Sleeping Plants & Lively Birds

The garden looks a little lifeless at the moment – rust hues, bare branches and the odd evergreen. But something is going on beneath the soil…

Many garden plants have evolved to withstand cold winters and as temperatures drop their metabolism starts to slow down. And so does everything else. Dormancy allows plants and nature to rest before day length and temperatures increase again. Something we can learn from our gardens and green spaces. We live in a fast-paced world that never stops. But maybe if we just rest, eat and sleep well, we can replenish a little, like the garden in winter.

On reading up on plant dormancy, I discovered photosynthesis stops and as there are no leaves, flowers or fruits, no food is made. Even in evergreens. So the sugars that were formed last spring are now stored in a trees root system. And I was surprised to discover that this time of year is when tree roots can do most of their growing. I’m no gardener, but there’s something special about knowing how plants in our garden get through the winter. Their familiarity soothes and seeing how they change and develop throughout the seasons is comforting. A bit like a friend that is always there.

Despite the plants being sleepy there’s been lots of activity from the birds…

My favourite garden visitor, songster and beloved Mr B is back! Okay, it may not be my original Mr B, given that the average lifespan of a blackbird is three and a half years but he’s adorable all the same and I look forward to his song in spring and wonder what it will sound like as each year his repertoire seems slightly different.

I’ve discovered a charming Italian folktale about this time of year and the blackbird. It was once thought blackbirds had white feathers and this legendary tale starts in Roman times when the yearly calendar was quite different – January had twenty-eight days and February thirty-one. One January it was so cold the blackbird, with its white feathers chose to stay in the nest until February. January was most upset about this and asked February to grant him three extra days. January avenged with ice and snow which buffeted the blackbird in its nest. The blackbird flew from the nest and into a chimney to hide from the storms and came out three days later once the bad weather had passed. And now the last three days of January are known to be the coldest and blackbirds’ feathers will forever remain black from the soot.

There’s been plenty of visits from the cheery robin too. The distinguishing feature of ‘our’ robin is the upside down heart-shaped red breast.

There are many myths, folklore and superstitions relating to robins and they are known for being helpful and holy. I learnt, if you cracked a robin’s egg your crockery would break. And Christian stories tell of Jesus dying on the cross and the robin doing his best to peck out and remove the thorns, thus, staining the robin’s breast feathers with blood. Other robin tales relate to fire. There’s a Christian story of the robin burning his breast when he used his wings as bellows when trying to keep baby Jesus warm in his manger. Again, the robin is thought of as caring in Welsh lore too, as it is said, the robin flew down to Hell and carried water in his beak for the souls that were trapped there. But the robin got too close to the hellish flames and burnt his breast, marking it permanently red.

With less foliage in the garden, winter seems to be a good time for birdwatching. Not only do I like to see which species visit the garden but I enjoy watching their mannerisms. Mrs B seems the dominant of the two at the moment and tends to shoo off Mr B. The woodpigeon often stands guard and many other birds don’t get a look in. When starlings appear the bird table gets busy and like bank robbers, they fly in, grab the goods and go – too quick for me to get a photograph.

Just last week I had an exciting visitor – my first grey wagtail in the garden! A deceiving name as the grey wagtail has lots of yellow. A birding friend advised me it could be female or a first winter bird.

Not the clearest photographs as I had to take them through the window. The last grey wagtail I saw was at the nature reserve where I used to volunteer. How wonderful this water loving bird should visit our garden.

There are three wagtails in the UK: The pied wagtail, a delightful black and white bird often seen in urban areas, the yellow wagtail, a stunning yellow and green bird that migrates to the UK in summer all the way from Africa, and the grey wagtail, which frequents flowing rivers and feeds on midges, ants, snails and tadpoles in shallower water. On reading up on them I found out they can also be seen in farmyards and towns in winter – so that’s the idea for his (or her) recent visit!

“Tame birds sing of freedom. Wild birds fly.” – John Lennon

Enjoy the birdlife and natural world where you are. And don’t forget if you’re in the UK, it’s the RSPB’s Big Garden Bird Watch 27th – 29th January – the UK’s largest wildlife survey. Whether you’re counting birds in your garden, balcony or local park, it’s a great citizen science project to be involved with. If you’re elsewhere in the world (or in the UK too) and want participate with helping monitor global bird populations, next month is the Great Backyard Bird Count, 17th – 20th February in association with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Audubon and Birds Canada.







References

https://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2014/06/11/4022947.htm

https://www.audubon.org/

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1T9Srfw07gxlN8VnDVSmt7p/feathered-friends-or-foes-eight-birds-rich-in-myth-and-folklore

https://www.birdscanada.org/

https://www.birds.cornell.edu/home/

https://www.birdcount.org/

Lore of the Wild, Folklore and Wisdom From Nature by Claire Cock-Starkey

https://www.mammaprada.com/home/the-days-of-the-blackbird-or-i-giorni-della-merla

https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/grey-wagtail/

https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/birdwatch/

https://www.thedodo.com/dodowell/bird-quotes

https://treescharlotte.org/tree-education/winter-dormancy-in-trees/

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/birds/larks-sparrows-pipits-wagtails-and-dunnock/grey-wagtail

https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2018/05/why-does-sap-rise-in-spring/

https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/animals/birds/blackbird/#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20RSPB%2C%20the,life%20expectancy%20is%203.4%20years.

Winter News & Garden Creativity

The days have been cold, damp and dark. I know we shouldn’t wish time away, but I do look forward to spring. Good news then, as the shortest day is around the corner.

From the 21st December onwards (in the northern hemisphere) the days will get longer and nights reduce. The shortest day, based on sunlight, is nearly 9 hours shorter than the summer solstice. Just knowing that will make me savour those hours in June. Early cultures recognised this day and celebrated the returning of the light. I feel there’s something deep rooted within us that looks for the light. Not only in terms of survival and planting but spiritually too, just like our ancient ancestors.

“One must maintain a little bit of summer, even in the middle of winter” – Henry David Thoreau.

Winter has its beauty though, often in the form of skies. When I’m up sometimes in the early hours I gaze out of the window and observe the moon’s calming presence. I’m not sure why I love the moon so much? Maybe in this ever-changing world, where there is much unrest and uncertainty the moon is there, constant and reassuring. I find its presence soothes my mind and after viewing it in the middle of the night, I hold its silvery image in my head and drift off back to sleep.

December’s full moon was on the 7th and is known as the Cold Moon. And it’s been freezing cold here since! Those temperatures have done wonders for bird sightings in the garden though.

Spot the Sparrow…

The Long-tailed tits have made an appearance…

In winter Long-tailed tits go round together in flocks – made up of parents, offsprings and ‘helpers’ (these are the birds that lost their own nests in spring and helped raise other chicks).

Adult Lesser black-backed gulls often visit the rooftops here in the suburbs. Thanks to identification tips from the RSPB, I now know this gull is older than two years, as their first and second winter plumage look very different.

Blue tit camouflaging in the remaining leaves.

I’m putting out seed, sultanas, buggy nibbles and fat balls for the birds. They need all the extra calories they can to keep warm this time of year. When reading up on birds in winter, I discovered Blue tits have only enough fat reserves to get them through one cold night! They then spend 85% of daylight hours foraging for food. The BTO states both, Blue and Great tits can be 5% lighter at dawn than they were the previous night when going to roost.

My parents discovered Blue tits are plucky little birds too as they’ve heard mysterious tapping sounds coming from the bat box in their garden? My dad got in touch with the Bat Conservation Trust hoping they could help solve the mystery. The response was the knocking noise was unlikely to be bats because they would be hibernating. It was suggested Blue tits will often get in through small openings meant for bats, seeking shelter from the cold. Blue tits will not only use the boxes to roost during winter but are also likely to feed on an array of invertebrates looking for shelter too, such as spiders and earwigs. Good to know the Blue tits can seek shelter and have a banquet!

A Great tit inspecting the bird box.

Festive Garden Creativity

I saw on Twitter, gardening and wildlife correspondent and fellow bee enthusiast, Jean Vernon has made an all natural, biodegradable Christmas wreath. There’s no plastic, wire or foam and once Christmas is over the wreath can be hung outside to naturally degrade. Jean advises to use pliable strands such as red dogwood, willow or hazel. If you want to have a go, her full instructions are here.

A friend kindly asked her neighbour to prune their willow tree so I was able to make circlets!

I then built the wreath up in layers using holly, ivy and snippets of a neighbour’s fir hedge. Whilst it may not be the most professional looking wreath I’m pleased with the result and it was worth having a go despite some neck and shoulder pain when looking down.

The only non-natural material I used was the ribbon to hang it up with and I can keep that for another year.

Good luck if you give it a try but mind the prickly holly!

So as the year draws to a close I’d like to share some positive news. Since being on the journey of chronic illness and limited mobility it’s given me the time and headspace to write – something I’ve always wanted to do. So during the Covid pandemic I hooked up with like-minded nature writers online after attending a nature writing course with the FSC and the excellent Emma McKenzie. Her experience and encouragement enabled the group to produce some wonderful nature writing. And the work is now published in an anthology, Seeds of Promise, available on Amazon, £8. All profits will be split between two charities: The Wildlife Trusts; a wildlife organisation that has 2,300 nature reserves across the UK and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust; a science led nature organisation with many projects helping bumblebees and highlighting their plight. BBCT’s work raises awareness educates and engages people so more spaces can be made for bumblebees. This also helps all pollinators.

If you enjoy reading about the natural world and nature writing, please do consider purchasing a copy as the funds go towards great causes and help protect our natural world.

The book contains exercises we completed on the course so you can write about nature where you are and have a go at poetry and fiction too. There are also stunning ink illustrations from Sharon Williamson, a writer on the course.


Lastly, I thank you very much for following my blog this year and wherever you are in the world have a peaceful Christmas and very best wishes for 2023.


References

https://www.almanac.com/full-moon-december

https://www.bats.org.uk/

Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness

https://www.bto.org/our-science/projects/gbw/gardens-wildlife/garden-birds/behaviour/keeping-warm

https://www.field-studies-council.org/courses-and-experiences/art-and-leisure-courses/

https://www.richardjacksonsgarden.co.uk/how-to-make-a-sustainable-christmas-wreath/

https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/when-winter-solstice-shortest-day

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/long-tailed-tit/nests/#:~:text=Long%2Dtailed%20tits%20are%20very,offspring%2C%20plus%20the%20nest%20helpers.

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/lesser-black-backed-gull/

https://sharonwilliamsonart.blogspot.com/

https://thegreenjeanie.com/

https://www.timeanddate.com/sun/uk/london?month=12

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/

Weekend In Wales

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was fortunate enough to hook up with some storytellers online. These weekly sessions opened up my world, as two years prior to that, when chronic illness hit, things became very isolating physically and mentally. But during our weekly meet ups, I listened to poetry, songs and the old tradition of oral storytelling. Yes, ‘Once upon a time’ is not only for children. I’ve listened to folktales from the British Isles and faraway lands, moving true stories and mystical fables.

Humans are hard-wired to the art of storytelling. We can share problems, emotions and learn lots from each other. So when it was suggested in the summer we all meet one weekend, I got rather excited! Could I go? Would I be well enough? Could I cope staying in a hotel? What would the journey be like?  The questions and doubts were endless but a venue was chosen in North Wales – a good destination for people in England, Scotland, Wales and those just across the Irish Sea to get to. Storytelling friends that couldn’t make it and those from further afield, such as the USA would join us on Zoom for the storytelling sessions.

After making phone calls to the hotel ensuring, yes, there was a lift, yes, there were rooms with a walk-in shower, not over a bath, and yes, I could have an extra duvet and pillows if need be. I was ready to go!

Not only was I apprehensive about meeting people I’d only ever known as little boxes on a computer screen but also how my body would cope out of its comfort zone and routine where everything is just as I need it at home. Being a passenger in a car still raises my anxiety, following the accident. But I made it! Huge thanks to my husband of course, I couldn’t have done it without his help and kindness.

Photographs of Wales wouldn’t be complete without; mountains, stone walls, slate and of course, sheep.

In fact there were plenty of ‘sheep themed’ items about and I particularly liked this sheep toilet roll holder in the hotel’s accessible toilet…

Arriving Friday afternoon we had a free evening and met some of the group. I was often known as ‘Charlotte in the red room’. It’s funny, these people have been in my life, albeit virtually, for a couple of years and although I’ve only just met them, I know the pattern of their lounge curtains, their love of books or whatever else is in the background where their computer is set up.

A joy to see this juvenile gull both mornings.

Saturday we had a free day so visited RSPB Conway, an accessible nature reserve on the Conway estuary. The reserve was formed from burrowed materials when the main A55 road and tunnel was built. Nearly 30 years old, this man-made reserve is now home to much wildlife.

Garden birds galore, including Blue tits and Great tits visited the birdfeeders situated close to the car park.

Also a very colourful, resident feral pigeon…

There are different trials to be walked and we managed just a small loop which was part of the Blue tit and Redshank Trail. The paths are flat and either boardwalk or compacted gravel with benches dotted along the way and many of them run alongside reedbeds.

I was so grateful the reserve had flat paths and a short distance to viewing points. It’s been so long since I visited a nature reserve and my birding skills, (which were never the greatest) have become even rustier – so a huge thank you to the kind gentleman in the hide that helped me with my wetland bird identifications and staff at RSPB Conway.

Lapwings are one of my favourite birds. Whenever I see them I imagine stroking that beautiful long feathered crest. They’re also known as the Peewit after their distinctive call. They look black and white from a distance but if you get close you can see iridescent greens. Look out for their characteristic wide wings when they take to the air in flocks. Their flight can be quite floppy and their Latin name, Vanellus vanellus translates to ‘little fan’. They are often visitors to grasslands and wetlands but sadly now a red list species and are one of the UK’s many declining farmland birds and vulnerable in Europe. 

Whilst not the clearest photograph, you can see the Snipe’s characteristic long bill, which is used to probe in the mud and find insects. They’re quite stout and rounded birds and known for having ‘sewing machine-like’ feeding methods. And the below right photograph shows how good they are at camouflage – to the right of the Teal.

A petite and attractive duck, Teal are the UK’s smallest duck and can be seen in large numbers in winter. They fall into the group known as ‘dabbling ducks’, which means they feed at the surface instead of diving underwater for food. Nevertheless, you can often see dabblers’ bums in the air as they stick their heads underwater – a position Mallards commonly take.

I love the curled tail on the male Mallard and like all ducks I find them rather comical. I discovered from the BTO, because the male and female are so dissimilar, they were once thought to be a different species. And I was surprised to learn they are on the amber list of conservation concern due to winter population declines. A stark reminder to never take any species for granted.

A little blurry as some distance away but I was over the moon to see this wader – the Black-tailed Godwit. In summer they’ll have a brighter orange-brown plumage but their grey-brown winter feathers camouflaged well into the surroundings and this bird’s Latin name, Limosa limosa translates to ‘muddy’ – apt as they fed on the mudbanks. According to the BTO it’s regrettably another red list species and near threatened globally.

After viewing the many wetland birds and on heading back to the car park, I was drawn to this rambling feathery plant…

I checked my PlantNet app and discovered it’s called, Old Man’s Beard, Clematis vitalba, also known as Traveller’s Joy. It looked to be a scrambling climber and the white feathery ‘beards’ are the seeds.

I discovered from Plant Life, it’s our native Clematis and when in flower it produces a vanilla scent. There are many other charming names for this plant, such as: Hedge Feathers, Grandfather’s Whiskers, Maiden Hair and Virgin’s Bower, thought to have gained its name from sheltering Mary and the baby Jesus during their flight into Egypt. But I found the name, Devils Guts rather intriguing. It’s thought to have come from the plant doing ‘the devil’s work’ by being invasive and killing other plants as it outcompetes. Despite being thought of as a weed, when in flower it’s a great nectar source for bees, hoverflies and moths.

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin” – William Shakespeare

Wherever you’re viewing wildlife, be it a balcony, park, garden or nature reserve enjoy its beauty and give it space.




References

An Encyclopaedia of Plants in Myth, Legend, Magic and Lore by Stuart Phillips

Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness

https://www.bto.org/develop-your-skills/bird-identification/videos/identifying-black-tailed-and-bar-tailed-godwit

https://app.bto.org/birdfacts/results/bob1860.htm

https://app.bto.org/birdfacts/results/bob5320.htm

https://www.bto.org/develop-your-skills/bird-identification/videos/bto-bird-id-common-and-jack-snipe

Collins Complete British Wildlife Photoguide by Paul Sterry

https://plantnet.org/en/

https://www.plantlife.org.uk/uk/discover-wild-plants-nature/plant-fungi-species/travellers-joy

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/black-tailed-godwit/

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/lapwing/

https://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/reserves-a-z/conwy/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limosa_(disambiguation)

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/birds/wading-birds/lapwing

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/birds/waterfowl/teal

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife/how-identify/how-identify-dabbling-ducks

https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/plants/wild-flowers/travellers-joy/

Catch Up & When Things Don’t Go To Plan

The last couple of months have been strange. It’s a long time since my last post. Too long. I planned to do a post for Folklore day in August and one for late summer in September, but things change and don’t always go to plan.

Mid August I was in a car accident and suffered concussion. I’m still suffering with migraines and this post has been put together in ten minute bursts as screens make me feel so nauseous. I really miss reading, writing and TV is out too. Has it always been that glaringly bright? Since my last post, here in the UK Queen Elizabeth II has passed, we’re well into autumn and all is quiet in our garden – where are the birds? These recent events have left me in a rather reflective mood. I feel like I need to rest, be slow and replenish. Fitting for the time of year as nature slows down too. So here’s a back garden catch up.

Butterflies Galore!

Towards the end of summer we had visits from two blue butterflies – the Common Blue and the Holly Blue.

The Common Blue flits among the grasses low to the ground and enjoys feeding on Bird’s-foot-trefoil. In more southern areas of the UK they are said to have two broods; laying eggs May to June and August to September but further north one brood flies all summer.

The Holly Blue flies higher and lays its eggs on holly in the spring and the second generation lays eggs on ivy. They often enjoy aphid honeydew, take minerals from moist mud and can be seen on carrion too. They overwinter as a chrysalis, so don’t be too tidy this autumn and leave areas where overwintering insects can complete their lifecycle. Because of their flighty characteristics, I was pleased to get this photo when it eventually settled on the rosebay willow herb after dancing around our ivy wall.

Like other blue butterfly species they have an association with ants. The caterpillars give off a smell which attracts ants and they then produce a honeydew-like liquid for the ants to enjoy. In return, the ants guard caterpillars and pupae from potential predators. What a great relationship!

The most well-known blue and ant relationship is between the rare (in the UK) and globally endangered Large Blue butterfly. The Large Blue lays her eggs on wild thyme or marjoram whereupon the caterpillars feed for several days then drop to the ground, giving off an enticing smell of red ants. As worker red ants pass, they are tricked into thinking this caterpillar is one of their own larvae and return it to the brood chamber in the ant nest.  How sweet. But then things get grisly. The ants tend and feed the caterpillar like it’s their own. But as the caterpillar grows and needs more food it devours the ant grubs, enabling it to fatten up and pupate underground during winter. Despite the size difference, the ant colony is capable of killing and evicting the caterpillar. But they don’t, as the caterpillar makes a clicking sound, imitating a queen ant. So the ants’ nest ignores the consuming of their colony.

We’ve had plenty of Small and Large Whites visit the garden. Large Whites are, as the name suggests bigger with darker wingtips. They have two broods a year and the caterpillars are ferocious eaters of brassicas, making them unpopular with gardeners. It seems that Small White caterpillars don’t devour cabbages with the same intensity as the Large White and they also have two broods.

Numbers of white butterflies can greatly increase when migrants arrive from mainland Europe. Something I find quite extraordinary – that these delicate insects travel great distances and make it across the channel.

Not the best photograph I know but I was overjoyed to see this long distance migrant resting on our windowsill. The Painted Lady butterfly makes its way from North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Once they arrive in mainland Europe, UK and Ireland they lay eggs and the caterpillars feast upon nettles, thistles and viper’s-bugloss. The offsprings then return back to warmer climates in the autumn as it’s not possible for them to overwinter here at any stage of their development.

Another migrant butterfly is the Red Admiral. It’s a distinctive large butterfly that often visits gardens and makes its way from southern Europe and North Africa from May through to August. They’ve been known to successfully overwinter here in the south and I’ve seen them in our garden into November  – good reason to not cut back ivy and leave it to flower. The adults also enjoy rotting fruit and the caterpillars’ main food plant is nettles. 

When I zoomed in close, I wanted to stroke this stunning Red Admiral butterfly!

As ever, my garden and its visitors have been a great source of comfort whilst having sickly migraines and further physical pain. But one day I discovered a practice I’ve now called…

… Hoverfly Meditation!

As I sat with my eyes closed, sunglasses on and wide brimmed hat pulled down like a hung-over vampire to keep out bright sunlight, I noticed a buzz nearby. Not the low hum of a bumblebee but higher pitched. I opened my eyes and there was a hoverfly, Eristalis tenax – aka the dronefly. It’s a honeybee mimic and I find there’s something rather adorable about an animal that pretends to be scarier than it actually is. What a great way to keep predators at bay by faking a sting and having similar colouration and markings as a honeybee. This type of mimicry, whereby a harmless animal mimics a more dangerous species is called Batesian mimicry, named after the nineteenth century naturalist, H.W.Bates.

My scalp throbbed and eyeballs ached after watching the hoverfly for some time so I closed my eyes and listened. Hearing the breeze in the drying summer leaves was calming and after opening my eyes again, he was still there. I say he because those large compound eyes touched at the top and this signifies a male. Momentarily a showy green-bottle joined him and then took off in a hurry. No doubt on its way to a corpse, dung or somewhere else more appealing than flowers. But in the meantime the dronefly enjoyed the golden petals of rudbeckia. I closed my eyes again, enjoying the air on my skin. I played ‘peek-a-boo hoverfly’ for some time. And whenever I closed my eyes the image of the hoverfly on the rudbeckia replaced the image and sounds of the car accident – the crash of metal and squawk of police radio.

I often think about the connections of every little wild animal I come across in our small suburban garden – their journey and purpose, which is usually food for something else. And it’s recently been discovered by research biologists at the University of Exeter more insects than originally thought undertake incredible migration journeys. I find insect migration extraordinary. I discovered more about it whilst attending an online webinar with the Fields Studies Council. Insect migration scientist, Will Hawkes is doing his PhD on the subject and witnessed insects migrate in their billions, through the Pyrenees and as far away as Cyprus and beyond to the Middle East. Do check the film out; it’s called The Most Remarkable Migrants of All. How truly amazing that these little insects with a brain no bigger than a pinhead migrate across huge distances laying eggs as though go. I think of it like a relay race but instead of a baton being passed they are reproducing. So next time you see a hoverfly pollinating your flowers, have a think of its journey – it could be the great great grandchild of one that left another continent.

I may not be able to change things for nature globally and on a large scale but by putting out bird food, water for wildlife and growing pollinator friendly plants I may just be able to help passing migrants and local wildlife. So I leave you with a few words from a previous Christmas speech by Queen Elizabeth II…

“…thousands of small acts of goodness can be bigger than we imagine.”

Queen Elizabeth II





References

https://www.bigissue.com/news/the-queen-incredible-charitable-legacy/

https://www.britannica.com/science/Batesian-mimicry

https://butterfly-conservation.org/butterflies/large-blue

https://butterfly-conservation.org/butterflies/painted-lady

https://butterfly-conservation.org/butterflies/red-admiral

https://butterfly-conservation.org/sites/default/files/large_blue-psf.pdf

Extraordinary Insects by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson

https://www.field-studies-council.org/courses-and-experiences/

Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland by Richard Lewington

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/other-garden-wildlife/insects-and-other-invertebrates/butterflies/holly-blue-butterfly/

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/other-garden-wildlife/insects-and-other-invertebrates/butterflies/painted-lady-butterfly/

The Garden Jungle or Gardening to Save the Planet by Dave Goulson

https://www.wbrc.org.uk/worcrecd/Vol1Iss3/holly2.htm

https://www.willhawkesphotography.com/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S3LTa8Ako-M

As Summer Flutters By


We’re into August and the crazy hot spell has passed. And Mr B’s lyrical song has been replaced with worn out feathers.

I’ve sat in the garden on many days reaping the results of the #NoMowMay campaign – oxeye daisies and a lawn full of clover. Grasshoppers stridulated like tiny percussionists and together with bees they played the rhythm of summer. And I was happy to listen.


The Common Carder bee Bombus pascuorum is one of the UK’s most commonest bumblebees, but they can vary in colouration. I’ve seen some that are creamy and others a deep chestnut. And this time of year, they, like Mr B can get a little worn and bald.

Teasels are a great food source for the bees and once summer is over we’ll leave them to go to seed for the goldfinches to enjoy.

Amongst the low drone of bumblebees I had the joyous summer sight of Leafcutter bees.

These solitary bees that fly on their ‘magic carpets’ (cut leaves) seem to love bee nesters and we’ve thankfully had them most years.

Leafcutters are one of the largest bee groups with nearly 1,500 species. And the world’s largest bee belongs to this group – Wallace’s Giant bee Megachile pluto from Indonesia. But here in the UK there are currently just seven species. I find identification between the different types difficult but the visitors to our garden this summer are likely to be the Patchwork Leafcutter bee Megachile centuncularis, due to them favouring bee hotels and also the rich orange pollen brush underneath the female’s abdomen.


Nesting alongside the Mason bees, this Leafcutter bee has started constructing its leafy cells, ready for its egg to pupate over autumn, hibernate during winter, to then hopefully emerge next spring.

Mud and Pesto…

The bee nester shows evidence of two types of Mason bees: The Red Mason bee Osmia bicornis – a spring and early summer flying bee that builds its nest cells from wet mud. Below these muddy entrance caps the photo shows a different kind of substance – a sign of what is likely to be the Blue Mason bee Osmia caerulescens. They fly into late July and can visit urban gardens. Their nest cells are made from chewed up leaves or petals. The leafy entrance when fresh reminded me of pesto!

Too Hot!

This summer’s extreme temperatures appeared to be too much for Hebe bush. It’s usually still in full bloom this time of year and has often had flowers going into October, even November. The street Buddleia however, is faring better than our Hebe.

Known as the ‘Butterfly Bush’, the Buddleia has had very few butterflies on. I was quite concerned as butterfly numbers in the garden have been so low this year. And Butterfly Conservation stated last year’s Big Butterfly Count revealed the lowest number of butterflies ever recorded since the count started twelve years ago.

Butterflies are sensitive to climatic changes and together with habitat destruction and pesticides have resulted in a huge decline. In fact, Butterfly Conservation states 76% of butterflies have declined since 1976. But they have a vision – ‘A world where butterflies and moths thrive and can be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere.’ But of course our help is needed and they can’t do it alone. Even if we only have a small area or window box, to plant nectar rich flowers in a sunny area such as; marjoram, wallflower and lavender, will help adult butterflies greatly. We also need to refrain from using pesticides and insecticides and if space allows, leave a ‘wild area’ such as nettles and grasses so caterpillars can feed. Even if space is limited, do check out Butterfly Conservation’s tips on gardening for butterflies.

A Large White basking in the sun and nectaring on wallflower.

A Small Tortoiseshell looking leaf-like on the Hebe…

A Gatekeeper feeding on Echinops…

And the similar looking Meadow Brown refuelling on Buddleia.  Notice the white eyespot in the centre of the larger blackspot – the Meadow Brown has one, whereas the Gatekeeper has two. The Meadow Brown is also slightly larger and its orange colouring isn’t as bright.

One of my favourite butterflies (if it’s possible to choose) is the Ringlet. They feed from different flowers and are one of the few butterflies that fly in overcast or dull weather. I find their wings are like velvet and together with the striking eyespots identify this glade and hedgerow loving butterfly.

There is still time to join in with The Big Butterfly Count if you’re in the UK as it ends 7th August. It’s a great citizen science project where you watch butterflies for fifteen minutes and record any sightings.

Whilst some butterflies were easy to see, feeding upon nectar and fluttering in the air, others could be mistaken for a fallen leaf…

Can you see it? It’s the darker looking ‘leaf’ in the centre of the picture.

And other wildlife was easily camouflaged too…

A sparrow in the Cherry tree.

At first I wondered what was making this rustling sound amongst the leaf litter, then noticed the baby blackbird. Was it one of ‘our’ Mr B’s?

And lastly, (a dull photo as it was at night) I sat outside one evening watching the bats aerial display, I heard a rustling sound coming from the shrubbery and was delighted to see this prickly visitor…

As summer flutters by, enjoy the wildlife, day or night.





References

https://butterfly-conservation.org/how-you-can-help/get-involved/gardening/gardening-for-butterflies

https://butterfly-conservation.org/news-and-blog/big-butterfly-count-2021-sees-lowest-ever-number-of-butterflies-recorded

https://butterfly-conservation.org/our-work/our-strategy

https://butterfly-conservation.org/sites/default/files/2021-10/Butterfly-Conservation-Strategy%20Brochure.pdf

https://www.flickr.com/photos/63075200@N07/sets/72157633282322518/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/63075200@N07/collections/72157634691832451/

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland by Steven Falk, illustrated by Richard Lewington

Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland by Richard Lewington

https://twitter.com/mothiduk

A Holiday in a Day

Back gardens come in all shapes and sizes – from window box, to balcony, from back yards to acres of land. But whatever the size it’s what you do with it (or don’t do with it) that makes it wildlife friendly. And at the end of June, my husband had a couple of days off and suggested we went out for the day. Humm… But where to? I can’t sit or stand for long, walk far and get fatigued, so where? Maybe I’ll just stay home? I thought. Until my husband offered to take me to Wales, and visit friends we hadn’t seen for years. Oh my! Could I?

Yes I did, and this day out felt like a holiday. My friend’s garden is uphill and on many levels. There’s a produce area overlooking countryside, a farm and the estuary. Turn a corner and there’s an orchard, full of pollinator friendly trees and below, an unmowed meadow…

… full of clover and grasses.

Different areas to sit with various views…

A shaded garden with an assortment of hostas…

…to a giant oak tree.

The tree’s outstretched twisted branches welcomed us, along with our friends that we hadn’t seen for so long.

Oaks are the best UK tree for sustaining a variety of wildlife and the Woodland Trust say ‘326 species depend on oak for survival’ and ‘229 species are rarely found on trees other than oak’.  The Purple Hairstreak butterfly and Dark Crimson Underwing moths are just two of those species.

Living to over 1,000 years, oaks provide centuries of shelter, nesting space and forage to over 2,000 species. It’s said the number of species an oak calls home is even higher than 2,300 as bacteria and microorganisms haven’t been included.

Supporting more wildlife as they age, an oak tree is thought ancient at 400 years old. We talk of ‘gnarled oaks’, but its twisted branches with crevices and cracks provide shelter for so many animals and once a branch drops, that deadwood is home to a myriad of invertebrates on which birds and mammals can forage. And below the ground a fascinating relationship takes place to gather more nutrients beyond the oaks’ roots – the mycorrhizal fungi. The word, Mycorrhizae derives from ‘fungus and root’ in Greek. The fungi cast out fine filaments known as mycelium. This network of threads mean a plant can absorb up to 1,000 times more moisture and nutrients. Vital for a tree’s survival in dry spells. And there can be many miles of these fine tendrils in just a teaspoon of undisturbed soil. They can also help combat disease that invades a tree’s root system. It blows my mind to think of the life below ground that helps sustain these majestic trees.

Each area of the garden had more trees and further surprises…

The reddish plated bark of a Hinoki tree.

A sacred tree and native to Japan, hinoki means cypress. The essential oils from this tree have an abundance of aromatic compounds and its wood is used in Shinto ceremonies. Historically, hinoki wood has been used for building shrines and temples and is still used for flooring and walls today, however, its main usage is high end products. It’s a strong wood and its hardiness prevents warping and splitting. It’s said to be so durable that well built structures made from hinoki can last over 1,000 years.

I don’t know the age of the hinoki tree in my friend’s garden, but together with the surrounding ivy, ferns and old stone wall, it gave off an ancient quality.  A feeling of calm. Grounding me with Mother Earth.

The areas I wasn’t physically able to get to, my husband took photographs…

Turn another corner and there were areas of wildflowers…

Tormentil, Germander speedwell and a Foxglove bank…

Followed by planters and pots of Erigeron…

An ivy clad courtyard where bank voles frequent and hidden within the dense foliage an old bird’s nest…

The old nest appears to be from a Dunnock.

In contrast to the back garden, the front is a small area consisting of lawn, herbs and four bird feeders. And wow it invites the birds! Our friends have sighted thirty-six different species of birds in their front garden.

On our visit adult and juvenile birds dined out on the feeders – Goldfinches, Siskins and Blue tits.

The day was not only to see friends – it had become the most comfortable and perfect place to go ‘birding’.

I was able to step outside their front door and sit in the front garden watching the birdlife. Birds I’ve not seen for years, such as Siskin…

Siskins have characteristic small forked tails. They’re delicate looking birds and one of the UK’s smallest finches. The males are bright yellow with black bars and cap, whereas females are paler with a green hue.

They happily fed alongside the goldfinches and blue tits.

The last time I saw siskins was several years ago, again in Wales. You’re more likely to see them in Scotland and Wales as they favour coniferous and mixed woodland. They are seed eaters and forage amongst spruce, pine, alder and birch but take insects in summer. I discovered populations can increase in winter due to the arrival of migrants from northern Europe and this is when you’re more likely to see them in England.

Making an appearance for National insect week, was a spotted longhorn beetle Rutpela maculata. I haven’t seen one for years. The last time was prior to becoming ill when I was out walking in a meadow. So I was over the moon to comfortably be sat in a friend’s garden watching this handsome insect.

You can’t miss their bright colours and distinctive ‘long horn’ (anntenae). The yellow and black spotted longhorn beetle can be found from May to September and enjoys feeding on cow parsley, hawthorn and oxeye daisy as above. Do look out for them and contribute to the citizen science project, The Longhorn Beetle Recording Scheme or on iRecord if you’re in the UK.

I was out of the home less than twelve hours but it felt like I’d had a week away. So if something prevents you from going on holiday, be it health, physical limitations, finance or distance, then maybe just sit in a friend’s wildlife friendly garden and let nature come to you.







References

https://botanyboy.org/hinoki-chamaecyparis-obtusa/

https://www.coleoptera.org.uk/cerambycidae/home

Collins British Tree Guide by Owen Johnson and David More

https://www.insectweek.co.uk/news/insect-week-2022-dates-announced

https://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/mycorrhizal-fungi-natures-key-to-plant-survival-and-success/

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/siskin/

https://www.seattlejapanesegarden.org/blog/2016/12/16/hinoki

https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/animals/birds/siskin/

https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/oak-tree-wildlife/#:~:text=1%20in%2010%20woodland%20wildlife,use%20other%20types%20of%20tree.

The World In My Garden

I love this time of year. Everything is lush – a myriad of greens. But since March I’ve desperately missed my ‘Lamp Post Challenge’ walks. I’ve missed passing the unfurling buds, changing flowers and missed the sight of people’s front gardens. I was lucky though, I got to see my favourite magnolia tree. Planted in memory of the homeowners’ old boxer dog. The rich plum red petals stood like candelabras. And that was the last time I passed the house, back in March.

Perhaps I was getting ahead of myself, thinking I was progressing when really it was just a ‘good run’ and the reality of chronic illness is it’s a constant rollercoaster of ups and downs. But I’m fortunate the wider world comes to me. And just recently this started with the starling family from the next street.

I’ve counted twenty starlings on the lawn and the neighbour has counted forty. This made my heart sing as a house near to ours blocked up their eaves last year and I feared the starlings wouldn’t be able to nest. I do know though, there are another two houses in the next street, more than happy to share their home in springtime with some noisy avian lodgers.

Starlings may seem numerous as they are flock birds but reality is they are now a Red List species and in need of our help. The population has decreased by 80% between the years of 1987 and 2012.

Good news for your lawn though if you see them feeding, as their diet is mainly invertebrates and they particularly like cranefly larvae, known as leatherjackets. They will however, eat seeds, berries and use birdfeeders. This is perhaps a reason they tend to be unpopular with many people. But because they are flock birds they have evolved to fly in quickly, feed and then disperse. I enjoy them visiting our garden and feasting upon the sultanas I put out and connecting me with the surrounding environment.

In the last few weeks a small bird has brought a taste of the woodland to our garden.

The distinctive markings: slate grey back and head, buff chest and dark eye stripe of the nuthatch can’t be mistaken for anything else. It has a mini woodpecker quality to it and its short legs help it bob up and down tree trunks. Like a woodpecker, the nuthatch forages for invertebrates between the cracks of a tree’s bark, as well as nuts and seeds and has a strong sturdy beak.

I’m currently enjoying an online nature writing course with the focus on woodland and one of the tasks has been to research a woodland bird. And this is where I discovered further connections between nuthatches and woodpeckers. Nuthatches often choose to nest using holes previously made by woodpeckers and as the nuthatch is much smaller the entrance hole needs to be reduced. This is done by a mud and saliva mix which is then ‘plastered’ around the hole, keeping out larger birds and potential predators. In fact, the urge to do this is so great, that nuthatches will even plaster around holes that are the right size!

As I admired this little bird’s beauty, I forgot about the reasons I’m not able to walk in woodland. Thank you nuthatch for bringing the woodland to me.


And Further Afield…

As planes pass overhead I wonder about the foreign shores people have visited. I can almost smell the sunscreen and sense the excitement at the thought of a plane full of holidaymakers. Or maybe they’ve visited family or are just doing a job? Those planes have touched down all over the world then pass over our house and garden – bringing the world to me.


I often see and hear ring-necked parakeets that bring a sense of the tropics to our suburban garden.

London is now home to a huge population and Kensington Gardens is one of the main parks the parakeets congregate in large numbers. Many people go to feed them and the trees provide the birds’ shelter and a wide diet: berries, nuts and seeds. This helps them survive the British winters. However, their native range includes the foothills of the Himalayas, South East Asia and Central Africa and they are clearly adaptable and opportunistic birds, as its thought there are now over 12,000 breeding pairs in the UK. And after scientific research and DNA samples taken, it appears most of the UK’s population is thought to have descended from northern India and Pakistan.

I discovered ring-necked parakeets are not just recent birds to our urban environment. Records show one was first spotted in south London in 1893. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the birds became more prevalent. They are thought to have naturalised from pet releases and escapees over a number of years. And if the urban environment includes large parks, gardens and cemeteries with plentiful trees and shrubs, then the ring-necked parakeets can fare quite nicely. 

But I leave you with a great urban myth – in the late 60s, when Jimi Hendrix visited London shortly after releasing his Electric Ladyland album, it was said he walked to Carnaby Street carrying a bird cage containing two electric green parakeets. He opened the cage and set the birds free. I love this story and after further research I discovered more green parakeets are said to have escaped from a flat shared by Boy George and George Michael in the 1980s. So it seems these birds are associated with our music history. But however they got here, I’m glad they bring the wider world to me.




References

https://www.birdspot.co.uk/bird-brain/did-jimi-hendrix-release-green-parrots-into-londons-parks

https://www.discoverwildlife.com/animal-facts/birds/facts-about-starling/

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/wild-parakeets-far-from-their-native-land-have-taken-a-liking-to-london

https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/ring-necked-parakeets-in-london-and-uk.html#:~:text=Ring%2Dnecked%20parakeets%20have%20now,in%202016%2C%20with%20numbers%20growing.

RSPB Handbook of Garden Wildlife by Peter Holden and Geoffrey Abbott

Back Garden Predators

As much of my time is spent at home I’m forever looking out of the window. And over the last few weeks, not only have garden birds been busy feeding but predators too.

Recently I glimpsed something from the corner of my eye. On looking up, there was a female sparrowhawk tucking into a feral pigeon – the poor thing was still alive. I moved slowly to take the photograph when the sparrowhawk was busy, its head down feasting on the pigeon. But something spooked her. She dropped the pigeon and flew onto the decking. Was it me that scared her? The last thing I wanted to do was leave a distraught pigeon maimed and the sparrowhawk go without a meal. I then noticed the neighbour’s cat had landed on a nearby fence. The cat pounced on the flapping pigeon with open wounds and the sparrowhawk flew off. I knew the pigeon was beyond help but couldn’t bear to see the cat ‘playing’ with it. So after much shouting, ‘NO!’ the cat stayed clear. My husband picked up the heavily injured pigeon and put it high up on our ivy clad wall to take its final breath in peace. The next day it had gone. I’d like to say its wing perhaps wasn’t broken and the wounds couldn’t have been so bad and that it made a speedy recovery and flew off. But the truth is, the ivy wall is used as a walk-through by the fox. So maybe this pigeon’s fate was to feed something after all.

The natural world can be cruel and each day in our suburban garden is life or death for so many. I’d never seen a sparrowhawk so close before. Those lit yellow eyes are the giveaway to identify this bird. It’s said as some sparrowhawks age their eyes can turn orangeier. They visit gardens, rural countryside and towns.

The sparrowhawk’s past in the UK is turbulent. DDT and persecution meant numbers fell drastically by the 1950s. After DDT was banned, numbers increased but have been up and down ever since even though the bird is widespread. Sparrowhawks usually live for around four years and normally breed at the age of one. They are one of the UK’s smallest birds of prey and they are top predators but sadly still persecuted despite legal protection.

We have many pigeons and doves that fly around and sit on a neighbour’s rooftop. These are a great meal for the agile sparrowhawk. I discovered when sparrowhawks hunt they can use ambush tactics or fly low and then change direction to capture their prey.

More Predators

We’ve had an abundance of corvids visit the garden over the last couple of months, starting with the magpies. I thought they were going to nest in our silver birch at one point as they were picking at the slim branches high up but it all came to nothing.

The magpies, with their football rattle cry and complete with black and white strip were vocal above the squirrel’s drey in the poplar tree earlier on in the year. I saw a squirrel descend from the tree with something in its mouth as the magpies were ‘clacking’. The squirrel ran through the hedge into the neighbour’s garden and repeated this action several times. Then I noticed the round furry grey thing in the squirrel’s mouth – its young. Was the squirrel taking them to safety? And did it know the birds above were predators for its offsprings? Before cursing the magpies I had to remind myself of events last year, when the squirrel went back and forth through the boundary hedge into a neighbour’s garden. The fourth time I noticed what was in the squirrel’s mouth – a young nestling chick. The interwoven world of nature.

Whilst many people have mixed feelings about magpies they too are just feeding and trying to survive. But one of my favourite corvids is the crow. They have a special place in my heart and my mum’s too. She has fed her resident crows for years and Mr Crow has brought her many gifts including: golf ball, flashing dog collar and supermarket trolley token. Crows are clever birds and can remember human faces, recognise themselves in the mirror and use tools.

Watching the birds can be quite comical. The woodpigeons are messy eaters; I watched them try to swallow a lump of bread. Now I know you’re not supposed to give bread to birds but I occasionally put out the crusts or the end bit of our granary loaf. Sometimes a squirrel will come and take it and other times the magpies and last week a rook! More recently the woodpigeons began throwing it around with their beaks wondering how they could swallow such a large piece. They reminded me of a cartoon – when a character has a bulge in the throat as they swallow. Then down came the cheeky sparrows and took a piece of bread right from under the woodpigeon’s nose.  The corvids however, are the brains of the feasting birds. I’ve watched them tentatively, after years of persecution slowly approach the bread. They looked around for signs of humans; put their claw on the chunk of bread so it stayed in one place, then plucked at it taking mouthfuls. Meanwhile the woodpigeons were still throwing it around and trying to swallow chunks too big for their beaks.

Last week, I heard an almighty cacophony of corvids: crows, magpies and jackdaws. They were loud and close, right above our house. I went outside and discovered why they were so irritated…

A neighbour’s cat was sat on the roof. And none of the corvids were happy with a land predator high up. I tried to take a photograph of them sweeping down divebombing the cat as it cowered. The crows were the most vocal and numerous. They’ll take on anything, no matter of its size. They are birds with grit. And it got me thinking – I’ve had so many setbacks lately, rarely leaving the house and having to use my stick again in the home along with some days struggling to put one foot in front of the other. I find it exhausting physically and mentally, especially as I’m coming up to four years in this state. The dusting myself down and trying to plough on and start again with minuscule progress is hard. But the crows are birds of tenacity, they plough on full of grit and that is how I have to be.

From The Birds To The Bees…

There’s been some activity from the nomad bees (Nomada) – nomad in name and nature. The name stems from the Greek, ‘to wander’. Nomad bees are slender and wasp-like with colourful markings: from yellow and black stripes to black and orange. My recent sighting appears to be the Flavous nomad bee Nomada flava. They’ve been feeding on the forget-me-nots – a great bee plant and hang around our garden steps where the Chocolate mining bee Andrena scotica and the Buffish mining bee Andrena nigroaenea reside.

Nomad bees don’t collect pollen, they’re are cleptoparasite and known as cuckoo bees. They lay their eggs in the nest of solitary bees, namely mining bees (Andrena species) and when hatched, the larvae kills the host larvae or egg and feeds upon the food stores. They then emerge as an adult bee the following year.

But this relationship of cuckoo bee and mining bee has been going on for millennia and it said, if you see cuckoo bees it means there is a healthy population of host bees.

The Red Mason bees Osmia bicornis are now active and have emerged from the release chamber. Above shows the male with their blonde moustaches!

Red Mason bees are one of the best pollinators, especially of fruit trees. They are now traded commercially to help orchard owners with pollination.

You can find bees in the funniest of places in the garden – my parents discovered this male Hairy-footed flower bee Anthophora plumipes in the keyhole of their shed!

If you want to find out more about bees as we’re coming up to World Bee Day May 20th, you can take a look at my Wonderful World of Bees page and Help For Bees.

Enjoy and look out for the birds and the bees where you are!





References

https://www.discoverwildlife.com/animal-facts/birds/facts-about-sparrowhawk/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/63075200@N07/albums/72157633278113867/

https://www.nhsn.org.uk/a-closer-look-at-three-spring-mining-bees/

https://www.nhsn.org.uk/nomad-bees/

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/sparrowhawk/a-top-predator/

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/birds/birds-prey/sparrowhawk

https://www.worldbeeday.org/en/celebrate-bee-day.html

A Little Patience & Time

Good things come to those who wait as the saying goes and I’ve waited for years for flowers to appear on the berberis.


Just a month before becoming ill in 2018, I started a species identification course and teamed up with a fellow ‘bee enthusiast’. The first module was in May of that year and we counted the abundance of bumblebees on a berberis bush. After discovering this ‘bee magnet’ I got a Berberis darwinii for the garden, common name, Darwin’s barberry. Blossom can be plentiful on this shrub and if visited by honeybees a golden-amber honey is produced.


The small, prickly evergreen remained just a foot or so high for a few years. If I had been well enough to garden, I would have dug it up and moved it – thinking it wasn’t happy in its present place. But nature knows best and all I needed was patience.


It’s taken me four years to get where I am and last month I had a setback – my worst one for some time. No ‘lamp post challenge’ walks. No meeting dog walkers in the street. No leaving the house for a couple of weeks. Physical knock backs affect me mentally and are a constant reminder of what I can’t do whilst the world carries on. I’m not alone of course; there’s a multitude of people with chronic illness and disabilities. And when I’ve been out on my walks there’s an unspoken camaraderie amongst us – A smile, a nod of the head, an exchange of pleasantry with a fellow stick walker, wheelchair or mobility scooter user.  But I’m often torn between thinking ‘is this as good as it’ll get?’ And ‘there’s always hope for more improvement’. However, when that improvement doesn’t materialise or I have a setback, any optimism can drain away. I do believe though, the body is amazing and given the right conditions it can heal further on some level. So back to the berberis. Here I was thinking nothing was happening, but the conditions must’ve been right. It was me just wanting it to grow quicker, when all it needed on my part was patience and time. That’s something I need to adopt when it comes to pain, fatigue and physical limitations. My recent setback taught me how precious my daily ‘lamp post challenge’ walks were no matter how small. My situation is what it is, but with patience, time and the right conditions there’s always the potential of some form of healing.


We are now well into spring and there’s an abundance of dandelions. Several years ago I used to pull them up like many people and then I discovered that they are highly beneficial to bees. I tried to move them, even plant their seeds in a certain area so the garden had some form of ‘order’. But again, nature knows best and over time the dandelions have thrived in the lawn, borders and rockery. It’s a joy to see the bees and other pollinators on them, as in each dandelion head there can be up to 200 individual flowers! And once gone to seed they’re enjoyed by goldfinches. How sad they seem to be the pinup flower for weed killers.


Dandelion laden verges are wildlife corridors and their seeds sit below long tufts of fluff. There’s something charming about these little suns that close and protect themselves in poor weather and at night. The name dandelion, comes from the French ‘dent de lion’ meaning, lion’s tooth, referring to the plants toothed leaves. They are the flowers of my childhood along with daisies and cowslips. I recall whoever picked a dandelion and got the sticky sap on their fingers, we would say they would wet the bed! In France they’re called ‘pissenlit’ – which translates as ‘wet the bed’. I used to call the dandelion seeds ‘fairies’ and grab them in the wind to make a wish and then release them. The seeds can float for miles on the breeze before parachuting down to germinate. In addition to foretelling bad weather by closing up to protect the pollen and nectar, it was said you could tell the time by blowing the seed head until none are left which would indicate the hour of the day. I recall doing this as a child.


Not only are we living in an ever changing world, nature is in constant change and trying to adapt to everything we throw at it. And it seems our small cherry tree isn’t happy with being ornamental anymore. It’s reverting back to its original flower. A gardening friend suggested ornamental cherry trees are grafted onto hardier stock and they can return back to the rootstock. After reading up on this, it looks as though we should have cut off the new suckers when they first appeared. But I’m pleased we didn’t, as bees now visit this cherry. They never did before as the blooms was tight and fussy. Whereas now the cherry’s flowers are open with easy access to pollen and nectar – happy days.

“Nature is a sonnet writer, scientist and therapist. A provider of poetry, mysteries and antidotes to despair – free at the point of use.”

– Jonathan Tulloch, nature writer.


I leave you with April’s glorious Pink Moon. I took photographs at various times of the day and night – the result was a contrast in colour and atmosphere. The Pink Moon is named after not the moon’s colour but a wildflower of North America, the creeping phlox.  Many beautiful moon names stem from indigenous Americans and their connection the natural world. I particularly like Frog Moon (from the native Cree people) and Moon When the Ducks Come Back (from the native Lakota people).


In folklore, it is said the time from the full moon until the last quarter is the best time for weeding, thinning and pruning. But as the No Mow May campaign is around the corner, we’ll be leaving many patches of wild flowers in our lawn for the bees. And of course allowing the dandelions to go to seed and drift where the wind takes them.

Enjoy nature and the night sky wherever you are and look out for May’s full moon, the Flower Moon on the 16th of May.






References

https://www.almanac.com/content/full-moon-april

https://beehappyplants.co.uk/bee-plants/berberis-darwinii/

https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/trees/tgen/can-grafted-trees-revert-to-their-root-stock.htm

Glimpses of Eden by Jonathan Tulloch

https://www.plantlife.org.uk/uk/discover-wild-plants-nature/no-mow-may

Plants for Bees by W.D.J Kirk & F.N Howes

Garden Visitors – Colourful Symbols of Luck & Lore

On clement days we’ve had some wonderful invertebrates visit our garden.

I was over the moon to see my first Comma of the year just a couple of weeks ago. Their distinctive ragged edges, intense orange with dark markings cannot be mistaken for any other butterfly. It amazes me that this delicate insect has made it through hibernation. Maybe camouflaged amongst dead leaves or on a branch – a good reason not to be too tidy in the garden and to leave ‘rough areas’ such as a pile of leaves.

In folklore, butterflies symbolise life, souls, change, transformation and spiritual rebirth. It’s no wonder they are thought of in this way, as I still find the process of metamorphosis remarkable. In Irish folklore it is said butterflies carry the souls of the deceased to the other side. And the Aztecs believed that butterflies were the souls of women and children that died in childbirth. However, they’re not always associated with death and rebirth, as in Europe it was once thought seeing three white butterflies together would bring you good luck.

Grass green and bronze, the Hawthorn shieldbug is the UK’s largest shieldbug. As you would guess they feed upon hawthorn berries and leaves as well as birch and rowan. They can often go by the name of ‘stink bugs’ because they discharge a smelly liquid when threatened. I was delighted to see this one in the garden and it sat happily on my hand for some time.

The spring garden wouldn’t be complete without the presence of bees. And in recent weeks Hairy-footed flower bees have been busy amid the comfrey and pulmonaria. They have a bumblebee quality to them but are in fact solitary bees. It was difficult to get a photograph because of the quick darting flight. I’ve only seen the female in our garden, black furry and laden with pollen on her hind legs. The males however, after which the species are named due to their long feathery legs, are a gingery colour with pale moustaches. Hairy-footed flower bees nest in soft mortar such as cob walls, chimney stacks, clay soil or cliff faces. Look out for them zipping in and out of tubular flower patches.

In folklore, bees are associated with wisdom, hard work and are spiritual messengers. It is said they can be troubled easily though – so no arguing in front of them! In Celtic lore and mythology, bees were considered messengers from the gods, bringing good news. And in ancient Greece if a bee settled on the lips of a child it was thought they would become a grand orator or poet.

As well as the garden welcoming insect friends, we often find them in the home – our bathroom seems to be a popular place for a stopover. We’ve had spiders, moths, beetles and the other week this charming lacewing.

It’s not just spiders that produce silk. When a female lacewing lays her eggs, she produces a silk-like substance that hardens when it hits the air; she then deposits an egg on the end of the silk strand. An effective strategy, as passing predators, namely ants miss out on an appetising snack as they don’t see the lacewing’s eggs suspended at the end of the wispy threads.

Lacewing by name and nature – these delicate insects are a gardener’s friend as they’re carnivores and will feed on aphids. I discovered lacewing larvae can suck the aphids ‘juices’ and then hide beneath the sapped husks as a way of camouflage whilst hunting more aphids. And once more, being one step ahead of the ants.

I played around with the camera to see if I could highlight the lace quality of this delicate insect’s wings but I should have known better – nature cannot be improved upon. The pearly lace wings with emerald hues sparkled in the midday sun.

From One Gardener’s Friend To Another…

The ladybirds have emerged from their winter hibernation. I usually see two or three different species over the course of the summer, plus several variations of Harlequin ladybirds. But the ones I’ve seen so far have been the Seven-spot ladybirds.

There are 47 species of ladybirds in the UK and over 5,000 globally. They’re excellent predators of aphids and some feed on mildew – they’re very much a gardener’s friend. Brightly coloured to warn any would-be predators, these endearing beetles can discharge a distasteful substance and will play dead if need be. From these qualities comes the folklore – the ladybug as protector. It is said, if a ladybird appears it’s a signal to care for yourself and those around you. This little protector of plants also represents healing. And once they’ve landed upon you and then fly off, it was once thought they carry away illnesses. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, for this one below flew off my finger without any coaxing.

Across the world ladybirds (or ladybugs) are thought of as lucky and if you make a wish whilst a ladybird is on your hand it is said the direction she flies in is where your luck will come from.

It seems ladybirds are linked to affairs of the heart too. In Swedish folklore, it’s believed once a ladybird lands on a girl’s hand it’s a sign of marriage. And in Celtic and Scottish folklore, once the ladybird is released from the hand, the path she flies indicates where her future husband will come from.

“Ladybird, Ladybird flyway home,

Your house is on fire and your children are gone,

All except one, and her name is Anne,

And she hid underneath the baking pan.”

There are variations of the above dark nursery rhyme and it seems it has links to where the ladybird’s name originated.

During the Middle Ages, farmers were faced with crop pests and prayed to the Virgin Mary to help protect their produce. And sure enough, after the prayers the bright red and spotted beetles appeared. With a voracious appetite they ate up the aphids and other crop pests thereby saving the harvest. From this tale these colourful beetles became known as ‘Beetle of our Lady’. And from that the variations of ladybird or ladybug they are known as today.

I particularly like the Dutch name,: Lieveheerbeestje,  “the dear Lord’s little animal”. The Turkish name, Ugurbocegi – “good luck beetle” and the German name Marienkaefer, “Mary’s beetle”.

Back to the nursery rhyme though, after crops were harvested, the fields would be burnt ready for the next sewing cycle. It seems this song was sung before the field was set alight. The adult ladybirds could have flown away but their offspring: eggs, larvae and pupae would have burned.

I leave you with a rather fascinating French tale I discovered. Ladybirds were thought of as messengers from God and again, Mary. But during King Robert’s reign (c 972-1031), a man that had been sentenced to death had a ladybird land on his neck. The executioner shooed it away but the ladybird kept coming back to land on the prisoner’s neck. This was seen as a signal from the Virgin Mary and the execution was stopped for further examinations and enquiries. As the tale goes, the real criminal was found and the original prisoner was set free.





References

https://aboutladybirds.wordpress.com/myths/

https://animalcorner.org/ladybird-folklore/

FSC Guide to ladybirds of the British Isles

FSC Guide to shieldbugs of the British Isles

Life In The Undergrowth by David Attenborough

Lore of the Wild by Claire Cock-Starkey and Aitch

Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland by Richard Lewington

The Garden Jungle by Dave Goulson

The Secret Lives of Garden Bees by Jean Vernon

https://www.uniguide.com/ladybug-meaning-symbolism-spirit-animal/ 

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/invertebrates/other-insects/common-green-lacewing#:~:text=Lacewings%20are%20also%20widespread%20in,over%20winter%2C%20often%20in%20buildings.

https://worldbirds.com/ladybug-symbolism/