The Thurlows

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Nature Notes 2017

August 2017: Shell stories

With seaside holidays in mind, this month’s ‘Nature Note’ comes from the Suffolk coast.  Visitors to the tiny hamlet of Shingle St, just south of Orford, will have seen the Shingle St shell line. It’s the long trail of gleaming white shells that snakes its way over the shingle from the Coastguards Cottages to the high-tide mark.   There’s a story here.  Two women – childhood friends – both suffered serious illnesses in later life at about the same time and came to Shingle St together in 2005 to recuperate. As a gentle activity they did what we have all done from childhood onwards, they started gathering some shells from the beach. The collection grew and they marked the progress of their recovery by constructing a line of these shells in stages over the shingle, until they were healed and the line was complete.  A simple and very moving celebration of the renewal of life.  And each year they return to repair this fragile thread of shells from the ravages of wind and weather

But there are other life stories to be told here, too.   Who lived in these shells before they were cast up by wind and tide on this wild beach?  The line stretches for over 300 yards and I reckon it must contain some 20,000 individual shells.  They fall into two main families.  First, the bivalves, the ones with two hinged halves that can open and close, which include mussels, cockles, scallops and oysters.  Secondly, the gastropods (an unlovely term, which literally means ‘stomach feet’).  These have a single shell enclosing their soft bodies, usually designed as a coiled spiral narrowing to a sharp point, and they move around on a large, muscular ‘foot’ protruding from the wide end.  This second group includes such familiar species as whelks, periwinkles, limpets and cowries. 

Collectively, these shells are all classified as molluscs and despite their hard, protective outer casings the name literally means ‘soft things’, which are of course the living creatures inside and the parts we eat if we have a taste for shellfish.  Most of those in the Shingle Street shell line are whelks, but there are several other species mixed in too, each with their own shapes, textures, decorations and delicate architecture.

Molluscs are among the most ancient creatures on earth, dating back over 500 million years, and they occupy the largest living-space on the planet – the seas and oceans.  There are over a hundred thousand different mollusc species worldwide and their shells have been a perennial source of wonder to humankind, used from earliest times as jewellery, ornaments, food and sometimes even as currency.  They have entered folklore as creation stories (Botticelli’s ‘Venus’ emerging from a scallop), sex symbols (cowries with their suggestive shapes), and trumpets (the conch in Lord of the Flies). 

One final layer of symbolism in the Shingle Street shells, whose original inhabitants have long since departed, is that some of them are now re-occupied by other creatures like tiny spiders and hermit crabs – new life in old homes.

Jeremy Mynott
Shingle Street
10 August 2017 

 

July 2017: A light in the dark

Readers with long memories may recall that I once declared a New Year’s Resolution of finding a glow-worm, a magic and mysterious species we have all heard of but few have actually seen.  I’ve been trying quite hard.  I’ve visited promising woodland and heathland sites and wandered slowly among the bushes in the darkness, looking for a tell-tale gleam in the undergrowth.  One of the pleasures of natural history is that you often find one interesting thing while looking for another.  So I’ve seen plenty of owls, bats, deer, foxes, badgers and other creatures of the night, heard lots of strange rustlings by unseen animals, and surprised at least one ardent courting couple, who could be said to be glowing somewhat. But not a glimpse of my real quarry, which I was beginning to think of as some phantom will-o’-the-wisp.   Glow-worms were never common anyway and they seem to be getting rarer.  Moreover, they only ‘glow’ for a short season in mid-summer and are of course only visible in the darkness.  Add that to the fact that not everyone likes prowling around alone in woods at night and the chances of people seeing one are never good.

But I’ve just struck lucky. At about 10pm on one warm, calm evening in mid-July I was exploring a local forestry trail and was just turning back to go home, when I spied a tiny glimmering light in the bracken, almost at ground level.  Surely a glow-worm! I crawled over and shone my torch on it, to reveal a small drab insect clinging to a stem, whose hind-parts were tilted upwards and were the source of this weird, golden-green radiance.   It’s the female glow-worm that lights up this way – to attract the males, wouldn’t you have guessed. The females are wingless and look like rather nondescript grubs, but the males are winged and fly on to the landing-strips thus illuminated.  

Shakespeare described the glow-worm’s light as a ‘pale ineffectual fire’, and as usual he had correctly noticed an important natural feature. The glow-worm contains a chemical called ‘luciferin’, which through a complex reaction converts almost all its energy into light rather than heat, so the light is indeed a pale, cool one. That’s the opposite of the domestic light-bulb, which wastes most of its energy in heat.  So maybe there’s a new idea here for the Green Party.  How about a National Grid of street lights, powered by glow-worms?  A famous scene in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native almost anticipates this possibility.  The ‘reddleman’, Diggory Venn, plays his opponent at dice by the light of some glow-worms he has gathered and placed in a circle around their makeshift gaming-table when their lantern blows out. And various poets hail its powers as an insect ‘lantern-bearer’ (Blake), ‘earth-born star’ (Wordsworth), ‘love torch’ (Coleridge) and ‘twinkling star of spangled earth’ (John Clare).  Winston Churchill on the other hand didn’t seem to realise that glow-worms were actually beetles not worms. ‘We are all worms’, he said, ‘but I am a glow-worm’.

 Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage
10 July 2017

 

June 2017: Changing names

 I was walking past one of the big rape fields that dominate much of our countryside now when I heard a familiar song coming from the middle of the crop.  A familiar song but in an unfamiliar place.  A bird with a jet-black head and a dazzling white collar was intoning a rather tuneless jingle from the top of a tall stem.  It was a reed bunting (a very handsome bird, but a strong candidate for Britain’s worst songster). You do still get reed buntings in reedy areas, but as our wetlands have been drained and contracted in size they have spread out to drier habitats as well.  It’s an example of how birds adapt to the changing environment.  They ought really to be called ‘field buntings’ now, especially as we’ve largely lost the corn buntings that used to thrive in cereal crops.  Marsh harriers too often nest in arable crops these days, while marsh tits have become birds of woodland. 

It got me thinking about other cases where a bird has somehow outlived its name.  We lost the corncrake as a breeding bird around here over 100 years ago and they are now largely confined to the Outer Hebrides.  You won’t find any garden warblers in your garden either, that is, unless you’re lucky enough to have gardens with an extensive shrubbery.  Nor do linnets any longer need a crop of linseed to keep them going. Meanwhile, the poor old sparrow-hawks can’t any longer survive on a diet of house sparrows, which have gone into a steep decline, despite the massive expansion of house-building programmes.  Nor could herring gulls still manage on the depleted herring stocks off the East coast (our so-called ‘seagulls’ have become city scavengers).  The barn owls have become very short of old barns to nest in and they should probably be re-named box owls, since they now tend to occupy the splendid five-star owl-boxes local communities have thoughtfully installed. 

In some other cases, it’s an expansion not a decline that has rendered an old name misleading.  Chaffinches don’t just scrabble around for grains in the chaff of a threshing floor any more.  And thanks to the current regime of winter sowings on which they can gorge, the population of wood pigeons has exploded way beyond woodlands and they now occupy every copse, hedgerow and even garden tree they can commandeer.

Some names never made sense to start with, however.  Mute swans are far from silent, as you’ll know if you get close enough to provoke their threatening hisses and growls.  The common gull isn’t at all common most of the year in England. And the oystercatcher doesn’t enjoy such an exclusively gourmet menu.  The meanings of other names are buried deep in their etymology.  ‘Pheasant’, for example, literally means ‘the bird of Phasis’, a river near the Black Sea, from where they were supposed to have come into Europe.

It all reminds one of Humpty Dumpty’s dictum in Alice in Wonderland: ‘When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean.’

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage
10 June 2016

May 2017: Pop goes the weasel

 A small mammal dashed across the path in front of me the other day and instantly disappeared into the ditch.  Well, ‘dashed’ isn’t quite right.  It sort of flowed over the ground in a ripple of movement that was something between a bound and a slither. Too large for a mouse, more elongated and sinuous than a rat.  Something brown and furry, but thin as a rake.  Something lightning fast, with energy to spare and more than a hint of danger about it.  I stood stock still and after a minute or two a small triangular head with black button eyes and little rounded ears popped up from the long grass and inspected me curiously.   I was clearly neither a threat nor a potential meal, so with a flick of its tail it vanished as quickly as it had appeared.  A weasel.

Weasels are the smallest member of the large family of mustelids – carnivorous mammals like polecats, otters and stoats.  In fact, weasels are the world’s smallest carnivorous mammals, feeding mainly on mice and voles, which they pursue relentlessly down the narrowest of tunnels.  Their slender, flexible bodies are well suited to hunting underground, hence their nickname ‘tunnel hunters’.  In nature, of course, hunters can quickly become the hunted and weasels are themselves predated by cats, foxes, owls and birds of prey. It’s a ladder of power and dependence, negotiated in violence.  The word ‘vermin’ comes from the Latin word for ‘worm’, which is at the bottom of this chain, but its emotive force expresses the point of view of the top predator in the chain, which is us.

Weasels are often confused with stoats, but are much smaller and lack the stoat’s trademark black tip to the tail.  They weigh in at just 6 ounces (about the weight of a small banana) and have to eat voraciously just to survive, consuming about a third of their own body weight each day. They have quite large territories, but no permanent homes, preferring to lodge in the burrow of whoever they have most recently eaten.  They only live two or three years anyway and it’s a life of constant hunger, stress and striving.

Most children in towns have never seen a weasel, but they may know of it from the old nursery rhyme, which begins:

Half a pound of tuppenny rice

Half a pound of treacle

That’s the way the money goes

Pop! Goes the weasel

Great fun to sing, but what on earth does it mean?  Is it to do with the habit weasels have of popping up in front of you, like mine did?  No, something much more obscure. It seems to date back centuries to a form of Cockney rhyming slang, in which ‘weasel and stoat’ meant ‘coat’ and ‘pop’ meant ‘pawn’.  Poor people would pawn their coats on a Monday to get the cash to see them through the week, then buy them back at the weekend to have their Sunday best available.  A different cycle of need and replenishment.

Jeremy Mynott,
Lavender Cottage
6 May 2017

 

April 2016: The pied drummer

Spring is the time for the orchestra of birds to produce their loudest and most varied performances.  And to the sweet, blended melodies of the song thrush, blackbird, robin and others in the early morning chorus there is added a distinctive contribution from the percussion section.   The great spotted woodpeckers (once known, rather more accurately, as ‘pied woodpeckers’) are now drumming loudly on their favourite tree trunks.  These drum-rolls can involve some sixteen separate strikes in less than a second and they are in fact the woodpecker’s ‘song’, designed like all other bird songs to advertise for mates and demarcate a territory. Of course, woodpeckers also excavate holes for nesting, but that is a quite separate operation and sounds more like the irregular strikes of a pick-axe than the continuous burst of a pneumatic drill.  For their drumming displays the woodpeckers tend to select a dead branch which has suitably resonant qualities and then hammer away on it.  The scientific name for the bird is Dendrocops major which, appropriately enough, means ‘great tree-banger’. 

You might think this repeated, concussive action would damage their heads and brains.  Think of the current concerns about concussions in rugby and boxing, for example.  But evolution has sorted this out for the woodpecker.  They have specially reinforced skulls and the main impact is in any case taken by a powerful muscle that runs below the brain case.  Wood chips might be another hazard, but their nostril openings are protected from those by a cluster of short, stiff feathers, while their eyes have a covering membrane.  

Nature is good at multi-purpose designs and these fearsome bills are also well-adapted to a variety of tasks other than musical-making: for example, drilling the holes themselves (which takes about five days’ work); neatly extracting seeds from pine-cones (they can eat up to 1,700 of these a day); cracking open nuts on a selected ‘anvil’ crevice in the bark (often using different anvils for different kinds of work – acorns, beech-mast or pine-cones – clever stuff); exposing grubs hidden deep in rotten wood (which they then spear with their long tongues); seeing off other woodpeckers with these sharpened daggers; and even grabbing the eggs or nestlings from other hole-nesting birds like tits.  So, as a piece of kit the woodpecker’s bill is more like a Swiss-army knife than a single tool.

All this violent activity has other consequences too.  In woodpecker mating it’s often hard to distinguish courtship from aggression.  But once they finally pair up they tend to be solidly monogamous.  The male doesn’t have much time to philander anyway.  He does most of the work of excavation and also, perhaps surprisingly, does most of the incubation once eggs are laid in the nest hole, including all the night shifts; and he plays at least an equal part in feeding the young.  They work as a pair in other ways too: if one pair is attacked by another, the male fights the male and the female the female.  Rather sporting, really.   

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage
3 April 2017

March 2016: the colour of spring

I’ve just been watching the first butterfly of spring, a lovely yellow brimstone gliding down the Drift along the line of hedge.  These are the floatiest of butterflies, like a large leaf pirouetting in a breeze, and their rich buttery hue seems to accentuate their spring freshness. The sight made me start wondering about possible connections between spring and the colour yellow.  When you think about it a lot of our early spring flowers are yellow, too.  The year starts with aconites and then we pretty soon have primroses, celandines, daffodils, dandelions, coltsfoot and cowslips – all different shades of yellow.  Why would that be?  One theory is that this colour attracts the early pollinators like bees so the plants get a head start in the work of pollen-transfer and fertilisation.   Nice idea – simple, striking and plausible.  It’s the sort of pop scientific knowledge we like to parade, even if we don’t fully understand it.  But hang on, does the logic work?  Aren’t there a lot of early flowers that are not yellow – snowdrops, many crocuses, scilla, wood anemone, and so on?  And equally, there are lots of yellow flowers that come later – sunflowers, chrysanthemum, corn marigold, tansy, ragwort and a whole tribe of humble vetches, trefoils, stonecrops and saxifrages.  Moreover, gorse displays at least some of its sweet-smelling yellow flowers all the year round – hence the wise saying that when the gorse flowers kissing is in fashion.  And anyway, don’t most insects have quite different perceptions of colour than we do, relying much more on the ultra-violet band in the wavelength, so they wouldn’t necessarily see the yellow we see?  

Collapse of hypothesis?  Not entirely, but it just demonstrates that these things are quite complicated.  Another thought might be that several of these early yellow flowers like the celandine and buttercup are also very shiny, so maybe they are more reflective of such sunlight as there is early in the year and therefore more attractive to insects for that reason?  Some of the later flowering plants like ragwort have a much duller, matt finish.  And ‘heliotropic’ flowers like dandelions literally follow the sun, turning their heads throughout the day always to get maximum exposure, presumably so that they are always at their brightest and warmest to draw in any passing insect.

Following this yellow train of thought, what about other forms of life?  We don’t have any yellow mammals I can think of.  They would just stand out too much in our predominantly green environment, whereas under the fierce sun of Africa leopards and cheetahs can merge imperceptibly into the background colours of the grasslands and the play of light and shade.  We do have a few birds that are mainly yellow, like the yellowhammers which I’ve been seeing along the concrete track to the Water Treatment Plant and along the Temple End Road. But again, there are more yellow birds in hotter climes where they are less conspicuous amid the tropical vegetation.  The famous calypso song ‘Yellow Bird’ goes on to explain why … ‘high up in banana tree’.

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage
15 March 2017

 

February 2016

Our wild flowers provide a cheering succession of signposts on the way to spring every year.  I think of aconites as January’s flower, the first to peep through the leaf litter from the old year, revealing in a gleam of old gold a promissory note from the depths of winter that the sun really will return.  Then the snowdrops are very much February’s flower, their hardened blunt leaf tips forcing their way up, even through ground hardened by frost, to ease out those fragile, nodding blooms.  Snowdrops often seem to flower just when winter gives its final icy blast, their defiant white purity seemingly a hopeful message of milder and longer days to come.  But March’s flower has to be the daffodil.    Indeed, the first of March is officially the first day of spring, whatever the weather, and the early daffodils will already be sporting their yellow glory.  This is also St David’s Day and the daffodil is the national flower of Wales.  I gather the Welsh name for a daffodil translates as ‘Peter’s Leek’ and both are supposed to be worn that day by Welsh people (though one imagines the daffodil might be prove the more fragrant and decorative buttonhole, as well as more convenient to lodge in the lapel?). 

The earliest daffodils in Britain traditionally came from the Isles of Scilly because of the warmer climate there.  And you can still buy their highly scented soleil d’ors or the delicate paper-white narcissi at competitive prices, despite all the increased competition from home and abroad.  Daffodil production remains a major industry in Scilly and explains why the landscape there is such an attractive mosaic of tiny hedged fields.  It also explains one peculiar form of local taxation, whereby the Scilly Wildlife Trust pays a rent of one daffodil annually to the Prince of Wales for the untenanted lands in Scilly.    

There are wild as well as cultivated daffodils in Britain, though these are sadly now limited to relatively few sites.  The wild ones are smaller and daintier than the cultivars and they used to flourish in damp meadows and old woodlands, many of which have now been destroyed for ‘development’.  But you can still see them on various Wildlife Trust reserves in SW England, for example at Dunsford in Devon and in the ‘golden triangle’ in NW Gloucestershire where there are several good locations.  The most famous wild daffodils, however, must be those in the Lake District, which were celebrated in William Wordsworth’s lyric poem, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’. The poem was inspired by a walk Wordsworth took with his sister Dorothy in 1802 at Ullswater, where they wondered at the glorious profusion of a belt of daffodils along the lake shore:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance
Tossing their heads in stately dance

Well, nearly everyone can recite a few lines from this national favourite, but what may be less well known is that Wordsworth cribbed some of the best lines from his sister’s diary notes.   Poetic licence, I suppose (or typical male behaviour).

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage
20 February 2017

 

January 2016

We were on the Suffolk coast the day (and night) of Friday 13th of January and it almost lived up to its superstitious reputation.  We were in the tiny hamlet of Shingle St, which as the name suggests is poised on a raised shingle bank perilously close to the sea.  But was it going to be raised enough?  We were warned of exceptionally high tides, driven by strong winds to create a surge that threatened to overwhelm coastal defences all down the Suffolk coast. The police called round in the morning to advise us to leave and spend the night in one of the designated refuges in a nearby village, where coffee and blankets were promised but you were advised to take your own toothbrush and crossword puzzles.  All very calm and British.  High tide was forecast for about midnight, hardly the best time to be taking evasive action.  The residents of Shingle St conferred anxiously during the day, checking the latest weather reports.  Some of them had been through this several times in the past.  The famous 1953 floods had advanced up the beach but stopped just short of the houses; while the more recent surge of December 2013 had cunningly come up along the road at the back of the houses but had also failed to reach them.  The old hands reckoned we should stay and see it out.  After all, if things got tricky, we could always retreat to the Martello Tower.  The Shingle St Martello is an inhabited residence now (and a very fine one too), but it was originally one of a string of such forts built round the coasts of SE England in preparation for another possible assault from the sea – this one from Napolean around 1810.  They were most impressive structures – each one using about 600,000 bricks – but like some later military defences were only completed years after the actual danger had passed…

But why am I telling you all this in a Nature Note?  Well, I wondered if there would be any clues to the likely danger in the behaviour of the wildlife.  Birds and animals are supposed to have advance warning of extreme weather events.  Think of all the traditional folklore about this.  Swallows flying low over the fields, owls hooting by day, ravens croaking continuously – all of them troubling portents.  So I went out for a long walk round the dykes and ditches to see if I could spot any omens.  No swallows at this time of year, of course, and no local ravens to check out.  I did see two short-eared owls over the marsh, but they were inscrutably silent.  Then, more promisingly, I came across a flock of golden plover on a ploughed field.  Now, the scientific name of these plovers is Pluvialis, which means ‘rain birds’ and they were often thought to be harbingers of bad weather.  But I knew they had been around here for some weeks and they were not behaving unusually at all.  So in the end we put our trust in divination by birds rather than the secular forecasters and stayed put (and dry, I’m glad to say).

Jeremy Mynott
Shingle St
15 January 2017

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