crow and jackdaw, noisily accompanying our stroll. A green woodpecker undulated off towards a tree yaffling away. Wrens, starlings, meadow pipits and possibly others. Walking without binoculars for exercise is a different experience to ambling along with binoculars, I was in the dog-house a few times for stopping too.

After crossing a stile the river took on a different feel, firstly a bend but then it seemed to develop a different character, the trout here were large, 30-40 cm, but very little in the way of small fish. Magpies followed us on our route squawking away, and we began to slowly walk up hill, away from the river, which eventually outpours into the Bristol Channel a few miles to the west.

Up hill along a farm track brought us to the base of the Mendips and a footpath up to Crook Peak, the highest part of this end of the hills. We were not going that far today.

Instead we were just walking the foothills part so to speak, through woodland, which on a day like today was a magical place to be in with the sun dazzling through the branches, interspersed with shade and coolness. A few speckled wood butterfly and a single small tortoiseshell were the only insects here. It is late in the season after all.

As we climbed, as one would expect, the views opened up from our vantage point hidden within shaded trees to the sun-drenched slopes of the Mendips. I've always loved this landscape on the southern slopes, and, considering we were only a couple of miles only from the M5, Weston Super Mare 8 miles distant, even Bristol less than 20 miles away, this corner of Somerset seems remote, timeless and silent. Well that is apart from the pheasant shooting happening over the valley somewhere.

Compton Bishop across the valley with the church nestled under the slopes.

Eventually we made it to the village of Compton Bishop, after a little detour and chat with a lady walking her dog, who got us back on the right track - and who suggested a longer route for another day. A sleepy backwater of a hamlet really.

Beginning our route back to Cross I spied this abundant ivy over a wall, thick with insects taking advantage of this late season nectar. Ivy in flower is such an important foodstuff for all manner of insects, and when in seed, birds and mammals. This area had not been flailed obviously, sadly further down the lane it had been shorn to within in inch of its life, here no insects could be seen. There is a moral to the story there somewhere.

Okay I know it's childish, but it made me giggle.

Finally we made it back to Cross walking along Webbington Lane rather then as planned along a footpath past an orchard. That route then is for next time, as I really want to return here and do some proper walking cum wildlife sleuthing. Note to self, bring binoculars and a good camera, there's so much to see just beyond arm distance. Walking with a smartphone does allow for lightness of foot but smartphone cameras, while good, are not nearly as good as a SLR for some images.

We got back to Cross and after a chat with a lady pruning a tree, Julie walked on another mile or so to the village of Axbridge where we planned to met up for a lunch. I had had enough, still not 100%, so I drove the car over there but before then noticed this at the outskirts of the village which I'd seen at the beginning of the walk but not really noticed. 'Maggie's Corner'. I like the sentiment of  'to find a spot of green'  very much.

Sunday October 9th : Art in Nature Museum, Gloucestershire

I'd not met up with my friend Rob for months and months, so today on his well received suggestion we met at the Art in Nature museum just north of Gloucester. Today was the last day of a Robert Gillmor  (6 July 1936 – 8 May 2022)  exhibition highlighting his artwork from teenage years to very recent. Gillmor was best known for his covers of the New Naturalist series from the 1980's. His lino-cut work is fantastic and at the exhibition there were 5 lino pads he'd cut to produce an oystercatcher image which was shown alongside. Such bewildering complexity given he had to work in negative relief for each pass of the print, each pass being a different colour. If you don't know his work, there's a nice summary here on the Society of Wildlife Artists website, a Society he co-founded.  https://swla.co.uk/members/robert-gillmor

It's a fascinating place to visit anyway as their permanent exhibitions are bolstered by special exhibitions such as the one we went to see today, and artwork and sculptures in the grounds. Plus a rather good café.

Walking around the grounds I noticed these desiccated teasels.  I've grown teasel in the garden, and seen it many times out in the wider countryside, but never noticed the leaves when crisp, form a heart. This was replicated in over half the teasels we could see. Interesting and I'll look out for this (is it just a local phenomenon) when out and about this winter.

Finally, this hairy beast caught both Rob and my eye. Rob has an app on his phone which confirmed it as a tiger moth, further confirmed by a couple of better entomologists than me as the caterpillar of the ruby tiger moth Phragmatobia fuliginosa . A perfect end to a perfect weekend.

Monday, 26 September 2022

The Quiet Garden

The sun is out, Gingernut the cat relaxes on the shed. Our sunflower triffids look terrific in the morning sun - and yet - It is that time of year already. 

Summer memories of no rain for weeks and temperatures reaching record breaking levels seem a long way distance. The garden is still in bloom, though this is an illusion. Emergent growth is largely absence, developing growth too. Decay is arriving as the garden moves imperceptibly into that state of stasis between summer bountiful and winter famine. And while the light levels have remained good with temperatures above average, the status quo which ostensibly allowed us to enjoy these few precious days has changing. We've passed the Equinox.

At the weekend we took down the runner beans. The last few pods were blackening and unappealing. A mound of jumbled sticks appeared on the patio. One of my favourite jobs - creating order - cutting off all the string and other attachments, assessing cane structural integrity and putting them neatly away for another year. At sometime in the near distant I or Julie will have tied in the runner beans new foliage. Struggling with rampant growth we'd have tied in tendrils with string after string for days. Now in late September that long forgotten effort to control is no longer needed, the string's supporting time, like that of the beans is at an end. Sorting and unravelling the activity of summer is a pleasant job on a sunny September afternoon, but it reminds painfully that the days shorten.

The garden is quiet of wildlife now. Birds do still come to the feeders but in ones and two's, unlike in spring when the rush to breed saps avian energy, energy eagerly replenished at the smorgasbord we provision like a bandit gang of unruly teenagers. Garden snails have been a nuisance this year, if only we could encourage a song thrush. This mature one with gorgeous markings is wedged into the middle of the greenhouse door, happily sliding back and forth as we wander in and out sorting through the pots.

The tomatoes have now all been removed. Cane tops back in the storage plant pot alongside those bits and bobs we find are very useful to keep 'just in case' but in reality are never ever used again. Not much now fills the greenhouse, some lettuce seedlings are coming up on the ground bed and a lone spinach seedling fights for freedom on the bench.  Mostly it is simply quiet contemplative sorting. Pots washed and stacked up ready for a proper sort out on one of those days when in mid-winter we want to be outside but in reality it's too cold and too dark. A few hours in such a mood in the mid December greenhouse satisfies the most primeval of our needs. 

Garden spiders are ever present too - every gap decorated with a web of huge proportions. Today is the first for a while where the wind has picked up. With each gust they jostle and gyrate but remain steadfastly on station in the hope a passing fly will entrap itself. In the summer we had numerous nest explode with spiderlings. They are amazing at that stage where the slightest threat sees hundreds dart away in all directions only to slowly return to a formation of safety in numbers. Those minute humbug spiders, now demand respect in the foliage.

It's that time of year already and a time of year many people enjoy. Quiet reflective times. The heat of summer has gone, the bare nature of winter is yet to come. A time to reflect, to take stock, and plan ahead. Next week I shall be sowing the sweet peas whose seed I harvested on the 9th of August this year. All being well, come early May they will begin to bloom, a past continuity to the future. 

I really do like this time of year and just occasionally in the silence of the garden is broken. The robin reminds me his territory is being established with song, reminding us all that it is not long then until nature begins the cycle of rebirth once more. 

Christmas first though, 90 days away today. Time to light the candles.

Saturday, 24 September 2022

Covid Inactivity

His and Hers Lateral Flow Tests. A most positive experience!

I've once again not written on the blog for months. No excuses, simply these days I write a bound diary every day. By the time the pen has cooled from the excessive ramblings in ink, there seems little time to then move online. Which is a travesty (for me at least) as I've always loved the blog. However a week confined indoors has allowed time to reflect.

Having managed to avoid Covid for the entire Pandemic, even while being physically in the Bristol office throughout the various lockdowns, this week the little virus has got me. Actually it felled Julie first while watching Gardener's World last Friday (That programme has that effect on me anyway so I hadn't noticed at first). By Saturday Julie was bed ridden, emerging 48 hours later able to just about watch, propped up with custard and cake, the Queen's funeral this Monday. 

While I watched the hearse arrive at Windsor, I began shaking violently, not from the occasion, but the hammering C-19 was giving my immune system. Bed followed and like Julie 48 hours of bewilderment, emerging on Thursday battered and bruised but functioning. Three cheers for COVID vacation working as it should.

Currently in convalescence (although working from home) time is passing slowly, allowing space to read blogs I've followed for years, call out for Stewchat and Ragged Robin especially, but also an excellent posting about the lack of cress seeds for sandwiches by Midmarsh Jottings. It was lovely to catch up with old friends. I miss my blogging, can I? Will I have time? Let's see, I won't promise. Time to retire I think, though from people I know who have, they're really busy.

Meanwhile, Covid could have been caught anywhere but the smart money is on a trip to London we made to see the Queen's coffin on the move and tributes in Green Park. The trip wasn't quite as planned. We were prevented from entering the Mall and Green Park as they'd reached capacity. Who knew the Mall would close due to too many people?  Moral of the story being get to London earlier than we did. That said we had a fabulous day with the crowds and really interesting atmosphere. So many people, but so quiet. We joined the crowds at Hyde Park to watch it all on a big screen, and while not quite what was planned, very special to be part of it all, and to bring home a virus was a perfect end to our day trip.

Bomber Command memorial next to Green Park

Lunch break overlooking the Serpentine

Watching the Queen's coffin move to Westminster from Hyde Park

My view while I write this, convalescing.