Harebell: This beautiful, delicate looking flower, with its long stems and dancing heads, is actually pretty tough. It only grows in dry areas, in poor grassland and dry-stone walls, so is common in places like the limestone White Peak. It has many associations
with magic, witches and fairies, and in some parts it is known as Witches Bells, or Old Man’s (the Devil’s) Bells. Fairies were thought to owe Hell a tithe and to snatch children to pay for it, replacing them with Changelings to spare their own kind. Seen where Hares live, Hares have a long association with witches, who were thought to drink the milky sap of Harebells to transform into Hares. No wonder country folk were wary of picking Harebells. There is another charming piece of folklore that had Harebells ringing to warn Rabbits of the approach of Foxes! Conditions: Light showers, could and sun. Temperature: Max 18 Min 15C.
Centaury: This is another of my favourite wild flowers, which can be found along woodland rides, scrubland, and areas of shorter grass. You may pass it by, as the delicate and unusual coloured pink flowers, held on flusters at the tip of slender stems, close when cloud cover is high and open best in strong sunlight. However it is unmistakable when you do spot it. It is named after the centaur Chiron, who, legend has it, was healed by the Centaury when shot by a poisoned arrow. Whatever you think of the legend, these stories show how long a plant has been valued for its healing properties. Centaury is also one of the 15 ‘magical herbs’ and was used for exorcism. Robert Bridges writes of it, in ‘The Idle Flowers’. ‘Pale Chlora shalt thou find, Sun-loving Centaury’. Conditions: Sun after heavy rain. Temperature: Max 20 Min 10C
Here is a brief introduction to a few common WillowHerbs. Rosebay Willowherb is the best known- it is also called Fireweed because, as well as all the waste ground and hedgerow sites it grows on profusely, it grows readily where fires have been. The Great or Hairy Willowherb prefers damper spots but is also common, with its larger and sparser open flowers and white centres. I like its common name, Codlins and Cream, named after the old, rosy English apple, Codlin. The Enchanters Nightshade, which has possibly my favourite name of all common wild flowers, is not a nightshade but a willowherb. The Enchanters Nightshade can become a bit of a problem in gardens but I love its delicate, tiny flowers and the whole plant is only about 6 inches/15 cm’s tall, and grows in the shade of woods, hedgerows etc. Disappointingly for something which has such an intriguing name no one can really find a reason for it to be called this, either in folklore or witchcraft, and even the great 17th century herbalist Gerard could not get enthusiastic about any uses for it- although the Austrians used to make a tea rom it! Conditions: Drizzle and cloud with some showers. Temperature: Max 11 Min 7C.
The magnificent Red Kite, down to two breeding pairs in the UK in the 1930’s, both in mid-Wales and at less than 20 pairs when I was in Wales in my 20’s, is another conservation success story, now up to at least 600 pairs across the UK. Once persecuted by shooting and still found poisoned occasionally, these carrion eaters used to be valued in towns, the environment they favoured centuries ago, because of their habits of scavenging which helped keep streets clean, they have now been re-introduced to Scotland and England. Up a beautiful valley at Durisdeer, Dumfrieshire we watched these Red Kite sweeping the skies and swooping, in strong winds. Shakespeare mentions Red Kite in A winter’s Tale, urging people to look to their lesser linen, referring to their habit of stealing underclothes from washing lines to furnish their nests! Keep a look out in the skies for these huge, fork-tailed birds as their habitats spread across the country. Conditions: Sleet showers, strong winds and grey skies. Temperature: Max 6 Min 2C.
Kestrels: Once our most numerous bird of prey, Kestrels have declined and Buzzards have increased and are now number one! Yesterday when, taking our van out for a run, it broke down (sorted by rescue). We were therefore delighted when this one flew in near the lane we parked up on. Kestrels use high perches to hunt from, especially in winter when they need to preserve energy, as their characteristic hovering uses far more energy. This one didn’t stay long, so we occupied ourselves waiting for roadside rescue by playing scrabble we had in the van, but it was lovely to watch this one, probably looking out for a small rodent, like a vole, by far their most frequent food source, though they will eat earthworms, large insects, even sparrows in cities. Kestrels were
Beady eyed Kestrel
reserved for the lower status Knaves in medieval falconry, larger hawks being reserved for Knights. Hieararchies have been around for a very long time! Conditions: Another frosty, bright, dray day. Temperature: Max 2 Min 0C.
Common Darter Dragonfly- as its name indicates, this is the most common Dragonfly in the UK and can be found around almost any sort of body of water, even stagnant pools. Darter’s are a group of Dragonflies which do just that- they hover and then dart forwards to catch their prey mid-flight, before returning to a favourite perch to consume it. If you notice these Dragonflies, look out for their perches, often atop a plant or fence-post, but they can even be on wooden board-walks, heating up in the sun. Darters aren’t as restless flyers as Hawkers. The Common Darter female and juveniles are yellowish-brown bodied but the males are red-bodied. They can be distinguished from the less common Ruddy Darter by the former being smaller and having black legs. The only other thing you might confuse them with in flight is the Large Red Damselfly which has a longer, narrower body and, like all Damselflies, rests with its wings folded, while the Darter typically rests with its wings held forward.
Male Common Darter
Male Common Darter
Female Common Darter
Male Common Darter
Conditions: Too hot and sunny for words! Temperature: Max 27 Min 13C.
Meadow Brown Butterfly- This brown butterfly is worth looking out for, between June and September, in any grassy patch, or feeding on summer flowers like Knapweed, Bramble, Lavender, Marjoram, Rudbeckia or Buddleia. It is probably the Butterfly you are most likely to see wherever you are in Britain, except the high mountains (and Shetland!). One reason for its success is that the caterpillars feed on a wide range of grasses, which is another excuse to leave a patch of your garden with long grass all summer. It can be separated from other brown butterflies by its spot pattern which is almost always one white spot in a dark circle, in a brown wing with orange patches. (Gatekeepers have two white spots and more strongly orange wings, while Ringlets have brown wings and several ringed spots). The orange patching is more extensive in females than males (see photo’s)
Meadow Brown on Knapweed
Male Meadow Brown scaring an intruder on its Knapweed
Female Meadow Brown
. Conditions: Cloud with sunny intervals. Temperature: Max 18 Min 9C.
Lapwing are the UK birds with the most local names. We grew up with them as Peewits from their call, but maybe my favourite is Peasiewheep! I covered their flight display yesterday so today something about their behaviour on the ground. Being ground-nesting birds, their eggs and young are very vulnerable to predation by Gulls, Corvids, Foxes etc. They lay their highly camouflaged eggs on a slight rise so that the adults get the best view across the landscape, and they fly at any predators and mob them as soon as they come within range. They also feign injury, by lowering one wing so it appears broken, moving away from the nest to lure predators away and they even try to mislead human observers by making visits to false nest-sights. This behaviour led them to be called “full of trecherye” by Chaucer and, in the misogynistic language of the 17th century, ‘Plover’ was used as a word for ‘deceitful’ women. Their eggs were heavily harvested in the past and astonishingly, given the Lapwing is on the Red (Endangered) List, a licence can still be attained for egg-collection, though this
happens rarely. It is a shame more farmers don’t restore habitat for them as they eat many insect-pests. I love their punky crests and petrol-coloured backs. Conditions: Dry and cloudy. Temperature: Max 14 Min 6C.
Displaying Lapwing: We had the special joy of watching the dramatic flight displays of several pairs of Lapwing at Frampton Marsh RSPB reserve this week, and you may be able to catch this on moorland, farmland or wetland, though Lapwing numbers have reduced so much it is on the Red List for endangered species. The pairing display involves vertiginous climbs, dances on high so close the pair almost touch, and precipitous, tumbling falls back to earth, stalling just before they touch and swoop back up. This is accompanied by the female tilting her body, and the male making what has been described as a creaking-gate call. Because in these displays the primary wing feathers are outstretched (see photo’s) you can also hear a wonderful ‘whumping’ of the wing-beats- altogether spectacular. More about Lapwing in a couple of days. Conditions: Blustery showers. Temperature: Max 9 Min 6C.