Canada: Christmas in September

September 2018

We’ve stumbled into a place of magic. Autumn and winter built a palace, and look at their art!

RMNP snow4

It’s quiet now, with skies lightening after last night’s snow. Spruce grouse wander the roads.

Spruce grouse Sept 18

…roads: pathways past miraculous beauty.

RMNP snow3

And – this!

Bears3 Sept 18

A bear! Three bears in fact; mama and two cubs of the year. They must be wondering who has repainted their forest, but seeing these wonderful creatures contrast the white is spellbinding.

Bears2 Sept 18

Black bears are a special species to me after all the time I spent with them out west. I’ve travelled so far driven by the hope of seeing one again, and here there are three! Christmas come early, I think.

A good moment. A special moment. The type of moment that makes you realise how precious our wild neighbours are.

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Canada: Skylines

September 19th 2018

This is Canada: a canvas for small things.

Yellow butterfly

American red squirrel Spruce Lakes MB 19 Sept 2018

Autumn food

This is Canada, where the sky can swallow your thoughts. There are no trees here, or very few, just the raw horizon furred with autumnal grass, and the sky above it reinvents itself almost every minute of the day.

Prairie sundown 19 Sept 18

Six years was too many. I don’t even know how many times I’ve been to Canada – 15? 20? – but for a variety of reasons this wild and perplexing country dropped off my radar after 2012. Coming back, remembering the sky, grateful for the air that is still flavoured with the crisp northern bite.

We landed last night at the heart of Canada, in the historic if climatically-challenged city of Winnipeg. There are no easy roads to the village of Val Marie; this time we’ve chosen to drive from the east, some 850 kilometres.

Prairie, prairie, prairie: mostly arable farmland these days, although just occasionally you catch glimpses of its glorious wildlife-filled past. Say ‘Canadian wilderness’, and most people visualise the western mountains or boreal forests – but the prairie held far higher numbers of wild things, once. Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan protects the best habitat left, but on the way there, there are many surprises.

The Souris River, for one. At 700 km, it is small by Canadian standards, but is still longer than England. Like most of the prairie landscape, it is a nod to past glaciation – its basin was once filled by the now-extinct Lake Souris.

Souris River1

Canadian royalty, for another.

Bald eagle 19 Sept 2018

After a full day of driving, we still have many hours to go. Pulling into Assiniboia, we are greeted by a great horned owl perched on the grain elevator.

Great horned owl grain train 19 Sept 2018

Looking for rodents attracted to wheat being transferred to the grain train, no doubt. Some wildlife takes full advantage of its human neighbours.

But many other species need wilderness proper. Tomorrow, we’re back on the road and turning south east.

Bright as a Button

Autumn is my favourite season. The flowers may have largely taken their leave, but in the wake come things brighter and stranger.

Beech russula 15 Sept 2018

It’s a brittlegill, AKA a member of the Russula family. Something is eating the brittlegills; this is one of the more intact ones that I’ve found. My trailcams caught squirrels tucking into what appeared to be the much greyer charcoal burner Russula cyanoxantha, but that is unlikely to be the whole story. Rodents, slugs and even foxes eagerly accept wild mushroom buffet.

Russulas are famously difficult to identify to species level. This could be a beechwood sickener Russula noblis, which might explain why the squirrels haven’t munched on it.

They brighten up the woodland floor, whatever they are. A small spider is resting on this one’s stem.

Beech russula3 15 Sept 2018

Jelly-ear fungi decorate branches.

Jelly ear Figgs Aug 2018

Mower’s mushrooms Panaeolus foenisecii add intrigue to the grass.

Fungus golf course Aug 2018

And bracket fungi of all kinds form shelves on the dead bones of old trees.

Bracket fungus Aug 2018

Autumn has much more to give. Most of the leaves are yet to fall.

Khamsin in the wood 15 Sept 2018

Heathland

Western Surrey is a very different world to the North Downs where I live. We have ancient woodlands, flowery meadows, steep slopes of chalk downland, and traditional hedgerows linking them all.

Out there, they have heath.

Heather in bloom 18 Jul 2018

Lowland heath is a national treasure. The UK holds 20% of the world’s total, and one of the best surviving fragments is on the common land of Thursley. Now a national nature reserve, for thousands of years this landscape has been used by humanity: gorse was cut for fodder, bracken was turned into potash for glass-making. Turf was cut for roofing. Hardy livestock wandered here and there.

Thursley Common1 18 Jul 2018

The people who lived in this harsh and exposed landscape were – reputedly – the original heathens, heath-dwellers, which presumably back then had less to do with religious values and more with social class. Regardless, their agriculture and the land’s natural qualities combined to produce a tough, sandy, prickly ecosystem. Or, some would say, Bronze Age humanity provided an unexpected niche for wildlife that would naturally have thrived in heath-filled forest glades opened by our extinct megafauna.

But Britain urbanised itself, and people lost their connection with the land. Most of our heathlands were overrun by development and commercial forestry. Now they’re recognised as a priority habitat and are a major focus of conservation.

Heathland is harsh yet subtle. Gorse fires roar with depressing frequency and the sun beats hot. The soil can be pure sand, and blows into your hair and trips your boots. But in the shadows, small living things lurk.

Sand lizards are one of Britain’s rarest reptiles. 

Sand lizard 9 May 2017

And this might be our strangest plant – the carnivorous sundew, which eats insects.

Sundew Thursley 18 Jul 18

Dodder is scarcely more conventional. Sometimes compared to pink spaghetti, it is a parasitic plant that taps into the vascular system of its host.

Dodder Thursley 18 Jul 2018

Marsh clubmoss is less dramatic, but it is an endangered species in the UK.

Clubmoss Thursley 18 Jul 18

It likes heaths that flood in winter. That may still happen this year, but after months without rain, much of Surrey is looking like the Kenyan savannah. We need a good storm or two soon.

Fox-and-Cubs

The wild species commonly known as ‘fox’ has been represented this afternoon by One-Eye, who never needs a second excuse to recline on the patio.

One Eye2 14 Jul 2018

One Eye1 14 Jul 2018

Or peer into the house, for that matter. Foxes are profoundly curious creatures.

One Eye being nosy 14 Jul 2018

I should stress that he is not ‘tame’. I strongly believe that foxes should never be allowed to enter houses – one householder might enjoy it, but the fox is likely to repeat that behaviour with a neighbour. Indoor foxes cause bad press at best, and serious human-wildlife conflict at worst. One-Eye sits by the glass because he is highly intelligent and understands that humans and dogs cannot reach him even when they are inches away. If the door is opened, he backs off at once.

Anyway, we do have a second species of wild fox here, somewhat. It is orange and very furry, and in its own way, just as adaptable as its namesake.

Fox and cubs flower 14 Jul 2018

Fox-and-cubs is a member of the daisy family. It is not native to Britain but has lived wild here since at least the 17th century. It is quite tenacious and often grows on roadsides. This is the first one that I’ve found in my parish, and I will have to go back next year and photograph it before it goes to seed.

It will be interesting to see how the social dynamics of the other species of fox have changed by then.

One Eye3 14 Jul 2018

Meadowland

I recently blogged my time in Romania, a country that still has sprawling meadows crammed with wildflowers. In Britain, we’re not so lucky; 97% of our lowland meadow is gone, swallowed up by the industrialisation of farmland.

The surviving fragments – that 3% – are often small and isolated. But some of those relics are magnificent.

North downs1 110807

Today is National Meadows Day in the UK – a celebration of those bits of wild grassland that we still have. I have some of the best meadows in England on my doorstep, some of which are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest or Sites of Nature Conservation Importance. Others are just sitting there, unprotected, which is not the most comfortable feeling.

What lives in them? Everything! Harvest mice, small reptiles, gorgeous butterflies, rare snails, bizarre fungi, and enough insects to befuddle my identification skills. I hardly have space to show all the flowers; a single square metre can host 15 species. Here’s a sample, anyway:

Pyramidal orchid

Pyramidal orchid2 23 Jun 2018

Bee orchid

Bee orchid S Tolls 31 May 2017

Meadow cranesbill

Meadow cranesbill 23 Jun 2018

Field scabious

Field scabious STolls 10 June 2017

Scarlet pimpernel

Scarlet pimpinel STolls 2 June 2017

Perforate St John’s wort

St John's Wort HV 4 Sept 2017

Sainfoin and buttercup

Sainfoin and buttercup 18 May 2017

These are places to walk softly and listen, and be dazzled by the sheer splendour of life.

The Plant Dimension

They stretch from sand to stormclouds with enough lordliness for hornbills to choose them as a throne.

Oriental pied hornbill 28 May 2018

They sprout nuts and fruit alien to the English visitor, but welcomed by a hungry plantain squirrel.

Plantain squirrel SG 28 May 2018

They clothe fences built by people, sheltering reptiles in their sprawl.

Lizard1 SG 28 May 2018

This is Singapore.

People have had creative ideas about what to do with this island for generations, but for all the skyscrapers, golf courses and godowns, there is no doubt that this is first and foremost a humid, beetle-buzzed, rain-lashed benevolent dictatorship run by plants. Every square metre where something can grow, something does. They even scramble over each other, climbing high like children.

Plant scramble 28 May 2018

Epiphytes – plants that live harmlessly on the surface of other plants, usually trees – are as common as daisies here. Amongst them, more lizards lurk.

Lizard2 SG 28 May 2018

It would take several lifetimes to document the bewildering variety of wild living things in south-east Asia. I’m travelling around the region for the next couple of weeks, revisiting some places, venturing into new ones.

There are many more moods of plants to learn.