Monthly Archives: April 2015

The First Fine Careless Rapture

IMG_1866Good Friday was, as the Irish say, ‘a soft day’. The Scots have a different word for it: ‘dreich’. I could hear the rain pattering on the skylights as I lay there in the grey early morning, but still, I had to get up, to leave my warm bed and head out to the woods. I had a feeling that something was going on there, and I didn’t want to miss it.

IMG_1846The rain seems to soften some things, and to bring others into relief. The greens of moss and leaf leap out, new-washed.

IMG_1836At first, there was so much bird song that it was like a mess of wool that I needed to untangle. I picked out the wren and robin, the blue tit and the great tit. I put the crow and the parakeet to one side. Still, something was new, something I hadn’t noticed before. A Green Woodpecker yaffled and I named him. But what was it, this new song?

I walked on, trying to identify the source. Everywhere, there was the sound of water.

But then, I saw who was singing.

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)

Undeterred by rain, he was throwing his song into the treetops. Weight for weight, Song Thrushes have one of the loudest of all bird calls.

In his poem ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’, Robert Browning talks of the Song Thrush:

That’s the wise thrush: he sings each song twice over

Lest you should think he never could re-capture

The first fine careless rapture!

And, listening to the bird, I could see what Browning meant: each phrase is repeated, as if the bird is riffing on a theme, trying things out. Indeed, in Mark Cocker’s ‘Birds Britannica’, he points out that an individual bird has about 100 different phrases to choose from, which the bird seems to do at random. Some song elements may be passed down from one generation to the next. But there were some notes in the song of this bird that reminded me of everything from the sound of a dustcart reversing to a mobile phone tone, and I wondered if he picked up inspiration from a variety of places. I thought that I could even hear the sound of parakeets and other birds woven into the Song Thrush’s song.

As with so many birds, Song Thrush numbers have declined by about two thirds in the past twenty-five years, and the London birds were also down by thirty-five percent. The RSPB has the Song Thrush on its Red List of birds that need urgent conservation action.  In the capital, though, numbers have been increasing during this century. Coldfall Wood seems to suit them – it’s wet enough along by the streams for them to find the invertebrates that they eat, and the mature trees provide lots of nesting and roosting spots. One thing that we can all do for Song Thrushes is to cut out the slug pellets  – Song Thrushes are great eaters of snails, and use a special stone, called a Snail Anvil, to hammer into the shells. I shall be keeping an eye open to see if I can spot one.

A Song Thrush's Anvil (Anne Burgess [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

A Song Thrush’s Anvil (Anne Burgess [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Song Thrushes are sometimes confused with Mistle Thrushes, but one easy way to tell them apart is that the blotches on the Song Thrush’s chest look like arrowheads, whilst those of the Mistle Thrush are more circular. The Song Thrush is also much smaller, but I find this difficult to gauge unless you have the two species lined up next to one another, like felons in an identity parade.

I went on my way, through the rain.

What is it about the sound of this bird that lifts the heart? It feels as if it’s woven into my subconscious. Although I’m not aware of ever having listened to a Song Thrush before, it feels familiar, like an ancestral memory. Some days, I could fall on my knees lamenting for all the creatures we have lost, for the habitats destroyed and the oceans that we are poisoning. This song reminds me of how much we still have to protect and to fight for.

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Wednesday Weed – Red Dead-nettle

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Red Dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum)

Red Dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum)

In East Finchley, all the Red Dead-nettle plants seem to have come into bloom at exactly the same time. Where last week there was just a clump of leaves, this week there are those tiny magenta-pink flowers, each one a complicated combination of long throat (corolla) and upper and lower lip. They seem designed to encourage a foraging bee to take a sip of nectar, with a handy landing-platform provided by the lower lip, and the stamen poised to gently tap the insect on the back, as if administering a blessing. It is also a source of pollen, especially for Queen bumblebees who are looking for food for their new offspring. This is reflected in the name given to the plant in Nottinghamshire and Lancashire – ‘Bumblebee flower’.

IMG_1764However, like many plants, Red Dead-nettle is not dependent on bees to reproduce. It can self-pollinate if times are hard, and ants have been observed dispersing the seeds by carrying them into their nests as food, where some of them will germinate before being eaten. A quick look at the Garden Organic website tells me that a single Red Dead-nettle can produce 27,634 viable seeds if there isn’t any competition from other plants. Such abundance! This is not surprising, as unlike its close relative White Dead-nettle, which is a perennial, Red Dead-nettle is an annual, and so has only one chance to pass on its genes. As with many things in nature, it’s lucky that not every seed or egg is able to reach adulthood or we’d soon be buried under a positive carpet of furry leaves and pink flowers.

IMG_1768Red Dead-nettles are plants of disturbed soils, but they are not tolerant of trampling, so they often crop up just at the edge of footpaths or other open spaces. Although it is native to continental Europe, it is thought to have been brought to the UK during the Bronze Age – remains of the plant have been found in deposits of wheat and barley from this period. It has since travelled widely with its human compatriots, and is hence found in North America and New Zealand too. Unlike many ‘weeds’ however, this is not an especially vigorous plant, and so it is not generally considered to be a problem. In addition to its value to pollinators, it is also useful for humans: the leaves and flowers can be eaten as a salad vegetable, and if you want to experience the delights of Dead-nettle and Chilli Soup or, indeed, Dead-nettle Beer, you can have a look here.

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As we have seen before, the medicinal uses of plants often depend on their appearance, and Red Dead-nettle is no exception. Because of its colour, Nicholas Culpeper, the fifteenth century herbalist, considered it efficacious for any problems relating to the blood, especially menstrual problems. It’s also believed that the crushed leaves will help to staunch blood flow, which is useful if you are ever unlucky enough to walk through a particularly vengeful bramble patch en route to your destination. I also note that it is sometimes used as a treatment for piles, although Lesser Celandine is more commonly referred to as the ‘go-to’ plant for such afflictions.  Beware, however: Red Dead-nettle also has a reputation as a laxative, and, whilst browsing through the various ‘wild food’ websites on the internet I noticed several people referring to cramps and diarrhoea. So, the word here, as everywhere, is caution. On the other hand, if you have a pet tortoise, Red Dead-nettle seems to be a fine food for them.

IMG_1771Sometimes, it’s possible to find a more unusual flower tucked in amongst the Red Dead-nettle. This is the Cut-Leaved Dead-nettle (Lamium hybridum). Described as ‘easily overlooked’, you can see why. The main difference between this plant and Red Dead-nettle is that, as you might expect from the name, the leaves are less rounded and more deeply toothed.

Cut-leaved Dead-nettle (Lamium hybridum)

Cut-leaved Dead-nettle (Lamium hybridum) (By Fer55 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) via Wikimedia Commons)

Red Dead-nettle is also has an angelic alternative name – Purple Archangel. It is argued that this is because the plant comes into flower around the time of the feast of the Archangel Michael, which is on 8th May. However, the plants that I saw today are obviously having a bit of calendar trouble if this is the case. Maybe there is something about the flowers which looks a little ethereal and heaven-bound. For the bumblebees, at least, they are manna.

By Beentree (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

By Beentree (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)