Saturday, 27 June 2015

Different downs!

Last weekend I ventured north to collect a painting from Devizes, which enabled me to meet up with a friend, who took me to his local downs - Pewsey Down NNR.

I've been wanting to go here for ages, but have never gotten round to it (well, with Martin Down on the doorstep, why bother?!!). It was well worth it - such a contrast from my usual haunt. The views from the top of the ridge of hills are stunning, and the topography perhaps more typical of some of the Dorset downs. The NNR forms part of a larger chain of hills running in a ridge north of Devizes in the Vale of Pewsey, some of which are Iron Age hillforts. The steep slopes - enhanced by archaeological alterations - provide excellent habitat for a wealth of typical chalk downland plants, together with associated invertebrates. And the recently-restored Pewsey White Horse - which you can walk up to - provides another focal point in the landscape.

On the car journey to the NNR, along a scenic minor road, a weasel ran out in front of us - don't worry, it timed it perfectly and survived - but I saw this as a good sign of things to come!

The flowers seemed a bit behind this year, with the orchids only just starting to get going - however, my friend Tom knows the site well, and located a great sheltered spot with lots of orchids - mostly common spotted, but also fragrant and lesser butterfly orchid.

The thyme was out in abundance, noticeably covering the ant hills (with their associated micro-climate of increased temperature - all those busy bodies!), together with the mass of yellow hawkbits, mouse-ear hawkweed and other dandelion-types, the delicate flowers of fairy flax, and with kidney vetch just going over. In amongst the flowers, I spotted a forester moth - these are beautiful iridescent green day-flying moths, in decline nationally due to the loss of their unimproved grassland habitat.

So, overall, a very successful walk and I hope to be back on this down in the future - although, I do hear the call of Martin Down again (it has been ages since I popped down)...

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Unexpected spectacles!

Phew - what a week! I started a new job on Monday, but despite that, managed to find the time for some unexpected immersion in the natural world.

It got off to a good start on Monday whilst driving to work - only just heading out of Salisbury and there was a red kite above me, just next to the crematorium - very incongruous! It's great to see these once-threatened birds making such a successful comeback. It's taken them a while to get a good talon-hold in Wiltshire, but I'm starting to see them not infrequently around Salisbury.

That evening was the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. As the holder of one of the original copies, Salisbury played host to an extravagant pageant through the streets. As much of the city centre was shut down, I had walked in across the Harnham watermeadows, admiring the little egret along the way. On the return journey, the distant sounds of the choir in the Cathedral calling the event to a close seemed to goad the local bird life into a cacophony of song in the twilight - so atmospheric, and blending perfectly with the human voices echoing in the distance.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the week was spent in various offices, but having just spent today sorting out the mess of a garden, I am very hopeful that I can have my very own local patch right outside the flat! Fingers crossed, as I am not known for my green fingers at all.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Getting to know a new patch

I've not yet had the chance to get out since coming back from Turkey, but I am going back to the archaeological dig in North Wiltshire tomorrow for the final time. The reason I bring this up, is that I find encounters with the natural environment pop up in the funniest places.

For example, when digging down, down, down in a trench, we were exposing a lot of bare earth, leaving it to bake in the summer sun. This proved to be excellent habitat for some solitary bees, although, as we shared the trench with them for much of the day, we were able to observe they were not entirely solitary.

I'm no bee expert, and with 30 000 bee species worldwide how can anyone hope to be, so I'm not sure what species they are (they seemed different to the masonry bees commonly seen nesting in walls of buildings). However, each bee seemed to share an entrance to a particular burrow (there were several in the wall of the trench), going to and fro collecting pollen to feed their grubs inside. This sort of communal living - sharing a common burrow, but not working towards furthering the survival of other's young - is a fascinating halfway-house on the evolutionary scale towards full social living, such as in the honey bee or bumblebee.

Hopefully, by the time we have finished excavating, the bees will have raised their young and we will be able to fill in the area without any impacts on them. But so interesting and unexpected to find this whilst excavating a 12th century chapel in someone's front garden!

Next weekend, I simply MUST get out on the Down - now I have even more of an incentive, as I have just secured a promotion as a team leader in Dorset, so need to get out and get to know that patch more. Don't worry though, the surrounds of Salisbury will still be my main love and focus of this blog!

Monday, 8 June 2015

Missing the UK

I'm just back from a week's walking in Turkey, which was fabulous albeit hot! Although much of the wildlife was very different to that here, there were some similarities in strange places! For example, high in the mountains, often the only bird we heard was the humble chaffinch!

Whilst I was away, the annual burnt tip orchid count on martin down was held - this usually means that they count more, as I seem to have an effect on them! And yes, this was true this year, with over 230 spotted in the localised patches surveyed via walking transect with volunteers.

They are beautiful if diminutive plants, and easily overlooked, but a real speciality of unimproved chalk grassland.

I'm looking forward to getting back out on the reserve as it is now butterfly season properly - and after chasing butterflies in Turkey I'm pining for our lovely species such as dark green fritillary and the humble marbled white. Bring on summer!