Saturday, 26 December 2015

My 2015 in Uckfield nature photos

As the year draws to a close it's time to look back on the wildlife I have seen in and around Uckfield during 2015.


January started with the BSBI New Year Plant hunt, in which I spent an hour looking for wild flowers that were out in bloom. I found a total of 21 different types - surprising considering that we had a few days of hard frost. 
Campanula on old wall at the top Uckfield's High Street.
Towards the end of the month, I took part in Lime Aid's volunteer session - trimming back unwanted growth at the feet of the amazing old Lime trees that once led to Uckfield House.
Before and After - Lime Tree Avenue.
As usual, the month ended with the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch.


On the 8th, four tiny Goldcrests were fluttering round the lower branches of our laurels and nearby bushes. One was displaying to the others with his normally inconspicuous crest feathers fluffed up in a bright orange "quiff".  One sunny day brought out a tattered but still lovely Red Admiral.

Red Admiral, Manor Park garden.


When Hazel catkins are shaken by the wind, you can see how they get the name "lambs tails". This year has been exceptionally windy.
Hazel, Manor Park garden.


Two Fallow Deer bucks, who are regular visitors to the Manor Park estate, came into the garden for a couple of hours. I and others were concerned that the darker one was limping. However it showed a fair turn of speed when escaping would-be rescuers.

Fallow deer, Manor Park garden.


May is, of course, bluebell time. This year I visited Boothland Wood, which in the next few years will be surrounded by the Ridgewood Farm development.  The woodland has a light, airy feel because it is surrounded by open farmland and has many elegant, slender beech trees.
Bluebells, Boothland wood.
Later in the month, the splendid WRAS rescued an injured woodpigeon from our back garden.
WRAS to the rescue, Manor Park.
The month ended with the Garden Biobliz in which I tried to find as many wild flowers and creatures in the garden as possible.  In the end, I identified 129 species compared to 104 last year.
Tree bumble bee spotted during Garden Bioblitz, Manor Park garden.


June was dominated by 30 days wild. This project meant having one wildlife moment a day.  To me it meant pausing and really taking notice of what was around me. My most memorable Uckfield discovery was a pair of Grey Wagtails that live on the part of the River Uck that flows under our station. I saw them courting and mating and was able to follow their progress up to the point when I saw a fluffy youngster.

Grey Wagtails on riverbank, seen from Uckfield station platform.

Another highlight was spotting Uckfield's very own Stickleback Si (named after one featured on BBC's Spring Watch) in the Hempstead Meadow Nature Reserve. I could see his red tummy and I was delighted to see him duck into his tunnel nest for a moment. 


Towards the end of July, I spent time pulling invasive Himalayan Balsam in the Hempstead Meadow Nature Reserve.  It was very pleasant to spend time in the reserve like that and getting to see special trees like rare Black Poplars and all manner of tiny creatures.
Black Poplar (left) and Himalyan Balsam (right). Hempstead Meadow
July was also marked the start of the Big Butterfly Count.  This year I saw more butterflies (108 in 12 counts) than last.  Our most regular visitor were bright orange and brown Gatekeepers. 

Gatekeeper butterfly, Manor Park garden.


The 8th of August was flying ant day. Suddenly they erupted from our lawn and were flying skywards like so many golden angels. It wasn't just us - all over the country, people were commenting, via social media, on the ants.  
Black ants, Manor Park garden.
On the 22nd of August 2015, I spent a lovely hour in our garden experiencing the light fading away and the creatures of the day finding their way home.  I counted about 400 Rooks as they flew past our house to their roost - probably Lime Tree Avenue.

On a wet bank holiday, I finally found the little remnant of heathland habitat on Manor Park, which is home to hundreds of dainty Autumn Ladies Tresses flowers.
Autumn Ladies Tresses, Manor Park estate.


September mornings found our garden full of spider webs sprinkled with jewel-like drops of dew. I was pleased to see that they seemed to be catching plenty of crane flies.
Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus) in Manor Park garden.
At the end of the month, I cut through Hempstead Meadow Nature Reserve and found plenty of flowers still out including a blue, Meadow Crane's-bill.
Hoverfly (Syrphus ribesii) on Meadow Crane's-bill. Hempstead Meadow.


In the run up to Halloween I expect to hear much talk about bats and other spooky things but I don't expect to see real ones. However the long, late summer brought us two surprise visits. One on October the 18th at about 6:15pm when we saw three dancing in the fading light and another at about 5pm on October the 30th.
Autumn leaves and Halloween decorations.


A grim month in all sorts of ways. At the start of the month fog swept in closing both Gatwick and Heathrow and on the 21st there were snowflakes in the rain.  Even the foxes that regularly visit our garden stayed away for most of the month.
One of the few fox visits in November. Manor Park garden.


In the run up to Christmas we had a few visits from a fallow deer with fine antlers. This is probably the lighter of the two bucks that we saw earlier in the year. Sadly the darker one wasn't with him.
Fallow buck, Manor Park garden.
Christmas is a time when we traditionally bring greenery inside. I'll leave you with the lovely Nordman tree that I bought from Vulcan Farm. 

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Bats in our Uckfield garden

As it's coming up to Halloween, I thought it would be a good time to talk about bats.

On a fine summer evening, we often see bats swooping and diving in front of our house. I think these are pipistrelles. The Bat Conservation Trust tells us:

"Common pipistrelle is one of the UK's most common bat species. It is a small bat which is found in a wide range of habitats including farmland, woodlands and suburban and urban habitats. It often roosts in crevices around the outside of houses and buildings.

The Collins Fields Guide - Mammals of Britain and Europe says:

Habits: "Leave roost c. 20 mins (2-35 mins) after sunset" and "Active at feeding sites for up to 8 hours."
Food: "Small insects caught and eaten in flight: main food is midges and caddis flies ..."
Breeding: "Births in June-Mid July."
Lifespan: "Max recorded 16 years 7 months."
Measurements: "Head-body length: av. 36-51mm." and "Wingspan: 180-240mm."

I've seen them on warm evenings from March to October. On October the 18th this year, at 6:15pm, there was a pretty flush in the early evening sky and 3 bats were swooping overhead, guzzling up pesky midges and other insects.
Sketch - 5th August 2005.
I've often seen the local cats watching the bats. You can see their frustration as they stalk but cannot catch these unreachable flying mice.

Sadly one long-eared bat was not so unreachable. I found its body on the path one day, presumably killed by a cat.

Long-eared bat - 19th Aug 2006.

The Bat Conservation Trust tells us:

"The brown long-eared bat is a medium-sized bat with ears almost as long as the body. It flies close to vegetation or in woodland, often using its large ears to listen for prey sounds and gleaning insects from the surface of foliage. It eats mainly moths, beetles, flies, earwigs and spiders."

I once saw one almost creeping round the trees in our garden searching for its food.

The Collins Fields Guide - Mammals of Britain and Europe says:

Habits: "Generally emerges in dark."
Food: "Insects, mainly moths ..."
Breeding: "Births in June and July."
Lifespan: "Max recorded 22 years."
Measurements: "Head-body length: av. 37-53mm." and "Wingspan: 240-285mm."

It notes that their "Habit of landing on the ground makes them vulnerable to predators."

The RHS has some advice about attracting bats to your garden.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Rooks in the fading light

On the 22nd of August 2015, I spent a lovely hour in our garden experiencing the light fading away and the creatures of the day finding their way home.  I counted rooks as they flew past our house to their roost - probably Lime Tree Avenue. When I started, at 7:30pm on the sky was still blue sprinkled with little white clouds.  A gentle pink glow on the horizon was the only clue that the day was ending.  Half a dozen house martins had just wheeled overhead and a red admiral paid a last visit to our buddleia.  Tiny hints of yellow showed that the cigar-shaped evening primrose buds had just started to unroll.

In half-an-hour clouds turned from white to slate.
For the first quarter hour, there was just a trickle of rooks.  By 8pm, the trickle had turned into a flood. One group of birds was about 40 strong and they flew over too fast to count properly.

One group of rooks.
As a dragonfly feasted on evening insects, the flood slackened. By 8:20pm, they had all gone. I had counted about 400 rooks past our house in less than an hour.

When the rooks passed our house.
During that hour, the light had nearly gone, moths had started to fly and the evening primrose flowers had opened. So much had changed in such as short time.

Evening primrose flower.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

The Big Butterfly Count 2015

Between the 17th of July and the 9th of August, people all over the country counted butterflies for periods of 15 minutes. This citizen science is backed by The Butterfly Conservation people. This year’s results can be found on the web site.  

Me, counting butterflies, notebook in hand.
I was pleased with the results I got in 2014 but this year was so much better.
  • 2014: 10 counts, 10 species of butterfly, 66 records
  • 2015: 12 counts, 13 species of butterfly, 108 records as well as some moths.
Although I've done more counts, the average number of butterflies per count is 9 compared to 6.6 last year. All the numbers in this post are for butterflies only, although the moths were pretty and interesting too.
Attractive 6 spot burnet moth.
Here is a graph showing how many butterflies I recorded.

Butterflies recorded during 12 counts in our Uckfield garden.
The top three species were the same as last year:
1. Gatekeepers, which took an even more commanding lead than before
2. Meadow Brown
3. Large White.

Meadow Browns mating.
Otherwise, there were some differences. Last year, Ringlets and Small Tortiseshells were in the top 6. This year, I had no Ringlets and only one Small Tortiseshell. On the other hand, Red Admirals had held their position in the rankings.

Small Tortiseshell.
In both years, I saw one common blue butterfly. It has become less common over the last few years due to the reduction of habitats suitable for its food plant, bird's-foot trefoil. I've often found this little character clinging to a flower first thing in the morning. It is very hard to persuade it to let go of its perch. Most of the blues we see are Holly Blues.

Holly Blue.
Then I read an article about Commas, which explained that they had adapted to the decline in their formerly favourite food plant, hop, by feeding on nettles.This got me thinking about caterpillar food plants. Next year, I will be looking out for caterpillars on the following plants.

Food TypeButterflies
Meadow Brown
Small Skipper
Speckled Wood
 BrassicasLarge White
Small White
Nettle, hopComma
Red Admiral
Small Tortiseshell
Bird's-foot trefoilCommon blue
Six spot burnet
BrimstoneBuckthorn, Alder Buckthorn
Holly BlueHolly, Ivy, Dogwood, Gorse

Flying ants

Mum pointed them out first. Tiny golden angels rising in the sunlight. A closer look revealed hundreds of flying ants on and around the stepping stones at the bottom of our garden.

Preparing for take off.
There were also many small, wingless ants scurrying busily about.  This frenzy was an amazing sight in such a quiet area of the garden. I hadn't even realised there was an ants nest in this part of the garden. Maybe I should have done, as I've often seen blackbirds sunbathing down there. I understand that they like ants to run around their feathers to help get rid of parasites so they indulge in behaviour known as anting.

I imagine that it is a real bonanza for predators. Mum thought she saw a red dragonfly catching the ants on the wing.

It wasn't just our garden. I posted in the UK Bees and Wasps Facebook group (open) and people from all over the country commented that they had seen flying ants too. 

My photo was picked up in a Mirror article, which was posted in the Uckfield Talk Facebook group (closed - you'll only be able to see the post if you are a member). Several people from the town mentioned that nests of flying ants had appeared around their houses.

My photo was also picked up by West Sussex's Spirit FM for their article on the "invasion" of flying ants.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Hempstead Meadow - Pulling the Balsam.

A couple of years ago, I spent a couple of mornings pulling Himalayan Balsam from the Hempstead Meadow nature reserve, run by Uckfield Town Council.  I thought we had done a pretty thorough job until the next time I travelled by train and saw a band of pink at the far side of the reserve. At the time, it felt like it was taunting me.

Himalayan Balsam - pretty but invasive.
You know what they say about revenge? It's a dish best served cold. Today I, another volunteer and the Town Ranger, removed significant quantities of Balsam from two good sized areas of the reserve.  I was particularly pleased that I created spaces for seed from the pretty, frothy Meadowsweet to fall into.

Meadowsweet (centre) and Black Poplar (left back).
I knew that the Black Poplars (see back left of photo) that grow in the reserve are rare and special but I didn't know that they were such tricky breeders. Our knowledgeable ranger, Geoff, explained need a male and a female tree close enough together for pollination, then the seed must fall into ground that is "anerobic" because it has been flooded. With modern farming methods, there are few places that meet these conditions.

He also pointed out the different types of willowherb in the reserve. There is Rose-bay Willowherb near the railway, some Great Willowherb near the stickleback bridge and, new to me, Hoary Willowherb near the places where we were working.

Pink coloured Rose-bay Willowherb near the railway.
The time just whizzed by. While I was at the reserve, I saw several butterflies including colourful commas, pretty little moths and all sorts of intriguing insects.

A weird little Tortoise sheildbug.
As a gardener, I'm not a big fan of molluscs but I was rather taken with the golden coloured snails I found in the Balsam.

Marsh snail.
When I had had enough, I pottered off home, stopping briefly to check out the spot where I had previously seen a stickleback nest. I didn't see any fish this time but there was a variety of flowers including yellow loosestrife.

Yellow loosestrife near "stickleback" bridge.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

30 Days Wild - Free the Human

It's just a few days since I finished my 3 days wild. I've seen so many surprising and lovely things, from Bee Orchids on waste ground in Birmingham to the creatures that visit our Uckfield garden.

I wouldn't be me if I didn't reflect on and analyse my 30 days wild. So here is a wordle based on my #30DaysWild tweets.

As you can see, I've been observing nature in my home town of Uckfield (in Sussex) and my current place of work, near Birmingham. Although the weekly commute is a chore, it's given me a chance to be wild in both the city and the countryside. Given the challenge to find wildlife every day motivated me to really look at places near the office and hotels giving me some unforgettable encounters.
Young house martins at the Arden Hotel
I notice that two words I used a lot were love and enjoy. I had an absolute ball trying to find nature every day. It gave me the impetus to explore new places. It also gave me a reason to really look at familiar friends like my favourite bee.

Patchwork leaf cutter bee in my Uckfield garden.
All this searching for wildlife is a pleasant way of taking exercise. Tiny interludes, like a teleconference taken outside or visiting a pond next to the office, can make the working day less stressful and more fun. At work, we recently received an email suggesting we spend a few minutes outside in the sun each day to top up vitamin D levels. Who am I to argue?

Topping up vitamin D as per my employer's instructions.
I've been exploring outside wherever I find myself - not just waiting for holidays. In Birmingham, I discovered a huge park just opposite one of the hotels I use. Closer to home, I visited Chailey Common properly for the first time. I hope to be exploring both places much more in the future.

Ellie-May and Hamish bracken rolling at Chailey Common.
Some of my wildlife encounters came about because others were generous with their knowledge. When a fellow commuter at Uckfield station realised I was interested in the local wildlife, he told me where to look for a pair of grey wagtails. In turn I showed some of my colleagues where to find orchids in a surprising place.

Bee orchids at Trinity Park business park, near NEC Birmingham.

I just have to do it - 30 days wild in numbers:
  • 76 Tweets
  • 12 blog posts
  • about 100 photos shared out of a thousand taken
  • 3 drawings.
Drawing of Tern in front of an NEC hotel.
I've learnt so much from 30 days wild. Obviously, I've learnt about the wildlife around me but there is much more. Just one example - getting the photos that told the stories I wanted to share, really pushed my photographic skills.

I've even found that I am using my senses more.  I like to observe things but my observations have tended to be visual. Over the 30 Days, I've been listening much more to the twitter of house martins arriving at their nests, buzzing bees and swishing grasses. I've enjoyed feeling the wind and rain on my face, tasting the sweetness of strawberries eaten straight from the garden, touching rough barked trees and soft fur.
Taking a few minutes out of the working day to get wildlife photos.
So will I continue my wild life? Of course I will.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

30 Days Wild - Days 29 and 30 - Journey's End

This is the last blog of my 30 Days Wild Series.  My wildlife journey is coming to an end.

Monday, 29th June

This was a busy, busy day. I had planned to do a particular piece of work that needed a whole day's clear run. I had everything planned - but, as they say, if you want to make God laugh, make plans.  There was a crisis, not a huge one - but enough to get me and others scrambling round sorting things out for much of the morning. After all that, I just had to get outside to shed some of the stresses that had built up.

Me out in the sunshine, with wildflowers in my Uckfield garden.
As I listened to the buzzing bees and grasses swishing in the wind, I spotted a number of butterflies and wondered vaguely why I hadn't seen any in Birmingham. There's certainly no shortage of flowers for them to visit.

Tuesday, 30th June

Tuesday saw my last run up to Birmingham for a while. I met a few human and animal acquaintances on the way up including the grey wagtails that I first saw a couple of weeks back. This time they were dipping in the River, in sight of the station platform.

One of a pair of grey wagtails dipping in the Uck.
I took a few moments at lunch time to check out the pond by our office. The coot was still defending its patch and the tufted duck had 7 little fuzzy ducklings.  Over the past couple of weeks, the white water lilies and yellow monkey flowers had started to bloom.

Tufted duck and ducklings
After work, a colleague and I went exploring. We found another house martin nest at the front of the hotel. It must have been there a while because the fledglings had left the nest and were lined up on the edge of the roof. On the way to the station, there are still plenty of flowers at the roadside.

Roadside roses.
We decided to have a look round the NEC park, and crossed the Pendigo lake using the boardwalk.  We expected to find a few ducks and maybe a coot or moorhen. However, 30 Days Wild had saved one of its biggest surprises until last. I was looking up at the house martins prospecting round the upper floors of the unfinished Resort World Hotel. I don't suppose they had much luck, the walls look too smooth for them. Then a flash of white. An impossibly elegant tern was swooping over the water, occasionally dipping for food.

Look carefully on the right of the photo to see the tern.
We spent time watching the tern and then moved on, passing the Crown Plaza, which was set up for a rather grand function. Within a few yards of the tables with their fancy floral arrangements, simple ox-eye daisies drew my eye to the Hilton Metropole on the other side of the lake.

Ox-eye daisies in the fading light.
A pair of ducks kept pace as we drifted along the footpath. After a few minutes, we decided that the Arden's restaurant was calling us, and turned back. As we returned along the boardwalk, an untidy, almost primeval, flurry of feathers announced the arrival of the heron, which settled into its lakeside home.

Not far from the roadside roses we passed earlier, I saw my first Birmingham butterfly, a meadow brown, settling on wayside flowers after a busy day fluttering around. Like my 30 days wild it had reached the end of its journey but will set out on a new one soon.