lifestyle, Wales

Give us this day…

When everything you know seems under threat you start to realize what really matters. Here’s a tribute to our local baker.

They make bread in the old fashioned way from simple ingredients — just flour, water, yeast and salt. Here’s some dough proving, slowly — waiting to be put into crocks…

and baked into delicious, crispy wheat or rye sourdough bread. There are wholemeal wheat, rye and spelt loaves and “Llanidloes specials” with the magic cheesy crust. There are olive ciabatte, Chelsea buns and almond croissants.

Baked each day and delivered to local shops. No plastic wrappers, tiny carbon footprint, no waste — they sell out every day but nothing for the birds as the humans fight for every last crumb!

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Birds, Ecology

Hammerhead!

When you see your first spoonbill cross the sky above your head I promise you will do a double take. They look so peculiar with their long necks outstretched and the odd bulbous end to the beak. We saw one over Titchwell Marsh in Norfolk, last month and for a moment I thought we were looking at a pterodactyl! With the long neck extended in flight and the bill so long and strange and its massive wingspan it had proportions that seemed quite alien.

Couldn’t catch that one but here are some Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) we saw in USA last year — even here they look primitive

The Spoonbill we see in England is white (Platalea leucorodia) and was wiped out in the 1700s because of drainage of the wetlands and hunting. However in recent years they are recolonizing areas in the South West and South East, from Europe, and have even bred in Yorkshire. The work of the RSPB and the Wetland Trusts in habitat creation is helping and these spectacular birds can be seen once more.

European Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) Snettisham on the Wash 2020
European Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) Frampton Marsh, Lincolnshire 2020

Thanks to Bill for his pictures of Spoonbills (all rights reserved).

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Birds, Ecology

A Crane to Lift the Spirits

Yesterday, having come to terms with cancelling our visits to grandchildren because of the risk of Corona Virus and facing 12 weeks in lock-down, the collapse of the economy, evaporation of our pensions, disintegration of the world’s infrastructure and the disappearance of all toilet paper (not to mention the possibility of impending premature death), we packed a picnic and set out to find the Whooper Swans out on the Ouse and Nene Washes.

These are areas of fenland fields that are flooded in winter by the waters of the rivers Ouse and Nene in Cambridgeshire, England. This year after the deluge of recent weeks the area was more like an inland sea but we found the Whoopers (Cygnus cygnus) and some Bewicks (Cygnus columbianus bewickii) grazing in nearby fields — nipping any hope of agricultural recovery, literally, in the bud. They are preparing to leave for their breeding grounds in Iceland and Siberia respectively.

Whooper Swans (with the occasional Bewick) grazing.

But, wait a minute, what are these in the distance? Not the swans — behind them!

Common Cranes and Mute Swans on the Nene Washes yesterday, albeit at a distance.

Cranes became extinct in Britain 400 years ago, didn’t they?

Not so! The now inappropriately named Common Crane (Grus grus) evidently reappeared in 1978 — probably when 3 individuals were blown in from Europe. The population teetered for a number of years with slow breeding, but with some migration and a little help from captive breeding, reintroduction and habitat creation it continues to grow. There are now 50 pairs or more.

As we watched one of these pairs who were a long way away (mitigation for the poor photo) two more individuals flew in, landing precariously and then displaying to each other just as we had seen Sandhill Cranes do when we were in Texas last autumn. They danced, bouncing from leg to leg with their necks extended backwards, calling and fluffing out their magnificent plumed tails in a bonding exercise — presumably indicating to the other couple that they are no threat.

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) — also a very rare visitor to Britain, by Bill Branford (all rights reserved)

The thought of life after extinction is very comforting just at the moment.

Sandhill Cranes by Bill Branford (all rights reserved).

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nature, Spiders

The writing spider?

To calm my nerves my daughter, who is staying in Australia, writes that she has been clearing the cobwebs from the outside of the house!

Today she sent me a picture of the St Andrew’s Cross Spider (one of her neighbours) :

Australian St Andrew’s Cross Spider (Argiope keyserlingi) ventral view.

If its back were showing you would see dramatic (wasp like) bands of yellow and black. She shows the characteristic saltire, that X of zig zag, actually spiral, threads called web decorations or stabilimenta. This last word says it all — these have to be stabilizers or shock absorbers to strengthen the web. These are formidable engineers.

Webs like this are made by members of the Argiope family all over the world. Here’s one we saw in the southern USA:

Just a little spider, sitting in the middle of a huge cross made of spiral threads, wrapping something up before Christmas. It was the cross that fascinated. In the US they call them Zipper Spiders (A. aurantia) or Writing Spiders — some of the more untidy spinners produce stabilimenta that look as if you should be able to read them!

You can find their cousins all over the world with assorted variations in markings and web stabilimenta. There’s at least one that can be seen in Britain (Argiope bruennichi) and isn’t it just typical that we have to travel half way round the world to find that out!

Wasp Spider (Argiope bruennichi) by Ben Andrew

We’ll be looking for this one at Minsmere next summer!

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Cornwall, Thoughtful

Back on the Fringe

Celtic knot, granite with lichen!

A magic place, soon after dawn (which isn’t very early) on the Fowey estuary in January. Lapwings cluster on the sandbanks and the eerie calls of the curlew heralds the progress of the seasons.

Snow drops are under the bare oak in St Winnow’s churchyard, primroses blooming and campion in the hedgerow under the golden gorse. All in the cool moist air that reminds us of our amazing good fortune as family and friends in Australia (who used to tease us about our rain) suffer unimaginable heat and anxiety. They are living with the threat of loosing everything they hold dear in a biblical inferno.

I wish I could send them all a little while in the cool of St Winnow’s churchyard.

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Butterflies, Texas

Monarchs, Queens and a Pretender!

We didn’t see many monarchs in Texas last month — not because it is a Republican state but because the cold snap had presumably sent these amazing migratory butterflies scuttling south to warmer climes. Only one or two non-migratory ones had stayed around to remind us what we had missed.

These creatures over-winter in the mountains of Mexico and set off in the spring to fly northwards, pausing to breed, then the offspring in their turn set off again northward, pausing to breed and thus they go, a step per generation, all the way to southern Canada. Come the autumn they all turn southward heading back to their wintering grounds where no individual has ever been before — how clever is that?

Monarch Butterfly by Bill Branford (all rights reserved)

They lay their eggs on milkweed, the food plant of the caterpillar, which contains alkaloids which confer the gift of nastiness to the way they taste and which make them poisonous to predators. That helps!

Queens are also milkweed butterflies — we saw more of them — they are also migratory, presumably also following the milkweed season north but less is known about their migratory habits. They are similar to monarchs but are darker and more russety and have no black veining when viewed from above.

Queen butterflies

The viceroy butterfly, below, looks much more like the monarch, apart from those straight black lines which transect the black veins towards the back of their wings. This is the impersonator! They do not lay their eggs on milkweed, they do not assimilate the poisonous alkaloids of the milkweed and presumably taste quite good to birds, reptiles and hungry amphibians. They are just mimics, surviving and prospering because they look like something that tastes nasty! Their ancestors didn’t have to practice on a poisonous plant that probably killed some of them. Now that is really clever!

Viceroy Butterfly by popo.uw23 from Flikr (Public domain 1.0)
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