Once In Africa ~ Everyday Moments At Hunter’s Lodge…Until The Crocodile

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When I ran away to Africa in February 1992, Hunter’s Lodge at Kiboko was the first place Graham took me to. Then it was a run-down safari lodge, developed in the 1960s-70s from the erstwhile home of great white hunter, John Hunter. We were told the place had had its heyday back then. Asian and expatriate European families would drive out from Nairobi to spend the weekend there and also, before the nearby highway was paved, it was a very welcome place to break the red-dusty, hour-on-hour, gut-wrenching drive from Nairobi to the Mombasa coast.

In the time we spent there – and it was pretty much our second home during that year, and again at the end of 1993 (the Kiboko field station where Graham’s team of Kenyan researchers were monitoring methods of Larger Grain Borer control was just  next door) – we were always surprised if we arrived at the Lodge to find someone else staying there.

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To me it seemed like an oasis, and indeed John Hunter had meant to be one. He had once known the spot as a popular elephants’ watering hole on the Kiboko River, and so had decided to dam the watercourse to create a small lake to attract bird life. This was the place he had chosen to end his days after a life’s-work of ivory hunting, celebrity safari running, and game control work for the colonial game department.

He was a speak-his-mind Scotsman who had been among the earliest arrivals of white settlers in what was then the British East Africa Protectorate (later Kenya Colony). In the 1920s and ‘30s he hunted with the likes of Denys Finch Hatton and Bror Blixen who considered him an elder statesman in all matters of stalking and bush-craft. On his own admission, he had cleared the Kiboko-Makindu location of over 1,000 rhino. He had also helped rid the area of its elephant population – this to protect colonial sisal and orange plantations and the farm plots of the local Akamba people in the native reserve further north. In his day, the colonial ambition was to develop the agricultural potential of East Africa to help pay for the very expensive railway the British government had built from Mombasa to Lake Victoria (built 1895-1901). Ideas about game conservation did not begin to take hold until 1948, and even then some colonial administrators were still likely to see Kenya as their personal hunting ground.

Hunter’s Lodge, then,  was a place of many resonances, currents and undercurrents, many I only unravelled later; am still unravelling.

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Our day there began with breakfast at 7 am in the dining room with the surprising ‘ogival’? doors front and back, presumably part of the original Hunter home. By that time the weaver birds in their papyrus clumps were at full chirp, the storks in their fever tree roosts honking and bill clattering, the pied kingfishers taking up diving positions. By then, too, the vervet monkeys would be eyeing up their options: our veranda door carelessly left ajar, the possibility of later pickings in our room should access prove feasible?

In the dining room where we rarely saw anyone but Reuben, the old Akamba waiter, who unfailingly asked us if we would have eggs with our breakfast. We never did, and only realised very much later that every day we had stayed there, we had been charged for a full three course English breakfast. Usually we had wheat flakes with milk that had been boiled. We learned to take a plastic tea strainer with us to sieve out the skin. The milk was delivered by local Maasai women, who would arrive at the kitchen door in all their red and beaded regalia. The tea always had a sulphurous taste from the local spring water. The boiled milk didn’t help much.

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Graham left for work at 7.30 and for the next five hours till he returned for lunch (chips or cheese sandwiches) I wrote, read, wandered the garden, and watched. Time there was like a waking reverie, a guided meditation, never being anywhere but ‘in the moment’. Since few guests came, the hotel staff had a routine that did not involve providing hospitality. I watched the daily comings and goings of the garden workers – the sweeping, mowing, the tending of the vegetable shamba. I’d hear the bell that summoned all the staff to their tea-break, leaving no one at all around.

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Sometimes I chatted with Joyce the chambermaid. I also watched the goings-on at the bungalow across the pool, said to be the home of a local politician. And I learned to identify many local birds. There were said to be over 200 species in the vicinity. One day a lone pelican dropped in. That was a surprise. Sometimes the giant kingfisher would perch on the thorn tree by our room. Then there were the tiny malachite kingfishers – brilliant little jewels of birds. The greyhooded kingfisher was the one I saw most often.

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Around 5.30 Graham would return from work, and we’d go to the pool terrace for tea. At some stage we were usually joined by the Lodge’s disconsolate peacock (its mate had been eaten by a python). The bird invariably tried to eat the sugar. Later we would return to the terrace for supper – Tusker beer, steak and chips. There was never much choice. If we were lucky, John the Maasai barman would be on duty. He was always very charming, and always had an awful lot to say on pretty much any topic.

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And now here’s an excerpt from the Kenya Diary, written on our return to Kenya after 9 months in Zambia. It includes a far from usual occurrence at Hunter’s Lodge:

20 December 1993

Monday morning and we are off to Kiboko again, out on the dusty Mombasa highway, dodging lorries and potholes, heading for the southern plains. We remark upon the vistas of unaccustomed lushness as we leave Nairobi behind. There have been good rains, and the wooded slopes of upland Ukambani beyond the Machakos turn, are as green as we have ever seen them. And even down on the semi-arid flatlands of low-lying Sultan Hamud and Emali the dark ochre soils seem bloated with wholesome moisture and the promise of a good maize crop.

The locals clearly think so too, for they are out in the fields in force, husbands, wives, grandmothers, children all busy weeding the leafy, foot high seedlings; some guiding a pair of yoked oxen and earthing up the new crop so as to husband every drop of rain, a rich man with a tractor preparing his acres. It is a hive of industry, the bright primary coloured cottons of the women’s kangas and headscarves against the brown and green striking up impressions of carnival optimism.

And for my part I long to thrust my hands into that warm humus-smelling soil and plant out lusty seedlings of courgettes and broad beans, crisp lettuce and cherry tomatoes. I picture a healthy crop of vegetables lying newly plucked in my basket; savour their freshness. But it is only a pipe dream. For it is scarcely so easy, especially here where expected rains may fail and in a few days the hard-nurtured crop be burned to a crisp and blown away with the parched soil. And so as we pass by, we wish them good fortune and good rains, these hard-working hopeful smallholder farmers.

South of Emali the farm fields give way to low thorn scrub. In our previous 1992 trips we had only ever seen it as thickets of thorny shafts and barbs. But now the spikes and spines have burst into luscious greenery, a wrap of verdant baize on every scaly twig, and a delicate flowering of ivory catkins, of golden mimosa pompoms and pink and yellow lanterns that yield a heady scent of orange blossom. From time to time their perfume is drawn in through our open windows and makes a change from the more usual blasts of truck fumes. And amongst all the fresh new greenery, forging its way up through the low trees and shrubs are spires of purple wild flowers and on the open grassland carpets of Parma-violet mauve and forget-me-not blue.

It is just past midday and overhead the sky is as perfect as the glaze on eggshell china. The sun burns. Our journey takes less than two hours, even with all the trucks, but when we turn off the highway at the Akamba woodcarvers stalls at Kiboko and negotiate the roughly made up drive to Hunter’s Lodge, see the low white building with its red pantiled roof and flagstaff standing in the shady garden, there is always a sense of relief, a release of barely held breath. It always seems too like a home-coming, though goodness knows why for there is rarely anyone there to greet us unless Joyce is on duty or John the Maasai is about. Usually we just get the key and tumble into our room with all our belongings and collapse on the brown candlewick-covered bed. Listen to the seamless twittering of golden weavers, the raucous calls of marabou storks and herons way up in the rafters of the fever trees.

We picnic on the veranda. There is so much to watch, the endless high-tension cycle of hunting, prowling, stalking, making a kill, keeping alive, courting, mating, rearing, being hunted – ripples across the pool. After lunch Graham goes off to the field station. I doze within the green cocoon, mesmerised by strands of reflected light until the sun begins to slip through the trees. And suddenly, at the day’s end there is a flurry of heightened purpose amongst the bird-life: swifts, swallows and martins duck and dive over the water in a frenzied pursuit of insects; three bright white and black pied kingfishers fly fast and low over the green surface; the russet speckled giant kingfisher, the size of a young rook and with a beak like a pile driver, plummets from a nearby acacia into the pool, exploding the glare with a mighty crash; there is a flight past of sacred ibis; the eerie hkaa, hkaa hkaa-ing of their cousins the hadadas; and in the fading light a tiny crimson-bibbed and azure helmeted sunbird pierces the trumpet flowers of the thevetia and sips up the nectar concealed within.

All afternoon, across the pool, the local fundi has been working on the new summerhouse in the garden of the Akamba politician’s bungalow. It is octagonal, open-sided with a low wall and a conical tiled roof supported on slender round columns. It will be lovely when it is done. Other men have been cutting the grass with pangas; their hearts were not in it though and they made small progress, but than what is the hurry? The sun is hot, there is always tomorrow and anyway the owner of the house rarely comes. There is a diversion too. Five Maasai women call round to speak with one of the men; all with shaved heads, all shoulders draped in red cotton shawls of identical shade. They lay down their heavy loads at the garden gate, plastic bottles of water, which they have been carrying on slender backs supported by a leather head-strap. They stop for a while chatting, a cluster of exotic birds, then take up their burdens once more and set off in single file along the track that skirts the garden and strikes out into the bush.

Meanwhile I sit in my own private box, watching the pageant unfold, watching as the setting sun casts a low glow through the (earlier) shadowy recesses of the acacia wood so that it takes on all the seeming insubstantial qualities of a back-lit drop from the set of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But instead of Cobweb and Mustard Seed, a small troop of baboons takes the stage, swings up through the branches, the low light dancing off the coarse hairs of tawny coats. I watch them for a few minutes, while they try to make up their minds whether a raid on the politician’s garden is a viable proposition. Then there is the low rumble of a Land Rover as it comes to rest in the gravel car park below our room. Graham is back. It is time for the interval and a pot of strong Hunter’s Lodge tea out on the terrace by the crook-backed bridge.

21 December

It’s true. I’ve seen it. There really is a crocodile in the Hunter’s Lodge pool; a touch of melodrama and a real-life villain for the piece. Peter Giles (Graham’s former boss) thought he had spotted one, but no one really believed him.

I was busy writing a letter, out on the veranda. Beyond its shade the lawn and pool were full-lit by afternoon sun. It was hot and sultry out there and I was glad of the breeze that funnelled through the open stable doors of our room and out to where I was sitting.

Suddenly there was a commotion of weaver chatter on the branches of the young thorn tree where they were busy building nests. The little tree was right at the water’s edge. I scanned it for incident. Nothing unusual there, but there was in the pool below it. Just off the clipped lawn and heading in an easterly direction cruised the snout, head and shoulders of a partially submerged crocodile. Not massive by any means but perhaps a good four feet long. My heart pounded with thrill of it as I rushed and fumbled for the camera. It had taken me eighteen months to finally convince Graham of the existence of the giant kingfisher, and only then by showing him the beast in action; he was hardly going to believe in the reptile sighting without some sort of proof. I hurried out of our room, down the open staircase, past a chambermaid occupied with the task of sweeping up the unremitting cascade of leaf and twig from the acacias. Round the end of the building where the remnant fairway sign announces ‘hole number 3, 43 yards’, across the sloping turfy lawn (more cautiously now) and down to the water’s edge, camera at the ready.

But there was not a sign of him. Completely disappeared. I patrolled the lawn edge, walked round to the terrace and stood out on the crooked bridge for several minutes and scanned the waters with binoculars. He had gone, submerged, made wary perhaps by the sudden rash of visitors who were now laughing and shouting out in the gardens. I returned to my veranda and was so engrossed in seeking out the disappearing crocodile that I did not at first notice the vervet monkey who had crept into the bedroom over the stable door. But I caught sight of him on his way out. He was making off with half a loaf (tomorrow’s lunch) tucked under his arm. And just to add insult to injury, it turned out that the wretched little creature did not even really like bread. A few minutes later I saw it abandoned, impaled on a branch of the acacia tree outside the veranda.

But more surprising than any of this, when Graham arrived back and I told of the crocodile, he was almost as excited as I was; took no convincing at all. When I tackled him over the gross inconsistency of his confidences in my wildlife sightings he told me that of course he believed in the existence of the crocodile; after all it was a corroborative second sighting, wasn’t it? But what about the giant kingfisher, I asked, ruffled. Oh that’s quite different, says he; only you had seen it! I refrain from biting his ankles and we repair to the terrace for afternoon tea.

Later, after dark we return there for a glass of Kenyan beer. We sit in the dim spotlight of a single lamp strung up in the thorn tree. We hear the cackle of bush babies away in the gloom. The fireflies wink on their course across the pool. A rangy cat trots nervously through a pool of light and disappears across the lawn. The young bow-tied barman sorts through his receipts. A waiter sprawls in a garden chair away in the shadows. There are no other customers. We are happy to be here.

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Related: The Way We Were ~ More From The Kenya Diary

Amy at The World Is A Book sets Lens-Artists’ challenge #7: Everyday moments

Things One Finds In the Godetia!

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Godetia is another ‘good old gardener’s’ annual flower that I grew from seed this year. They are a bit pink for my taste, but very obliging. This particular plant is accompanying the chives and some Persian basil in a pot by the kitchen door and, flower-wise, is taking over blooming duty from the drumhead alliums which are now palely drooping. Yesterday it was also hosting a new bug – new to me that is. You can spot it making an entrance top right.

When I first glimpsed it, I thought it might be a dreaded crimson lily beetle, though I don’t grow lilies. They have very nasty habits (their larvae, very cunningly for larvae, disguise themselves from predators by coating themselves in black excrement while they chomp through the lilies, bud and leaf).

A closer look, however, revealed…

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… and after a few quick snaps, sent me searching on the internet, where after googling ‘orange and black bug UK’ its ID was swiftly established. So here it is, a cinnamon or rhopalid bug Corizus hyoscyami. Originally only common in southern Britain, it is now spreading. This one is probably newly emerged, August to September being the time slot for a new generation. It likes dry habitats, and has no unpleasant habits:  i.e. it does not emit smelly effusions that some other bugs are wont to do. Nothing I read indicated culpability in the plant damage department. So, until I learn otherwise, I think we may simply admire it for its very snazzy livery.

Later it hopped over to the Persian basil, where I thought it looked particularly fetching.

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Six Word Saturday

 

Cornwall’s Smallest Stone Circle ~ Thursday’s Special

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When it comes to photographing prehistoric stone circles, you need the right kind of light, preferably a dramatic dawn or sunset or a good frost. And this clearly wasn’t any of these, but the best I could do on dull, dank December morning. The whole thing was definitely improved by the arrival of the sweet little girl in her tangerine wellies.

Anyway, here it is – Cornwall’s smallest prehistoric stone circle. It is just over thirty feet across (10-11 metres) and is at least 4,000 years old. It sits most domestically behind farm cottages and among a few sheep in the small village of Duloe. There are eight stones, some estimated to weigh around 12 tons, and they were probably chosen because of their high quartz content, which gives them an otherworldly bloom even in this poor light. In any event, they had to be manhandled from the nearest source, at least one mile away.

The  first historical reference to them was in 1329 CE, when they are mentioned in a record relating to the farm called Stonetown (still existing with that name), on whose land they stand.

In 1801 they were discovered again, although at that time the stones were all lying flat and there was a hedge growing through the middle, with a field on one side and an orchard on the other.

Many stone circles in Britain have recumbent stones, (e.g.  see my post on Arbor Low in Derbyshire) and it is usually not known at what stage the stones were laid flat, or in what circumstances. Certainly there is archaeological evidence of prehistoric people themselves ritually ‘closing’ a monument or burial site when it is no longer needed. In more recent times superstitious dread, and/or Christian repugnance at old ‘pagan’ ways prompted people to bury standing stones or lay them down. All of which is to say, everything to do with stone circles is pretty much shrouded in mystery and conjecture.

At Duloe though, there was an interesting and tangible discovery. In 1861, during efforts to restore the circle and raise the stones, a workman put his pick through a Bronze Age burial urn containing human bones. It had been placed at the foot of the largest stone which was also broken during the restoration work, and is still lying on the ground in two pieces. The urn and its contents have since been lost.

But it is this find that provides 2,000 BCE date for the site. However, the circle itself may well pre-date this. As has been shown with recent work at Stonehenge, the world’s most famous prehistoric circle, the stones there were erected in the late Neolithic (c.4,500 BCE) and not in the Bronze Age as originally conjectured, although there are many Bronze Age burials in the vicinity. It also appears that before the Stonehenge stones, there were earlier wooden pillars on the site and these belonged to the Mesolithic period circa 8,500-7,000 BCE when people were still hunter gatherers.

In other words, throughout human existence, a site that has once held, or is perceived to have held ritual significance will often be re-used by succeeding inhabitants across many centuries, and by people of quite different ethnicity and religious viewpoints. So we find Roman temples in earlier Iron Age hillforts, or medieval churches built atop Neolithic chambered tombs.

We cannot divine what these stone circles truly meant to the people who constructed them. But we can surmise that the monumental effort involved implies life and death importance. There are political implications too, both in the conception of the work and in its realisation. Even the building of a small circle like Duloe would have required considerable organisation of people-power. But if these circles have no stories to tell us, they do at least reflect an era when humanity had a very different relationship with the natural and cosmic world than we do today, and that alone might give us some pause for thought.

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Thursday’s Special Paula’s August ‘pick a word’ prompts include fortified, chic, submerged, embodiment, prehistoric. I think I might claim submerged here too, since the meaning and means of construction of this site are well and truly buried.

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

Pleasing Patterns

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The other day I noticed the tips of the apple tree boughs were encrusted with greenfly. I was going to treat them to a soap and water spray, but then forgot. The next time I looked the ants and ladybirds had moved in on the job and the greenfly invasion was much diminished. This ladybird is obviously having  some R and R in the nearby zinnias. Always good for a smile – ladybirds.

Sticking To Earth Patterns

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Humans love to see the patterns in things. This habit can nurture an aesthetic sensibility and inspire much creativity on the one hand, and it can lead to all manner of misunderstandings and fallacies on the other. Which of us hasn’t at least pondered on the ‘meaning’ of a series of pure coincidences, or passingly ‘seen’ a pattern of events that ‘proves’ a conspiracy theory is not a conspiracy theory.

Given the negative propensities of patterning, and the power these may exert on the human mind, it might be as well to take note that this is currently being practised upon us by much of what is reported by the mass media, and the manner in which important issues are presented to us.

There is, to my mind, a constant drip-feeding in relation to particular topics (to name a few: Middle East, Russia, nuclear weapons, climate change, Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit); a seemingly endless repeating pattern of half-truths, proclamations of absolute guilt without evidence, scape-goating, focusing continuously on the irrelevant, divisive reporting, unproven circumstances presented as fact, and, in the name of that weasel word ‘balance’, equal weight given to the opinions of people who know what they are talking about, and the notions of those who do not believe in evidence/have their own minority axe to grind/are (verging on the) delusional. And the whole lot mashed up into an ‘entertaining’ package of easily digested sound and picture bites, whose patterning then is constantly rehashed/given oxygen by mass spoutings on social media.

It is all very disturbing, and when I think about it, I feel like a pawn in someone else’s nasty game, and that makes me angry. And so I distract myself with things in my little world, though I must say I did have Mark Rothko’s Dark Brown, Grey and Orange  vaguely in mind when I took that second photo of the rape seed field beneath a stormy sky – his drive to express the human condition; to move beyond apparent abstraction – while I was visualizing an abstraction of the actual, but also brooding somewhat on the human condition.

But now for some lightish relief from gloomy ruminations: more earth patterns from around Much Wenlock, including some of the abnormally early, done-and-dusted grain harvest. Another kind of pattern?

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Lens Artists This week Ann-Christine asks for patterns.

Popping Up Among The Doronicum – Crocosmia

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The squeezing of HeWhoBuildsSheds’ new shed into the small back garden last year meant the loss of a herbaceous border. I didn’t mind too much, although it was a challenge to find new homes for the plants. Some were sacrificed altogether; some were thrown over the hedge to take their chances; some were planted outside the back fence in the guerrilla garden, some were put in next door’s guerrilla garden (I’ve started a trend) and others were just put somewhere.

Then in the spring, as soon as the tulips were over, Shed Development Phase 2 was thrust upon me. This meant moving more plants in order to create enough space to turn one flat bed into a raised bed so that the shed could have its own gravel forecourt and thus be accessible in all seasons. This also included digging up what was left of the lawn. The upshot of this HouseThatJackBuilt ‘school of gardening’ (fortunately no cows’ horns were crumpled in the process) is that much of what is happening out there now is a complete surprise.

For instance, I have no memory of how this crocosmia arrived among the doronicum. On the other hand, I do feel I need to give it a round of applause for cutting such a horticultural dash. Well put, that flower, however you got there.

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Six Word Saturday

Please visit Debbie. This week she has some handy advice!

Out In The Garden Bee-Dazzled And Bee-Dizened And Bees Showing Their Knees

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I popped out in the garden at lunch time, armed with my little Canon Ixus, and found it was all go on the bee front. The header flower, Helianthus Capenoch Star was proving very popular. I’d only bought it the other day, to go in the back of the flower bed that I said was ‘officially full’, and it is still in its pot, waiting for a slightly cooler moment to plant it out. In the meantime, it is being much visited. But then that goes for most of the other flowers: zinnias, cosmos, liatris, doronicum, echinacea, rudbeckia, and the self-sown purple toadflax. So many happy buzzing souls.

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And then there was also the hoverfly:

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In Our Summer Garden ~ See Who’s Looking For Dinner

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When I tell you that this crab spider is sitting on a zinnia bud and the zinnia bud is less than an inch across, then you can see, that in real life, this spider is very very small. Even in the next shot it’s still twice its actual size.

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It’s fascinating to think that the hunting instinct is embodied in such a tiny entity. These spiders (Misumena vatia) do not spin webs to catch their prey. They sneak about in plants, sometimes seemingly taking on the shades of particular flowers as camouflage. And then they pounce!

I think the spider in this next shot is being a trifle ambitious. Can you spot it, lurking on the Doronicum? Also an ID for the bee-like fly would be welcome – Ark, Pete, Brian…

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And now here’s a view of the garden, where all of life and death goes on – and under our very noses.

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The Blissfulness Of Blue On A Winter’s Day In Wales

We have spent several Christmases on the island of Ynys Mon, otherwise known by its Viking name of Anglesey, in North Wales. The weather in December always throws up surprises. On our last trip this was one of them – a perfect, windless, cloudless day with warm sunshine. We wandered on the Menai Straits beach, looking out at the Great Orme peninsula at Llandudno across the water. I found myself watching this young man and his little  boy, so absorbed in their play, the sun catching winter-white faces. No sound but the call of an oyster catcher.

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That day in that place, we felt the universe had just given us a gift.

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Lens-Artists: Blue

Learning ~ One Little Bug At A Time

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Leaning over the garden fence the other morning, I caught sight of a tiny moth flitting about in the guerrilla garden. It stayed while I went indoors to fetch the camera, and obliged me with a few shots.  Then I went back inside and googled ‘very small diurnal moth UK’ and ‘images’ and up it popped. A Mint Moth, says the font of some wisdom that is my PC –  Pyrausta aurata. The butterfly conservation link also told me that it flew actively in sunshine (which is was doing) and particularly liked spearmint (which is where I found it and where you see it here). I confess a frisson of success: ID done and dusted.

It’s a dainty little thing  – 70mm across/ three quarters of an inch. Here are a couple of closer views:

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