Watching Dragonflies

When summer drifts towards autumn the swifts leave, the young birds fledge and the grown birds mostly stop singing, only appearing now and then at the side of the path, glancing up with bright eyes. Their place is taken by insects. Butterflies provide the colour and the beauty, while bees sing in their low tones, a fuzzy affectionate feel to their brushes with the flowers.

But dragonflies provide both beauty and sound. In August, even suburban streets and gardens are visited by these glittering creatures. It’s easy to forget that they’re predators as I watch them catching the light on their wings and swooping around my head. As the change of seasons transforms everything in the natural world, so dragonflies transform from underwater nymphs into astonishing fliers, able to go anywhere of their choosing.

A walk north along the Oxford Canal was filled with the hum and flash of their wings. It was a hot day, and the towpath beside the narrowboats was busy with insects – bright beetles, heavy flies, ants and more. Suddenly beside me appeared the strong frame of a migrant hawker. It went parallel to me above the water, at about my eye level. The light showered from its wings as I might imagine someone pouring doubloons into a treasure chest. The curve of its long abdomen gleamed an intense green-blue – the colour seeming as unfixed as my companion’s position in the air. As I walked, it kept parallel to me, as though we were falling into step.

After a little while I stopped to try to see it better. Immediately it began a breathtaking aerobatic display, zipping above my head, hovering, darting back, looping, diving, scorching up into the blue sky and escaping my gaze, before reappearing right in front of me as if asking me to follow.

I followed as best I could with heavy human feet, with my mind taken up with the dazzle and the draw of the dragonfly. It felt like a dance.

Later, at Wolvercote Lakes another hawker dragonfly held me captivated while other swirled and fizzed around it. These others were shorter bodied and vivid red, with the unglamorous name of ruddy darter. Unlike the hawker, the darters sometimes landed, settling on the water mint that grew in fragrant stands around me, or on the brambles that had caught at my clothes as I pushed though to reach the edge of the water. These I could photograph, capturing their colour, the dappling effect of their enormous eyes, the way their wings, at rest, were formed of intricacies of veins. After a moment or two they would return to the wider dance.

The lakes are wedged between the road, the railway and houses, and at the further end are tangled and shadowy. But on the southern side, which faces the wide skies of Wolvercote Common and Port Meadow, the water is open, dabbled by ducks and handsome geese. Here the hawker was engaged in its performance, into which I was drawn again, enchanted by its skill and grace.

Many times I tried to photograph it as it skimmed before me, but I never succeeded. In the end, it seemed right that I couldn’t impose stillness on it – everything was in the flight, in the fulfilment of every turn and swoop, every instant it hung, full of strength and brilliance, in front of me. I was completely absorbed in the dance. My memory is still full of that enchantment, even though the walk and the summer have ended

An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

Beetles fascinate me. They are so various – reds, blacks, iridescence, large, small, compact, extended. They are always busy among flowers or leaves, or crossing the path in front of me. It’s tempting to assign each of them a personality, drawing a sense of briskness or good humour simply from the way they gather their legs or hang from a yellow petal.

Some can be named relatively easily, like the jewel-like maybug or the rose chafer, a huge brown nut basking in early summer sun. But most only have Latin to identify them. And it seems silly to try to call them anything.

Beetles are just themselves, and go around just being themselves. They provide a good lesson in letting go of the need to classify and order things. There are so many of them that it would take years to become an expert in their forms and types. Instead, I’ve decided just to enjoy looking at beetles in all their shapes and sizes.

This has been helped by my acquisition of a camera able to take sharp close-up images. My walks around Oxford have suddenly taken on an extra dimension. Flowers by the Thames towpath, on Iffley Meadows or simply in college gardens had to me always been more like trimming to the overall scene rather than things I had looked at in particular – colour blindness tends to flatten out their differences, and hay fever is also a bit of a hindrance to appreciation.

But now I know to look for beetles. So I might drift along under the clouds, surrounded by birdsong, passing in and out of shadows under trees in full leaf, and yet also engage my eyes with the great wash of buttercups in the grass, daisies and clover, stands of poppies or clutches of forget-me-nots.

I’ve looked much more carefully at many more things. Each flower with what a jeweller might call a “flaw” is a potential beetle site. I crouch in the long grass, seed heads brushing my shoulders and flowers swaying backwards and forwards in front of me.

Sometimes the beetle is substantial, glittering. The eye at once picks up the feathering of its antennae, the sheen of its eyes, the precision of the joints in its legs. The camera is less effective at first, drifting in and out of focus as the insect placidly wanders to and fro.

When the beetles are very small, the camera comes into its own. Close in, the image on the screen reveals the striations running down the wing cases and the clear black lines marking the distinct segments of the body and legs. Suddenly the whole thing resolves into ultra-sharp focus against the petals and I capture the shape and detail in digital form.

Though I don’t know their names I have become very familiar with the most common kinds I encounter on my walks and in my garden. Ladybirds, of course. But also bright green ones with thick thighs, and weevils shaped like pellets except for long mouthparts like elephants’ trunks. Buttercups, filling a whole field with their cheerful heads, host all these and more, some like acorns, some small and black like flecks of bright dust.

Beetles bring me out of my house, out of my thoughts. I can spend hours wandering between flowers like a great lumbering bee, peering down for all the different creatures I might encounter. Meanwhile, birdsong and the rush of wind in the trees fill my ears. It’s easy then to forget a lot of the complexities of the human world while being entranced by those of the natural – the variety, the interconnectedness, the colours and shapes filling the space between knee-height and the ground.

Seasons of Hinksey Pool

The last swim in Hinksey Open Air Pool, south Oxford, before it closes for the winter is always a bittersweet experience. For those of us who swim there regularly, the pool becomes a companion. It’s occasionally a bit wearing, but a constant that you have – and want – to come back to. Its season, April to September, covers the most radical climatic changes of the year, and it’s this that I’ve come to enjoy most over my years as a member. This isn’t exactly wild swimming, but I do feel closer to the seasons in the water than out of it.

In the early weeks the boundary between winter and spring is porous. Gentle rain one day, sun the next, then a gale. The pool stays open in almost all weathers, so there’s no excuse not to go. The walk along suburban roads get there is gradually greening, even on the coldest day. Birds are beginning really to get into their stride, singing or calling in front gardens.

The water feels soft, as though it too is new and fresh. This is time that mallard ducks most often land in confusion on the pool rather than the pond or the lake just beyond in Hinksey Park. Sometimes it’s pairs, sometimes single males. They are good companions to have as you do your lengths, now seen above – iridescent head, blue streak on the wings – and now below – feet nonchalantly spreading turn by turn as it dawdles over the surface.

When the fresh smell of spring – a sort of clean wetness – becomes overtaken by the thicker whiff of pollen, summer has moved in. May eases into June, usually with more warmth, more sun, and on very hot days the bitter taste of sun tan lotion in the pool water. The number of ducks in the pool falls sharply as the number of people goes up, but instead the very fringes of the water are frequented by bees and wasps. I assume they are there for a drink, but they spend a lot of time wandering to and fro. Quite often you come face to face with one as you turn at a length’s end. For a second the intricacies of their compound eyes glitter back and there your ways part. 

Birds are always overhead at this time of year. The definitive markers of the season are the swifts. Their migrations, so far as is understood, are largely determined by day length, so they arrive always in the last days of May and are gone again in August. On a blue day their taut black bars streak repeatedly across the face of the sky, visible over a vast arc above the pool. Their screams tail after them and it would not surprise me if somehow they struck the water like sparks from a firework, fizzing and steaming. When the pool is open for one of the occasional evening swims, the swifts are replaced by the equally fascinating silhouettes of bats, also hunting the insects drawn by the moisture rising from the surrounding park.

Then, without fanfare it is September and the crowds thin out, the swallows on Hinksey Late are becoming fewer. The air has a new feel to it – cold, but not icy. It makes a sharp contrast with the water, which holds you like a huge liquid blanket. As I swim, I look down at the first autumn leaves to fall. They drift serenely just below the surface until the water soaks them thoroughly and they gather in clumps on the bottom. The shapes of the clumps are altered by eddies and swirls created by the swimmers above.

The leaves are still green on the trees, and birds are beginning to find their voices again after the August lull. But the year’s last swim is coming. It arrives always on the last weekend of September. I try to make sure I’m there, even if only for a short while. By this time the water is colder. The ducks may well be back by this time, dotting the largely empty width of the surface. They can seem affronted by the intrusion of humans into their element.

I look at the sky, or the rain, I stretch out in the water. I remind myself that it is only six months until the whole experience starts again.

 

First published in Oxford Magazine

Hinksey Hill Wander

It was a fresh autumn day, the air cool but green still in the leaves. We had crossed the ever-fumy A34 at the South Hinksey footbridge, and soon were treading a familiar trail along the hedge line. Even in late September the grass stands hip high beside the path, all banners of spent seed in varying shades of gold. The field beside us was mostly bare earth. Scattered across the grey-brown expanse were flints was a peculiar harvest: fossils.

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On this side of Hinksey Hill the clay has recently been disturbed. This has brought to the surface the cracked shells of oysters, conglomerate stones filled with bivalves and occasionally single discs of shells, all dating from the Jurassic when the county was covered by a rich tropical sea.

My favourites are the oyster shells, a centimetre or two thick. Complete, they would be more than a hand’s span across. Broken, they reveal their own sedimentary layers, one for each year of the oyster’s life. It can take quite a time to reach the top of the hill.

Eventually – also being distracted by a kestrel flying ahead of us – we reached the duckboards that lead through the fens of Happy Valley. Unlike the open field, the first part of the fen is quite closed in. There were a few butterflies and bees drifting about, all with an autumn drowsiness. This fen is a very rare habitat, home to species very close to vanishing from the UK.

We cross a little stream in the channel it has bored through thick vegetation. Long-fingered mosses stretch themselves out into the striated surface of the water, shifting between shadow and streaks of light. Then we are into the trees.

They are a mix, oak, lime, hawthorn, willow. Some stand tall, spreading canopy high over our heads, creating a cool, moist realm where the path is always muddy and fuzzes of moss cover the sides of thick trunks. Below the high branches the slopes of the valley angle down to the stream, where sandy patches among the leaf litter show deer, badger, fox, dog and human prints.

Fallen trees lie here and there across the channel, excellent bridges for the adventurous to go exploring. Others might like to crouch among the stones on the stream bottom, picking out ones that have been polished to gleaming brilliance and shine with wetness – almost jewels compared with the dusty, muddy grey fossils of the field.

Fallen branches are patterned with fungi and mould, giving up their shapes to the knobbliness of decay. More extravagant forms are presented by trees that have fallen and risen again, arcing down into the ground, then  up, sprouting etiolated side branches crowned with fragile leaves, dappled with galls and other strange blotches. It’s as easy to spend time in the woods as picking over the fossils outside.

We passed out into the open air again, felt its warmth, heard the chatter of jackdaws and the high call of a red kite, but our minds were half back in the damp under the trees. We ought to have been admiring the rosehips red like a shock, and the last remaining yellow flowers by the side of the path. We did enjoy sticking burrs to each others’ clothes. The seeds, presumably, were scattered in our wake.

We passed under a great oak, stretching up over us, and shortly after the path turned almost back on itself, sloping up from the valley bottom. The ground was soft, but many crab apples had fallen, brown and squishy at the core but staying crunchy outside. A faint appley smell hung around us as we made our way over this excellent harvest for mice and birds stocking up for the winter.

The path soon flattens out to a broad track between big sloe bushes and the sharp slope down to the stream. The skeletons of blooms hung as from gallows over the yellowing grass. It was only at first glance that it seemed macabre. This is a healthy meadow and this was simply one of the stages in its annual cycle. It always pays to linger and look down over the sward into the trees. This time, a green woodpecker launched loudly and iridescently past us.

We came to the gate that took us back out to the fossil field. We looked out over Oxford, seemingly cupped in the palm of the wider valley, and from this distance, quite still. But the path home heads down towards the A34.

 

First published in Oxford Magazine

Four Raptors

IMG_20181023_170808Inevitably, it was a red kite. It still strikes me as amazing that such a big bird should be so common a sight over Oxford these days. This one was cruising over the dividing line between city and country. Oxford’s edges are usually sharply defined by the boundary of the green belt, and here, just behind Barton Community Centre, Bayswater Brook separates a playground and dog walkers’ path from the expanse of brown field leading up to trees on the hilltop. The stream is lined with smaller trees, yellowing and thinning in mid-October, and it was from behind these that the kite emerged.

It glided over us, seemingly only just out of touching distance. Its head and its forked tail were both in motion, adjusting to angles of the wind, or of sight. Meanwhile, the shoulders and wings proceeded unchanging, their deep autumn colours stark against the clear sky. It indulged in no flashiness – no sideslips, no rolls. It just patrolled, steadily and gracefully, while the sun reflected from its hooked beak and russet eye.

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As if to assert their status as the most common birds of prey in the UK, a little later two buzzards took to circling on the far side of the trees. They were more slung with weight than the kite, and their feathers tended to lighter browns, but they manoeuvred round each other with a similar ease of flight. Their tails were fans, but the flight feathers on the tips of their rectangular winds echoed the kite’s seemingly outstretched hand. Their calls, too, were similar and yet different – a single, extended scream for the buzzard, and a sequence of looping ones for the kite.

Like the kite, the buzzard is a frequenter of motorways and most that I had seen recently had been squatting on fence posts keeping a vampiric eye out for the rodents that line the largely unpeopled verges, or for roadkill. But in the sky over Barton they were transformed. They performed a slow, spiralling dance built on air, with feathers and shadows sharing colours with the aging leaves, the sparrows in the hedge and the ash keys that hung over us.

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The kestrel that emerged shortly afterwards from the branches of a tree further along the stream was made on a smaller scale. It must have been eyeing the grass and the bottom of the hedge from its perch. Mice and voles, skirting the open wastes of the field and dog-busy space on the Barton side, probably use the hedge line as a run. But the kestrel can pick them out from the foliage if they make a misstep.

It had clearly not seen enough from its spot in the tree, for now it launched a few metres higher, spreading its wings and tail into the wind-hover after which it was once named.

The art of hovering is astonishing. Movement rippled continuously through the whole speckled frame – except the head, which gazed down fixedly. Its adjustments were made to a different routine from the kite’s, one focused on maximising the information entering through the eyes. The kestrel quartered the ground ruthlessly, but we spectators only saw the beauty of its hawking.

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The last of the four to be seen is the most densely muscled. A female sparrowhawk drops from its perch some time after the kestrel’s monitoring has taken it downstream. She has a white breast streaked with lines of dark arrowheads. Her wings are relatively short, ideal for sprint speed and manoeuvring among branches.

We know she is female by her size – bigger than the kestrel, and so bigger than the male of her species. All the rest we can tell about her from looking is that under the feathers there is a construction of immense potential force, dense flesh wound tight as a trap.

But she is not hunting. Her flight from the tree is slow and easy. She drifts from the branch over us, briefly a silhouette against the blue. Then she’s gone behind us, over the houses that back onto this strip of grass. We turn to keep her in sight but she recedes to a minute yin/yang circle – dark top, white below.

Then she’s coming back. She heads up, over us again. Now she’s found the column of rising air and catches onto it, describing indolent loops with wings outstretched, up and up and up until she’s invisible, gone.

Four raptors on a cold autumn day: something to celebrate.

 

First published in Oxford Magazine

Beech Lines

img_20181121_130610_hdrIt’s a sight that encompasses many years, to look up the height of a tree from the root bole to the point where the twigs and leaves are splayed against the clouds. The copper beech at the junction of Woodstock and Plantation roads gives a fine opportunity to do this.

I realise, now I think about it, that I’ve barely ever looked at the garden it stands in, or the house. It’s the roots bursting out through the retaining wall above the pavement that catch the attention first. Years ago, when the tree was just a sapling, the wall must have run neatly straight down the garden edge. But now what seems a great weight of flesh, gleaming as with skin and bulging and folding, has broken through. It must still be growing, layer after layer being built up under the bark.

There is no firm line separating root from trunk. Here or there you might be able to point to a shift from smoother to more pitted bark, from twisting contours to a more regular cylindrical form, but the closer the inspection the less clear the point of transition.

Nonetheless, there is a transition, and the trunk rises up, far too broad for me to put my arms around. The bark has a dusting of green lichen, and seems set with many miniature ladders where the bark is cracked horizontally and vertically, like an arboreal echo of Dante’s Purgatory. Under here flow the tree’s fluids, earth to sky in the xylem and phloem. It seems quite an affront that someone at some time must have pinned notices here, and left the staples to rust into the flesh.

As the trunk rises so this fine detail begins to fade. The bark appears smoother, and only occasionally do patches of discoloration interrupt its even greyish-brown.

Another transition occurs: the branches begin to break out from the main stem, pathways that invite the eye to stray in all directions, but if you hold to the original line it continues as your head tilts further and further back, it arcs, and if the day is windy, sifts as though suggesting different answers to the same question. The bark seems paler and paler, the wood thinner and thinner, and then, like a moment of enlightenment it is no longer branch but the canopy of leaves.

All beech leaves are beautiful, but copper beeches are the finest. They keep the translucence of the usual green, but their dark purple transforms the light. Where the breeze parts them, clear sky darts through, then is shaded again. When they fall they are a strange, crisp parchment, inviting luminous ink.

A tree like this has hosted millions, even billions of creatures, mostly invertebrates but also birds and small mammals over its many years. Whenever I pass it I stop and put my hand on the trunk, not far above the root bole. I always wonder if I will be able to feel the life in it, a sort of tree breath or tree pulse that has a different rhythm from that of the traffic in and out of Oxford. I haven’t felt it yet, but will keep trying.

First published in Oxford Magazine