Schrödinger’s Fly

May is the season of white. Cow parsley and hawthorn revel in it, dressing every roadside. Horse chestnuts put up great candelabras of elaborate off-white blossoms. Wild garlic also chooses white, and its underrated blooms can produce as startling a drift of colour on a woodland floor as bluebells do, if not in such an original shade. In Whiteknights Park ramsons are generally scarce, but there’s an incredible swathe in the small wooded area on the north side of campus. Perhaps the densest patch of all is in the fringes of the Catholic chaplaincy garden, from where it finds its way into many a summer term soup lunch. It’s almost as though it grows here by design, a plant that is both beautiful and delicious: clearly this is a holy place.

Besides hungry students and staff, there’s a small beast that is even fonder of eating wild garlic. I love niche-specific species like this and the targeted searches their choosiness facilitates, so once I became aware of the connection I resolved to determine whether or not it occurred in Reading. I started by setting four traps, nestled within the garlic patch and surrounding by developing flower shoots. None caught the animal I was looking for, but whilst collecting them I finally saw it. At least, I think I did. A squat, dark hoverfly with square grey markings on its abdomen. Ponderous for a hover, it slowly descended to a flower about 15 inches from my left hand. With my right hand I made to grab either hand-net or camera, but the second of indecision over which I should pick up first was all the time the fly needed to vanish.

The fly I saw met the description of the one I was searching for, which goes by the name Portevinia maculata. Nonetheless, without a photo or a specimen I couldn’t prove to anybody that it was anything more than a figment of my sun-baked imagination, and despite extensive searching the following day no further individuals were found.  The fly is and remains a Whiteknights Park enigma, a fantastic beast that in a Schrödinger-esque sort of way may – or may not – be out there even now, resting among the ramsons. As wildlife mysteries go it’s not exactly the Lord God Bird, not even the Lord God fly; plenty of rarer and objectively more striking hoverflies are out there. But it does add a satisfying kind of depth to an otherwise anonymous, overlooked corner of campus.

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Wild garlic or Ramsons (Allium ursinum) growing on the north edge of Whiteknights Park. 

Footnote

Hoverfly expert Steven Falk’s excellent Flickr album illustrates what I was looking for. He describes Portevinia maculata as “a widespread but localised fly, often present at good stands of the food-plant in woods but sometimes absent for reasons that are unclear”. Sounds about right!

Simply Birding

It’s one of those birding weeks when anything and everything can happen. The supposedly boring land-locked county of Berkshire has played host to a flurry of superb migrant birds. The first ring ouzel on (what should be*) my local patch at Lavell’s Lake in 25 years as well as a wonderfully elegant little gull; a Slavonian grebe coming into breeding plumage;  wheatears, redstarts and yellow wagtails passing through; the first nightingales, cuckoos and house martins of the year. Two pairs of garganey continue to pop up from time to time in and around the Kennet valley. Yesterday a hoopoe was seen in a suburban garden to the northeast of Reading, though it went cunningly undetected by the local birding community.

Most of this is happening to other people, for I have remained mysteriously unwilling to haul myself any further than the immediate vicinity of my home and workplace. Fortunately, they offer splendours of their own – following on from last week’s minor fall of willow warblers (i.e., one), lunchtime on Tuesday saw a relative deluge descend on campus. At least three sang from low trees near the weather station, mixed in with many chiffchaffs.

We were passing through them on our way to see redstarts, another passage-only species on campus and an even scarcer one than willow warbler. There are surely few finer-looking birds in Britain than a male redstart. The one we saw flitting from low perch to ground and back again was in immaculate breeding plumage, the pale silver on his forehead glinting in the sun like a sliver of diamond. To see one in a place that means as much to me as Whiteknights Park is almost indescribably special: that’s the magic of patch birding.

‘Hardcore’ birders will notice that nothing I’ve mentioned is stonkingly rare, but these birds are all the better for it. Mildly unexpected or even somewhat-expected-but-hard-to-connect-with birds are the best birds. A fleeting encounter with a beautiful species in the company of friends always beats joining the twitching paparazzi for some half-dead mega-vagrant.

It’s times like this I wonder why I don’t spend more time simply birding. There are many other distractions and pleasures in the natural world, for sure. I am proud and mildly amused to frequently find myself labelled an entomologist these days. The more my taste is for small-scale, local discoveries, the more entomology has an edge over ornithology in my affections. But still, there’s nothing quite like plain old birding. To go out with few expectations or cares simply to look at birds, knowing that anything and everything can, and sometimes does, happen.

Redstart song is a lovely, lazy summer afternoon sound. Alas that they’re uncommon as a breeding species hereabouts!

*I’m just too lazy – whyever I don’t visit what is a fantastic inland birding site more often I don’t know. Though of course I do have the many pleasures of Whiteknights Park on my doorstep every day.

Willow Warblings

Gentle, nourishing, and very, very wet: the classic April shower is to the earth as a watering can is to a flower pot. There’s no rain as soft as spring rain. Neither, as it happens, is there anything as hard as spring rain that’s been repeatedly flung up and down through the troposphere until it freezes into projectiles roughly the size and density of Bird’s Eye petis pois. In the last week we’ve had plenty of both sorts of precipitation, deposited by a beautiful range of clouds from sky-covering sheets of off-white to otherworldly cumulonimbus, dark and heavy with undulating mammatus clouds.

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Mammatus over east Reading, April 2016

Perhaps not coincidentally, the willow warbler’s voice calls to mind the cascade of a small waterfall, a burbling river, or a cleansing fall of rain. A descending sequence of rich, musical notes, it’s a song that washes warmth and spring cheer into your very skin:  the vocal personification of an April shower on one of the first truly warm days of the year. Not so many years ago most of southern England was bathed in willow warblings; now it’s a more sporadically enjoyed pleasure, replaced by the more prosaic (though still seasonally essential) song of the chiffchaff as the two species play out their climate-driven shift northwards.

Happily, willow warblers seem to enjoy singing as much as I can’t get enough of listening, and they do sing on migration. My first for this year was singing early one morning in our suburban back garden. The second was from low lakeside trees in Whiteknights Park. Willow warblers are unlikely to breed in either location nowadays but their passage through my everyday places of home and work, now all the more unexpected and touched with magic, is for me as swifts were for Ted Hughes*. In other words, they’re a sign that, despite everything, the global ecosystem still functions. Hope lies just around the corner.

Willow Warbler from Chris Foster on Vimeo.

*A contemporary sign of spring that I’ve yet to record this year is nature columnists quoting Ted Hughes on swifts.