September – A Change In The Air

The garden is slowing down. There is still colour around but the light and sounds have changed and my beloved Mr B is laying low. His sublime song is long gone and after a busy summer of four broods (one unsuccessful courtesy of the squirrel), Mr and Mrs B now deserve a rest. But like many adult birds they are moulting.

Mr B’s sleek black feathers are now shedding; they’re to be replaced with new feathers to help him through the winter. Flying, the sun, parasites and general wear and tear can weaken and damage feathers. This can lead to heat loss and without crucial flight feathers more energy is needed to fly. Like our hair, the new growth pushes out the old feathers from the follicles in the skin. Birds need to pool their resources into new feather growth, hence them keeping a low profile in late summer.

September – The Month For Berries

The pollinators have done well this summer and the elderflowers have turned to berries. Favoured by birds and mammals, the berries can now be enjoyed by an array of wildlife that visits the garden.


Mythology and Folklore

The elder is said to protect against troublesome faeries and witches, but it could also be a witch in disguise! It was believed the elder tree protects the home when planted close to a house or at the door of stables to help protect livestock. And in Ireland, it’s thought if the tree self seeds it’s more powerful. Good news for our home and garden!

Elder is a tree of dryads (young female spirits that live in trees). The spirits can be called if a flute made from elder wood is played. But the wood should definitely not be used to make furniture or to furnish a home as it will warp and break and if ever used for floorboards, it is said invisible hands would pull at the arms and legs of the inhabitants! In an even creepier Scandinavian folktale, I discovered the story of an elder tree growing in a farmyard that went walking at dusk to peer through windows at children! 

My favourite folktales regarding the elder are its medicinal purposes. It was said the juice from the inner bark could be spotted onto the eyelids and then one would be able to see witches. Lastly, it was believed warts could be eradicated thanks to the elder. Legend has it, in a village in Buckinghamshire, England in the nineteenth century a young girl had many warts. A neighbour counted them and cut the same number of notches on an elder stick, buried it and as the twig rotted away, the warts vanished!


The Learning Curve of Pacing

There’s no manual that comes with chronic illness, the whole experience is one rocky journey. Not only a spiritual one, whereby I’m learning more about myself and the world around me but a constant physical one too.

On my ‘lamp post challenge’ walks I’ve noticed berries and fruits upon the trees. In one particular garden there were four damson trees. I didn’t want to see them go to waste, so I got it into my head to make some jam. The owner kindly said we could help ourselves. But who would have thought jam making should come with a health warning? After the heavy work my husband did, picking and carrying several pounds of damsons, all I had to do was boil up some fruit and sugar. Simple right? My body had other ideas – carrying a couple of pound of sugar and standing for over two hours boiling and sieving out stones was more than I should have done. I’d done way too much. I had searing pain in my back, tailbone and legs. The pain and fatigue lasted days and I’ve still not fully recovered from it. All because I didn’t listen to my body and I’m still learning to pace.

The bowl of damsons looked delicious and their powdery skins reminded me of the 17th Century Dutch still life paintings I used to admire in galleries.

Guess who knows about pacing though? Yep, Mother Nature. Days later I sat in the garden and noticed the change in the leaves – the sound was drier. Trees know to slow down, birds too and the squirrels are now beginning to cache. I take heed from Mother Nature and leave you with last month’s Sturgeon sky.

So listen to your body, instinct or inner voice and if like me you struggle to, then listen to Mother Nature.





References

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

https://www.britannica.com/topic/dryad

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/natures-home-magazine/birds-and-wildlife-articles/features/new-feathers-please/

Discoveries and Connections in the Suburban Garden

Even though the garden is overgrown and looking past its best, there’s always a discovery to be made. It amazes me the range of plants that randomly appear. What’s the difference between wild flowers and weeds? Generally in our garden if bees or pollinators visit, then the plant stays.


Last year some ragwort appeared in the lawn and I’m pleased to say it returned this year. Ragwort often gets a bad name because it’s poisonous to horses and grazing animals. However, it can be an excellent plant for pollinators.  Dozens of insects rely on it for a food source, the most well-known being the Cinnabar moth caterpillar.

No Cinnabar moth caterpillars in the garden, but bees and butterflies such as this Small White have been enjoying the plant.

Other names for ragwort include, Stinking Willie and my favourite, Fairies horses – after the Scottish and Irish folklore tale of fairies galloping across the golden flowers at night time. It is said this gave them the ability to fly between the islands. Poisonous or magical powers, I’ll keep the small patch in our garden for the pollinators.

A bee and pollinator magnet is the marjoram. I only have to brush past this aromatic herb for the fragrance to be released.


The Gatekeeper can also be called the Hedge Brown as it’s found along hedgerows.

I was delighted to find this charming moth. It’s a first in the garden and they’re usually found along verges, in grasslands and woodland rides. The caterpillars’ food plant is Bird’s-foot Trefoil, so maybe our ‘mini meadow’ with Bird’s-foot Trefoil has helped?


After a cold start to the season I’m so pleased to have the butterflies visit.

The spiky flowers of the Globe thistle attract bees and other pollinators. Each day I’ve watched the bumblebees and honeybees enjoy the nectar. I discovered there are over a 100 species of Echinops and an alternative name is, Blue hedgehog. The name Echinops is derived from the Greek word, ‘ekhinos’ meaning, ‘like a hedgehog’.

Appearing in the garden this year for the first time are Willowherbs – Great willowherb and Rosebay willowherb.

I often think about the connections between these wildflowers and how they came to be in our garden. Did a bird drop a seed? Have ants or other insects played their part in seed dispersal? Or have sticky seeds hitched a ride on a passing fox or neighbour’s cat? With willowherbs it’s likely they’ve been dispersed by the wind – their fluffy seeds catching the breeze. Just one plant can release up to 80,000 seeds and helping them to germinate is fire. This gives them their other common name, Fireweed or in the south-east of England Bombweed, as after the war burnt areas allowed this plant to flourish. However it got here, I’m pleased it’s in the garden as Rosebay willowherb is a great food plant for the elephant hawk moth caterpillar as well as being a great ‘bee plant’.

On leaving the house just last week I could hear the screeching of swifts. I instantly looked up. They were louder and more excitable than I’ve heard before. The sky was teeming with them. I just stood and watched their acrobatic displays. In the summer we may see two or three high up but never had I seen this many. There were maybe fifty or more swirling between the rooftops and the clouds. I can only assume they were gathering ready for their journey south, said to be brought on by the lack of insects high up in the air. As a neighbour was clearing out his car and a girl walked past with headphones on, I thought, Look up! Look up! It was a remarkable sight.


How humbling to share the start of the swifts extraordinary journey to sub-Saharan Africa. They feed, sleep and mate on the wing and already I’m wondering where they are. Have they made it through France and Spain yet or completed their journey, surely not yet? But the BTO have been monitoring swifts with geolocators and I discovered one bird covered 5,000km in 5 days!

Swift numbers have halved since 1995. This is thought to be due to pesticides and loss of nesting sites. If you want to help these incredible birds, I recommend a swift box. Unfortunately the height of our eaves and roof won’t accommodate one, but family members have put them up and they do work.

A Scaly Find

From plants, birds and invertebrates in our small suburban garden, to a lucky find in my parents…

This Grass snake skin was discovered under some ferns.

The skin that’s been shed is called a slough (pronounced sluff). This allows the snake to grow and gets rid of parasites in the process. Males shed their skin twice a year and females once. They are the only UK egg laying snake and hibernate from October until April. They are cold-blooded, meaning they need heat from their surrounding environment as they can’t generate their own. Grass snakes are harmless and non venomous, and can be found in gardens close to ponds as they feed on frogs, other amphibians, fish and they sometimes take small birds.

My Internet search of ‘finding a snakeskin’ paid off. I discovered a citizen science project run by ARG UK (Amphibian and Reptile Groups of UK). Sadly reptile populations are declining, so to assist with finding out why, ARG UK together with ARC Trust (Amphibian and Reptile Conservation) are encouraging people to send in sloughs. They hope to build up a Reptile Genebank by extracting the DNA from the slough in addition to other information such as possible trauma and predator attacks. Please do check out the website if you’re in the UK and lucky enough to find a slough in your garden or local patch.


With ever depleting wild areas in the UK, our gardens are becoming a refuge for many animals including reptiles, of which there are only six in the UK: Common lizard, Sand lizard, Slow worm, Grass snake, Adder and Smooth snake, all of which are protected. Grass snakes have a distinctive pale yellow and black collar behind their head. The above photo was taken last year, when a friend’s neighbour discovered it in their drain!

If you think you’ve spotted a small snake in your garden, it could be a slow worm – which is actually a legless lizard. Slow worms are a gardener’s friend as they eat slugs, snails and other invertebrates – a good reason not to use slug pellets and insecticides. They can shed their tails when threatened and it will partially grow back.


A friend is lucky enough to have slow worms in her garden and puts out carpet tiles to give them shelter and warmth. If you’d like to attract reptiles to your garden, please visit RSPB nature on your doorstep.

So what are the differences between Grass snakes and Slow worms?

  • Slow worms blink as snakes don’t have eyelids.
  • A Slow worm’s neck doesn’t stand out – there’s a continuation from head to body.
  • Slow worms are smaller, up to around 50 cm whereas grass snakes can be up to a metre for males and 130cm for females.
  • Slow worms shed their skin in patches not in one go.
  • Slow worms have flatter less forked tongues. Snakes tongues are more forked and can slip out of a narrow opening, whereas slow worms need to open their mouths.
  • Slow worms have a shiny appearance and the scales are much smaller.
  • Slow worms are unlikely to bask in the open like other reptiles and prefer the warmth of compost heaps or under carpet tiles.

If you’d like to know more about amphibians and reptiles, please visit ARC-Trust.org. Through the FSC, ARC Trust are giving an online talk of UK amphibians and reptiles 1st September.

“Modest places always have the most to offer.” – Jonathan Tulloch, Nature writer.

Wherever you are – enjoy discovering nature in your garden or local patch.






References

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

https://www.arc-trust.org/genebank

https://www.arc-trust.org/snakes-in-gardens

https://www.arguk.org/get-involved/projects-surveys/the-reptile-slough-genebank

https://www.bto.org/our-science/topics/tracking/tracking-studies/swifts

https://butterfly-conservation.org/moths/six-spot-burnet

Collins Complete British Wildlife Photo Guide by Paul Sterry

field studies council https://www.field-studies-council.org/shop/courses/amphibians-and-reptiles-monitoring-nhl/

Glimpses of Eden by Jonathan Tulloch

https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/slow-worms-most-unusual-lizards-in-britain.html

https://pixabay.com/photos/swift-european-swift-black-bird-5116445/

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

https://www.plantlife.org.uk/uk/blog/ragwort-thou-humble-flower-with-tattered-leaves

Rewild Yourself by Simon Barnes

https://shopping.rspb.org.uk/bird-feeders-boxes-tables/bird-houses-nest-boxes/garden-bird-nest-boxes/rspb-swift-nest-box.html

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

Warwickshire’s Wildflowers by Steven J Falk

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/wildflowers/rosebay-willowherb

To Stop and Smell the Roses

Despite the warm weather, baby birds and blooms I’ve had some anxiety.

Following a rheumatologist appointment, I discovered I’m going to have to take more drugs. Given that I took a pharmaceutical drug in 2018 that led to many musculoskeletal problems and my body being in a painful toxic state, I’m very reluctant to take more drugs. It’s taken three years to come so far; to get out of a wheel chair, navigate the home without sticks and go for a daily short walk with just one stick – something I could have only dreamed of two and three years ago. But I believe given a chance my body can heal further.

When anxiety creeps in like this, I find the best medicine for the mind is to immerse myself in nature and something sensory to help stop the ‘what ifs’. So my husband treated me to a trip to David Austin Roses.

I’ve visited a few times and love it. There’s something about wandering around a garden packed full of roses – sights of deep red roses with velvet textures, or delicate peaches and cream, and pinks that remind me of sweet candy. But the best part is the smelling.

We have seven roses in our garden and five of them have a stunning fragrance, so to smell dozens of roses in an afternoon was a real treat. Planted amongst them were bee friendly plants too.

Many roses can be pollinator friendly, as not all are the double variety with showy fussy petals. Open roses such as dog roses invite bees and whilst not the best flowers for nectar, roses can be a great source of pollen.

Some roses are buzz pollinated (bumblebees and some solitary bees cling and vibrate the anthers to release the pollen). Listen out for the high pitched buzz in roses.

There are over 2,500 plant species in the rose family Rosaceae, trees such as rowan and whitebeam. Fruit trees; cherry, apple and pear and some favourite hedgerow plants, hawthorn and blackberry.

Lots of plants in the rose family have thorns or prickly stems to help deter herbivores. They have alternate leaves and stipules (mini leaf-like structures at the bottom of the leaf stalk), and all but a few have petals and sepals in groups of five.

Folklore, Myths and History

Many countries have the rose as their national flower, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, England, Iran, Iraq, Luxembourg, Maldives, Romania (Dog rose), Slovakia and the United States.   

From the goddess of love, Aphrodite to the single red rose given today, roses are associated with love and there are many tales of how roses got their thorns. In mythology, it is said roses grew thorns after Cupid shot his arrows when targeting the bees after stinging him. The arrows hit the rose stalk, and this is where the thorns grew.

In folklore, faeries would eat rosehips to make themselves invisible and in Christianity, legend has it that the roses in the garden of Eden only had thorns after the expulsion of Adam and Eve.

In Roman times, the rose symbolised silence. And if a rose was hung over a table it indicated that any talk at the table should be a secret – sub rosa. From this practice we have the ceiling roses today made from plaster.

And in social history, I discovered old European cities with ‘rose’ in the street name may have earned their name after being the ‘red light’ area hundreds of years ago, as ‘ladies of the night’ were known as ‘roses’.

Whether things are going swimmingly or you’re having challenging times – take time out to stop and smell a rose (or any flower), as just for a second, I find the mind can be in a quieter place.




References

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

https://www.britannica.com/plant/Rosaceae

https://www.flowerglossary.com/national-flowers-by-country/

Handbook of Roses 2021 59th edition, David Austin

Plants for Bees by WDJ Kirk and FN Howes

The Wildflower key by Francis Rose

https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/sub%20rosa

July’s Journey

I often look back a year as some kind of gauge of how far I’ve come, both physically and mentally. I feel a year on year comparison is a healthier way of measuring any improvement – the journey of healing appears to be a long game and I never know when a plateau or setback will happen. But this week on my ‘lamp post challenge’, a lady whom I’ve never met before said how well I was doing. She has seen me over the last year or so, trying to walk to the nearest lamp post then going beyond to the next and the next… how touching a complete stranger has noticed my journey and progress. These nuggets of kindness from strangers really help mentally and the world doesn’t seem such a bad place.

It’s not just my own physical journey I reflect on. I look back through my nature diary and compare now with this time last year and it appears there’s not the abundance of insects. Maybe it was the cold snap in spring and perhaps those insects will make an appearance later like many plants have done? The above photograph shows the result of the No Mow May campaign and today, 3rd July is National Meadows Day.

We can’t all own a meadow but in just a small patch of lawn, wildflowers can thrive creating ‘mini meadows’. The wildflower organisation, Plantlife have said looking at a flower such as the oxeye daisy for only 6 seconds has been proven to lower blood pressure.

  • Only 3% of the UK’s wildflower meadows are left.
  • Meadows can store 500% more carbon than grass only fields.
  • In an average meadow around 1,400 species of invertebrates can live.
  • If we help wildflowers thrive we help invertebrates, thus helping birds and bats too!

We had an unexpected visitor to the Campion this year – a damselfly.

Damselflies hold their wings together over their body as opposed to outstretched like their larger cousins the dragonflies. I’m not sure what this species is but assume it’s young, as it doesn’t yet have the coloration. Newly emerged dragonflies and damselflies are pale in colour until they reach sexual maturity. This can take days or weeks depending on the species.

I always love to see violas springing up in random places and we have the ants to thank for that. There is a fleshy part to viola seeds which is full of nutrients for ant larvae. Once the seeds are carried by the ants back to their nest, the fleshy part is eaten and the hard seed discarded – thank you ants.

In other flower news, the foxgloves are a welcome sight this year and we have both pink and white in the garden.

Foxgloves seem to flourish in dappled sunlight and woodland glades and in folklore they are always associated with fairies. It is said to pick a foxglove would cause offence to fairies and there is a folklore tale that tells of a bad fairy picking the tubular flowers and giving them to a fox. The fox put them on his toes and wore them like slippers to quietly skulk through the chicken roosts. It is also said the speckled markings inside the flowers are the fingerprints of elves and fairies.

Not only a beautiful woodland flower but a magnet for pollinators too.

A Common carder bumblebee enjoying the foxglove.

The Marmalade hoverfly Episyriphus balteatus is a common species and each time I see one I wonder of its journey. They migrate from continental Europe and numbers can be boosted in the height of summer. Not only are they brilliant pollinators, but their larvae are great predators of aphids too. Welcome them into your garden!

A Small tortoiseshell butterfly has been visiting the wallflowers.  

If you’re in the UK I encourage you to take part in the Big Butterfly Count. It runs from 16th July to 8th August and involves a relaxing 15 minutes watching a patch in your garden or park and noting down any species of butterflies and some day flying moths. It’s a great citizen science project.

Other good news is the full bee nester! Just knowing we have bee larvae within those tubes that will later go through the amazing process of metamorphosis makes my heart sing.

The above photo shows an abundance of Red mason bee activity but also that leafcutters are present!

The above shows a leafcutter bee that is likely to be a Patchwork leafcutter Megachile centuncularis. They are often described as having an ‘orange halo’ which is the distinctive orange pollen brush beneath their abdomen.  They frequent gardens and parks and will take up residence in bee hotels. They are a joy to have in the garden, especially when you see them flying on their little magic carpets made of leaves!

After admiring the leafcutters work in the bee nester I soon discovered the materials they had been using – the rose leaves.  These perfect semicircular cuttings are a tell-tale sign you have leafcutters near.

These cuttings don’t harm the rose in any way – perfect for us and the bees!

Enjoy the natural world where you are, and if there are challenges in your life right now, remember often it’s a long game – like nature, we just need to ride it out.




References

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

https://bigbutterflycount.butterfly-conservation.org/about

Britain’s Dragonflies, A Field guide to the damselflies and dragonflies of Britain and Ireland by Dave Smallshire and Andy Swash

Britain’s Hoverflies, An introduction to the hoverflies of Britain by Stuart Ball and Roger Morris

https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/patchworkleafcutterbee/

https://www.discoverthewild.co.uk/post/viola-id-and-sweet-violet-liqueur

https://www.plantlife.org.uk/uk/discover-wild-plants-nature/national-meadows-day

The Moon and Blooms in June

Gracing our skies at the end of May was this year’s closest super moon – the Flower Moon. Appearing bigger and brighter than the previous month’s super moon, the Flower Moon is named after the plentiful blooms this time of year in the northern hemisphere. Other names for it referring to our social history in the farming calendar include: Leaf Budding Moon, Corn Planting Moon, Milk Moon and the Hare Moon.

The average distance from Earth to the moon is 239,228 miles. May’s Super Flower Moon was around 222,000 miles away.

Following on with the flower theme, the garden has been bursting with colour and scent. The sweet smell of lilac is no longer in the breeze, but I still try and smell the last spent flowers.

The alliums are now in full flower, and with nectar peaking late morning and early evening the bees have enjoyed their visits. Above is an Early bumblebee Bombus pratorum foraging on the allium.

In our little patch of front garden, Columbine Aquilegia self seeds well.

Also called Grannies bonnets, lady’s slippers, old maids baskets, foolscap and Noah’s Ark to name a few.

I enjoy reading about the meaning of names and discovered Columbine is from the Latin for pigeon – Columba. No doubt that’s how it achieved some of the other common names; doves-at-the-fountain and doves-round-the-dish.

Whilst many flowers are in full bloom, some are just coming into bud and the dandelions are self seeding on the wind.

On admiring the dandelion clocks, I noticed several shieldbugs. They overwinter as adults and emerge in Spring.

This one is a Hairy shieldbug. They’re covered in hairs although I couldn’t see them. These shieldbugs have distinctive markings on the antennae and around the edge of their ‘shield’.

From garden flowers to the hedgerows

Trips out in the car have allowed me to see the stunning hedgerows.

Hawthorn is great for wildlife and supports hundreds of insects with food and shelter. Mammals and birds later in the year can then feed upon the haws, these are a lifeline for migratory species such as redwings.

If a hedgerow could attend a wedding, it would be the beautiful hawthorn. The white lace-like flowers drip from the fine branches and adorn roadsides. They are such a stunning sight throughout May and into June. They can be pure white flowers or tinged with pink. The smell is distinctive, not sweet and if anything a little fusty. I discovered, in mediaeval times it was referred to as smelling of ‘the Great Plague’ and interestingly botanists have found it contains a chemical, trimethylamine which is also formed in decomposing animal tissue! I’m sure this musty smell is the reason it attracts one of its pollinators – flies.

In mythology and folklore it is said the Scandinavian God of Thunder, Thor created hawthorn from a bolt of lightning. For Pagans it represents fertility and in Ireland it’s heavily associated with fairies.

Back in the garden, the poppies are looking particularly beautiful; their petals remind me of delicate tissue paper. If there are any budding botanists reading this, please do let me know if these poppies are Californian or Welsh. I can’t actually remember what type I planted many years ago but thought they were Californian! Whatever they are, they’ve spread nicely and I often hear the high pitched buzz of a bumblebee performing ‘buzz pollination’.

There is even a bee that uses poppy petals to line its nest – the Poppy mason bee Hoplitis papaveris. Its range is across mainland Europe but sadly not in the UK.

The Red Mason bees have been busy and the colour palette of the bee nester shows the different mud substances they’ve been using. After long dry spells it’s a good idea to have a wet muddy patch or water source to assist these great pollinators.

And Lastly,

Father’s day in the UK falls on the third Sunday in June and to celebrate – Dad of the Year goes to…

… Mr B!

I know I’m biased. But I truly adore ‘our Mr B’. His song from first light until dusk is beautiful and has many notes and trills, including the occasional wolf whistle! Blackbirds are mimics and I’m sure there’s the odd mobile ring tone in there too.

Mr and Mrs B started nesting early at my neighbour’s to the right of me. In April I saw Mr B caring for three fledged young, then two, then one. Where are they now? Things then went quiet apart from him singing. But I now see him with beakfuls again but this time flying to my other neighbour’s. So what happened? Have they changed location? I rang the RSPB Wildlife Team – they were so helpful. I learned, what’s happened in my garden is likely to be typical blackbird behaviour. When the young have fledged and are old enough to fend for themselves, blackbirds often disassemble their nest and rebuild somewhere else close by. This tells me ‘our Mr and Mrs B’ are on their second brood. Together with my neighbour we keep a lookout for cats and magpies and my neighbour has come up with a novel idea to help keep magpies at bay. She has a large ornamental garden owl!

Now how many sultanas can I carry?

Mr B is so attentive, always foraging for worms and insects for his young. Throughout the day he’s back-and-forth with a beakful of food which is supplemented by my handouts; sultanas, grapes and blueberries.

I love our Mr B to the moon and back.

Where ever you are, enjoy watching and helping the wildlife on your patch.




References

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

https://www.britishbugs.org.uk/heteroptera/Pentatomidae/dolycoris_baccarum.html

https://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/what-is-a-supermoon/

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/full-moon

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

https://www.space.com/28950-supermoon-versus-minimoon-in-the-night-sky.html

Birds, Bees and Blossom!

The birds are as busy as the bees! I always think of May as a real ‘Bird and Bee’ month. The dawn chorus is in full swing and May 2nd was International Dawn Chorus Day. No matter what continent you’re on, it’s a celebration of birdsong and reflecting on the beauty of the dawn chorus.

Not as though I need an excuse to crack the window at 5am to listen to the avian symphony, but it’s a day we can officially celebrate birdsong. Before our human world awakes, it is said the dawn chorus can travel 20 times further, compared to other times of the day.

First to the avian orchestra is the robin.

I knew birds sang to find a mate and claim a territory, but I recently discovered that songbirds such as blackbirds, thrushes and finches will learn and perform their song until perfected. I think ‘our Mr B’ has been doing that – his song is sublime.

Mr B’s flutey song calms the mind and lifts the spirits. At times his song is punctured with comical trills and whistles, often picked up from our human world. His song is the most distinctive here in suburbia and is sang against a backdrop of great tits, blue tits, sparrows and the small in size but big in vocals – wren.

I learnt from an RSPB article birds have a double voice box – a syrinx (bit like our larynx but down nearer the lungs). It has two pipes, as opposed to our one which allows them to ‘sing’ different notes together. In some birds, little air sacs surround the syrinx and act as a ‘mini amplifier’ which helps carry sound.

Late to the show are the wood pigeons, when they start coo-ing it’s always light. Shortly after, our human world takes over and the dawn chorus fades until another day.

Should you find it difficult to be up so early, I recommend the dusk chorus too. It’s not as loud and as powerful, but it’s still very beautiful and I always hear my beloved blackbirds take centre stage.

If you’d like to learn to identify UK birds’ song, I recommend this RSPB link.

From the birds to the bees – May 20th is World Bee Day. A celebration of all things ‘bee’ and to focus on the vital role of bees and pollinators. We have Slovenia to thank for this initiative and as a way of celebrating this special day and spreading some bee love, I’ve put together a bee page: The Wonderful World of Bees – full of bee facts and information on some of the bees we’ve had visiting our suburban garden. I then realised I had so much to say I started a second page: Help for Bees, focusing on planting and ways you can help bees in your garden. It’s been great to put some of my previous knowledge and interests together with reading new resources and I hope you enjoy them.

Recently, I’ve made two bee rescues in the garden. The first was a Tawny mining bee Andrena fulva – it was a chilly day and I noticed in the bottom of an old empty washing-up bowl the motionless bee. On putting my hand in front of her, she willingly crawled on and once she was warmed up she went on her merry way.

The Tawny mining bee is a harmless and distinctive spring bee; enjoy their beautiful presence in your garden.

The second bee rescue, was fishing out a very saturated mining bee (Andrena species) from the bird bath. Possibly, Gwynne’s mining bee Andrena bicolor, because of the furry russet thorax and orangey pollen brushes on the hind legs – these were soaking wet but I could just make them out. I held her on my finger to dry out in the sun and then put her on dandelion.

Just a reminder, only female bees sting and as with many solitary bees the sting is so weak it would struggle to penetrate our skin.

It’s a calming and mindful moment just watching a bee. I encourage you to keep the dandelions in your garden too, as in just one dandelion head there can be 200 individual flowers – a real feast of pollen and nectar! I have also enjoyed watching the stunning goldfinches feed upon the spent dandelion clocks.

It’s not been all birds and bees in the garden – I often gaze at flowers and this year the blossom is spectacular. It’s been looking so full and fluffy! In the garden I can view eight different blossom trees from two different neighbours. How lucky I feel to look out at such a striking view – thank you neighbours!

In the blue light of dawn, the garden looked pretty and winter-like with the white blossom.

Lastly, we’ve put up some more prayer flags in our silver birch tree, to carry prayers and good wishes to all beings as far as the wind blows.

Wherever you are, enjoy nature and good wishes to you.




References

https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/flutey

https://www.flickr.com/photos/63075200@N07/collections/72157634554216556/

Nature’s Home RSPB magazine Spring/Summer 2021

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/bird-songs/

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/bird-songs/what-bird-is-that/

https://www.worldbeeday.org/en/about/the-project.html

Spring Firsts and Welcome Returns

Looking out at the garden has been sheer joy over the last couple of weeks. The array of colour from early spring flowers and the presence of birds and insects have reaffirmed spring is most definitely here. But I start with a sight I had never seen in my garden before…

Just a couple of weeks ago I noticed a tiny bird hopping about in the ivy that borders mine and a neighbour’s house. At first I thought it was a wren, but it was smaller and it had no sticking up little tail. The following day, again I saw the mystery bird flit in and out of another neighbour’s conifer tree. Too small for a wren – it flew into our garden and that’s when I noticed the striking yellow flash on top of its head. A goldcrest!

Whilst not the clearest photograph, you can make out the goldcrest’s striking crown.

Goldcrest’s are the U.K.’s smallest bird, at just 9 cm long and weighing just 6g, less than a ten pence coin. Goldcrest’s favour conifer trees and can be seen in woodlands, parks and gardens if you’re lucky, but never have I seen one in our garden before. The following day I then noticed something bobbing amongst the catkins on the silver birch. It was the goldcrest again – and this time a second one joined it. I’ve watched them regularly since and it appears they to and fro into my neighbours garden that contains several conifer trees. Could they be nesting there? I contacted three of my neighbours to let them know what I’d seen and to keep their eyes open for this delightful little bird.

The robins are still flying back and forth into their nest that is hidden in my ivy wall. We can now hear high pitched hissing when they return too – chicks!

Our gardens are vital for wildlife to thrive and survive and I feel very lucky my immediate neighbours take pleasure in seeing the birds and wildlife too. Wildlife is not aware of boundaries and our gardens make up connected habitats. It warms my heart that there are several people in my street that love the birds that visit their garden. They, like me are not over tidy and we leave shrubs, ivy and plenty of cover that offers the birds protection from predators as well as leaving out water sources and bird food. We’re also in touch with each other, keeping our eyes out for passing cats and magpies. After all, it takes a village to raise a child as they say, or in this case, a street to raise a chick.

At the beginning of the month I noticed the volcanic soil turrets in the lawn – evidence the tawny mining bees have emerged! These finely tilled mounds with a hole in the top means these beautiful non-stinging solitary bees are using the lawn to produce their young.  As the name suggests, these solitary bees work alone. The female lays an egg upon a ball of pollen and nectar placed in chambers situated at the end of lateral tunnels that branch out from a vertical tunnel. Before the summer is out, the adults will die and the young larvae will then spend the winter going through their metamorphosis and emerge the following spring.

They favour lawns and short vegetation and will feed upon many flowers including; dandelions, buttercups, willows and are excellent pollinators of fruit trees. They help aerate lawns and should you find them in yours, cherish their presence as they will be gone by June.  


Spring flower power

Stretching upwards from the water, the bright yellow marsh marigold reminds me of a giant buttercup. It’s from the buttercup family and is also known as, ‘Kingcup ’. It’s enjoyed by early pollinators and gives shelter for amphibians – I’m still looking out for our frog!

The beautiful bright blue of grape hyacinths is such a welcome sight in early spring. I refer to them as the, ‘Bobbly flowers’. As well as their colour, they are a great early pollen and nectar source for many pollinators.

“Bees and butterflies are drawn to flowers. Why should we be any different?” – Jonathan Tulloch, nature writer.

Pulmonaria Blue Ensign is perfect for early flying bees with long tongues, such as the hairy footed flower bee. I’ve spotted both male and female so far this year.

Cowslips remind me of my childhood. Although I sadly no longer see flower meadows of them, I’m so pleased I planted them in my garden several years ago and they are now slowly spreading – happy days!

Cowslips are associated with fairies and keys and have earned many common names, including: fairy bells, freckled face, flower bells, bunch of keys, golden drops, key flower and key of heaven. The latter relates to the legend of St Peter. It is said, St Peter listened to the gossip that a number of souls were gaining access to heaven by a rear door and not the rightful Pearly Gates which he was in charge of. Legend says he was so irritated by this, he let go of the keys and once fallen on earth’s soil, they grew and became the cowslip flower.

I love the subtle pink downward facing flowers of the Hellebores. They come in many colour forms and the white is referred to as a Christmas rose as it may flower that early. Hellebores are full of nectar for bees and I’ve seen several queen bumblebees foraging on them.

It is said the hellebores Latin name is derived from the Greek word helein – to kill and borus – a food. Yes, it’s poisonous!

In folklore, it’s associated with witches and that it makes you invisible. My Encyclopaedia of Plants in Myth, Legend, Magic and Lore by Stuart Phillips, tells the story of a sorcerer that was able to walk through a camp of enemies, as he scattered ‘powdered hellebore into the air before him as he went.’ I then read, permission should be sought before collecting the hellebore and if an eagle is spotted above, the hellebore gatherer would be dead within a year! Just as well I’ve only seen buzzards circling.

Lastly, the other day as I was putting some food out for the birds I heard some quacking from above. On looking up I saw Mr and Mrs Mallard on our roof! Also a first, but a delightful sight.

Enjoy the welcome returns and any spring firsts in your garden – and don’t forget to look up.





References

https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/tawnyminingbee/

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

Glimpses of Eden by Jonathan Tulloch

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

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

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/birds/tits-crests-and-warblers/goldcrest

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

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/wildflowers/marsh-marigold

Unexpected wildlife sightings

I feel I’ve been in my own personal lockdown the last three years and any opportunity to leave the house I’m always looking around – observing everything. Chronic illness has taught me to notice and appreciate every little thing. Some days I feel like a toddler experiencing the world for the first time and a recent medical appointment turned out to be a very pleasant day.

Railway embankments can be great habitat for many birds and other wildlife.

I had a medical appointment in London last week and as the train journey began I sat with my head down in a magazine. I then glanced up and gazed out of the window – beehives. Then the wider countryside rolled by and I never looked at my magazine again. Content observing fields of sheep, cows, horses and even donkeys, I felt myself relax a little (medical appointments and changing medication always makes me anxious.) Unfurling buds passed by my window and it wasn’t long before I spotted a pheasant and then Canadian geese – this was wildlife watching at 110 mph! My list grew to include: rooks, crows, magpies, wood pigeons, gulls, buzzards and red kites. I’m so glad I chose to watch the world go by because I was rewarded with the most beautiful sight for this time of year – a ‘mad March hare’! As the train slowed and we went past the dark upturned earth of a ploughed field, I noticed the pale brown hare sitting in the middle. It’s characteristic long front legs and ears were unmistakable and a sight I’ve not seen for about seven or eight years. To see a hare is always a beautiful sight and to see them this time of year can be a real spectacle, as they are known to ‘box’– it’s when love and testosterone is in the air! Brown hares are the UK’s fastest mammal on land and can reach speeds up to 40 mph. Their habitat is the open countryside and the mating season starts around February and can carry on into summer but it is around this time of year we associate them with being most active.


I find there’s something mystical about hares and in folklore and mythology they are the symbol of femininity, fertility and womanhood. It is thought the Easter Bunny legend evolved from the magical hare handing out eggs to children at pagan spring festivals. The hare is also associated with the moon and rebirth in different cultures and it is said witches could disguise themselves as a hare and shape shift between forms.

Back in the garden        

The morning of my medical appointment I witnessed a delightful sight in the garden. The Robins were doing their courtship feeding. The male feeds the female – the avian equivalent of taking your partner out for a meal and wooing her with gifts. She will need all the food she can get, as so much energy is required for egg laying and production. I was delighted to read that courtship feeding commences a couple of days prior to the first egg being laid. This carries on throughout incubation and the male will be kept very busy – feeding her between 30 to 50 meals per day! A clutch size can vary from 4 to 6 eggs and I learnt she will lay one egg per day in the morning. I estimated she started laying last Friday and if laying six eggs, her final may have been Wednesday this week. She will then incubate the eggs for 13 days. Of course, anything can happen in nature and a nest can still be deserted if they think it’s been spotted and I have my eye on the magpie!

Whatever you’re doing this Easter weekend and beyond, look out for the mystical hare and enjoy the surprise of unexpected wildlife sightings.



References

https://www.countrylife.co.uk/nature/the-magical-mythology-of-mad-march-hares-174713

https://folklorethursday.com/legends/chasing-hares-stories-myth-legend/

https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/bird-and-wildlife-guides/ask-an-expert/previous/robinfeedingmate.aspx#:~:text=In%20robins%2C%20courtship%20feeding%20starts,already%20before%20the%20chicks%20hatch

https://www.terriwindling.com/blog/2020/04/folklore-rabbits-hares.html

https://www.thefield.co.uk/country-house/why-we-are-all-mad-for-hares-21624#:~:text=In%20hare%20mythology%2C%20the%20hare,its%20March%20courtship%20rituals%2C%20mad.

The Delights of an Untidy Spring Garden

I really do love March; the hope and renewal It brings. The burst of colour from spring bulbs, added with the early beginnings of a dawn chorus lifts my spirits and somehow promises of better times ahead?

Random planting of crocus bulbs in the lawn – thank you squirrels for replanting them!

In mythology and folklore it is said the crocus is associated with Valentine’s Day and wherever it grows, love and affection shall bloom.

Crocuses are an excellent early source of pollen when little else is in flower. Pollen is a nutritious protein food for bees and whilst the crocuses supply nectar too, this can be difficult to reach for short tongued bees. Although, when the nectar rises it can be reached by many bees and pollinators such as hoverflies.

Less is More

During my ‘lamp post challenge’ walks, I’ve noticed there’s a trend for artificial grass, pristine driveways with not a leaf in sight and even plastic flowers in pots. This makes me feel sad as they are devoid of life. But our untidy garden is a different story…

Pied wagtail – It was lovely to see this little urban visitor drop by last month.

The garden hasn’t been touched by any helping hands since October but my inability to do any gardening is actually paying off. I’ve always left teasels to go to seed for the goldfinches, but this winter I’ve also noticed them feeding on the lavender that’s gone to seed too, and last year they enjoyed the dandelion seed heads.

Despite their beautiful colour I usually hear the twittering of goldfinches before I see them. Often seen in flocks, a group of goldfinches are known as a charm and their beaks are perfect for accessing seeds from those hard to reach places, such as teasels.

Goldfinches roost communally in trees, which I believe could be several miles away from where they feed in our garden. In winter some UK goldfinches migrate to Spain and France but thankfully they visit our little suburban patch of wilderness throughout the year.

Ivy has taken over the neighbour’s fence as I’ve mentioned in previous posts and I enjoy the greenery all year round. Insects can shelter there and the flowers provide much-needed nectar in early autumn for the pollinators. But this time of year dense Ivy can be very special – the robin is nesting!

I’ve been watching the robin collect various materials; leaves, dried grass and twigs. It lands on the bare buddleia bush, looks around and then when it feels safe to do so, it will dart in the thick Ivy and within seconds I watch it fly out again– Such a beautiful sight.

I wish I had the stamina of the plucky little Robin. He sings all night – and I mean all night! No matter what time, it could be 2:30 or 4:00, whenever I’m up in the night, there he is, singing.

The robin’s song is more cheerful now than in winter, it sings from the highest point in our street.

February’s full moon was the Snow Moon. Also called the Hunger Moon and Storm Moon by Native Americans, which tells us much about the lives they led. The Moons were named after characteristics connected to the seasons in the northern hemisphere.

The Sea of Crises (Mare Crisium ), stood out in last month’s full moon (the dark circular area at the top of the moon). The dark patch is lava that covers the crater of the Sea of Crises and the name sea has stayed with us after early astronomers thought the dark areas of the moon were water. This impact crater is around 340 miles wide and can be seen with the naked eye. It blows my mind to think I can gaze at the night sky and look at the result of an asteroid strike that happened around 4 billion years ago.

Waxing gibbous moon in the daytime.

Enjoy the moon and nature where you are, day and night.



References:

All About Space Issue 102

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

Plants for Bees by WDJ Kirk and FN Howes

https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/bird-and-wildlife-guides/ask-an-expert/previous/goldfinchroost.aspx

https://www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/moon/snow.html


Snow, frost and signs of hope

It seems a long winter, but like much of the wildlife that visits the garden I’ve been hunkering down.

Snow and frost may damage some plants but a heavy snowfall can also help insulate plants and on many days over the last few weeks I’ve been greeted by glistening snow.

Perhaps I spoke a little too soon in my last post, referring to some improvement and my ‘lamp post challenge walks’. They came to an end when the snow arrived and then a couple of weeks ago I had a set back with my arms, where I now seem to be stuck in a painful flare. It’s so frustrating to have pain in doing the most simplest of daily tasks, such as making a cup of tea or cleaning my teeth. However, I’m grateful for aids that can assist, such as the speech to text program that allows me to type and carry on writing. Then there is my husband, he does so much and coming to terms with chronic illness and pain is a journey for both of us. But as I look out at the garden there are signs of rebirth and hope. Despite the frost and the snow, nature finds a way through and I take comfort from that.

I’ve discovered there are different types of frosts and on cold nights when the moisture in the air freezes, the result is a pretty sight in the morning.

The name given to the type of frost that appears on plants is hoarfrost (or radiation frost). The name hoarfrost derives from the old English word ‘hoar’ – to be old with grey hair. On many days these little white ‘hairs’ have adorned every surface in the garden.

Snowdrops and primroses were out by the middle of January. I always make a note when these flowers first appear along with any other early signs of spring, such as a buff tailed bumblebee on a clement winter’s day. Noting these early signs of spring and the timing of nature and emergence of wildlife in relation to the climate is known as phenology. It could be the first flower or tree in bud, the first butterfly, bumblebee sighting or the arrival of swifts. The science of phenology dates back more than 300 years in the UK, but it is in more recent years we’ve discovered further data in relation to climate change. Scientists are researching how this is affecting wildlife, as there is evidence that some flowers and pollinators that rely upon them are not emerging at the same time. Nature relies upon climatic signals for emergence and they need to coincide with each other for survival. The Woodland Trust and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology invite recorders to note the changes in nature’s calendar.

Enjoy noticing the changes where you are; the first snowdrop or crocus, a territorial blackbird song or the first collecting of nesting material. The seasonal changes can be noted and recorded throughout the year of course, but I always think these changes somehow seem more noticeable in winter and early spring – is it me subconsciously longing for lighter evenings, warmer days and the return of birdsong and hum of the bees?

With its nodding delicate white head, the snowdrop is always a welcome sight in the garden and gives us a hint that spring is just around the corner. There are many different types of snowdrops and the ones containing double flowers aren’t suitable for early flying pollinators. The wild snowdrops however, can be accessed easier and contain both pollen and nectar.

The snowdrop is a symbol of hope and has many stories. In folklore, it is said to wear a snowdrop means you will be blessed with pure thoughts and if picking snowdrops, they should be collected before St Valentine’s Day if you are to be wed that year! But the most beautiful legendary tale I read about this delicate little flower is a German legend. It tells the story that God created all things and they were each given different colours. The snow however, was without colour and unhappy with this and protested to God that it would go unnoticed. God’s reply to the snow was to ask the flowers for colour. All the flowers refused apart from the snowdrop, which gave some of its colour to the snow. So now in return for receiving this colour, the snow thanks the snowdrop and keeps it warm by falling in winter.

Enjoy nature where you are, the changing of the seasons and the hope it brings.



References

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

https://www.ceh.ac.uk/news-and-media/news/feature-why-should-we-care-about-phenology

Dancing with Bees by Brigit Strawbridge Howard

https://www.houseofnames.com/hoar-family-crest

https://kids.kiddle.co/Frost

https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/frost/

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