Waxwings– on Wednesday afternoon, after standing in the freezing but sunny conditions on Cemetery Avenue, Sheffield, just before the light went, and after the Sparrowhawk that had scared them away just before I arrived flew away to hunt elsewhere, a flock of about 30 Waxwings started to come to the tree which still had berries. Named from the markings which resemble drops of wax on their wing feathers (see photo), the males have slightly broader tails and larger, darker throat markings. Always such a treat, this starling-sized and silky, beautifully marked, crested migrant from Scandinavia and Russia comes over in varying numbers, often to our amenity-planted urban trees, to feed from late berries. Good berry-yields in their native lands one year produces high numbers of Waxwings and are often followed by poor berry-yielding years, when we may get an “irruption” of many thousands of these great birds to feed on
Waxwing, hoarding berries in its throat
Waxwing- these bright marks on its wing give it its name.
our rowan, hawthorn, cotoneaster and decorative trees. So far this year they are over in fairly small numbers but this may change. Conditions: Grey and calm after a snow flurry late last night. Temperature: Max 3 Min 1C
I love watching the Heron skulking in the reeds, or taking off on the unique, lazy, m-shaped flight which you might watch on any wetland, estuary, or on the lake in your town park, transforming from a static shadowy, hunched form, unfolding
to an elegant, airborne giant in seconds. In Greek mythology Herons were thought of as bringers of bad luck. Heron’s feed in shallow water, and the Greeks realised this meant their presence would reveal, to enemies, the shallow crossing places they could use to invade. Herons used to appear on upper-class menus, as this recipe from the 1400’s shows: “Take a heron…serve him…scalding and drawing and kuttyng the bone of the nekke away, and let the skyn be on…roste….his sause is to be mynced with pouder of ginger, vynegre and mustard”. Thankfully, they (and we) are now protected from this practice! Conditions: A bright morning becoming grey and very wet. Temperature: Max 9 Min 7C.
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.
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.
Crab Apples are great small trees for the wildlife garden, with beautiful blossom in spring, feeding Bees and other insects, often good leaf-colour in autumn, and long-lasting fruits that can provide food for birds well into winter. Crab Apples can be kept pruned to shape and size if you have limited space, too. However, different varieties work better for birds, and the very prolific Golden Hornet here in our garden, very seldom attracts birds, probably because the fruits are smaller and harder than other varieties. Grey Squirrels will eat them, as they were today. John Downie and others Crab Apple varieties work better for birds. Conditions: Grey, dry and mild. Temperature: Max 10 Min 3c.
Grey Squirrel, Crab Apples
Grey Squirrel, Crab Apple
Grey Squirrels, Crab Apple
While the drought caused a “false fall” for some of our trees which therefore lost their leaves early, the summer sun, extending into late autumn has led many trees to hold onto their leaves longer than usual, as has the relative lack of high winds and rain. Leaf senescence (leaf-drop), results from a complex set of relationships between climate, genes and chemicals, but whenever it happens, it is a result of the deciduous plant or tree redirecting its nutrients and chemicals away from leaves, from the tree-tops initially, shutting down fluids and corking over the leaf-ends so they fall. The autumn colours on some plants are a result of chlorophyll being broken down, the green fading and revealing the carotenoids and flavonoids, which glow red, orange, yellow etc. This year our garden colours, seen here,
Cotinus Golden Spirit, usually this far north it remains yellow in autumn but not this year
Fallen leaves of Rowan Joseph Rock
Rowan Joesph Rock and Cotinus Grace, and the Oak still full of leaf
are enhanced by the sugars built up from so much sunshine this summer and autumn. Conditions: Mild and cloudy. Temperature: Max 13 Min 5C.
Rowan Berries– this has certainly been an atypical year in many ways. We have never kept the berries on our native Rowan this late in the year. Probably due to the proliferation of fruits and berries in the wild, the Blackbirds have only just started eating them, as the cooler weather comes in. The yellow berries on our Rowan ‘Joseph Rock’ are varying in colour from nearly white to rosy red- again, a first since it was planted about 15 years ago, and probably due to extra sugars from this year’s excessive dry heat. The stunning autumn colours of the Joseph Rock leaves are, however, beginning to glow as usual. Conditions: Cool, drizzle clearing to sunny intervals. Temperature: Max 9 Min 2C.
Male Blackbird eating Joseph Rock Rowan berries
Blackbird on Joseph Rock Rowan
Female Blackbird eating native Rowan berries