Have you ever wondered why robins have such iconic status at this time of year?
It’s because they raise our spirits on miserable days — coming close as we garden in the winter rain. This week we have been excavating the old farm dump — decontaminating! Guess whose been helping? Actually (Bill points out) they use us (turn over this clod for me, will you?) They seem to like our company but they want our help (can you move this log?) They make us feel useful and you’ll catch yourself chatting to them as they flit about picking up the creepy crawlies that your digging uncovers. They used to sit still when we sketched them or painted them and now they come in close when we want to photograph them. You don’t need a great long lens to snap this little chap. He may be a cliche but he is most obliging!
No one is allowed visitors. We aren’t allowed visitors except for Liz, Bill’s sister (she’s in our bubble) but today in aid of Granny’s mental health we went for a walk in Peterborough. Why would anyone want to go for a walk in Peterborough? Not even around the cathedral. Just a Sunday constitutional — an elderly couple walking 20 feet behind a young couple with a little boy — shouted greetings — shared townscapes — a visit to the duck-pond. These little things make all the difference! But, do you know, we are noticing other winter visitors!
Did you know that these gregarious, noisy birds (sounding like a pack of hounds) make long term monogamous bonds and the divorce rate is only 5-8%(I don’t know how we know) and 14-20% are in same sex relationships. Their sexual orientation is flexible — widower ganders may re-pair with females (who are smaller). Large homosexual couples often have dominant positions in the flock and may act as guardians. You don’t have to watch geese for very long to realize how cautious they are and how mindful of potential threats. As they move around the available grazing in the local park individuals are watching the humans and the dogs and leading the others in defensive phalanxes.
In the last couple of weeks we have noticed some other winter visitors, photographed by Bill Branford (BY-NC-ND 2.0), mainly on Pitsford reservoir.
Here is a beautiful smew from the end of last winter — seen at Rutland Water
In the Spring Bill and I were locked down in Wales which was bliss. The winter finds us in urban Northamptonshire — locked down and out of Wales. I miss the hills, the cool rain, the conviviality of all the socially distanced nods and waves and yelled greetings from passing quad bikes.
But there are compensations here — my bad back and gammy knee have improved. We have sorted out lots of things (had a new bathroom fitted), I have been writing a lot about my medical student days, ‘A Testicle on a plate,’ and the Christmas wine delivery has just arrived.
Once the school traffic has gone the streets are empty and the robins are in full throttle and the shrubs are full of berries.
Today I donned my new FFFP3 mask (by order of offspring) and walked in to the centre of this old shoe town to get my boots mended — it was very quiet and, apart from a few food shops, the cobbler was the only other place awake — in Northampton cobbling is essential (even the football team is called the ‘Cobblers’).
The new book is to be the first of a trilogy — the prequel to Iolo’s Revenge (published a couple of years ago) — I am tempted to entitle it ‘The Badass Trilogy’ as in ‘what turns a nice girl into the woman I have become (according to my daughter)?’ Of course the answer is ‘Life!’
My mother was not killed in the war, obviously — she survived and had me and lived to know her grandchildren and now, after her death, they repeat her stories to their children. I wish I had listened more to these when they were first-hand and taken notes.
Mum was 16 at the onset of World War II, she worked in Central London and for some peculiar reason her work was evacuated to the south coast (nearer to the enemy) — to Eastbourne. This was judged to be safer than London.
In about July 1940 just after her 17th birthday she went on her bicycle to play tennis, riding alone along a country lane in her short white tennis dress — not a soul about. A mighty thud shook the air from behind her — from the direction of the town — she peddled harder. Then there was the roar of an aircraft getting louder, she glanced over her shoulder to see a black shadow approaching fast, she looked around — there was no cover -just a ribbon of Tarmac, a ditch and close cropped pasture on either side. She peddled with all her might. There was machine gun fire — she threw herself into the ditch and the bullets strafed the road a few feet away, sending up spouts of dust and the smell of hot tar. Her bicycle jumped convulsively. She lay in that ditch, her arms over her head, in the embrace of that cool mud for a very long time.
Finally ‘when the plane had had time to get all the way to Berlin!’ she said, she extracted herself from the ditch, moved her mangled bike and splintered racquet from the bullet scarred carriageway and set of to walk back to town and her digs.
She didn’t make a fuss but that evening she telephoned her father and soon after she returned to Central London where she lived and worked throughout the rest of the war, witnessing the Battle of Britain and the Blitz.
When I was a child and we climbed out of the Underground at the Aldwych Mum would be reminded, she would remember climbing up these steps once before, exiting of the Tube — at that time there had been a blast and she had been blown down the steps. Recovering herself she continued up into the dust laden air to the surreal sight of a red double-decker bus sticking out from the first floor of the building opposite where it had been blown by the blast. She said it was a V1 flying bomb (the sort that you could hear coming, they were the worst, when the engine stopped, you held your breath as you waited for the bang). Mum had had another near miss but no fuss! The casualties, which were considerable, were not dwelt upon.
In the evenings, she and her father would walk to the Archway bridge that overlooked the City and watch the fires burning.
Meanwhile in Eastbourne sporadic bombing and gunfire continued with significant civilian casualties. By 1942 the Nazi tip and run attacks were happening all along the south coast but worst of all in Eastbourne — low flying Messerschmitt Bf 109’s delivering their single 250Kg bomb to key targets and causing maximum fear and disruption by attacking the streets with automatic fire before escaping back across the Channel.
Mum felt much safer in the capital — somehow there the conflict felt less personal!
“The more certain someone is about covid-19, the less you should trust them.” This is the conclusion of an excellent article by Smith G.D., Blastland M. and Munafo M. in this week’s British Medical Journal freely available on their website.
They are not discussing loonies or even those with reputational or political agendas but the serious science — that knowledge that is evolving every day in the fields of epidemiology, behavioural science, immunology and (I add) economics. This is a new pandemic at a unique time — there is no certainty, we are feeling our way. It is not a battle of philosophies — nothing is that simple. We have to listen and try to understand what is going on, and next week we may learn something new that will change our understanding and that is good — not bad!
It is quiet in the woods — the leaves of the canopy obscuring the birds hopping silently, keeping a low profile as they raise their young and avoid predators. But there is a hum of insects today in the swingeing heat — bumble bees, honey bees, wasps, flies and beetles dance in the sunbeams that penetrate the woodland. Clambering over the late summer blooms, they feed and pollinate as they go, pausing to clean the stick blackberry juice from their feet.
Near the ditches and the ponds the Dragonflies patrol — a great big hawker zooms over the pond then starts to patrol its margins hovering a meter or so above the water, whisking himself away in a flash of yellow and blue just as I find him in the view finder. Fortunately Bill has had more luck (or expertise) and these are mainly his photos.
Dragonflies and damselflies spend most of their lives in water as fierce, carnivorous larvae or nymphs. Damselfly larvae have fanned tails which are gills but dragonfly nymphs take in water through their rectums where they have internal gills (when in difficulties they can fire out water and jet propel themselves from danger). They gradually grow, moulting their skins as they get too small, until just before their final moult, when they heave themselves out of the water up some twig or reed and start to breath air — then something amazing happens.
They do not pupate like butterflies –withdrawing into a casket to re-organise their bodies for an aerial life. The skin of the living nymph simply splits and its adult self hauls itself out!
Adult dragonflies like the Southern Hawker are very territorial so you will usually only see one on a particular stretch of pond bank except when an interloper enters his territory when there will be an aerial skirmish — a dog fight — the resident male seems usually to prevail and the interloper withdraws to find another territory. When a female appears the male will try to mate with her, grabbing her by the scruff of the neck with claspers on the end of his abdomen. If she is willing she curls her abdomen round to the accessory genitalia on the ventral side of his abdomen just below his waist where he keeps his sperm — thus they form a conjugal wheel or copula. You will see them flying, conjoined like this in tandem. They lay their eggs in water or on submerged vegetation depending on the species. Sometimes the male guards the female while she lays but in some species you will see them, still in tandem — the male holding the female by her neck and dipping her tail into the water to lay, then pulling her out — escaping the powerful surface tension of the water — to dip her in at another location, spreading their bets and increasing the chances that their offspring will survive.
Different species of dragonflies fill different niches in the water-side world. Hawkers, skimmers and darters prefer standing water whereas the large red damselflies like bogs and ditches. The beautiful demoiselle (that’s its name) and the banded demoiselle like running water like the stream in our valley. Damselflies perch with their wings folded, are smaller and daintier, flutter more weakly and have eyes that are more widely spaced — the eyes of dragonflies meet in the middle.
You will see lots of blue damselflies around the edge of our pond — they are not so territorial and don’t spend their time fighting.
Dragonflies are seen in fossils from the time of the dinosaurs so have been around for 325 million years — much longer than us. Some like Protodonata had a wingspan of a metre. There is nothing better than to watch their smaller cousins flying to this day, in tandem over a canal or a pond in a quarry on a sunny afternoon, the male dipping his mate carefully into the water to lay her eggs.
A few days ago we visited Anglesey and on our way home we stopped at Cemlyn Bay (it was on our way and there was a little red bird on the map so we thought we’d have a look). The bay has a strange eliptical shingle beach like the Chesil Beach but a perfect curve. At first we thought it was man-made — something to do with the atomic power station on the Eastern promontory but it is natural. There is a brackish lagoon behind this pebble bank.
Walking along the bank we were struck by the unfamiliar plant life — Sea Kale, Sea Campion, Sea Beet and Thrift.
At either end there were clumps of sweet smelling purple flowers which I assumed was the sea lavender that the information board boasted, but no, it is Wild Thyme. There was lots of Ragwort and Bird’s-foot Trefoil with many yellow and black striped caterpillars of the Cinnabar Moth.
The Cinnebar Moths are protected from predation by absorbing the toxin from the ragwort that makes them foul tasting. When we were children one rarely saw Ragwort as it was zealously sought out and destroyed by farmers as it was known to cause liver failure and death in horses. The toxic alkaloid, Pyrrolizidine, is metabolized by the liver which it gradually destroys — however, nowadays the risk is not thought to be high as the dose needed is great — still, best kept out of pasture and hay.
There were lots of moths as well: Six Spot Burnet Moths, Zygaenafilipendulae (not Cinnabar Moths which are similar in colour but a different pattern).
Burnet Moth Caterpillars feed on Common Bird’s-foot Trefoil — interestingly this also contains a toxin, a cyanogenic glycoside which when chewed produces cyanide. This also protects them from predation as they are said to release cyanide when attacked.
As we walked around the bay the noise of chattering birds became louder, not gulls, but thousands of terns — clouds of them, swooping and swerving over the lagoon. As we got nearer we could see hundreds perched on rocks and a weir and standing at the edges of the water.
Common Terns with red bills, black at the tip, and Arctic Terns with plain red bills. Distinguishing these birds is easier when there are so many, together at close quarters, when one can compare them easily.
Sandwich Terns breed here in large numbers (third largest breeding colony in the UK), they are a little bigger with black bills with yellow tips.
All the time there were birds flying over us to fish at sea and coming back carrying fish and feeding young.
Walking out onto the headland we heard a strange sound, a mellow moaning, from out on the distant rocks where the surf was breaking,”I wonder…” said Bill raising his telescope, “Yes, Grey Seals!” They were lying like great curved pods, balanced on semi-submerged rocks with heads and tails in the air, waiting for the incoming tide.”
On our way back we met the Reserve Warden, I asked her about the strange walled area — was it military? She told us about the eccentric millionaire between the wars who bought the farmhouse that stands within the peculiar 20 foot ramparts. She said he had the walls built during the depression to provide work for local people.
For his birthday I bought Bill a book — Early Birds and Boys in Blue by Phillip Jones — A century of Radnorshire aviation. On the night we returned from Cemlyn he was reading about the pioneer aviator, Vivian Vaughan Davies Hewitt, the first man to fly from Holyhead to Dublin in 1912. When Hewitt retired from flying he had moved to Cemlyn Bay, immersing himself in the bird-life and creating the walled sanctuary upon which we had just stumbled and where the wild thyme grows.
Since the slight relaxation of the Corona Virus Lockdown in Wales we have renewed our search for the elusive chough. There are more in Wales than anywhere else in the UK but still probably only just over 200 pairs, mainly in coastal areas where they feed on invertebrates associated with grazing animals. They like a short sward and lots of creepy-crawlies in the droppings of the animals that crop the grass.
This time we went looking on Anglesey in North Wales. Almost the moment we got out of the car we were treated to a flypast — 16 birds all calling out their name!
We followed the flock to the coastal path where we could watch them on the rocks of the high cliff face.
This has been an exceptional summer in Wales and we have been out and about in the fields and pasture much more than previously and I am always commenting on the lack of the usual infuriating insects — this may be due to the hot, dry spring but we notice it more markedly in the grazed areas where one might expect to be pursued by a cloud of flies — not this year. I do wonder if the amount and efficacy of the pour-on, long-acting insecticides that are almost universally used on farm animals now are impacting on the bio-mass of insects. If so where will this leave the other creatures in the food chain — like the chough.