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The Time's Nature
CANADA geese have left the winter flocks and
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
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.
(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
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.
(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.
(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
In recent years great crested grebes have been
breeding earlier, and
these courting couples will soon
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
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
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.
fighting in the reeds.
beginning to set up their spring
territories and, like their relatives the coots,
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,
haunting ploughed fields and salt
marshes. They will not
go back until it is warmer in their native
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
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
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
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
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
through on ancient banks.
A larger, coarser relative of dog’s mercury, called annual mercury,
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
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
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.
flying excitedly from treetop to
treetop as they come into
breeding condition. The males have started
making their loud, wheezing calls, and will
singing a rattling song.
They stay in small flocks all the year
round, and several pairs will
often nest near
Nature notes (full text), DJM, The Time, 10.2.2005.
A RARE visitor from the High Arctic
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
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
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
in the grass, and the caterpillars will come
out and eat
the nearby vetches in April. Meanwhile, some of the skipper butterflies
reached full caterpillar stage, and the caterpillars
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
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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