House Sparrows, the RSPB has announced, were the most frequent bird in last January’s 420,489 garden bird surveys, but these once ubiquitous, gregarious birds which have a varied diet, have nevertheless not recovered from their 71% decline between 1977 and 2008. We hardly see them in our Pitsmoor (North Sheffield) garden,
though a recent piece of research by the BTO found that suburban and urban gardens and allotment areas really help House Sparrows survive in numbers, while farmland is still a place of population loss. I was glad to be able to watch and listen to these noisy birds, fluffed up against the cold, recently. If you have a job telling House Sparrows from others, winter plumage isn’t the easiest time but the males have a grey cap and black bib, which becomes more pronounced in spring. I always thought of them as having a grey ‘roof’ which helped! Conditions: A beautiful frosty and bright day. Temperature: Max 6 Min 2c.
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.
Pink Footed Geese do not breed in the UK but we host almost all their population over winter and the numbers are increasing, probably due to better protection of roosting sites. These medium-sized, dark bodied Geese with Pink bills, legs and feet (as their name rather illustrates), fly in from Iceland, Spitsbergen and Greenland, a migration of over 2,000 miles for some, and if you hear the wonderful sound of geese overhead, as we did recently, you may be able to see a stunning skein of them flying in v-formation, the lead constantly changing to rest those taking on the headwinds. They are the geese you will hear and see flying over Sheffield and many other parts of the UK, from now on, to feed at estuaries and farmland, on grain, cereals, potatoes and grass. Many years ago I had the wonderful experience of staying at the lake-edge, with friends who worked at
Pink Footed Geese
Pink Footed Geese
and hearing and seeing huge flocks at dawn and dusk, coming in to roost and feed on potatoes collected from local Lancashire farms. Unforgettable. Conditions: Grey and cool with some drizzle. Temperature: Max 7 Min 2C.
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.
Shaggy Ink Caps– lovely to see these easily identified and edible fungi on my walk today up Broomham Lane, Catsfield- you can find them, commonly, in parks, on verges meadows etc. Also called ‘Lawyers Wig’, for obvious reasons, they emerge like white bumps, and grow into cylinders with shaggy skins, but quickly grow up and open into umbrellas, which equally quickly begin to disintegrate, becoming black and liquified (see photo’s). If you want to cook them, and they are tasty sliced and fried gently in
Emerging Shaggy Ink Caps
Shaggy Ink Cap- at the edible stage
Shaggy Ink Cap, stages of growth
Shaggy Ink Caps- turning ‘inky’
Shaggy Ink Cap
butter, you have to pick them young, when they are white and cigar shaped, before they open, and also get them pretty quickly to the frying pan! People did, and some still do, let them liquify and use the liquid as ink. Conditions: A beautiful sunny day Temperature: Max 18 Min 10 C.