Nature Notes: A Quick One

Looking after our grandson yesterday afternoon, we did an impromptu picnic on the lawn after he helped out pulling up weeds and couch grass from the borders.

We’d laid out an old sleeping bag and were chatting away when I spotted a creeping critter like the one in the image, making its way steadily under my wife’s legs. It’s not one I’ve noticed before as I’m sure I would have done given its bright colour and distinct red tail. It was about half the size of my little finger, the yellow of a highlighter pen, with black lateral markings which only appeared when it stretched forwards in motion. It was fairly hairy all over but it had four stiff looking tufts, like tiny shaving brushes, along the forward part of its back. It looked designed for dangerous intent, despite its size.

Ironically, the adult moth it would become is a most inconspicuous one. It is the Pale Tussock Moth, a moth whose grey colouring is perfect camouflage against tree bark.

The caterpillar was likely looking for a place to pupate. It does this under old leaf litter where it overwinters. A nice fact I found is that the caterpillars sometimes feed on hop leaves and the old hop pickers of Kent, in SE England, knew them as Hop Dogs.

The hairs are rumoured to cause skin irritation though I didn’t know it at the time and felt no ill effects after rescuing it from a potential picnic blanket tragedy.

I had no camera available so this is a stock shot, sorry, the best I could bear to find on google.

Nature Notes: Regular Ramblings

It’s September in England, seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness, and its colours are beginning to show. Here’s a beech tree, but you probably knew that. They are so numerous around our woods, it wouldn’t surprise me to find it’s our county tree.

You know, we’ve been in our new home almost seven months and I haven’t explored the local area that much. Now that I’m not working (again), I ought to get out some more, so I put on my boots this afternoon to go for a little stroll in the trees…

Along the way, I had this idea that I might do something regular to improve my nature knowledge. I don’t know if this’ll work out or peter out but I’ll give it a try. Each outing, I’m going to focus on a few things and see if I can work out what they are.

I ought to dig out a decent camera for the job. I have four but haven’t used them for years (one, an analogue 35mm SLR, I haven’t used at all – it’s mint! – but I’ll not be using that). For this trip, I had to use my phone – it’s all I had – it’s more hit and miss than point and shoot, as the bee photo below shows. Click the images for a better view.

First up is a bit of flora and fauna combo. The plant has the wonderful common name of Meadowsweet. It took a little bit of searching but the leaves gave it away. Its scent gives it away too, apparently reminiscent of germaline, but like a numpty I didn’t think to sniff it – I’m still a novice at this game. It’s medicinal too. It contains salicylic acid which was synthesised in 1897, called acetylsalicylic acid, and sold in pill form as “Anadin”.

The handsome fly feeding on its nectar probably didn’t have a headache but it wasn’t so easy to ID. I hadn’t realised there were so many hoverflies around. I think it’s Meliscaeva cinctella, and what’s more, she’s female. She really ought to have a common name to easily remember her by but maybe she’s too good for one.

Now why is it so difficult snapping a bumblebee? The leaves are more or less in focus but try as I might – and I did – the bees were a blur. What caught my eye was the striking mustard coloured thorax. I think they are Tree Bumblebees (bombus hypnorum), and not at all rare. Yet they were only first discovered in the UK as recently as 2001, and now they’re everywhere, except on the Isle of Man. Coming soon, Manxies! It’s an extraordinary bucking of the trend for beekind populations, a positive story.

Here’s a better image of one I swiped off the internet (credit: Stephen Falk).

By the way, my lot were sampling the sparse flowers over clumps of Comfrey. These were also known in olden times as “knitbone” and used in poultices to heal sprains, bruises and painful joints. However, it contains an alkaloid toxin which, absorbed through the skin over time, can possibly wreck your liver.

More next week…

The Builder Of Bridges #writephoto

a flash-fiction piece

“What’s down there?,” you ask. I’ll tell you.

Down there is curiosity, insight and awareness; but down there, for me, I’ll confess, is ego and pride.

For I am the Builder of Bridges. Though all you see is a simple means of getting from here to there, a journey so facile it’s over before you’ve paid it any mind. And even if you do slow a pace and look out over the parapet, what do you see? A scene which bears little relevance to your world at that moment. A world apart, merely a view, somewhere, down there. You might see far but you see very little.

“And the Hole?” Be brave, be curious; you must descend it to know…

Behold, the Bridge is not apart from the environment but a part of it. Look how the stones grow from the Earth and blossoming into its three Arches, the sweep of their curvature belying their physical strength, like graceful Atlas cradling the Firmament. See how the old world now embraces the younger pillars, the caress of passing waters, the hug of the road; how the very atmosphere clings to its lofty curves, how it assists the sounds of nature: a ripple, a footfall, the breeze rustling the leaves, a songbird.

“So, why is the hole so small, so narrow?” It’s a fair question, I’ll grant you.

I can only say that the fewer people that know of it, the sweeter it’s rewards will be. And, really, can one such as me, the Builder of Bridges, afford more ego and pride than I already have? The hole is the size that it ought to be, I’ll not say more.

(273 words)

written for Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo #writephoto prompt.

Nature Notes: Painted Ladies & Butterfly Bushes

It’s easy to see why butterflies have an appeal despite being bugs. The gentle, unthreatening way they move around and the diverse and spectacular colouring of the wings of some.

We have inherited a plethora of buddleia and it’s no wonder they are known also as “butterfly bushes”. I can’t remember seeing as many different butterflies before, outside of a butterfly house. They come to drink nectar out of the buddleia blooms; great tortoiseshells, peacocks, red admirals and painted ladies.

I read that it’s a favourable English Summer for painted ladies, a once-in-a-decade abundance partly due to the wind. Who’d have thought a good wind would benefit such fragile wings? It’s a long flight from North Africa otherwise.

The buddleias come from China. Originally, I mean. Ours probably came from a garden centre down the road. Probably just one or two as they are demons for self-propagation, as any trip along a railway in town will show you. They’re not fussy about where they settle in, even growing out of the sides of viaduct brick walls. Railway maintenance consider the species a nuisance.

We take out several plants leaving a few choice specimens where we can see the butterflies from our window, or from seats in the garden. Buddleias need attention, maintaining a good, constrained shape rather than a gangly, overbearing upstart. Pruning and dead heading also encourages fresh blooms, and more butterflies. That’s what you want – a butterfly bush.

More Stoats (nature notes)

What did I say?!

It had been a strange and frustrating journey home this evening. I set off in good time but my fellow drivers had other ideas:

First, there was an HGV struggling up a very steep hill. No problem on most days as it’s served by a dual carriageway. However, a guy two cars in front, driving what looked like a perfectly able car, barely managed to go faster than the trucker.

Secondly, I came across an unexpected tailback. It was caused by a stationary horsebox – not the trailer type but one of those pantechnicon things which always seem to be driven by a middle-aged, mumsie-looking woman in a gilet and head scarf. Sure enough, a woman seen matching that description – though minus scarf (it was warm) -could be seen on the other side of the road waving down traffic. God knows what that was about; maybe she’d misplaced her nag.

Following this, I managed to get behind slower-than-the-speed limit no. 2 but after a few twisty bends, the road opened up enough to pass. A couple more twisty bends and I was behind an old banger – slower-than-the-speed limit no. 3. It was an MG open-topped death trap, emitting a stench of two parts burnt oil to one part raw fuel, each time the driver shifted gear.

Finally, we hit another straight stretch where I passed safely. All in vain: around the next bend was a Romanian HVG barely touching 30. The speed limit for the road is 60mph.

Fortunately, it wasn’t too far from the cut through, a narrow country lane, where I spotted a stoat a week back. I turned into the lane and cruised about a mile from where the stoat was seen when I saw a group of animals scurrying along in the distance, tight into the verge.

I took them for partridge initially as there is a lot of game bred in these parts. I slowed right down as I approached them as birds are unpredictable, but then the group suddenly turned a right angle and I could see they were definitely stoats. One hundred percent.

Four of them, running across the road, leapfrogging, and playing what could have been stoat tag. I’m guessing they were siblings. What is the group noun for stoats? What do you call them at birth? A litter? A kettle? I don’t yet know.

The lesson of this tale to take away is not to get irritated by delay. It’s just time’s way of presenting an different experience. Had I not been held up, I’m sure I would have passed by long before the stoats happened to cross. It was a rewarding sight.

Colour me blue, or green, or anything you like.

Prof. Brian Cox’s recent documentary series, The Planets, on our solar system neighbours was brilliant though short and sweet. It’s on the iPlayer for the best part of a year so watch it if you can. It’s mind boggling and it makes me think how could there possibly be life anywhere else. As for humanoid aliens, especially ones which speak fluent English with American accents, no chance!

As I watched it n the BBC app, it threw up some other suggestions I might like and one of those is a documentary about colour. I watched two episodes and it’s okay, maybe a bit superficial scientifically but entertaining and well produced (link below).

The funny thing about colour is it probably doesn’t exist. Or, I should say, it didn’t exist until life developed eyes. And not all eyes: the earliest eye probably only distinguished between light and dark; then there are eyes which only see in monochrome shades. Even the human eye is limited, only able to detect light within the band known anthropologically as visible light. Only some critters, it is thought, see beyond that.

And even within the so-called visible light, different people see different colours. This idea came home to me this week when I was looking over a drawing with a colleague. It showed a floor plan of a building where each of the rooms was coloured corresponding to its use. A key to the side of the drawing explained what each colour meant bit there were so many room uses that some of the colours were indistinguishable at a glance.

My colleague pointed to a room and said it wasn’t clear what kind of room it was; it could, he said, be either one or other shades of green. This struck me as odd. I couldn’t determine which type of room it was either but to my eyes the colour was definitely one of the two shades of blue.

Admittedly it wasn’t lapis lazuli, more the colour of a clear morning sky with a little pollution. But it wasn’t green, no way. Or was it?

I had an odd notion that I could reproduce near enough the exact colour by mixing primaries, blue, red and yellow – pigments, not light, of course. But then the colleague would agree it was mixed perfectly, but he would still see it as green.

So, remember, when we’re visited by those little green men from outer space, they might actually be blue. Or, quite possibly to their eyes, deep x-ray-ultraviolet.

image (top): No. 61 (rust and blue) by Mark Rothko

Colour: The Spectrum of Science (BBC TV)

Nature Notes

It’s a funny thing I’ve found when noticing nature: as soon as you see an unusual animal, or plant, and identify it, you begin to see them all over the place. And a good thing about my drive into work in the mornings is spotting wildlife (and other animals).

This week, a stoat crossed my path (I don’t know if that’s ominous, like a black cat or something). Now I think I’ve seen the likes of this critter cross my path many times before but usually in a flash, and I’ve supposed it to be a weasel; a small, thin brown blur and it’s gone before you know it, into the grass or hedgerows.

The difference between a weasel and a stoat.

My country uncle once explained it to me:

“While weasels are weasily identifiable, stoats are stoatally different.”

Luckily this time my stoat decided to stop halfway across the road to look me over. The thing I noticed most about it in those couple of seconds was the black bushy end to its tail. When I had a chance to google it, I found that the black tail end is the surest way to tell the difference between it and a weasel. Weasel’s tails are stubby and hardly noticeable, and no black bits.

The weasel is the UK’s smallest carnivore so I’ll assume the stoat is our second smallest carnivore being just a couple of inches longer at around 10″, nose to tail. Even so, it preys on rabbits and can tackle an adult, no problem. Another significant difference between them is that stoats tend to hunt during daylight hours, though I’m sure I’ve spotted weasels during the day too.

So, now I’m on the look out for stoats and I expect to see thousands of them all over the place. See if I don’t.

image: Margaret Holland via Wildlife Trusts

Doing Almost Nothing for the Environment

Last weekend, firing up the Mountfield, I took aim and cut as graceful an arc as I could with a mower having a fixed wheel on each corner. We are “wilding” part of our front lawn and I was striking the dividing line.

It’s a trend. Now that we’ve started, we notice quite a few gardens have done it, many with an advanced growth of red poppies, cornflowers, and daisies. I expect there are other wild plants in there too though too short and too far away to see.

To speed things along, ready seeded turf can be laid, or you can sow wildflower mixtures from a seed packet. It’s much more interesting to watch how things develop by nature, I think, though there is a temptation to give it a helping hand. Of course, some intervention is necessary to stop the dominant weeds taking over, like dandelions. Though it can be a very useful plant – and not that unattractive I think – a lawn full of dandelion heads gives the ready impression of a neglectful gardener rather than a wilding one.

Already after seven days there are swaths of clover, buttercups, clumps of violet flowers – which I think are curiously named “self heal” or “heal-all” – and those ubiquitous small daisies kids sometimes make bracelets from. The grass itself is also putting up a variety of seed heads which normally wouldn’t see the light of day given regular mowing. Nature is having a small field day.

The point of this, and the reason we’re doing it, is the first hand experience of not seeing the normal quantity of insects here these past Summers. There are a number of uncertain reasons for this: unduly successive cold and wet Summers, excessive and discriminate use of “pest” controls, exotic diseases, trophic disruption and habitat loss.

Where have the bugs gone? Remember the Summer’s when you had to wash down the car windscreen after a jaunt through the countryside? I tell you, I can drive practically all Summer without needing to do this now.

Understandably, humans have a innate aversion to insects and for agriculturalists and gardeners historically they’ve been enemies no. 1, 2, 3 and beyond. Yet many insects are crucial to our survival, and all of them play important roles in a self sustainable ecological system. It’s fair to say we cannot know if the removal of any one seemingly insignificant bug has a big knock on effect, perhaps quite literally the butterfly effect.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens to our third of lawn left uncut – apart from digging out any rogue dandelions. And I don’t have as much grass to mow weekly, which is a very welcome bonus as well. Every bit helps.

hey, that image is not my wilding lawn but something I’d like to achieve.

Six Books for a Desert Island #3

I’m a bit of a nature boy at heart even though my knowledge might not be as deep as I’d like. As a little kid living in the boring suburbs, I treasured knowing the whereabouts of ponds. These were mainly artificial: created as obstacles on a golf course, or for coarse fishing clubs, or a rare dew pond made by a farmer long ago on the few remaining fields not yet swallowed up by the advance of metro-land. We would go pond dipping and bring home our zoological bounty in jam jars. One Christmas, I asked and got an optical microscope to see the tiniest of the pond’s inhabitants in a droplet of water: amoeba, daphnia, hydra, and the cyclops.

Later, I could have become a botanist. Exploring woods as a teen, I found a fascination in their prehistoric flora. The strange sights of various ferns, and mosses which, up close, looked like swathes of forests on a reduced scale.

Insects, birds and wild animals, all found their way into my heart too, a joy to see and study.

A Kestrel for a Knave (Barry Hines).

This was a set book on the English Literature syllabus at school. It was a rare good choice, I think: modern, accessible and appealing. The way literature was studied at school was to sample passages rather than begin at the beginning and read it through as the author intended. So, once I left school and chose to read for pleasure, this was one of the novels I picked out to read properly.

It’s also a “kitchen sink” story, a contemporary social commentary of working class life. The protagonist, Billy Casper, is poor, practically friendless, and in an unsupportive family. He has acquired a disdain for formal education, an unnecessarily harsh and systemically failing system. He takes solace in acquiring a fledgling kestrel which he sets out to train. He succeeds, with the help of a book on falconry he steals, and this comes to the attention of a kindly teacher who is the only person to take an interest in Billy’s life. It’s a great story and, like all good fiction, carries much truth.

Excellent alternative reads, all non-fiction;

The Peregrine by JA Baker.

Beautifully written accounts of bird observations in an estuary in the east of England, on an author’s search to discover falcons in the wild.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.

More hawk training. A goshawk this time, a bird notoriously difficult to master.

A Sting in the Tail by Dave Goulson.

Not birds but bumblebees. A fascinating and entertaining read nevertheless. For a scientist, Goulson is a very accessible writer without too much dumbing down. Bumblebees, probably the most essential creature of the lot.

Tempting the gods #writephoto

a flash-fiction piece

I stand high on the cliff’s edge observing the one below; I cannot make out their sex. My head spins and my knees feel like jelly from acrophobia, though it’s not the height that worries me so much as what’s below my feet. Solid earth all the way down or just an outcrop of unreliable rock and then nothing but unsupportive air? All that and the look of the unimpeded edge, and this fallen angel on my shoulder who may, for reasons of mischief, cast a spell of impetuousness in my mind, urging me to step forwards.

But the scene below entices a curiosity. The person stands stock still looking towards the sea which, by stealthy degrees, creeps ever closer to their feet. I begin to count the waves. There is a rhythm of seven: six in a row simply tease and never appear to advance before the backwash reclaims them. Then comes the seventh, stronger than before. Taking all by surprise, it rushes the shore, an inch or two, or three, a line closer than before. Yet the person stands firm.

I think of King Cnut, poised on a throne brought by attendants to face the waves. The purpose was to show he had no rule over nature and could not command the tides. Mother Earth treats all her kin the same, whether pauper or king. She gets on with the business of running her house and we all have to fall in with her scheme, like it or not. It is better to like it, I think, and speaking of falls; what plans has she for this cliff edge now? I decide not to tempt her, nor my impish angel. I step away from the cliff, and leave the person below to a fate of their own choosing.

(300 words)

written for Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo #writephoto prompt – “Choices”