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23 June 2017 Stop and listen. What birdsong can you hear? Maybe a blackbird or a song thrush or a chaffinch. Perhaps a blackcap or a chiffchaff.

All these are still singing, as are the odd goldfinch, greenfinch, whitethroat, wood pigeon or collared dove. But there is no getting round the fact that birdsong is getting more and more occasional. What happened to those cheerful layers of sound you could still hear even a few weeks ago? Now you maybe hear one bird singing at a time, then perhaps another a bit later. The early evening is no longer full of blackbirds competing for the airwaves: now there is just one or two of them.

If you do hear two blackbirds in competition with each other, the rival is often a long way away, a distant noise on the breeze. You can go long periods in the afternoon without hearing anything. Then just as you are ready to pronounce birdsong over for another year, up pipes a chiffchaff. So birdsong is not over yet.

But it soon will be. It is hard to put your finger on when it stops completely, because how do you notice the last time you hear something? But already robins have slipped out of the soundscape unnoticed and it is ages since you heard a woodpecker or a nuthatch. Usually the last birds to carry on singing are wood pigeons. Their cooing is thus very much a summer sound, even though it started way back in late winter.

Even larks fall silent. What is downland on a summer day without a lark singing? And yet like all the birds mentioned, they only sing in their mating and breeding season, which is from February till about now. Then there is silence until next spring. The first year I tried to learn birdsong this was a big shock. I had never until that point noticed that birds only sung at a specific time of year.

One of the ironies of birdsong ceasing like this is that summer is the time when bird populations are at their height. All those young have just fledged and are hopping unheard around the branches. But they are trying not to be predated and so make as little noise as possible. Meanwhile adults, breeding season over, also moult and lie low.

Most are already doing so. It is only a few birds of each species that are still singing now and in the early part of July. Are they ones that had a second brood of young or are they birds that did not breed and still hope that they might? Or are they young birds jumping the gun and trying out their voices for next year?

Whatever, enjoy what birdsong is left and listen out for every bit of it. In most cases, the next time you hear it will be in the dark days of February or early March.

17 June 2017 The second half of June is when downland flowers really start to get into gear and that is now starting to happen. I was today on Magdalen Down, a Butterfly Conservation reserve outside Winchester, and its slopes were carpeted with rough hawkbitdropwortrock rose and birdsfoot trefoil, with ladies bedstrawmarjoramwild thymehoary plantainrestharrow and St John's wort all starting to come out. You can see photos of these and other downland flowers here.

Flitting among them was one of my favourite butterflies, the lovely marbled white (photo). They may be only white with black markings but they somehow manage to be the most elegant of butterflies. And gratifyingly easy to identify. Not only can you see what they are even when they are on the wing but they also often stop to rest, posing obligingly for photographs.

Somewhat harder to identify is the other butterfly I saw in abundance today at Magdalen Down - the ringlet. It is brown, but so (in flight) is the meadow brown, which is also around at present and is a lot commoner. The difference is that the meadow brown has "eyes" on its wings (photo) while the ringlet has little rings around its wing edge (photo). But good luck getting either one to sit still long enough to spot these details, which in any case get worn away as they age.

Thank heaven, then for bramble flowers, which are approaching their best. Butterflies love to land on them to feed: the ringlet, indeed, is generally found on grassland with bramble bushes nearby. The meadow brown is less fussy and can be found on any type of grassland, but still loves bramble. When they land on a bush, the underside of the two butterflies is quite distinctive - the ringlet looking like this and the meadow brown like this.

Bramble flowers are also a good place to see other butterflies as the month goes on - for example largesmall or Essex (photo) skippers. Though they look like moths, these are in fact butterflies, while some day flying moths (for example, the speckled yellow) look for all the world like butterflies but are not. Don't ask me to explain the reason for this: it is something to do with their antenna.

Back with downland flowers, for me the main signature species are knapweed (photo), scabious (photo) and marjoram (photo). All are showing signs of starting at present and when they come out fully towards the end of the month, downland can seem like a garden.

Butterflies also love to feed on them. If marbled whites are on the wing, you can almost guarantee they will land on any scabious or knapweed flowers in sight. Dark green fritillaries (photo) are also fond of them too. Great for photos!

8 June 2017 You might not think so from looking at the weather, but we are now at the point where spring turns into summer.

You can see signs of this everywhere. For example, in the way that buttercups are starting to fade in meadows - though there are still some good displays. Or in the way those vivid banks of oxeye daisies are starting to look a bit ragged. Where it is not mown, grass is also seeding everywhere and the seed is turning yellowy. You can still look across a landscape and see fields of green but from now on they will start to be tinged with beiges and browns.

This change is also to be seen in arable fields. Ears of barley are changing from green to yellow, and while wheat is still green, its ears are fully grown now. Watching a field of either rippling in the wind is one of the pleasures of June. The second half of June is also traditionally the time when haymeadows were cut. You may think this practice belongs to the past, but no, it can still be seen. Only last weekend I was watching as a machine cutting grass for cattle feed, wrapping it up into tight black plastic bales.

Birdsong also shifts gear as spring turns to summer. You can still hear blackbirds and song thrushes at dusk, but there is no longer a great cacophony of them. There are maybe one or two singing at once. By day you can still hear chaffinches and chiffchaffs and blackcaps but again in ones and twos. Birdsong still lasts into July but during that month it tails away completely. The point at which it stops hard to pinpoint. The occasional bird may continue to sing after its fellows have stopped, so when exactly is it that you hear your last blackbird? But, robins apart, once they cease you do not hear them again till next spring (or late winter).

If all this sounds a bit elegiac, there is still lots to enjoy. I am cheered at the moment by all sorts of summer flowers that are now appearing on path and lane verges. They do not produce the big displays of spring but they are still all wonderful in their way. Many of these flowers will be with us throughout the summer and into autumn, so their arrival reminds us that summer will end: but on the other hand we still have a long time to enjoy their company.

Which flowers to highlight? It is hard to know which to choose. I have seen hedge woundwort (photo) several times this week on shady verges, and you can see common mallow (photo) on bits of wasteground. The white trumpets or large or hedge bindweed (photo: they are hard to tell apart) are climbing over hedges, and you can see the smaller, prettier field bindweed (photo) in short grass.

Downland flowers have yet to fully get into gear, but the ever-reliable knapweed (photo) is appearing in places. Near Lewes this week I also saw a lot of pretty dropwort (photo) and the smell of marjoram (not yet in flower, though it soon will be) drifted up from my feet.

Not to forget orchids, which are entering into their peak flowering period and can be found quite easily on downland. One of the most common, gratifyingly, is the common spotted orchid (photo), though you can see pyramidal orchids (photo) starting too. For rarer orchids you might see, see here.

The current rather wet weather will be good news for all these flowers and particularly the downland ones, which live on chalk soils that don't hold onto moisture for long. One of the best years I can remember for downland flowers was the wet summer of 2007. I hope that is not repeated this year, but if it is, there will be some compensations.


Em said...

Somewhere on this site you have written that it is perhaps sterile to spend time identifying birds, plants etc but I don't think so. I think it helps enjoy the rich diversity of what is there and appreciate the differences and variety in nature.

Peter C said...

I am glad you think so, and definitely agree!

ramblinros said...

Thank you for interesting nature blog
Found a new-to-me spring flower on Saturday
Spring Beauty - Claytonia perfoliata syn Montia perfoliata -
the stem is surrounded by a curious cup-shaped leaf
Was walking on the North Downs Way eastwards immediately after the Watts Gallery - very sandy -
up a slight rise and then the plant was on both sides of the descending path
for about the next 100m, and then no more

Peter C said...

Nice observation, ramblinros! I have seen this plant once or twice and I do mention it in April Verge and Field Flowers (….

"Also in the wierd category is spring beauty, a plant of sandy soils which has tiny white flowers in the middle of large round leaves."

…….but it is a rather rare thing to see, so I am glad to hear of your sighting.

PeteB said...

On polling day 7 May I went for a long tramp over the South Downs starting in Lewes and eventually finishing in Eastbourne. At the start of my walk (Book 2 walk 25c Lewes to Glynde) I had just left the golf club car park and started on the path past a water trough where a herd of cattle were drinking and grazing when to my surprise I saw what I am sure was a single red? deer hind grazing with the cattle (it was too large to be a roe or fallow deer). The animal was frightened by my presence and seemed to try to hide among the cattle! I had my camera phone but did not want to start unsettling the cattle and I had a long day ahead so pressed on with my walk. The only deer I have seen before on the South Downs were fallow deer in the flat water meadows. I have never heard of red or sika deer on the South Downs and a web search has revealed nothing. Quite a sighting !

Peter C said...

A very interesting sighting, I agree. Of course, historically red deer were present throughout England but I had always understood that now they only live in places such as Richmond Park. The only other place I have once thought I saw one was in the Lake District. Perhaps you should report this sighting to some relevant association or other. I am not quite sure which. (If it was a butterfly or bird or flower it would be easier to think of suggestions!)

PeteB said...

Did walk 3.20 Sevenoaks to Wesaterham today after bailing out of it early on Sunday because of violent storm. Bluebells already showing well at Ide Hill and should be at their best in 2-3 weeks which seems a bit earlier than usual? Fields still pretty waterlogged in the morning but after lunch at the Cock Inn terrain and woodland trails much drier.

PeteB said...

Did walk 3.20 Sevenoaks to Wesaterham today after bailing out of it early on Sunday because of violent storm. Bluebells already showing well at Ide Hill and should be at their best in 2-3 weeks which seems a bit earlier than usual? Fields still pretty waterlogged in the morning but after lunch at the Cock Inn terrain and woodland trails much drier.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to learn that Yellowhammers have been detected on the walks this summer (considering their numbers have declined rapidly). I saw some on the Pewsey/Avebury walk recently. They were in a quiet country lane, flanked by tall *all important* hedgerows. I haven't seen this species for years. E.

Peter C said...

I have read that their numbers are declining, but I have to say I hear them quite a lot in the south east. They like hedgerows on farmland but are also heard up on the downs. A lovely song so I hope they don't decline further.

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