Nature Diary

Nature Diary – June

Brother Andy gives an update on the wild abundance of life at Skanda Vale this June.
A Hummingbird Hawk-moth sipping nectar

By Brother Andy

June was only just a few days old when the aliens landed! Perhaps I should explain… biologists use the term ‘alien’ to describe a species introduced from outside its normal distribution. The aliens landing at the beginning of June were Mandarin Ducks.

These beautiful birds were first brought to Britain from the Far East in the eighteenth century but it wasn’t until the 1930s that escapees from wildfowl collections started breeding in the UK. Sister Gemma at one time counted up to 20 Mandarins on our lakes.

Grey Squirrels are also aliens, having been introduced from the USA at about the same time as the Mandarins – there is some evidence that they were deliberately introduced into the wild. They subsequently drove out most of the red squirrels – the last verified sighting of a red squirrel at Skanda Vale was in 1996.

It is a common problem with alien species that they become invasive and drive out native species. Japanese Knotweed is a well-known alien which we manage to keep under control. The banks of the river in Llanpumsaint are becoming colonised by the very beautiful, invasive (and explosive) Himalayan Balsam.

Another invasion started in June. Frogs, a few millimetres long, began to emerge from the Durga Lake and are seen hopping around the Sri Ranganatha Temple. Fortunately for these froglets, there are not many people around. We always try to pick up those that we see and put them out into the long grass.

On the Durga Lake, the moorhens have raised another brood. The young from the first clutch are now like gawky teenagers; having lost the fluffy cuteness of their new siblings but not yet developed the sleek plumage of their parents.

The new chicks closely follow their mum or dad around the lake, while their big brothers and sisters stride around on the lily pads on long legs, pretending to have left home, but never straying very far. A pair of mallards have produced one duckling and there may be more waiting to emerge from the bamboo on the Black Swan lake.

The deer pen has three new fawns – Brother Simon was the first to spot one of the new Fallow Deer babies. The weather has been kind for bringing up all these new young ones. Glen and Swami Prema made hay while the sun shone and now the fields are greening up again after some very welcome early June rain.

Rain brings out those garden pests the slugs and snails, but at least the Song Thrushes delight in the appearance of these molluscs. They gather snails and take them to a favourite rock, where the unfortunate prey’s shell is bashed open, exposing the juicy, soft body for a perfect meal.

There are a number of these so-called Thrushes’ Anvils around. The broken pieces of shell that litter these rocks suggest that the most common prey species here at Skanda Vale is the Banded Snail.

You will be surprised to see how much work has been going on here at Skanda Vale in your absence, (not everyone is swanning around writing nature diaries!) There is now a thriving vegetable garden, and a new car park is under construction. Painting, creosoting, pressure-washing and repairing are all in full swing.

Lakshika (a happily locked-in visitor) found a ‘funny looking spider’ whilst removing some curtains from the dining room. Close examination revealed that it was a Cellar Spider, carrying an egg sac in its mouthparts.

Josef (another locked-inner) found a Palmate Newt whilst moving some logs, and Sister Carol (locked-in permanently) discovered a sheltering Elephant Hawk Moth whilst revarnishing the wood in the Sri Ranganatha Temple. She also discovered a Humming Bird Hawk Moth whilst working in the Yaga Sala.

Moths are often attracted to the light outside of my chalet. Recent visitors have included a Poplar Hawk Moth, a Common Emerald and a Buff Ermine. Some moths fly during the day and the spectacular Six Spot Burnet moth was seen down by the river towards the end of June.

It has been a good year for butterflies. Four new species emerged this month, including the Meadow Brown, Small Skipper, Ringlet and Marsh Fritillary.

Marsh Fritillary populations have seen an 80% decline in their numbers in the UK since the 1970s, mostly due to habitat destruction. The Marsh Fritillary is threatened, not only in the UK but across Europe and is, therefore, the object of much conservation effort.

Skanda Vale is privileged to have a population of this pretty butterfly living next to the coach park, and we are pledged to maintaining the area where these butterflies live. The Marsh Fritillaries share their habitat with a population of Heath Spotted Orchid which has come into flower in June. There is quite a range of colour in this population – the plants feature white, pink or pale purple flowers.

I’m not too sure who was the more surprised, me or a roosting Barn Owl which I disturbed one afternoon whilst walking up through the woods towards the coach park. Barn Owls are definitely not aliens, in fact, they are the most widespread land bird species in the world – occurring in every continent except Antarctica.

Another stunning bird spotted this month was a bullfinch. These birds are described as shy, and their song sounds somewhat sad. These two characteristics are in complete contrast to the male bullfinch’s exotic plumage.

One song that disappeared in June was that of the cuckoo; presumably having left their eggs in other birds’ nests, they are now on their way back to Africa.

There is a great deal of Cuckoo Spit around, however. The ‘spit’ is a white frothy substance produced by the larvae of the Common Froghopper. The larvae take in plant sap and then force air into it as they blow it out through their bottoms. The frothy substance protects the larvae from predators and prevents them from drying out. The name is derived from the fact that the spit appears about the same time as cuckoos start to sing. At this time of the year, many plants can be seen with the Cuckoo Spit attached.

So many new plants have flowered in June including Elder trees, Eyebright, Pale Toadflax, English Stonecrop, Ox-Eye Daisy, Navelwort, Common Vetch, Red Clover, White Clover, Willow Herbs, Slender St John’s-Wort, Herb Robert, Enchanter’s Nightshade, Pineappleweed (another alien but now common and really does smell of pineapple), Cleavers, Bedstraws, Hedge Woundwort, Selfheal, Common Cow-Wheat, Spear Thistle, Smooth Sowthistle, Prickly Sowthistle, Common Valerian, Hogweed, Figwort, Honeysuckle and Wild Rose.

We are waiting for our mower to be fixed, which means that the Vishnu Field is a sea of tall grasses. When the wind blows, it is as if waves pass over this sea. A beautiful sight.

As you all know there are many beautiful demoiselles living at the Lodge. Sister Carol saw a dragonfly with this exact name; a ‘Beautiful Demoiselle’ making its characteristic fluttering flight along the river, near to where the Sisters live.

On the Durga Lake, an Emperor Dragonfly can be seen patrolling up and down on warm days and amongst the grasses, on the Vishnu field, Blue Tailed Damselfly can often be seen flying around.

As I go down in the morning to help light up the Murugan Temple for the 5 o’clock puja, there has been enough light in the sky for me to make do without a torch. The longest day of the year fell on Saturday, June 20th, with 16 hours and 38 minutes of daylight.

The days may be getting shorter (by only a few minutes a day) but our festivals are in full swing. Every morning during these festivals, and every evening at six o’clock you can listen to a live audio stream of the puja broadcast.

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