Since we are off to the Sheffield Tree Festival later, amidst talks between Sheffield City Council and Sheffield Tree Action Group, it seems appropriate to feature one of England’s iconic but threatened tree species. Introduced from Turkey in the 16th Century, the Horse Chestnut was widely planted in public spaces and large estates but there are fears that this all-year round beauty, from the early sticky buds, and beautiful ‘candle’ blossoms, to the Conkers so many of us grew up gathering and playing, to the stunning bare trees and trunks of old specimens, there are two attacks on Horse Chestnuts. A moth, spreading from Greece and Macedonia, is destroying leaves before many Conkers have had time to fully develop. And a fungal infection, reported only 4 times in 2000 but affecting around half of all our trees by 2007, damages and weakens the trees themselves. We were lucky to have found
Conkers, Lincolnshire, 2018
Horse Chestnut trunk, Herstmonceux, East Sussex
Horse Chestnut, Herstmonceux castle
Damaged Horse Chestnut leaf
some lovely Conkers in Lincolnshire last week. Conditions: Still and blue-skied. Temperature: Max 15 Min 8C.
Whether in huge flocks of 100-plus last week in Lincolnshire, or in small ‘Charms’ of half a dozen on our garden feeders all week, we are getting plenty of viewings of the beautiful Goldfinch. There are still juveniles in immature plumage, which show the beginning of the black and white ladder-back and the gold wing-flash but lack the red, black and white head markings. Goldfinches were often used as caged birds, due to their beauty and liquid song, and were heavily persecuted up until the 1930’s, so their apparent increase over the last few years may be deceptive- they are still recovering previous levels and are also being drawn more into gardens as farmland and scrub produces less of the seeds they rely on. In the wild they need thistle, ragwort, groundsel and dandelion seed but better food mixes for garden feeders,
Immature Goldfinch, lacking the bright head-markings
Large flock of Goldfinch, feeding on fields in Lincolnshire
Large flock of Goldfinches, Lincolnshire
including sunflower and fat, have helped the population levels and certainly the visibility of this small, native finch. Numbers rise over summer months but ringing suggests many migrate south, even into Continental Europe over winter. Conditions: A balmy spell of autumn weather. Temperature: Max 19 Min 13 C.
The Red Admiral, known in earlier times as the Red Admirable, has scarcely appeared in our garden this year but was feeding in small numbers on the heavy crops of Blackberries along the Chesterfield Canal this week. While there is a small resident population in the UK, and an increasing number of Red Admirals overwintering as adults, as our climate changes, the majority migrate to our shores in spring, from Eastern Europe, and then breed here. Because numbers are swelled by migration, the numbers in any year fluctuate greatly. This beautiful, unmistakable large, strong-flying Butterfly loves feeding up on fermenting fruit like these imbibing Blackberry juice. Conditions: Cool, wet and then sunny. Temperature: Max 13 Min 7 C.
Red Admiral feeding on fermenting Blackberries
Surprisingly heavy crop of Blackberries given the dry season
Late flowering sources of food for bees, hoverflies and butterflies are so important in garden and wild spaces, especially in a year like this when the exceptionally hot, dry summer had meant so many flowering plants had flowered early, brought on by the heat. It is worth planting a few perennials like Heleniums, Buddleia,or Echinacea. I love watching the Bees, especially, and how they manoeuvre themselves into and out of the tubes of Fuchsia and the ‘helmets’ of Himalayan Balsam (which has, thankfully, been checked in its intrusive spread a little this year, owing to it preferring damp places). Honey Bees especially need extra food, as many live over winter and need to build up their reserves. Conditions: Calm before the predicted winds and rain, a hangover of Hurricane Florence crossing the Atlantic in the next couple of days. Temperature: Max 22 Min 14 C.
Small White feeding on Verbena Bonariensis
I seldom get the chance to feature Weasels, because photo’s are hard to get and, while not clear, these give me the opportunity. Weasels are very speedy and active, hunting day or night as they have to eat every 24 hours or starve. They catch rodents, small birds and their eggs, and even tackle Rabbits. However this one, on the cliff-top at Borth Y Gest, North Wales, decided not to tackle the oblivious sunbather it came up against! Slightly smaller than the related Stoat, and without the Stoat’s black tail tip or the Stoat’s ability to change its coat to white in winter, it only lives an average of 3 years, compared to the Stoat’s 10. Therefore, it has to breed faster, having two litters a year rather than one. The young, ‘Kits’, are able to hunt and fend for themselves within a staggering 5 weeks of being born. They live almost anywhere, including grassland, woodland, mountains and sand-dunes, like this one, but you are lucky to see one- they run off quickly.
Weasel surprised by sunbather, Borth y Gest
is a good spot near Sheffield. Conditions: Mild, sunny intervals. Temperature: Max 18 Min 12 C.
The Painted Lady Butterfly is one of our largest species, and its capacity for strong flight is truly extraordinary. They migrate every year from their native home in North Africa. Some individuals arriving here from late May may have flown all the way, while others will have bred in Europe and it is the second or third generation which we see. This amazing Butterfly can breed several generations while here, and can fly as far as Shetland and to our highest mountains. The Painted Lady is the only Butterfly that reaches Iceland. However, it cannot survive our winters, and while a few may fly back to Europe, most die here by autumn. These, seen this week, are fading from their bright colour when they first emerge. Feeding here on Buddleia, their favourite food plant is Thistle. I have seen very few this year- it is thought that they migrate north when a critical level of density in their population in North Africa is reached, and sometimes this is in their thousands. Conditions: Still and grey. Temperature: Max 17 Min 15 C.
Painted Lady in flight
Painted Lady feeding. Its long proboscis allows it to feed on the tubes of Buddleia
Painted Lady, fading by late summer.
Emperor Dragonflies, one of the largest and fastest Dragonflies in Europe, able to fly at 24mph, prefer medium to large ponds, or canals, with plenty of vegetation, which is why I could watch them at the stunning Bodnant Gardens, North Wales, this week. Reaching a length of 78mm (3.1 inches) they are highly territorial and males will fight to the death. Hard to photograph on the wing, because of their speed and sudden changes of direction, they swoop to catch insect prey, including Butterflies, which they consume on the wing. They hardly ever perch. This female (they have a greenish abdomen, while the male’s is bluer) did hover and land, looking for a site to lay its eggs. I
Female Emperor Dragonfly
Female Emperor Dragonfly, looking for an egg-laying site
Female Emperor Dragonfly
Female Emperor Dragonfly
Mating Emperor Dragonflies, mid-air.
also managed to get a shot, about six metres above ground, as two mated, flying past at high speed! Apart from their size, they can be identified by the way they often hold their abdomens bent downwards. Conditions: Grey cloud and occasional light rain. Temperature: Max 16 Min 13 C.