The Big Five – time for a local safari

Peacock butterflies have just emerges from chrysalises, so are at their most stunning now

Five distinctive butterflies are fairly commonly seen in flight now around Burwell, most freshly emerged from their chrysalises? The colours of their wings are at their deepest, not yet faded by exposure to sunbeams; their exquisitely scalloped wings not yet tattered from getting caught on vegetation, or having to dodge hungry predators. I’ve been making myself look at these butterflies as if I had never seen one before – and wonder how I could have taken such beautiful, delicate, yet strong creatures for granted.

I find knowing which species they are helps me to ‘see’ and appreciate them. I use clues and invented links to help me learn and remember their names. Do you do the same? So Peacocks (photo above, that I wrote about in the last blog), are instantly recognisable for their breath-taking purple ‘eyes’ on their wings. Peacock birds after which they are named have eyes on their elaborate feathers, making this butterfly’s name straightforward to remember.

Red admirals with their smart black wing tips with officers ‘pips’ on their shoulders

Red admirals have black, white and red/orange patterns. I read they were originally known as red admirables – and admirable is what they are. Taking the modern version of their name – admiral – I like to think of the white on the edge of their wings as the stripes a navy officer has on the shoulders of their uniform.

Small Tortoiseshells are a favourite of mine, recognisable by the delicate scalloping of the bottom edge of their wing, edged with bluey-green like the translucent inside of a shell. These butterflies’ delicateness is an illusion – the males soon end up in a twirling, spiralling fight if another comes near their territory.

Small tortoiseshell, with wings edged with blue, like the inside of a shell.
Inside of a shell

When most butterflies shut their wings they become difficult to see, looking like a piece of browny bark, leaf or lichen blown onto a flower. However, comma butterflies are named for the grammar inscribed on their dull wing undersides: a white comma-like mark standing out clearly against the dark of the wing. Commas’ wings are deeply scalloped, their edges almost like exaggerated commas themselves. As a comma opens its wings, its rich copper colours can be seen.

A painted lady feeding on sedum

Painted lady’s make up the set. Their black and white wing tips have similarities with red admirals, however, painted ladys have more complex orangey-brown patterning, with black blobs and blotches across the main body of their wings. If I get confused, I think of an artist having fun painting this complex patterning. You may think of something better!

Painted ladys are migrant butterflies. If you see one that is faded, with its wing edges tatty, you will know you are seeing one that has flown here from North Africa, its colours bleached by the sun, its wings frayed after flying so many miles. Once these butterflies arrive from North Africa, they lay their eggs on nettles, mallows (see earlier post) and thistles. These hatch into caterpillars, which in turn form chrysalises, suspended in a tent of leaves. If you see a fresh looking painted lady, you will know it has recently emerged from a chrysalis here. When the autumn comes, many of these will complete the migration cycle, flying to North Africa for the winter. Approximately every ten years we have a ‘painted lady year’ when vast numbers of painted ladys arrive. The most recent was in 2009. I was lucky enough to see them come: I was out early one morning surveying birds near Wimpole and wave after wave of painted lady butterflies flew across the field I was in, travelling north.

The Big Five: on safari ‘the big five’ are known as the lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhinoceros. A well-known challenge is to try to see all five. Only the very lucky manage to do so on one trip. How about going on a local ‘safari’, taking on a Butterfly Big Five challenge: to see a peacock, red admiral, small tortoiseshell, comma and painted lady in a week. In their own way, these butterflies are just as remarkable as the creatures that make up the better known Big Five!

Many thanks to Sue Pennell for making this post possible – all the beautiful photos of butterflies in this post are hers.

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Families of baby peacocks are on the wriggle now

Large clumps of nettles in sunny spots provide home to lots of wildlife at Spring Close.

The caterpillars of peacock butterflies – surely one of our most stunning butterflies – can be easily spotted on one of the sunny clumps of nettles at Spring Close now! Tipped off by Caroline, I went looking for them on the clumps of nettles that edge the spring. Soon at about chest height, I saw a wriggling mass of velvety black bodies happily chumping on the leaves and flowers of a large clump of nettles.

Peacock caterpillars feed en masse on nettles.

I watched as they crawled under and over each other, or reached out, waving their outstretched bodies in search of the next bit of nettle to grab onto to find another juicy bite to eat. It is possible to see them well with the naked eye, but next time I will take a magnifying glass to appreciate even better the intricacy of their colour, their punk like spikes and munching mandibles.

Peacock caterpillars with their spiky hairdo, designed to scare predators away.

Female adult peacocks take up to two hours to lay clumps of hundreds of eggs on the underside of nettle leaves. After two weeks, these eggs hatch into these voracious caterpillars. They need to eat fast as at this stage they are particularly vulnerable to predators. Once the caterpillars have sufficiently stuffed themselves, they disperse to form a chrysalis, which hangs downwards from a silken pad. Extraordinarily, the colour of the chrysalis varies according to its location, to maximise its camouflage and so its chances of survival.

Peacock butterflies – one of nature’s greatest masterpieces – will be visiting our gardens and lanes soon. Photo: Sue Pennell.

After around two weeks a magnificent peacock butterfly emerges. Soon we will see these butterflies in their fresh plumage, flying round our gardens, feeding on nectar rich flowers. Come September they will find a place to hibernate, tucking themselves away in a sheltered corner, until next March when they will emerge, feed up, lay their eggs and then die.

In the human world nettle patches often are regarded as a sign an area is neglected. In the non-human world such patches are home – providing cradle and food – to lots of creatures. When we do ‘a bit of tidying up’, the home for any one of the stages of the incredible process that results in the emergence of stunning peacock butterflies, is so easily and unwittingly destroyed.

Nettle leaves covered in peacock caterpillar frassor poo.

Now to the fun bit – the poo! The nettle leaves under the mass of wriggling peacock caterpillars mass were covered in frass, the polite word for insect poo. I suggest pointing this out to get the interest of any child – which includes us adults, or me at least! Peacock caterpillars happen to be easy to spot. However, often caterpillars and larvae are very well camouflaged. Looking out for and spotting frass then becomes key to knowing they are present, and so being able to find them.

Thanks to Richard Lewington’s brilliant ‘Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland’ (BWP) for information on peacock butterflies’ lifecycle.

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Grasses, sculptural forms worthy of a plinth

Grasses are easily overlooked, yet have lovely shape and form. There are so many to be seen alongside any footpath, here off Reach Rd, Burwell.

Grasses are out in flower now. Did you know that they are as much flowers as a rose or the fanciest orchid? They are easily overlooked as they use wind for pollination, so do not need colourful petals, or scent that other flowers use to tempt insects to visit them, to pick up their pollen and transport it to another flower.

Grasses have lovely shape and form, shown to its best when light dances through their flower heads. I love looking at their dazzling display on the patch of lawn we have left uncut.

Yet now I have started taking time to look at them, I realise they have their own beauty and intricacy. Each species of grass has its own shape, some delicate and spreading, some slender and compact. When you take time to look you will see a variety of often dazzling forms, carefully designed to maximise the flowers’ chances of successful pollination, so their seeds are fertilised.

Look closely now at grasses and you will see the male parts, anthers, dangling, so their pollen is caught by the wind and carried to the feathery female parts, stigmas, to fertilise the waiting seed. Here a Cock’s-foot flower head is open for business.

Grasses are playing quite a game of catch, so often spread their flower heads wide to maximise their chance of picking up pollen as it flies through the air. Male parts – anthers – dangle outside their protective flower heads so any breath of wind will blow their pollen onto the opened feathery female – stigmas – parts of another plant. So a seed, as it were, is born.

Cock’s-foot is named after the shape of its flower head, that looks like a cock’s foot, with the spur at the back.

I am still learning to identify different grasses. I started with cock’s-foot, named for the shape of its flower head, which – with a bit of imagination – is in the form of a cockerel’s foot. You may already know it. Its a good grass to start with as it is common, easy to pick out and there is no other grass to confuse it with!

Cock’s-foot flower head. While grasses are not dependent on insects for pollination, they provide food for many insects.

If a lot of cock’s-foot is present, this suggests the ground has high levels of nutrient. In the world of conservation having a lot of this grass in a meadow is therefore, ironically, often not a good sign. Many of our native wild plants developed in an environment where the soil was poor. When the soil has lots of nutrients, they are quickly out competed by the ‘thugs’ which take over. Instead of having a range of flowers, a few – nettles, thistles, cow parsley – grow at a great rate and don’t give the slenderer plants – orchids, small scabious, meadow buttercups for example – a chance.

Shadow drawing is fun – you quickly get a good result – and learn about grasses’ shapes at the same time.

Grasses are ‘made’ for shadow drawing. Pick several grasses, hold them just above a piece of paper and draw round their shadows. I found myself looking closely at their different structures and getting a presentable (depending on your standards!) sketch at the same time. If, like so many of us, you aren’t that confident at drawing, this is a great way to get started. You can then colour or paint in the shapes, either realistically, or have fun with bright colours to make it your own.

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Thick-legged flower beetle – this insect has to have been to the gym…

A male (just look at those legs!) thick-legged flower beetle feeding on common mallow

As I looked closely at a common mallow flower, the plant species I wrote about yesterday, I saw a spectacular metallic green coloured beetle, with huge bulges on its thighs. Do you ‘know’ this beetle? I hadn’t noticed it before. I now know it is a ‘thick-legged flower beetle’, which is commonly found across the south of England. This creature looks as if it could have dropped straight out of a sci-fi set, yet here it is, part of our world in Burwell.

Female thick-legged flower beetle – no bulging thighs! Thanks to East London Nature for the photo.

There are over 4,000 species of beetles in the UK. Many of them are insects with black cases, all a very similar shape and size, making them a real challenge to identify. Beetles put the LBJs (Little Brown Jobs) of the bird world into perspective! But you will immediately know a male thick-legged flower beetle when you see one – as well as its metallic green colouring, sometimes with a hint of copper – from which it gets its alternative name ‘false oil beetle’ – the bulges on the hind legs of the male are a give away! Not surprisingly another common name for this species is swollen-thighed beetle. The female is the same shape and colouring without the swollen thighs – I’m challenging myself to find one.

Ox-eye daisies at Pauline’s Swamp.

These beetles are out and about now feeding on the pollen of open headed flowers, like dog roses, common mallow where I found ‘mine’, bramble and ox-eye daisies, which they specially love. When the sun comes out, you may like to go looking for one in St Mary’s churchyard, the Baptist churchyard or Pauline’s Swamp, off Reach Road as in all these places there are swathes of ox-eye daisies.

Insects love umbel shaped flower heads – like this parsnip plant which has gone to seed.

They also like flowers with heads in umbels -think umbrella shaped structures – as they provide lots of flowers to feed from right next to each other – so I will be looking on these too.

Thinking about beetles has reminded me of Beetle Drive, which is such a simple game – just needing a dice and paper and pencils – yet quite addictive and can get very exciting. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of playing before: you have to throw a six to start as for a six you draw a body of a beetle. For a five you can add a head, for four a tail, for three a leg (you need six of these), for two an antennae/feelers (you need two), for one an eye (you need two). The first to complete their beetle wins the round. If you score each round played by adding up the value of the parts that have been added to your beetle, it can count as doing maths at home at the same time! That has to be a Win Win!!

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Purply-pink flowers of common mallow decorate our waysides

Common mallow, out now along roadsides

Common mallow’s purply-pink flowers are out now along our roadsides and anywhere there is a bit of rough unkept ground. I admire the toughness of this rugged plant which responds to the regular cutting it often gets by ducking low, and sticking its flowers out close to the ground, as if to say, ‘I can’t be beaten’.

My aunt, Elsie, tells me the local name in the Fens for these flowers is ‘Pick-cheese’ as their fruits have the texture of soft cheese. They are edible, I am looking forward to trying one. Nearly two hundred years ago John Clare, the Northamptonshire ‘peasant poet’ wrote in ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’

‘The sitting down when school was oe’er,
upon the threshold by his door
Picking from mallows sport to please
each crumpled seed he called a cheese.’

I think John Clare too must have used the name Pick-cheese for these plants; some of our understanding of this poem would be lost if this local name had not been passed on to us through the generations. Thinking about this, I am struck how these simple wayside flowers give us a link to generations that have gone before us; generations who have enjoyed playing with the fruits of the mallow as a cheese. If our children no longer play this game, we are losing more than just a game. We lose a link to those who have gone before us, and a link forward to the generations to come. These rough flowers on our waysides offer us so much.

Common mallow flowers with their wide open heads are much loved by pollinators.

Common mallows also provide a feast to insects hungry for pollen. Tomorrow I will be writing about an insect with the most fabulous thighs that I caught tucking in…

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Corn buntings’ rattle of keys

Have you ever lost your keys when you are in a hurry to go out? Whoever finds them holds them up in triumph giving them a rattle. That is the sound of corn buntings’ song.

Look along the second line back of telegraph wires that run through the field next to Newmarket Road. When you see a tiny dot – that’s a corn bunting!

The very first time I heard a corn bunting was about 12 years ago as I was walking along Heath Road. I heard a rattling sound I hadn’t heard before. I looked up and saw a non-distinctive bird – a ‘little brown job’, or lbj in birders’ jargon – sitting on the telegraph wire ahead. Classic corn bunting sound and behaviour. Three years ago I was delighted to hear the same rattle come across the field adjacent to Newmarket Road. I searched along the telegraph wires that run the length of the field. Sure enough there was a small dot on the wire – a corn bunting. Each year since I’ve heard it there and last week I saw five of them, spread along the wire, right up to the old railway bridge out of the village, each guarding its territory.

Spot the corn bunting on the wire – that’s the size dot you are looking for! (Clue, middle of the highest wire, running diagonally across the top right of the photo.)

These birds are such fun to spot. They can be heard rattling at all times of day, but I think it is easiest to pick out their song in the morning or late afternoon/evening. Once you have heard the rattle, look along the line of telegraph wires that runs behind the one nearest to Newmarket Road until you see a tiny dot. You have found a corn bunting!

Corn bunting singing its rattling song. Thanks to the photographer and Wikipedia for the photo, offered for free use.

Corn buntings are actually a bit bigger than a chaffinch, about the same size as a skylark. Indeed, their scientific name emberiza calandra is derived from words meaning ‘bunting’ and ‘calandra lark’. Local names for them such as ‘corn dumpling’, ‘corn blob’ and ‘clod bird’, rather unkindly describe their shape – they are chunky, dark-streaked grey-brown birds. In short flights they leave their legs dangling – a useful ID feature.

Corn buntings are no longer a common sight. They only occur in some parts of the country – we are on the edge of their distribution on the chalk lands of Cambridgeshire. They are also a species in drastic decline, losing 90% of their population between 1970 and 2010, making them a red data book species (Bird Atlas 2007-2011, Balmer et al, BTO). Seeing them is a pleasure as they are unusual, hearing them sing is wonderful as it tells us they are breeding – right on our doorstep!

Corn buntings nest on the ground, either hidden in crops or in tangled weedy areas along the edge of fields. Reasons for their decline are mixed and vary between different parts of the country. In our area the switch from spring to autumn sowing of crops has reduced the availability of weed-rich stubble for winter feeding by these seed eating birds. They nest later than many birds, often only laying their eggs in June, with chicks still in the nest into August. This makes them vulnerable to going under the combine as harvest times have got ever earlier and also reduces their chance to have a second brood.

Considerable research is going into finding suitable measures that farmers are able to take to turn round their decrease in numbers. Fossil records of this species in Britain have been found from the last glaciation of the Pleistocene, ie from 100,000-10,000 years ago (‘A History of Ornithology’ P. Bircham, Collins, 2007). They have been part of our soundscape for thousands of years. For their and our sake, I hope we can keep it that way.

Elderflower cordial – early summer’s nectar

Large flower heads of elder are out now

Elders’ creamy, frothy flowerheads make this the stand out species of the moment, taking over from the may (hawthorn) of early May. Elder bushes and trees are all round the village. I did not know that elder is a member of the honeysuckle family; they certainly share honeysuckle’s gorgeous scent.

Elder’s gloriously abundant flowerheads

Have you caught this scent as you have passed elders? If not, I suggest you take time to bury your head in a flower covered bush; their scent seems particularly strong in early evening in warm sunshine. (A pleasanter alternative to burying one’s head in the sand, which at the moment might seem an attractive proposition!) Of course the scent is to attract insects to pollinate the flowers, so you will be joining many other creatures as you do so…

Elder flowers are perfect for picking now to make elderflower cordial, an easily made homemade drink, ideal for these hot days. The ingredients are straightforward: 10 heads of elderflowers (heads vary in size so this is approximate, I always like to add a few more); 1/2 sliced lemon, 0.7kg sugar (1 1/2 lb); 40g citric acid (1 1/2 oz); 1/2 litre of water (1 pint). You can spot this is an old recipe! Lloyds sells citric acid, behind the counter, as will most chemists.

To make: first bring the water to boil in a large pan. Add the sugar and sliced lemon, bring back to the boil and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Shake the elderflower heads (to remove any extra protein!) before adding to the pan with the citric acid. Boil for 15 minutes with the lid on. Leave to cool and stand overnight. Strain, either through a fine mesh sieve or a muslin bag (better), or a leg of old tights (also effective).

Bottle in sterilised jam jars. You might like to have fun making labels. Add still or sparkling water to taste to serve.

I said many creatures are buzzing round the flower heads of elder. I saw a different party of wildlife enjoying a bottle of elderflower by the stream near the Recreation Ground! They are getting up to all sorts of antics, to keep themselves – and us – amused during this really difficult time, so well worth a walk past.

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White bryony, a hedgerow scrambler

White Bryony’s lighter green leaves and long tendrils help the plant to be spotted in a hedgerow. (When there isn’t a chalk marker to help!)

I wrote some more flower names in chalk along Newmarket Rd, encouraged by comments from people who have said how this cheers their walks. As I did so a couple walking their dog pointed out white bryony to me in the hedge. I duly chalked its name on the pavement. I then decided to make this scrambling plant my species for today. I thought I would be able to write about it quickly and get started on the piles of papers that are waiting for me to sort. Instead I have been absorbed discovering more about this plant and the piles remain untouched!

The male hedgerow plant in Newmarket Road.

What do you think of this plant? I’ve taken little notice of it before, except as a nuisance in our garden as with its vigorous growth it swamps other plants. Now I know more, I will pay it more respect. For first I discovered that white bryony is our only native plant from the gourd family – to which cucumbers belong. Though my attempts to grow cucumber have failed, I recognise the similarity of the leaves, flowers and tendrils. However, there is an important difference: white bryony is poisonous – its roots and berries were used in mediaeval times to scourge people of infection in a way not to be recommended!

Rather cheesily, I also discovered that chalking its name is appropriate as, like wild mignonette that I wrote about yesterday, white bryony likes chalky soil.

A bee feeds on the flower of a male white bryony plant. Note the long tendrils which enable the plant to scramble over other plants.

I have known white bryony’s yellow-greenish flowers for some time, but I had not realised that each plant is male or female, or that the male flowers are comparatively much larger. The one I had found in the hedgerow was male. In our garden I found first another male, intertwined with a honeysuckle, then I found a female plant in a bit of hedge.

White bryony’s female flower is much smaller than the male flower (right). The split anthers of the male flower, exposing yellow pollen grains, are clearly visible.

Looking through a hand lens and a microscope. I could see how the male anthers, the plant’s male sexual organs, have split to expose multiple yellow pollen grains. This pollen is ready for a visiting bee to pick up on its legs (and body), and carry to a female plant. Looking closely, I saw how the centre of the female plant, at the base of its sexual organs, the stigmas, is packed with hairs, to make sure that as a bee visits, the pollen that it carries is brushed off onto the female sexual organs, so achieving fertilisation.

Fertilised female flowers develop berries, which will later turn red.

The result – female plants bear berries, which are green at first, turning red in autumn.

In today’s sunshine that was hot work! So my next post will be about something cooler: using the flowers from elder bushes to make elderflower cordial, a perfect drink for a summer’s day…

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Elegant spikes of mignonette flourish at the Rec

Yellow spikes of wild mignonette flowering at the Rec
Tiny flowers of field madder, each smaller than a 5p piece.

Nearly exactly a month ago I was delighted to find the tiny lilac-purple flowers of field madder on the bareish bank, to the north east side of the Recreation Ground. But there is no missing the tall yellow spikes of the gloriously named ‘wild mignonette’ now out in flower along the same bank. These are wild flowers dressed to go to a ball… and our insects love them!

Flowering spike of wild mignonette

Apart from the joy of the plants themselves, wild flowers tell us about the makeup of the underlying soil. Only certain species grow on particular soils. As all those of you who are gardeners know, one of the commonest failures in gardening is to put plants in that do not suit the local soil – they do not grow well! So to with wild flowers – different areas of the country, or even different lanes within the same village, have different wild flowers according to the underlying soil and climate. So, wild mignonette can be seen growing along road verges and on edges of cultivated land all around the chalky land of the Brecks, to the north of Burwell.

Pasque flowers grow on chalky soils, including on Devil’s Dyke

These flowers become part of the culture of the area – as reflected in the naming of a county flower. For Cambridgeshire people voted for pasque flower, which we are lucky to have growing near us along the chalky Devil’s Dyke. (Devon’s county flower is primrose, which would not enjoy Devils’ Dyke’s chalky soil at all!)

Wild mignonette, is growing at the Rec because this species has adapted to thrive on chalky soil. The whole ecosystem at the Rec is built round this chalky under-surface with the insects, including moths and butterflies, that depend on plants for their food, ones that feed off these specialist chalk loving plants. Each individual flower looks slightly scruffy, it wouldn’t make a Chelsea Flower Show Gold – but it does its job.

I am going this afternoon to see how many different insects I can find feeding on one plant. Lets have a competition: let me know how many insects, and different species of insects you find on one clump of wild mignonette. I will publish the results in a future post… the person with the most will win a hand lens!

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Greenfinches squeak like an unoiled wheelbarrow

Greenfinches song includes an extended wheeze which sounds remarkably like a squeaky wheelbarrow wheel.

Like chaffinches, greenfinches are nesting now, holding onto their territories with a mix of calls and song, the most distinctive of which sounds like the drawn out squeak of an unoiled wheelbarrow wheel. I know as, until recently, each time I set off for the allotment with the wheelbarrow loaded with tools, I would be accompanied by a teeth jarring extended squeal and remember that once again I had forgotten to oil the wheel. Yesterday, I eventually got out the WD40 and a job of seconds was done!

I regularly hear this squeak, or wheeze as I walk round the Castle Mound; greenfinches love the thick hedges adjacent to the fields. While it sounds quiet on the recording above, the sound is really quite loud and distinctive. Greenfinches can also make a sound like a quiet version of a pneumatic drill: a rapid thud, thud, thud. This recording of a bird in Spain combines the wheeze and the thud. While any equivalences of sound require a bit of imagination, I find they help a lot when learning to pick out new bird songs.

Male greenfinch, with chunky bill and yellow wing and tail edges. Photo thanks to pixabay.

I don’t often see the greenfinches themselves, but I am glad to know they are there. Do they come to your bird feeder? Occasionally they come to ours. Look out for their greenish bodies, and yellow wing edges. As with the chaffinch, the females are drabber – more brown than green, with a thinner yellow wing edge. Like the chaffinch they have a thickset bill, designed for cracking seeds.

Greenfinches have had a hard time since 2005, when birds started to be badly affected by the disease trichomonosis, causing a massive drop in their numbers. In winter 2005, greenfinches were seen in three-quarters of gardens, in 2011, in only half of gardens. There has been concern that this disease is passed between birds at bird feeders, so there has been increased reporting of the importance of keeping feeders clean. A message we have become unfortunately familiar with ourselves lately… Their numbers are now on the up, perhaps because of a growth in resistance to the disease combined with increased cleaning of feeders. That is so why I am so glad to hear their unoiled wheelbarrow like squeak when I am out and about…

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