Fieldfares- these beautiful, winter visitors are about the size of Mistle Thrushes and smaller than the other winter visiting Thrush, the Redwing (see my drawing for comparison) though they often appear in mixed flocks together. While Fieldfares prefer to eat grubs and worms in open, hedged farmland they come into gardens and parks as these did the other day, when the ground is frozen or covered in snow, and then will feed on windfall apples, or other fruit like Hawthorn berries. When conditions are particularly severe in their breeding grounds of Asia, Scandinavia and
Fieldfare (larger) compared to Redwing
Northern Europe, as many as a million Fieldfare may come to feed on our fruit and invertebrates. Conditions: Milder, quiet weather now. Temperature: Max 8 Min 5 C.
Redwing- While waiting for the Waxwings to turn up in Sheffield recently it was a pleasure to watch a small flock of Redwings feeding, at intervals, from the same trees. Redwing, our smallest true Thrush, migrates here in winter from Iceland, Russia and Scandinavia for the same reason as Waxwings- to feed from our winter berries, fruits and worms. Sadly on the Red list nowadays, they can still be seen in gardens, parks, supermarket carparks and streets in Sheffield, and in hedgerows and pastures further afield. Their distinctive ‘Tsee Tsee’ calls can also be heard in evenings as they
Redwing- showing the eponymous red underwing
flock and communicate with each other. Conditions: Still, grey with some rain. Temperature: Max 4 Min -2C.
I was walking along Spratt’s Hollow (East Sussex) just now, thinking about Butcher’s Broom and a few paces further on, there it was, in the hedgerow!
Strange but then Butcher’s Broom is itself a strange plant – it has no true leaves, but flattened stems called ‘cladodes’, evolved to function like leaves, along its tough, ridged stems, which give it the appearance of being evergreen. We seem to have fallen out of the tradition of cutting Butcher’s Broom stems and bringing them indoors at this time of year, when the beautiful red berries show bright against the dark ‘leaves’. We favour Holly instead. As you can see from the photos, the flowers and then berries grow from the centre of these ‘leaves’ and as you may guess from the name, they were traditionally cut and tied in bunches, when their stiffness made them a good brush for sweeping off butcher’s blocks. Related to the Asparagus, these low shrubs with their sharp flattened stems are easier to spot in winter. Conditions: Grey, mild days. Temperature: Max 11 Min 4C.
I was delighted recently to be able to photograph Starlings in their winter plumage (bills no longer yellow, pale spots on body, feathers less iridescent) but this is a sad reflection on just how much their populations have plummeted, with 40 million birds lost from the European population since 1980. Even over winter, when our populations are boosted from central Europe, this once common bird has suffered what Michael McCarthy, in his great book “The Moth Snowstorm” terms a ‘great thinning’ suffered by so many of our species. The noisy, social Starling is, shockingly, now on the red (endangered) list and since 2012 the RSPB has been carrying out research to ascertain why. It may be due to loss of invertebrates which it feeds on (especially Crane Fly larvae, known as Leatherjackets), or nesting sites- they don’t yet know. Conditions: Grey, mild and wet weather continues. Temperature: Max 11 Min 9C.
Starling, winter plumage
Starling, winter plumage
Listening to the BBC Radio 4 programme last Sunday, ‘Ash to Ash’ (available on catch-up) reminded me how devastating Ash die-back is going to be to the British countryside and ecology. Ash is the third most common tree in Britain, and valuable to at least 1,000 species, many of them specific to Ash trees. Its’ sparser foliage and early leaf-loss also enables light to penetrate woodland, enhancing wild flower species. The tough, shock absorbent wood has been here since the ice-age, with myriad uses, from Roman chariots to tool handles, hockey sticks to furniture construction. Ash can live for 400 years, or longer when coppiced, and yet it is dying over many parts of the country already and the only hope known to date is that some individual trees may
be resistant. Open Country suggested we should be planting similarly ecologically-rich trees now, as the disease has so far proved unstoppable. The arrival and speed of Ash die-back is also a reminder that many species are likely to be threatened by the increasing globalisation of plant diseases. Conditions: Grey, drizzly days. Temperature: Max 14 Min 8C.
Hawthorn- there is a bumper crop of Haws, Hawthorn Berries, this year as the photo’s show. These berries have been used as herbal remedies since at least the ancient Greeks, and probably far longer. They are high in anti-oxidants and are still used by some to treat stomach-aches, stress and sleep-problems. Hawthorn has long mythic associations, and our Celtic ancestors believed the trees to be protected and inhabited by Faery Folk, representing
places where time passes differently to our own. Isolated trees were not cut down, for fear of invoking the wrath of the Faery Queen. The site of Westminster Abbey was once called Thorne Island after the stand of sacred Hawthorn trees there. The berries can be made into jellies, and I have just seen a recipe, on Countryfile’s website, for Hawthorn Gin. We might give it a go. Makes a change from Sloe Gin. Conditions: Grey and drizzly. Temperature: Max 10 Min 9C.
Harlequin Ladybirds- you may already have experienced the latest inundation of Harlequin Ladybirds. Thought to have benefitted from this hot summer, the populations are increased at this time of year by thousands drifting in on mild winds, from Asia. The most invasive species we have at present, this ‘invader’ first appeared in the UK in 2004- in ten years it has spread to areas which it took Grey Squirrels a hundred years to inhabit. Harlequin Ladybirds, on average larger than our 46 native species, and in a variety of patterns and colours and spot-numbers, have brown legs, and as such are distinguishable from the black-legged native species. They also reduce native Ladybirds, by out-competing for their aphid-food and by eating their eggs. Hibernating inside, unlike native Ladybirds, they give out a pheromone as the cooler weather arrives, which helps them detect other Harlequins, and gather in numbers inside our houses, and outbuildings. They do little harm though they may stain furniture and can deliver a small bite, which is harmless to all except a few who may have an allergic reaction. Conditions: Rain and strong winds arriving through the day. Temperature: Max 18 Min 17 C.