Spring is all about the birds & the bees!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

I saw something I had never seen before the other day:  earthworms having sex!  It was about as fleshy and yucky as that sounds but nevertheless intriguing and a moment of profound wonderment on my part.

Of course, spring is all about copulation – why else the birdsong, the buzz of bees and the pollen-laden stamens amidst scented petals?  But it doesn’t get much more down-to-earth than the worms I saw.  Their bodies half submerged about 20cm apart and the exposed halves side by side, joined in two places.  I moved a blade of grass and they vanished at lightning speed.  I felt guilty for spoiling their earthworm fun but, in truth, the joy of the new discovery far outweighed any shame on my part.

Spring has sprung, albeit a little falteringly this year, and while the earthworms are a reminder of where it’s all headed, the flowers, the birds and the bees elaborate nature’s great love song and in doing so invite us into the romance.  Nature has a way of kindling passions in us be it in the giving of a simple bunch of flowers or in a lifetime of devotion to a particular aspect of nature.

A friend of mine has recently written a book about those most sublime of plants: the orchids.   I have bought a copy and am enjoying reading about his summer of orchid-hunting – a quest to see all the species of orchid native to Britain and Ireland.  I would be the first to admit that I personally know very little about orchids – I have found at most two or three species on my rambles locally – but I was intrigued to discover more, especially from the pen of a friend with whom I shared some of my earliest encounters with nature.

I have always thought of orchids as the butterflies of the plant world with their fragile beauty, their ephemeral existence and their, more often than not, extreme rarity.  Such qualities invariably inspire awe and wonder with each encounter and attract devout followers who go to great lengths to locate and study the plants.  It should have come as no surprise then that, on opening my friend’s book, I did not find detailed species descriptions, distribution maps and site guides but instead a tale of passion, of personal endeavour and of mystery and intrigue.  If the monasteries of old sought to counter the age-old vices of money, sex and power with their oaths of poverty, chastity and obedience, then they would have done well to acknowledge the orchids’ part in all three!

As far back as pre-Roman times orchids have proved alluring not just for their exquisite beauty and extreme rarity but also for their medicinal properties – their roots among other things believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac.  Botanists and herbalists across the world and over the centuries have been employed by kings, emperors and the wealthy, to supply orchid specimens, either for private collections or one-off elaborate show pieces. Like ermine in a royal gown, orchids speak of wealth and power…but they also speak of sex.

If flowers give us a language for love then orchids take it to another level.  Not only are they beautiful flowers but the extraordinary precision of their petal arrangements and associated parts also gives them an edge in vying for the attentions of insect pollinators.  As an orchid researcher from the University of Naples expressed it, when it comes to attracting pollinators, “Sexy orchids do it better!”

A case in point is the Fly Orchid whose petals mimic the outline of a fly so perfectly that male digger wasps (wholly unlike the stripy picnic pests!) find them irresistible.  In addition, the orchid scent closely resembles the pheromones of a female digger wasp further encouraging the males to land.   There is no reward for the wasp in this act of ‘pseudocopulation’ but the orchid’s deceit ensures its pollen is carried off, onboard the wasp, to fertilize other orchids.

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Fly Orchid Ophrys insectifera by Martin Fowler (Shutterstock)

It was Charles Darwin who first observed the sexual deception of Fly Orchids.  He was one in a long line of ‘orchidophiles’, my friend among them, engaged not just with the matter of scientific observation but in a love affair with orchids.  For each of them, their discoveries were not so much eureka moments as moments of passionate love.

While I have not (yet) gone out in search of orchids I recognize that same passion in myself.  It is a passion for those uniquely beautiful and unexpected experiences that arise in the secret moments when you discover something rare or new in nature.  They are unforgettable moments, deeply personal and become part of your life’s journey, sometimes informing it and sometimes inspiring it.  May you all feel the love this spring!

Jon Dunn’s “Orchid Summer” (Bloomsbury, 2018) can be bought on Amazon.

 

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Spring Tarries…but the Sap is Rising!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

Waiting is a big part of life. We are all used to waiting, sometimes patiently, sometimes unwillingly: in waiting rooms, on platforms and at bus stops, and sometimes just in front of the pot on the stove. The question at the forefront of our mind is, “Is it now?” – “Is it now that they’ll see me, that the proverbial bus will arrive or the pot boil?” Of course, nine times out of ten, we end up waiting longer than we wished or anticipated but, once the wait is over, we go on with our business with relief and renewed enthusiasm.

Most of us, I imagine, whatever we may have to wait for on a daily basis, will find ourselves waiting for spring to arrive. Winter, for all its beauty and drama, has a way of dragging on just a bit too long. No one can refute the beauty of a hoar frost on a clear, sunlit day or the fun and playfulness that snow brings, but it is nevertheless cold, wet, slippery and generally disruptive. Each of us begins to look hopefully for the signs of spring, becoming increasingly sensitive to even the smallest temperature changes, the first buds and the increase in birdsong.

And yet spring is never hurried. As I write we are emerging from the ‘Beast from the East’ that just as the first crocuses and daffodils flickered into life, arrived and shrouded the land in snow and ice, snuffing out those tender shoots of light. I visited the local gravel pits in the midst of the icy blast and found nature thrown about and in disarray caught by the icy grip of the sub-zero elements.

Snipe, usually comfortably and perfectly camouflaged in the reeds, stood dotted about, out in the open by any puddle that had not yet frozen. Lapwings strung across the skies, heading west in search of non-frozen ground on which to feed. A kingfisher sat along the frozen river above the one small pool of unfrozen water. If that froze too the kingfisher would have to move on, keeping ahead of the ice to feed and giving it its German name: ‘Eisvogel’ or Ice Bird.

Up and down the country people reported many garden “firsts” as fieldfares, redwings, siskins and redpolls sought out garden feeders and last year’s windfall apples to tide them over the lean times. Even waders such as lapwing, woodcock and snipe were found taking refuge in gardens.

All this forced movement undoubtedly takes its toll on wildlife but it is also nature’s defibrillator: providing the shock and impetus to transition into spring. March is a month of highs and lows, a mix of some of our worst weather but also, often some the most promising spring days, when we feel our energy returning and even consider a bit of spring cleaning!

Traditionally this early spring rejuvenation has been referred to as the “sap rising” when energy for life is renewed and amorous appetites rekindled. However, it is not an entirely unscientific notion and the increased activity of nutrient-rich sap within many plants and trees in early spring is a necessary precursor to the emergence and growth of buds and leaves.

If you enjoyed pancakes on Pancake Day then you many well have poured tree sap on your pancakes. Of course we call it Maple Syrup but it is the sap of Maple trees harvested when it rises in early spring in Canada. The Canadians, understandably, have invested heavily in scientific research to find out exactly what makes for a good maple syrup harvest. Theories abound but one thing is clear – the frequency of the freeze-thaw cycle is critical. Without a series of freezes and thaws the yield of sap from the maple trees just won’t be as great – the sap will not rise. It seems the dramatic temperature fluctuations are crucial in creating pressure differentials within the trees that get the sap or syrup moving.

I found myself standing in front of a Maple Tree in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London recently. Planted in 1998 by a former Canadian prime minister it looked bare and lifeless and yet I knew that within, the syrup would be flowing, pushing new life to its young branches. We may not always see it but Spring is coming and if ever there was a positive way to view March’s fickle and sometimes fierce weather it must be this: it is nature’s way of shuddering back to life and maybe, if we embrace the elements too, we’ll feel our own sap rising too!

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The Maple Tree (Acer Saccharum) in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London

Seagulls are for Muggles!

 

To read my article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here: Nature Notes – 22nd February 2018

 

There is no such bird as a seagull. I had to learn the hard way: early in my birdwatching career, at the tender and self-conscious age of about 13, I found myself in a group of older and wiser birders and was audacious enough to suggest a seagull had just flown overhead.

A confused and awkward silence followed and I was quietly but firmly corrected that there was no such thing as a ‘seagull’, instead my bird was most likely one of the five common species of gull (no sea) found in the UK!  I felt foolish as I was aware of different sorts of gulls but had never thought to be more specific.  And that really is the story of being a bird-watcher in a nutshell: be more specific and how specific you are will determine how much of a ‘muggle’ you are when with other birdwatchers!

The incident reminded me of another ‘awkward’ occasion whilst watching seabirds off Portland Bill in Dorset – thankfully this time it didn’t involve me directly.  Picture a group of mainly middle-aged men staring out to sea down their high-powered and extremely costly telescopes, scanning the sea for whatever seabird might be passing at the time. Portland Bill sticks right out into the English Channel and as a result allows views of some of the scarcer passing wildlife that might otherwise be invisible from the mainland.

We had spent enough time there so prepared to leave but as we did so my friend mentioned quietly to me that we would need to stop for petrol on the way back.  Never has such quiet, suppressed panic ensued as every birder began to desperately scan the sea, with sharp calls of “Where?!”… “Location please!” and, “Was that at 2 o’clock?” It suddenly dawned on us that we had inadvertently dropped a bombshell into the midst of the watching birders – the trigger-word “petrol” or I should say “petrel”, a small and rare little seabird that flits like a swallow over the high seas.

Like searching radar the combined senses of the assembled group had immediately picked up on the word ‘petrol’ and simultaneously started scanning the waves for it.  We beat a hasty retreat, the disgruntled mutterings and murmurings already audible as we neared the car. We would get petrol but not Storm, Leach’s or Wilson’s Petrel, just unleaded.

It is moments like these that you realize the hobby you enjoy has an addictive quality: sea-watching and gull-watching being just two of the drugs on offer.  As with real junkies, the thrill of the chase and the needlepoint accuracy needed in the moment of identification, fuel intense and devoted habits. When you are in the presence of such people you feel an outsider, unable to access the higher realms of knowledge that they possess.  Hours and hours of observation, recording, photographing and reviewing have made them experts, able to dismantle feather-by-feather what at first appears to be a regular Herring Gull (the sort that steals your fish and chips) and reassemble it as what it actually is: a second-winter Yellow-legged Gull!

The idea of a “seagull” is as bewildering to them as the sheer array of gulls and plumage variations on view is to others! Their dedication to the task of gull identification has produced a wealth of new information about the gulls that visit our isles. Within many gull species it is possible to identify separate races – birds that visit Britain from different geographical zones, each having distinctive variations to plumage and body characteristics. Some of these races in turn have been reclassified as separate species – most recently a large gull, easily dismissed as ‘just another seagull’ and even by birdwatchers as ‘an odd-looking Herring Gull’, has now been recognized for what it is: a Caspian Gull, a full species in its own right.

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Gulls at Verulamium Lake – 3 different species and 3 different age groups – from left to right:  a second-winter Common Gull; a first-winter Common Gull; an adult-winter Common Gull; an adult-winter Black-headed Gull; and an adult-winter Lesser Black-backed Gull

So, if you’re looking for a challenge this winter it doesn’t get much trickier than gull identification. Of course, the starting point is to banish all thoughts of “seagulls” and instead take a good look at the different gulls in front of you. Verulamium Lake is an excellent place to start: the small and noisy Black-headed Gulls (unhelpfully they don’t have black heads in winter!) will even feed from your hand. Amongst them, some of the larger gulls will also come in to roost – Common Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls. Learn to separate them and who knows? You might become addicted!

Make your Love of Nature Count!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here: Nature Notes – January 2018

I have to confess to having a love-hate relationship with statistics – perhaps this is true of most people? Statistics, numbers, charts and tables have the power to petrify us in boredom and the subsequent analysis can lead to mental paralysis! And yet all that collected data is powerful – it tells us things we need to know and informs us about action we need to take. This of course is no less true when it comes to data about wildlife.

I have always subconsciously resisted serious data collection and analysis when it comes to my love of nature. For me it is like reducing my marital relationship to how many times I’ve bought flowers, washed up or provided a taxi service for the kids. I love nature, like I love my wife, and any form of serious statistical analysis feels reductionist and, well, unromantic.

Nature, for me, has always been a kind of romance with magical moments of discovery, vast swathes of beauty and complexity, and layers of mystery and wonder. The words of the biblical proverb resonate with me, “There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a young woman.” (Proverbs 30:18-19)

And so I have been a reluctant latecomer to data collection and analysis, but like so many things I have initially resisted, it has proved rewarding in its own way. Regularly recording and submitting my observations to organisations such as the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) via BirdTrack their online data collection portal, has demanded of me a more rigorous approach to nature observation – not just vague incomplete lists, but times, dates and numbers recorded over regular, sustained periods.

All of this has been counter-intuitive to me but it has deepened my understanding of the places I go and the wildlife that inhabits them. Regular detailed observations have revealed patterns and behaviours that I wouldn’t otherwise have appreciated: the Little Owl’s favourite tree; the best time to watch gulls amassing in their pre-roost flocks and when they will have left for their final roost; and more recently, the feeding habits of Hawfinches – their love of hornbeam seeds. This in turn has led me to become expert in identifying hornbeam trees as this winter, as never before, finding hornbeams gives you a very good chance of finding that elusive finch!

While I never want to lose that sense of open-mouthed wonder when it comes to the natural world there are also moments that give pause for thought when we realize all is not perhaps as it should be. In the last thirty years, House Sparrows, Spotted Flycatchers and Swallows have vanished from my garden, both as breeders but also even as visitors. It seems that, in the same way that we occasionally have to sit down as a married couple and work out how to make improvements when things aren’t working, we must also stop and work out our relationship with nature.

Birds and wildlife that might feel scarce in our area may turn out to be thriving elsewhere, however, the data is often revealing a decline on a national scale. Swallows and House Sparrows really are vanishing and Spotted Flycatchers have all but gone. The observations that I have made in my own garden over the years suddenly connect me to a wider world of nature and a greater understanding for what may be at stake for the birds visiting my garden.

This weekend (27th-29th Jan) is the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch and an opportunity for everyone who has a garden, however small, to do some serious (but not onerous) data collecting and contribute to the latest snapshot of the state of our nation’s birdlife. By spending just one hour recording what you see in your garden and submitting the data to the RSPB you will be making sure the national picture that emerges is as accurate as possible.

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Last year’s survey revealed that Greenfinch numbers have declined by 66% in the UK over the last 10 years.  The species may now be added to the conservation ‘Red List’ of most endangered species in the UK.  Photo by Steve Round

Equally it’s an opportunity to connect with your nearest green space and one that often gets overlooked most of the week, especially at this cold time of year. Gardens by their very definition are enclosed spaces but not to the birds that visit. Instead they are vast arterial networks of greenery providing food, shelter and migratory routes for thousands of birds right across urban spaces.

Great Tits at Feeder copy