Friday 31 March 2023

Almost Wind in The Willows 31st March 2023

As he sat on the grass and looked across the river, a dark hole in the bank opposite, just above the water's edge, caught his eye, and dreamily he fell to considering what a nice snug dwelling place it would make for an animal with few wants and fond of a bijou riverside residence, above flood level and remote from noise and dust. As he gazed, something bright and small seemed to twinkle down in the heart of it, vanished, then twinkled once more like a tiny star. But it could hardly be a star in such an unlikely siuation and it was too glittering and small for a glow worm.

Then, as he looked, it winked at him, and so declared itself to be an eye; and a small face began gradually to grow up around it, like a frame round a picture

A brown face, with whiskers

A grave round face, with the same twinkle in its eye that had first attracted his notice.

Small neat ears and thick silky hair.

It was the Water Rat!'

With grateful acknowledgment to Kenneth Graham's immortal book The Wind in the Willows

As most people are aware Kenneth Graham's Water Rat was in fact a Water Vole, once a common inhabitant of our streams, ponds and rivers but then decimated by North American Mink, originally released by animal rights protestors from mink fur farms in England and subsequently finding our rivers much to their liking, so much so they increased rapidly  on virtually every waterway in Britain. The Water Vole is Britain's fastest declining mammal and much effort is being made to protect them and their habitat with only partial success. 

Monday 27 March 2023

The Giant Orchids of Oxfordshire 23rd March 2023

Peter rang to ask if I was going back to see the orchids. The orchids in question being Giant Orchids and we are fortunate that they grow not very far from our respective homes in Oxfordshire and that secret place is the only location in Britain where they are known to grow. They were discovered last year by a person living locally, who was out for a walk and spotted them growing on a grass embankment.

Last year there were nine flowering plants growing to 30cms tall as well as ten non flowering plants and an article about them but not revealing the location appeared in The Guardian.

We had been to see them six days earlier and found one emerging flowering plant and two that would be in flower sometime later - so three in all.

I had a dental appointment in the morning so arranged to collect Peter at lunchtime and we would drive not very far south to where the orchids grow.

It was beginning to rain when we turned into a small car park on the outskirts of the village, a smirrr of rain as they call it in Scotland, not proper rain but enough to be annoying and requiring waterproof covers for our cameras.

We crossed a field and made our way to a steep slope where the orchids have found a home, a slope which requires a great deal of caution in negotiating its steep sides, for the orchids grow half way down its southern side.

One slip on the wet grass and it would be difficult to stop yourself from tumbling uncontrollably to the bottom and possibly injuring yourself. Somehow it seemed fitting that the orchids required such effort and risk to see them.

Reaching the spot where they grew both of us this time, based on the experience of our previous visit, were armed with a stick each to support us as we descended the slope.

Having carefully noted the precise location of the flower spikes the last time we were here it took Peter only a short while to relocate the largest most advanced flowering orchid. 

A few minutes later I found the other two which were nearby, although each were separated by a few metres and still mainly in bud.

Then came a bonus as we found another, more in bud than flower that we must have missed last time. 

So now there were four flowering orchids in all.

In addition there were also two or three non flowering plants, their fleshy, broad leaves all that was to be seen above ground.

Giant Orchids are the earliest of wild orchids to flower, usually flowering in March.This time last year these orchids had virtually finished flowering by the end of March but this year they appear to have been set back by the cold weather and only now are coming into flower.

They are fairly common in southern and central Europe and as the climate warms have proved capable of surviving in northern France and The Netherlands but these are the first to be found in Britain. Speculation abounds as to how they came to be here and in such an unassuming and unlikely location too. One is that global warming has facilitated their spread, as seeds blown over the Channel can now establish themselves in southern counties of Britain but the more likely explanation is that fifteen years ago someone unknown scattered their seeds here and the orchids managed to grow and flower. Locals  knew of them but said they died out and had not been seen for some years but it now looks like the orchid has managed to establish itself, reproduce and grow in the wild.

It matters not in my personal view.They are here now and a welcome addition to our impoverished and much threatened native flora and we rejoiced, as anyone would in the presence of something so rare and vulnerable - hence the secrecy which, I will be honest, added an element of vicarious pleasure to our encounter.

The flower spikes were not that high. Giant, in this case, was a bit of  a misnomer for the largest of these British examples stood no more than fifteen centimetres tall, although they can grow up to a metre in height.

We slithered on the wet grass, teetering to maintain our balance on the side of the steep slope and then knelt as if in supplication and took our photographs of the pale pink flower clusters supported on sturdy olive green stems and enfolded by thick and fleshy green leaves amongst the thin winter grasses which the wind blew across them like stray hairs. They were a welcome sliver of bright colour amongst the dessicated grass of departed winter. .

Half an hour no more was all we spent here.No one else came in that time to discover the secret.The rain was our friend deterring anyone from coming out to take the air or exercise their dog  and we carried the orchid's secret location secure within us as we returned to the car. A small gift of nature to cheer us on a dull wet afternoon in the Oxfordshire countryside.

Orchid update

Monday the 27th of March arrived sunny but cold. As the morning hours slipped away into noon the sun was warm in those sheltered pockets I found whilst wandering the woods at Farmoor. Primrose and Coltsfoot shone starbursts of yellow in those forgotten corners that are rarely disturbed except by roving creatures.

Blackbirds sang as did a Song Thrush, its loud repetitive phrases ringing out as the blackbird's mellow contralto notes provided a laconic accompaniment to the Song Thrush's aria. A Willow Warbler sang wistfully amongst the small star white blossoms of a blackthorn. A descending scale of breathy melancholic notes that faded away to nothing on the still air. Not for the first time did I ponder the wonders of evolution where such a small scrap of life has come to produce such a loud and to my ear exquisite song although to other willow warblers it would sound very different and convey a much more prosaic message.

Early Spring and the promise that it brings on days such as this cannot but succeed to raise the spirit. I felt energised and deferred returning home, instead deciding to re-visit the Giant Orchids, sensing they would look at their best in the sun, an excuse, not that one was needed, to go and see these oh so rare flowers.

There is not much more I can add to that which I have already written except I found one more orchid in flower today and this was the best of them all. Growing to around twenty two centimetres tall, it dwarfed those I had found a few days ago. Its flowers a deeper pink, its stem ruddy rather than green, with pale green leaves, encircling and protective at its base.

I lay on the grass and absorbed the sense, the being if you like of the orchid, the shoehorn shaped green leaves from which emerged a thick stem the colour of rhubarb supporting, against a backdrop sky of blue, its crowning glory, a tight cluster of pinkish brown buds yet to unfurl and release their sweet scent to entice and welcome the insect pollinators. Lower buds had already opened to form a cowl around a forked tongue like, pink and white, lower petal.

Reluctantly I raised myself from my prone position on the bank and moved further along, checking on the other orchids, settling in my own mind that they were still safe and had come to no harm, their vulnerability worrying to one such as me who finds anxiety where others do not. I relaxed as I counted all four from last week. The largest of these, more advanced than the others, was in almost full flower, the flowers though, a paler pink than the rich cerise of its larger neighbour  that I had discovered  today. I knelt to put my nose to its flowering head and smelt a scent reminiscent of irises, an irresistible attraction to passing insects .


Another day of joy and fulfilment

Sunday 26 March 2023

A Swift Dash to Lincolnshire 24th March 2023

An unprecedented influx of Alpine Swifts to Ireland and Britain commenced on the 18th of March with up to thirty birds arriving in the southwest of Ireland. It has been postulated that this was caused by a funnel of anti cyclonic warm air from the southwest which resulted in Alpine Swifts, migrating  from West Africa to southern Europe, overshooting across the Bay of Biscay and arriving on the west coast of Ireland.

The birds then moved eastwards into Britain, eventually being found from northern Scotland to the southern and eastern coasts of England, and not only single birds have been recorded but two and three together at times. By the 23rd of March the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) estimated that around 125 birds had been recorded in Britain. Combine this with 84 records from Ireland and over 200 in total had been recorded and this is only the birds that have been seen. How many more have gone un- noticed?

Most birds have been confined to coastal localities but lately a few individuals have ventured inland such as at Amwell in Hertfordshire on 23rd and Dagenham in Essex on 25th March. 

Alpine Swifts are found in Africa, southern Europe and Asia and as their name implies breed in mountain ranges and migrate to spend the winter in southern Africa.

Mark and myself watched the reports of this influx and agreed that if any Alpine Swift arrived relatively close to where we lived we would go for it. 

Of course this did not happen. Both Bedfordshire and Oxfordshire are well inland and as we had seen Alpine Swifts in Britain before we were relatively relaxed about matters. I had seen two at Lowestoft in Norfolk, sheltering from the rain by clinging to a block of flats on a memorable day in April 2010 which included twitching a Lesser Kestrel at Minsmere in Suffolk, a Pallid Swift at Kessingland in Norfolk, the aforementioned Alpine Swifts and finishing off with a female Two barred Crossbill at the RSPB's headquarters at Sandy, Bedfordshire.Quite a day.

The Lowestoft Alpine Swifts

Inevitably images appeared of some of the latest influx of Alpine Swifts swooping through the skies at various locations and this served to fire Mark's desire to get similar images.

I was in the car park at my local Farmoor Reservoir at 1000am on Friday awaiting the arrival of Phil before taking our regular amble around the reservoir's concrete wastes and culminating in a coffee in the cafe to get over the experience. 

My phone rang. 

It was Mark. 

He had just seen more images of the recent Alpine Swifts and he was determined to try and photograph some himself. Right now.

We had a choice of location to head for as some swifts had been remaining faithful to one area for a number of days. Birds had been at Cromer in Norfolk for almost a week and another two were into their fifth day at a place called Chapel Six Marshes in Lincolnshire.

Drive to mine and I will drive us to Lincolnshire. 

I'm on my way. I will be at yours around 1130  I replied.

I met Phil on my way out of the reservoir car park and hurriedly explained my premature departure.Now well used to my twitching ways he was, as usual, understanding and wished me well.

Arriving at Mark's I transferred myself, camera and bins to his car and away we went to distant Lincolnshire and Chapel Six Marshes in particular, which is near Skegness. The drive would take a surprising two and a half hours considering the relatively short distance involved. It was a pleasant day of sunshine and blustery strong wind and regularly checking RBA for updates about the birds we were re-assured by the reports stating they were still over the car park at Chapel Six Marshes and showing well.

We entered Lincolnshire and traversed the dead straight roads that run for miles through huge prairie like fields with not a hedge or tree in sight. Despite the sunshine I felt depressed at the sight of this agri desert of monoculture we were passing through and it got worse around Boston as roadworks, endless roundabouts and traffic lights slowed our progress.Finally clear of Boston we followed the satnav's guidance into yet more flat landscapes.Approaching Skegness we were amused by a rather wonderfully named sign - Skeg Vegas.

We were never certain what it was for as the area below was concealed by high fencing but it looked like a small car race track of some sort and we learned later the sign was erected for fun by a local business man and had become something of an instant tourist attraction. It fitted perfectly with the tackiness of the area but we appreciated the self deprecating humour.

A few minutes later we passed Butlins holiday camp also looking none too enticing despite the sun.

Turning off the main road we passed some housing and an arcade of shops then ran parallel with the coastal dunes  and arrived in an isolated and empty car park which was the location where the swifts had been reported from.Where were the birders? Where were the birds? Not here for sure

A rapid consultation of RBA's app told us the swifts had moved a half mile south and were now to be seen over another car park at a place called Chapel Point. We drove back there and parking the car found another birder who told us we were in the right place.Mark was quicker than me and racing up some steps to the seawall which ran in front of a huge bank which was acting as a sea defence, just about managed to see the two swifts flying southwards over the bushes that covered the sea defence. Presumably the bushes were planted to keep the earthen bank intact.Behind lay housing which, with the way sea levels are rising, will be none too secure in years to come.

I joined Mark by which time the swifts had disappeared over the houses.Not overly worried about missing them I was assuming they would return soon, as a birder told us they had been here for an hour at least.

We were now standing on a concrete path that ran on the seaward side of the sea defence for a long way  with outposts of beach huts snuggled into recesses in the bank  and about half a  mile further was a cafe, similarly tucked into the bank and flying the union flag, proof if required that this area has a reputation for being very pro Brexit and anti immigration. Did they know about these foreign swifts I wonder.

Ominous clouds were  coming on the wind. The sun and blue sky disappeared as rapidly as the swifts. It began to rain and for twenty minutes it continued. as we joined two other birders sheltering under the porches of the beach huts.

The rain ceased, the clouds dispersed and out came the sun. Hoping the swifts would return we scanned the blue skies and white clouds but there was nothing to excite us. Mark decided to return to the original car park at Chapel Six Marshes in case the swifts had returned there while I opted to remain here at Chapel Point with my two new companions.We could keep contact by phone with Mark if we found the swifts.

For the next half an hour we scanned the skies but again found nothing. One of the birders departed along the path further south towards the distant cafe while the other  eventually gave up and went back to his car.

I was on my own. I  decided to call Mark. Checking my pockets I could not find my phone.We have all had such moments and my blood ran cold.Had it fallen out of my pocket? If so the chance of finding it was minimal. Then came revelation and a sense of relief.My phone was safe but was in Mark's car. I recalled I had left it there in the initial hurry to see the swifts at the Chapel Point car park

My relief soon turned to worry as I now realised I now had no way of communicating with Mark and crucially having no access to updates on RBA of where the swifts were. I walked back half a mile to the car park in the forlorn hope Mark may have returned there but he hadn't. There was little  I could do but look for the swifts and hope he could somehow find me. I walked a mile back the other way towards the cafe scanning for the swifts but could not find them.

The cafe on the left.Apparently if the flag is flying the cafe is open

Standing by the cafe I was now thoroughly dispirited and at a complete loss as Mark had my phone and could be anywhere along two miles or more of coast. I made a return to the Chapel Point car park and wait in the hope he would realise he had my phone in his car and come and look for me.

After half an hour of waiting at the car park the birder who had headed off, in what felt hours ago,  returned and informed me the swifts and Mark were down at the cafe. I made another mile walk to the cafe  but on getting there, guess what? Not a sign of Mark and even worse no swifts.

I almost laughed.The situation was so ridiculous. I stood looking out to sea.What should I do? 

The view out to sea across the sand and dunes.Despite the overall run down feeling of the area it still instilled a sense of wildness if you forgot what lay behind you

I resigned myself to the fact  I was not going to see the swifts and an inner calm came over me.Slowly I walked back yet another mile to the car park and would wait there for however long until Mark came searching for me.

On getting back to the car park there was Mark's car but no sign of Mark.! The car was locked so no chance of retrieving my phone.At least if I remained here I knew I would get home - eventually!

But where on earth was Mark? For half an hour I waited and wondered as another birder joined me.

Any sign? He enquired

Of what I wondered, the swifts or Mark

I told him my tale of woe.

Finally Mark appeared from I know not where 

You left your phone in my car. It's got a crap ring tone by the way, he announced

Have you seen the swifts? he added


Quick, get in the car and we can drive to the cafe as they are showing down there at the moment.

I wondered how I had missed them but now I had a chance to see them.

We parked in the Co-op car park at the back of the sea defence and headed for some steps that led to the track on the other side of the bank. 

There's one! shouted Mark. 

I looked in the direction he was pointing and immediately saw a large swift, careering on bow swept wings over the sea defences, hunting insects above the thick bushes growing on the bank.

We raced up the steps to get to the path that ran along the other side and made for the cafe just a hundred metres further on and stood there waiting.It was not long before the swifts re-appeared. 

c Mark 

Big and fast flying, they zoomed back and fore at no great height over the bushes and disappeared behind them inland only to re-appear in the sky. Overall a milky chocolate colour above, their white belly was the stand out feature when the sun caught them but for  a lot of the time they were silhouettes against the late afternoon skies, as in typical swift flight they rocketed around above us.Sometimes hard to follow in the camera as they flew so fast and erratically, sometimes distant, other times thrillingly close above our heads. An absolute nightmare to photograph. Mark did much better than me but I did what I could.

We stood waiting for the swifts next flypast as occupants from the cafe came out for a fag and regarded us in bemusement.Others passing by with dogs stopped to chat.

What's that? I shouted as a bird suddenly flew in similar erratic flight, in off the sea and veered away from us and over the sea defence

It's a Woodcock! Mark cried and so it was.

But back to the swifts and we continued to watch them as they came and went, dark bow shaped feathered missiles against a darkenng sky. The light began to fade ever more rapidly and they came no more