It’s the time of year when Robin Redbreast again figures prominently amid snowy landscapes. This association with Christmas seems to stem from the red uniforms postmen once wore, earning them the nickname of Robin, which was unfortunate for the people of Devon where it was an ill omen for a Robin to enter a house and anyone sending a card with a Robin on it was issuing a curse!
The red breast is said to have developed when a Robin (at that time lacking the adornment) sang into Christ’s ear at the cross and was stained with his blood or through being singed in hell when delivering sustenance to the souls in purgatory.
More serious and reliable accounts, reveal the Robin to be highly territorial, even in winter when the sexes (identical in outward appearance) keep apart. David Lack, who studied them in the 1950s and who wrote, in my experience, the most readable book ever about a species, concluded that the only way a male Robin determined that an intruder in the Spring was female, was that she refused to be hounded out of his territory!
Once the pair-bonding is established, even a few alien red feathers will ignite furious attacks and in experiments with dead Robins, the “intruder” is attacked at the base of the nape and flesh pecked out and eaten!
Because of their year-round territorialism, their song is heard at all seasons (and often at night). It is a sweet song in brief phrases and when they were caged for this reason, in earlier times, the practise elicited William Blake’s well-known lines, “A Robin Redbreast in a cage, puts all heaven in a rage”.
A few years ago, I became aware that hedgehogs had become very scarce in Rushcliffe. I’m pleased to say that this situation is now improved and I am seeing them or their distinctive droppings quite regularly in my garden, and sadly, dead ones on the roads.
They are not closely related to any other mammal but hedgehog-like creatures have been around for 15 million years and there are several species across Europe and Asia. They have a short neck which enables them to roll into the defensive ball and which precludes them from predation by all but the hungriest and persistent of foxes and badgers. Females may have two to three litters a year, each of two to six hoglets, between May and September.
When they are six to eight weeks old they become independent and they weigh around 250 grams at that time. To have a good chance of surviving hibernation they need to weigh around 600 grams and if you find underweight or weak-looking young ones during November or later, especially if the weather is cold, expert advice is to take it into care. Advice is available on the British Hedgehog Preservation Society’s website. If you find sick hedgehogs that need more than just warmth, food, water and clean bedding there are two approved carers in Nottinghamshire; Janet Peto phone 07940 714830 or Orston Hedgehog Rescue phone 01949 851532.
We have three species of woodpecker in Rushcliffe. Both the Great-spotted and Green Woodpeckers are common and can often be seen on any walk where there is parkland or woodland. Both species draw attention to themselves by their large size, bright colours and distinctive calls.
The Green appears quite yellow if it is flying away upon being disturbed and may recall a parrot if seen feeding on the ground (as they often do). The black and white patterns of the Great-spotted are unmistakeable.
The call of the Green Woodpecker is a loud and prolonged “laugh” and earns it the local name of “yaffle”. Another, now disused local name for a woodpecker was “nicker” and is assumed to be the derivation of Nicker Hill at Keyworth. On still days, their call can be heard more and more frequently, as they seem to be increasing in numbers throughout the borough and often enter undisturbed gardens. All species have a distinctive flight involving a series of wing flaps as the bird ascends followed by a descending glide and this undulating pattern is a further pointer to the group.
The third species is the Lesser-spotted and although this refers to the bird’s size it equally well describes current sightings! It is spotted now, far less frequently than in the late seventies, when Dutch Elm disease was responsible for lots of dead timber and when their numbers reached a peak because of the increased food supply from the invertebrates decomposing the dead wood.
Few species use a mechanical means to attract partners and denote territories but the drumming of woodpeckers is only heard in the spring as this is their song. They have shock absorbers at the back of their skull to avoid maiming themselves in the process!
The migrations of birds are well known and those of African mammals are often documented on wildlife shows but the migrations of insects are less known and less well understood.
Many groups of insects migrate - does anyone remember the influx of ladybirds in 1976? However the butterflies and moths are the best known and in my garden moth trap in August I found a Bedstraw Hawkmoth; a rare migrant from southern and eastern Europe.
Probably the most abundant in many years is the Silver Y moth but there are many others including several "micro-moths" - those with mostly only scientific names and which look to be too fragile to undertake even a modest flight. Strictly the "migrations" of insects are better termed irruptions as they are irregular and they do not attempt the return journey in the way that our summering birds do, but instead, seem to be taking advantage of our summers (our average summers that is!) to boost their numbers and possibly to colonise new territory. Another Hawkmoth - the Humming-bird Hawk was a regular migrant but is now known to overwinter in southern England following a succession of mild winters and so would now be classed as a resident species, though immigrations undoubtedly still occur.
In North America, the Monarch butterfly undertakes a true migration, northwards from its hibernacula in Central and South America as far north as the Great Lakes and back again each year. It is of course the adults raised from eggs laid by the northward migrants that return south.
In recent years, it has been found that Painted Lady butterflies do make a return journey. The do so at a greater altitude than their head-height northward migration and so their southward movement was not witnessed until special efforts were put in.
Insects are so numerous and diverse that many naturalists are deterred from getting to know them and, though it is of course impossible for anyone to become expert on them all, great contributions to our knowledge of their status and distribution can be made through specialising in one or two groups.
Butterflies and the larger moths are comparatively well known, but there are other groups that now receive enthusuiastic coverage because of the availablility of good quality identification guides such as the hoverflies and grasshoppers. The beetles are the largest order of insects both in Britain and the world but by concentrating on a family within this great order anyone can become a local expert.
Perhaps the most inviting group is the longhorn beetles, many of which are large and most of them are brightly patterned. They are mainly woodland insects feeding as larvae on rotting timber and the adults can often be found resting on flat-headed flowers such as hogweed. They are easily photographed with modern digital cameras for a leisurely identification later via the internet. As their name suggests, most have remarkably long antennae – often longer than the insect’s body and the biggest, Cerambyx cerdo can be up to 55mm long though unusually among insects, individuals amongst the same species vary markedly in size.
An early Fleetwood Mac song waxed lyrically about a visit to a garden by a dragonfly and questioned whether it was worthy of so fine a guest. I believe such sympathies are widespread now, though for a few people a big hawker may strike the fear of God in them presumably from the mistaken belief that they will bite!
A garden with a pond is most likely to lure a wandering dragonfly and the most probable locally is the Southern Hawker. This is not quite the biggest of the bunch but nevertheless, as British insects go, four inches (100mm) is an impressive wing span. Even small garden ponds may also enable breeding by some species, such as Common Darter or Broad-bodied Chaser whilst the smaller damselflies (which rest with their wings folded) especially the Common Blue and the Blue-tailed may also breed.
Telltale signs are the cast off nymphal skin (exuvia) on an emergent plant stem where the aquatic nymph has become an airborne adult. Twenty-five species of dragonfly and damselfly have been recorded in Nottinghamshire and a dozen or so are quite widespread across Rushcliffe and can be found readily along the Grantham Canal and the big ponds at Ruddington and Cotgrave country parks. The slow-flowing River Soar just across the border is a great site for the delicate Banded Demoiselle. A pair of binoculars with close-focussing capability and the excellent i.d. guide published by British Wildlife are recommended.
Frog tadpoles growth rate varies quite considerably but by now most will be well developed and about to metamorphose into frogs; the most critical change here being the loss of gills and the development of lungs meaning, on the face of it, that they have to breathe air.
However this is really the wrong way of looking at it – from the frog’s aspect, what it means is that it can leave the pond and go off foraging for things to eat – largely slugs and snails as it turns out. And what is more, they can still have the luxury of a long, cool dip if they feel so inclined as they are able to absorb oxygen through their skin.
Less luxurious is the thought of spending the winter hibernating in the bottom mud of a freezing pool, but some choose to do so and with their metabolism at a minimum, diffusion of oxygen through the skin keeps them going for months. Breathing is in fact quite a different operation for them than it is for us because of their unusual skeleton: they lack a ribcage and diaphragm with which to pump the lungs and instead take in a mouthful of air, close their mouth and nostrils and force the air into their lungs by tightening and extending their throat pouch – behaviour that many people will have observed.
We have just one native species of frog in this country and none of the several introduced ones occur in Nottinghamshire, however these Common Frogs can be strikingly different in colour and patterning leading to potential mistakes.
Rushcliffe’s Brooks and Streams
The hills around Old Dalby are the westward extent of the Belvoir escarpment and the source of three of Rushcliffe’s major watercourses: Kingston Brook flows westward through East Leake and spills into the Soar near Kegworth; Fairham Brook turns northwards after passing through Bunny and discharges into the Trent near Clifton Bridge whilst the River Smite, after wending its way to the north-east through the Vale of Belvoir, becomes the River Devon and reaches the Trent near Newark.
These so called “wildlife corridors” are vitally important to the dispersion and connectivity of our fauna and flora and not just the aquatic animals and plants. The bankside vegetation, though sometimes quite narrow, is usually fairly natural, though it has suffered from the drift of pesticide sprays and artificial fertilisers. Nevertheless, such creatures as grass snakes and harvest mice use these undisturbed routes to re-establish themselves at locations where they may have disappeared through natural pressures such as harsh winters or flooding.
The field hedgerows which lead away into the wider countryside also serve as wildlife corridors but uncultivated headlands and sympathetic hedge management, now encouraged through agricultural subsidies, are needed for certain species, such as Brown Hairstreak butterflies, which needs the full cycle of hedgerow growth to survive though there are none of these in Nottinghamshire.
Our summer migrant birds first arrive back between late March and the end of April. The earliest are not well represented in Nottinghamshire; Wheatear, Sandwich Tern, Garganey, and Ring Ousel show up on the coast from mid to late March and the first inland species is more likely to be one of the hirundines – Sand Martin, Swallow and then House Martin (in that order). I’ve purposefully disregarded the Chiffchaff and Blackcap as these spend the winter here in small numbers and it’s impossible to determine a return date for them. These earliest hirundines will have been seen by keen birdwatchers, observing over sheltered open water where aerial insects can be found and the casual observer may not notice the first Swallow until mid or late April, when they establish territories and begin nest building.
There is a second major wave of arrivals in mid April when many of the warblers first show up; Reed and Sedge Warbler, Garden Warbler and Whitethroat are among these whilst Turtle Dove is one of the latest, but it is the Swift that epitomises true summer days and they rarely show up before the 1st May. The Cuckoo of course gets most attention and a date earlier than April 15th would be fairly unusual but sadly, many people are now saying that they just don’t hear this evocative bird at all.
Gardeners as well as farmers used to regard wildlife largely with mistrust and spray and secrete poisons with abandon. The result was the extinction of several birds of prey from most of England. Timely and judicious use of currently licenced insecticides, herbicides and fungicides can be an invaluable tool for meticulous growers but there are many alternatives: If you’d rather not eat cauliflower that has been blitzed with pyrethrum, try interplanting with nasturtiums which reputedly divert white butterflies from their otherwise catastrophic indulgences. Look on the BBC Gardeners’ World website for more “green” alternatives to winning the bug war.
If vegetable growing is not for you, there need be no war at all for where does a balanced ecosystem suffer serious damage from its natural fauna? I can think of locusts but no others at the moment! Gardening for nature, using native species designed around a variety of “habitats” will rarely if ever need chemical assistance to look good. A pond with a small meadow and rockery nearby will provide year-round habitats for newts and frogs to control the pesky slugs and a mixed border and shrubbery of native species will supply green caterpillars for broods of Blue Tits which will keep down the aphids in mid-summer; you get the idea – ecology is rather more complex in truth!
Now is the time to be planning some garden themes so why not look forward to the delights of having butterflies, birds and bees to share it with.
At this time of year as the days lengthen, there can be some positive warmth in the sunshine; enough to bring the earliest butterflies out of hibernation and often the first on the wing is the Brimstone. The distinctive sulphur yellow of the male makes it unmistakeable even in flight, which is fortunate, because they range widely and rarely seem to settle. When they do find a source of nectar they can be remarkably difficult to locate as they resemble a yellow leaf.
These butterflies will return to dormancy when the weather deteriorates (as it surely will) but emerge again to find mates and lay eggs later into the spring. These are deposited on buckthorn and alder buckthorn, the caterpillar’s food plant and the adults may then live on until June or early July. By August, the egg, larval and pupal stages will be completed and the next generation will be on the wing. These may fly and fatten up on nectar very late into the year before hibernating in dense thickets of evergreens such as ivy. The adult butterfly then, lives for up to eleven months!
Buckthorn is a small and open tree and suitable for the larger garden. If planted along with some ivy that can be allowed to grow a bit rampant the gardener can observe these gorgeous insects throughout their life cycle.
Ospreys were exterminated from the UK by 1917. Egg thieves and hunters after skins finished them off and then there were none until out of the blue, in 1954, a pair nested successfully at Loch Garten in Scotland’s Speyside.
When they returned in later years, Operation Osprey ensured that, despite concerted efforts, the egg thieves failed. More and more pairs established themselves and protecting them all became impossible; it is known that between 1982 and 1984, fourteen nests were robbed. But by this time these beautiful fish-eating birds had established a foothold and there are now over 160 breeding pairs in Scotland. Tim Appletons’s talk on 7th February (see below) will recount the Ospreys return to the Midlands, where it joins a burgeoning band of previously near-absent raptors, notably Buzzard and Red Kite, though it’s worth remembering that the Sparrowhawk too was virtually exterminated from Notts by DDT during the fifties.
It’s now possible to see six species of raptor in the Midlands in a single summer’s day; Kestrel and Hobby being the ones not previously mentioned, and even Peregrines are now possible – there were 135 reports in Notts in 2005.