Natural history adventures sailing the culinary seas...

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Lovely Lepidopterans

Perhaps only the first of many butterfly encounters this summer, a perfectly glorious day was spent Swallowtail hunting by a trio of intrepid ecologists in the notorious wilds, or well kept paths if you will, of Strumpshaw Fen in early May. A visit to reacquaint myself with the joys of East Anglia coincided with the early emergence of these languidly flapping giants of the broads. We watched one particularly vigorous specimen patrol a territory that included a Blackthorn (I think) dripping with blossom, chasing off any butterfly that dared to linger near its flower laden branches. There may even have been an attempt to lure said butterfly closer to us by a camouflage worthy of an undercover birder. Strangely enough the strategy of holding out a branch and 'thinking like a tree' did not seem to convince the remarkably perceptive individuals we encountered. We must have seen over ten Swallowtails in our wanderings that afternoon, and perseverance paid off as we watched and stalked those that obligingly settled on perches.

Swallowtail - Papilo machaon
Favourite perch!
Gazing up at the tails.

Other pleasures of that day included booming bitterns, a distant cuckoo, a terribly noisy wasp and a 2D chick, confidently proclaimed to be a robin by DN the dead bird detective.

My last couple of weeks in Yorkshire brought few moths to the trap, with the occasional bright spot, the quiffed Spectacle (Abrostola tripartita) and lurid but handsome Elephant Hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor) greeting me on separate occasions. The robust acorn like body of the Cockchafer beetle (Melolontha melolontha) also proved a lethargic visitor, but eventually fanned out its antenna beautifully before being deposited back into the rockery to go about its business.

Ooh, gaudy green and pink hawk.
Beady eye.
Furry back.
Seven leaf antenna mean its a boy.
The summer of butterflies continues, as tomorrow I start as Volunteer Ranger for the Large Blue butterfly at Collard Hill in Somerset. Part of my duties includes writing a daily update on the Large Blue Blog, where details of the first 'big blue' sighting and all the excitement of the flight season will be posted. If it whets your appetite for the delights of Maculinea arion come and visit the hill please! My goodbye to 'Needles and Pin ups', the pub knitting group I wander along to of a Wednesday evening, combined a vaguely accurate depiction of my future weeks with cookie cutters. And lo, the eco-geekiest biscuits I've made thus far were created...

Large and common blues, and grubs!

Monday, 16 May 2011

Dark Nights and Dock Pudding

Late nights in the dark woods were how I spent many an April evening this year. Punctuated by rustlings and startled Roe deer, Tawny hooting and sudden screeches. I took on the co-ordination of a local 'Toad Patrol', a group of volunteers that monitor a road with a 'toad crossing', where migrating toads on the way to their breeding pond are at risk from traffic. My site was unusually lovely for such an endeavour, a single track road through woodland on the way to a Scout hut. The road was quiet, and primarily used at weekends while the huts were booked up. Traffic use was light, but often has a high impact on the toads due to the narrow, twisty nature of the road.

Lovely lady toad (Bufo bufo) from the breeding pond.
I often walked the couple of miles to my site before dusk, arriving with my bucket and hi-vis vest, ready to transport the horny wee toads across the ocean of invitingly warm yet hazardous tarmac. Over the remarkably dry days and cool evenings of the season an assortment of enthusiastic volunteers and I helped nearly 200 toads. A rather wonderful bonus of my site was the presence of Palmate newts (Lissotriton helveticus), which delighted the children of my volunteers and the hoards of Scouts we occasionally encountered of an evening. Over our nights there we helped over 90 newts off the road, one of the largest single records for the area, which seems to be singularly lacking in newt surveys.

A wee newty cutie
A couple of weekends ago I was inspired by the event of the year, that's right - The World Dock Pudding Championships, that happen to be held in Mytholmroyd, about a mile down the valley from me. Dock Pudding is a Northern speciality, especially associated with the Calder Valley, that I have never eaten or made, a sad state of affairs I set out to rectify with my first spot of real foraging of the year. It is traditionally eaten with bacon, often with breakfast and is made in spring to see people through the period when not much else green is available. The 'dock' of the pudding is in fact bistort (Polygonum bistorta), which apparently has the most wonderful collection of local names, some of the best being; adderwort, dragonwort, Easter man-giant, passion dock, pudding grass and snakeweed. So off I gaily skipped one Sunday afternoon to a spot where I knew the bistort grew. A wee stream lined with fresh shoots, sorrel and nettles, another ingredient required for the pudding.

Young leaves of 'Red legs', sexy vernacular for bistort.
Ruby Cream-spot ladybirds (Calvia quattuordecimguttata) by my bistort.
There are many variations in recipe, most seem to make pans full of the stuff, which seemed a bit much. For a more modest portion here is what you need for my cobbled-together vegetarian version:
200g fresh young bistort leaves
40g fresh nettle tops
1 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
2 spring onions
2tbsp oatmeal
salt and pepper
olive oil

Freshly picked and ready for washing.
 - Place the nettles in a bowl of cold salted water and leave to one side while you prepare the bistort. Wash bistort leaves thoroughly in a colander and then remove the larger stalks before roughly slicing them. Drain and rinse the nettles then chop roughly (I used rubber gloves!).
- Chop the onion, garlic and spring onion (you can use whatever alliums are available, wild garlic and leek would be nice) and fry gently in some olive oil. Add the sliced bistort and nettles and continue to fry. You'll need to add a couple of ladlefuls of water or stock to the mixture and cover to cook gently for 15-20 minutes.
- Add the oatmeal and stir to ensure the mixture doesn't stick. It will need another 20 minutes or so, with occasional stirring and adding a little more water if it gets too dry. The mixture should apparently be 'moist not wet'. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Pudding at the moist stage.
- It's now nearly ready, and the final stage, once the pan is removed from the heat and allowed to cool a little is to make up small patties of dock pudding (like potato cakes). These should be fried in a little more olive oil or butter, the crispy outer is said to make the pudding more palatable!
- I substituted the traditional bacon for haloumi cheese and ate my dock pudding for supper. It worked really well with the saltiness and texture of the haloumi.

Pudding patties.
Delicious dinner of dock and haloumi.
Dock pudding has that iron-rich tang of spinach based dishes. I even convinced a slightly skeptical family to eat and enjoy it and the amount this recipe made contributed to about three meals. Younger bistort is supposed to make for a better pudding, but leaves can be foraged throughout May, here is a nice guide to doing so.

Here's to more foraging!