Tag Archives: sunrise

Signs of spring? – Lockdown Nature Walks 14

For my next Lockdown Nature Walk, I wandered about a community garden and a car park in the centre of Totnes looking at how spring was progressing in these semi-urban settings.   I made my observations over the weekend of February 27/28 during the short spell of warmer weather we enjoyed towards the end that month.  I have included a poem by Wordsworth “The lesser celandine” at the end of the account followed by some photos of the species I saw.

The sun rising on February 28th 2021 to the left of the houses with remnants of the apricot dawn light

After weeks of oppressive weather, grey, wet and then quite cold, these few days of sunshine and spring-like warmth were very welcome. I felt my spirits lift and I acquired a renewed sense of purpose despite the constraints of lockdown.   Several of the days dawned to cloudless skies accompanied by fuzzy white blankets of frost.  On one of these mornings, I went out early to watch the dawn light.  With sunrise still more than half an hour away and the sky an intense dark blue, a bright apricot glow rose behind the eastern hills.  The dawn chorus echoed across the valley and it was tempting to think that the birds were singing of the impending arrival of spring.  

The absence of cloud allowed me to watch the sun as it rose above the eastern hills and I began to see how this event in itself held indications of seasonal change.  Not only was the Late February sunrise more than an hour earlier compared to the beginning of the year, but the sun now rose closer to the east compared with roughly south east in early January.  The sun will continue its eastern trajectory, rising directly from the east on March 20th, the vernal or spring equinox, the astronomical start of spring.

With these ideas of seasonal change in mind, I decided to take advantage of the short spell of warmer weather to visit some of the town centre gardens and car parks to look for signs of spring.  First stop was the Leechwell Garden, one of the community gardens in the centre of Totnes.   By the time I reached this town centre oasis, warm sunshine had dismissed the early morning frost and a peal of children’s voices rang out from the play area and sand pit.  The early flowers, the snowdrops and winter aconites, were already past their best but nearby I came across the first blackthorn blossom.  The porcelain-white flowers were not fully open but their red-tipped stamens were already on show.  Blackthorn is very popular with early solitary bees and that day I made my first sighting of the year.  A dandelion was the host and a small bee with a bright orange-brown thorax and yellow pollen hairs was feeding.  This was a female Gwynne’s Mining Bee (Andrena bicolor).  A few lesser celandines were showing around the Garden but it was a nearby car park that surprised with its impressive display of these flowers. 

The Nursery Car Park is enclosed by old stone walls and the parking area is lined by wide soil borders mostly covered in rough grass.    In the past, I have seen solitary bees nesting in the grassy borders and butterflies taking advantage of the flowers growing there.  During the winter, the local council decided to cut the vegetation on the soil borders and did so very harshly.  This is probably bad news for overwintering butterflies but the early flowers seem to have responded well, perhaps owing to lack of competition from grasses.  The long border along the north side is sheltered by a tall ivy-clad stone wall and when the sun shines this is a warm sheltered spot. A few lesser celandines (Ficaria verna) had been struggling into flower here earlier in February but the warm weather triggered an outpouring of these starry golden flowers as if the area had been spattered with yellow gloss paint.

A lesser celandine flower showing the two-tone petals and the central fuzz of pollen-loaded stamens

I stood there for a while, looking, listening; one of the few benefits of lockdown is that the car park is very quiet.  Blackbirds squabbled noisily over ivy berries, a wren trilled, heard but unseen, and a large bumblebee tracked across the border.  I admired the celandine flowers with their shiny two-tone petals, mostly lemon yellow but with a darker slightly brown section near the centre of the flower.   Also, their central fuzz of bright, buttery yellow, pollen-loaded stamens surrounding a nascent green seed pod. 

There is something about these golden flowers on a bright sunny day with their petals held horizontally that speaks of their close relationship with the sun.  Part of this is the sensitivity of the flowers to light levels.  On dull days when cloud obscures the sun, the flowers will close and even on sunny days, they do not open until about 9am and are closed again by 5pm.   Then there are the stamens, thickly coated with yellow pollen.  With its colour and its richness, for me this pollen symbolises the energy of the sun.  And of course, it does contain some of the sun’s energy but it acquires this indirectly via the shiny heart-shaped green leaves that form thick mats across the border.  Photosynthesis in the leaves captures the energy of sunlight transforming it and generating among other substances, pollen and nectar, energy for insects.  It is perhaps no accident that the Celtic name for the lesser celandine is grian, the sun.

The first insect I saw taking advantage of this floral energy store during the warm spell was a honeybee.  It moved from flower to flower, its pollen baskets accumulating sticky yellow lumps of pollen to take back to the hive as food.  Several hoverflies also appeared on the flowers.  Mostly these were Common Drone Flies (Eristalis tenax) a species that overwinters as an adult and comes out on warm winter days to top up with pollen and nectar.  They bear more than a passing resemblance to male honeybees as their name suggests.   Most of the Eristalis I saw were females, characterised by eyes separated at the top of their head.  Several Bumblebees also fed from the flowers but these were very jumpy and I manged only one photo.

In the past, the lesser celandine was referred to as the “spring messenger” being one of the first woodland flowers to show each year.  Gilbert White noted that in 18th century Hampshire the flowers first appeared on average on February 21st.  This year in Devon, based on my observations, they emerged several weeks earlier.  The lesser celandine is also one of the first flowers to appear during weather warm enough to tempt out many insects.  It will continue flowering into April providing support for many species including the solitary bees that emerge as spring unfolds.

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The golden flowers have Inspired poets including William Wordsworth.  The lesser celandine was his favourite flower and he wrote three poems about them.  Here is his poem entitled “The lesser celandine”

There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine,
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun himself, ’tis out again!

When hailstones have been falling, swarm on swarm,
Or blasts the green field and the trees distressed,
Oft have I seen it muffled up from harm,
In close self-shelter, like a Thing at rest.

But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed,
And recognized it, though an altered form,
Now standing forth an offering to the blast,
And buffeted at will by rain and storm.

I stopped, and said, with inly-muttered voice,
“It doth not love the shower, nor seek the cold:
This neither is its courage nor its choice,
But its necessity in being old.

“The sunshine may not cheer it, nor the dew;
It cannot help itself in its decay;
Stiff in its members, withered, changed of hue.”
And, in my spleen, I smiled that it was grey.

To be a Prodigal’s Favourite – then, worse truth,
A Miser’s Pensioner – behold our lot!
O Man, that from thy fair and shining youth
Age might but take the things Youth needed not!

Blackthorn flowers showing the red-tipped stamens

Gwynne’s mining bee (Andrena bicolor) on a dandelion

Honeybee on lesser celandine, note the yellow pollen accumulating

Common drone fly (Eristalis tenax) on lesser celandine. The prominent eyes do not meet on the top of the head, characteristic of a female

Bumblebee on lesser celandine. From this picture it is impossible to determine the species but based on size and the time of year it may be a queen Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum)

A visitor from Eastern Europe and a winter hoverfly – Lockdown Nature Walks 12

For my next Lockdown Nature Walk I took advantage of a rain-free day to cross Totnes to look at some unusual flowers growing on the northern edge of the town.  Here is my account of the walk (taken on January 25th 2021) together with a poem by the American poet Ruby Archer entitled Fire in the Sky.  For my previous Lockdown Nature Walks, please click here.

The day dawned to a washed out, almost translucent, pale blue sky.  To the east, though, there was a hint of what was to come as an apricot halo crept above the low hills as if a fire were burning behind them. Then, as the sun rose, a raft of thin cloud towards the south east caught its light, first a rose-pink, then orange before relaxing to cream.  It was a good way to start the day.

No rain was forecast so I decided to walk across the town, past the castle to the northern edge, where semi-urban and residential gradually give way to rural.  It was a day of light and dark, a day of bright sunshine and long shadows, and a cold day where frost lingered in areas inaccessible to the sun.  

A minor road, Barracks Hill lies in this transitional zone, striking north away from the bypass past a modern housing development.  The road rises gradually between rough grassy banks and then more steeply to cross a low ridge.  This section of the road is enclosed and dark.   It rises, like a sunken green lane, between steep sides, some rocky, some covered in rough vegetation, emerging eventually into sunshine and open countryside with farmland and trees.  There was once a Barracks along this lane, built in the late 18th century.  Some of the buildings remain but most were demolished when a fine Georgian house was built in the 1820s.

But I want to go back down the hill to the lower part of the lane to look at the scruffy areas of vegetation that line the road.  Where it can, the sun casts pools of brightness on to these roadside banks, its spotlight picking out pennywort, hart’s tongue fern, brambles and what looks suspiciously like garden rubbish.  Whatever can get a foothold here seems to flourish and there is a long section of the bank where lime green, heart-shaped leaves push through a mass of dark brown, dry, decaying vegetation.  Unusually for the time of year, many sturdy flower spikes also rise above the leaves, some sporting striking blue flowers that sparkle in the sunshine like sapphire jewels. This is oriental borage (Trachystemon orientalis) commonly known as Abraham-Isaac-Jacob.  A relative of wild borage (Borago officinalis), this plant was introduced into gardens in the UK in 1868 from its native Bulgaria, Georgia and Turkey where all parts of the plant are consumed as a popular spring vegetable.

This patch of the plant is probably a garden throw-out and it seems very happy here, covered in flowers and having elbowed out all the competition.  At a first glance, the flowers look rather chaotic but this is because several different forms and colours exist together at the same time. 

First there are the pink tapering flower buds about 1cm long, decorated with a fuzz of white hairs resembling the stubble on an old man’s chin.   The buds open to reveal the strikingly beautiful complex flowers.  Each has five petals that curl and twist backwards creating an intensely blue frilly decoration around a crimped white collar reminiscent of a sapphire-coloured ruff around the neck of an Elizabethan lady.  Adding to the complexity, five stamens, each about 1 cm long, and a single slightly longer style protrude proudly from the collar as a tight cluster.  The stamens themselves are multicoloured starting white at the top, then pinkish-lilac, terminating as indigo anthers clasping lumps of pollen. 

As the flowers mature, they discard the petals and stamens leaving an odd-looking remnant where a spiky pinkish-lilac style emerges from hairy sepal cup.  This form in particular contributes to the overall messy look of the plant.    Unusually, all three flower forms, representing different stages of maturation, are present at the same time.  This may be the inspiration for the common name of the plant, Abraham-Isaac-Jacob, itself a reference to three generations of a biblical family.   [Photographs at the end of this post illustrate the three different flower forms.]

A plant that produces flowers at this low time of year is a rare discovery and these out of season sources of pollen and nectar often attract winter-active insects.  Nothing was about when I looked, though, and the day was probably too cold.  I came back a few days later on a warmer afternoon and was pleased to find a fine hoverfly on the flowers (see picture at the top of this post).  With its bulging brown eyes and distinctive barcoded abdominal pattern of yellow, silver and black bands this was a marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) a species that overwinters as an adult and emerges on mild winter days.  It was collecting pollen from the indigo-coloured anthers and nectar from the nectaries in the white collar.

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Fire in the Sky by Ruby Archer

I thought the darkness would not yield,
Glooming the sun-forgotten sky,
‘Till pulsing, surging glows revealed
A far-off burning,—home or field,
Up flung the light. Oh whence? O why?

I thought forgetfulness had spread
A Lethean gloom athwart one sky,
‘Till memory’s light crept warmly red
From flame I deemed in ashes dead.
Up leapt the light. Oh whence? Oh why?

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The roadside bank with the lime-green leaves and blue flowers of Abraham-Isaac-Jacob

Pink tapering flower buds with their decoration of white hairs

Three of the beautiful and complex flowers showing the frilly decoration of blue petals around the white collar and the tight cluster of stamens and style. Note also the indigo-coloured anthers with pollen.

Some of the spiky remnant flowers

Marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) feeding from the anthers of one of the flowers on Abraham-Isaac-Jacob

A Christmas Sunrise Surprise

What is it about a spectacular sunrise that captures our imagination so strongly? Here is an article I wrote for the February edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine inspired by the special sunrise that I witnessed on Christmas morning.

It was still early and I was in the kitchen, making cups of tea and getting some of the food ready for our festive breakfast.  Carols sang out from the radio and I did my best to ignore the news on this very different Christmas morning.

Our kitchen window looks northwards across a narrow valley on the edge of town and there is always much to see even if it is only a storm approaching from the west.  That morning, though, I noticed something different, something special.  The part of the eastern sky that I could see was suffused with orange light suggesting that we might be in for an interesting sunrise.  This doesn’t happen very often here and I knew it wouldn’t last so I told Hazel, grabbed my camera and went into the street to get a better view.   There was an unusual stillness, a rare quiet but, by contrast, the entire eastern sky appeared to be alight with a bright, fiery display that captured the view, transforming telegraph poles and nearby trees into skeletal silhouettes.

It was as though someone had taken a large brush and splashed paint in rough horizontal layers across the thin cloud that hung in the eastern sky that morning – starting with yellow, then switching to orange, then red and finally mauve.  

By now Hazel had joined me and we stood there, neither of us dressed for the occasion but both in awe at the astonishing natural spectacle we were witnessing.  I knew the colours were changing all the time as the sun crept upwards and the cloud cover shifted so I took a few photos as a record.   Suddenly remembering where I was, I looked about and saw thick frost on the parked cars and realised I was getting cold. It was time to go in but I went with renewed optimism.  Even in a pandemic year, perhaps especially in a pandemic year, the non-human world can surprise and thrill. 

The rational part of me knows that there is a good scientific explanation for the extraordinary light show we witnessed but this does not detract from the spectacular nature of that morning’s sunrise.  So, what is it about these displays that we find so captivating?   The colours are surely part of this.  The reds and oranges filling the sky express a certain danger, a wildness that is unpredictable, uncontrollable and ephemeral.  Perhaps we also gain an insight into the power of the sun and a better appreciation of our place in the world as just one small part of the overall ecosystem? 

Impression, soleil levant, Claude Monet 1872 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

As you might expect, the beauty and mystery of the light at sunrise (and sunset) have inspired artists who have tried to capture some of the effects in their paintings.  Norham Castle, Sunrise, painted by the British artist JMW Turner in 1845 is a depiction of the morning light over this Northumberland landmark.  The painting barely illustrates the castle itself, concentrating more on the light from the rising sun and its reflections across the nearby river.  The French artist, Claude Monet was also fascinated by the effects of light at different times of day and created many artworks trying to capture these effects.  One of his best-known depictions of the morning light is Impression, soleil levant 1872, showing the sunrise over the port at Le Havre with the sun casting red light across the water and orange light across the hazy clouds.   

Science, on the other hand, provides us with a different understanding of the colours we see at sunrise.  Two basic ideas are important here.  Firstly, although the light leaving the sun appears white, it actually consists of light of different wavelengths that we see as a range of colours from red and orange through yellow and green to blue, indigo and violet.  A helpful way to imagine this is to think of a rainbow where these different colours are spread out in the sky. Secondly, the sun’s light is scattered as it passes through the layer of gases, principally nitrogen and oxygen, that constitutes the atmosphere surrounding our planet.   This scattering is wavelength-dependent so that blue wavelengths are scattered more than the red and orange.  

With those two ideas in mind, let’s consider the sun in relation to the earth at different times of day.  When the sun is high in the sky during the day, the sunlight will have a short path through the atmosphere.  Preferential scattering of some of the blue light will occur making the sky appear blue and, because some blue has been removed the sunlight acquires a yellow tinge.  At sunrise, the position of the sun is very different.  Sunrise occurs when the world turns until light from the sun just reaches the part of the planet where we are observing.  With the sun low in the sky and close to the horizon, the sunlight will have to travel a much greater distance across the atmosphere.  As a result, scattering away of blue light is almost complete, allowing the orange and red light to dominate.  An analogous argument can be applied at sunset.

Although this explains how the light becomes orange and red at sunrise (and sunset), it doesn’t account for the variability of the event.  This depends strongly on the particular weather conditions of the day.  The key to a sunrise where orange and red light fills the sky, though, is high level cloud but not too much of it.  This cloud catches the red and orange light, rather like a celestial projector screen, and the result is a memorable sunrise like the one I saw on Christmas morning.

The colours of a Dartmoor Sunset

Last week, on a clear, warmish evening, we went up to Haytor on the south eastern corner of Dartmoor to watch the sunset.  Haytor consists of two huge outcrops of granite, one larger, one smaller, set on a hill some 450 metres above sea level. The two huge outcrops of granite are a local landmark visible for miles around, and the position of the Tor affords panoramic views across the surrounding countryside.

Haytor contrails
Approaching the larger of the Haytor rocks from the east; contrails in the sky

 

A wide, grassy track led steeply up to Haytor from the car park. The sun was setting directly behind the great granite outcrop that evening so the path and the surrounding countryside were in shadow, bathed in an eerie twilight.  Stands of yellow gorse and vivid purple bell heather lined the path and a few crows pottered about on the track ahead of us.  The rock itself was a flat grey in this light but, behind it, the sky was a luminous pale blue engraved with contrails left by passing aircraft, brilliant white shooting stars.  Turning to look back, there were long but slightly hazy views across rolling countryside to Newton Abbot and on to the sea more than 10 miles away at Teignmouth.  Much of this land was still illuminated by the sun and we could see woodland, small towns and the white scars of clay mine workings.  Increasingly, however, a portion of the land lay in shadow as the sun set.

Eastern view
The view to the east from Haytor towards the sea

 

Heather and gorse
Heather and gorse

 

Under the eastern flank of the larger rock, shadow dominated and the air was cool but upon reaching the western side it was as though we had entered a different, more optimistic world – a world of orange light, brightness and warmth.  The sun was still some distance above the horizon but its low rays created a curious moonscape on the nearby moorland.  Every tussock of grass and every craggy stone were illuminated along with the occasional sheep; every object cast a long shadow.  The rich light lent a warm glow to the grey Haytor stone probing every crack, crevice and fissure.  Two German children and later, several local lads in reverse baseball caps clambered in to an alcove in the rock to enjoy the view.  One or two small birds tracked across the landscape together with a lone bee returning to its burrow. In the distance the western hills acquired an apricot halo.

Dartmoor moonscape
Dartmoor “moonscape”

 

Moonscape on Haytor
The smaller of the Haytor rocks with the “moonscape” created by the setting sun

 

As the earth turned, the sun continued to approach the horizon but for some time, corresponding changes in the landscape were slow.  Looking back to the east, increasing amounts of land were enclosed in shadow, and, around the Tor, shadows lengthened.  The colour of the rock changed slowly from a warm pale brown at 20.00 to a deep reddish brown over the next twenty minutes.

Haytor rock 2002
The larger Haytor rock at 20.02

 

Then events seemed to accelerate and I detected a change in the light level as if someone were turning down a dimmer switch.  I suppose the sun had begun to dip below the horizon but it was difficult to be sure as it was still too bright to look.  Shadows became longer still and the rock took on a pinker almost red hue, not unlike the colour of the stone used in some of south Devon’s older buildings.  For a few minutes, the sun painted the landscape surrounding the rock in the surreal colours of pink and a luminous green.

Haytor rock 2024
The larger Haytor rock at 20.24

 

Haytor rock 2027
The larger Haytor rock at 20.27

 

The colour of the rock continued to change and by 20.25, with the sun about half way below the horizon, (based on a photograph), the colour lost its warmth as if it were being drained away.  By 20.26, grey started to insinuate and a minute later the sun had disappeared.  The rock was now a uniform grey and the sun had set.

Sunset Haytor 2027
The western view at 20.27

 

All that was left on the western horizon was an orange glow above the hills, a memory of the sun, with increasing apricot fringes either side.  Overflying aircraft and their contrails were now tinged with pink and, above all this colour, the sky was a very washed out, pale blue.

Eastern view 2

 

We walked back to the car in the half light, the air cooler now.  Ahead of us and in the distance, the eastern hills were bathed in a hazy dark blue light that extended above the land for a short distance.  Above this blue layer was a distinctive red layer that shaded to orange and yellow before merging with the clear blue sky above.

A white moon, almost full but not quite, now hung in the sky like a ghostly eye.

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I’ve seen many impressive sunsets but I don’t recall ever being able to follow the changes so clearly.   What we witnessed that evening was a spectacular natural phenomenon, a celestial light show.

But can we understand how all these colours arise?  The explanation comes from considering the position of the sun at different times of the day and the effect of the earth’s atmosphere on the sun’s light.

Although the light coming from the sun is white, we know from looking at rainbows that it is in fact composed of light of different colours (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet).  These colours of light have different physical properties that mean that they respond differentially when they meet particles in the atmosphere.

For much of the day, the sun is roughly overhead and as its light travels through the earth’s atmosphere it encounters molecules in the air (nitrogen and oxygen mainly) and some of the light is scattered during this encounter.  The blue light, and the violet, are scattered more than the other colours and our eyes preferentially detect this scattered blue light; this gives the sky its colour.  Because a small part of the blue light is lost through this scattering, sunlight appears slightly yellow rather than pure white.

When the sun is very low in the sky, towards the end of the day (sunset) and also near the beginning (sunrise), sunlight has to travel much further through the atmosphere.  Blue light is scattered as before but, because there is so much more atmosphere to traverse, the blue light is eventually lost, so that red and orange colours dominate at sunset and sunrise.

 

But what about the colours in the eastern sky?  The layer I described as “hazy dark blue light” was actually the earth’s shadow, where our planet casts a shadow on the atmosphere as the sun sinks below the horizon.  As the sun falls further, this shadow layer increases, only to disappear eventually in to the deepening blue of the night sky. The red layer goes by the wonderful name of the Belt of Venus and arises from residual sunlight encountering dust particles in the atmosphere.  These particles scatter the light (red by now) backwards.

 

Thanks go to Hazel who had the idea for sunset watching.