The Thurlows

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Nature Notes 2014

 

 

This is a quiet time of year in the woods.  You can sometimes ramble through the rides for quite a while before seeing or hearing a single bird.  But sooner or later you are likely to hear a harsh cry, rather like the tearing of an old piece of linen; watch closely and you may see a plumpish, pinky-brown bird about the size of a jackdaw swoop on floppy wings from one side of the track to the other, displaying a conspicuous white rump.  If you get a closer view you’ll see the bold black moustache and a splash of azure-blue on the wings.  It’s a jay, a quite common but shy member of the crow family.   

They have reason to be shy.  Game-keepers have often regarded them as a threat, though jays are in fact vegetarian for much of the year.  And those bright blue wing feathers were once greatly prized by the millinery trade as accessories for ladies’ hats, and they are still coveted by salmon fishermen, who fashion them into enticing anglers’ ‘flies’.  

Jays are highly intelligent and versatile birds.  That distinctive rasping call is only one of the sounds they can make and they are great chatterers and mimics, which can imitate not only other birds, but also cats and dogs – and even telephones.  Their scientific name is Garrulus glandarius and while the first part of that refers (accurately) to their voices, the second part refers to their favourite food.  They are particularly partial to acorns (Latin glandes) and they secrete large hoards of these every year to keep themselves going when food gets scarce.  They pluck the acorns directly from the trees in autumn and cache them for future use in little holes in the ground or under dead leaves.  They later exhibit their amazing powers of memory in retrieving these gourmet snacks from their hiding-places.  It has been estimated that a jay might secrete and relocate some 5,000 corns this way and can even dig through a layer of snow to exactly the right spot.  If you have ever wondered where you last left your spectacles or your diary you will appreciate the feat of brain-power this implies! Of course, the jays do miss a few acorns and we then get a wonderful and unexpected harvest the next spring – new oak trees, planted in ideal conditions to foster their growth.  And the jay gets another crop of acorns too, though perhaps not for a generation or so.

Which reminds me of a nice story I heard about the wonderful ancient Suffolk woodland called Staverton Thicks near Butley Priory.  The ground there was farmed by monks up to the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in Henry the Eighth’s reign.  The monks were then given notice to quit, but at their request they were granted the right to take just one more crop from the land.  So they planted acorns …  The magnificent oaks there today are testimony to their wisdom, as are the jays that frequent those woods. 

Jeremy Mynott

Lavender Cottage

12 November 2014  

  

4 October

14 September

12 August 

14 July

15 June 

11 May

5 April

11 February

9 January

 
4 October 2014

I much prefer the country to the city and I love the quiet solitude of wild places, but I’ve just visited an interesting ‘wild place’ surrounded by a city of eight million noisy people – Central Park, New York.  The Park is a green oasis in the middle of the concrete jungle that is Manhattan Island, but there are jungles within jungles even here.  Some years back when Central Park was a haven for muggers as well as wildlife, the poet Ogden Nash wrote:

If you should happen after dark

To find yourself in Central Park

Ignore the paths that beckon you

And hurry, hurry to the zoo 

And creep into the tiger’s lair.

Frankly you’ll be safer there.

Central Park is a safer place now and though it was designed to be ‘a people’s park’ it is also a wonderful place for birds, particularly in spring and fall when birds are migrating between their summer homes in Canada and their winter quarters further south.  The park was designed in the 1850s by two landscape architects of genius, Frederick Law Olmsted (an American) and Calvert Vaux (an Englishman), who made what had been a pestilential swampland inhabited by a few settlers and their pigs into a panorama of hills, rocks, lakes, streams, meadows, gardens and woodlands. These now make a perfect refuge for birds on their Atlantic flyway amid all the concrete, glass, stone, brick and steel that otherwise cover the teeming city of Manhattan.

My favourite spot in the Park is a small area called ‘the Ramble’, a thickly wooded section with lots of bushes and twisting paths in which you can almost forget you are in the middle of a mighty metropolis.  There you can watch such common American species as robins (bigger than ours, of course, like everything American), grackles, catbirds, cardinals, chickadees and mocking birds.  There are also American versions of families like woodpeckers, thrushes, wrens, finches and warblers.  And one special treat on this visit were the ruby-throated hummingbirds feasting on the flower nectar to refuel on their way south.  These prodigies of the bird world really live life in the fast lane: they have a heart rate of over 600 beats a minute, a wing beat of an incredible 80 per second; they can fly forwards, backwards, up or down – like tiny helicopters; and they migrate on these whirring wings all the way from New England to Mexico.   Wow (as they say in American)!  

There are two other very familiar species here too.  Starlings were introduced into America from England when forty pairs were released in Central Park in 1890, on the initiative of a certain Eugene Schieffelin, who had the silly idea of bringing into America all the fifty or so birds mentioned in Shakespeare.  What he did about the ostrich and the phoenix isn’t recorded, but the starlings and the sparrows are certainly flourishing; indeed they are now all over the continent and are regarded as pests.  Just shows you have to be careful what you wish for. 

Jeremy Mynott

Lavender Cottage

4 October 2014   

14 September 2014

I was driving home one of those balmy August evenings and became aware of all the moths streaking past the windscreen, illuminated in my headlights like tiny meteors in the night.  And I suddenly realised I didn’t know what kind of moths most of them were.  They were just – you know – moths.  But of course our moths are just as varied as our butterflies, in fact much more so since we have over 800 species of the larger moths in this country (and there are another 1,000 or so of the smaller or ‘micro-moths’), whereas we only have about 70 species of butterflies.   Well, that sounded like a challenge, so I bought a moth trap to see if I could catch some and start to identify them.  A moth trap is an odd contraption.  It’s a big wooden box with glass slats fitted at angles.  You mount a bright light on top of it, strong in the ultra-violet range, and you put old egg boxes in the bottom.  Then you just leave it out in the garden at night. The moths are attracted by the light, slide down the slats and reside in the cavities in the egg boxes until morning.  You then take the boxes out, inspect their occupants, give them a tap and off they go.  Easy.  On my very first outing I caught a wonderful poplar hawk moth.  These are quite big moths and have dramatically scalloped and swept-back wings, like some secret advanced aircraft design.  They are probably not uncommon but you never see them by day because their camouflage is so perfect.  And that is one of the striking things about moths.  We think of them as dark creatures of the night, perhaps a bit weird and scary when they blunder into our private spaces.   In fact they are most beautifully coloured with subtle combinations of browns, greys, greens and buffs.  But whereas butterflies have bright colours designed for purposes of display, moths are designed to be invisible by day to predators like birds.  When I released them they would alight on a nearby leaf or branch and immediately become impossible to find again.

Moths also have wonderful names.  On that same first outing I caught the following:  satin wave, turnip moth, nutmeg, straw underwing, frosted orange, Hebrew character, burnished brass and, best of all, a flounced rustic (sounds like one of the more colourful female residents of Thurlow). These aren’t all easy to tell apart, however.  I bought a good field guide to go with my moth trap and was amazed to discover just how many different ‘rustics’ there are, for example, each distinguished by minute variations in the intricate geometry of shapes, colours and shades.  Then there are other large families of footmen, lackeys, wainscots, tussocks, quakers, carpets, thorns and festoons I have still to encounter.  I haven’t got very far yet in sorting all these out but I can see this could easily become an (other) addictive interest …

Jeremy Mynott

Lavender Cottage

14 September 2014

 

12 August 2014

Here’s a little quiz question.  Whose death has its centenary on 1 September this year?  Here’s a clue: she was called Martha, after George Washington’s wife.  Here’s another clue: fifty years before her death there were 10 billion others like her.  Final clue: she was the last of her kind.  Well, Jeremy Paxman would be glaring at you if you hadn’t got it by now.  Martha was the last ever Passenger Pigeon, once the most numerous bird on earth, and she died sometime between 12 noon and 1pm on 1 September 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo, Ohio.  It’s the best-recorded extinction in history.  Everything about this species is extraordinary.  Up to the mid nineteenth century huge flocks of these birds darkened the skies of America.  We hear of one in 1813 so vast that it spread from horizon to horizon and took three days to pass over.  Yet in a few decades the bird was no more.  What could have happened?

The main cause was simple in fact.  It was the destruction of the forests as the immigrants from Europe poured into America and spread west, taming the landscape as they went, dispossessing the native Indians, founding towns and cities, clearing and farming the land, and exploiting its rich resources.  The pigeons were wholly dependent on these forests for food and nesting sites.  They were also easy to hunt and their flesh was a staple diet for the settlers and a valuable export, so they were slaughtered on an industrial scale.  In the killing season extra trains were put on to convey thousands of barrels of pigeon bodies east to cities like Chicago, St Louis, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.  

The name ‘passenger pigeon’ isn’t a macabre reference to these train journeys, but is a bit of a misnomer in fact, probably deriving from the French pigeon de passage or some equivalent Indian name.  This was a wandering, migratory species, moving on restlessly wherever they could until their resources literally ran out.  It was really the ‘wandering pigeon’ or ‘peregrine pigeon’.

This isn’t the only extinction of a charismatic bird, of course.  Think of the great auk, last recorded in Britain in St Kilda in 1840 and killed by fishermen who were terrified by its unearthly shrieking and clubbed it to death, thinking it a witch.  Or the dodo, which has entered our language as a very symbol of extinction, ‘dead as a dodo’.  The last of those died a lot earlier, in about 1662 in Mauritius – a fat, clumsy and trusting bird (also a sort of pigeon in fact), which was butchered by sailors glad of an easy meal.

It couldn’t happen again, could it?  But when did you last see or hear the British cousin of the passenger pigeon, the turtle dove?  That used to be the soundtrack of summer with its gentle purring song.  They were common in Thurlow 25 years ago, but I didn’t hear one this year, or last …

Jeremy Mynott

Lavender Cottage

12 August 2014

 

14 July 2014

purp
July tends to be a quiet month for birds so I was in a wood in east Suffolk the other day looking for a rare local butterfly that sometimes shows up there.  This is the charismatic Purple Emperor, which was effectively extinct in our county at the end of the twentieth century but has now made a tiny revival in just one or two favoured locations.  They aren’t easy to find at the best of times, though, even if you are in the right place at the right time.  The time has to be July or early August, when this magnificent butterfly is briefly on the wing, and the place has to be a substantial oak wood with a few sunny rides and plenty of shrubby willow (sallow) trees for the caterpillars to feed on.  But even then you have to be looking in the right direction, which is straight up, since this is a butterfly of the high canopy and they spend most of their time gliding out of sight around the tree-tops.  However, they do have a peculiar weakness for rotting fruit, carrion and animal droppings so just occasionally they come to ground to sample these malodorous delights.  And canny lepidopterists lay bait for them – I won’t describe it further – in secluded areas then stand back (well back), hoping to get a closer view of the iridescent colours of the male if it planes down to indulge this furtive habit. 

Anyway, I had no bait of this kind I was in a position to part with so I spent a long time craning my neck upwards and scanning the tops with my binoculars to see if I could spot one in the oak canopy.  Our necks aren’t constructed for this so we probably miss a lot of aerial sights, but while I was developing a first-class crick and was starting to wonder about orthopedic therapies I was seeing a whole world of insect activity I would otherwise have missed – lots of hoverflies, bees, day-flying moths, some Speckled Wood butterflies … but no Purple Emperor.  Then I suddenly glimpsed a large butterfly (bigger than a Red Admiral or a Peacock) cruising around in a sort of stiff-winged, veering flight – a bit like a small bat; and when it banked to catch the light I could see the deep purple sheen on its broad wings.  After a while it was joined by two or three others, all twirling away in a sort of communal catch-me-if-you-can.  They didn’t ever come much lower, but there’s no doubt what they were and it seemed more satisfactory in a way to be watching them in their natural stratum of activity, up there in the high tops.   Other early names of this beautiful creature were the Purple High Flyer, Purple Shades Butterfly and Emperor of the Woods, all of which are both accurate and evocative.  Long may they fly over Suffolk woods, largely unseen by human eyes.

Jeremy Mynott

Lavender Cottage

14 July 2014  

 

15 June 2014

Black woodpeckerThe dawn chorus of birds in spring and summer is one of nature’s marvels.  Every day at around dawn there is this swelling volume of song as successive performers join in the chorus of voices.  The dawn chorus reaches its peak of intensity in the months of April, May and June – that is, during the main breeding season – and the performance is of course linked to the deep instinct in male birds, all of whom will be on a sort of hormonal high at this time, to defend their territories, attract mates and strengthen the bond with them.   Some of the songs reach such levels of complexity and musicality that we can’t help thinking of them as celebratory performances too, which go beyond the mere biological requirements of the season.  Think of the thrush, the blackbird and the nightingale.  Who is to say that the birds cannot at some level enjoy and appreciate their greatest virtuoso performers for their own sake?

But of course the identity of these performers varies with time and place.  There is a good deal of difference in the composition of the chorus between Thurlow and, say, the Outer Hebrides, where waking in a small boat off one of the uninhabited islands I have been entertained at dawn by a raucous choir of oystercatchers, terns and gulls with a few seals wailing in the background as a kind of descant.   And sometimes the ‘songs’ aren’t even vocal ones.  I was staying in a remote forest lodge on an island in the northern Baltic this May when I was awakened by what sounded like machine-gun fire just outside my bedroom window.  Had the Russians just arrived, I wondered, to restore Estonia to their former empire as they had the Crimea only the month before?  No, it was a bird displaying – a huge black woodpecker drumming on a tree trunk.  This charismatic bird is jet black with a striking red crest and is much larger than our native green woodpecker.  It has an extremely powerful bill, which can bore deep into tree trunks to search for grubs, excavate nest holes or play the percussion part in the chorus, as this one was doing.  They can achieve a strike rate of an incredible forty blows a second and the drumming can be heard from a distance of up to four kilometers away – though in my case it was from only about twenty yards!  

My first thought about the Russian military wasn’t a totally wild one, however.   This species ranges over all the northern boreal forests, including Russian ones.  And its scientific name reflects its war-like associations – Dryocopus martius, which literally means ‘Oak-banger related to Mars’, Mars being the Roman god of war.  For the purpose of its drumming displays the black woodpecker seeks out the most resonant timber it can find and therein lies a problem.  As you might expect in a forest region, whose main natural resource is trees, most of the houses in the villages here are made of wood and they make wonderful sounding-boards if struck hard with a dagger-like implement …

 

Jeremy Mynott

Lavender Cottage

15 June 2014 

 

11 May 2014

 

The spring months are surely the most exciting of the year. Things change so fast that one could write a different ‘Nature Note’ each day.  One moment winter’s bare hedges are just touched with a green haze of new budding life, then a week later you can scarcely see through them.  Meanwhile, flowers are appearing in the verges in regular succession – it was a wonderful year for cowslips, which spread themselves in yellow drifts all up the Temple End Road in April.  Butterflies appear magically out of nowhere and suddenly on a warm day there are peacocks, tortoiseshells and those big floppy yellow brimstones all gliding around our gardens.  And of course the summer migrant birds are returning one by one too, though after an early start some of them seem to have got delayed by the blustery wet weather in early May.  We now know much more about where they come from and what routes they take because the increasing miniaturization of electronic products has enabled scientists to attach tiny transmitters to their legs and these devices send out signals which locate the birds precisely. Batches of young cuckoos have been tagged in this way for the last few years and their journeys anxiously monitored from equatorial Africa, through Europe and back to Britain.  I say ‘anxiously’ because we are getting fewer back every year now.  Have you heard one locally yet?  I have only heard one fleetingly, but Jane Sheppard beat me hands down with three.  If you haven’t heard one soon, you probably won’t hear one at all this year because the other thing this research shows is how quickly the male cuckoos (the ones making that unmistakeable call) go back again after they’ve done the business.  They may leave as early as June, certainly by July.  And the females only stay on long enough to deposit their eggs in the nest of the unfortunate foster-parent – often a dunnock, which then has to act for both absentee parents.  

 

There’s no point in moralizing about this.  The behaviour evolved naturally as a biologically efficient way of producing more cuckoos.  Dunnocks themselves, who are often the host species, aren’t always quite what they seem either. The nineteenth-century Reverend F.O. Morris, thought the nice, little dunnock in your garden was a model of Victorian family values:

 

Unobstrusive, quiet and retiring, without being shy, humble and homely in its deportment and habits, sober and unpretending in its dress, while still neat and graceful, the Dunnock exhibits a pattern which many of higher grade might imitate, with advantage to themselves and benefit to others.

 

Now in fact, Dunnocks have quite a lively time of it.  They pair up in the usual way, but both partners are secretively promiscuous when they can get away with it – the females trying to increase the number of males who will help rear the chicks by making each think he is the real father, and the males increasing the likelihood that at least some of his offspring will survive with one mother or another.  We talk about being cuckolded but some may be dunnocking on the side too?

 

Jeremy Mynott, Lavender Cottage, 11 May 2014

 

 

 

5 April 2014 

I had a surprising encounter the other evening.  I was working late in my study when I heard a series of heavy thuds and crashes coming from behind the door of our living room the other side of the house.  I knew Diane was upstairs, so I rushed across, adrenaline fizzing, to confront the intruder.  I burst in on a scene of chaos – lamp stands knocked over, ornaments smashed, flowerpots and their contents scattered all over the floor.  I stared round wildly.  It was at first eerily quiet; but then there was a sudden commotion of wings and a large duck launched itself from behind the sofa and flew round the room, sweeping yet more things from the shelves and banging noisily into the windows.  Incredibly, it must have come down the chimney; it then panicked, as well one might of course, though it was thoughtless of it also to spray the furnishings with such copious excretions.  Well, at least I was able to perform a rapid identification and add a new species to my ‘garden list’ of birds.  This was no ordinary duck like a mallard, but an adult mandarin duck, so there was a second mystery about its origins.  

 

mandarin

 

 

The mandarin is a popular species in private wildfowl collections.  The drake has a quite spectacular plumage, with its chestnut ‘whiskers’, orange ‘sails’ and an extraordinary combination of copper, emerald and white in the thick facial ruff.  But despite these brilliant colours it is often hard to spot in the wild, since it tends to lurk in lakes under overhanging willows and somehow disappears into its natural surroundings.  But the question of its true ‘natural surroundings’ is itself an interesting one.  There is archaeological evidence that the mandarin was actually once a native bird in Britain (some 600,000 years ago), but it is now best known as a naturalised species, introduced from China into British wildlife collections from the mid-eighteenth century onwards.  Some escaped, of course, and they have since dispersed widely and formed colonies of wild mandarins reaching as far north as Aberdeen.  In fact it is thought that the estimated UK population of some 13-14,000 is now a good proportion of the much reduced world population. 

 

 

 

Another interesting fact about the mandarin is that it nests in holes in trees, so our visitor was presumably exploring the chimney as a possible nesting-site when it got this nasty surprise.  I think I know where it may have come from.  There’s a little wildfowl collection at the Old Rectory and I bet this bird flipped over the fence to try its luck in the wild.  

But I didn’t finish the story.  I finally cornered the bird in the living room, grabbed it and then released it outside into the night.  It now knows that ‘the wild’ can be a tricky place and I hope it found its way home.  Meanwhile, I ordered my wife not to enter the room until I had cleared it up, and for once she obeyed me.

Jeremy Mynott

Lavender Cottage

5 April 2014 

 

11 February 2014

One of the things I most look forward to in March every year is the arrival of our first summer migrant, the chiffchaff.  When we originally came to Thurlow, more than thirty years ago now, I could expect to hear one of these little warblers, fresh in from Africa and singing its chiff-chaff refrain, some time in the last few days of March.  It was always an annual miracle, how such a tiny bird could travel so far – over deserts, seas, mountains and cities – and find its way punctually every spring to the same small Suffolk village, indeed often to exactly the same copse down the Drift.  I’ve been keeping records ever since and have noticed that the chiffchaff has been arriving progressively earlier year by year, so that I’m now listening out for it by about the twelfth of March. This is undoubtedly the effect of global warming.  Our springs are getting earlier and the birds are responding. 

This year, however, a very strange thing happened.  I heard a chiffchaff singing on the nineteenth of January!  And I’ve heard what must be the same bird several times subsequently in February.  My reaction was different, though.  Instead of getting that familiar kick of adrenalin and excitement I felt rather disturbed.  It was out of place, a bit weird and worrying, as though the world wasn’t working quite properly any more but had somehow got out of kilter.  Now, this particular chiffchaff probably isn’t a migrant at all, but a bird that has stayed over from last summer through the very mild winter we’ve so far been having and was stimulated to sing by the unseasonable weather.  If it works, this stay-behind policy is a perfectly sensible strategy, of course.  The bird will have been saved all the rigours of its immense round trip from Africa and back and will be poised to claim the best territory before any of the true migrants arrive here in mid-March.  

But this little bird’s presence in January and February is also symptomatic of a larger disturbance to our weather systems and our whole planet, I’m afraid.  Think of that destructive ‘Surge’ down the East Coast in January and the terrible floods in the SW where, as I write, the waters seem to be reclaiming the land we once took from them and rendering them uninhabitable again.  We’re belatedly doing our best to help this or that community in shoring up their defences, while the politicians are all fighting like ferrets in a sack to avoid accepting responsibility for the damage these poor people have suffered.  But the problem probably goes much deeper, and these chaotic events that insurers unfairly choose to call ‘Acts of God’ will likely become ever more common.  They may feel like modern versions of the biblical catastrophes of fire, flood, pestilence and famine, but they stem from acts of Man not God.  In the end we shall have to learn to work with Nature rather than arrogantly believing we have conquered her.  Otherwise it may literally cost us the earth.

Jeremy Mynott

Lavender Cottage

11 February 2014

 9 January 2014

Another year, another nature diary … But is it really rational to start everything anew punctually on 1 January each year – diaries, calendars, and all those New Year resolutions and lists?  Is it nature or convention that is driving this?  A bit of both, actually.  Years haven’t always started on January the first.  In old Rome March was the first month of the year, because that was (and still is) the month of the spring equinox, when there are equal hours of day and night.  Indeed, even in England, 25 March was officially the first day of the year until as late as 1757, when it reverted to 1 January, as now.  Other possible choices based on the natural solar year are 21 September (the autumn equinox), 21 June (the summer solstice and longest day) and 21 December (the winter solstice and shortest day).  I rather favour this last, because from then onwards the days start getting longer again and we have something to look forward to.  The change is almost imperceptible to us at first, though.  In fact, for a while it goes on getting darker in the mornings after the 21st, but it’s getting lighter in the evenings at a faster rate, so the total daylight hours do gradually start extending.  For example: on 22 December the sun rises at 8.07am and sets at 3.49pm, on 5 January it’s 8.08am and 4.02pm, by 12 January it’s 8.04am and 4.12pm and by 2 February (when you may be reading this) it’s 7.39am and 4.48pm.  And now we can really notice the difference.  Whoopee! 

 

If we began the New Year on 22 December we could still have Christmas at the usual time to celebrate the turn of the year, the lengthening days and the rising of our spirits again.  For the light is at least as important to our psychic health as the temperature and the weather are, and of course it’s also much more predictable than they are.  You’ll have heard of S.A.D., the Seasonal Affective Disorder that can cause serious depression in people longing for the light to return to their lives, both literally and metaphorically.   And it’s the same for the birds.  They have no interest in our human rituals and festivals, and they don’t get any public holidays.  Indeed they have to work even harder than usual just to find enough food in daylight hours to keep their tiny bodies alive and warm through the night.  As a result they are far more sensitive to the changing light in the year’s cycle than we are.  By early February we will already be hearing a swelling volume of song in the early mornings, as song thrush, blackbird, robin, wren, blue and great tit and dunnock all find their voices again and join the dawn chorus.  What’s more, thanks to the regularities of the solar year, they are doing so at a convenient time when you can listen to it in bed if you choose.

 

Happy New Year, from whenever you count it!

 

Jeremy Mynott

Lavender Cottage

9 January 2014

 

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