Thursday, February 24, 2011

Every mile is two in winter...

The words of 16th century Welsh poet George Herbert providing the title for this blog entry. They still have resonance today of course. February may have only 28 days but I've lost count of just how many of those I've spent bemoaning the weather!

February Sunrise
It's probably unfair on nature actually, after all it could have been so much worse (and was last year) but it's been the grey blanket that seems to have enveloped us all for countless hours, days and weeks that has been so tiresome. Even on the odd occasion when the burning planet has managed an appearance its not had the warmth to burn off the mist and fog.

Its been said (not by me I hasten to add) that February is the month for ducks. Referring to the amount of rainfall no doubt. But I have a different analogy to offer.
I like to think of it in this way. Imagine a duck swimming on the local village pond (something we are losing at an alarming rate actually, but that's for a future blog) to all intents and purposes the duck looks serene enough above the waterline but below there is lots of activity to propel him along.
Well that's how February is. Calm & quiet on the surface but look just below and nature is working as hard as ever to prepare for the following season.

Yesterday though following yet another miserable weather day there was for anyone who cared enough to notice at the dying of the day a sure sign of brighter things to come when the skies above the Kent countryside for a few moments looked as though they had been colour washed by an artists brush charged with warm reds.
To those of us born and bred here in the Garden of England it invoked just one thought "Red sky at night Shepherd's delight"   


And so it was that today dawned with blue skies and the spring sounds of skylarks over local farmland.
The warmer temperatures also meant that I could write an entry in my diary along the lines of it being the best day of the year thus far for spotting insects and bugs. Even our own garden that has seemed to be dormant for so long now sprung to life with a whole raft of insects and bugs coming out of hiding to 'catch some rays'

The first sign that it could be a special day came when whilst I sat in the car that I'd parked in a sunny spot mid-morning a cold, female Bee seemed to find the warmth of the car appealing.

Female Bee

This was my first sighting of a Bee of any kind this year. A welcome sight and a sure sign that Spring is close enough to smell.

Second on the list of visitors was a beautifully marked Wolf Spider in the garden.
These can be tricky to photograph because they have terrific eyesight coupled with an acute sense of touch and often are long gone before I've managed to set the camera up.
Today however, either my turn of speed was better than usual, the spider was still trying to warm itself from a winter slumber or I was just plain lucky!

Wolf Spider

I'm not sure if it's predominantly females that appear first in spring but again it was so with the next 'first' for 2011.
Hover Flies or as I think they are known in America 'Flower Flies'  are amongst the prettiest of British flies. Now I realise that for most folks describing any fly as pretty is pushing it a little but having photographed and studied so many over time and got to know a little about them I do believe they can be beautiful and to try and illustrate the point take a look at the photograph below of a Tachinid fly taken during last summer. C'mon, did you even know flies could look this good?

Phasia hemiptera (male)

Anyhow, to get back to Hover flies. Hover Flies belong to a large family of small to big flies. They are true flies or Diptera, with only one pair of wings in the Family Syrphidae. ( Wasps and bees have two pairs ).
The one that I spotted today on one of the evergreen shrubs in the garden rejoices under the scientific name of 'Episyrphus balteatus' but I much prefer the descriptive common name of Marmalade Fly.

Many of the of hoverflies have ornate body patterns, often of black and yellow, to mimic wasps and bees but are harmless. Hover fly mimicry includes warning coloration of yellow and black, a narrow waist like a wasp and even the ability to mimic the stinging action of a wasp, by pushing the tip of the abdomen into your fingers if they are caught and held.
The Marmalade Fly

To cap a wonderful springlike day filled with warm sunshine, enough bugs to entertain a sad old hippy who delights in chasing them around the Kentish countryside pushing a camera into their faces at every opportunity, on my afternoon walk I spotted this tiny weevil waking from it's winter dreams.

Weevil (8mm)

And so after a winter that began with early snow in November and that felt like Ground-hog Day on more than a few days it does now seem that the march of spring is now unstoppable and the promise of all that it holds has already began to lift the mood and is sustenance for the soul.

Until the next time then...

Thursday, February 03, 2011

"It's Like A Bloody Spring Day Innit"...

Great Swifts was the starting point for today's ramble. Accessed from a little footpath beside the vicarage it's a property of some substance. Recently for sale at a tempting £9,000,000 (surely a snip?) I did consider cold-calling the house with an offer of my own but like the Queen, I don't carry cash! it nestles in a 370 acre estate that dates back to the 1600s.

It's one of my walks that I choose when I want solitude as my thoughts rarely get interrupted by fellow walkers. The first few fields are usually empty but today contained a large number of sheep but they didn't have much to say.
The footpath runs along the edge of the land and to the left of the tree in the foreground of this photograph.

At the far end of these fields is a little gate that takes you through a small area of woodland. It's here that I'm usually distracted by bug hunting, in fact, always distracted by bug hunting to be fair.
The new owners of the estate have placed a whole raft of 'PRIVATE' signs around this area and so as to be sure I wasn't about to trespass I sent Herbie the terrier to check the sign out first.

He confirmed that it was indeed still a public footpath and that we could safely continue on our way without fear of transgression. I was amazed by this, after all Herbie is very bright but even I didn't realise he'd mastered the English language to such an extent. Anyhow, he  seemed assured that everything was in order but even so insisted on checking the rest of the area out before allowing me to proceed.

And so off we both went through the little kissing-gate and downhill to the wooded area.
Herbie knows only too well that he can take advantage of my distractions here and no sooner are we t'other side of the gate than he's off at full speed under the wire and into the wood proper barking at fleeing squirrels.
Even by staying to the footpath there was wildlife to be seen today and the macro was soon pressed into action with several species attracting my attention.

Being still wintertime of course the bugs that I do find are fairly small, the big guns have yet to arrive although even this early in the year on better days the choice of subjects seems to be growing.

On a fencepost beside the path I spotted a tiny green leafhopper (probably less than 4mm) This was Empoasca decipiens a familiar and common species in low vegetation. Belonging to the family Cicadellidae these little ones at first sight appear to be uniformly green but actually vary quite a bit and can even be almost yellow in colour.

Empoasca decipiens

Herbie & I somehow seemed to arrive at the end of the path at the same time before making our way through another gate, into a small field and then by way of a third gate onto a road, past a few houses (this is like a virtual tour isn't it? stay with me) and eventually into open fields again. The walk down this road isn't my favourite part of this particular jaunt (neither is it Herbie's actually) but it was made all the more pleasant today by the sight of a winter flowering cherry tree in one of the gardens.

Where was I ? Oh yes...the open fields again. These are bordered by some larger trees (did I mention that I like trees?) There is also more woodland beyond but being private property I have to restrain myself. 

Respecting the notice boards that proclaimed  'Dogs should be kept under close control at all times when livestock is present' even though I couldn't  spot any animals at first, I was glad I'd heeded the signs when Herbs began to suddenly get very interested in one section of the second field and was starting to pull on his lead. A few steps further and I could see the object(s) of his desire. A small flock of sheep and not only that, probably the friendliest sheep known to mankind. Perhaps they'd been hand-reared?

Just one little bitty moment though! That one in the front there? 'Dahli' I think it's name is.That looks like no ordinary sheep to me. Is this a recognised British breed? (Please tell me if you know) I've 'Googled' the subject and drawn a blank as far as identifying it thus far.

To my untrained eyes it looks very much like a cross between a sheep and a larma! That's why I feel it's name could be Dahli.............I'm sure I recall somebody talking about the Dahli Larma? (that's almost comedy)

'Dahli' the Sheep/Larma

Much as I'd have loved to get further acquainted with Dahli and friends, Herbie wasn't as keen. Well when I say he wasn't keen, he was doing his utmost to get them involved in a game but sheep being sheep they were having none of it.
Anyhow time was marching on and by now I'd been out walking for close to 2 hours. Stretch it too much further time-wise and the search parties would be gathering.
And so, reluctantly I began to make my way back, retracing my steps. I could have chosen another more circular route but the pull of knowing that the little footpath through the wood awaited once more was too strong.

Only time for a cursory look this time. Even on a fabulous day such as this the sun was sinking fast and sunset seemed to be creeping up on us.
As is almost always the case on my walks I became lost in my thoughts and before I knew it we were 'back at the very beginning' as the children's song goes.
Having been shaken from my cerebral musings by the realisation that we were now close to a main road and Herbs needed to be put onto his lead, I could see in the near distance the familiar sight of the old smock mill outlined by darkening skies in the fading light.

The inbound route takes me in a westerly direction and hence I'm looking directly into the ever lowering sun. Almost impossible to see the footpath without shielding my eyes with my hand it was little surprise then that I wasn't aware of another walker on the path and the first clue I got as to their presence as we passed was hearing a loud, booming voice proclaim "It's Like A Bloody Spring Day Innit"

Until the next time then...