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Preview: Kingsdowner


An account of natural things in and around Kingsdown, East Kent.

Updated: 2018-01-17T21:22:27.129+00:00


Habeo Blogdt


It's a bit late for a New Year's Resolution but I really must keep this blog up-to-date. If nothing else it's a good way of keeping a diary and I often look back to see what I saw where and when.After a dry April, we now have a wet May, so today's note relates to a historical book, Hanbury and Marshall's Flora of Kent (1899), available online here.It's noticeable, of course, that many of the records show that specimens were "collected", sometimes in armfuls, which must have cleared some Just-About-Managing species from an area.  This quote is relevant, but probably not correct in many cases:George Chichester Oxenden (1797-1875) an author of satiric verses and parodies, was also an orchid enthusiast who had provided Darwin with several specimens. Oxenden was included on Darwin's presentation list for Fertilisation of Orchids (1862), and his assistance is noted on pp 31 n., 43, and 78 of the same.Unfortunately he would not have known Jocelyn Brooke (1908—1966) who lived nearby at Bishopsbourne and collected plants in early life before reforming later on.Hanbury and Marshall were obviously impressed with our part of the county, and the last sentence of the description is particularly glowing.Most species entries are fascinating, such as that of shepherd's needle, Scandix pectin-veneris, which is recorded as "colonist, common throughout the county".  Not so now, with just a handful of sites.[...]

An Orchid for Spring


Laurie Lee's A Rose for Winter retraces his steps through Andalusia, and we were pleased to retrace some of ours to see more of this fascinating land. Spring is well under way in Spain in mid-March so I'll call this trip An Orchid for Spring. Travelling conditions in Spain have improved immensely even since the 1950s, and we were, of course, able to drive into the mountains in comfort. The first stop, after a civilised arrival at Gibraltar airport, was at a migration watchpoint near Tarifa where we were lucky to watch seven black storks and an Egyptian vulture fly in from Africa, astonishingly close across the straits.Even luckier, a large boulder by the dirt road held a group of griffon vultures, which had presumably also arrived that day. Our plans were to explore some new areas along the Atlantic coast and into the hills, looking for birds, bugs and botany, encouraged by reports of a wet winter and a warm spring that should bring on the flowers that we missed on our earlier drier trips. We would be guided again by John Cantelo's Birding Cadiz website and publication, as well as by a new Crossbill book Western Andalusia which he also co-wrote.We were also inspired to return to Andalusia by a tantalisingly distant view five years ago of a pueblo blanco which we resolved to visit sometime -  ...  and Olvera did not disappoint. A marvellous setting with church and Moorish castle on a rock, which could be visited for a pittance, with a fascinating museum included.The scene is set - the weather (mostly) fine. What will we see?  [...]

Review of 2016 - mostly arable


This year, so eventful politically, was spent quietly in the south of England, and almost all in east Kent. The Border Agency was only troubled once, by a day-trip to France (it rained). The review of the year is therefore rather less exciting than previous ones, especially since much of the time was spent trudging around arable fields looking for weeds. But that kept us happy!I'll list the general highlights, then a review of the arable weeds for those who have made it that far:Best birds - easy! In a year where I added nothing to my spreadsheet (life, UK, Kent, garden etc) the lucky sight of a dozen red kites feeding over the windmill field at Upper Walmer is the clear winner.I had taken a day off in May as it was sunny, and as we drove past the mill we saw them wheeling and diving over the newly-cut hay, taking the mice, voles, rabbits and other victims of the mowing.  This flock were reported elsewhere in the area that day, but no similar sightings were made during the year so we really were in the right place at the right time.Second best bird - nicknamed Hengist, a male sparrowhawk that staked out the garden and took a few of our specially-fattened sparrows and (regrettably) one of the pair of collared doves. It was instructive to see the two "eyes" on the back of his head.Best mammal - a hedgehog at Tilmanstone - my first for years!Best reptile - adders at Samphire Hoe.Best bugs - also at the sun trap of Samphire Hoe, were shield bugs and a number of other bugs that enjoy a lengthy season basking in the sunlight reflected by the cliffs and the sea.Best butterfly - a couple of dozy graylings that posed for photos in Wareham forest. Finding this species is usually difficult and time-consuming so these two were a real pleasure. Best moth - n/aBest views - the Dorset coast from Tyneham - stunning!  This is helped, of course, by the immensely varied geology of the area which gave hours of interest.Best habitats - also in Dorset, I was taken aback by the heaths around Wareham which are extensive, unspoilt and beautiful.  I could have spent weeks just pottering around, with the favourite spot being Wareham forest with sundews, Dartford warblers and graylings amongst others.Best reserve - Broadham Down near Chilham, a new one to me, that we stumbled upon while out exploring. A fine place that deserves more visits. Commendation for Kimmeridge Bay, with an underwater reserve that can be explored with a snorkel.Best general plants - a tie between oblong-leaved sundew and bog gentian, both on the lovely heaths around Wareham, Dorset. The latter took some finding, but eventually a swathe of hundreds was found.Best orchids - I've not been a great fan of lady orchids (must be spoilt) but the show this year at Bonsai Bank was superb.  Best arable weed - but first let me tell you a story.........In an attempt to "give something back" I signed up to survey local sites for both birds and plants with BTO and NPMS respectively. The bird survey was desperately dull as it covered green concrete farmland, and there's only so much interest you can generate with skylark territories. As it is next to a large new housing development, however, it will be interesting to follow the trends in the next few years.After this, the prospect of surveying further farmland was not attractive, especially as it was on the prairies of east Kent with barely a hedgerow in sight. But wait! A little research on the Plantlife site shows that this area is a species hotspot of European importance, as shown below.So why is this? The first survey gave us corn parsley (an early favourite for best plant as it was a first for me), venus' looking-glass and other unusual species.These finds inspired an obsession with arable weeds and the stewardship schemes that are intended to help their survival. I was surprised what could be found when a little space was allowed by the farmer, and of course appalled at the dreadful practices that gene[...]



Very appropriate!  Great singer - great support.

Another year


So it's 2016, and the year-list has to start again. It didn't get past February last year, but there was little to report so it didn't miss much. So far, three days in, it's up to an unimpressive 50 but that's without trying and with mostly foul weather. This year, I promise to do better.

Highlights so far are:
  • sparrowhawk on the windowledge;
  • coal tit on a feeder (uncommon here);
  • 16 goldfinches eating up my pension fund; and
  • 24 little gulls in an hour, flying south into the wind at the rifle range.
A fond farewell was said to the Prince of Wales pier which has provided bracing walks, good food and occasional birds in the past, but which will be redeveloped by Dover Harbour Board with questionable intentions.

There were a good few kittiwakes and turnstones, and a shag conveniently-placed next to a cormorant for comparison purposes.

The weather has been weird with monthly temperature records broken, no frosts and plants flowering ridiculously early, including a single coltsfoot on the range, which normally appear at the end of February.

What will happen next who knows (two months of snow, or a 1976 summer?).

Season's greetings, and a teaser for Tenerife.


At the festive time of year I send my best wishes for an enjoyable Christmas and a fine New Year to all readers, if any remain after such a long pause in publication.  A New Year's resolution (not a hard one) will be to post more regularly, and hopefully to find interesting things to write about before doing so.

Having discovered a civilised way of spending part of December, in Tenerife, I should at least get off to a good start.  The robin above is, as sharp-eyes birders will have noticed, the Tenerife sub-species E.r.superbus, while the santa below is sub-species S.c. riduculus.

Have a good time and see you in the New Year!

In search or orchids and chameleons - Barbate


There are differences between Italy and Spain:Italy has few birds but many lizards; Spain has few lizards but many birds - coincidence?Italy has many orchids; Spain, relatively few. We saw hardly any on our trip a couple of years ago, and none on our travels this time until the last day when we parked on a sandstone cliff and searched the apparently likely places, in clearings with rosemary, sun rose and heather, and a strange plant called Dipcadi serotinum. Foolish we were, until we moved into the shadows of the pine woods and finally found some sawfly orchids. Nearby were occasional sombre bee orchids. - if sawflies seek out sawfly orchids, what is the sombre bee orchid trying to attract? Of course - sombre bees! Sod's law - when we returned to the car we saw plenty of sawfly orchids around the carpark - we'd been looking in the wrong habitat. The final quarry on the holiday was chameleon (the common or Mediterranean chameleon, chameleo chameleon) , although it was early in the year - they prefer not to emerge until April. We read that they live in white broom in this south-western part of Spain, so we dutifully checked some of the many bushes between Barbate and Cape Trafalgar and found just two - grumpy looking buggers they were too. Best found by looking for their silhouettes on branches against the light,they are indeed well camouflaged - so they don't seem to change colour. Their green-and-white patterning matched the foliage and flowers perfectly.You know that they have seen you, but unlike lizards they are not speedy movers, so put on a panic-stricken slow-motion creep, all the while giving a baleful glare, as if disgusted at being disturbed.And just look at those feet - superb!The holiday was complete - we couldn't ask for more. It's a great area, full of fascination - well worth a visit.Other incidentals:Ubiquitous Sardinian warblerDitto serinRed-striped oil beetles Berberomeloe majalis Catchfly And a monarch - crowning glory![...]

With a little help from the guide


You go on holiday, you've done the research, a bag of reference books and optics is hauled onto the aircraft, then thrown into the hire car, and the satnav is plugged into the cigarlighter socket.Likely habitats are picked from the paper maps sourced from Amazon, and then you realise that the Ibiza isn't going to get you there. The road has petered out into a rocky track. You take solace with the birds around you - your first greenfinch of the year,and a little owl looks down too wisely.Serins and corn buntings rattle all around........ and the odd Spanish Festoon flutters by. But it's OK - you have a plan (in fact printed sheets with lots of plans).  You have armed yourself with the marvellous Birding Cadiz guide, provided free online by John Cantelo from Canterbury and Alcala de los Gazules depending on the time of year.He provides detailed information on all of the best sites in the area, with careful driving instructions and notes on the best ventas to visit, as well as comments on the birds to be seen. It was an invaluable addition to the holiday, and was recommended to a number of birders of various nationalities that we met on the way. For example, he takes you down a track from an obscure village, to a hillside that is a "reliable site for little bustard". Sure enough, you hear a raspberry from the middle of the hillside - something you've listened out for on the whole trip, without hearing. A few minutes later you see:Wonderful - another daft chicken-sized bird, and well worth the suggested donation to the bird charity of your choice (SEO for us).John's 120-odd pages also led us to La Janda (black-winged kite, spanish imperial eagle, night heron, larks, cranes, glossy ibis and even five purple gallinules).We were guided behind Bolonia to a hide facing a crag with nesting griffon and Egyptian vultures, dwarfing the local ravens.There should be a copy of the guide in the top drawer of every hotel bedside table in the area - we soon started to call it "the bible".[...]

As I flew out one mid-spring morning


As we flew into Gibraltar one mid-spring morning I was reminded of our holiday on the Rock a few years ago when we stayed in the observatory for a few nights.In my bag was a much-loved copy of Laurie Lee's book As I Walked Out One Mid-Summer Morning, telling of his walk across Spain in earlier, tougher times. He described  the Rock, "trailing a perpetual plume of cloud, looking like a stricken battleship on fire".Our plan was to tour around the Costa de la Luz, and as usual we didn't get very far - not to Cadiz,  and certainly not to Donana or Seville. There's always too much to see on the doorstep. Including Africa which looks incredibly close. Migration here depends greatly on the wind-direction, as the birds crossing the Straits are gently blown towards Gibraltar by westerlies or towards the Costa de la Luz in easterlies. The Levanter was blowing on the day of our arrival, and we were pleased to watch black kites and short-toed eagles flying in low over the pines and sand dunes. The birds have to run the gauntlet of wind farms along this notoriously windy coast, and whether these pose a serious risk to them can only be answered by scientific recording - unfortunately the owners of wind farms and surrounding land have a vested interest in this, so information is scarce but estimates of kills are high.One project involved researchers warning turbine operators of arriving migrants, and the blades were turned off, which is intriguing but not a long-term solution and of no help at night of course.We stayed at the excellent Montecote, across the valley from Vejer and were centrally placed for a wide variety of habitats, all filled with birds.... hills, farmland, marshes, pine woods, rice paddies, lagoons and beaches - even in the towns you kept your eyes to the skies, watching overflying swallows and martins, vultures, eagles and storks.Vejer has its own colony of lesser kestrels, and a group of about 30 bald ibises that have been reintroduced to the area but which have independently chosen their own nesting place -    - on a cliff by a busy road, ... conveniently placed for birders.......and for litter-picking / nesting-material-gathering in a car park.Is that really a used nappy?  You're the rarest breeding bird in Europe - have some self-respect![...]

Winter thrushes


'Tis a joy to find birds unexpectedly - in this case in a field next to the main road near Ash, where about 1,000 fieldfares and a sprinkling of redwings, pulling worms from the sodden ground. And in the background in another field.... lapwings and gulls aplenty. Must be good pickings.The fieldfares were very smart with well-streaked chests, and it's not long till it's time to return to the north to breed.Not to be eclipsed(!) the flanks of the few redwings shone, ....and their chests were proudly streaky too.Talking of chests..... The previous week we had a pleasant sunny stroll around Pluckley and Little Chart, to see where HE Bates wrote his books (and we're not necessarily talking about Pop Larkin here - check out his marvellous prose in Through the Woods).It's a pleasant area and surrounded by orchards, where unpicked apples had fallen unwanted from the trees, to be scavenged by .... .... yes, fieldfares and redwings. The noise was tremendous as they wheeled in flocks when disturbed. Too much like hard work for some.[...]

Costa nature


Just for the record, here's a few pics of wildlife encountered in a warm October trip to the Costa Brava, not going far but just chilling.  Terabinth.CalamintI was pleased to nail a Bath white, after much leaping around after the flighty things.Swallowtails wafted along the well-marked trials - supreme butterflies that had a good year in southern England this year.Below is a swallowtail caterpillar crossing the road. It gets upset if disturbed, rearing up and displaying two aggressive prongs (or in scientific terminology, they "evert their osmeterii") and pong.This, by contrast, is a tree grayling - quiet and camouflaged.Think this is Iberian lizard. Far fewer lizards here than in Italy, where they are everywhere.Clouded yellows were common flying over fields of crops.Also remarkably common were long-tailed blues that frequented low grassland and verges, as well as over fields, not noticeably using pea plants.The star of the week was, however, the two-tailed pasha that was seen flying around the Jardi Botanic de Cap Roig, clearly attracted to the fruits of palm trees and strawberry trees but maddeningly impossible to photograph.Above is a narcissus that flowers in autumn, and is common, unlike the unidentified poached egg plant below, found in the marsh under the flightpath of Barcelona airport.And finally, a death's head hawk moth, sadly deceased, that was found in the street of Calella de Palafruguel.[...]

Costa Brava in October


In October, we took a hoopoe south to the Costa Brava, where we hoped it would be warm, sunny and relaxing. We had plans to visit nature reserves, wetlands, mountains, cliffs and volcanoes to see many species of birds in Catalonia.As it turned out, we didn't go far.It was far from being a beach holiday, but as it was sunny, warm and out of season, the empty beaches and warm sea proved more inviting than getting into the car and driving long distances.The area around Palafruguell doesn't appear on Naturetrek itineries, but it is not one of the high-rise horrors of the Costa Brava. It's smart and in October you have the place to yourself. There are plenty of interesting and well-signed paths, leading to secluded rocky bays, perfect for snorkeling.And instead of seeing lots of birds, we were surprised to see plenty of.......... but that will have to wait for the next blog. The habitats above and below may, however give a clue.[...]



I have difficulty in deciding on a position to take on the ethics of falconry, just as I have on some other relationships imposed by humans over animals (I'm very clear on many others, though, such as the relationship between Maltese hunters and migrating birds).However, a  visit to Dover Castle by Rafael Historic Falconry provided both a spectacular display of the falconer's skill and of the birds' mastery of the air, especially when one of the peregrine falcons was set free to soar over the battlements and swoop across the jousting lawn.Peregrines can be seen frequently along the White Cliffs but seeing them up close gives a new perspective.I'd not previously seen a gyrfalcon and this one was a beauty, statuesque in line with its image as a Viking's hawk. One of my favourite authors when I was younger was TH White, who wrote The Goshawk describing his difficult and less than successful attempt to master a recalcitrant Gos. A new book called H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald has used this as a base for her own more successful story, and usefully points out where White went wrong (driving himself and Gos half-mad with sleep deprivation didn't help).MacDonald uses more tenderness in place of White's control, but I was reminded of this by the falconer's comment that the bird is not a pet and not a friend; it just uses the human as a source of food. [...]

The "A" word


I refuse to say the "A" word this early in the year, but it's good to see a new colony of "A" lady's-tresses on Walmer beach, about 30 of them where I've presumably overlooked them although they are right beside a path. The usual patch by the road is poor this year, with just a handful poking through, while up on the Leas a manic mowing regime has wiped them out for the season.It appears to be a good year for "A" gentian judging by their profusion on Foxhill Down, Postling Down and the usual little patch in Kingsdown.Continuing the comparison game, burnet saxifrage seems more abundant than usual, while small and field scabious are scarce - perhaps the former can put its head above the rich sward, while the latter cannot. I look forward to seeing the Lydden devil's bit scabious soon, as I have seen my first of the year elsewhere.  Another scabious that's doing well is the naturalised sweet scabious at the root of the cliffs by Ramsgate harbour - a harsh environment of concrete, chalk, pollution and heat that these and other opportunists are enjoying.Hopefully it will be a good fungus year..........And finally, it's Folkestone Triennial time again - always a good time. This sign in London struck me as hopeful..... ..... and a series of benches have been designed as books - which one is this one?[...]

Further fauna and flora from the far west


The peace and quiet of Skokholm makes it easy to concentrate on the fine details of the place - the geology, geography, weather, flora and fauna have all come under minute scrutiny over the years. We tried to contribute our own little bits, but this was of course mostly confirming what has already been recorded rather than making new finds.I followed the long-established but lapsed butterfly transect, which was not difficult so long as one can count to 100 for the meadow browns. Apart from the odd small copper and peacock there was little else, although looking back on earlier counts it was clear that a greater variety had been present a decade or so ago, including good numbers of dark green fritillaries that bred on the abundant wild pansy. Apparently they were over-collected, and breeding ceased. This raises the question - should they not be reintroduced? I'll follow it up.Man's involvement in the island's fauna is clear amongst the rabbit population, as Lockley the farmer (before he became Lockley the conservationist) brought in different breeds in the hope of marketing their fur, leading to a legacy of chinchilla-bunnies........... black bunnies............ as well as normal bunnies.The old red sandstone provides a lovely background to the sparse flora A few stream beds are lush with unusual plants, including sea milkwort, the bizarre allseed,bog pimpernel and lesser skullcap.Scarlet pimpernels    The sea was warm enough for swimming, and was especially welcome as there are no baths or showers on the island.  The grey seals kept me company.Back on the mainland, the glorious sun turned to Welsh rain, but didn't dampen the spirits because Pembrokeshire is so beautiful.This is a red kidney vetch - weird. When the sun reemerged, it brought out silver-studded blues- a very welcome addition to my life list. They are just gorgeous. And a grayling posed for a series of photos too :-)[...]

Birds on Skokholm


Not a bad place for a bird hide!Overlooking cliffs where guillemots and razorbills "nest" away from the prowling gulls. Unfortunately, evolution has decreed that the chicks must jump/fall/bounce down into the sea, where other perils reside. Then they float out into the Atlantic with father razorbill or both parents if a guillemot. How did their ancestors develop like this? It's a successful strategy, though, as many hundreds breed here.Even more astonishing, though, is the life history of the Manx Shearwater. 45,000 pairs nest in burrows across the tiny island but apart from corpses you don't see them in the day. In the evening, though, rafts build up as the birds that have been out to sea all day congregate, waiting for the comparative safety of darkness.Then, if the moon is not too bright, they fly in and somehow find the right burrow.If they don't find it, they are at the mercy of the gulls that are waiting for them, as their short legs make it difficult to move around on land. To help them find the burrow, the mate underground screams its banshee call. Sleeping at the observatory can be difficult as they are right outside.The wardens are, of course, continuing the ringing process that was started when Skokholm became the first observatory in 1933.The information gradually gained from the recording process is astonishing.... Manxies have been ringed and recaptured showing they live until at least 54 years old..... they fly 5 million miles in that time, between nest sites in the western British Isles and their winter feeding grounds off the coast of Brazil and Argentina...... and the parents leave the young in their burrows, and the fledglings eventually emerge and fly off to the south Atlantic on their own. And find their way back to the same island a couple of years later. I'm staggered.The wardens and assistants also carry out ringing programmes on nesting storm petrels, auks, lesser black-backs and great black-backs (above) with much rock climbing.There are also Heligoland and mist net traps that are no doubt full and fascinating in the migration times, but when we were there seemed to be occupied mostly by the handful of sedge warblers nesting nearby.Families of choughs and ravens added to the enjoyment of cliff walks.And of course there were puffins........[...]

Stay on Skokholm


"Stay on Skokholm" is not a description, but an imperative. You have to stay on Skokholm because, unlike Skomer, there are no day trips. The fishing boat leaves you on Monday morning and you're there until Friday. Or vice versa, for a weekend stay. Unless the weather prevents landing, in which case you wait....We were fortunate to get a late cancellation with less than a week's notice so we rearranged work commitments and drove west to the far tip of Pembrokeshire for the 8.30am crossing. About 15 visitors can stay in the newly-updated accommodation which was comfortable in the dry, warm weather, and getting to know strangers who have similar interests was one of the delights of the stay.The island is only about 1 mile long by half a mile wide and is owned by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, and administered by the Friends.  A well-stocked library and a ringing shed completes the observatory which has recently received accreditation again after a break of over three decades, and is staffed by two wardens and three volunteer assistants, who were charming, knowledgeable and good company.Richard and Giselle write a good blog, and are assisted by temporary volunteers Will (storm petrel expert), Dean (marine biologist) and Bill (pan lister and expert in everything else). The photo below shows Bill and Dean calling into storm petrel burrows and listening for replies, presumably under the delegation of Will. Skokholm is famous for its large populations of Manx shearwaters, storm petrels and lesser black backed gulls, of which more later.......and puffins of course.[...]

In the rough


Before we notice it, spring has gone and summer has arrived, ushered in by long days, warm nights and the first meadow browns and marbled whites.The Leas at Kingsdown is a good place to see roosting marbled whites, often head down on the vegetation, and this year the grass here and elsewhere is thick and lush - pity the poor golfers finding their ball in the rough. Also thriving here is the naturalised everlasting pea, so if any long-tailed blues would like to fly over again, there's plenty of food here. Or if any egg collectors have any eggs collected from elsewhere?Elsewhere, orchids are flourishing in the most unusual of places. Along the A20 and M20 around Folkestone and on the roundabouts there are hundreds of pyramidal orchids, while common spotted orchids on the Western Heights seem to be in thousands. In the dryer areas of the Folkestone area, however, profusion of another sort is seen - lawns of common cudweed line the A20.A new plant for me was found under the Eurostar bridge..... fiddleneck Amsinckia micrantha which is a wool shoddy escape, and very infrequent.[...]

So little time, so much to do


It's that dashing time of the year when spring is bursting into summer, and all the joys of the season emerge at once. The temptation is to dash around seeing all the favourites before they fade, fly away or die.Tick them all off again, even though you've seen them every year for the past three/ten/fifty.It's mid-May..... I must check on the adonis blues / late spider orchids / nightjars....... even if they are a long drive away on someone else's patch.Resist the temptation. There's good stuff on your doorstep, or at least there is here, and we know we're lucky in this corner, surrounded by downland, cliffs, the sea and marshes. And the suburbs of Dover, where the Old Park Hill area is being regenerated to bring back the diversity that has (temporarily) been lost after grazing ceased a couple of decades ago.Or the hills above the housing estates of Folkestone, which are breaking out into a beautiful tapestry of colour as orchids, horseshoe vetch, rock rose and the rest ............and capping each hill top, a plant or two of common gromwell.At first glance it was easy to see that there were many burnet moth cocoons on grass stems, glaucous sedge spikes and (notably) the fence wires. On closer inspection, there were also many, many caterpillars preparing for that stage of the life - they were everywhere. Sit down with care.Other trips revealed- three calling cuckoos including a bubbling, egg-laying female on Minster marshes, where at least five nightingales gloriously sang, and occasionally showed themselves -                                                    - a tiny grass snake at Sandwich Bay -- where the "wild" lupins seem to be spreading inexorably. I dislike lupins in gardens, but these seem right in the big-sky marshes - - Nottingham catchfly above Dover docks, subject to an informal survey this year -And OK a bit of plant-twitching....... greater butterfly orchid at Park Gate Down (the Mecca) and an evil sprite masquerading as a fly orchid. [...]

Pale pallida


It's not often that a first plant for Kent is found, but that's what this is:Look, that small light flower in the foreground, beneath a new fence marking the edge of the National Trust's latest acquisition of cliff-top land at the South Foreland, by the lighthouse.It's a pale form of scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis forma pallida), which has apparently been recorded 112 times in the UK, but never in Kent.The new land, reclaimed from the plough, has been spared the weedkillers this year and is producing a reasonably varied flora from its chalk seedbank. There is an understory of pimpernel, mostly scarlet but about 20 plants of the pallida form, with the more robust wild carrot, mignonette, thistles and even some Nottingham catchfly breaking through the swathe of left-over cereals.We look forward to the summer months, to see if any arable weeds will show through, and it will be interesting to see how the NT will manage the land if they do - is it better to maintain a remnant arable area (à la Ranscombe) or to rebuild the chalk downland by mowing and/or grazing?In the same area was found a green hairstreak, and the sky seemed filled with singing and chasing skylarks and meadow pipits.Also in Dover........... which is, of course, a town surrounded by interesting habitats, is St James' Cemetery, up the Danes. I assume that it, with its neighbouring cemeteries, were allocated to the various town wards, as each seems to have similar age gravestones and none is full, giving an airy ambiance that is accentuated by the surrounding rolling hills.St James' seems to be the most interesting, with not only fascinating and poignant war graves but also plenty of mature trees and grassy banks.One south-facing chalky bank retains a varied flora of salad burnet, rock rose, bird's foot trefoil and the fragrant horseshoe vetch, with attendant butterflies including brown argus, common blue, green hairstreak and dingy skipper. Despite the presence of a little kidney vetch, no small blues were seen. But talking of small blues, we stumbled over some old records of JW Tutt this week, which included mention of an aberation of the small blue, cupidus minimus ab. pallida,  - "a rare aberration of the i, in which the ground colour is of a palegrey tint. The type of this form came from the South Foreland, in Kent, though rare".It's a small world.[...]

Hall of Legends


The early part of the Bank Holiday weekend was spent meandering around the byways and hollow lanes of east Kent, pottering around where the fancy took us (and that's not a slur on the quality of the navigator).Mostly sunny but often chilly, the coolness had the benefit of slowing down the few butterflies that had taken to the air, and so could be photographed more easily.I think this is the first photo of an orange tip at rest that I've ever achieved.Green veined whiteSharp eyes spotted some twayblade orchids at the roadside, and sharper eyes then found a host of herb Paris - 70 were counted, which is a good number for this scarce plant.A passer-by fell into conversation and told us he was the local farmer, so we took care to tell him what a good habitat he has there. He pointed us to a by-way which the book Natural History of the Folkestone District described as "a bridle road running almost due north along a deep valley which in summer is brimming with flowers". That would be overstating the case now, but the farm is working under the High Level Stewardship scheme to restore at least some of the land to less intensive farming.One surprise was awaiting us, though, in the form of crosswort, which I did not know occurred this far east.  The farmer also told us that Tappington Hall nearby was holding a fundraising tea party, so - loathe to let a slice of cake go to waste - we turned up as uninvited guests and were made most welcome. It's a lovely old building, hardly updated to the 20th let alone 21st century, and it has plenty of tales to tell.There's the tale of brothers separated by the politics of the Civil War, who one day met on the stairs and the parliamentarian killed the royalist with an axe. The splintered wood remains but the blood stain has finally gone.And the tale of Evil Sir Giles, and many others - all recorded in the Ingoldsby Legends in the 1840s by the Rev Richard Harris Barham, who owned and lived in the Hall. To complete our social afternoon we met the owner of Denton Court and much of the Denton valley. I'm clearly upwardly mobile now. I could handle the landowning life, I think, especially if the cake is always that good. [...]

Chillin' in Cilento


Introducing Cilento National ParkI knew about Vesuvius and Pompeii, I'd heard about Sorrento, I'd heard stories about the Amalfi coast. But while researching for the holiday I saw a photograph of a place called Paestum that looked interesting, and found that it is near a National Park called Cilento. So we went there. Cilento is a large area of Italy about the size of Kent, which seems not to have seen fertilisers, weedkillers or pesticides, and its rolling landscapes are constantly beautiful. There's always something interesting on the verges and the birdlife seems healthier than elsewhere in country. The park has an offshoot of the Appenine mountains that fall into the sea, but with an Alpine feel. The cattle have bells around their necks, an unusual contrast to the cattle egrets that attend them.  allowFullScreen='true' webkitallowfullscreen='true' mozallowfullscreen='true' width='320' height='266' src='' class='b-hbp-video b-uploaded' FRAMEBORDER='0' />We stayed in a B&B overlooking the town of Agropoli, with views to the mountains and the sea - serenaded by serins and a blue rock thrush, and at night the scops owls called their unimaginative two-tone notes.And just like our hotel on Vesuvius, we discovered that the best habitat was just up the road. These daisies at the side of the lane above the house showed that there was something interesting here, and soon enough we found naked man orchids (orchis italica) , early spider orchids, gladioli and tongue orchids in a splendid area that was not matched anywhere else.I'm a happy naked man...........and I'm a happy early spider (you can't help being anthropomorphic with them)There weren't many butterflies around, but the brimstones kept us entertained with their similarity to cleopatras. I eventually gave up.  Cilento is half-surrounded by sea, and it's a popular area for Italian holiday-makers in summer, but out of season we were the only ones at this lovely bay. The sea was warm enough too. We saw no Brits for a week, and spoke little English - our command of Italian was tested to the full but it was all done with a smile and a laugh. Oi! Tell them about Paestum - that's why you're there isn't it?Oh yes, Paestum - the best preserved Greek temples in the world (even better than in Greece) on a mile-square site that was a town called Poseidium. There are three temples, an amphitheatre, a theatre, baths, houses and paved streets, and at that time of the year few tourists.The strimming year had only just started so the site was verdant, with swathes of annual asphodel, and plenty of things that like walls - pellitory-of-the-wall, wall butterflies and of course Italian wall lizards everywhere. Ooh look, the new photo-editing software can crop like this...... wheeeee!Fianlly, with the holiday drawing to a close, we returned to the slopes of Vesuvius where more orchids had flowered on the lava flows. A lovely trip, meeting friendly people, eating and drinking well, and with plenty of beauty left to see on future trips.[...]

Tourna a Sorrento


Leaving Vesuvius (the Big V) behind across the bay, we moved on to the Sorrentine peninsula for a few days, finding it to be a relatively built-up area with narrow winding (often tortuous) roads, where nobody drives a big car. Just as well, then, that we had hired a little Cinquecento. But even this looked large against its older relative.Part of the enjoyment of a holiday is in its planning, and ours was greatly helped by some websites about walking and the botany of the area - led us to the author's walking page.... which led to an ex-pat's walking and botany page..... which led to another..... which has the following commandments that show considerable sense........ These sites are a mine of information, and we were lucky enough to meet both Ruth of the "Walk with Us" page, and Giovanni who writes the first two sites, and enjoyed a walk down to the coast with them. It was a relatively easy walk, but some of the ones that they arrange are like mountain climbing. This part of the Amalfi coast was lit up by tree spurge as well as by the sun and the shining sea. Lovely! There were plenty of anemones in flower, which I took to be the same as our wild variety as they were so familiar, until I was reminded that they are garden plants with us.That's Capri over there in the background, but I wasn't tempted to visit, despite Spike Milligan's complimentary report in Mussolini, My Part in His Downfall. Or was it Where Have All the Bullets Gone?On leave on the Amalfi coast at Christmas, he says "The whole place has architectural maturity: there are numerous creepers and vines growing in profusion on the walls and balconies. In summer it must be a riot of flowers, right now it's a riot of gunners, there is a scramble as we dash for the best beds (if any)....".  Yes Spike, it is a riot of colour - in spring at least, before the sun burns the vegetation in summer. Asparagus pea, or tetragonolobus purpureus Blue pimpernel Nettle-leaved figwort  If flowers were profuse, the birdlife was not. Serins were in every tree, of course, and British garden birds were seen and heard in the hills. Occasional Sardinian warblers appeared briefly before diving into cover, and there were very few raptors. All indications were that birds in Italy have only survived shooting in small numbers, and those that have, learned to keep their heads down. One exception to that rule was, however, a showy hoopoe that was seen while I was elsewhere (typical) - maybe the Italians have a love for this endearing bird which they don't share with the rest of the animal kingdom. Lizards were, however, everywhere, and provided much entertainment. Italian wall lizards were most common, although other, unidentified, species were also seen. And the Ierano headland looks like a lizard too.    Just look at the beach - deserted! The cafes were open though, and charged just 1.50 euros for a coffee, served on the veranda overlooking the sea. Ices were cheap too :-)[...]

Italian Spring


 We went looking for spring and the sun in Italy, and we found it on the slopes of Vesuvius. We woke to sunshine across the Bay of Naples, but when we looked out of the hotel's back window, we saw snow on the volcano.  It's a bit concerning staying in on the side of an active volcano, with lava in the car park, but we survived. Apart from the infamous eruption in 79AD, Vesuvius has erupted regularly since with the latest in 1944. This gives an interesting habitat on the various lava flows, and near the hotel we found a rich area of mosses, lichens and plants. Butterfly Orchid (but not as we know it)  Early Spider Orchid (Ssp probably) This is part of the original cone, taken from the current cone with a 1944 lava flow in between. The original cone was about 8,000' high apparently, but most was blasted into the sky so the centre is now only about 4,200'. You can drive up most of the way to the summit, then fight past coaches and tourist traps to walk the rest of the way to the top, and look down into the crater which is a few hundred yards across. There was a blue rock thrush singing in there somewhere, making the most of the acoustics.Steam rises from vents in the crater, giving off a slight sulphurous smell, but mostly it seemed peaceful.Just one flowering plant was seen on the inside - a dandelion had colonised first, although the dreaded red valerian was making its relentless way up the outside of the cone, a successful pioneer of arid land.  A distinctive lichen has also colonised the lava, Vesuvius Snow Lichen (Stereocaulon vesuvianum).       How do people live here, with the constant threat of eruption? [...]

Kingsdown born and bred


Just a quick note to advise that the long-tailed blue  colony seen on the Leas in August have successfully produced a new generation which have started to fly.

This is an extremely rare occurrence in the UK and I'm so proud!
There has been debate over whether a pair of blues arrived on the cliffs in the warm winds of July, and procreated there, or alternatively an impregnated female arrived on her own, and laid the eggs that turned into the butterflies in the last generation.
We will never know, but can be reasonably sure that this emergence will be the last well see of them,as they won't be able to survive the winter here.

Unlike our native blues, some of which were found roosting nearby, waiting for the fuss over the continental stars to die down.