Today in nature I saw

We’re getting snakes around our townhouse complex. Nice snakes and nots-so-nice snakes, which does make it a bit disconcerting. The latter was found a couple of days ago and the authorities nicely removed it from our next-door neighbor’s yard, a few meters from our front door.

Times are definitely good, if Mama Racoon can wrangle what sounds like the runt of the litter (?) and keep the poor little bugger alive.

If it keeps getting fed, it should catch up with the rest of its siblings. Maybe a bit smaller as an adult than the rest of 'em.

Also: TRASH PANDAS!!! I do like 'coons, they are probably as smart as we are.

Quite a while ago we had a mama raccoon take up residence in an old wood duck house (I think that’s what it was) that was in the woods behind our house. The previous owners had houses of all kinds around the property. There were bat houses, martin houses, bird houses of every shape and kind. Anyway, she had at least five babies AND she was missing a hind leg! So she really had her work cut out for her. She could keep them all in line too. We watched them many evenings that summer playing around, climbing and swinging on fallen trees. The mama came back the next year too and had a smaller litter.

This year, in our yard, there have been more fireflies than I’ve ever seen. Some nights earlier this month, before the rains–it has rained 4 inches this past week!–they have been dazzling us with the light shows. They’re flying near the ground, and up in the canopies of our walnut and oak trees, and in the space in between.

One really memorable night two few weeks ago I called my kid downstairs to join me and wifey in the family room where we had the lights off. Outside the yard was filled with the flashes of fireflies, while the sky above was filled with flashes of lightning. The lightning was eerily silent. It seemed like heaven and earth were in communication.

Today I saw something I have only ever seen once before - red kites following a farmer cutting hay.

Several years ago I stood and watched in awe as six or seven kites tracked the cutting, swooping and soaring, astonishingly agile and acrobatic for what is, after all, a big old killing machine. They’re following the tractor to see what snacks the cutting process scares up; I don’t recollect one stooping to kill on that occasion.

Today, out on the bike near Hever, under a brilliant blue sky, I watched a farmer cutting hay as a pair of kites tracked the cut and surveyed the cut field. I guess that between them they stooped something like twenty times in maybe half an hour (I couldn’t drag myself away). When you think of a bird with a six-foot wingspan dropping in for a kill, you (or at least I) start with a mental picture of it plummeting out of the sky with a force that would break a rat’s back in eight places and leave a dent in the ground. It’s nothing like that.

Yes, the kite does drop, but as it does so it is constantly readjusting (as lunch tries to escape, I assume) - it all takes place surprisingly slowly and looks rather tentative and uncertain. Twice I saw a kite take off and head for a tree after stooping, presumably to settle in for a moment with something tasty. That would suggest a hit rate of around 10%, but it may be that small snacks are scoffed on the ground, and only the larger ones require more formal dining arrangements.

The sad truth is, with a phone you can’t capture a decent photo of that. Here’s proof.

Google Photos

At least I captured the forked tail.

j

Cool! I’ve had barn swallows follow me as I mow the horses’ pasture, eating the insects that fly.

Funny, I also saw some kites yesterday (maybe the swallow-tailed variety). They were high in the sky and there were at least five of them all swirling around in a flock.

Interesting that their numbers and range have diminished. I think I’m correct in saying that red kites were extinct in England fifty years ago - that sort of thing happens if you use DDT and it all ends up in your apex predators. There was a reintroduction program and it has proved a brilliant success - they’re now one of the more common raptors round these parts. I think I’ve told this story on the boards before, but in the early days of the reintroduction, thirty or more years ago, I was out with a group on a reserve in the Thames Valley (looking at military orchids); and someone literally sidled up to me and said out of the side of his mouth “Psst - wanna see a red kite?”. I made my excuses and left. Anyways, there’s been a helluva uptick in numbers since than.

Now, after your alligator photos, I was also moved to take a photo of a swamp today, just to prove that we have them. We really don’t have many, and none have lethal reptiles. Another terrible photo, I’m afraid.*

Google Photos

This is one of my favorite rides because it’s just so wild (kinda - this is a managed habitat); and the interesting thing to me is: this is about 25 miles from central London.

j

* - Instead I should have photographed the pub menu board that offered “Ceasers Salad”. Too late, too late.

It’s beautiful. :slightly_smiling_face:

Just back from a couple of nights away in Salisbury (just to the south of Stonehenge). Got a few good stories - I’ll post a couple over the next few days. Here’s a nature one. This is deliberately rambly. For reasons.

OK, little egrets and herons are similar (ish) birds. Same sort of size and shape, and they fill similar evolutionary niches - similar habitat, similar diets, and so on. I’ll get back to this later.

So there we were, Mrs Trep and I, in Salisbury Cathedral Close, the enclosed grassed area around the cathedral, and a very beautiful place. As I’m taking in the cathedral, I hear an odd noise behind me, like the cawing of a crow only higher pitched, and a bird flies over my head. Pretty burly - looks like a raptor, bigger than,say, a kestrel - swept back wings, notably blunt and rounded tail. Couldn’t pick up the color against the sky. Flew straight to the cathedral and landed high on the spire, disappeared behind some stonework. Errr… did I just see a peregrine falcon?!?

This is pretty much how I saw it (library picture, as it were, from here):

In this country at least, if you google peregrine falcon sal (that’s as far as you need to go) you’ll be inundated with information about the peregrine falcon family of Salisbury Cathedral. Like this:

So to answer my own question, yep, that is what I saw.

To the west of the cathedral is a large open area called Harnham Water meadows. I hope this is a map of it:

It appears as if a complex of ditches have been dug to drain them - in fact the reverse is true: they were dug to flood the meadow in spring, in order to promote grass growth for sheep. In any case, they provide quite a habitat these days. Here’s an imaginary conversation from the water meadows:

Google Photos

Hi there! Plenty of room on the rail, eh?

Google Photos

Hey man – any fish round here? Boy am I hungry!

Google Photos

Heck man, be like that, why doncha?

j

ETA - little egret on the left

Okay, who else still remembers the title The Egret’s Regret?

I’ve been to Salisbury. I have a watercolor painting my uncle did of the cathedral years ago (he was an architecture student). Lovely area and I’d love to go back sometime if I can.

I was coming home yesterday, driving down our lane, and there was a beautiful whitetail buck standing ten feet away. Antlers were in full velvet.

We stared at each other for a few minutes, me with my window down. He stayed perfectly still. After a long time I realized my phone was right next to me. I grabbed it to get a pic and he was gone. Like StarTrek transporter gone.

Years ago I planted a small grove of Mountain Ash trees, they were bare root stock, twigs. About 1/4 of those trees made it to maturity. This year there was a profusion of flowers and now the tree is heavy with berries.

This afternoon I noticed my one of my neighbor’s sunflowers had a visitor:

One good insect-on-a-flower photo deserves another.

I really wish I knew more about butterflies, but they are annoying little …insects…to identify, because they just won’t keep still. But today, these handsome chaps obliged, and we were able to photograph them for ID purposes.

Google Photos

Google Photos

Another problem with ID-ing them is that, well, it’s a fritillary, but which one? The differences are, to my eye, minuscule, especially if they won’t just rest up and be identified. (I’m not saying they deserve to be netted and nailed to a board, but guys, don’t push your luck, OK?).

Thankfully, with the benefit of photos, we’re reasonably sure these are silver-washed fritillaries. But if anyone knows better, feel free to put me right.

These were at Wakehurst, down by their wetland area. Now, another of their (Wakehurst’s) managed habitats is, they claim, “North American Prairie”. It all sounds slightly improbable. Here it is (with paths cut into it):

Google Photos

Click on it for a larger image. US and Canadian friends, does this look at all like a reasonable facsimile of the real thing?

j

This is an image form the Hoosier State Prairie Preserve in my city. The core is genuine prairie, land that has never been cleared or developed and in fact entities use it to obtain seeds for prairie restorations. (Additional land has been acquired and is being restored to prairie). The picture below is from that core area.

As you can see, there are trees (mostly oaks). This is the wetter, “tall grass” prairie (most years the grass grows 2 meters high. On really good years some of the grass it can reach three meters in height!). The further west you go the drier and shorter the plants becomes. Fewer trees as you go west, except near rivers and lakes.

The Wakehurst site is what we would call and “early restoration” if it was in our area (obviously, the site is NOT actual prairie, so… “early recreation”?) It will take years to evolve it into an actual prairie site. The wild seeds do not all germinate in the same year, it takes time to grow a prairie.

I looked at the Wakehurst site and if they’re dealing with the Morton Arboretum they’ll get as good a result as they can given that you’re not located in the actual North American prairie zone. For one thing, your location is probably wetter. The climate is also milder. Some of the seeds that were used in the Morton prairie restoration site came from the Hoosier Prairie in my town. Likely, some of the seeds now recreating the prairie at Wakehurst also came from down the road from where I live (we are within the distance limits they mention in the Wakehurst videos).

My question for you - and you may not be able to answer this - is how they’re going to handle fire on the prairie. That ecosystem evolved in tandem with fire. They actually physically burn over our remaining prairie areas every 3-4 years both because that helps maintain them as actual prairie and also because with the grasses growing 2+ meters a year that’s a LOT of fuel build up if you don’t let nature reduce it to ash periodically. We use controlled burns with fire professionals on standby and normally it’s not a problem. They may or may not be planning to do this. If they do perform controlled burns you might want to go out and see it shortly afterward - the burn leaves a definite ash coating, even a “moonscape” sort of appearance, but the plants regenerate quickly so a couple weeks later you have lush, new, green growth emerging from the black and grey ash. It’s quite interesting. Within a year you won’t even know there had been a burn. It’s all part of that ecosystem.

Actual prairie is NOT endless fields of wheat or like a really tall lawn - much more diversity of plant life, and on the eastern end of the Great Plains there are more trees than people expect.

The Nature Conservancy on the Hoosier Prairie

This is from part of the restored areas. It doesn’t look quite the same, but it’s evolving. It’s probably how the Wakehurst site will look in a decade or so.

Right of the trail is restoration. Left is core, original prairie. As I already noted, on this end of the Great Plains you do get trees in wet spots and part of this site is a bog/swamp area. Which might have something to do with why this land wasn’t plowed or paved over. Not the entire reason - some parts are much drier with fewer trees.

Thanks for a fabulously detailed reply.

Wakehurst is on sandstone, and the prairie is in the upper part of the property, so it’s going to be pretty well drained. The height of the grasses/plants currently is 30 or 40 cm (but then this is it’s first season I suppose).

This is something I had not considered (and in truth I had no idea a burn cycle was part of “maintenance” - natural or otherwise). A sign says “Our new American Prairie is taking root - and to speed up the process, we need to mow very regularly. [Not aware of them having done so yet] This weakens our native weeds and encourages the prairie species to establish.” So maybe no burning for a little while, at least. One thing that did strike me about the layout is that the area is broken up by surprisingly wide cut paths - so perhaps these are designed to also function as fire breaks to assist with controlled burns in the future. We’re not so far from Wakehurst and are frequent visitors* so, armed with this knowledge, the next time we go I’ll see if I can’t find one of the staff to ask about this.

Thanks again.

j

* - OK, the truth about frequent visits: the site is a kind of joint venture between The National Trust and Kew Gardens, and a few years ago they had a big falling out about money - Kew basically decided they weren’t getting enough. I think I’m right in saying that most visitors - like ourselves - are National Trust members, so we don’t pay to get in, having in effect pre-paid; and so for every such visitor Kew got nothing. Their reaction was, basically, screw you, we own the car park and we’ll charge everyone, including NT members, for that. (And they charge a lot). Long story short, we bought what amounts to a season ticket to Wakehurst to sidestep this - and now we want our money’s worth!

One reason for burning is to do what they say the mowing does - weaken non-prairie plants (or kill them) allowing the prairie to grow. Fire, however, releases nutrients bound up in the old, dead plants stems/leaves/etc. to be re-used by the prairie plants. Not sure that mowing will have the same effect. It may be that there are laws/rules/whatever that prevent controlled burns, or they’re in the process of working out how to do those. At this point, I’d be interested in knowing how they plan to do a prairie ecosystem without a regular burn (which only has to occur every so many years - it’s not an annual requirement by any means).

I was going to add this. Mowing, really doesn’t help a prairie as well as a springtime burn does, but the U.K. doesn’t have the drying early spring wind that our (No. America) prairie gets so it would be hard to have a successful burn. It must be a real challenge for them to try to build up a prairie.