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Tuesday, 25 June 2013

In Search of the Black Fallow of Ashridge, Yellow Wagtail and a few Chicks

Whipsnade. Having a lot of native trees and great wild places on the edge of the Downs provides for a wealth of native wildlife in and amongst the exotic zoo animals.  To this day, I will always remember seeing my first grey wagtail as a youngster and wondered why it was not called yellow, having that spectacularly bright yellow breast and belly. Ever since, I had kept my eyes peeled for the truly yellow wagtail, a bird that has always managed to elude me for some reason. And here, in all its glory,  the bird casually bobbing its tail and foraging in the dirt by the lake in Whipsnades deer park. Beautiful! The male a bright yellow, from head, breast and belly to the underside of its tail.

At last!

Having migrated all the way from Northern Africa, I do wonder what adventures these fragile looking birds must have been on.

Yellow Wagtail

What a wonderful little bird. Made even more enjoyable by the fact that next to the wagtail, lay a whole load of deer and some Bactrian Camels...

Bactrian Camel

Ashridge: In Search of the Black Fallow

Fallow deer were thought to be introduced to the UK by the Normans in the 11th Century. They are beautifully tan coated deer covered with elegant white spots and a pale belly. The males antlers are palmate, growing like the palm of a hand with a large flat section with lots of 'fingers'. The coat of this species can vary greatly; from pale leucistic varieties, to extremely dark and melanistic varieties. I had heard lots about the black fallow deer living amongst the woodland around Ashridge Estate and up by Ivinghoe Beacon. Between morning and evening shifts, I took the time to search for them (but not before a slice of carrot cake and a cup of earl grey).

The canopy kept me cool from the intense sun we had for a few days!

As I amble through the woods, the last few remains of the bluebells, that had not either withered away or been trampled on, cling on to their short spell in bloom below the woodland canopy as the trees slowly shut out the light. Deep lime green ferns climb above the layer of bluebells and form a mini-canopy above them - surely, ending the season of the bluebells.

Bluebells, Fern and Trees in leaf

Seed pods burst through the papery flower cases, spreading their seed ready for next years spring magic. 

Bluebell Seed Pods

A female scorpion fly hangs on to the side of a fern. In search of dead insects, this insect will often steal food from spiders webs. The tail in males often arches over its back, just like a scorpion, and is used in courtship displays, in attempts to attract a female and mate with her.

A female-looking Scorpion Fly
Quite disappointingly for this time of year the butterflies were few and far between. With only the odd sightings of speckled wood and large whites throughout the woodland, with the occasional common blue in the open grassland surrounding the woodland.

Speckled Wood
Walking the track up away from the estate, I noticed a large shape move between the branches of dense woodland up to my right. A pair of fallow deer, they had not noticed me. I climbed through the trees to get closer. I wondered whether they were habituated to humans and would not be bothered by my prresence. Until a couple of walkers along the track appeared. The deer lifted its head, looked across at them, then directly at me.


They scarpered towards the woodland edge. I slowly followed and managed to watch them anxiously watch out for me between grazing.

The melanistic fallow deer

Venturing further towards the top of the ridge, I spotted another deer down the hillside to my left foraging in the open. Once again, the deer spotted me, most likely with its exceptional hearing first. Finely acute senses allow deer to keep a watchful sense out for predators at all times. Their hearing, sense of smell and extreme peripheral vision allow them to effectively avoid predators most of the time. 

Just before the deer shot off into the bushes

Reaching the top, Dunstable Downs could be seen in all its glory, stretching across the flat valley beneath. The White Lion of Whipsnade, proudly marks the side of the hills. I stand near the point where workers would have had to walk to whilst building the lion, just to look back and check how progress on the feature was coming along. No wonder why it took 18 months to carve into the land!

The White Lion of Whipsnade and Dunstable Downs

Heading back across the fields, I noticed a small herd of fallow deer grazing in the field. One of them held the tan colouration, which could be an unrelated fallow that has joined the melanistic herd.

Leaping the fence!

I end this blog with a few shots from around the home. On the River Ivel, lots of chicks have been popping up all along the riverbank. Adorable!

Mallard Chicks

Moorhen closely followed by her chicks
 Harriet spotted a hedgehog in the garden. I was dying to see it, but by the time I got home from work and got out into the garden it was near midnight. I settled for some experimental shots of leaves in the torchlight.

I hope you enjoyed reading and, especially if you could not be bothered to read it, I hope you enjoyed looking at the photos ! Til' next time ya'll ...

Monday, 10 June 2013

Yellow: Rape, Butter, Hammer and Moon

Blue, yellow and white flowers, with purple buds... the lovely Forget-me-not!

From the classic signs of spring, to the turn of summer. My previous two blogs were heavily focused around  the violet-blue bluebells and the dunnock in the garden. The dunnocks have fully fledged and the few chicks that survived are now off on their own adventure, with the ultimate goal of surviving until next spring and having chicks of their own. Because there was so much blue going on in my previous blog, I decided to theme this one around the colour yellow. A very summery colour indeed, often associated with optimism and bright, fun-filled days. But first, a bluebell with a difference...

From blue (and white) bells...

.... to the yellow of rapeseed

The weather had finally taken a turn for the better, at least for a few days, and you will have noticed the fields are filled with the overwhelmingly sweet smelling rapeseed plant. Its scent so thick in the air you can almost feel it. I quite like the smell, and I especially enjoy the fields laden with splashes of gold amongst the intense green of the now chlorophyll packed leaves on our trees.

Fields of rape

Fallen shed

In just the last forty years, rapeseed production has increased in the UK from a few thousand to a couple of million of tonnes, and is becoming a far more common sight as we drive, train, cycle and walk through our countryside. Since it has become a far more palatable crop and the toxins have been removed from its oils, it is quite a healthy alternative to other cooking oils on the market. 

In the rape

Aesthetically, the flowering plant looks wonderful on bright sunny days, and provides a beautiful contrast to the bright blue skies on a clear day. Fortunately for me, the plant is insect-pollinated, and although some people have reported to suffer allergic reactions from it, my horrendous hay-fever appears to be none the worse...

Amongst the rape

Rachael and I took a trip up to Therfield, a site recently designated as a coronation meadow in honour of the 60th anniversary of the Queens coronation. Buttercups laden the fields as cows lounged in the heat, lifting their head out of curiosity as two people made their way through their field.

Cow in a field of buttercups

Yellowhammers called from perches in the hedgerows surrounding the arable farmland. Breeding populations of this bird have declined by over 50% across the UK in the last 25 years. But, like the skylark in this area, the yellowhammer is seemingly doing well in this part of the countryside. What a beautiful little bird it is too!

Male Yellowhammer

Some insects, like this field digger wasp, use the brightness of yellow, mixed with black, as a warning to other animals. Kindly, this provides others with the knowledge that trying to predate them could be a bad idea...

Field-digger wasp

This lunar months full moon shone a brilliantly bold orange and yellow against the black of the clear night sky, dulling the surrounding stars from the top of the Downs in Whipsnade.

Full moon!

Driving into Stotfold, the moon sat directly above the road leading into the town. Pulling over, I stood in the middle of the road, and enjoyed the incredible sight.

Showing me the way home

How amazing is the natural world around us? I really believe more people need to take more time to just stop and admire the sight, sound, smell, taste and feel of the world around us. Take a break from the long drive home and see your breathe as you watch the rise of the moon. Listen to the dawn chorus before getting into your car to work and putting the horrendously irritating idiot on Radio 1's breakfast show on, as they churn out a loud of crap music that sounds like the last load of crap music that came out two years ago. Watch flying mammals catch flying insects on the wing at night, bees collecting nectar and immersing themselves in pollen. Think about how plants have evolved to rely on insects to enable them to reproduce and how insects rely on plants for food. You do not have to go far - your back garden is a great place to start, just open your senses to the world around, learn and be inspired.

Tree sparrows and a Sparrowhawk in the garden this week have bumped this years garden bird list up to 23 species... Next blog will include a little trip around Ashridge (again!) and Ivinghoe. Hope ya'll enjoyed!