Hummingbirds, tigers, and a bat in the bedroom

Despite a lack of time, the last couple of months have been quite eventful for wildlife watching: sometimes when I wasn’t even trying to look for wildlife, including once when I was asleep…

A couple of months ago we went on a walk along the River Yeo near Limington, east of Yeovil. The walk itself was mildly interesting but not quite as impressive as it had looked on the map. As we got back to the car I noticed some red valerian by the roadside. Nothing unusual in that, except that this time they were adorned by a couple of hummingbird hawk-moths. There were several others nearby. I’d only seen one once before (briefly, in the garden about three years ago) and had been hoping to see another – seeing several at once was an unexpected treat. My first attempts to photograph them involved chasing them round the plants, which only led to frustration, but I found that with a bit of anticipation I could wait for them to come into view – with much better results! This is one of a number of day-flying moths that are spreading north because of global warming.

Hummingbird hawk-moth on valerian, in Lidington

I normally go to Ham Wall to see the rarer species. As it happens, on a trip in mid-June my best photos were of a much more common species that I have struggled to photograph well. This wren had an all-consuming task to accomplish – hence also the hungry juvenile!

Wren with food at Ham Wall

Wren feeding chick at Ham Wall

I also took a few whitethroat photos which I was rather pleased with – but they were trumped by ones I took a couple of weeks later!

We went to Skomer at the end of June while we were staying in Fishguard. We had a roughly three hour wait between purchasing our tickets and getting on the boat, so after a late breakfast in the car park we ventured a short way along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path above Martin’s Haven. We hadn’t gone far when a whitethroat landed on a prominent perch nearby.

Whitethroat on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path at Martin’s Haven

A beakful (Skomer)

Skomer itself is a wonderful place – and an exceptional location for seeing and photographing puffins. I’d been a bit worried on my previous trip (about five years ago) that the number of puffins nesting there had dropped quite sharply – as they were only located at the east end of The Wick, a narrow inlet on the west side of the island.However, this time they were more widespread, being more widely distributed on the south side of The Wick, and also nesting further north on the island’s west coast. I think my previous trip was better photographically – but there are a few that I took that I was pleased with.

Group of puffins on Skomer

Puffin portrait (Skomer)

A couple of days later we explored the peninsula beyond St David’s, which becomes open moorland soon after leaving the car park at Whitesands Bay. There were a few wheatears flitting around, which I missed photographing well the first time; but later, when Jen was feeding Joshua, I went back and was lucky with a male wheatear, which obligingly landed on a prominent rock.

Wheatear on the St David’s Peninsula

Later in the week we explored the coast north of Newport. Usually when I photograph a bird, it flies away: but here there was a stonechat that did the opposite, coming gradually closer as I waited.

Stonechat on the coast near Newport (north of Fishguard)

Up until last Easter I hadn’t even heard of soldier beetles, and only became aware of them when one landed on Jen’s hand. Towards the end of last month I wandered round Waltons Heath at Ham Wall – and discovered that virtually every cow parsley plant was hosting many soldier beetles! These are the common red soldier beetle, apparently known colloqially as the Hogweed Bonking Beetle (which you wouldn’t expect a vicar to explain, would you?!)

Soldier beetle on cow parsley

Soldier beetle with hoverflies, on cow parsley

Earlier that morning, I had stopped at the old railway bridge crossing the channel west of Waltons Heath. The sun was in just the right position to reveal the fish in the water, and I was astonished at just how many there were. It’s not a great photo but does demonstrate their abundance. It’s therefore hardly surprising that the area is so good for herons and related species!

Why Ham Wall is so good for herons – the canal viewed from the old railway bridge

Talking of which, when we visited the Avalon Hide last Saturday, a Great White Egret lurking close to the hide caught a fish in full view of everyone there – providing several people with a great photo opportunity!

Great white egret, with catch

Jersey Tiger-moth

Another day-flying moth which is spreading north due to global warming is the Jersey Tiger Moth. There have been a couple in the Vicarage garden. I’ve not seen one settle with its wings open – much the most photogenic pose – but it’s quite impressive even with wings closed.

The bat in the bedroom – probably a serotine. I’d like to say that the powdery white stuff is snow, but that doesn’t really work for early August… Perhaps we should look at the top of the wardrobe more often?

One night last week there was an odd flapping sound in the bedroom, and Jen told me that there was a bat flying around. I turned over and went back to sleep. An hour later I woke up and said to Jen, “there really is a bat flying around!”. We tried looking for it, and only discovered it when Jen heard it move on the top of her wardrobe. I was eager to photograph but not to provoke into panicked flight around the room, so I avoided using flash. My best attempt is the image here. It was clearly a large bat (not one of the diminutive pipistrelles) but the photo isn’t really good enough to say more than that. However, over the following couple of days I noticed one or two large bats flying around the front garden and surrounding area, so I got the bat detector out while our friends Jack and Alison were here. We saw several of the larger bats (or maybe a couple of them several times!), and the sound coming from the bat detector was uniequivocally that of a serotine bat. I assume therefore that that’s what we had in the bedroom.

What to do when Jen’s 40 weeks preggers?

We’ve been given lots of advice about how to usher things along – some ideas very congenial, other ideas more fun for me than for Jen…

1. Drive along lots of bumpy roads.

Lots of people have told us about this one… Our midwife, Kerry, enthusiastically told us about a bumpy road in the Quantocks… but when we got there we found it was quite smooth compared to the roads floating on peat in the Levels! So a couple of times we’ve gone from Shapwick to Burtle, then down along the Edington road to a potholed drove, which we went along as bumpily as possible, then back into Burtle, along Green Drove, before turning round and returning to Shapwick.

A drove road between Burtle and Edington – lots of nice potholes!

2. Take lots of walks

Kerry also thinks going for long walks is really good – and we don’t need much persuasion of this one! Over the last few weeks we’ve had a few trips to the south coast on days off – and have been able to enjoy the exceptional weather.

Jen on Doghouse Hill near Golden Cap a couple of weeks ago.

Jen om Cothelstone Hill on Tuesday after an appointment with the midwife

3. Eat Fry’s Chocolate Cream

At a babycare store in Bridport, the shop owner told us about one time she was pregnant and several days overdue. Her husband bought her a Fry’s chocolate cream – and two hours later she went into labour. Ever since, she’s been convinced the two events are linked and has been recommending it since then. Does Jen need any more excuse to eat chocolate?

Well if it worked for the lady in Bridport, why not try it?

4. Eat curry!

Apparently a hot curry is a great way to bring labour forward. Clearly I agree with this wholeheartedly – but we had to keep it reasonably cool for Jen to eat it at all! We had a curry from Sainsburys one night; I cooked a curry one last night, and we went to a curry house in Taunton tonight. (I think she enjoyed the bumpy drives more though!)

Can’t go wrong with a good curry – especially if it brings labour forward!

Yup, it’s a pineapple

5. Eat pineapple

There’s actually some medical evidence for this one in that one of the chemicals in pineapple really does bring labour on… except that Jen would need to eat 8 pineapples in succession to get the desired effect! But we might have a curry laced with pineapple tonight…

6. Watch England beat Colombia and Sweden

Well it was worth a try, wasn’t it? Except that I got more excited about it than Jen did. We might have to miss the semi-final though…

Let me finish this post with a few scenics…

View in Ladram Bay

Kestrel on the way up Doghouse Hill.

The colours from the beach at Branscombe were impressive…

Northumbrian refreshment

Jen and I have had a very refreshing week’s holiday in Northumberland after Easter, doing some good walks and meeting up with friends.

We did two walks in the Cheviots, a range of hills that spans the Scottish border. Compared to the more familiar Lake District fells, the Cheviot hills are much more remote with fewer crowds; the higher levels are windswept and treeless, with rounded tops that somehow look bleaker. Our first walk was an enjoyable trek up Windy Gyl – which lived up to its name – from Upper Coquetdale. The second was to The Cheviot – at 810m one of the highest mountains outside of the Lakes. This has a large plateau at the top, so that there are no views of surrounding hills from the summit trig point.

Jen modelling a signpost on the Pennine Way, with the upper sign pointing us to Windy Gyl.

View of Windy Gyl as we descended towards Upper Coquetdale.

Upper Coquetdale

We were also able to meet up with a number of friends. On the Wednesday we visited Jaybee and his wife Jane in South Hetton; Jaybee’s mobility now limits his wildlife photography, but he’s still managed to become a specialist on hoverflies. The next evening we went to dinner with Satomi Miwa at an excellent Turkish restaurant in Longbenton, who told us about her ministry amongst international students at Jesmond Parish Church.

On Saturday evening we arrived, late and smelly after a long walk up the Cheviot, at Ann and Arthur Pratt’s house. They understood our plight immediately and gave us towels and showed us to the showers! They gave us an excellent meal, and told us about their lives as medics and also about their church in Prudhoe.

With Satomi at the Lezzet Turkish restaurant in Longbenton

I managed to survive without going on a birdwatching trip, but there were still some great photographic opportunities! We spent a day at the National Trust’s Wallington estate, which had a lovely river walk winding round one side of the site. There was a very showy dipper on the river, which performed lots of characteristic antics, like dipping at the knees and running underwater.

Dipper on the river at Wallington, with a beakful of insects and other prey.

There were lots of red grouse when we walked to The Cheviot, with one in particular showing great patience in allowing me to bend down to get a better angle on a photograph before flying off.

Red Grouse

One of the major highlights of the week was on the Sunday morning, when we dropped into Stockton Parish Church, where I’d done my placement from college in 2010-11. The church has grown dramatically in the years after I left, with the congregation roughly double the size, with many from refugee communities. We had a very good chat with Alan Farish, who was the vicar when I was there, and has since handed over the reins to his curate, Mark Miller (who had been at Cranmer in the year below me). I was also delighted to be able to catch up with those who’d been part of the ministry at the Community Church, such as Jon and Sarah Searle, Adam Walsh, Rob and Kath Bailey. Being part of this team was hugely formative for me – and, with hindsight, appears to have been for everyone else involved as well!


Mist, sun and reflections in the Lake District

Jen and I could hardly have picked a better week to be in the Lake District last week! Although we had to contend with mist and cloud on occasions, the weather was stunning for much of it the time. I’m going to let the photos tell most of the story this time.

Our first full day was the one where the clouds never fully left the scene. We did the Dale Head round, which is one of my favourites in the Lake District, but Jen never quite got the views that I’d promised!

Dramatic clouds from the top of Dale Head towards Maiden Moor (Newlands Valley just visible on the left)

Dramatic clouds from the top of Dale Head towards Maiden Moor (Newlands Valley just visible on the left)

Late on the following morning around Buttermere, we had the most spectacular scenery of the entire week – and this view of the reflections from High Crag scarcely does it justice.

Reflections on Buttermere: High Stile is the mountain

Reflections on Buttermere: High Stile is the mountain

Our walk that day started late. Further up, a light mist had settled across the landscape, and I haven’t yet worked out to compensate for this photographically – but the mountains still looked magnificent.

Jen on Stile looking towards Great Gable

Jen on Stile looking towards Great Gable

I’m sure I’ve done Red Pike before but I’d certainly forgotten how amazing the views are, despite the mist. Nevertheless the entire descent from top to bottom was dreadful – it’ll have to be another route down next time!

Getting clear views was difficult because there was a light mist all day, but Crummock Water and Grasmoor still looked stunning from Red Pike.

Getting clear views was difficult because there was a light mist all day, but Crummock Water and Grasmoor still looked stunning from Red Pike.

We were based at the Black Sail youth hostel for Thursday and Friday nights, and our best day’s walking was on the Friday. We did some peaks neither of us had done before: Pillar, Scoat Fell, Steeple and Haycock. The clouds prevented obtaining great photos – but it was a most rewarding walk.

Jen crossing Scoat Fell, with Steeple in the background on the right

Jen crossing Scoat Fell, with Steeple in the background on the right

Our final walk, on the Saturday, was on Grasmoor – just out of the main tourist area but a very rewarding climb. I particularly enjoyed this view of Dale Head and the Newlands Valley.

The evening Sun gave some nice textures in the view towards Dale Head and the Newlands Valley

The evening Sun gave some nice textures in the view towards Dale Head and the Newlands Valley

Evading the clouds on Sca Fell

“We should definitely do Sca Fell,” I told Jen, “because the views are far better than from the Pike – and anyway we can walk straight from Boot” (where we were staying in Eskdale). Having bigged up Sca Fell on what was forecast to be a bright and sunny day, it was somewhat disheartening to see a thick layer of cloud enshrouding all the high tops! Jen took this philosophically – I was a little less inclined to do so…

Cloudy views towards Great How (front right) on the way up to Sca Fell.

Cloudy views towards Great How (front right) on the way up to Sca Fell.

As we plodded upwards we were tantalised by the clouds lifting and then descending, only to repeat the cycle. Nevertheless, when we got onto the main part of the mountain, the views across Upper Eskdale to Bow Fell and more distant peaks were impressive in themselves, even if the looming clouds gave a rather moody appearance…

Upper Eskdale from the ascent to Sca Fell

Upper Eskdale from the ascent to Sca Fell

Scafell Pike from Sca Fell

Scafell Pike from Sca Fell

With Jen at the top of Sca Fell

With Jen at the top of Sca Fell

Fortunately, the clouds finally lifted as we reached the summit ridge – the kind of timing that only rarely happens! Indeed the views got better the longer we stayed up at the top.

I was particularly relieved that, having talked Jen into going up Sca Fell, it lived up to – and exceeded – expectations. We lingered at the top for lunch, and the panorama in front of us provided plenty of opportunity to bag some photos.

View from Sca Fell across to Pillar (with the snowy cap) and Great Gable (looming front right)

View from Sca Fell across to Pillar (with the snowy cap) and Great Gable (looming front right), with Grasmoor (far right).

Wastwater from Sca Fell, with Yewbarrow on the right.

Wastwater from Sca Fell, with Yewbarrow on the right.

The return journey promised to be easier – except that the path, which was already very wet in places, was set to cross the marshy ground east of Burnmoor Tarn. (In fact we’d been warned about this by the manager of the Boot Inn the previous evening: if you get your feet soaked, he’d said, you’d only have to walk an hour to get back).

Burnmoor Tarn from Sca Fell, with Raven Crag on the left

Burnmoor Tarn from Sca Fell, with Raven Crag on the left

I did get my feet nicely soaked – but much higher up on the mountainside, and in the end we were able to navigate through the marshland fairly easily.

Sca Fell from Burnmoor Tarn... the mountain looks deceptively easy from here!

Sca Fell from Burnmoor Tarn… the mountain looks deceptively easy from here!

The following two days were dreadful, weather-wise. John, the proprietor of the B&B, recommended a trip to the RSPB’s site at Hodbarrow – a suggestion I quite readily took up! The road to the site is dreadful – riddled with potholes – but just as we arrived a local birder pointed out a summer-plumaged Slavonian grebe close to where we’d parked. Having spent an Easter trip to Loch Ruthven to see them, I was particularly pleased to see one so easily, on migration to its breeding area.

Slavonian grebe at RSPB Hodbarrow.

Slavonian grebe at RSPB Hodbarrow.

Notes from a French riverbank

Jen and I have recently returned from a lovely week in France. We were staying in Châtellerault, because Jen’s uncle and aunt, John and Hélène, are looking after Hélène’s mother who lives there. This was a great opportunity to explore a part of France that neither of us had been to before.

On our first full day we were given a tour of the town, which is built on the banks of the Vienne river, a tributary of the Loire, and is about as big as the Severn in Worcester. One of the major features of the town is the Henri IV bridge, built around 1600, during the reign of one of France’s best loved kings: his concern for the well-being of the poorest in the country was epitomised by his determination that every peasant should have a chicken in his pot on Sundays!

The Henry IV bridge crossing the Vienne at Châtellerault

The Henri IV bridge crossing the Vienne at Châtellerault

Any guesses as to what wildlife Vouneuil is best known for?

Any guesses as to what wildlife Vouneuil is best known for?

We went on two walks exploring the region close to the Vienne. On the first of these we departed from Vouneuil-sur-Vienne, which has an eye-catching and unusual emblem on its village sign!

The route took us to the Pinail nature reserve, an area of heathland with a large number of small ponds. The bedrock consists of flint and silicified limestone, so that it was ideal for extracting millstones – leaving behind the many pools. This is one reason why the reserve now hosts 46 species of dragonfly and has rich biodiversity. December was not the best month to go, but it was easy to see that it would be a great place to dwell for a while during spring and early summer.

Two of the ponds at the Pinail nature reserve.

The walk – about 9 miles in all – took us through a wide variety of terrain. Leaving the Pinail, we walked through woodland, along a couple of low hills, and then round to the large village of Bonneuil Matours – where we discovered a great cafe with its own bakery! We later discovered that it’s a favourite of John and Hélène.

Cafe Choquet in Bonneuil Matours

Cafe Choquet in Bonneuil Matours

By the time we left the cafe and walked north back to Vouneuil, it was getting late and we didn’t get great views of the river, which, although it ran close to the road along which we were walking, was still a short distance away. However, we did get a good sight of a flock of bramblings on the edge of the village: rounding off a good day of birding, as I’d also seen a couple of firecrests and a black redstart (each probable rather than definite, though).

On New Year’s day we took another walk, south of Cenon-sur-Vienne back to Vouneuil, and this route kept much closer to the riverbank. Although tke sky was overcast all day we had no rain, so it was great walking weather.

Along the banks of the Vienne

Along the banks of the Vienne

Not far south of Cenon, we found a quiet spot on the riverbank. I was searching for a good scenic photo, when, noiselessly, a mid-sized mammal slipped into the water and swam across the river. I thought at first that it was a beaver, but I discovered later (thanks to the expertise of members of the Mammal Society!) that it was actually a coypu, a species from South America which escaped from European fur farms in the early 20th century.

Coypu near Cenon-sur-Vienne

Coypu near Cenon-sur-Vienne

Both beavers and coypus are known in the Loire valley and its tributaries, but only the latter are seen during the day. Unfortunately for the coypus they have a destructive effect on the landscape and are considered a pest species.

Shortly afterwards we had another extraordinary sight: a train of caterpillars!

Caterpillar train!

Caterpillar train! It turns out this is the Pine Processionary Moth, an invasive species spreading north through France – see here for full story.

The château at Chitré

The château at Chitré, which is quite typical of the region.

Our route this time kept us close to the river for most of the way and enabled us to have some great views. We were lucky enough to see three kingfishers on the walk – the streak of blue flashing past being the giveaway – but unfortunately they were too far away to photograph well. I also saw a flock of cirl buntings – which emphasised the similar-but-different nature of birding in western France. The overcast skies meant that the photographic potential was more limited than it might have been, but it was still an excellent walk which, like the previous one, would be great to repeat in the future.

The river Vienne near Ardentes

The river Vienne near Ardentes

Severn Valley trails: by steam and on foot

A few days ago I took Jen on one of my favourite trips – the steam train from Bewdley to Bridgnorth, and then walking back along the bank of the river. The scenery is beautiful almost the entire way, especially with the spectacularly good weather that we had!

Severn Valley Railway steam train, the 'Sir Keith Park', on its way back from Bridgnorth.

There are some great spots for watching the trains: this is the viaduct at Borle Brook, as the ‘Sir Keith Park’ heads south to Bewdley.

River Severn  south of Highley

River Severn south of Highley

River Severn at the confluence of the Borle Brook.

River Severn at the confluence of the Borle Brook.

We went all the way to Bridgnorth and walked back as far as Arley, arriving just in time to catch the final southward train. The uphill stretch from the river to the station reminded me again that Jen’s running is way better than mine!

In fact the route from Hampton Loade to Bewdley, a similar distance of about ten miles, is probably the most scenic section. It may seem a bit churlish to complain about the scenery at the Bridgnorth end, which is itself hard to beat – but the stretch a few miles further south is even better!

The path itself is easy to follow (if in doubt, head for the river) and flat most of the way. There are many photo opportunities – almost too many!

River Severn near Arley

River Severn near Arley