Fern Owls and the full moon

Another full moon and another trip to the South Dorset Ridgeway – a mystical place even by day. This time I was in search of the elusive Nightjar or Fern Owl – a bird of myth and mystery. Dusk was falling as I climbed through narrow lanes towards Hardy’s monument at the top of the Ridgeway. Swathes of cow parsley glowed along the verges, seeming to have kept a little of the sun to light the way. The setting sun skimmed across the contours of the hills showing up tumuli, strip lynchets and other traces of prehistory.

In ancient times, the slopes would have been forested so all dwellings and monuments were created on the barer summit. I stopped on the landward side of the Ridgeway before reaching Hardy’s monument and set off through darkening woodland with the sun disappearing between the branches. Black slugs were slithering out of the ferny borders onto the heathy path and I picked my way between them listening to the sound of birds settling down for the night.

As the sun dipped to the western horizon a huge pink moon appeared in the east. I can easily imagine how primitive people would have seen this as a portent. It rose quickly above the Ridgeway and suddenly there were strange sounds among the trees. A whirring of insects, a rustling and fluster of moths. The air was full of the whispers of dusk – a language only heard in remote places after sunset. Then the sound I’d been waiting for – a soft rhythmic chirring and the silhouette of a bird overhead – swooping with staccato movements, bat-like – a nightjar, sometimes call the eve-jar. Then there were three dipping down low into the trees looking for moths.

In the distance on a high branch was one of these mysterious birds keeping lookout. It was joined by another and they stayed there long enough for a photo in which its eye shone like a tiny moon. I waited for a while seeing glimpses of dark shapes flitting among the trees and listening to the distinctive whirring and chirring of their calls in the shadow of the Ridgeway.

I drove home towing a huge golden moon behind me. A barn owl drifted low over the road and I heard myself say ‘wow’ – a totally inadequate word for such a special moment.

Up the Garden Path

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Gardens have sprung into life and are now busy places full of all sorts of surprises. In the last week I have visited several friends’ gardens and found great tits nesting in a sparrow flat, a pair of collared doves sitting on a nest behind a broken security light on the house wall and, in my own garden, some strange little golden spiders clustered on the shed door. When I moved in closer to photograph them they scattered like ball bearings. The next morning they had criss-crossed the open door with threads spangled with little golden dots. I did some research and found they were garden spiderlings. They cluster together after hatching but scatter if danger threatens.

Under a sheet of corrugated iron, a young slow worm was coiled like copper wire. By the pond was a small newt. I picked it up and it crossed my palm with its cold dainty fingers. Glossy red ladybirds choose the shiniest green leaves to display their colour, while  turquoise flies flash like tiny kingfishers amongst the foliage.

The wet weather has created snail and slug heaven. In the early morning snails slide over the fennel and make lace of the lupins – small stripy snails like humbugs, mellow yellow ones, large tawny garden snails and tiny brown whorls. I can’t bring myself to use slug pellets, even the wildlife friendly ones, just in case they harm the birds. Anyway, the snails themselves are beautiful so I’ll just have to put up with lacy lupins and holey hollyhocks.

Bees are immersing themselves in wells of nectar, becoming covered in bright yellow nuggets of pollen, their contented buzzing the soundtrack of summer days. House martins are wheeling around catching mayflies and other airborne bugs. The weather has been perfect for nest building with plenty of squidgy mud for plastering. A green woodpecker struts around in the long grass at the edge of the allotment enjoying the ants.

In a heathland garden, greater spotted woodpeckers – male, female and young – are visiting the bird feeder and scooting up the pine trees searching for bugs beneath the bark. An upside down nuthatch on the peanuts caused the great tits to wait nearby till it had finished feeding. The hierarchy on the bird table was interesting, small birds giving way to the larger ones and waiting patiently till the coast was clear. A rabbit was sitting upright in the field adjoining the garden, sun glowing through its ears.

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