Like most birdwatchers, I have a local patch, the open New Forest heathland near our home in Frogham, which I enjoy all year round. Unlike most people, I get to show off my patch by taking visitors round, and hopefully pointing out some of the wildlife, before delivering them back to one of Christine's epic three course picnics. So, I am always looking to improve my knowledge of the patch, and for me this has involved being a part of monitoring and surveying the wildlife here. For the past two Summers I have been keeping count of butterflies seen on one of my walk routes, through the Latchmore Valley, and have published my findings on a website, Butterflies of Latchmore. This has involved staring at every bush on a 3 mile circular route once a week for half the year, and noting down all the thousands of butterflies seen. This Spring I have also been involved in a survey of Dartford warblers, trying to determine how many pairs we have up in the gorse and heather of Hampton Ridge. Each survey, as well as giving me far more knowledge about the particular species I am studying, also gets me far better acquainted with everything else on the patch. So I notice when the first skylarks arrive, where the woodlark likes to visit, and how the local fallow deer herd moves round the valley. All of which means that I should, in theory, be able to point it out to you when you come on one of the walks. Of course, if we are walking on an August afternoon, the wildlife will be very different to that which can be found on an April morning, but it should furnish a few good stories - just stop me if I keep saying "I saw one last time I was here", particularly if everything has vanished for a well-earned siesta.
I really enjoy looking for early signs of Spring, after a cold and damp winter. Last week I was asked to lead a guided walk for guests at Carey's Manor Hotel, a wonderful old manor house set in its own grounds in Brockenhurst, and now a top class hotel and spa. We managed to lure a dozen or so of the guests away from the spa, and strode out across a soggy Balmer Lawn towards the woods of Pignal Inclosure. Earlier in the week, I had tried to pick a route straight across the open grazed lawn, and ended up jumping between islands in a watery flood, but managed to find lots of frogspawn on route. So today we stuck to the gravel track, and into the Inclosure, where we came across a small herd of fallow deer, and a sure sign of warmer weather - an active ant hill. The wood ants build massive structures of pine needles and tiny pieces of twig, which can grow to a metre high, and a couple of metres round. In the sun at the end of last week the ground was alive with a mass of crawling ants, repairing the nest after the winter. But, on the day of the walk, they were sluggish under cool and cloudy skies. Every time the sun breaks through, I watch for butterflies, and on Sunday I finally saw my first of the year, a single Red Admiral basking in the noon sunshine, on one of my favourite paths through Pitts Wood.
One of my favourite walks explores Red Shoot Wood and Roe Inclosure, near the hamlet of Linwood (and the Red Shoot pub). It's the route we take when we start walks from Appleslade car park. The only problem is that, after any amount of rain, the paths dissolve into deep channels of clinging mud. So, I left the route off our programme of walks earlier in the Summer, and finally risked scheduling a Walking Picnic there last week. When I mentioned where I was going to a Commoner who keeps ponies on the Forest, she looked slightly horrified and said, "I rescued a pony from the mud down there". But we have seen virtually no rain for a couple of months, so it has finally dried out. The height of Summer is now past, and the tall thistle heads have turned to seed. The birds are silent, and the bracken is beginning to turn from livid green to autumnal brown. But when the sun comes out, so do the butterflies and dragonflies, and we surprised a couple of deer browsing as we walked up to the Iron Age earth mound called Castle Piece, buried in the heart of the wood. We did the entire circuit without getting muddy, although there was a newly fallen tree to negotiate, and we had the bonus of completing the picnic before the heavens opened for the inevitable thunderstorm. I must remember to do the walk more often, even if I do need my wellies for most of the year.
Well, we managed to get a couple of Souper Walks in over the Christmas and New Year period, despite all the floods and gales. Our first was a very jolly affair for a group of friends who all work together, and wanted a Christmas party in the great outdoors. It was just before all the bad weather started, and we had a lovely walk through the ancient forest near Anderwood. Then the rain came, and it just got worse and worse, until we cancelled the Walk scheduled for 4th January, as all the fords across the roads were up, and there were floods everywhere. So, when we had a request for a walk on Sat 11th, I was a little concerned that the forest tracks would still be impassable. However, not only did we have a great walk in glorious spring-like sunshine, we managed to pick our way through the slightly squelchy paths without getting too muddy. The highlight of the walk was seeing a couple of fine fallow deer bucks, who just kept coming towards us as we stood and watched them through the trees.
A couple of my friends are very keen on eating wild mushrooms, so I arranged to give them a guided tour of some of my local woods, to see what we could find. It was just after several wet days, and everywhere we looked there were all manner of mushrooms and fungi. There were plenty of different types of bolete, from the Penny Bun or Cep, through to the distinctly less appetising Lurid Boletus. It was great to spot things I had overlooked before, like the Oyster mushrooms in amongst the Porcelain fungus on dead branches, and the Amethyst Deceivers - which, though I'm told they are edible, I wouldn't fancy. We found Shaggy Ink Caps (in a heap of pony poo) and lots of different Russulas, as well as a few obviously poisonous ones, like Fly Agaric and Panther Cap. The one we couldn't find was a Chanterelle, although there were plenty of False Chanterelle. We picked just enough to eat, and a few Bay Boletes for preserving, and left the rest. I still can't claim to be an expert, so we won't be adding any wild mushrooms into the picnic menu, but it was a fascinating day out.
We have our regular Saturday Walking Picnic from Abbots Well tomorrow, and I have decided to do a loop round Pitts Wood for the walk. It's a couple of weeks since I was last up there, so I thought I would wander round, and see if there was anything about. As I stopped at the crest of the ridge and looked down at the wood, I could hear a raven croaking. As I looked for the raven, two hobbies appeared, and quartered the valley looking for dragonflies, before sitting up in one of the tall pines. Meanwhile, a Dartford warbler was shouting at me from a nearby gorse bush. On into the wood to find a couple of nice groups of fungi, and a red admiral butterfly. On the way back across Hampton Ridge I managed to get a nice photo of a kestrel, then spotted a whinchat, and then a wheatear, and just as I was heading home, turned to see a whole herd of fallow bucks, grazing with the ponies. They weren't too bothered about me, so I managed to get a few decent photos. Now, if they will all just stay in place for tomorrow's guests, that will do nicely!
We had a great two hour walk yesterday, seeing lots of deer, and birds such as a hobby, stonechat, and linnets as well. Then, just as we arrived back at Abbots Well for the picnic, the rain started. Within seconds it was bucketing down, and we were all running for cover. Just as well we had put Plan B into operation, and erected the shelter - we decided to put it up a few hundred yards away, in our garden, so our six picnic guests could enjoy Christine's home made food just a few feet from the kitchen. It was more enjoyable than huddling in a wet car park, and also meant that I could leave the shelter up overnight, and take it down in the dry this afternoon. Everybody seemed to love the idea, so it will be our regular Saturday stand-by.
A forest triffid
It was one of those days when everything shows up. I haven't walked my favourite circuit from Abbots Well for over a week, and I am leading a picnic walk there tomorrow, so I thought I had better check it out, and see whether there was any wildlife. It was hot and humid, with low, muggy clouds, and yesterday's rain was still puddled across the path. As I walked under the eaves of Hasley wood, I scanned the opposite ridge for deer, but nothing. Then I caught a glimpse of a single fallow buck further down in the bog at Latchmore, so at least they were about. I stopped to watch a meadow pipit hunting insects in the heather, and looked up to see another distant deer - but this one was ushering a small, nervous brown bundle, running beneath her feet - a hind with a young fawn. On into the wood, where the mistle thrush was churring away, and siskins chattered in the pine tops. A female redstart shouted at me for getting close to a totally hidden offspring, so I went down to the side of the stream where last week I had photographed a Beautiful Demoiselle, the most glorious vivid, irridescent blue damselfly. It was still there, on virtually the same bracken frond. On route I had smelt something awful, and soon tracked down the stinkhorn mushroom which was sending out wafts of dead meat smell to attract the flies. As I walked up onto Hampton Ridge, I caught sight of another fallow hind and fawn, the mother was a pale form, her summer spots barely darker than mustard, against a white background. She quickly turned tail and led the young one into deep cover, and when I next looked another fallow hind had appeared, but this one almost ink black. There is a great variation in the colours of the fallow deer, and I often see white deer, but the dark, melanistic ones are rarer. Up on the Ridge I was just looking at the remains of the World War 2 bombing range, when I had a fly past from a Small Blue and Small Heath butterfly. I couldn't leave the heathland without getting a close up look at the sundew growing beside a swollen puddle leaching out of a mire. They are really tiny, but an awesome looking plant, which traps and digests small flies and insects. And at least I know that isn't going to hide when I bring the Picnic guests this way tomorrow!
Just as we started out on yesterday's picnic walk, we had a great view of a fallow deer buck. It was a large, bold and confident buck, checking us out from the stand of pine trees to the left of the path. The antlers were only partly grown, covered in the deep, rich burgundy of new velvet. It was alone, which is unusal for fallow deer, as most sightings are of a small herd, each pair of eyes following you, and all poised to race into deep cover at any movement.
And because we had just left Anderwood car park, I still had my camera tucked at the bottom of my rucksack, beneath my rain jacket. So, by the time I managed to turf out everything else, and unzip the camera bag, the deer was on its way. Hence the classic blurred image of the back end of a retreating deer - one of many in my collection.
At last, we have had a couple of days of warm, dry weather, with still evenings warm enough to get out into the Forest. So, Christine and I spent the first Saturday evening in June searching for nightjars, within walking distance of our home in Frogham. There were plenty of deer about, and we had great views of a spectacular sunset, but it wasn't until the light faded to that strange gloaming when everything turns monochrome, around twenty minutes later, that we heard what we were listening for. The eerie, constant drone of a churring nightjar, the pitch rising and falling as it moves. In the deep heather, by the edge of the wood, just where the moths were beginning to fly, the sound resonated, and was answered by another, then an third, more distant. One of the oddest of our summer migrants, the nightjar's nocturnal habits are so mysterious that it acquired the name "goat sucker", and was accused of souring cow's milk. Its carpet bag camouflage is so good that I have never seen one during the day, but we did have a brief glimpse of one flying quickly over the heather, like a giant moth itself. As we waited and listened, the churring was replaced by the drumming of snipe, invisible in the dark sky, but twirling stiff feathers near its tail to create another bizarre and haunting night noise. So - if you fancy joining us on one of these walks, get in touch, and see the Home Page for more details.