Thursday, 23 July 2015

The drought canyons of Cresswell

The summer drying has come to Druridge Bay. In recent years I have done a regular walk every two to three months around the ponds at Blakemoor Farm. Many are temporary, whether in the dunes, grassy pasture or in amongst the arable crops. Most of them dry out in most summers, but not all. This summer though the drying out has claimed some new ponds.
The one in the photo is tucked away out of sight in pasture along the dune road and has never dried out since I started the walks in 2010. A spring seems out on the western slope and maybe this has kept it topped up whilst those around recede and dry. This summer though the whole pond has dried away, leaving a crazy-paving styled substrate of cracked mud. The cracks are six or more inches deep, zig-zagging between columns of concreted mud on which tiny plants perch, small tufts of pineapple mayweed or cudweed.  Down in the dark, cooler chasms the mud is not wholly dry, but these rifts create a oddly out of scale world. Individual columns of dried mud can be lifted out and replaced in a 3D jigsaw. This pond has always teemed with tiny invertebrates such as ostracods and chironomid midge larvae, a refuge in previous dry summers. The gloppy mud stayed largely free of aquatic plants, the water from the spring suspiciously high in conductivity, a hint of mine water perhaps from the abandoned seams of Ellington Colliery below. Why it should dry so completely this year I do not know but it is sad to see, a dry pond seldom worries me; temporary ponds benefit from a dry phase, however this seems strange. The gulls and teal of summer that once loafed around its rim, dawdling through July and August are gone and the field does not seem quite right.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Northumberland's shores and the geranium sea

Druridge Bay is decked out in its high summer finery. The dunes in particular are an intense barrage of colour: the yellows of ragwort, bird’s foot trefoil and ladies' bedstraw in amongst a pink-purple haze of bloody cranesbill. The cranesbill is so abundant that it is easy to take for granted, covering very dune face and hollow, even scuffed tufts hanging over dune paths. Try strolling out from Druridge Country park onto the dune-scape just beyond and the landward side of the tall dunes is a vivid sward of pink. They are wild geraniums, Geranium sanguinium. The odd sounding common name is not a botanist’s irate curse but a reference to their seed ponds that resemble miniature beaks of herons and storks and which become increasingly blood red in hue as summer advances, as if dipped in gore. You can make out a few of the pods, pointing skyward but still largely green in the photo above. So abundant is the bloody cranesbill along the Northumberland coast that it would make a good icon of our summer coast. From Berwick upon Tweed down to Tynemouth this geranium is widespread. Elsewhere around the shores of the UK it is scarce. I don’t know why this should be. It seems a tough and successful plant, surviving our north sea ravaged winters and summer sea fret. Right now just take time to gaze out over the pink haze to the blue north sea, ideally with a colourful cobble bobbing in picturesque cliché just off shore. The North Sea sounds too cold a name for July. Even if only for a month the dunes bright hues make these northern shores a geranium sea.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The southern hawker dragonflies and the hailstones

Southern Hawker dragonflies, Aeschna cyanea, have been emerging for the last week. I’ve only found a few of the old cast skins, called exuviae, so far, spooky and forlorn still clinging to sedge and reed stems as if they may be reanimated and crawl back into their ponds, but I’d not spotted any adults. Until today. Our region was hit by ferocious thunder storms last night, with hail stones the size of musket balls ricocheting around our back yard. This morning two newly hatched hawkers, maybe a bit subdued by the ominous weather and still not fully coloured up, were clinging to the cover of iris and reed stems at a nearby pond.  They will soon acquire the vivid bright green or pale blue bands that make them a very colourful insect.  As they whizz past I’ve heard startled passers by mistake them for very large wasps. The two conspicuous patches on the top of the thorax are particularly useful for identification. Once hatched and coloured up they will be away, often hawking along paths and woodland edges and taking their time before heading back to the wetlands of their birth. If you can get over the panic of “a very large wasp” take your time with them; the southern hawker is well known for its habit of inspecting you with as much interest as you might take in it. They will repeatedly fly up to you, check you out and seem as intrigued by your presence as you might be by their beauty. “Southern” is a bit of a misnomer. They are now quite at home this far north as this map from the nbn gateway shows : the yellow squares are 10x10 km grids from which the species has been recorded source,