Nature’s bride-tossed bouquet*

On the marshes in Aldeburgh in Suffolk there was a solitary tree-sized elder, full of small birds. A single twig reached leftwards against the sky, and provided a convenient perch for a just-fledged bluetit chick:

Juvenile blue tits

Last weekend the elderflowers (Sambucus nigra) were still in full bloom in the hedgerows:

elderflower

Close up, the flowerheads are exquisite:

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A sedge warbler posed on the same elder-twig:

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In Sussex, in the elder-bordered fields, I found these exquisite flowers. I doubt if many of you can guess what they are?

Dock flowers

They are the flowers of dock plants, Rumex obtusifolius. They are no-one’s favorite: scruffy, hard to eradicate weeds, with tall skinny greenish-brownish flowerheads covered in minute unimpressive flowers that we rarely stop to admire. The flowers redden as they mature into these miniature bells. No-one writes poems about dock flowers, but next time, look closely.

In England of course, we pick the elderflowers for elderflower cordial, delicious drunk on its own or with champagne. Here is Jamie Oliver’s recipe:

https://www.jamieoliver.com/features/how-to-make-elderflower-cordial/

* My title comes from the first verse of a poem by Malachy Reynolds,  The Elderflower’s Lament. 

I am the elderflower
Wedded to the hedgerows
Nature’s bride-tossed bouquet.
Not gaudy like the rose….

Follow him on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/MalachyReynolds

 

 

The dandelion deserves its close-up too

Here is a common dandelion, Taraxacum officinale. Boring!

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But the wasp does not agree. She is busily foraging for nectar, deep inside the 200-odd tiny florets that compose the flower-head.

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The tall curly things are the stigmas, covered in pollen:DSC09930-2

and the pollen collects on the body of the wasp, who then unwittingly transfers it to the next flower that she visits:

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Successful pollination means the dandelion can produce its plumed seeds, each called a pappus, to create that ethereal thing, the dandelion clock:

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A single pappus can be seen top left, detaching itself from the seedhead. The word ‘pappus’ is from the Greek for grandfather, whose white beard the dandelion clock resembles. A pappus can fly for a kilometre, and scientists have worked out how they do it:

https://www.insidescience.org/news/how-dandelion-seeds-stay-afloat-so-long

The much smaller coltsfoot is being visited here by a flower beetle. Just like the dandelion, the coltsfoot’s curly stigmas will deposit their pollen on the insect, though I must admit his shiny wing cases don’t seem likely to provide a very good attachment site:

coltsfoot? flower beetle?

Below is a link to a really wonderful piece by Brian Johnston with microscopic photos of the dandelion, showing far more than I can manage with my camera.

http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/indexmag.html?http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/artjun10/bj-dandelion.html

And I had completely forgotten that my friend Leigh Hayes did a terrific post on dandelions two years ago. Here it is: https://wondermyway.com/2015/05/17/never-call-it-just-a-dandelion/

And do consider following her blog too.

“Sumer is icumen in”*

Since 1970, English farmland birds have declined by 54%. Since 1976, butterflies have declined by 41%. Overall, 12% of farmland species are at risk of extinction. We need to value and fight for what remains. Look carefully, and you will be rewarded still.

When the hares were being elusive, I dawdled, and enjoyed anything that came my way. Most local farmers set aside strips of uncultivated ground alongside their crops, and together with traditional copses these at least provide small havens for small wondiers.

Two baby Blue Tits (sorry about the focus):

Juvenile blue tits

Wildflowers and their attendant pollinators:

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A browsing deer:

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An insect licking moisture from a leaf:

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A Spotted Orchid:

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A Long-tailed Tit:

Long-tailed tit

A Common Blue butterfly with its slender coiled black tongue just visible:

Female Common Blue

And a mystery seedpod, near the stream, fallen from somewhere: does anyone know what it is?

?plantain seeds??

There is still much left to marvel at even in heavily farmed agricultural land in the 21st century, though this 2016 report makes for depressing reading:

http://ww2.rspb.org.uk/Images/State%20of%20Nature%20UK%20report_%2020%20Sept_tcm9-424984.pdf

*But beauty remains. Eight hundred years ago, an anonymous poet said it all (modern version below!):

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!

Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;
Ne swik þu nauer nu.

Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

And in modern English:

Summer has come in,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!

The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag farts,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo;
Don’t ever you stop now,

Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!

Apparently ‘uerteþ’ (or ‘verteth’) can mean either ‘cavort’ or ‘fart’!

“The man who tells you he has thought of everything has forgotten the hare.”*

In my Cotswold village there is a surfeit of hares right now.  After years of seeing few and photographing none, this weekend they were everywhere. There are five European Brown Hares, Lepus europaeus, in this photo, out of a total of eight that I saw today:

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If I wasn’t too close, they watched me warily:

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If I played Grandmother’s Footsteps, moving slowly and smoothly when they put their heads down to graze, and freezing when they looked up, I could get close enough to photograph them.

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These two did a few seconds of the boxing for which they are famous:

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When they run, they cross a large field at up to 70 Kmph, those huge haunches delivering the power of a kangaroo, and the back feet overtaking the front ones:

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It may not be obvious, but this one is running fast, straight towards me!

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They share the field with variety of birds. This is a Red-legged Partridge, introduced from France for culinary reasons, and now common.

Hare with Red-legged Partridge

After five or six hours of silently stalking them, I came back for one last session, pulled my car over, got out and loudly slammed the door. When I turned round there were two hares by the road maybe 50 yards away, not overly perturbed.

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One settled down for a good grooming after the previous night’s rain:

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And then a bit of sparring practice:

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They were not only eating the wild grasses, but also nibbling the edges of the wheat fields, which the farmers must find infuriating, but they did not seem to go into the centre of the wheat. Apparently they can become a pest, and it is legal to shoot them in certain circumstances, but not in the breeding season. In online farming forums, I found as many messages of appreciation for their beauty as I did complaints about crop damage.

*My title is verse 6 (June) from Anna Crowe’s poem A Calendar of Hares. The full text is here:

A Calendar of Hares

 

 

Forbidden fruit*

In Florida I saw this pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) on the top of a dead palm tree.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus

We all know that woodpeckers probe rotting wood to retrieve insects, ants, and juicy larvae, so dead and dying trees are where you expect to see them.

But this one had other ideas:

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As you can see, they are in fact quite catholic in their tastes, and often eat seeds and fruits, not just when kindly supplied for them by human bird-feeders.  This one is a male, because the red covers his whole head; females have red napes only. And you can just glimpse the red on his belly that gets him his name.

All over the world, fruiting trees are irresistible to wildlife. This mousebird in Ethiopia is gorging on figs:

Speckled Mousebird

And this bulbul can barely swallow the large yellow berries he has found:

Common Bulbul?

The size of his belly suggests that this Kenyan Blue Monkey has already had more than enough:

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitis

* These greedy, wary, faintly illicit feastings reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s poem:

Forbidden fruit a flavor has

That lawful orchards mocks;

How luscious lies the pea within

The pod that Duty locks!

 

May I introduce the propagule?

In April I was in Vero Beach, Florida for a bewitching week with friends. It is a barrier island, and the inland waterway is bordered by red mangroves Rhizophora mangle.

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Their name comes from their reddish stilt roots; the above-water sections help them breathe.

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These extraordinary trees and their roots provide important habitat for all sorts of fish, crustaceans and birds, including this American White Ibis,  Eudocimus albus, who is looking for crabs:

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Mangroves live in brackish water, and they have the most unusual reproductive system. They flower, like most plants, producing tiny inconspicuous downward-facing flowers:

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But instead of then producing seeds, they produce propagules, (a brand new word for me, sadly with too many letters to be very useful in Scrabble).

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These miniature plants stay attached to their mother plant while they grow a longer and thinner root:

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Eventually, they drop off into the water below:

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Once launched, they bob around vertically and drift with the tides and currents until they stick tip-down in the mud, and become a new tree.

The mangrove edges provide rich pickings for this Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea, foraging at low tide:

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Alone among herons, the pure white immature is entirely differently colored from this adult.

And in these lagoons there be manatees, which the early mariners thought were mermaids. To my delight we saw them, but not clearly enough to photograph, so this will have to do:

 

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Florida may conjure up images of Disneyworld, but it still has many wild and beautiful places.  More next time.