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

The Power of the Peregrine

Please click on this link to read my January 2017 “Nature Notes” in the Herts Advertiser:

Nature Notes: 26th January 2017

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A Peregrine Falcon – photo by Steve Round

 

 

Leaving Our Shores – The Last Days of Summer

 

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Willow Warbler – photo by Steve Round

Please click on this link to read my September “Nature Notes” in the Herts Advertiser:  Nature Notes – 8th September 2016

Jewels of Spring

Last week I went out for a walk with my son and our new dog. My son took his bike and after rambling for a while, jumping ditches and puddles enjoying Max the dog’s enthusiasm for every nuance in the path, we found ourselves in a wood. Patches of fresh bluebells and older daffodils gave the woodland floor a garden feel but the uncontained vibrancy of the greenery and contrasting sculptural timber debris invited the feeling of being in a woodland playground.

So we set about building a den: pulling dead branches from where they lay and setting them against the trunk of a tree. Dead bracken lay all around, the perfect thatch for our structure. However, the weather had other ideas and, as only the month of April can deliver, the temperature plummeted from a pleasant 17 degrees Celsius to just above freezing. Hail began to fall and we realized that, with only a basic structure in place we needed to seek more effective shelter and quick!

A nearby spruce gave us the umbrella we needed and we ducked under and watched the little white pellets bounce on the leaf litter. As we stood there unbeknownst to us, a mother Song Thrush was weighing up her options: sit tight and go unnoticed or assume discovery and flee. She chose the latter option and with a sharp tsick alarm note ducked out of the fronds just above my head alerting us to her presence.

With a sudden rush of guilt mixed with boyish excitement I realized we had flushed the thrush from her nest. Guilt because nesting for these shy (and increasingly scarce) birds is always a hazardous time of the year and disturbance is never welcome. But also an excitement that is difficult to explain but that goes back a long way to childhood memories of discovered nests, invariably in out-of-the-way places in the midst of some adventure or exploration. Discovering a nest, especially with eggs in it, is to discover one of nature’s secrets and be ushered in to a hushed world, out of sight of the noise and bustle of human activity. It is as if we have had the privilege of suddenly being invited in to royalty’s home to be shown their most treasured possessions. They are not there but surely they will be return soon so we back out quietly, whispering with wonder but careful not to let on what we now know.

That at least is how I responded, quietly ushering my son and the dog out too, but not before I had confirmed that the thrush was indeed sitting on some eggs. The nest was perfectly hidden at my head height but using my phone camera raised above my head I was able to take a bird’s eye shot of the nest. A moment’s pause as we bent over the phone while the photo loaded and we both gasped! Nothing had prepared us for the startling turquoise blue clarity of the four eggs lying in the soft brown bowl of the nest. Like jewels in an open case they sat there, objects of perfection in a mud-lined bower.

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The Song Thrush’s Nest

We left quietly, hoping that the thrush would quickly return and see her task through to completion. In that nest lay her hopes and legacy – not just a mechanical ‘continuation of the species’ but a marvel and a miracle of beauty evidenced in every carefully woven twig and piece of moss. We are so used to seeing chicken eggs in boxes that seeing eggs in their true context – the nest – is a revelation of nurturing love and watchful care that does not just get the job done but does it with spectacular grace and beauty.

For my son and me, our ‘Boys Own’ adventure will stay with us (he is already asking when we can build dens again) and, for me, be filed with a similar memory of discovering a Dunnock’s nest at a similar age. Searching for a cricket ball during a school game I chanced upon its nest perched amidst brambles and nettles behind a pile of rubble. A Song Thrush’s nest in miniature, I remember marveling at the little turquoise blue eggs, vowing to return with my camera and then remembering I had a cricket ball to find!

Come the winter, I always wonder at the number of nests revealed when the leaves have left the trees. There are so many and yet each year can pass with out me ever discovering more than one or two! And of course, that is how it should be so please don’t go out looking for nests and eggs. Our breeding birds are thin enough on the ground and need their privacy. If, like us, you stumble on a nest by accident, know that you have been privileged to witness one of nature’s best-kept secrets and above all, endeavour to keep it just that: a secret!

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A Song Thrush