Sky lace.

The swallows and martins are almost gone.

Over the garden they have poured in their hundreds, companionably calling as they weave their way to far away Africa.

Ted Hughes  wrote that they were stitching the sky and so I have always thought of them, but there were such thick clouds of them last week that I thought maybe they were lace making against the clouds, pulling delicate nets of fine worked lace  behind them.

Our house in on a migration route from Europe to Africa and every year the birds pour over us. Swallows and martins, chasing hobbies, red kites, honey busards, even the odd osprey and flock of blue, blue bee eaters stream over, sometimes high and sometimes low enough to feed from the insects rising from our garden.

The image of the fine lace woven by  the flight  patterns of wings for an instant and then rewoven, reassembled and pulled delicately across the whole world amuses me, something so much lighter and freer than a net : starting in the barns and eves of Europe and then being pulled by the interlacing wings all the way to Africa, a world unified  and beautified by birds!

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Other Eyes.

 

There is so much bad news , so much that scrapes the skin  from your flesh and leaves just flinching, flayed nerves alive to every sadness. And so we turn our eyes away, watch a moth bulging at our self indulgence with blissful alien incomprehension, listen to the hoot of an owl, calling between the roar of the jets, read haikus, allow a late flower to suprise us and to delight us and we hold on as the world turns and turns and we hold on, hold on.

 

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Away.

It is still summer and glittering.  Jewels hunt amongst the rose petals and the perfume of heat is strong.

But the night is cooler and the dawn later. The bats are coming into roost over the apple trees when I have to leave for work, their tantalising trails of clicks and whirls are caught by the bat box and then forgotten in the blur of noise and traffic and faces and faces and faces that fill the working day.

And take me away.

 

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Living in the Modern world.

This swallow was nesting above the cutlery shelf in a busy English beer garden. Drinkers clattered by collecting knives and forks, ketchup and vinegar and bar staff plonked down ploughmans’ lunches, Sunday roasts and Branston pickle sandwiches on their way to tables ringed by hungry drinkers.  The swallow ignored them all  and safe between the electrical wires and heating ducts brought butterflies and bugs back to its brood of hatchlings .

I have put up artificial, purpose made nests for swallows and house martins all round my house, just above my garden which is heaving with insect banquets and the birds have spurned them all. I have laughed at the improbability of my neighbour ever populating his huge new house martin monster hotel as he insists on constantly shaving the grass beneath with noisiest  lawn mower known to creation. However, it seems I have been totally wrong about what these birds want, as this picture proves. To attract swallows to nest in harmony give them chatter, clatter, the smell of cooking and the fumes of plenty of good bitter beer!

Every step you take.

Walking by the edge of an old duck pond , the shadowed earth between the grass shivered. A tiny vibration of stalks and a sense that the ground was spotted with raindrops falling upwards: the frogs had emerged.

Great lumbering things that we are, we minced and high footed our way, conscious at once of our potential to massacre with each clumsy foot fall.

This single froglet rested momentarily in an outstretched hand. Its pin prick heart beating blood around around this minuscule body; nerves registering our heat, eyes wide to the boundless ocean of our enormous flesh.

Two animals together for a single heartbeat next to an old duck pond in the July shade.

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The first time.

Today was the sound of kestrels learning to fly, keening, crying , mewing, mewling, over and over as they flopped and fell and soared and swooped for the very first time out of crowed malodorous nests in dark church towers out, out into the wide blue sky flying with clouds and martins and jackdaws and the clacking of stork bills and the unrepeatable perfume of lime trees in flower for the first time, the first time, the very, very, first time in to the new world.

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Hogs need holes

I was telling my neighbour about the hedgehogs is the garden and she told me how amazed she was to see them in her garden too. There is no surprize in this as a hedgehog roams about two kilometres a day. The problem is that so many gardens are so securely fenced off from each other that hedgehog cannot move from one to another. Small gaps between fences panels or holes under lines of wire fences are all that is needed for a prickly hog to squeeze safely through and to find enough to eat each night.

Humans are obsessed with tidiness. We like straight lines and we fill the gaps in with unyielding concrete in the name of tidiness. We strim down the rough patches and we mow the grass within an  inch of its life. Tidy gardens have very little wildlife and are such a waste of wonderful spaces!

Putting hedgehog path ways through new and old fences is a wonderful way of cooperating with your community, getting to know the neighbours and helping one of the most irresistible mammals I know.

This link to the wildlife trusts of the UK shows you how to do it.

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/actions/how-create-hedgehog-hole

How to moth trap.

This post is for those who would like to trap moths and discover what is flying at night when they are safe in bed. If moths give you the heebie-jeebies then skip this post!

I am sure there are other ways of doing it, with other equipment, but I am just sharing my own experience for those who are curious.

I have been trapping for about 12 years on a regular basis.  I had been out with other naturalists many years ago in Wales, but it wasn’t until my husband bought me a trap for a present that I started in earnest.

 

First thing you need is a moth trap.   

https://www.watdon.co.uk/   Watkins and Doncaster provided Charles Darwin with his equipment.  They send across the world and they know what they are doing.  I recommend their basic plastic bucket trap to start with and two bulbs (in case you smash one!).

All a trap is, is a UV light bulb which attracts the moths, above a plastic funnel.  The moths then fall down into the bucket below, where they perch on cardboard egg boxes in safety for the night.

The next morning you switch off the light, open the trap gently and carefully remove each egg box one by one. You then photograph the moths (in case they fly off!) and then try to identify them using a good guide book.

I use British Moths by Chris Manley published by Bloomsbury.  I have not found a similar single volume guide for France.  I am certain there are excellent guides for where you live.  There are also some excellent free on line identification sites.  I use https://ukmoths.org.uk/systematic-list/ and also http://montgomeryshiremoths.org.uk/ which is very good for showing what is around at the right time of year.

You make a note of the weather and date and keep a list of what you find in English and or Latin.  I tick off all the species that I have confidently identified in my guide book, so that I can find them again more easily.  I later send my list and photos to my local naturalist organisation, https://faune-alsace.org  so that my records can be compared with others, but you can skip this bit!

That is the bare bones and I am aware that it sounds unutterably dull and nerdy.  The reason for doing it is because you get to see the most wonderful creatures with your own eyes, while drinking a cup of tea on the back step of your own home and that takes some beating as a wildlife experience.  I have been lucky enough to live in Zambia and to spend months on safari, I have lived in Costa Rica for four years and in Brazil for two and spent as much time as possible in the forests, rivers and oceans, seeing wildlife that most people only see on David Attenborough tv programmes and yet I have never enjoyed wildlife in such comfort, or been so amazed on a daily basis as I have been when moth trapping in my own back garden!

 

Tips.

  1.  It takes a long time to learn the common moths that you will encounter on your patch.  It has taken me 10 years to be confident with the common moths and even then I make mistakes.  There are a lots of moths and many of them look the same!!!

2. Start by identifying the ones with clear colours or markings.  Leave the dull ones until much later.  There is no shame in being confused.  If the guide book says the moth that you have spent hours identifying is very rare in your area, then you probably have made a mistake.

3. Keep your moths cool.  If it is warm and the trap has been left in the sun before you open it, then they will all fly away before you identify them.  Move your trap into the coolest shade you can and let them settle before taking out the boxes.  If you do this, you do not need to put them in collecting jars to look at.  They will sit happily on the egg box while you admire them.

4. Take a photo on your phone or camera, so you can look back at them and identify them when you have time.  This final phase often requires a glass of chilled wine and a sofa!

5. Let the moths fly off when they want to, or shake onto a bush.  My cats used to try to eat them, but now treat them with feline disdain.

 

Enjoy!!

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1. UV light and plastic funnel.

2. Box containing old egg boxes and electrical connection.

3. Lead to mains or to a big battery if you want to set up the trap in a remote place.

4. Identification guide.

 

Gifts of the night.

It has been painfully hot here. My garden has had to fend for itself, as going out in the sunshine has been impossible.  Luckily we are on holiday and can sleep the heat of the day away and get up before dawn, open up the house and let in a breath of cool air.

My moth trap has been on almost every night and a wonderful range of visitors has appeared to be sorted over in the pearly morning light before the sun races up over the hedge.

I have been trapping for more than 10 years now and I never cease to be amazed by the diversity and beauty of the moths that I find and how they vary with the seasons.   I have identified more than 160 species of moths just in my back garden over the years and 67 species this year so far. Every time I open the trap there is a possibility  that I will find a moth that is a  totally new record for me and that is a real thrill. I send all my records into my local wildlife society on line and it surprising how under recorded French papillon du nuit (butterflies of the night) are.

The photo at the top is a lovely large emerald that fluttered out of the  trap onto the lawn.

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And this beast is a privet hawk moth.

As they say in the film credits “no animal was hurt in the making of this blog” and all these gifts of the night fly away after identification.

Who knows who will arrive tonight?

Rose Bower

I have always wanted a rose bower.

The very word bower sounds secret and enclosing.

I have trained  roses up wrought iron arches with varying degrees of success, but our wild dog rose has produced the longest, most exuberant arms of flowers to wrap around the old wheel barrow and make marvellous the compost corner.

Its simple pink blossoms are transient, perfumed and perfect. No dog ever wagged so      wonderfully!

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Plant Blindness

This fascinating article from the BBC explores how important plants are and how most people don’t even see them.

In my experience children and young people are fascinated by plants if you take to the time and effort to talk to them and to show them what is all around them. From quirky names to folk stories, edibility, seed dispersal and smell, plants are endlessly fascinating as we all know; but we do have a duty to spend a little time with youngsters ( and the not so young!) to physically show them what amazing richness there is beyond the little world of our smart phones.

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190425-plant-blindness-what-we-lose-with-nature-deficit-disorder

Breaking free.

Spring is a liberation for the heart and the soul: the return of life is everywhere at this time of year.

On the path, a blackbird’s delicate egg shell speaks of something set free and in the air above, black caps cascade music against white clouds. At my feet, beneath the still bare trees, there are tiny white oxalis flowers, bruise blue lungworts, splatters of seven leaved cardamines and whole slopes of improbable violets, such as I have never seen in an April wood before.

There is herb Paris and wild strawberries, sweet woodruff and dogs’ mercury, oxslips and celandine, lords and ladies and bachelors’ buttons and more and more and more pushing up from the moist earth under a confetti of wild cherry petals; all for this apparently inauspicious, inelegantly sounding, miraculous year of 2019!

Starting Early.

The leaves are not yet out, but the sunshine is dazzling. So much extraordinary, unmitigated light is flooding me in a kind of shiney March madness. Everything is bare and beautiful, raw and stark and shadowless.

The bright early spring has tempted me to start mothing earlier than usual. The nights are still frosty, but some wonderful moths are flying already. Most early moths have over wintered as adults and tend to be restful shades of brown and grey to avoid  predation. I have found modest quakers, hebrew characters and brindled beauties. This speckled specimen reminds me of a garibaldi biscuit as it scuttles quickly under  the few emergent leaves to wait out the bright spring sunshine until peaceful night time.

When the time is right.

Acorns have waited all winter to be in the right place at the right time and today the brown shells split, the simple leaves began to swell and the powerful root began to push down into the soil. A drift of acorns half trodden into the mud decided today was the day and erupted into life.

I couldn’t resist picking up a handful of nuts that were not yet attached to the soil and I took them home in my pocket. I have laid them in a pot of soil from the oldest part of the garden, where hopefully the good things that trees need will bind with the emerging roots and seedlings will grow.

Like most people, I have never grown an oak tree, but I have a feeling that it really is about  time to try!

Winston and the slow worm – again!

The garden is waking up. There are bees on the willow flowers, daffodils braving the frosty clods and Winston the cat has caught another slow worm. These warm, smooth, legless lizards spend the winter, safe in compost heap, but when the sunshine rouses them, my cat is waiting to pounce.

The good news is that he doesn’t hurt them. With gentleness unusual in a feline killer, he picks them up in his mouth, brings them to the nearest human and drops them unmolested at our feet. The slowworm stays very still, is happy to be picked up and Winston mewls and yowls proudly until he is praised and petted for his “ catch”.

The reptile is returned to the warm rotting heap; Winston frisks about full of the joys of spring and the sun shines on!

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While the sun shines….

After the grey of winter,  the sunshine of the last weeks has been like mana from heaven. Cloudless skies, glittering light; the lid has been taken off and we all breath more freely. However, heat in February is fundamentally wrong, and the news of temperature records being smashed across Europe, makes this early sun disturbing, however welcome it may be right now. Children are leaving their classrooms to protest about adults lack of concern about global warming. Their future is being frittered away while we hum and haa about ugly wind turbines and expensive fuel taxes. It is hard not to close our eyes to the uncomfortable truth of what global warming will do to our lovely earth. It is much easier to just lie back and feel the heat on our faces.

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Yes!

What a shout! What a yell of life and light, after so much winter!

Spring is wonderfully early, the sky is scoured blue and burnished in sunshine.

Catkins of expanding hazel are pulled out in the unexpected heat and the bees appear from no where.

Pollen clouds of sherbet yellow are  thrown up into widening, widening, wonderful opening sky!

Rambling bramblings.

Squeals of delight come easily to children and rarely to the truely grown up. Adult life consists of such profoundly dull things that an unforced squealing is considered an audible anomaly. That is why bramblings are so wonderful.

The odd jaunty red brambling amongst the chaffinches or sparrows in the garden is a smile inducing pleasure, but a wintering flock streaming overhead as the darkness falls evokes a real squeal.

Some years they don’t come. Apparently the prevelence of beech mast has to be just right to tempt them south from their Scandinavian homes in such numbers: they dont take wing in their millions for nothing. But when the conditions are right they arrive in huge numbers and feed voraciously in the woods of Southern Germany, Eastern France and northern Switzerland. We were once in the forest when they descended to forage and every leaf was alive with flicking, delicately rustling birds, as thousands and thousands fed quietly around us.

This year we have seen few on the ground, but suddenly the air has been fabulously full of them. Somewhere relatively close, the bramblings have been roosting on mass and the skies right above our muddy garden have been filled with their sturdy determined silhouettes returning at dusk to their temporary roost.

The first flock flying over make you stop what you are doing and shout for others to look. The second flock makes you shout louder, the third, the forth and the fifth flock leave you rooted to the earth in immobile delight. When the flocks streaming overhead are indistinguishable and there is no sky between them, then you realise you are seeing millions of birds and squealing is the only possible response!

We tried in vain to find the roost, but by the time we had time to give up doing the dull things that grown ups do, the bramblings in their extraordinary, unbelievable millions, had gone somewhere else.

I hope they will be back next year.

“Flashing like tinsel” – for Mary Oliver.

“There’s Oliver, still standing around in the weeds. There she is, still scribbling in her notebook… but at the center: I am shaking; I am flashing like tinsel.”

Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard

by Mary Oliver

His beak could open a bottle,
and his eyes – when he lifts their soft lids –
go on reading something
just beyond your shoulder –
Blake, maybe,
or the Book of Revelation.

Never mind that he eats only
the black-smocked crickets,
and the dragonflies if they happen
to be out late over the ponds, and of course
the occasional festal mouse.
Never mind that he is only a memo
from the offices of fear –

it’s not size but surge that tells us
when we’re in touch with something real,
and when I hear him in the orchard
fluttering
down the little aliminum
ladder of his scream –
when I see his wings open, like two black ferns,

a flurry of palpitations
as cold as sleet
rackets across the marshlands
of my heart
like a wild spring day.

Somewhere in the universe,
in the gallery of important things,
the babyish owl, ruffled and rakish,
sits on its pedestal.
Dear, dark dapple of plush!
A message, reads the label,
from that mysterious conglomerate:
Oblivion and Co.
The hooked head stares
from its house of dark, feathery lace.
It could be a valentine.