It’s Valentine’s Day. Spring is in the air. The sun is starting to share some of it’s warmth. Buds are looking plump. Birds are getting active.
A day to show and share some good will.
These birds are pretty spectacular, and I was delighted to get this shot of one, wings spread and gleaming in the sunlight, at Brazos Bend State Park near Houston.
They are sometimes called snake birds or water turkeys. Their full description can be read here.
That aside, what really attracted me was the detail of the feathers on the body, giving a fluffy look, and the silvery gleam of the wing and tail feathers.
I’d never seen or heard of an anhinga before, but on my first visit to Brazos Bend I saw one and asked a ranger what it was. Thereafter, and on almost every visit since, I’ve seen several, maybe perched on a branch or partly submerged tree sticking out of one of the lakes, but usually at a distance.
This one, so close to the path was obligingly close, very still and rather beautiful.
Reading Patrick Barkham’s book The Butterfly Isles I was transported back to south London, where I grew up. I’d reached the chapter on urban butterflies where he describes Coldharbour Lane and the bus station at Camberwell Green. Immediately I was once again 9 years old, with my mum, sitting on the top deck of a red London bus on my way to my dancing class at Kennington Oval.
The bus route took us past a huge colourful mosaic of a Camberwell Beauty butterfly, set high up on the front of the Samuel Jones & Co factory, which produced gummed paper shapes. I was fascinated by this butterfly, ever after wanting to see one. I never managed to do so in the UK. They are very rare visitors and I had to wait until 1982 before I saw several for real in Sweden. That was memorable – I still recall how I couldn’t quite believe my eyes!
The Camberwell Beauty has stayed with me as being rather special. My mum bought me a gummed paper shape puzzle of this butterfly with a cardboard shape to base the pieces on. I still have it. It’s a childhood memento that I wouldn’t part with.
What I was interested to discover from Barkham’s book is that Coldharbour Lane ( not an especially nice place these days), was once known as Cool Arbour Lane, where there were green meadows and willow trees, a rural habitat suitable for this butterfly and its caterpillars.
I’m currently reading Patrick Barkham’s excellent book The Butterfly Isles in which he describes the summer when, as an amateur enthusiast, he travelled throughout the British Isles seeking out all 59 species of native British butterflies in one year.
Now this may sound a bit geeky and quirky (it is!) but if you like butterflies and have done so since you were a child (like me), reading it becomes a bit compulsive. It kept me quiet over the Christmas holidays.
It’s a well-written travelogue which reads like an adventure/detective story as each butterfly is sought and seen in various UK locations. Some of the butterflies I’ve seen, some I’ve yet to see, and I know I need to get my ID of the various kinds of fritillaries worked out a bit better than they are now. But I can ID quite a few species without help from a book. One of those is the magical Purple Emperor.
I’d seen plenty of illustrations and photos of this magnificent butterfly but, until a few years ago, had never seen one for real. My first sighting of this large, stunning butterfly was in France, in the Dordogne region. It was special. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the purple flash and sheen on its wings. It landed on the ground outside the facilities block on the lushly vegetated campsite I was staying on. With a nearby fig tree already dropping ripened fruit, it may have been attracted by this. I had no camera with me; I was on the way to the loo, but it made my day seeing my first Purple Emperor.
A year or so later, on a rough country path by the same campsite, I saw another Emperor. This time I had my camera and the butterfly ignored me as it gorged itself on horse manure. A royal feast for Emperors – they go in for “disgusting” in a big way.
Having read Barkham’s description and experience of this butterfly, I now see, looking at my photo, what he means about its muscular, hefty body and its yellow proboscis probing deep into the manure as it feasts. A treat for the Emperor, and a treat for me too, to see it at such close quarters.
It was flying straight towards me. I had a perfect head-on view through my binoculars as it drew closer, then veered off to fly in a line parallel with the distant river Dee. It was a male Hen Harrier and I enjoyed every second of tracking its flight, watching its silver-grey body with distinctive black wing tips and quietly gasping at my good fortune at seeing it.
It was even more special a sighting as Hen Harriers are a persecuted species, especially so on open moorland close to grouse shooting estates, where there is known criminal activity of destruction of these magnificent birds and their chicks. So persecuted are they, only three pairs have bred successfully in the UK in 2018.
The Hen Harrier I was watching, as part of the RSPB’s regular Raptor Watch event at Parkgate, Deeside, can be seen there quite often…but it was my first sighting of the male. I’ve seen the female, known as Ringtail, a few times but managed to miss her this time around as there was so much going on.
“Overhead!” called one of the volunteers who run his event. It was a Merlin. As it flew at speed over our heads, another RSPB bod said “Female Merlin”. That instant ID, against the light of the sky, was impressive!
There were skeins of Pink-footed Geese flying in to the marshy areas nearby, egrets in amongst the vegetation and pools, two Marsh Harriers hunting further out near the river, and as dusk crept in, an elegant Barn Owl began hunting for food, dropping down from time to time to catch a mouse or vole, only to rise up again when it got away. Then he went down and stayed – he must have caught something and was ready for dinner.
But this was not to be as a kestrel appeared out of the blue, flew down to join the owl and mugged him, flying off with the catch in its claws. It was high drama at dusk as this happened not once, but twice.
As we left, it was almost dark but the shape of the owl could still be seen quartering the marshland in search of food.
Scotland’s on my mind, probably because I need some light at the end of the everlasting, deja vu-ridden Brexit tunnel of despair as negotiations continue on their journey of ever decreasing circles.
So I’ve updated the blog’s head photo with a stunning view I took several years ago of the mountains near Achnahaird in the Highlands – thoughts are straying towards revisiting next Spring.
With blue skies, crisp clear air and sunshine, it’s tempting to think of going to Scotland again, and my archives have revealed a few more temptations – the scenic cathedral ruins at Elgin…..and the view from the promenade at Cromarty for starters.
Way up in the far north, at Dunnet Bay, I saw sun dogs refracted in a halo around the setting sun, and the wide empty sands at Balnakiel were wonderful to walk on and just simply BE.
This view of the empty, dramatic Scottish wilderness was taken from the North Coast 500 road – empty when I was there apart from a solitary biker riding by. This route has become very popular, one of those scenic drives that has to be done.
I’m glad I saw it deserted and dramatic. Would I want to travel along it again? Maybe…but there are still many unspoiled, deserted places to discover. Maybe time to get out the guide books and maps and get the ideas flowing.
These shots of different types of fungus were taken in the Loire and Dordogne regions during a recent holiday in France.
I’ve failed miserably to ID them using a rather ancient field guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools, but am fairly confident in thinking that two out of the three types of fungus shown above come under the “Bracket Fungus” category.
Top left was in the Dordogne region, in a woodland and growing on a fallen tree trunk.
Top right was by the River Indre, in the Loire region, invading the trunk of a riverside tree and creating interesting reflections in the water.
As for the lower close up of the large group, I have no idea what they are. They just looked interesting, all close together, nestled on the ground, in grass, between trees and not far from where our motorhome was pitched.