Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Sounds Like Summer

Oystercatcher egg, Norfolk coast - Photo by Jo Sinclair
There's a place I go to. This place and I have history. I've just scheduled a social walk there and it occurs to me it might feel a little odd to lead a string of people into the place that is the nearest I have ever got to going to church. It's a place I go to disappear. I trespass the quiet places dog walkers and runners don't reach. I observe a secret natural world. I observe myself.

I visited this place a few days ago. It's an oasis of ancient woodland surrounded by intensive agriculture. There are dappled rides where hunting platforms are rigged. These constructions make me slightly uneasy (I watched Walt Disney's Bambi at an impressionable age). I could see fresh bootprints and Landrover tracks and hoped the hunter or gamekeeper had been and gone. Watery ruts and puddles were surrounded by deer, badger, fox and bird prints. I noticed something else. This time my senses seemed wired slightly differently. I was tuning into details I may have missed before. I found myself listening to the tiniest sounds. The slowly receding puddles were emitting kissing sounds. Rafts of flies upset the viscous calm as they buzzed and skated and pierced the surface of the water with proboscises. Grass flowers emitted tiny puffs of pollen - I wonder what those might sound like? I imagined a multitude of sound layers beyond the obvious bumblebees, barking muntjac, coughing pheasants, pleading parties of tit chicks and garden warbler, blackbird, woodpigeon and blackcap song.

A benefit of walking alone is hearing the birds, and the wind in the trees. Last night I went on a cross-country bike ride and missed all these nuances as I laboured noisily up hills, skidding on grass and flint. All I heard when I stopped for a rest was bird song and my own breath.

Soundscapes, sound ecology and sound art are inspiring me at the moment, so experiencing the environment has a new dimension to it. There's a Cambridgeshire musician who's in his element when recording sound in the natural world. Simon Scott appeared on Springwatch recently. Introduced by Chris Packham as 'sonic artist extraordinaire',  the Cambridge born Fenlander describes what being a sound ecologist is all about. Packham introduces him as a lifelong nature boy and indie rock star. Nature's orchestra is the inspiration to his composition Below Sea Level (see his website, with links to the show).

Sound artists are excited by accessing what our ears don't or can't usually hear. With equipment such as hydrophones that reach below water into previously undiscovered worlds they make scientific discoveries as well as art.

The Sounds Of Our Shores project is a collaboration between the National Trust and British Library. They are appealing to the public to record the sounds of the British seaside this summer using smartphones, tablets or sound recorders. As the heatwave advances I'm imagining squealing kids, white horses, the rush of pebbles and oystercatchers. Dream on.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The Blitz

Biting stonecrop - photo by Jo Sinclair

Mullein moth caterpillar - photo by Jo Sinclair
Biting stonecrop flares bright yellow between tarmac and broken glass. Tatty blue butterfly wings blow across my path. A stripy caterpillar bites into soft and furry mullein leaves among the traffic cones. Bags of rubble disgorge a forest of teasels. The brownfield site by the level crossing has been sold. It reminds me of the vintage car enthusiasts' mecca in Sweden where hundreds of cars in a scrapyard have been reclaimed by nature. Legend has it that the forest site was originally a store for cars abandoned by American soldiers leaving Europe after the second world war. Award-winning nature photographer Pal Hermansen documented the wildlife haven that Bastnas in Varmland has become.

I lock my bike to the chainlink fence in my spot in South Cambs. I find cut leaved cranesbill, evening primrose, cinnabar moth. Dogrose, ragwort, robin and whitethroat... someone should BioBlitz this place!  Or send writers, artists, fashion designers. There's so much to look at. A snippet from BBC Springwatch I enjoyed tells a similar story. Ian Llewellyn is a wildlife cameraman and photographer who talks about looking closely at his local urban river landscape in Bristol. In the quieter moments between the usual Ikea and Tesco shoppers, fishermen, skateboarders, graffiti artists, dog walkers and sex workers he captures moments such as the reflection of a sunrise rippling above shopping trolleys, minnows and eels.

As I follow the floppy, fast-flying cinnabar moth I'm distracted by all the other reds and pinks along the way. I look at the ingenious architecture of the spiky teasels. The formation of their stems creates a reservoir that protects, hydrates and nourishes; drowned insects are absorbed by the plant, making it partially carnivorous. While I'm sitting there the birds come. I've not managed to photograph a male bullfinch before. But his punchy pink plumage eludes a true image.

Cinnabar moth - photo by Jo Sinclair

Bullfinch - photo by Jo Sinclair

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Orchid Army

Q: What do monkey, fly, lady, soldier and lizard have in common?
A: They are all species of British wild orchids!

There are dangling men, bonneted ladies, furry bumblebees and sticky fly lookalikes among the 56 species recorded in our country. Every bit as exotic as their hothouse cousins these flowers are exquisite to look at and not all as rare as might be assumed (though some, such as the lady's slipper orchid, exist thanks only to breeding programmes, top levels of secrecy and professional security guards).

Yesterday evening the Wildlife Trust and volunteers joined forces at Fulbourn Fen nature reserve for the annual orchid count. Six species are known here, but the focus was on the marsh orchid. I joined in as our army of fourteen walked side by side in a staggered line, aiming to cover the entire section of the site, regardless of thistle and thorn. 'You're out of line', the orchid drill sergeant shouted, but I think I got the hang of it eventually...

The small colony of 200 marsh orchids recorded in 2001 had increased last year to over 2000. Last night's total is still being totted up, but it was looking very healthy, with the marsh orchids appearing to outnumber the common spotted species found growing among them. Signs are that the Wildlife Trust's management plan for retaining the damp conditions of this ancient fen are working harmoniously. Volunteers and locals can help influence this; look out for work parties advertised through the Wildlife Trust website or on the village's community newsletter Fulbourn Forum. Every year a bit of brute force is required to battle the encroaching scrub that creeps into the fen and threatens to engulf everything.

Meanwhile this summer there's a call to action from the Natural History Museum and their new Orchid Observers project. Go on an orchid safari this month (June is peak time for most of our orchid species), take photographs and send in simple details such as site and date. There, done.

Marsh orchid photographed by Jo Sinclair

Common spotted orchid photographed by Jo Sinclair

Orchid count at Fulbourn Fen - photo Jo Sinclair

Orchid count at Fulbourn Fen - photo Jo Sinclair

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

A Pop of Colour

A poppy field near me has become a talking point. 'Have you seen them?' people ask. Less than two weeks since the RHS Chelsea Flower Show medals were handed out, wild flowers are stealing the show. I was bowled over by an ox-eye daisy meadow in the grounds of St.Vigor's church, Fulbourn.  They cast delicate shadows on the gravestones and dominate as a blanket of white, but look closely and you'll see a profusion of other species too such as red clover, common vetch and black medick. You could visit next week when there's an opportunity to get involved in some nature events on Wednesday. The weekly swift survey takes place and the Wildlife Trust's annual orchid count happens at the nature reserve nearby. Check out this blog's events calendar for more details.

Used to walking in our monoculture landscape of blue-green wheat and sulphur yellow oil-seed rape, I felt a bit overwhelmed looking at the dense biodiversity of the Wildlife Trust's Fulbourn Fen, where I photographed marsh orchids. Using camera, books and internet I could only begin to identify the less flamboyant but unusual species I could see crammed into just a small transect. I've been having a think about how to acquire more of a botanist's eye for our British flora. There is currently a wildflower exhibition at Clare Hall, Cambridge displaying work by a group called Iceni Botanical Artists. Drawing and painting is a great way to look and learn and acquire expertise on a subject. Many organisations have guided walks, talks and courses. The Cambridge Natural History Society's annual Conversazione on June 12 and 13th showcases some of these organisations and points the way to the Cambridge area's astonishing specialist knowledge of the natural world.

Photo by 'RoganJosh'

Photo of marsh orchid by Jo Sinclair