Wednesday, 30 May 2012

A heath in summer

Work for NWT (more on that anon) took me to Cley yesterday so, on my way, diligent marsh tit that I am, I paid my annual visit to one of Norfolk's only clumps of May lilies. How these gorgeous, cool-loving northern plants ended up stranded on the edge of a Norfolk heath is anyone's guess: some say garden getaways and some say Ice Age leftovers, like Thompson's hapless pool frogs or the wood horsetails on the Lowes. Either way the liles seem very happy here and their frothy white flowers are a delight; so no spring in Norfolk is complete without a pilgrimage to see them. They are in this way, I realise, among my phenological touchstones.

Last year I took my group on Wildlife Travel's inaugural Norfolk tour to twitch these delicate flowers. On that day in mid-June we saw green tiger beetles and several species of grasshopper but the lilies had all but finished blooming. So far this year I've not seen or heard a single Orthopteran (oh the fun we'll have when they appear, my marshtitters) and, in the tail of a cool, damp spring, the May lilies are resplendent. Minutely resplendent but resplendent all the same.

The walk to the not-so-secret lily site is across a small patch of heathland, where summer is exploding into being. Tormentil, heath milkwort, sheep's sorrel and heath bedstraw all flower, their colours distilled by the softness of the grey sky, and everywhere is the coppery featheriness of purple moor grass. A coal tit itsy-witsies and from the sharp, hopeful new green of birches comes much clattering of chaffinches.

In the afternoon a friend rescues a bumblebee from her living room. It is a male white-tailed, which joins young queens of white-tailed, buff-tailed and red-tailed that I've seen this week, as a poignant presage that summer, barely begun, must also end. The queens will mate now and fatten themselves on pollen and, even through the heat of late summer, lie in wait until the first warming sun of the end of winter wakes them next year.

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