Monthly Archives: January 2023

Fungi Are Not Much Fun If You’re a Nematode Worm

Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)

Dear Readers, what could be more delicate and enticing than an oyster mushroom, with its frilly gills? They look to me like a troupe of ballerinas, and also turn my thoughts to frying them up in a bit of butter and garlic. Who would have thought that these fungi are nematode worm murderers? Well, buckle up because this is an astonishing tale, and makes it clear that mushrooms and toadstools are much more complicated than we ever thought.

Apparently, it’s been known since the 1980s that oyster mushrooms are carnivorous – they kill and digest microscopic nematode worms, But how? They can hardly knock them over the head with a stick, and the thought of oyster mushrooms prowling through the undergrowth is too much for even my imagination to comprehend.

What they actually do is far more interesting. Scientist Yen-Ping Hseuh discovered that the fungi produce little lollipop-shaped structures that break open when the nematode worms bash their heads against them.

‘Lollipop’ structures on the hyphae of oyster mushrooms (Photo byYi-Yun Lee, Academia Sinica, from the New Scientist article linked below)

These innocent-looking structures release a toxic nerve gas called 3-octanone – it triggers a cascade of calcium ions in the bodies of the worms, which induces paralysis and death. Fortunately, it’s only the hyphae (the parts of the fungus that live underground) that contain the toxin, rather than the fruiting bodies (which are the bits which end up in stir-fries).

Having dispatched their victims, the hyphae then grow into the bodies of the worms and digest them from the inside out. Lovely.

But why? I hear you asking. After all, most fungi make do with vegetable matter. It appears that the soils that the mushrooms grow in are particularly deficient in nitrogen, which is such an important element, and so difficult to access, that this fungus has turned to nematode-hunting. If we ever needed a hint that fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants, this is it.

You can read the whole article here.

Red List Number Twelve – Bewick’s Swan

Bewick’s Swan (Cygnus columbianus bewickii)

Dear Readers, the Bewick’s swan spends its summers in the Russian tundra, but in winter it heads south, and graces Ireland and England with its presence (the whooper swan is more likely to be seen in Scotland). This is a smallish swan (about 120 cms long, compared with the mute swan’s 152cm) and is usually seen in pairs or, later in the year, in family groups. Swans are monogamous and faithful not only to their partners, but to their breeding sites: in the British Trust for Ornithology’s ‘Into The Red’, Eileen Rees mentions being a Research Assistant at Slimbridge, and how she got to know the birds individually (the pattern of yellow on their beaks is different in each individual, as discovered by Sir Peter Scott). The volunteers and workers at the reserve would wait with anxiety for the return of the particular birds that they had grown to know and love. It’s very hard to watch as an animal you’ve grown fond of heads off into the unknown – no wonder we talk about children ‘leaving the nest’, and fear ’empty nest syndrome”.

An excerpt from Sir Peter Scott’s book of paintings of Bewick’s swans

Incidentally, Bewick’s swans are named for the artist Thomas Bewick, whose book of woodcuts of British birds is full of wonderful observation, strange folklore and the most beautiful illustrations.

Heron from ‘Bewick’s British Birds (1847)

Bewick’s swan is on the red list because of a decline in the non-breeding (winter) population. Is this a case of the bird now ‘short-stopping’ as is the case with many other species? In this phenomenon, birds that used to come all the way to the UK from other parts of Europe now settle down somewhere more close to hand (wing), because climate change has made some winter habitats less severe. Or is the bird in decline across its range? One thing that seems to be clear is that it’s the survival of the birds that is key, rather than their breeding success – they have just as many cygnets when the conditions are right, but fewer of them survive. This points to poorer conditions on their wintering grounds (maybe less food availability or more disturbance), and possibly to the impact of more extreme weather events. Whatever the reason, the population of swans in north-western Europe has fallen from almost 30,000 birds to less than 18,000. Several organisations are researching and ringing the birds, in the hope that more information will provide a way to protect and nurture these beautiful birds.

And here they are in flight. If you’re unsure if you’ve heard a whooper swan or a Bewick’s swan, note that the Bewick’s generally ‘honks’ twice, the whooper swan three times. Doesn’t this just sound like the music of the wild?

Bewick’s Swans in flight (Photo by Bouke ten Cate)

Wednesday Weed – Goat Willow

Goat Willow (Salix caprea)

Dear Readers, I hope that you will forgive my preoccupation with goat willow this winter, but having read about what an excellent plant it is for bees, I thought that it deserved a few moments of our attention. The plant apparently gets its name from Hieronymous Bock’s Herbal, in which the tree is seen being browsed by goats. In some Northern countries, flutes are made from goat willow, and that immediately makes me think of Pan, the god of the forest. In fact, I rather remember seeing a sculpture of Pan having sex with a goat at the Royal Academy a few years ago, and being rather surprised – apparently the Romans would have plonked this in their dining room or courtyard garden as a talking point. I imagine it would certainly have got the conversation going. I shall leave you with a rather more sedate illustration.

‘Pan Reclining’ by Sir Peter Paul Reubens

Goat willow has the reputation as a rather feral plant, but it’s also a favourite with children and flower arrangers because of those gorgeous catkins. Goat willow has male flowers on one tree, and female flowers on another – the male catkins mature with yellow pollen, the female ones mature to a green colour, and apparently both are great for the pollinators.

Like all willows, goat willow likes it damp and disturbed, and is a true pioneer of ‘dodgy’ environments. It’s found right across Europe and Western Asia. As some of you will remember, I recently bought a Kilmarnock Willow, which is a goat willow made a bit more user friendly – it’s a male clone grafted onto another willow, which controls the size. You can get a female version called a Weeping Sally.

Kilmarnock Willow

Buds on the Kilmarnock willow

The timber of goat willow is not widely used, owing to its propensity to crack (rather like the related species Crack Willow (Salix fragilis).However, it’s big claim to fame is as a food plant for  ‘His Imperial Majesty’, the purple emperor.

Purple emperor (Apatura iris) Photo by Charles J.Sharp

The caterpillars of some very interesting moths feed upon goat willow, including some of the clearwing species. I think most people would look at this animal and assume that it was a wasp. What excellent camouflage! It’s only the antennae and the lack of a wasp waist that give it away.

Dusky clearwing (Paranthrene tabaniformis) Photo by Graham Wenman at https://ukmoths.org.uk/species/paranthrene-tabaniformis/

And finally, willows of all kinds have been the subject of songs and poems, from Desdemona’s song in Othello to the ‘Tit Willow’ song in the Mikado. But here’s something to cheer us all up on a miserable January afternoon – Steeleye Span’s ‘All Around My Hat’. Enjoy!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxhjBiUE87A

 

 

Roxy Paine – Tree Artist

‘Maelstrom’ on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2009(Photo by Allison Meier)

Dear Readers, I have a great fondness for artists who are influenced by the natural world, and so I was most impressed by American artist Roxy Paine (b. 1966). He calls his trees ‘dendroids’ – they’re based on the growth patterns of real trees, but are clearly something else. Paine describes them thus:

‘I’ve processed the idea of a tree and created a system for its form. I take this organic majestic being and break it down into components and rules. The branches are translated into pipe and rod.’

‘Graft’ by Roxy Paine – Photo by Ron Cogswell

‘Inversion’ by Roxy Paine. Photo by צילום:ד”ר אבישי טייכר,

‘Neuron’ by Roxy Paine – Photo by Seligmanwaite at https://www.flickr.com/photos/seligmanwaite/36240135843

I love the way that these ‘dendroids’ are clearly trees, but are also both alien and somehow mechanical. The more I learn about trees, and indeed about life in general, the more it’s clear that it’s the collection of simple chemical reactions, coupled to make incredibly complex systems, that are responsible for any of us being able to get up in the morning. Paine’s dendroids are meant to resemble not just the natural branching structure of a tree, but also all the natural and unnatural systems that resemble it, from the blood vessels in our bodies to the electric wiring in our homes.

‘Ferment’ by Roxy Paine. Photo by JoLynne Martinez at https://www.flickr.com/photos/inannabintali/50763546908

 

I love these sculptures – to me the combination of branches and metal and silver makes something both ethereal and slightly menacing, as if Tolkien’s ents had gone space-age. And I found out about them via another Christmas present, a book called ‘A Tree a Day’ by Amy-Jane Beer. It’s full of all sorts of wonders, and comes highly recommended – it isn’t just a march through tree species, but comes at them from all sorts of angles. Anyhow, let me know what you think!

Old Bugwoman’s Almanac – February Updated

World Wetlands Day (2nd Feb)

Dear Readers, here’s my updated post for February. It can feel like a very bleak month, but actually spring is stirring all over the place. Here are a few suggestions to warm the cockles…

Things to Do

  • The snowdrops should be in full swing by the early part of February, and there are several places in London where you can really enjoy them. They really raise my spirits, and I hope they will do the same for you.
    • Chelsea Physic Garden normally has a snowdrop trail from when they re-open at the end of January, and you can buy many, many varieties in their shop. In my experience, the only way to get the little darlings established is to plant them in the green, after many, many attempts to grow them from bulbs, so this might be a good way to enlarge your stock. The bees much prefer the simpler single-flowered varieties, by the way….
    • Myddleton House Gardens in Enfield usually have a fine show of snowdrops in their Alpine Meadow, if you live in North London, or Eltham Palace is another excellent choice if you live South of the River.
    • If you’d rather not pay out to see these plants in all their glory, I’d head off for your nearest not-too-well-manicured cemetery. My local, St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, has a glorious selection of naturalised snowdrops in some of the wilder areas, and Tower Hamlets Cemetery is said to be a great spot too.
  • If it’s too blooming cold to be out and about (and goodness knows this is often the case), February is usually a relatively quiet month at the Natural History Museum (though if you aren’t taking the children I’d avoid half term, when the queues outside can be most alarming). The museum itself is free, but I love the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, which has apparently been re-staged this year (I shall report back when I’ve been). I always find it inspirational.
  • Thursday 2nd February is World Wetland  Day: there aren’t a lot of things going on, surprisingly, but there is this walk at Wicken Fen in Ely, Cambridgeshire, and this walk at my favourite bit of wetland in Walthamstow (looks like it might be fully booked, but maybe worth ringing for cancellations).
  • The Orchid Festival at Kew opens on 4th February – I’m booked for a date in March, and I couldn’t be more excited. This year the festival is featuring orchids from Cameroon, where I spent a month at the Ape Action Africa chimpanzee and gorilla sanctuary, so I’m hoping to meet a few old botanical friends. You can read about my adventures, and about my good friend Robin Huffman, an extraordinary painter of animal portraits, here.

Plants for Pollinators

For February, the RHS is suggesting goat willow (Salix caprea) and I can see why –  a tree at Crossbones Graveyard in South London that I visited a few years ago was absolutely abuzz with feeding queen bumblebees and honeybees. One of my big regrets is that I had a self-sown goat willow next to my pond, but took it out because I have so many trees in my small garden. Maybe I should have left it. (And now I have one that my friend J bought me for my birthday, so I am delighted!)

A few of the earlier solitary bees will also be out and about now, including several of the mining bee species.

Honeybee and goat willow

However, there is hope, as my front garden containers are full of early-flowering crocuses, another favourite. In my experience these bulbs are happiest in full sun – they are always a bit sad in my north-facing back garden, where the woodland bulbs such as fritillaries and wood anemones seem fine. Other plants suggested by the RHS are snowdrops (hooray!), the cherry plum, and Erica x darleyensis (also known as Darley Dale heather), another plant for full sun.

Bird Behaviour

Spring comes to the birds much earlier than it does to us mere humans, and although birds are unlikely to be actually breeding yet, they will certainly be pairing up and trying to stake out a territory. Woodpigeons will be singing their breathy songs, and collared doves will be chasing one another around, tooting like miniature trumpeters. One of my lasting memories of being a child in bed is waking up to the sound of the pigeons cooing on the chimney pot, their songs echoing down the chimney.

Collared doves and a furry visitor in the background

It’s worth watching out for breeding displays, too.  A male chaffinch performs a fluttering, moth-like flight beside a female that he’s hoping to impress, and then perches beside her and leans over to show her his belly. At this point the female can either stay for some more shenanigans, or leave to find someone with a more attractive abdomen.

Blue tits also perform a little display flight, usually from one perch to another – a male might flap his wings a little more quickly than seems strictly necessary, or even glide, quite a feat for such a small bird. These displays are so easily missed, but once seen they’re an obvious show of prowess.

And it’s worth keeping an eye open for the male dunnock’s ‘armpit’ display as well, plus all the general goings on with the females mating with multiple males and the males beating one another up.

And finally, crows might already be flying about with twigs in their mouths. They might not actually get down to egg-laying yet, but that nest isn’t going to build itself. You might also be witness to confrontations between crows and magpies over nest sites and building materials. There is a lot of drama going on in February, and it’s worth tuning into.

Plants in Flower

In addition to the plants mentioned above, keep a nose attuned for the sweet smell of Daphne, one of the most gorgeous of winter-scented flowers in my opinion. Some camellias will be coming into flower, but the rain damages the blossom, so if you see a pristine one it’s something to celebrate. Hyacinths will be bursting forth too, and sweet violets, and primroses. And the first shy white flowers of blackthorn will be putting in an appearance.

Other Things to Watch/Listen Out For

  • By now, most female foxes are pregnant, and there might be a brief break from the shrieks and carrying-on of January. Vixens will be looking to find a safe place to have their cubs, and will also be very hungry. If you have foxes visiting your garden, keep an eye open for them looking a little thicker around the middle than usual. Males will also be beginning to look for food for the vixen, and later for the cubs, who are mostly born in mid March.
  • Towards the end of February the first frogs will emerge if the weather isn’t too cold – the males arrive first (they’ve usually been hibernating at the bottom of the pond) followed by the females, who tend to overwinter in other places in the garden (probably to avoid being drowned by all the amorous males). You might even hear the first faint sound of frog-music in the evening.
  • This is the best time of year to see the great grey shrike – they are a very rare winter visitor, but if they are going to turn up (and they will sometimes revisit sites year after year) it’s likely to be in February.
  • Alexanders is a very early bloomer, earlier even than cow parsley – it has yellowish flowers, and may already be in bud.
  • Great spotted woodpeckers are already drumming and setting up their territories.
  • Nuthatches will also be more active, running up and down the branches and trunks of trees.
  • You might see the odd peacock or small tortoiseshell butterfly stirring – many of these insects hibernate over winter, and a mild spell might tempt them out. Fingers crossed that they don’t emerge, however, as there’s precious little for them to feed on at this time of year.
  • Mallards are getting ready for the breeding season – the males often display in groups, bobbing and quacking and beating one another up, before descending on any female who isn’t fast enough to get away. With luck, most females will pair up with a male who will protect her from such nonsense.
  • Full moon is on the 5th February, and is known as the snow moon, the ice moon or the storm moon.

Holidays/Celebrations

    • Ist February is Imbolc, the Gaelic/Pagan spring festival. It’s also the Christian festival  St Brigid’s Day (St Brigid is the patron saint of Ireland). It’s said to be the day when ewes were first milked – sheep were more likely to survive the winter in good condition than cows, and also they would produce their lambs in the very early spring. Fresh milk would have been a necessity at this point, midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and traditionally one of the hungriest times of the year.
    • 14th February is St Valentine’s Day, traditionally the day when restauranteurs rub their hands, fill their establishments with twice the usual number of tables and double their prices for menus that invariably include a chocolate dessert, some kind of seafood and the smallest piece of steak that you have ever seen. Not that I’m a tired old cynic or anything :-).
    • 15th February is Parinirvana Day for Buddhists. It celebrates the day upon which the Buddha was said to have achieved Nirvana, or enlightenment. It is said to be a day to meditate upon impermanence and death.
    • 20th February is known as Collop Monday, Peasen Monday or Nickanan Night in various parts of the UK – it’s the Monday before Lent. In Cornwall, it was a night for mischief, with local boys knocking on doors and running away (though this was also a common practice all year round in the East End when I was growing up). On one occasion, Dad and his mates tied a piece of string to all the door knockers on the road so that they could all be knocked simultaneously, and very amused Dad was too. This was known as ‘Knock Down Ginger’ for some reason lost in the midst of time. Anyhow, in many parts of the country, pea soup was eaten on ‘peasen Monday’, along with foods such as eggs and bacon which would not be allowed during Lent.
    • 21st February is Shrove Tuesday – get out those frying pans and knock up a few pancakes! My Mum always loved them with lemon juice and sugar (granulated not caster for a bit of crunch).
    • Lent falls on February 22nd this year. Traditionally, this is a period of fasting and self-denial, and I find it interesting that it often coincides with the time of the year when there would be little food available – the autumn stores would be used up, and the spring crops wouldn’t yet be ready. Anything that reminds us that being hungry is not a choice for everybody is likely to be a good thing, I think.

A Winter Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, it was a bright, clear day today, and after all the chocolates that I ate for my birthday yesterday it felt as if a walk was a good idea. We were rewarded very quickly by views of the kestrel on the part of the cemetery closest to the North Circular Road – we’ve seen these birds there before, and I suspect that they might keep an eye open for road kill. There are lots of small rodents in the cemetery itself, though, and this bird spent a lot of time sitting in the ash tree and looking intently at the ground for signs of movement. At one point, a crow took exception to the kestrel and tried to chase him off, but he is astonishingly agile, outmanoeuvring the crow at every turn and even turning to chase him. I think that the crows are not quite as determined as they are in summer, when they have youngsters, though kestrels don’t generally hunt other birds. I imagine that the crow’s tactic is to mob first and ask questions later.

There are still flocks of redwings about, and the sound of great spotted woodpeckers drumming – at one point there was quite a duet, with two males clearly trying to out drum one another in different parts of the cemetery. We saw two woodpeckers chasing one another like miniature white and red rockets. It really is all kicking off, even though January is a bit early for any serious breeding attempts yet. In one tree, two woodpeckers were chasing one another round and round a horse chestnut while a pair of parakeets sat serenely, one in a hole in the tree, another on a branch close by, as if to say ‘aha, you should have been a bit earlier’.

The sunlight coming through the trees is so lovely at this point in the winter – the sun is so low that I’m careful when stepping out on to our local  zebra crossing, as I’m sure the drivers are having trouble seeing what’s going on.

And look at the snowdrops! They’re so nearly open. In some places, it’s clear that they were planted on a grave that has since disappeared, and now just the flowers remain. In other spots the snowdrops have naturalised across untrodden paths and neighbouring graves. They always feel so hopeful, the first real sign that spring is actually on the way.

And look, someone has given The Scotsman some carnations (although, looking at the photos I’m wondering if they might be artificial poppies).

And finally, as if to remind me that there’s always something new to see however many times I come here, there are some tree roots draped over these graves, rather like strangler figs in the tropics. How come I’ve never noticed them before? Maybe there was foliage in the way, or maybe I just wasn’t looking. I suppose that the ‘roots’ might be ivy, but if so it’s extremely robust. No wonder the Victorian graves often disappear underneath the sheer weight of nature, and are never seen again, and maybe that’s not such a terrible thing. After all, it’s what we all go back to, in the end.

Birthday Joy….

Dear Readers, what would a birthday be without a pile of new books? It’s true that I still have a tottering ziggurat of books to read after Christmas, but then clearly I need to have some to take me through to, say, about March, and so a few more turned up, and very welcome they were too.

First up was Alan Bennett’s slim volume ‘House Arrest – The Pandemic Diaries’. I find him extremely readable, whatever the subject, and this little book is about the same size as the Ladybird books that I loved as a child. I can’t help but think of it as ‘The Ladybird Book of Covid’ or something similar. His close attention to his own foibles and those of others, his occasional waspishness and much more frequent generosity make for a thoughtful read. I don’t always agree with his conclusions about life, but I always understand them.

Then, here’s a cheerful birthday read…

I find myself more and more fascinated by death and the things that surround it. I picked this volume up in Waterstones, and was instantly intrigued – Rupert Callender is no ordinary undertaker. As the blurb at the front of the book says:

Ru has carried coffins across windswept beaches, sat in pubs with caskets on beer-stained tables, helped children fire flaming arrows into their father’s funeral pyre, turned modern occult rituals into performance art and, with the band members of the KLF, is building the People’s Pyramid of bony bricks in Liverpool – all in the name of creating truly authentic experiences that celebrate those who are no longer here and those who remain’. 

How could I possibly resist? I shall let you know how I get on.

And here is a blast from the past.

I studied ‘The Rainbow’ for my A-levels, and read most of Lawrence’s work when I was doing my BA in English Literature. I loved him then, but haven’t read him since. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found his ideas about so many things difficult to take, although what I loved as a young woman was his tumultuous vitality, the sense of life tumbling out of him. Some of his scenes feel so true to human nature, uncomfortable as they are. So, this book, where Lara Feigel decides to re-read Lawrence during the pandemic, feels like both a challenge and a provocation. I wonder if it will incite me to start reading Lawrence again? Let’s see.

It wasn’t all books though…I got a huge box of chocolates from Hotel Chocolat, with the flavours based on different kinds of patisserie. When I tell you that I ate the custard tart flavoured one before breakfast you’ll have some idea of my degree of self-control.

And my lovely friend A bought me these! I shall be firing them off to all and sundry.

And because the only way to truly celebrate a birthday is with a trip to the garden centre, off I went with my friend J to the Sunshine Garden Centre in Bounds Green, where she bought me this:

This is a Kilmarnock willow – a form of goat willow which is a bit better behaved than they usually are, but which has those invaluable early spring catkins that provide pollen for all manner of bees. I will pot it up at the weekend, and as it’s in full sun in the front garden I hope it will be appreciated. I honestly didn’t think I’d find one, but here it is. I could not be more excited.

Buds on the Kilmarnock willow

And so here I am, 63 years old and wondering how on earth I got here. Last time I looked I was 36. But I rather like being in my sixties – things I would have worried about don’t matter so much, and I’m starting to truly appreciate the things that do matter – good friends, a loving partner, the buds on a willow tree, an interesting book. It’s true that I have less time for nonsense and might even be a bit more grumpy than usual on occasion, but that’s what comes when you realise that you don’t have forever. And today was full of lovely moments, and surprises. And chocolate. Don’t ever underestimate chocolate.

A Chilly Walk in Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, there are a number of exciting plans for Coldfall Wood and the neighbouring Muswell Hill Playing Fields this year, including a much-delayed meadow on the edge of the Fields (watch this space for more details). But today was cold and sunny, and it was good to have a walk and to see what was going on at this quietest time of the year. First up was this little chap.

How fluffed up he looks! It’s easy to forget that ring-necked parakeets are quite used to cold weather across their range – it can get extremely cold in parts of India at night, for example. These individuals were already looking at nest sites and generally making a racket.

The crows love to hang out in the trees on the edge of the fields, watching in case someone drops some food, or if there’s something or someone to play with. They seem to catch up on all the local gossip as well.

The trees seem bare, but there are already buds, and the beauty of their structure is revealed best at this time of year.

This brown rat seemed very at home along the edge of the stream – I know that people don’t like to see them, but they are extremely interesting and intelligent creatures, and very adaptable. They also ‘follow the food’, so if people didn’t drop their food, there probably wouldn’t be as many rats – anecdotal evidence suggests that the population increased during lockdown, when the woods were the only places where many people could get outdoors.

I love the way that the ice crystals on the handrails of the boardwalk form a kind of miniature forest…

and the boardwalk records the footprints of the people and animals who have crossed it. Don’t dogs get cold paws? Their pads must be warm to melt the ice underfoot.

Then it’s back home, and the squirrels have clearly discovered the bird table, which I’ve been keeping topped up in the very cold weather. They seem very well insulated against the chilly temperatures, and they don’t hibernate as such – they might sleep out the very coldest days, but will usually be out and about regularly, presumably haunting the bird feeders of everybody on the street, and trying to remember where they buried the peanuts that they collected earlier in the year. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of ‘my’ squirrels digging up a cache, so maybe it’s just easier to hunt out the fresh stuff provided by us humans. I don’t begrudge them, anyway. As I think I’ve said before, when you have a wildlife garden you don’t get to be too choosy about who turns up.

 

Red List 2022 – Number Eleven – Curlew

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata) Photo by Ferran Pestaña at http://www.flickr.com/photos/ferranp/5739279356

Dear Readers, a long time ago I was walking along a beach on the mainland of Orkney when I found a skull, light as paper, with a long, delicate, curved bill attached. I could not believe the fragility of it, the precision of the two mandibles – they were more like surgical instruments than something that was once attached to a bird. It was the beak of a curlew, our largest wading bird.

Curlew skull (Photo by Mr John Cummings)

That beak is there to enable the curlew to probe deeply into the mud for worms and other invertebrates, more deeply than any other bird in the country, and so it relies on the pattern of tides for its food. Its chicks, however, are incubated and hatched in the barest of scrapes in the ground. It’s been noted that curlews sometimes nest close to kestrels, so that the birds of prey will help to keep winged predators from their chicks, even though the kestrels are not averse to an occasional curlew snack.

Curlews are amongst the most widespread of waders – they turn up in coastal areas from Europe to as far east as Japan, and as far south as Cape Town in South Africa. Nonetheless, the curlew is Red Listed here due to a decline in the UK breeding population – as over 30 percent of European curlews breed in the UK, this gives serious cause for concern. What’s to blame? The usual suspects, and a more unusual one. The intensification of agriculture and the way that moors have been converted to forestry are factors in the decline of many species, but curlew chicks and eggs are heavily predated by foxes in particular. Many of the conservation organisations that are trying to save the species point at the shooting industry. The biomass of pheasants and red-legged partridges released into the British countryside solely for people to shoot is the equivalent of a quarter of British wild bird biomass annually, and as much as half in August. All these semi-tame fat birds wandering about has led to an increase in the fox population, and so the system is unbalanced – there are more foxes about, and therefore less curlews. Of course, the causes of the decline of a particular bird are many and various, but I would be looking very hard at these figures. Incidentally, the shooting industry were asked to reduce the number of gamebirds released this year because of avian flu, but the majority of birds were still released as usual.

If I sound even more angry than usual this week, it’s because curlews could be heard all across the UK when I was growing up – we used to stay in a caravan in Whitstable in Kent, right next door to the famous oyster beds and mudflats. The curlew’s call would mix with the cries of the lapwings and the other waders, and it was the very sound of being on holiday. The sound of curlews sends a shiver up my spine even now. The call was recorded at Wexford, County Cork by Irish Wildlife Sounds

Photo by Mike Pennington

All endangered species need a champion, and the curlew found one in the form of Mary Colwell, who is chair of the Curlew Recovery Project, wrote a well-received book called ‘Curlew Moon‘ about a 500 mile walk that she undertook to visit the sites in Ireland, Wales and England where the birds can be found and who founded World Curlew Day, which takes place on April 21st each year. Rather than just getting angry, she got busy, and has arguably galvanised more action to conserve these remarkable birds than any other single individual – she was named as one of the BBC’s Top 50 Most Influential Conservationists in the UK, and, with Green MP Caroline Lucas, managed to get a Natural History GCSE onto the UK curriculum. Largely thanks to her activism, Downing Street announced that the curlew was ‘the panda of UK conservation’. Let’s hope that her drive and passion, her ability to engage with farmers, gamekeepers, landowners and members of the public, can yet turn the fate of the curlew around.

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)  at Borit, Gojal, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan Photo by Imran Shah (gilgit2,)

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Winter Flowering Cherry Revisited

Winter-flowering Cherry on Huntingdon Road in East Finchley

Dear Readers, if there’s one plant that is guaranteed to be in flower on my birthday, it’s the winter-flowering cherry at the bottom of my road here in East Finchley. How welcome it is! Today the temperature is below freezing, and the road rang with the sound of windscreens being scraped, but here’s the tree, popping out its snowflake-flowers.

So, why does this tree flower from November to April, instead of in spring like any self-respecting plant? The answer is not ‘climate change’ (in this instance), or to enable the blossom to be pollinated by some particularly weather-proof bee. Nope, it flowers in the winter because we’ve bred it that way, presumably because we felt the long, dark January days needed some cheering up. On his ‘Street Trees’ blog, Paul Wood points out that in the very coldest weather the blossom actually gets frost bite and turns brown. Wood also mentions that winter-flowering cherries have a second burst of flowering in April, just as the leaves appear, and that these flowers are different from the earlier ones – the spring flowers have stalks, the winter ones don’t.

What a strange thing!
to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms.”
― Kobayashi Issa, Poems

Indeed. And now, let’s see what I had to say about this plant back in 2016.

Winter Flowering Cherry (Prunus subhirtella)

Winter Flowering Cherry (Prunus subhirtella)

Dear Readers, this plant may seem an odd choice for a Wednesday Weed. For one thing, it is not a ‘weed’ even by my very wide definition and, although it probably originated in Japan, it is unknown in the wild. But on a dark January day, with slushy snow still on the ground and with the bitter wind infiltrating every gap between clothing and skin, it lit up St Pancras and Islington Cemetery like a sprinkle of starlight.

IMG_5148The people of Japan have an enduring relationship with cherry blossom – the fairy Ko-no-hana-sakuya-hime, ‘the maiden who causes the trees to bloom’, is said to waken the dormant trees into blossom by softly breathing on them. These were the trees of Emperors, and much time and effort was spent in selecting the best specimens (cherry trees are capable of great variation) and developing new kinds – the Japanese have had double-flowered cherry trees for over a thousand years. Furthermore, the Japanese knew about the art of grafting one tree onto another since early times, and so could propagate a new and exciting variety by persuading a cutting to grow from the stem of a more mundane tree. This is one reason why many people believe that the Winter Flowering Cherry is a hybrid (probably between the Fuji Cherry (Prunus incisa) and the Weeping Tree (Prunus spachiana) ). In Japan, the trees are doted upon, and some Winter Flowering Cherries can reach a very impressive stature.

By Sakaori (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A pink Winter Flowering Cherry at the front of the Juinji Temple in Koshu, Japan.(Photo One – Credit below)

Cherry blossom was so much tied up with Japanese culture that the trees were sometimes planted in order to  claim occupied territory as Japanese space. The ephemeral nature of the blossoms symbolises mortality in Buddhist teachings, and during the Second World War the Japanese population were encouraged to regard the flowers as the reincarnations of kamikaze fighters – indeed, one kamikaze sub-unit was named ‘the Wild Cherry Blossoms’. That these delicate blossoms could be used for such a militaristic purpose may seem strange to us now, but humans have always co-opted the symbolism of plants and animals and used it to shore up their own ideas.

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Although the fruit of ornamental varieties of cherry is usually inedible, the Japanese pickle the blossoms in plum vinegar. The pickle is used with wagashi (a traditional Japanese sweet) and with anpan, which is a kind of Japanese doughnut.

"Sakura yu2" by Suguri F - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sakura_yu2.jpg#/media/File:Sakura_yu2.jpg

Pickled Cherry Blossom (Photo Two – credit below)

"和菓子PA100093" by Akiyoshi's Room - Akiyoshi's Room. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%E5%92%8C%E8%8F%93%E5%AD%90PA100093.jpg#/media/File:%E5%92%8C%E8%8F%93%E5%AD%90PA100093.jpg

A plate of Wagashi (Photo Three – credit below)

Salt-pickled cherry blossoms in hot water produce a kind of tea called sakurayu, which is drunk at festive events.

"Sakura yu" by Suguri F - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sakura_yu.jpg#/media/File:Sakura_yu.jpg

Sakurayu – cherry blossom tea (Photo Four – credit below)

The Latin species name ‘subhirtella’ means ‘slightly hairy’, apparently a reference to the young wood. I shall have to look more closely later in the year to see if the plant has a tendency to shagginess.

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Although it hasn’t been cold here in London, it has felt like a very long winter, and of course we are not out of the dark yet. But it is rather cheering to see something flowering when it should, rather than months early, and if any bee were foolish enough to venture out when it gets a little warmer at least there will be something for it to feed on. I like to think that maybe the collective spirits of all the people buried in the cemetery derive some pleasure from the flowers as well. At the very least, this early cherry blossom is something beautiful for the visitors to the cemetery to gaze upon when their mood is at its lowest. Let us never underestimate the solace that nature can provide.

Photo Credits

Photo One: By Sakaori (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two: “Sakura yu2” by Suguri F – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sakura_yu2.jpg#/media/File:Sakura_yu2.jpg

Photo Three:”和菓子PA100093″ by Akiyoshi’s Room – Akiyoshi’s Room. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%E5%92%8C%E8%8F%93%E5%AD%90PA100093.jpg#/media/File:%E5%92%8C%E8%8F%93%E5%AD%90PA100093.jpg

Photo Four: “Sakura yu” by Suguri F – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sakura_yu.jpg#/media/File:Sakura_yu.jpg

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer