There we were at Roquefixade, showing our favourite walking destination off to two of our Harrogate friends, when a butterfly discovered me. Then another. These two creatures played round my wrist for more than half an hour before finally dancing off into the sunshine. They made our day.
I’m thinking they’re the Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus). Any dissenters?
What do you think of when Derbyshire’s Peak District is mentioned? It’s a glorious area of England, part of its Pennine spine. There are old stone-built towns and villages with long histories of hard work in mining, textiles and farming. There are limestone and millstone grit uplands and escarpments, with distant forest and moorland views, and valleys and gorges cut deep into the limestone.
We were there last weekend. Not for the broad brush of those appealing landscapes, though we got those too. Instead, we were there to inspect what we could see inches, or at most feet from us, as we and a small band of like-minded people slowly wandered narrow pathways and farmers’ tracks with Mark Cocker., on a tour which he organised with Balkan Tracks.
These were the tracks of our childhood, a time when (if you’re as old as me) flowers and insects weren’t routinely eliminated from the fields by cocktails of fertilisers and insecticides. Nature Walks were the once-upon-a-time weekly staple of the village school where I began my education: a neat crocodile of children hunting curiously for leaves, berries and treasures for the Nature Table in the corner of the classroom. Our group last week formed anything but a neat crocodile, and we collected treasures through the lenses of our cameras, exchanged young eyes for our pairs of binoculars.
The places we explored with Mark often had poor thin soil. It’s not worth cultivating, but huge numbers of wild flowers seek out and colonise such spaces and it can be pasture-land too. Where there are flowers, there are insects: flying creatures of all kinds, bees of all kinds, beetles, moths, butterflies.
I knew there were a fair number of different bee species, though I had no idea that there were some 270 of them. But I thought a bumblebee was a bumblebee was a bumblebee. It turns out that there are getting on for twenty different kinds, and that some of those are cuckoos. Cuckoos? Well, yes. Cuckoo bumblebees are as wily as the birds they are named after. They lay their eggs in another bee’s nest and leave the workers of that nest to rear the young.
We climbed up to Solomon’s Temple. We wandered through Millers Dale, once the site of a busy railway line. We explored a now disused quarry, now colonised by a rich variety of life, including orchids, and a collection of stunted trees. Unable quickly to get the nourishment they need, they reach maturity as dwarves. We explored almost unvisited dales such as Hay Dale. All these were limestone, but we had a little time in the imposing millstone grit landscape of The Roaches, which – don’t tell anyone – is actually just in Staffordshire.
Our days were far from silent. Even if it’s no longer prime bird-song season, there were spotted flycatchers, willow warblers and sightings of various finches and tits. Wheeling above us: buzzards, red kites, hobbies, while shallow rivers, busily chattering over stones and rocks were feeding stations for dippers and ducks.
We even had a little time to explore Buxton, where we stayed, and where, each evening, we ate, talked, laughed and generally got to know each other at the (highly recommended) Brasserie.
What a weekend. I’ve learnt that I still have an awful lot to learn. And our own garden is the perfect classroom.
I was quite amused a while back while at our local nature reserve, watching an egret and a heron occupying the same patch of shallow water. They were both fossicking about feeding in a desultory sort of way, and they simply didn’t seem to see one another. They passed so close to each other from time to time that a cursory glance might have seemed in order. Nothing. Here they are:
Here are a few more unrelated birds showing they really have no interest in each other at all.
From a bird’s point of view, though not from a human’s, our local patch is a watery world. Our nearby town of Ripon has three rivers and one canal. The River Ure passes our house. Gravel extraction is a local industry, and once exhausted, these sites are made over to wetland nature reserves. Geese flock here. Autumn and spring are the times when large V-shaped formations pass noisily over the house, honking and calling. The feature photo shows just two – are they greylags? I don’t know. Herons are here – yesterday we watched as one heaved itself from the river, and, battling against the prevailing wind, launched itself towards a distant stand of trees, where it circled, circled, before finally finding its perch. Black-headed gulls follow the farmers as they plough and harvest. I was going to go on a trip to look at coastal birds too, but no – let’s stay local.
This week’s Lens-Artists Challenge is Taking Flight. What to choose? I thought of hot air balloons I’ve seen. I thought of planes. I thought of bubbles magically released into the sky to delight children and adults everywhere. In the end, two ideas insisted on their fifteen minutes of fame.
The first is the starling murmurations which are such a feature of life here early every spring. Once, one even took place over our garden. We were entranced until we saw the state of our car afterwards. Have you seen one? Murmurations take place towards evening, when thousands of starlings swoop and swirl in the sky above their chosen roosting site for that night. Are they keeping predators at bay? Exchanging information before nightfall? Nobody’s sure. But as suddenly as it begins, the display stops, and the birds descent to their roosts, and it’s over for another night. Here are a few shots – and look at the featured photo too.
Then there was our visit to the Farne Islands, a protected National Trust bird reserve off the coast of Northumbria What an afternoon we had here. We saw puffins, we saw razorbills, guillemots, eider duck, fulmars …. sea birds of so many kinds. But if it’s flight you want to see today, we’ll just stick with the Arctic Terns, with their brightwhite and grey plumage and orange beaks.
Arctic terns are feisty, aggressive birds, fiercely protective of their young, as these pictures may suggest. They are impressive migrants, flying between 44, 000 – 59, 000 miles a year to reach their European breeding grounds from the Antarctic.
What a difference. Exactly a year ago, on 13th April 2020, I spotted my first mallard ducklings of the year, with their unusually attentive father shepherding them around the village pond. This year, night temperatures are below freezing, and there are gusty winds most days. Despite the sunshine, I think we’ll have to wait a little longer to see this year’s first brood. Let’s plunder the archives for some memories.
I was one of those ignorant types who thought ‘gull’ and ‘seagull’ were interchangeable terms. In fact ‘seagull’ is a fairly meaningless word, though often used to describe herring gulls. But not, definitely not black headed gulls. These birds we so commonly see round here, some fifty miles from the sea, are quite at home here in the fields. They’re sociable: they’re quarrelsome: they’re noisy. And they’re happiest snatching a meal when tractors are out and about, sowing seeds or harvesting and generally making free food available. As you can see. These scenes are from exactly this time last year, from a farmer’s field just up the road.
I thought a ditty, a bit of doggerel was called for, helped along by memories of a Harvest Festival hymn.
They plough the fields and scatter
the good seed on the land.
Black-headed gulls will follow -
rapacious thieving band!
‘All good gifts around us come from the farmers’ fields
We’ll scoff the lot, not care a jot and decimate your yields.’
We’ve had some snow in winter.
The gulls have had it rough.
Now seeds and rain and sunshine
mean life’s no longer tough.
‘All good gifts around us come from the farmers’ fields.
We’ll scoff the lot, not care a jot and decimate your yields.’
Six Word Saturday