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The Time's Nature Notes




CANADA geese have left the winter flocks and are flying about in pairs. Their wild trumpeting calls ring out over the lakes — even frozen ones. Birds are brought into breeding condition partly by the lengthening hours of daylight, and even snow and ice cannot greatly delay that process. The pairs are also looking for places where they might nest, preferably on the shore of an island in a lake. When they have chosen one, the gander will stand guard over it, his head held high on his long black neck.

He will also court his mate with a strange show, called the “triumph display”. He rushes at a nearby gander, pumping his neck up and down and driving him away. Then he comes back to his mate making loud crowing notes, and she greets him with moaning sounds.

Oddly enough, he will sometimes do this when there is no other gander about. He races away with his neck stretched out towards an imaginary rival. When he comes back with his triumphant cries, his mate welcomes him just as warmly. The display has become formalised, and is just as successful as if it celebrated a real victory.

Nature notes (full text), DJM, The Time, 25.2.2005.






SOME OF the evergreen cypress trees found in parks and gardens are now covered with large, ugly cones. These are knobbly lumps with a smooth leathery surface made of hard brown scales, and compared with pine or fir cones they look at this stage as if they were diseased. They resemble knopper galls, which are diseased acorns on oak trees. Eventually the scales will shrink and the seeds will drop out.

One of these species that is commonly planted is the Arizona smooth cypress. It is a small, neat conical tree with bluish-grey foliage, which smells like a grapefruit when it is crushed. In Arizona, it grows wild on rocky hillsides. Another cypress in this group is the hated leylandii, or Leyland cypress, a hybrid which is planted as a hedge, and grows so fast and tall that it quickly banishes the sunlight from neighbouring gardens.

The commonest cypress in Britain is Lawson’s cypress, which is very often found in churchyards. It belongs to a different genus, sometimes called false cypresses, with smaller, prettier cones. In spring, it will have bright red flowers at the tips of the shoots. It was introduced from California in 1864.

Nature notes (full text), DJM, The Time, 24.2.2005.






IN THE chill winds, cormorants on the lakes will take shelter on the lee side of a wooded island. They may be joined by herons, and the two species stand side by side in the branches of a low tree looking like grave elder statesmen, the herons in grey, the cormorants in black. They may stand still for long periods, digesting the fish they have caught.

British cormorants have white faces, but individuals can sometimes be observed with most of their head white. These are members of a continental subspecies, some of which now breed along the east coast of England. British herons are sedentary birds, not moving far from their heronries, where they are now slowly rebuilding their bulky nests. However, a few herons come here from further north in the winter.

Another winter visitor that can now be seen on lakes is the goldeneye. This is a duck with an odd-looking domed head, like a small molehill in shape. The drake’s head is bottle-green, and he has a noticeably golden eye, as well as a large white circle on his cheek. The female has a reddish head. Both sexes dive indefatigably.

Nature notes (full text), DJM, The Time, 23.2.2005.






STRANGE clicking notes are coming from the middle of lakes. They are the calls of great crested grebes engaged in their courtship display — which has started on unfrozen lakes in spite of the cold snap.

The two birds of the pair swim towards each other with all their adornments spread — their black-and- chestnut ruff opened out around their head, and their tufty black head-plumes lifted. Then, facing each other at close quarters, their breasts almost touching, they shake their heads vigorously.

They also have a display in which both of them dive for waterweed and burst out of the water at the same moment, again facing each other but this time rising up and treading the water in a kind of dance.

In recent years great crested grebes have been breeding earlier, and these courting couples will soon be building their nests, with both of them contributing material.

The nest is a heap of wet weeds, sometimes built between the branches of a willow that has fallen across the water, when it can look like nothing more than some drifting vegetation that has been trapped.

Nature notes (full text), DJM, The Time, 22.2.2005.






TWO black-browed albatrosses were seen flying around Britain last week. One was off the island of Anglesey, the other went past Hopton in Norfolk. Although they are among the smallest of the 13 species of albatross, they are nevertheless enormous birds, with a wing-span of 7ft or 8ft, and they soar and glide effortlessly over the ocean, carried by the winds. Though they occasionally appear in the northern hemisphere, they are mainly birds of the southern seas. Three-quarters of the world population of black-browed albatrosses nest in the Falkland Islands, where they are known as “mollymawks”, and where there are currently between 350,000 and 400,000 pairs.

Even this vast colony is, however, considerably smaller than it was ten years ago. Albatrosses have suffered severely from trying to take the bait in longline fisheries for toothfish and tuna. They dive down to the baited lines, and are caught on the hooks and drown. The worst losses are in fisheries off the Australian and South American coasts. Attempts are being made to ensure that longline fishing boats drop their lines at night and are equipped with devices to scare seabirds off.

Nature notes (full text), DJM, The Time, 21.2.2005.






MOORHENS are fighting in the reeds. They are beginning to set up their spring territories and, like their relatives the coots, can be very fierce with intruders. The males of both species will sometimes seize a rival by the neck and hold its head down under water until it drowns. They are common birds, and can often be heard making their harsh, rippling calls from small, half-hidden roadside ponds as well as from lakes and rivers.

They come out on to land in order to feed much more readily than the coots, and will venture far out into farmland fields. They scuttle back very quickly when disturbed, flicking their cocked tails, which have white edges like flashing warning lights. At a distance they look black, but in fact their back is dark brown with an olive tinge and their head and underparts are more of a bluish-grey. They have a red forehead and beak, and the beak has a yellow tip.

Some pairs nest early every year, building nests of dead reeds well out from the bank and laying large clutches of mottled eggs. Some downy chicks have already been seen out on the water.

Nature notes (full text), DJM, The Time, 18.2.2005.






LAPWINGS are leaving the winter flocks and returning to fields and moors. Their backs have turned glossy green (which has given them the alternative name of “green plover”), and the male’s crest has grown longer. The males have started to display above their territories. They climb steeply into the sky, then come tumbling down, twisting and turning to show their silvery-white underparts, and deftly swoop up again just before they hit the ground. As they drop, they make a sharp, far-carrying cry that is an elaboration of their familiar “peewit” call.

Like most displays, this one has the purpose of warning off rivals and attracting a mate. Once the pairs have formed, the male will make a number of scrapes in the earth, and the female will choose one to lay her eggs in. There will be four mottled eggs, arranged in a neat circle with their small ends towards the centre.

Meanwhile, flocks of lapwings that have come here for the winter, some from as far away as Russia, are still haunting ploughed fields and salt marshes. They will not go back until it is warmer in their native countries.

Nature notes (full text), DJM, The Time, 17.2.2005.






SEVERAL swallows have already been seen in southern England — the first of the year. They have probably come up from South Africa, and with the mild winter we have been experiencing, have accelerated the last stage of their journey. Two that were seen in Pembrokeshire appear to have stayed here since the autumn. However, the main body of swallows will not be here until well into April. Another summer visitor that has already been recorded a couple of times is the turtle dove. Most of these will not arrive and start singing their purring song before May.

A kittiwake has been flying about over Blithfield Reservoir in Staffordshire — a long way inland for this seabird. Doubtless it was blown in from the sea by the strong winds. Kittiwakes are small white gulls with a dark but gentle-looking eye, and black legs. Their tail is slightly forked. They normally spend the winter far out in the Atlantic, feeding on herrings, and will also pick up food left by ships crossing the ocean. About half a million pairs come back in April to nest on cliffs around most of the British coast. They sometimes nest on seaside buildings.

Nature notes (full text), DJM, The Time, 16.2.2005.






BY MID-FEBRUARY there are not many traces left of the previous summer. The dead leaves are crumbling away fast on the ground, and the few leaves that hung on to hornbeam and sycamore trees in early winter have now blown off. Only the beeches and oaks keep some dry brown foliage. The woods are as bare as they can be. On spindle trees in the hedges, the four-lobed seedpods have dropped their orange seeds but cling to the twigs while they wither away. The hips on the wild rose bushes have turned squashy and black. The dead brown bracken is beaten down by the wind.

But everywhere there are signs of the spring to come. The cow parsley leaves and the goosegrass in roadside ditches are being joined by docks and thistles. The dock leaves are still only as big as the sole of a man’s shoe, but they will soon be twice as large. The new thistle plants are like silvery-green stars lying flat on the ground.

On horse chestnut trees, the reddish-brown buds are plump and sticky. Bramble stems are growing longer and creeping across woodland paths, so that one trips over them.

Nature notes (full text), DJM, The Time, 15.2.2005.






ST VALENTINE’S DAY is, according to the legend, the day that birds pair up. There is a rough truth about the legend. Certainly many male birds — including blackbirds, song thrushes and chaffinches — have recently been setting up spring territories and waiting for a female to seek them out. But some birds, even of these species, stay paired with the same mate throughout their lives. On the other hand, certain birds have more than one mate in the spring.

Hedge sparrows, or dunnocks, though they are quiet-looking little birds with a soft song, have complicated sexual relationships. Some males have two mates, some females have two mates, and there are groups in which several males and several females share each other. Excited chases go on in the hedges, with the birds flicking their wings violently. In the fields, a male corn bunting may have several mates, and will sit on a tall hedge watching them all tending their nests and young.

It is also known, from genetic examination of their eggs, that female birds of many species, even though they are in an apparently stable pair, must also have mated with one or more male neighbours.

Nature notes (full text), DJM, The Time, 14.2.2005.






THE WOODS are turning greener as dog’s mercury leaves come up beneath the trees, and the small green flowers open on some of the plants. At the woodland edges, the heart-shaped leaves of sweet violets are coming through on ancient banks.

A larger, coarser relative of dog’s mercury, called annual mercury, is growing in towns beside walls and fences. It has become more widespread recently.

Pellitory-of-the Wall, a furry, harmless relative of the stinging nettle, with bright red stalks, is climbing up in similar places to annual mercury, and is also found on ruins.

Green woodpeckers are heard more often in the woods, as they make their laughing spring call. It is a more plummy, musical version of the rattling laughter they emit as they fly up from an anthill when alarmed.

Great tits are producing a variety of songs. The commonest is a repeated double call, like “teacher, teacher”, but this can be delivered slow or fast, or in a triple-note version, and there are also other repeated whistles and squeaks.

Nature notes (full text), DJM, The Time, 11.2.2005.






ON HAZEL trees, the yellow catkins are hanging freely, and the buds are turning green. It is worth watching the buds, for the female flowers are about to appear on some of them. These are little bright red stars. Pollen from the catkins will be blown on to them, then the catkins will wither, and the nuts will grow and ripen where the flowers were. On alder trees, there are also long, dangling catkins, chequered with purple and yellow. The twigs look very crowded with both these and the small black cones, some of which still contain seed from last year. Goldfinches and siskins are feeding on these. Beech twigs retain many of last year’s nutshells among the spiky leaf-buds, but the nuts have mostly fallen out of them. On birch trees, the catkins are still hard, and will not hang loose till April.

Greenfinches are flying excitedly from treetop to treetop as they come into breeding condition. The males have started making their loud, wheezing calls, and will soon be singing a rattling song. They stay in small flocks all the year round, and several pairs will often nest near one another.

Nature notes (full text), DJM, The Time, 10.2.2005.






A RARE visitor from the High Arctic has been flying about in Peterhead harbour, Aberdeenshire. This is a Ross’s gull. It is a pale-grey bird with no black in its plumage, except for the traces of a dark collar.

Later in the spring this collar will grow clearer and blacker. In the summer the bird will also be more easily recognisable because it will have pink underparts — but those are unlikely to be seen outside Siberia or Arctic Canada. It has been around the harbour for about ten days.

The great waxwing invasion from Scandinavia, which has been such a feature of this winter, spread slowly from Scotland and the north of England to the south, and in late January turned westward. Now some of these colourful, crested birds have reached St Mary’s in the Scillies.

They are still to be found in most of England and Wales but seem to have left Scotland. They strip a tree or bush of berries, feeding greedily, and then move on. Fortunately, as the berries come to an end, the flying insects start coming out, and the waxwings will start eating these. They are nimble flycatchers.

Nature notes (full text), DJM, The Time, 9.2.2005.






THE first chaffinches are singing. Their song is often heard for the first time in the year just as the crocuses are coming out on the lawns. It is not a particularly beautiful song, but it is a cheerful little run of notes with a brisk flourish at the end. In these early days, the singer sometimes does not reach the end, but his song will improve with practice. The males have been flying round their territories in gardens and woods, making sure there is a suitable tree-fork or bush to nest in, and memorising the boundaries.

They have started singing now to warn other males to keep out. Many of them already have a mate from last year, but there are also young males and older birds that have lost their mate, and the songs of these have a second purpose — to attract females. These males may drive invading females away at first, but eventually they will allow one to stay, and the two will pair up. The males have pink breasts, and have also acquired a blue cap for the summer. The females have a brown breast. They will start nesting in April.

Nature notes (full text), DJM, The Time, 8.2.2005.






WHERE are the butterflies that will come out in the spring and summer? Some at present are just tiny caterpillars sleeping in minute eggs. These include some of the blue butterflies, such as the chalk hill blue. The eggs of this butterfly are lying in the grass, and the caterpillars will come out and eat the nearby vetches in April. Meanwhile, some of the skipper butterflies have already reached full caterpillar stage, and the caterpillars are sleeping in silken cocoons among the grass.

Yet other butterflies are already in chrysalid form. The chrysalids of the white butterflies are by now attached by a silk girdle to the underside of eaves and fences, or of old cabbage leaves, and the butterflies will break straight out of the chrysalid when spring comes.

Finally, some fully formed butterflies, such as peacocks and small tortoiseshells, are sleeping in dark sheds, camouflaged by their dark underwings. They will start breeding when they wake. The yellow brimstone butterflies are wintering in dense ivy, and may be out and about on woodland rides before the end of this month.

Nature notes (full text), DJM, The Time, 7.2.2005.










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