May Bug (Cockchafer)

I wrote about these slow flying, heavy beetles a few days ago.

This evening, I was putting clean sheets on the bed when the deep buzzing of a May Bug caught my attention. I quickly cupped it into a jar, as shown, before taking it out to the back garden for release by the goat’s willow.

The photograph is the view from the tail. It shows the egg laying protuberance of a female.

On the head the two feathered antennae, like grotesque false eye-lashes, are visible.

With wings folded the Cockchafer is the size of a man’s thumb; with wings buzzing, it looks like a blurred flying ball. I will sleep more easily without this specimen crawling around my bed.

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n.b. Also known as Doodle Bugs, or Rookworms.

Christopher Perry

17th May, 2020

Red Deer at Dusk

Of course, as luck would have it, the day I decide to rest from writing about the local wildlife and environment, when I am out on an evening cycle ride in rapidly-failing light, I spot a herd of red deer. They are happily rooting around in a harrowed field. They have dared to amble right up to the edge of the local market town. They stand in the last field before the parish sports field.

The antlers of the dominant male are obvious, even in the heavy shadows stretching from trees lining the far side of the field. There is also a smaller male in the group whose immature antlers are just visible. The rest of the herd contains at least three adult hinds.

As is their way, the deer gather in the centre of clearings and open spaces for safety. Such a position allows them to see, hear and smell what is approaching and gives them plenty of options for a safe exit. Aware of me stopping to watch from the roadside hedge, several of the deer look up and the large male moves nervously around the herd, before they set off in a higgledy line towards the darkening wood. One of the younger does was grazing by the top edge of the field before I arrived, but she silently and quickly re-joins the herd as soon as the other animals become twitchy.

The adult stag leads the unhurried retreat, although I sense that they are on a knife-edge, ready to run for cover at the slightest excuse. The dryness of the ground is noticeable from the dust that these nine big beasts kick up as they dissolve into the gloaming.

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Christopher Perry

16th May, 2020

Day 55

I realise that yesterday’s waves were nothing to write home about. When you can see the explosion of breakers showering sea spray higher than the shingle bank: when you can see spume carrying on the wind over the salt marsh; when you can hear the action of the sea smashing into the shingle from Bard Hill, then you have something to construct a letter around.

There are not just one or two places where the breaking waves throw up crowns of white water. The huge fans of spray are seen above the shingle bank at any point you choose to watch. The beach is being constantly pummelled. Encouraged by the following wind, the sea’s assault on the banks of stone defences shielding the low-lying flood plain is relentless.

At high tide, I am standing on the top shelf of the beach. This is quite close enough. I can taste the brine, feel molecules of spray landing on my face. My sunglasses begin to get clouded by the sea salt carried on the air.

The inter-tidal range this morning is 5.65 metres from highest to lowest tide. Here there are two high tides each day, so the sea will two big bites at the shingle today. Further along the coast to the east at Weybourne, incursions by the sea are common.

Where I am standing used to be the site of a popular seasonal café. The café was for many years a makeshift affair that then developed into a healthy business, even setting charges for car-parking. But the higgledy-piggledy building could not withstand the wintry rigours of the North Sea. It was badly knocked about on numerous occasions before eventually being submerged by shingle washed inland by a particularly vicious storm. Today, there is absolutely no evidence at this place of the old shack having ever existed.

To repair this shingle bank takes considerable time and effort. Huge yellow mechanical shovels, driven on caterpillar tracks, have to push the shingle back toward the waterline to restore this long heap that rises over the marshes. It is a thankless task. How much longer it is worth committing energy to this activity is a moot point. 

Around the old abandoned port of Cley, now an inland collection of well-maintained flint and red brick cottages, there are newer, more solid defences. The River Glaven is heavily embanked and can be closed off from the sea by a new flood gate, but there is an increasing risk of inundation from the rising sea-level. How long will it be before the sea is again brushing up against the old quay?

The sky is bright blue. The rising Sun is still low enough to dazzle. The wind takes the temperature down close to freezing. There is a gloomy, deep grey cloud bank filling the northern horizon. An ominous dark watery wall envelopes the off-shore wind turbines. What looks suspiciously like a small snow shower drifts quickly inland in a south-westerly direction towards Blakeney and the port of Wells-Next-The-Sea.

The strong wind provides a kestrel a perfect opportunity to show off its ability to hold still in flight whilst hunting. The bird holds its wing position perfectly in the face of the strong north-easterly wind and stalls without any visible effort scanning the grass below. When satisfied that there is nothing worth hanging around for in one spot, the kestrel tips itself so that the wind lifts under its right wing and it lets itself be carried to the next likely site, a few metres downwind, where it returns to its previous pose, holding still in mid-air.

The sunshine belies the temperature. It is little warmer than yesterday’s dismal evening. 

The combination of dry sunny days and strong cool winds off the sea ensure that Norfolk folk venturing outside become either raw, pink-faced or deeply dark tanned. Warm weather here starts when the temperature reaches fifteen degrees centigrade, but the skin tones of many local faces would complement any Greek island.

I spend a while watching the waves thinking about what into happen next. It seems that the first wave of the coronavirus has swept through the land. Deaths are still counted in hundreds each day. The Prime Minister’s pre-recorded, yet still incoherent address to the nation yesterday signals a shift in emphasis in government policy.

From being kindly accommodated here temporarily for want of anywhere suitable to live through this crisis, to where? I look out across the white horses to the fore-shortened horizon. For now, I am grateful to be here.

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Christopher Perry

11th May, 2020

Day 52

I turn off the road and follow a track through the woodland. Today the cool is most welcome as the sun is strong. It is a rare day of constant warmth and I have spent too long in the open.

The canopy of sycamore, oak and ash whilst thin, is nearly complete. Bluebells are not the only flowers here bringing a touch of the sky to ground. I see a mass of tiny blue flowers decorating thin stalks dabbed among fresh nettles. I make my way over to them crossing a carpet of dry twigs and dead brambles. I think that these are Wood forget-me-knots. They are in their natural habitat here, a remnant of ancient woodland.

The nettles are a delicate fresh green. I am stung on my shin as I turn back towards the road.

The pinging sensation lingers on my skin for much of the rest of the day. It reminds me vividly of last May, working in Somerset at the end of lambing, when we were moving the cows to fresh pasture and learning how to herd the ewes and their gambolling lambs along too. There were plenty of nettles there.

My son, on a break from the hospital sends four photographs from his family walk today. They have come across a large slow worm lying on a track in a patch of sunlight in their local wood. They all look well.

I take a circuitous route back home. As I follow the lanes round to the coast road I think back to the emerging colours of flowers I have seen these few weeks. Yellows predominant as Spring begins, soon followed by masses of white. Delicate violets and purple mix into that confection and now, once the blues have arrived, it is the pink and pale red flowers coming out on the verges and in the hedges to join the the white of the May Tree and yellow of gorse and dandelions.

Along the top of one hedge I see numerous lilac panicles. Today is the 75th anniversary of VE Day, (Victory in Europe, 1945). I choose not to gather any of the flowers, preferring to let them grow wild – and according to the old war song gathering lilac is not meant to be a solitary activity.

Out to catch a glimpse of the fiery sunset at the back of the house, I find myself having to dodge a large droning insect with a fierce looking spike. It settled on one of the lower branches of the goat’s willow.  I have been told that this odd-shaped creature, with its slow heavy wing and a drone louder and lower in pitch than a bumble bee, is a May Bug, or doodle bug. The protuberance identifies the female bug as it is a tube for laying eggs into the root layer of the ground, where its hatching grubs feed on the roots of grasses. 

The May Bug is not a popular insect with farmers trying to produce wheat and barley. Chemical controls have prevented infestations in recent years. I am delighted they have survived in this area, as will be the rooks, who enjoy feeding on the grubs of these odd-looking creatures. The May Bug grubs are apparently known as “rookworms” in some areas because of the attraction they hold to the crow family.

The sunset is diluted by a brief, heavy rain shower. Low, thick clouds prevent any sign of the moon, bright as it might be.

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Christopher Perry

8th May, 2020

Day 50

I had a long list of things to write about today, but in the end one magical moment grabbed my attention; the hares above Kelling Hard.

Native to Britain, they remain a sight for sore eyes in much of the island, but in this area they are seen in nearly every field, in the pastures, on the marshes, even bounding along the hedge-lined lanes. I am still at the point of savouring seeing them without having to seek them out. Like the barn owl earlier this month, if you remain alert to their possibility, they will appear.

It is May and my expectation is that hares are now settled into family groups, with territories agreed and the contest for female attention passed. So, I am surprised to see a stand-off between two hares. One is sitting tall on its haunches, ears pricked forelegs at chest height, looking like a relative of a kangaroo, or wallaby. The other is in a stalking, crouched position. Its shoulders and hips bulge above the outline of its back, it is ready to pounce; its ears are down, aligned with its back.

The upright hare ensures that it holds its tall, confident posture, but has to turn where it is facing to follow his crouched opponent, who circles, trying to gain a place from where to attack. This posing and positioning, the stand-off continues for several minutes. It is clear that neither is going to turn tail on the other. Around the field numerous other hares quietly graze in the lee of the hill, enjoying the last warmth of the day’s sun.

Suddenly, the two spring into action. Kicking and flailing at each other. There is a moment when they are both fighting in mid-air; backs bent to the fight so all feet can claw at the other. In this combined leap they repeatedly scratch and hit out, twisting like air-borne fighting blackbirds, the hares’ sprinters’ limbs a blur.

I am watching this from behind a low hedge down the slope. When they launch into action they break the line of the horizon above and I see blue sky beneath them; they continue fighting stalled in flight at the point before gravity brings them back to earth – Norfolk Ninja warriors.

The last vivid memory that I have of watching such behaviour was when I was a primary school pupil. It may have been during the March of 1968. Our teacher, Mrs Lally, took the class for a walk out of the school, past the art college and along the bank of the river. She told us about weeping willows, we saw grey, fluffy, ugly-duckling cygnets with their mute swan parents, rainbow trout against the gravel in the shallow river and across the water meadows, on the other side of the Itchen, hares. These were the already renown Mad March Hares, in good numbers, with three of four pairs boxing with each other.

As a child I was lucky to be part of a family where going for walks and learning about the natural world was part of growing up, even though we lived in a spacious, suburban, dormitory town. As a consequence, most of what I was shown on those school walks was not new to me, but the boxing hares were novel and exciting to see; lively, wild animals behaving badly – what a treat!

On this evening walk I had seen another family of greylags, but this time with just two adult geese in charge. I had my binoculars to hand and was able to count twelve goslings being shepherded by the parents. Something spooked the parent birds and they quickly set off with the goslings towards a shallow ditch where they could shelter en masse. The adults, instead of walking tall, heads elevated like periscopes, ran crouched low to the grass, beaks held out in advance, just a few inches above the grass, tails counter-balancing this unusual position, also just a couple of inches from the turf. The goslings moving in unsteady single-file between the big birds, allowed me to be more certain of their number. Can greylag geese count their hatchlings, or do they just instinctively protect the ones who can keep up? 

The call of cuckoos is becoming as commonplace as the sight of the swifts above the red-tiles in the villages here. Swallows are now more obvious in better numbers. Various bee species lay a gentle background buzzing to accompany moments sheltered from the wind. 

Against the setting Sun I see the shape of someone emerge from the sea. The man is up and away, jogging on home without much hesitation. I am wearing a cycling jacket and at least two good layers underneath that. Swimming in the North Sea might be good for me in some ways, (blood circulation, a sense of being in the present, a stimulant) but pneumonia is something I wish to avoid.

The wind gets at my chest and despite being sun-burnt on my face, I do not feel totally healthy as a result.

I will not report on the temperature today, other than to note that it is normal for Norfolk.

Christopher Perry

6th May, 2020

Day 49

There are some very long-lived people resident in Norfolk; the cool climate is clearly a contributor. Like living in a massive fridge, the chill stops one from going off, perhaps. I struggle with the dichotomy of clear blue sky matched with being perpetually cold. It is also true of this neck of the woods that there are few residents, apart from at weekends and during the holiday seasons, so those who are permanent are clearly hardy, adaptable folk.

I heard a remark today that captures an essence of this period. “The days go by so fast, but each day is so slow.” Something very strange is happening to our experience of time. 

Today is another Wednesday. It is the fiftieth day of writing about what I am witnessing here, but it still all seems new. Perhaps this practise of writing something about each day keeps it so for me. The gradual emergence of Spring comes later here in comparison to the southern coast. I have an opportunity to note the natural changes as they arise.

I sense the changing tilt of sunlight in these days between Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice. This time when days lengthen and shadows shorten has often been lost to me before. School and then study and then work have always been busy during this phase of the solar cycle, so I am blessed to be able to immerse myself in it this year. 

It is less than six weeks to Midsummer’s day, (just 46 days) and from then the days will shorten, the shadows lengthen. Of course, the air will be warmer, the soil heated and the long tail of Summer leading into Autumn will pass through some blissful days, but it is this phase, when each day is brighter and longer than the last that is the time of renewal, growth and hope. I pray that I am able to appreciate each one, as and when each arrives.

In the sunlit evening, I put on a thick, windproof jacket, zip it to my chin and step out into the blustery air. I do not treat the walk as exercise, but as a stroll. I take my time to move within, rather than through the landscape. This allows me to see the muntjac deer before it hears me coming, to enjoy the leverets chasing each other, to watch the rabbits nibbling and to study the hedge birds hopping about from branch to nest and perch. In one instance, in the wood on the hill, two young rabbits come towards me. I halt my gentle pace and am able to watch them for a few undisturbed moments before they amble off under the brambles.

This Spring I have been able to see the difference between blackthorn and hawthorn by the time of their flowering. The blackthorn is turned to green leaves before the hawthorn’s May Flower sprouts. The blackthorn covers large areas of the escarpment below the heath and when in blossom presents a picture akin to a dusting of snow. The hawthorn trees are more dispersed and so there is no blanket coverage to wonder at, but the hawthorn explodes into flower when the right conditions arrive, which here, this year come at the very end of April and now, the first week of the May.

I eventually turn onto the coast road, edging the old salt marshes. It is mayhem out there. Various hatchlings are out and parent birds are fighting tooth and claw to protect the young from marauders. I have mentioned the birds of prey and the carrion before, but now gulls are more commonly seen too. The larger gulls are not averse to adding eggs, or young to their omnivorous diet. The peewit parents exhaust themselves in defensive duties. It is now that their speed and agility in flight becomes vital to the survival of their species.

Another more commonly seen bird, overlooked and unremarked on because of its modest size, is the pied wagtail. There are several active around the Green at the bottom of the Purdy Street. These birds with jerky, clockwork movements are happy catching small insects. Sometimes they flitter a few feet into the air, almost in a hover, to catch something, at other times they walk restlessly, pecking to left and right at the ground for easier pickings. When they stand still, tail wagging up and down, with short, sharp, black beak pointing slightly upward, they are preparing to fly. 

They seem to need a moment to compose themselves before springing into the air and making their way on an undulating flight path. They land with a silent splash of black and white, often not far from the point of lift off, before resuming their mechanical-toy movements. The pied wagtail emits chirpy notes as it goes about its business. Just enough to attract attention, not enough to call a song, although they do have songs in the repertoire.

At last an evening with some play – dominoes. This is a game that allows some conversation and distraction. It is not overly competitive, because of the luck of the draw, but a game that allows gentle conversation, whichever variation is played. I teach my sister two new variations and remind her of a third. An enjoyable evening.

After your on-line choir we talk by telephone for well over an hour, in fact until well-past midnight. I fall asleep exhausted, you find sleep eventually.

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Christopher Perry

5th May, 2020