After Squamish, we headed out to Horseshoe Bay and caught the late afternoon ferry across to Vancouver Island – landing in Nanaimo just as darkness fell.
We stayed just up the coast a little from the town itself, and woke the next morning to see the sea concealed with an inversion lit by blue skies and sunshine above.
We hastily corrected our plans and headed out to Moorecroft Park in Nanoose to make the most of the surreal scenery. Here we walked down to the silent shoreline and watched hawks, vultures and cormorants whilst the mist rolled down the wooded hillside to reach the sea.
We spent the afternoon walking around Protection Island, watching seals in the harbour from the Floating Pub, before heading inland the next day to Cathedral Grove.
Sadly, the main draw of Cathedral Grove is that it is one of the few remaining stands of the old growth forest which is otherwise now largely lost. Here, the largest trees are 800 years old, measuring 9m in circumference and towering to a colossal 75m. This habit is markedly different to the growth patterns of old broadleaf trees in the UK – I recently climbed some 35m high black poplars but this is easily the highest I’ve ever been in the canopies. Our broadleaf trees grow oldest when they are coppiced or pollarded and never reach these heights – for example the Bowthorpe Oak – thought to be over 1000 years old, has a circumference of 13m but stands barely 15m high.
As well as admiring the trees themselves, there were the decorations of bryophytes draped over the branches and hanging down in straggled strands – the most appropriately named being the Witches Hair lichen.
Next stop – heading out to admire the rainforests and the Pacific Ocean in Tofino!
We’ve just returned from an amazing couple of weeks spent on and around Vancouver Island in British Columbia and I’m still processing all the sights and experiences. Vancouver island is extensive, BC is huge and Canada is just colossal – I’m aware that we only scratched the smallest surface of this stunning destination but I thought I’d share below a few of the highlights from the trip. First stop, Squamish!
This town is nestled between the mountains and the sea and claims the title of ‘the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada‘. I can see why… whilst my fingers itched to join the climbers scaling boulders and pitches all around, we had only a few days and there was adventure enough without taking to the vertical!
The Strawamus Chief hangs above the town and we were lucky enough to have a perfect view of this iconic mountain from our window. At night you could watch the stars wheel overhead whilst mornings would see the peak revealed or otherwise concealed by rolling clouds which permitted glimpses in silhouette before billowing it back into obscurity.
We walked the Chief trail which can take you up to all three consecutive peaks of this enticing prominence. Although time conspired against a view from the peak, the route up from Shannon Falls was spectacular – a combination of natural path and the built elements such as log-steps and boardwalks required to surmount the otherwise impassable. The forest which hugged the base and through which the path ascended was our first real view of the eerily beautiful bryophyte-hung conifers which we were to become familiar with over the next few weeks.
A grey second day took us out along the Mamquam river which empties into the Sound at the foot of the town. The salmon runs were just beginning and we walked through the gravel banks amongst saplings and driftwood to watch their backs breaching the ripples as they spawned in the shallows.
These runs bring the eagles in the winter where thousands can be seen taking advantage of the fish – the record count in 1994 was 3,769! Sadly we were a little too early as they peak in November.
The salmon die after spawning and we saw many dead along the gravel banks, as well as failing and foundering in the river itself. This seemed a sad sight, but the runs of salmon from the oceans to the rivers, and their subsequent demise in freshwater, are a vital ecosystem function in transferring nutrients from one location to the other. The fish are caught or scavanged by a wide variety of species, from bears and eagles to mink, otter, gulls and vultures. This is transferred to the land through droppings, but also manually moved by bears in particular who will take the fish into the forest but often feed only on the most select parts, leaving the rest to be scavanged or simply to break down and decompose. One study in south-eastern Alaska found that up to 25% of the nitrogen in the foliage of trees was derived from spawning salmon which makes this miraculous migration a key component of the forest ecosystem.
Our stay backed onto Smoke Bluffs and we took a couple of walks in the trails which weave through this forest. With huge boulders scattered amongst the conifers, and no shortage of mountain bikers willing to throw themselves down them, the trails were somewhat more challenging than the average stroll through the woods but all the more exciting for it. Whilst the evidence of others was apparent, we found ourselves alone; the sense of stillness and quiet in those woods was unlike everything I’ve ever experienced, shielded by high canopies above with all sounds softened by the sea of ferns which lapped the edges of the trail. Down low too were some beautiful lichen forests, emulating their larger neighbours in miniature.
One our last day, before heading on to Horseshoe Bay to catch the ferry across to Nanaimo, we caught the Sea to Sky Gondola for a bird’s eye view of the landscape. Sea to Sky is the name of the route and the region, and it’s not hard to see why – the view from the 885m high peak out across Howe Sound shows what a stunning combination of the elements this place is!
At the summit station were creatures which I first thought to be butterflies, but on closer inspection realised were grasshoppers. I think these are Trimerotropis species and their sustained bouts of flight were unlike any I have seen our UK species do. These noisy ascents would last 10 seconds or more and had the air of a display about them – this is something which females of the genus are known to do when receptive to mating. Whilst conspicuous on the wing, they were perfectly camouflaged against the rocks, disappearing if you took your eye off them only to reappear precisely where you left them!
This blog post steps outside of my usual UK sphere and across to Europe to share some photographs from our holiday in the Dolomites. We spent 6 fantastic days in the Val Gardena and mid-June was the perfect time for exploring the mountains and valleys at the beginning of the real flush of summer flowers.
We stayed in Ortesei – a popular skiing resort in the winter which lent its infrastructure to summer explorers such as us. Two cablecars and a funicular railway would take you up to 2,500m to alpine meadows to the south of the town, pine forests to the north and the scree-slopes below ancient elevated reefs to the west. With the help of these we walked over 100km of trails during out time there and passed through a wide range of habitat with the variety of flora to match.
This was a fascinating experience for me as an ecologist. Firstly, it was an opportunity to see a number of species which I would dearly love to see in the UK, from the much-celebrated lady’s slipper orchid to the delicate lesser butterfly orchid. I also saw a wide range of species I would recognise in the UK only as a garden ornamentals, such as the daphne and orange lilies. Then there were a whole host of species which could be identified to genus through their correspondence with familiar UK species, but which I had never encountered before such as the alpine colt’s foot and the alpine pasque flower. From these examples a naming system occured to me, similar to the way this landlocked ecologist deals with new coastal species. Whereas the prefix ‘sea…’ works with familiar-but-different‘s beside the coast (think sea mayweed, sea holly, sea campion), so the prefix ‘alpine’ often seems to work in the Dolomites! Finally there were utter unknowns which were quite unlike anything I had seen before – spotted gentian and box-leaved milkwort to name but two!
I worked through my charity-shop copy of ‘Mountain Flowers of Europe’, googled latin names of the right genus from the Plant Life of the Dolomites and refered to this excellent blog post. For the last few, I appealed to twitter and as usual for the botanical community there, some incredibly generous and helpful people offered identifications. However this slightly scattershot approach to ID has led to a number of ‘possibly’ and ‘probably’ ID’s whilst others might quite simply be wrong. If you spot anything in the following collection of photographs which looks awry, I would welcome any corrections or confirmations!
I would highly recommend this region, and Ortesei in particular, as an excellent spot for the extensive trails, the beautiful wildflowers and the predictably enjoyable food and drink. And that’s to say nothing of the marmots!
Alternatively, for an armchair whirl through some of the flora which these mountains have to offer, scroll on!
Botany is one of those passions you can engage in almost anywhere – this could be spotting dandelions brightening in the lawn, ivy-leaved toadflax scrambling up the wall or whitlow grass offering a tiny bunch of flowers beside the pavement. Sometimes however, a flower requires a pilgrimage and oxlip – Primula elatior – is one of those species.
A rare woodland flower, somewhere between a cowslip and a primrose in appearance, it’s distribution is largely restricted to the point in the country where the counties of Essex, Suffolk and Cambridge meet. Hayley Wood has always been in my head as the destination for this pilgrimage – I can’t for the life of me recall which book which introduced me to the name but it has always stuck.
Situated near Cambridge, Hayley Wood is an ancient woodland, mentioned in the Doomesday book and owned, managed and protected by the Wildlife Trust for Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire since 1962. It plays host to a wide range of ancient woodland species – I spotted dog’s mercury, bluebell, yellow archangel, bugle and lesser celandine to name but a few. I hope to return later in the season to seek a few more of it’s treasures but this day was all about the oxlip.
The day I visited was overcast and perpetually interrupted by April showers, but although a little late for the main event, I was not disappointed…
My job is much concerned with the facts and figures of ecology and wildlife. We collate lists of plants on a site, or identify the protected species present, or count the populations of newts or reptiles. This allows abundant opportunities to get out of the office and encounter all kinds of habitats and wildlife, but the focus on the factual can miss a whole facet of what the wild means. The Nest Collective’s ‘Singing with Nightingales’ was a perfect opportunity to transcend the cold biology and experience the deeper essence of one of our most charismatic species. So on Easter Sunday, we drove down to Fingringhoe Wick – an Essex Wildlife Trust site on the south Essex coast – calling on the way to pick up some friends. We parked up and followed the handmade signs taking us off through the trees. It was only 6:30pm – hours before sunset – but we already picked out the song of an impatient nightingale trilling and whistling amongst the gorse and willow.
Reaching the glade within the trees, Sam Lee – our host for the evening – welcomed us along with the other guests, and we settled around the fire for introductions and drinks before the expert ornithologist Tom Stuart led us on a walk around the hills and hollows of the reserve to introduce us to the soundscape of the dusk chorus. Tom conjured the reserve’s journey from an old gravel workings through stages of succession and management to the diverse habitat we were now walking through, and explained how the Essex WT maintained the mid-stage scrub which is essential for the nightingale.
As the sun sank into obscurity, we returned to the fireside for a delicious vegan curry and carrot cheesecake before Sam broke the fireside chatter with the first of his mesmerising songs. He went on to describe the prominence and place of nightingales in lyrics and folklore, interwoven with song and poetry. Whilst Sam evoked the mythology of these elusive birds with romantic flair, Tom described the biology and behaviour of the species with scientific yet equally mesmerising effect. To focus on the ecology alone misses the cultural and creative importance of these birds which have sung by our firesides for centuries and the Nest Collective weave these two strands perfectly.
As we approached 11 o’clock, we walked out across the reserve, following in Sam’s footsteps both literally and mechanically; without torches we were taught to walk like foxes, toes first to feel for uneven ground and move with the undulating terrain safely. We had been to the depths of the Sussex forest with Sam and Ezra last year to hear the nightingales, but they had been reluctant to sing. Tonight however, we walked between serenading males, auditioning them until we paused beside a particularly fluent vocalist. We stood in silence, listening to the surreal exotic song of this African visitor, before Sam’s first accompanying note appeared gently in the air as though it were always there. He sang ‘Down by the Tan Yard Side’, dueting with the nightingale whose notes fell into the pauses between the lines or overlapped and accented them.
The inspiration for these intimate, outdoor gatherings came from the history of musicians playing with nightingales, most notably live on BBC Radio in the early part of the 20th century. Every May from 1924 – when it was the first ever live outside broadcast on the radio – the cellist Beatrice Harrison played with the local nightingales in her back garden in Surrey. This continued until 1942 when the live broadcast picked up the drone of allied bombers flying overhead on their way to the continent. Realising that this would give warning of the impending raid, the BBC pulled the plug and there the tradition died. Until 2014 that is, on the 90th anniversary of this first recording, when Sam and two companions travelled to a secret location to re-enact this event for a live BBC broadcast once more. This sparked the enthusiasm for this tradition, and the Singing with Nightingale events – now at a range of locations around the country – have sprung from this.
With a gentle hum, in resonant and fluent imitation of a cello, Sam sang along with his chosen accompanist, just as the low drone of a Stanstead-bound aircraft broke on the horizon. With the fireside tale of the history still fresh in our memories, this otherwise unwelcome intrusion of the modern world in fact provided a poignant and fortuitous resonance of that final BBC broadcast.
We left this nightingale and walked back towards the cars at 1am – only to be captured by another who was impossible to walk on by so we gathered beneath its willow podium. In the darkness, images come unbidden and the soundscape surrounding us was like seeing beacons being lit as these birds sang in their individual islands and the songs sparked motifs and patterns which were heard and echoed, repeated and elaborated and embellished by others across the reserve.
The Nest Collective, set up by Sam in 2006, takes music to unusual venues and unique settings, and these events combine history and folklore with ecology and conservation, all bound together through song and poetry and good fireside company. This was our second year experiencing this magical night, and I very much hope it won’t be our last. You can find out more about the series at the Nest Collective’s website here, or get a taste of the evening in this 90th Anniversary broadcast on BBC Radio 4.
We had a wonderful hard frost just after Christmas so I took the opportunity to get out in the morning sunshine to take a few photos!
The frost serves to outline these seed heads, making them stand out against the background but also helping to highlight the structure which is best appreciated at this time of year when the leaves and flowers have fallen.
Looking back through the photographs I’ve taken in 2016, it’s striking how many trees there are! As with the small things such as wildflower ‘weeds’, it’s easy to take for granted these enormous beings which grow amongst us. The sheer scale of a mature oak or beech is far beyond our magnitude of experience, as is the timescale they can span which numbers many of our lifetimes combined.
Here are just a few of my favourite encounters from 2016.
The first few days of New Year can be a little underwhelming – Christmas is over and it’s a long old drag until springtime. But there’s still colour and life out there and the BSBI‘s annual New Year Plant Hunt is a great way to experience this, as well as contribute your data to a national recording scheme. Everybody is welcome to get involved – even if this is just spotting a daisy on the lawn or gorse flowering by the roadside on your way to work!
Last year I found 44 species flowering in Grantham so I thought I’d cover a similar patch this year and see what I could find!
I started just before sunrise on a Bank Holiday Monday – thinking this would be a good time to explore the roads and walls around the centre without too many funny looks! It was just below zero and as slippery as an ice-rink when I started but the road down from the Railway Station was a very fruitful location with yarrow and daisy visible before I even got out of the car! A total of nine species were flowering here against the wall including two non-natives – Oxford ragwort and Guernsey fleabane. The sun strikes this wall first thing in the morning which might explain why this spot was good for flowers persisting through the winter.
Around Grantham town itself, I found a few more species including feverfew, smooth sow-thistle and common chickweed. A wander around the Sainsbury’s carpark also provided me with a flowering grass – annual meadowgrass.
Down by the River Witham, the earliest blackthorn I know was in flower – just a couple of individual flowers amongst the bare branches – along with frosted white deadnettle and the winter heliotrope.
Onwards through St Wulfrum’s churchyard, I picked up shepherd’s purse flowering in the sunshine against the stone archway of the South Entrance. Sun spurge was another species growing next to a pedestrian crossing – this is a species whose flowers look so much like leaves that you really do need to know to lean close and check in order to realise they’re in bloom!
A few naturalised species were added to the list as I continued around Grantham. These were not growing in gardens but were self-set, often finding little niches in walls or at the edges of pavements. Such species flourish in urban settings, where there are plenty of gardens to escape from and little niches of soil and warmth in which seeds can germinate and bloom. This collection includes yellow corydalis, greater periwinkle and Michaelmas daisy.
One advantage of carrying out a Plant Hunt on your home-turf is visiting locations where you have seen species flowering in the lead-up to Christmas. In this case, a carpark towards the north of the town had a colony of gallant soldier – a member of the daisy family with large yellow centres and white petals. Red deadnettle and ox-eye daisy were also flowering on the walls here, along with a stalwart of the NY Plant Hunt – the beautiful ivy-leaved toadflax.
I walked up to the Hills and Hollows above Grantham to finish – picking up a few individual dogwood flowers amongst the unopened buds, along with red campion and, of course, gorse to finish. The saying goes ‘when gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of fashion‘ and this held as true as always with several bunches of yellow flowers brightening the spiky shrubs.
Nine kilometers and three hours later, my total count this year was 30 species – not too bad but lower than any of my counts from last year. The beginning of 2016 was preceded by unusually mild weather and many late-season species were still hanging on. This year by contrast, we have had a few good frosts which I know have finished off a few plants which were in flower up until that point including yellow toadflax and common mallow. This trend for lower numbers seems to be mirrored by others who have completed counts across the midlands and east, but we will need to await the full results to fully understand the picture for this year.
A new feature of the hunt this year is the excellent New Year Plant Hunt App which you can download here – this is so easy to use on a smartphone when you’re out hunting, or equally easy to enter the data into when you get back home. I uploaded all of my data onto the app and even popped back on to edit a record the next morning, when I realised I had made an error in the ID of one species. It works off the back of the iRecord system and is a good introduction to an excellent tool for keeping and submitting biological records when you’re out and about.
Linked in with the app, is a brilliant Results website which updates the records on the fly, showing the locations where hunts have been completed and tallying up the most commonly recorded species to date. So far, daisy is in the lead with groundsel running a close second, but with a day to go yet, there’s all to play for! Get out and see what you can find – Happy Hunting!
A third 2016 Review Post – this time some of the orchids I’ve seen over the last year. Few of these are particularly rare species, but there is something undoubtedly ‘other’ about the orchids. A number of these photos are from reserves which are designated partly for the populations of these orchids, but also included are a specimens which I’ve discovered in my local area including my favourite find of a roadside colony of bee orchids just on the edge of Grantham.
As the winter is drawing in and the buzz of bees and other insects is sadly lacking from the soundscape of the countryside, I have put together a collection of images from throughout 2016 to remind me of warmer times!
Each photograph below is captioned with a little information about the species and the story behind it. I have learned a lot about bees and their enemies and allies this year, but it has served only to show what a vast amount more there is to learn about these vital creatures.