Monday, 17 March 2014

Nature Notes 2013

(I notice how many more plant descriptions there are in this year’s Notes. I have been working hard at learning our common wild plants and flowers over the last two years, so this may indicate that the effort is starting to pay off?)


Marshfield snow & ice
Yesterday when I and a friend walked south of the M4 in the Marshfield triangle, it was still a winter wonderland. The snow must have been of a particularly fine and sticky consistency as trees had a fine band of snow glued the full length of their east-facing trunks and branches. On a barbed wire fence overgrown with climbing weeds, snow and ice formed an intricate macramé  which glowed luminously when the sun emerged behind it. Snow had thawed so delicately on some trees that the banded balls of snow left on the twigs looked like spring cherry blossom. Walking under woodland, the trees were shedding their snow in a fine fall, with complete bars falling off smaller branches to pelt us in bright dust.
The lying snow was full of a palimpsest of tracks – rabbits, foxes, deer, smaller mammals and  birds – which makes one so aware of all the life that is there that one normally doesn’t see. We saw quite large groups of red legged partridge – 30 or so each – and roe deer crossed close to us.

by Jerry Gunner, Lincoln
9.15am today: a flock of 12 waxwings in a tree next to a small pink-berried rowan-style bush, garden on the corner of Mackie Road and Filton Avenue, Filton. My first ever. I was the passenger with my friend driving, yet she spotted them and I didn't, which has left me pretty unnerved... We could hear them singing softly together. If you have encountered folk costumes or hippy garb sewn with tiny bells, that was the sound - a continuous gentle little chingling...


I just read an interesting New Scientist article on mistletoe. Apparently tests in other countries (with over 130 mistletoe varieties worldwide)  have shown that far from being a pest, it greatly enriches woodland. It offers not only habitat, but its foliage is very rich in carbohydrates; and as it doesn't withdraw these nutrients before dropping its leaves the leaf litter below is exceptionally rich and creates a whole mini ecology. So we need to mentally offset this against its better-known parasitic use of the host's minerals and water!
On an associated theme, has anyone seen creatures eating honeysuckle berries? I've kept my honeysuckle unpruned through the winter so it has lots, but haven't actively observed them being eaten. I must say I would like a little guide to 'Who eats what berries when' - if there's anything like that published, do tell me! (See ‘June’ below...)

A miracle of camouflage - Snow Buntings at Salthouse dunes
by Ian Kirk, Weymouth
During a birding trip to Norfolk, we crossed the north Norfolk sea marshes at Salthouse to reach the tall dunes of flint shingle that bar the way to the beach, with the grey North Sea stretching off into the distance. On the inland side were the little birds we had come to see – a group of four snow buntings who had made themselves at home by the car park. Carefully watching the coarse shingle mottled in cream, grey and rust, we could see nothing at first – then there was movement. Instantly the buntings revealed themselves, busily searching the stones for food, charming and cuddly-looking as only buntings can be! But then they would stop and go still again – and instantly again, so perfect is their camouflage, they would vanish into the background, even their little orange beaks becoming just another speck of tawny flint...
Rare and common
It’s interesting that some birds which are very common at home were difficult to find in Norfolk – for instance, collared doves and lesser black-backed gulls (though apparently East Anglia was where collared doves first appeared in Britain). And it wasn’t till our leader said it that I understood that dippers generally will not be seen in the south-east of England – all down to geology again as there is so little rugged terrain there to produce the swift-flowing streams they like. The lone black-bellied dipper (a European dipper subspecies that breeds in northern Europe and wanders to milder regions in winter) that we saw in Thetford, had cleverly found what must be one of the few tiny stretches of swift-flowing water for many miles around!


50 shades of grey
In the large park at the end of my road, about one hundred black-headed gulls were evenly spread across the grass. Their heads were in every stage of transformation from winter white to summer black, shading in as smoothly and evenly as watered ink or smudged charcoal – 50 shades of grey...

Wind chill
I'm viewing something I've never seen before. I had previously understood the concept 'wind chill factor' to be mostly or wholly subjective: as the weather reporters say, 'It FEELS like xxx degrees'. However on our east-facing patio is a large tray with some water in it, and even though the air certainly isn't freezing out of the wind, this water which IS in the wind is skinned over with a proper sheet of ice - incredible.
Throughout this winter my garden greens (kale, perpetual spinach, landcress etc) that normally grow enough for regular or irregular pickings, have been at either a standstill or worse. As the winter wasn't particularly cold, I put this down to the rain and constant waterlogging. However the recent drier but much colder weather is having the same effect; so that now, almost in April, growth remains at worse than December levels. I think this must also be affecting a lot of natural vegetation and also birds: ones like collared doves who don't normally peck at brassica shoots in my garden are doing so, and birds who don't normally come into the back garden are there all the time, seriously pecking and searching for food - most noticeably the local jackdaws. Hungry times?
An erudite member responded, ‘1784 was a particularly cold spring and Gilbert White (eighteenth-century ‘parson-naturalist’) wrote: 'April 2: Much snow in Selborne in the fields....the country looks most dismally, like the dead of winter! April 7: Many lettuces, both Cos and Dutch, have stood out the winter under the fruit wall. They were covered with straw in the hard weather, for many weeks. April 20: No garden crops sowed yet with me; the ground is too wet. Artichokes seem to be almost killed.' We agreed it was always salutary to have comparisons from other times...
Another even more erudite member wrote, ‘So far it is the coldest March since 1995- but  historically the coldest Bristol March was 1867 at 5.4c This year so far 8.3c.' - !

Sparrowhawk kill
A sparrowhawk just killed a pigeon in our back garden, and is eating it amongst the rhubarb. I approached within 5 metres without it minding, and a friend is currently taking photos from about 2 metres away...


The newfound confidence of our local jackdaws continues. They're just a few feet away on next door's patio, enthusiastically tearing up some garden fabric for nesting material. This is a cheery sight along with bees and bumblebees, and many more buds breaking.

Report from the Strawberry Line* – how is spring progressing?
On a walk along the Strawberry Line footpath from Sandford to Axbridge/Cheddar Reservoir yesterday:
- Along the Line: plenty of blackcaps and chiffchaffs seen and heard; parents feeding newly-fledged young of bluetits, greenfinch and blackcap; wren enjoying a dustbath on the path in spite of humans approaching quite closely from both sides.
- Cheddar Reservoir: two or three common sandpipers scurrying along the water's edge; twelve arctic terns resting on a float and a few more flying; clouds of house martins; cormorants and courting great crested grebes. Arctic terns identified by a more experienced local birder with scope who also reported one sand
by Jonathan Billinger
martin and a little gull amongst the flying birds.
- Flowers: grand swathes of celandine and primrose with ground ivy; bluebells starting; one patch of lady's smock; blackthorn in profusion.
- Generally trees still barely starting to leaf, and appearance of woods from a distance still wintery.
(* A now-disused railway line that, amongst other goods, use to carry seasonal strawberries from Cheddar to larger towns)

Jackdaw beaks
The local jackdaws are attacking the neighbour's birdfood fatballs, but seem to intensely dislike the resulting sticky beaks, and have to spend much time wiping them off...


In a cemetery
Walking through a London cemetery, there was a crow perched on a tombstone by the path, with a dead baby bird in its beak. A passing woman said, 'I know they too have to eat - but it is upsetting seeing it this close up.' Agreed...

Can anyone help with a flower ID? Seen today in wild verges around Backwell, a smallish sprawling plant with bright green slightly fleshy, somewhat shiny, pelargonium-shaped leaves, and small bright-pink simple 5-petalled flowers. (Shining Cranesbill)
It is interesting to see all at the same time, and still in good condition: celandines, primroses, violets... then wild garlic, bluebells... lady's smock, stitchwort... and dandelions putting on an astonishing display.
The oaks are now leafing whilst the ashes are still holding back, so it's 'oak before ash, there'll be a splash' rather than 'ash before oak, there'll be a soak'. What an utterly British saying - 'whatever, there'll be rain, rain, rain.'

Tree flowers
by AnRo0002
Something about the weather we've had has obviously stimulated tree blooming in an unusual way. After the graceful and prolific alder catkins there are now striking displays of oak, ash, birch and field maple flowers. I confess I haven't previously taken much notice of these, but they are currently so much more abundant than the leaves on those trees that it is hard not to.

Porthcothan cliff flowers
The clifftops south of Padstow, Cornwall, were a trove of colour this week, including brilliant gorse, buttercups and daisies, bluebells, hawkweed, lady's smock, red and white campion, kidney vetch running from primrose yellow through pink and orange to bright crimson, young wild carrot with dark
Kidney Vetch by Rob Allday
crimson flower rosettes almost flat to the ground, bosoms of thrift with flowers just breaking in delicious white-to pink icecream colours, drifts of light blue spring squill, and tiny dark blue heath milkwort.
 Down nearer the rocks and dunes of Porthcothan beach were the 'white bluebells' of three-cornered leek; a slightly succulent mustard-family dune-grower with lots of small white flower heads - hoary cress; and another dune-dweller which looks like a bulb plant with very thin leaves and a largish pale blue flower with very long thin petals – identified as salsify, which interested me as I briefly grew it in an allotment when I was young as a delicacy for my French great-aunt, but had never let it run to flower...

On the cliffs south of Porthcothan I found the following: two sites showing a predator strike and feather plucking, and further on a half-carcass of a pigeon with two plain coloured rings (blue and rust) and a white numbered ring – the remains of a racing pigeon? The pelvis and legs had been cleanly separated from the upper body, and completely stripped of all feathers and available flesh, very recently as the remaining traces of blood and flesh were still fresh. I have not seen a carcass divided in this way or so completely stripped. Is this usual? Does it indicate particular hunger on the predator's part? A peregrine?


Birds & Berries
by Trish Steel
I would like to thank the member who recommended the book 'Birds & Berries' by B & D Snow to me - I have just finished it and it was fascinating. Basically a thesis or doctorate published in book form with lovely illustrations by John Busby, it is full of the intricate, unexpected relationships between fruiting (mainly) wild plants and trees and the birds that eat them, as studied over some years mainly in an area of the Chiltern Hills, south-east England. Amongst other subtleties, 'successful' fruiters have fruits that are small enough for fruit-eaters to break off easily and/or swallow whole, are sheltered from predators, are nutritionally rewarding.... and thus spread themselves more widely. I will now be able to look with a much more educated eye at hips and haws, honeysuckle and spindle, and pyracantha and cotoneaster.

The River Parrett estuary
I spent a couple of days walking the River Parrett estuary area between Combwich (four miles up from Steart on the Bristol Channel) and Dunbar on the outskirts of Bridgewater. The area is remote and much of the embankment river path un-mowed and obviously little-walked, which seems to have made it very attractive to ground-nesting birds: every few hundred metres skylarks and yellow wagtails dashed up – I saw three pairs of wagtails and a solo male inland; and by Dunbar an oystercatcher flew in from the water with agitated cries and circled inland around me. Reed buntings and reed warblers abounded; on a tiny deep rhine a swan couple who could barely swim abreast guarded their five small cygnets, in their own private world screened by high rushes; and foxes slunk away from the path.
On the embankment itself grew a huge variety of grasses, their many different heads shimmering at waist height.
by Tony Hisgett
About 9am a mile or so up from Combwich I saw two otters hunting in the estuary on the high tide with the river about 200m wide. I followed them with binoculars from midstream: a larger and smaller one taking a straight course towards the bank while diving, resurfacing and swimming in perfect unison with each other. I watched them climb onto the bank, and when I walked closer I saw one then another tumble back into the water from another hiding place. They were hunting near two drainage outfalls which perhaps provided good fishing. But how lucky was I?
On the river four adult shelduck swam with a troupe of seven tiny chicks – looking so vulnerable on that big flow of water, but I imagine if they got swept over Niagara they would bob up unhurt at the bottom... Herons stalked the muddy edges and I watched some successful catches and swallows.
A swathe of yellow flowers  growing along an outfall wall included hop trefoil, birdsfoot trefoil, kidney vetch, oxeye daisies, smooth and prickly sow-thistle, buttercups, charlock, pale yellow wild radish, cat’s ear and hawkweed; with a big spike of purple-blue vipers bugloss and knapweed about to open.
Butterflies included orange tip, small tortoiseshell, speckled wood, gatekeeper, small heath, and maybe a pearl-bordered fritillary?
In Combwich a 3 metre stretch of mature tree mallows was growing against an old estuary defence wall, showing a profusion of deep-purple-centred flowers.
At 5am next morning, misty and barely light, a sparrowhawk settled on a telephone post by the grassy common bordering the estuary, then hunted hovering above.
(A member responded: ‘Some years ago I watched a family of shelduck making their way down river to the sea near Weston super Mare. The last duckling got stuck in an eddy and couldn't make any headway, so the whole family turned around and went back up river. I've always assumed the parents made an assessment about it's capability and came to a "tomorrows another day" decision.’)

Mud cracks on the Parrett
Along the tidal Parrett are some magnificent stretches of cracked mud. Where the mud slopes down at a gentle angle of 5 to 10 degrees, the mud closest to low water cracks into polygonal sections about two foot across. In swathes upwards, these polygons crack into smaller ones, and above that, those smaller ones into yet smaller ones.... until the grass is reached. The gaps between become progressively wider and deeper, until in the uppermost sections they are perhaps two inches wide and ziggurat downwards to a depth of around three inches.
by David Anstiss
River sculpture
Seen in deep tidal mud bordering the River Parrett in Bridgewater, a metal sculpture for our times: a deep shopping trolley, a shallow shopping trolley and a bicycle, all welded together  into a tight embrace by rust and flowing water...

Sparrows are currently so eager for food that they've lost their usual caution and come crowding up on the patio at the least excuse. I recently chucked out some bread, and as the crumbs were flying through the air the sparrows were literally airborne at the same moment to chase them!
I've just been looking down on a male sparrow's back by the kitchen door and admiring his superb plumage, as richly coloured and patterned as any bunting...

Flowers at Orchard Pool
by Derek Harper
There is currently a collection of lovely yellow flowers at Orchard Pools apart from the meadow buttercups: creeping cinquefoil, delicate meadow vetchling, and birdsfoot trefoil. The cinquefoil with its large simple, flat flowers reminded me of seeing silverweed flowering with very similar blooms along a pasture recently, and how I must have just dismissed them as buttercups, for years and years...
Otherwise the Pools showed that childlike charm of clear simple contrasting flower colours - yellow buttercups, violet-blue meadow cranesbill, pink mallows, white oxeye daisies - amidst all the rich surrounding grass heads.

Robin v. Centipede
I had just dug a patch of garden when a young robin flew down and attacked a newly-exposed large centipede. The centipede fought back and the youngster reared up with a look of both trepidation and feistiness as if to say, 'Game on!' before returning to the fray. The body language of both creatures so resembled a mongoose attacking a snake...

Hemlock water-dropwort by H Zell

Bee in a box
A couple of weeks ago I was at Aust Warth on the Severn Estuary in sunny windy weather. There were hemlock water-dropwort flowers along the verge, whose florets within the whole umbel form sprays of smaller globes. Almost every other globe had its visiting bee or hoverfly clinging to feed as the blossoms rocked.
Adjacent was a dog rose with a flower just opening, the translucent petals rising to form a little pink box. Inside was a bee firmly attached to the flower heart, and obviously happy to stay there sheltered from
by Steve Daniels
the winds outside...

Close encounter
I just visited the far end of the Llyn peninsular, north west Wales, walking a bit of the newish (and pretty unwelcoming) coast path north of Porth Or. Feeling hot and bothered I went down to a little cove for a swim where there was a shape poking out of the water about 20 metres out which said 'seal'. Having been fooled many times before by buoys and other inorganic objects, I looked through my bins and saw it was indeed a smooth mid-grey seal head, basking with nose pointed skywards. As I entered the water there was a mighty splash nearby where another seal had obviously just dropped off a rock into the water,
by Yummifruitbat
and then both of them bobbed there with heads out to inspect me in that unruffled way they have, diving and re-emerging quite close to me before swimming casually off.
On my return there were now three seals just below the same cove, each one on its own rock - slightly smaller than itself - and all in the classic banana pose of luxuriant basking.

More from Llyn
- Aberdaron's long sandy beach is backed by sandy cliffs. One spot hosts a thriving sand martin colony sculpted out just a few feet above the beach; I watched the parents zipping in and out to feed youngsters gathered in ones and twos on the lip of their nestholes. But it does surprise me that they are happy to nest so close to holidaying humanity - I saw a similar sight last summer on a beach just south of Bude in Cornwall.
by Anemore Projectors

- There was an abundance of burnet moths (as also currently in the Bristol area) - I watched eight on one small clump of flowering thyme, pushing and shoving each other to get to the nectar.
(A member suggested:‘If you get a chance have a close look at the Burnets on Thyme, as the Irish race of the Transparent Burnet are always feeding on thyme; and although the Welsh race of Z. purpuralis is "extinct" you are in the right place for the last sightings.’!)
- I watched a single swallow furiously (and I think successfully) mobbing a sparrowhawk, accompanied with constant screams - very much David against Goliath.
- I noticed, as I had the week before around Bridgewater, that sparrow colonies seem to be thriving in both urban and rural situations.

by Derek Harper
Teasel heads
There are currently lots of flowering teasels in the scrub land south of Severn Beach on the Severn Estuary. It is fascinating how the pale violet flowers grow in rings on the heads, a bit Saturn-like. Presumably if one took time-lapse photos one would see these rings smoothly ascending up the heads...


Near Stroud, Gloucestershire, looking up a farm track (without binoculars) I saw a largish bird hunkered down in the middle of the path with wings spread - I thought it was taking a bath as it had just rained. Then everything moved and resolved into a wood pigeon lying on its back and fighting a raptor on top. The pigeon got away and ran into the adjacent hedgerow, and the raptor hopped after it with long legs. I suppose it was a young/male sparrowhawk which had metaphorically bitten off slightly more than it could chew. Don't know what the outcome was...


About 4 years ago, for reasons known only to itself, a purple loosestrife plant established itself in my garden. Now my garden is far from being a riverside and though it has quite heavy soil is very well drained, but every year the loosestrife has flowered enthusiastically. However after all that time it has still only made a small rootstock about 10cm across. Yet when I did a bit of research on this plant, I found that in Canada it has become a virulent invasive plant that is bunging up their wetlands. It is very strange going to North America and finding all these plants and animals that are so much a part of our own countryside's warp and weft, but there are seen as devils incarnate because there is insufficient in their ecology to keep them in check - the blackberry and the earthworm for instance. Especially as Europe adjoins North America and has been passable so often in the recent geological past. (PS: I also have yellow loosestrife which I realise is a different family, and which really IS invasive, but I like it so am prepared to dig it back ruthlessly every year) 

Light sculpture
Seen a couple of mornings ago on a woodland edge: a patch of dainty umbellifer like hedge parsley had lost the individual flowers of their umbels, but in the overnight rain each one had been replaced by a tiny water globe. The water slightly weighed down the heads, and every drop was glowingly illuminated by a low sun, creating an extraordinary gently-waving 'light sculpture'...

Harvesting nuts
I just watched a grey squirrel pulling off hazel nuts at the very end of the bush's branches: it was upside down and back to front in its efforts amongst the bouncing twigs, a picture of agility.
A friend recently watched nuthatches do what they're named for but which I have never seen: also busy in hazel bushes, tugging off the nuts and carrying them to a nearby tree to bash into the bark with their beaks.


Wet pigeons
I was recently on the harbour front in Watchet (a funny little Somerset harbour town south of the Quantocks), with a geology group in the pouring rain. We were seeking cover in a small ornamental Victorian wooden shelter there, but found the local pigeons were ahead of us. They were sitting spaced evenly along the seats, and when one of our human number sat down at one end, they all shuffled along to make room...

Natural gears
I hope Ray Barnett won't mind, but I found an article of his in the Bristol Naturalists' November Bulletin so fascinating that I'm copying it here. There are few people with an engineering cast of mind, who can't have pondered about the possibility of wheels and gears in the natural world...
'I was intrigued to learn of a paper recently published in Science one of whose authors is Gregory Sutton (now a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at Bristol University). Here is the abstract:
Issus nymph by B j Schoenmakers
Gears are found rarely in animals and have never been reported to intermesh and rotate functionally like mechanical gears. We now demonstrate functional gears in the ballistic jumping movements of the flightless planthopper insect Issus. The nymphs, but not adults, have a row of cuticular gear (cog) teeth around the curved medial surfaces of their two hindleg trochantera. The gear teeth on one trochanter engaged with and sequentially moved past those on the other trochanter during the preparatory cocking and the propulsive phases of jumping. Close registration between the gears ensured that both hindlegs moved at the same angular velocities to propel the body without yaw rotation. At the final molt to adulthood, this synchronization mechanism is jettisoned.
Issus coleoptratus is a planthopper which can be found in the Avon Gorge and Leigh Woods fairly readily (for example) and presumably its larvae are utilising this amazing adaptation, I shall look on them in a new light next time I sweep one.'

Vagrant Emperors
Emperor Dragonfly by Adityamadhava.83
I was looking up the Vagrant Emperor dragonfly as I had just found out that they migrate from Africa. So I researched further, having never even realised that dragonflies migrate. One site followed the Wandering Glider (or Globe Skimmer) dragonflies who perform 'an epic migration from southern India to east and southern Africa, and then likely back again, a round trip of 14,000 to 18,000km', which takes four generations to complete, stopping at the Maldives en route. (Monarch butterflies do their journey in a mere two generations) Numbers of birds follow the same dragonfly trail, feeding on the migrating insects. Of course before tiny radio trackers it wasn't possible to follow these creatures and tease out these extraordinary facts.
A member responded: ‘The Wandering Glider is now believed to be the insect world record holder for distance travelled on migration, though I think the Arctic Tern is still the overall record holder!’

Downs starlings
In the top of the tall lime tree by the Downs Cafe, a flock of about fifty starlings were vocalising – an undertone of chattering with soprano top-notes of fluting – to create a surprisingly beautiful choir. They flew off and re-gathered a couple of times in other trees and recommenced their chorus.

Pied Wagtail roost
Yesterday I had the extraordinary experience of watching pied wagtails roost in Bristol City Centre. It was dusk at 4.30pm, and score by score the silhouettes of small birds dashed from the west over the rooftops and dropped into two plane trees (still full of leaves) on the central island. Mind you - I say pied wagtail but that's just an assumption, because I could see no detail, the 'dropping' looked very different from their normal flight, and their sibilant cries were immersed in noisy traffic sounds...

by Derek Harper

It's been a hell of a year for apples - recent walks have revealed orchards and individual trees surrounded almost knee-deep with windfalls. Still not seeing many winter thrushes and the weather still being quite mild, I'm imagining the fieldfares and redwings staying further north, tottering around orchards with great fat stomachs and no need to move south yet...

Grey squirrels
The number of visible squirrels at Stoke Lodge is increasing at the moment. There were about 10 this afternoon just outside the building, all busy doing their nut-storing thing. One pair had a sharp altercation and the others scattered - two rushed up the rough-cast wall of the adjacent building and flattened themselves there, very amusing to see (if you like that sort of thing - I know lots of people disapprove of grey squirrels).

Honey Buzzard
I watched a piece on TV (I hope it was true!) about the shockingly clever hunting tactics of a tropical honey buzzard: apparently it sits in a tree adjacent to wild bees' nests, and when a larger mammal potters by underneath, the buzzard attacks the nest then flies off. The enraged bees attack the hapless mammal which they think has perpetrated the attack, and the buzzard can return to pick grubs from the nest relatively unmolested. As my great aunt used to say, 'Nature, you can't beat it.'

Old man's beard
by Colin Smith
I only recently learnt that old man’s beard (our native clematis) is a great lime lover and hence abundant in the Bristol area with its Carboniferous geology. Apparently if you see it in non-limey areas it may have found a pocket of old mortar from an adjacent wall, for instance.
Anyway it has been a wonderful autumn for it, particularly when a low sun has caught and lit up the profusion of ‘beards’; and has made me think it is another of those natural wonders, like bluebells, that we may take for granted, but might rarely see in such beautiful abundance elsewhere.
A member added this lovely quotation from A E Housman:  
'And traveller's joy beguiles in autumn / Hearts that have lost their own’ 
 – traveller’s joy being an older name for old man’s beard.

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