One more set of photos from a nearby Nature Reserve before having a short break from blogging from tomorrow. The Soapwort plant, which we also have growing well in the shady part of the garden, was flowering prolifically along the riverbank. As it’s name suggests, boiling all parts of the plant, but especially the roots, in water releases saponaria which was used commercially to wash wool, by cottagers to wash their clothes and is still used to wash delicate, specialist fabrics like tapestries. It has naturalised and grows wild now in many places. Several of the Hawk Moth species, including the amazing Elephant Hawk Moth, use it as a food source and it is well worth it’s place in the shade, where it sprawls rather but attracts other insects like hoverflies. We were also lucky enough to watch a Kingfisher hovering, feeding and resting on a post. The photos are actually from the same spot last year, when the female sat and fished from a closer post! As can be seen,
Soapwort, a naturalised plant, still used to clean delicate fabrics.
Female Kingfisher after fishing .
Male Kingfisher waiting to fish.
the female Kingfisher has an orange marking on the underside of its long, strong beak. Conditions: Sun broke through cloud by late afternoon- a warmer-feeling day, (yesterday was warmer at night than at any point in the day!) though yesterdays rain has really helped the garden revive. Temperature: Max 17- Min 11 C
Sometimes the ordinary are as wonderful as the rare, and yesterday we watched beautiful Mute Swans and Great Crested Grebe swimming in the nearby Ings and Flashes of subsided coal mines of South Yorkshire. No mines to be seen but the area has gained several Nature Reserves from the old workings- Potteric Carr, Old Moor, Sprotborough and Denaby to name a few. A quick post as we’re off to greet the modern-day Jarrow Marchers in support of the NHS on this dreary day of rain and mist. Conditions: Heavy rain showers and low, grey cloud all day. Temperature: 12 Max in the day and 13 max at night!.
Striped head of the young Great Crested Grebe
Gorgeous Mute Sawn at Sprotborough
Mute Swan- the native swan that is resident all year round.
Adult Great Crested Grebe
Today, we saw two recent success stories on inland lakes and reservoirs, including many formed by mining subsidence in South Yorkshire- the Little Egret and the Cormorant. As children, we used to watch out for Cormorants on summer holidays on the South West coast, but now they can be seen as easily on inland waterways, much to the dismay of Anglers. Research shows that they actually prefer flat fish and eels so they probably don’t compete for resources with most anglers. Remarkably they don’t have well water-proofed feathers like most fishing birds do. This is why you often see them ‘hanging their wings out to dry’ like the one in the photo. Not being waterproofed gives them an advantage because it makes them less buoyant and therefore able to dive deeper. They dive with a little jump, catch fish and then bring them to the surface to
Cormorant with its definitive white/yellow chin and cheek patch
Cormorant ‘hanging it’s wings out to dry’ after fishing, at Sprotborough Flash today
One of 3 Little Egrets fishing in shallow water at Denaby Ings
swallow, head-first. Little Egrets, fish-eaters as well, are also rapidly spreading inland and northwards. They are small, white Herons, with a beautiful white plume on their heads. They first bred in in the UK in Poole, Dorset, in 1996. By 2006, there were 500 confirmed breeding pairs in 60 different colonies and they now regularly appear in many parts of the country. We saw several today at Denaby Ings, near Rotherham. Numbers build at this time of year as they migrate here for winter from the continent. Conditions: A warmer, dry day of sun and cloud with a gentle breeze. Temperature: Max 17- Min 12 C
The wonderful flowers of the Yellow Toadflax
Yellow Agrimony flower spikes.
The hooked seedpods of Yellow Agrimony
For some reason all my text was wiped when I published today’s blog so here it is again! Three yellow wild flowers that are easy to see at the moment, and all good for nectar for insects. The Yellow Toadflax, also called Butter and Eggs or, more quaintly Bunny’s Mouths in some places, are like miniature Snapdragons. Only heavy insects like Bumble Bees can pollinate as they need to land on the lip and push inside to the nectar source. The Yellow Agrimony, no relation of the much bigger Hemp Agrimony, has long spikes of flowers. The rusty coloured seed-heads are burrs with hooks that catch in the coats of passing animals and thus get dispersed. Agrimony has been used for centuries- it used to be thought of as a cure for snake bites but now is used to treat digestive ailments and catarrh. The Common Fleabane has woolly leaves and stems. The scent is peculiar- Richard Mabey, in his wonderful book ‘Flora Britannica’, describes it as ‘hints of chrysanthemum with carbolic soap’! Fleabane was burned or hung in bunches in buildings, to repel fleas, as its name suggests. Interestingly, a relative of this plant is used as a source of the insecticide ‘pyrethrum’ nowadays. Conditions: A day of sun and cloud with light showers and threatening clouds. Temperature: Max 16- Min 9C
A few lovely bugs today (some people would call that an oxymoron) that are common in gardens or waste ground. The Nettle-Weevil larvae live underground and eat the roots of stinging nettles while the adults patrol the tops. They are one of the short-nosed weevils and have this lovely iridescence early in the year, sometimes losing their colour later. Weevils and Beetles differ from other insects like Butterflies, Moths and Flies. The legs of the latter grow from a narrow area of the thorax while those of Beetles and Weevils
A pair of mating Nettle-Weevils, one of the short-nosed weevils.
Hawthorn Shield Bug (or a very similar species hard to distinguish).
A green and red species of Soldier Beetle
emerge equidistant down a longer thorax, which it is thought is an evolutionary design to help weight distribution on these bulkier creatures. Shield Bugs, named after the shape of their hard cases, are very common in gardens, sucking sap from a wide range of plants. This one, near Hawthorn in our garden, looks like the Hawthorn Shield Bug– the more common (not shown) is the Green Shield Bug, also named the Stink Bug as it emits a foul smell if disturbed! The third greenish bug is a more unusual species of the all-red Soldier Beetle I featured a few weeks ago (it has an obscure Latin name, I’ll spare us). Again it is beautifully coloured. Two years ago the Green Soldier Beetle was in the news in Bondi, Australia for its invasion gf gardens by the millions. Luckily, they are less invasive in this country. Conditions: A warmer, still day of sunshine and slate-grey clouds which didn’t turn to the heavy showers forecast. Temperature: Max 16- Min 9C
Walking locally there are so many signs on the ground, that Blackberries are ready to eat– mainly in the colour of the poo of birds and foxes! The Bramble (a plant that cross-breeds so freely there are hundreds of ‘micro-species’ in the wild– one botanist has described 286!) is so good for wildlife. The flowers, from May- September provide nectar and pollen for many of species of Bees, Wasps, Flies, Lacewings etc, (so Spiders also lurk in the brambles to catch the insects), the leaves feed many caterpillars, and the strong arching branches with their fierce thorns and dense habit (they root whenever a branch-tip touches ground) provide protection for small mammals and many bird-nests (Warblers, Wrens, Robins and Finches). And from now on until October the berries, ripening in stages over several weeks feed small mammals like Mice, Foxes, many birds, including Thrushes and Blackbirds and us! Technically, like their relations the
Large Skipper Butterfly enjoying the rich nectar of Bramble flowers
The Dewberry, often found along coastlines, has a creeping habit and less thorny stems and a juicy fruit of a few big ‘drupes’ with a bloom like grapes.
The typical stem of Blackberry drupes, which ripen at intervals over several weeks. The seeds, undigested by birds and animals, are then dispersed far and wide in their poo.
Raspberries, Blackberries are not true berries, but dozens of small ‘drupelets’ so are really aggregates of many fruits in one. The number of drupelets varies from small number on the very tasty Dew Berries, often on sand dunes and coastal areas, to the more common ones we get in our cities and countryside. If you want the benefit of Blackberries for yourselves and wildlife in your gardens, without the invasiveness and sharp thorns, there are many domestic varieties that are very easy to grow– Thornless Blackberries, and crosses like the accidentally developed Loganberry to the deliberately cross-bred and very tasty Tayberry and Boysenberry. Conditions: A chilly day of cloud, some sun and a few showers. Temperature: Max 15- Min 10 C.
Growing up in countryside where Hazel was used for hedging and coppiced for hurdle-making etc, one of our favourite activities late in the school holidays was to go nutting. You can always buy the highly nutritious and healthy Hazel Nuts dried, or fresh in the domesticated form of Filberts or Cobnuts, but there is nothing like the fresh, creamy
The mass of straight stems of an often-coppiced Hazel Bush
ones you’ve picked in the wild. A couple of days ago we found some just outside Sheffield that hadn’t been completely stripped by Grey Squirrels, as the city ones tend to be. There are two ways to tell if they are ripe. The quickest is to pick one and bite into it. If it is soft-shelled or full of white pith with just a small kernel of nut forming, they need to be left.
A branch of Hazel with a couple of clusters of Hazel Nuts, ripening.
A cluster of ripening Hazel Nuts, ready to eat
You can also tell by their appearance- the involucres (skirt of green calyx) round their base become drier and browner and the shells themselves become paler with touches of red or brown on them as they ripen and harden. Although as kids we always used to crack them open with our teeth, this is a bit hazardous because when the nuts are really full and ripe the shells become extremely hard- a lot depends on the angle you bite to break them open. I wouldn’t advise it unless you’ve had years of practice! Just take them home and get the nut-crackers out. You can keep them in a dry jar but they taste so good when fresh, they never last that long for me. And if you ever go to the beautiful Isle of Mull in late summer you must take nut-crackers with you in readiness. There are no grey squirrels and Mull has the densest concentration of hazel nut trees anywhere in the UK. Conditions: A bright, still, cool morning becoming cloudy with some showers by late afternoon. Temperature: Max 15- Min 10 C
We had an extraordinary experience in the Deepdale car park yesterday. I saw a brown, very light shape flutter onto the public toilet slate roof. The ‘jizz’ wasn’t right for a butterfly or a leaf, and I was amazed to find it was a small bat, which then crawled down into the gutter. I guess it had been displaced or disoriented by the stormy night before. This was such an unusual opportunity for a photograph, I climbed up on the gate of the toilet and, using Lynn’s lighter camera in my left hand, I managed to take a couple of photos without disturbing it! It settled down, completely out of view, and we hope it revived enough to fly again in the evening. Pipistrelles are the most common UK bat, and common in most
Pipistrelle Bat roosting in a gutter.
The way we usually see Pipistrelle Bats flying over the garden.
Pipistrelles fly between 5-10 metres above the ground, often near trees.
parts of the world. Each one can eat 3,000 insects in one night! They are tiny and weigh around 3 grams, less than the weight of a pound coin. They suffered a shocking decline of 70% between 1978 and 1993, are now protected, and the Species Action Plan aims to restore their numbers to the pre-1970 population. They are active from dusk between March and November, and fly fast and erratically between 5 and 10 metres above the ground, along tree-lines, over water and near hedgerows. They roost and then hibernate in trees, bat-boxes and under tiles and crevices in buildings.We often get them flying over the garden, but not a view like this. Conditions: A cool day of sunshine and cloud and a stiff breeze. Temperature: Max 16- Min 10 C.
I know some people find the wild varieties of the pea family hard to tell apart, so here are the two common purple ones. The Pea Family (otherwise known as Legumes), which include many wild plants, garden peas, Sweet Peas etc, have very distinctively shaped flowers with five parts– a large ‘banner’ or ‘standard’ at the top, two ‘wings‘
Bush Vetch showing the typical ladder-like paired leaves of vetches and the clover coloured petals.
and two ‘keel’ petals at the base, the latter forming a landing stage for insects such as Honey Bees and Bumble Bees. Insects land on the keel to access the nectar sources, as can be seen in one of the photos. Legumes also all have nodules on their roots which ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil and thus help nourish other plants in the vicinity. The two common wild purple vetches are easy to tell apart. The Bush Vetch has pinkish mauve or lilac flowers with dark purple veins, growing in small groups around the stems. Like all the Pea Family, they scramble through other vegetation, clinging on and climbing up using curling tendrils. As well as the flowers being rich in nectar, their leaves are eaten by a range of caterpillars, beetles and weevils. Bush Vetch grows easily in wild areas in the garden. The much darker purple Tufted Vetch is my favourite, and has stems of flowers which grow in long racemes down one side of the stem. The whole plant is taller and can grow up into hedges and over banks. The leaves of both species are
Bumble Bee alighting on the keel of Bush Vetch to access the nectar.
A patch of the wonderfully tall, deep purple Tufted Vetch
ladders of long, symmetrical narrow pairs, ending in a branched tendril.Conditions: Cloudy with some sun and stiff gusts of wind. Temperature: Max 17- Min 14 C. P.S. I’ll be away from the computer for a couple of days, so back soon at the blog!
After many garden birds have been more secretive for a few weeks, gathering insects in the wild and going through some of their moult, we have a lot back again. Many birds join mixed flocks once the breeding season is over and their young are safely raised. Before that, they are much more territorial, trying to guard their nesting and feeding areas. From mid-August and through the winter there starts to be an advantage to join with others. Finches may start to appear in small flocks, Corvids (Crows,Jackdaws and Rooks) are more likely to feed together, and over-wintering Thrushes like Fieldfare and Redwing also do when they start to arrive next month. The most likely mixed flocks to be seen and heard in our gardens, though, are Tits, which may also be joined by species like Nuthatch, Treecreeper and Goldcrest. Around 20 other species have been seen gathering into flocks with Tits after the breeding season. It is the Tits which start these mixed flocks forming. For the last few days we’ve had more than twenty Tits arrive at once, including a dozen Long Tailed Tits, several Great Tits, Blue Tits and a few Coal Tits. Occasionally all four species have been on the feeder together. They are definitely less
A few of todays mixed flock of tits back to eating peanuts
The Coal Tit feeding today with a Great Tit, without being chased off the food.
One of the dozen Long Tailed Tits visiting today
competitive after breeding and, as you can see from the photos, even the Coal Tits, which are usually intimidated by the bigger Tits, will stay on the feeders more now, even with the much bigger and more aggressive Great Tits. Following breeding, it pays in several ways for birds to feed in flocks- the number of eyes and ears looking out for predators like Sparrow Hawks, and for food sources helps them keep safer, and better-fed. You can usually hear the tits lovely contact calls, which help keep the flocks together, before you see them arrive. Conditions: Cool, bright dry with some later showers. Temperature: Max 19 – Min 12 C