Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Late April field notes

Moon near Venus
Mackerel sky
Thank goodness that the weather's been so nice during the Covid-19 lockdown. Things could have been much less relaxed. This is the first year I remember in which the first four weeks of the transect-walking season (otherwise known as the one hour daily exercise period) have been 100% sunshine. The perfect weather we've enjoyed since around mid-March is appreciated all the more because of the fresh memory of the miserable, wet winter we endured and because of the eventual break in the weather that we all know would eventually come; just as the beauty of the night sky is appreciated more by the memory of an overcast sky.

Knowing that the good weather was due to break on Monday night, I made a point of enjoying the last good evening for a while by taking a late walk when I was hopeful I would have the Bishopstone downs to myself. I did. The previous evening the sky was clear and the crescent moon, three days old, was near Venus. It was a stunning sight; one I could never tire of. Monday evening had a mackerel sky which faded to salmon pink as the sun sank; the Moon and Venus flashed in and out through the gaps. The air was still and the scent of flowers hung in the air, thick and sweet. I think people experience smells slightly differently from each other, in the same way we seem to see colours in slightly different hues. With cow parsley I sense a slight camphor odour, not as strongly as I do with Alexanders earlier in the season, but it is there faintly. As I walked along the silent paths in the gloaming, alternate smells of camphor and sickly sweet hawthorn overwhelmed the senses.

We walked up to the top of Mount Pleasant and via Norton Hill and Rookery Hill to the road at Bishopstone. I hoped to see the barn owl or a tawny owl, but the silhouettes were mostly crows and rooks. A cuckoo flashed out of the woodland edge at the top of Bishopstone Wood, my first of the season. I had heard it call a few minutes before and the dogs must have flashed it up. A little further on I saw what I thought might be a roe deer – not the first I have seen in the area – but it was too dim to make an ID with any degree of confidence. Whatever is was disappeared along a well-worn track and into the trees. I'll check it for droppings when I'm next over there in the daylight.

In the gloaming I'm struck by how things which are pale in colour tend to glow. Umbellifers and hawthorn blossom framed the fields and, amongst the grass, thousands of dandelion clocks lit up dimly like tiny lamps. I wouldn't have appreciated their number during the daylight and I love it that they became more obvious in the in-between light of the dusk. I learnt the other day that our word dandelion is taken from the French dents de lion, or lion's teeth, a description of the leaves. I wonder if the Normans brought the name over with them? 

Sunday afternoon allowed a long, leisurely ramble over the downs between South Heighton and Beddingham. The lockdown doesn't allow such long walks as I'd like, but I was able to make the most of the sun and light breeze. I climbed the hill above Page's Barn with the hope of finding some oak eggar caterpillars on the bramble between the path and fenceline, but none were seen. I counted 64 along the same stretch in 2014, but annual searches since have turned up nothing, which is disappointing. I did see my first painted lady of the season and possibly also my first small heath, but this disppeared before I could tell for certain. A little further along at Snap Hill I saw another red kite, bringing my 2020 tally to five – all in the Newhaven area.

The garden continues to delight. I noticed a number of yellow-backed clothes moth (Monopis obviella), carrion moth (Monopis weaverella), white-shouldered house-moth (Endrosis sarcitrella) and narrow-winged grey (Eudonia angustea) flying around the compost heap in the still air on Monday evening. I've found the Monopis species and sarcitrella to be associated with dried grass clippings in the past. More firsts have turned up in the moth trap: I have now recorded eleven species this month which I had never previously seen in April and newly-emergent species are appearing for the first time this year most nights now. The good weather has undoubtedly brought forward many emergence times, but the general trend of climate change must also be at play.

With a couple of days and nights still left in the month it is clear that this April has been one of the best for butterflies and moths. I've recorded 88 species and 1011 individuals so far. Only April 2014 has been better. Many species have been above both my five year and ten year average. I'll try and find time to write it up in more detail after the month end.

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) - my first for the season
Wall (Lasiommata megera) have been seen in good numbers this April
Path through Denton Wood
Wych Elms in flower and a gap in the canopy
Page's Barn and the path to Beddingham
Grey Pug (Eupithecia subfusca)
Turnip (Agrotis segetum) - fresh but missing an antenna
Yellow-backed Clothes-moth (Monopis obviella)

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