Nest Lane – everything you need for a des res

Yesterday, as I walked along the footpath just over the railway bridge as you leave Burwell to go to Exning, I was listening to the high pitched short zeep contact calls of a pair of long-tailed tits. These lovely small birds can easily be picked out by their long tails, the subtle white/black stripe on their head and pale pinkish fronts.

Long-tailed tit’s nest hidden inside a bramble bush. Photo: Roger Bailey.

Long-tailed tits have staggeringly beautiful nests. Often sited in the middle of a bramble bush, their nests are ball shaped, with a small opening near the top. The outside is covered with lichen and spider’s webs, making them incredibly well camouflaged. Inside, they are lined with up to 2,000 feathers – the ultimate in cosiness.

Lichen for their nest’s exterior decoration (quite literally!) is plentifully available on the hedgerow’s branches. But I was wondering where these tiny birds manage to get so many feathers to line them. Yet once I started to look, I started seeing feathers all along the path. My guess is that one sparrowhawk kill of a pigeon results in a mass scattering of feathers, and in nature’s natural recycling process nothing goes to waste. A pigeon’s (or similar bird’s) downy feathers are designed to insulate its owner from the cold – and from the heat. Just what is needed as a bed for precious eggs or tiny chicks.

Branches of hedgerow shrubs are covered with lichen, providing camouflage material for birds’ nests.

Some time ago I had the privilege of travelling to Bangladesh. In the capital Dhaka I walked along Bicycle Street which was lined with shops, each specialising in different parts of a bicycle or rickshaw. I reckon the footpath I was walking along yesterday might be known as Nest Street by the local birds…

If you fancy a challenge, put yourselves in the shoes (well, the wings) of long-tailed tits and try spotting and counting the feathers you can see as you walk. Find out how far you have to walk before you have seen the 2,000 they need for one nest!

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Dustings of snow lie across our hedgerows

At the beginning of the week we woke to white across the ground – it had snowed! The light fall of snow had gone by mid-morning. Yet our hedgerows still look as if they are dusted with snow. Hedgerows often have several different species of plant along their length. You can tell where there is blackthorn as at that point the hedge has dark branches covered with masses of white blossom. Blackthorns are unusual in that they flower before they grow their leaves and, as their name suggests, have dark trunks and branches. The result is that their white blossoms stand out, with no gentle green of leaves to soften the effect. They offer us and insects that depend on them the promise of spring.

Blackthorn is where it looks as if it has snowed, Castle Mound, Burwell
Blackthorn has masses of blossom

Have you stopped to look closer at blackthorns’ blossoms? I was rushing down Green Lane past a hedge covered with flowers, almost oblivious to its beauty because of its familiarity. I stopped for a moment and was overwhelmed by the masses of blossom and the hum of insects delighting in the nectar that they offer.

Blackthorn has vicious thorns

If you are not sure if you are looking at blackthorn, look along the branches and if it is blackthorn you will see vicious thorns – which are actually branches, adapted to protect its leaves from browsers, its fruits from those who would eat them.

Blackthorns offer beauty now. In the autumn they produce deep blue-purple sloes. For birds these provide a serious carbohydrate hit. For gin lovers, they are just what is needed to make homemade sloe gin, ready to provide inner warmth when the snow really comes.

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Glossy yellow petals of celandines spell spring

Celandines light up shady corners. Photo: Joan Lintott

At Stapleford Primary School we had a nature table. Fifty years on, I still remember my thrill when one spring I found celandine flowers under the shade of a hedge, along the snicket lane between our home and the school, picked one and with great pride presented it to my teacher to go on the table. I’ve always looked out for it since as a sign of spring.

These flowers are out now, all around Burwell, wherever there is a bit of a shady patch where wildflowers have been allowed to grow. ‘Celandine’ may come from the Greek ‘khelidon’ for Swallow, possibly as it is in flower at a similar time to the arrival of the first Swallows. I have yet to see a Swallow this year, I expect they will be arriving here soon…

Tuberous roots of celandine look like haemorrhoids(!), and were used to treat them, so the plant was called pilewort.

Less elegantly, celandines also have the name ‘pilewort’ as their tuberous roots, look like haemorrhoids. Just what you needed to know! As part of ‘signature medicine’ where what looked like something was used to treat it, these roots were used to make a poultice to treat piles. As my daughter’s science teacher once famously said after demonstrating an explosive experiment to her class, ‘don’t try this at home!’

Look at a celandine flower and you can see why celandines belong to the buttercup family of flowers. Like buttercups, they have golden yellow petals, that are each separate from one another, and lots of stamens and stigmas (at the top of the nobbly bits in the centre of the flower).

A key difference is that celandines have more petals than buttercups: buttercups have five petals, while celandines have between 7 and 12 petals. That each celandine flower may have a different number of petals shows that this is a species from early on in the evolutionary development of flowers – randomly, they are just ‘going for it’. Species that developed later have optimised their shape to maximise the efficiency of reproduction.

Celandines have heart shaped glossy green leaves

Celandines can also be recognised by their distinctive glossy heart shaped leaves.

Celandines are celebrated in the poem below by John Clare, written in 1845.

On a Lane in Spring

A Little Lane, the brook runs close beside
And spangles in the sunshine while the fish glide swiftly by
And hedges leafing with the green spring tide
From out their greenery the old birds fly
And chirp and whistle in the morning sun
The pilewort glitters ‘neath the pale blue sky
The little robin has its nest begun
And grass green linnets round the bushes fly
– How Mild the Spring Comes in – the daisy buds
Lift up their golden blossoms to the sky
How lovely are the pingles and the woods
Here a beetle runs—and there a fly
Rests on the Arum leaf in bottle green
And all the Spring in this Sweet lane is seen.

John Clare

(a ‘pingle’ is a small enclosed space)

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Aconites, winter flowering buttercups shine through grey days

Aconites are one of the showiest flowers out at the moment. I caught sight of a bunch as I walked up St Mary’s church path, shining yellow alongside a group of snowdrops. By flowering now they are living up to their latin scientific name (part of which is derived from Greek!) Eranthis hyemalis which literally means ‘Spring flowering in winter’ (ear – spring, anthos – flower, hiemalis – of winter). Aconites were brought here from Southern Europe to decorate our gardens as early as 1596. They gradually spread into the wild and are now common across central England and the eastern side of Great Britain. Despite coming from the Mediterranean, they clearly cope well with our colder winters!

Sepals form an outer ring and protect the flower in bud. They are often quite small and green, illustrated by this primula.

Aconites belong to the buttercup family – no surprise you would think, given the similarity of their yellow petals with the glossy yellow petals of the buttercups that flower later in the year. Except what looks like their petals are not petals at all. A flower usually has two whorls or rings of leaf like structures that circle the flowers’ female and male organs. The structures in the outer whorl are the sepals. These are often small and green. Their role is to protect the flower in bud.

Petals are often large and coloured to attract insects to the flower, as on this primula.

The petals sit inside the whorl of sepals. Their role is to attract insects to pick up pollen from the male organs and transfer it to fertilise the female organs, preferably of another plant. As petals’ role is to attract, they are usually larger than sepals and brightly coloured.

Only when I read up about aconites and looked more closely at their flowers did I discover that their yellow ‘petals’ are actually the sepals. Looking closer I realised there is no ring of green – or any other colour – leaf-like structures where the sepals should be. I then was pointed to tiny tubular structures that are round the inside of the base of the flower and blow me down, there are the petals, but much reduced in size and acting as nectaries. Instead of attracting insects by their size and colour, aconites’ petals do so by secreting sugary nectar. Just what hungry insects are desperate for in this freezing weather.

In many ways, who cares whether the yellow ‘petals’ are really petals or are actually sepals? Yet if we understand this, we are able to appreciate that by looking at an aconite we are seeing evolution in action. Aconites have so much of the simplicity of the earliest flowers – each sepal is separate, not fused in any way to the others; lots of anthers and carpels (the male and female parts). Yet the tubular petals show that aconites have moved on a bit from buttercups in the evolutionary journey – a journey that has produced the complex flowers of orchids.

If there is an aconite that you can pick, put it in a small jar on your table and you have evolutionary history in front of you. And a little bit of winter flowering sunshine that also smells lovely!

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Ivy provides an ever green feast

A profusion of ivy berries on Newmarket Road, provide a banquet for wildlife

Ivy flowered in the autumn, its small yellow flowers providing pollen for hoverflies, moths and many other insects well after other flowers had gone to seed. Now, when so many other berries and fruit are long gone, and it is bitterly cold, ivy berries provide birds and small four-legged creatures with vital carbohydrates. (Note: they are poisonous to humans, causing nausea and vomiting if we eat them. Not nice!)

I say ‘provide’, as a parent would a child with its tea. I am not entirely anthropomorphising this plant. Each berry contains several seeds. Each creature that eats these berries absorbs the pith around the seeds, but the seeds travel straight through its digestive system and out the other end. By this time the chances are that the creature will have travelled at least a little distance from the parent plant. By making the berries stuffed with carbohydrate and so attractive to creatures to eat, each ivy plant is maximising the chance that its seed will be spread.

Ivy tempts birds and other creatures with high energy food, and so its seeds are spread.
Look closely at clumps of ivy berries and you will see where creatures have been feasting – only one berry left on this clump!
Two different shapes of ivy leaves, those on non-flowering (left) and flowering (right) stems.

I’ve been puzzled by the ivy that grows at home as its leaves are of two very different shapes. Have you spotted this? I had wondered if I had two different species of ivy. Reading up, I now know that the ‘ivy-shaped’ (!!) leaf is on non-flowering stems. The stems with flowers (and then berries) have leaves that are oval.

Feed your birds – make your own special bird cake:
With the current cold, wet and snowy weather, birds will be hungry. If you have ivy berries, avoid cutting them back unless you have to. You can also make your own special bird feed mix to put out for the birds – and enjoy the chance to get thoroughly messy! Mash some vegetable fat, eg Trex, or lard, with a mix of any of sultanas, currants, oats, crumbled plain biscuits, nuts, and seeds and push into a fir cone, or old yoghurt pot and hang where you can enjoy watching the birds come to your offering. Top tip: attach string for hanging the cone or yoghurt pot before filling with the mix – less messy (by a narrow margin!).

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A miniature rainforest in the wood

I was walking in Priory Wood and noticed mosses hugging the trunks at the bottom of each young tree. Going on hands and knees to look closer I felt I was entering a miniature rainforest, of minutely divided fronds and dripping with moisture.

Mosses create the look of a miniature rainforest in Priory Wood.

As a child I used to love visiting old houses or castle, with the sense they gave me of being in touch with history. Looking at the mosses in Priory Wood sends shivers down my spine as I realise I am looking at one of the very earliest plant forms to develop and so am seeing survivors from early evolutionary history, taking me back, as it were, millions of years.

St Mary’s church wall is covered with moss, at just the right height to appreciate their intricate design.

As the most primitive of land plants mosses have no roots, no flowers or fruits. They have no vessels (or vascular system) to carry fluid around their structure. Yet they are so well adapted they are immensely successful, occurring across the world and have approximately 22,000 different species. As I continued my walk I started to look out for mosses and I realised how many moss species can be seen growing on the tops of walls – and you can get a great view of them without getting damp knees from kneeling on wet ground! I suddenly aware how alive the church wall around St Mary’s is.

Moss species grow low in the form of cushions in exposed areas.

As I started writing this post, I looked out of my window and realised moss was right in front of my eyes – all over our garage roof. The moss on the roof is tightly compact in a form known as ‘cushions’. As mosses have no roots and no vascular system they are dependent on the moisture in the air. Where they are exposed, as on our garage roof, they need to stay tight and compact, in ‘cushions’, to reduce evaporation from their cells. Staying low down they are growing on what is called ‘the boundary edge’ between the ground and air. We know when we are in a windy place and lie down, it is much less blowy close to the ground. Mosses in exposed places lie low to keep out of the drying wind.

Mosses grow stems from the top of which their spores are launched into the wind.

However, a problem comes when mosses want to reproduce. Mosses have no seeds, but produce spores. These need to find a suitable new patch of bare ground on which to grow. They need to fly! Yet the moss is growing low down out of the wind. The solution: the moss grows stems from which to launch their spores into the more turbulent air above. The length of the stem depends on how out of reach that turbulent air is. In a forest the stems will be longer than those from moss growing on our exposed roof.

Leaves of mosses are single cells structures, so are translucent – and have no protection against air pollution

Mosses play a vital part in our ecosystem. Their leaves have to be wet for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide and so photosynthesis to be possible. They are therefore adapted to soak up and retain moisture for as long as possible. Their dampness creates a micro climate of humid air which benefits other plants and creatures that live in their vicinity. Mosses are also an indicator of air pollution. Their leaves are only a single cell thick and they don’t have the protective cuticles that so-called ‘higher’, more evolved, plants have. When sulphur dioxide or nitrous dioxide from car exhausts mixes with this water it turns to acid killing the leaves and so the plants.

Mosses have adapted to survive periods of drought. To demonstrate this, collect some moss fronds and gently dry them out, for example in the airing cupboard. Then put them on a plate with drops of water underneath. You will be able to watch the fronds revive, with renewed colour and shape.

I recently read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book ‘Gathering moss: a natural and cultural history of mosses’ which has introduced me to the extraordinary world of mosses and much of the above comes from what I have learned from her book which is a beautiful description of her lifelong study and awe of mosses.

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Robin song lights up dusk

Through the grey, I heard a robin singing

Yesterday, it was damp and foggy at dusk as I walked round the village. Utterly depressing. Then as I passed garden after garden I heard song. Robins’ wistful notes were penetrating the grey with music. I expect many of us have had robins on Christmas cards up in our homes. These have come down, yet the real birds sing on.

Robin singing from a garden bush at the corner of Parsonage Lane

I did not learn to pick out robin song from all other birdsong until I was an adult. To me all birdsong sounded the same. Yet robin song is actually one of the easiest to distinguish – and helpfully robins are one of the few birds singing at the moment so now is a good time to get to know it. Robins’ song is flutey, they sing in verses, and each verse is different with a gap of about six seconds between each verse. I used to confuse blackbird and robin song (this will horrify those of you with an acute ear, as blackbird notes are mellower, but I did!) until I learned that blackbirds always finish their song with a few squeaky notes, almost like they have run out of breath.

Robins are unusual for birds in that both males and females sing and they sing through the autumn and winter. This is because they are holding territories. Their song is saying, ‘This patch is mine.’ We humans so often think a patch belongs to us, whether through ownership or paying rent. These birds turn this upside down. Our gardens are theirs. I smiled as I walked, thinking of how these robins were seeing me, making my way through their territory.

Robin feeding chicks copyright BBC Wildlife

In recognition that we are on their territory, as we tidy our gardens we can leave piles of leaves or dead wood tucked under a bush to provide homes for all things creepy-crawly. These piles will act as food cupboards for robins and other birds. We will be rewarded with song and maybe a nest in the spring. That thought will help get me through the coming grey days.

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Mrs Tiggywinkle snuffles through at dusk

Eating outside at dusk, enjoying the warmth of the evening, we heard a rustling coming from low down in our hedge. Too loud to be a blackbird, too quiet to be anything huge. we held our breath in hope. The rustling moved closer towards where we were sitting. “There it is,” we whispered to each other in delight as a snuffling nose, followed by a round body of prickles emerged out of the garden border onto our grass. The hedgehog, which may have been Mr rather than Mrs Tiggywinkle – it was the stories of Mrs Tiggywinkle that I read as a child and so I continue to think of all hedgehogs as female – snuffled towards us on her (his) little short legs.

Mrs Tiggywinkle looking for food under the bird feeder

Snuffling is the only term possible to use for this creature’s movements, for without doubt it is lead by its nose. Terribly short sighted, it was unaware of us and took no notice even when we briefly turned on a torch to see it better. Encouraged by this, Ian took a photo.

Hedgehog hole cut in hope back in spring. Clearly our hedgehog can read!

The hedgehog’s interest continued to be focussed on finding edibles under our bird feeder. After around ten minutes, it lifted up its body on its four short legs and scuttled across the lawn. Guess what? It followed the fence along that side of the garden and made its way through the hedgehog hole we had cut for its use. Bingo!

RAMBLES FROM MY CHAIR: Littletown Farm Guest House

For four consecutive nights now, this lovely little wild mammal has followed the same pattern, appearing nearly on the dot of 7.45pm, finding what it can in our garden, then moving on to our neighbours. I was going to headline this post saying we had had ‘a prickly evening visitor’. Evening would be correct, prickly certainly so. But not a visitor. We are as much visitors on this creature’s land as it is on ours. Just as Beatrix Potter named the hedgehog in her story ‘Mrs Tiggywinkle’, and so I think of all hedgehogs as Mrs, so too if I call this creature a ‘visitor’ I continue the myth that this land is ours, when I believe it belongs to all who in any way live, or move across, on, under or over it.

Now is a great time to see hedgehogs as they feed up ready for winter hibernation. Leave dead leaves under hedges; when pruning, put some piles in corners to encourage insects, and you increase your chances of being visited. Put a saucer of water out. You can buy hedgehog food. (Never put out milk, it is bad for them.) Cut a hole in the bottom of your fence, so their world stays as large as they need. Then go out at dusk and listen for rustlings. I’d love to know if you see one.

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A chance to see females who have males for breakfast…

Spiders’ webs come into view at this time of year, strung between grasses, dead flower heads, or washing lines; improbable distances joined by fine threads, linked to form carefully designed webs, visible only when caught by early morning dew or frost. Have you watched fishermen preparing their nets before leaving harbour? Imagine spider webs as fishing nets, carefully crafted to maximise their catch… for that is what they are. Thinking this, I realise outside my front door, there is a major harvesting operation going on.

Female wasp spider with prey, she has trapped in a cocoon of silk

Wasp spiders are great spiders to spot. We have many species of spiders in the UK, and they are often difficult to identify, beyond knowing, by virtue of their 8 legs, that they are a spider. However, wasp spiders can be both easily spotted, and identified, thanks to their bright yellow and black stripes and unique (for the UK) web design. This species of spider are fairly new to the UK, the first being seen in Rye in 1922, but are now fairly common across the south of England.

Wasp spider webs have a zigzag of white threads from the centre. The fuzzy bundle at the top of the zigzag is prey that was deceived by the light from these threads and trapped.

Wasp spiders’ colouring is to protect themselves from potential predators by deceiving predators into thinking they have a wasp like sting. As well as looking out for the bright black and yellow body of the female, also look for the zigzag white threads in the web, which is unique to this species in the UK. The purpose of these threads is debated; it is possible they reflect UV light and so attract the attention of flies, bees and moths, who are drawn in, mistakenly thinking that the light comes from flowers.

Grasshoppers are wasp spiders idea of dinner

Wasp spiders’ favourite food is grasshoppers, so to find these spiders, look in grassland that has not yet been cut so still has plenty of grasshoppers. As I watched the spider that prompted this post, a grasshopper bounced into her web. She whipped across and rapidly wrapped the unfortunate creature with silk she exuded from her body so it could not escape. Her dinner sorted!

Males often have a hard time in the spider world and this is certainly so for male wasp spiders. Male wasp spiders are much smaller than the females, and are inconspicuous brown creatures. When they try to mate with a female they take their life in their hands: a female is quite capable of eating them alive as they are mating! So a male hangs about on the edge of a web, trying to pick the moment when a female is mature, as then her jaws are soft, and he has a chance of surviving her bite – many don’t make it… (Thanks to Buglife for this information!)

Try working out how many different species of spider there are in a patch of garden or land near you. Our attention is often drawn to spider webs, not so often to the spiders who make them. When you see a web, often a spider is not immediately visible. Start taking a look around the edge of webs and you will see all sorts of different spider species, of different sizes and shapes, often with intricate markings.

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A visitor with the most fantastic legs… cricket is on

Our cricket visitor, with its incredible back legs and long antennae.

Yesterday we had a visitor with the most fantastic legs! We have been listening to the Test match, now – quite literally – ‘cricket’ came alive in the kitchen…

As I went closer our unusual visitor leapt. At his best, Olympic gold medal winning long jumper Greg Rutherford jumped 8.51m. That is four and a half times his body length. To achieve this he needed a long run up and lots of clapping from the crowd. Our visiting cricket was 2cm long and was leaping 60cm from a standing start, a distance 30 times its body length. Phenomenal.

Crickets’ legs are covered with spines and spikes to capture small prey. They are also very well camouflaged, disappearing when seen against grassy vegetation.

Do you know the difference between a grasshopper and a cricket? I was delighted to see this cricket as I had recently been told that the length of antennae distinguishes them – grasshoppers have short antennae, crickets long. However, what counts as ‘long’? Well, once I had seen this cricket, I realised ‘long’ is seriously long – its thin, intermittently waving and curling antennae were longer than its body. In comparison, grasshoppers antennae are short and stubby.

Another difference between the two is that crickets are usually nocturnal, while grasshoppers are about in the day. I was lucky to have such a good view of this cricket: usually you need to go out at night with a torch to see them. Crickets’ legs are covered with spines and spikes, used to strike and hold down smaller prey insects. Gardeners will be pleased to have them as they eat aphids! Grasshoppers on the other hand only eat vegetation. Both – unfortunately for them – are important sources of food for larger creatures, including birds.

A cricket is well camouflaged in vegetation.

The Orthoptera society produce a great guide to crickets and grasshoppers. My visitor turned out to be a Roesel’s bush-cricket, easily identified (once you know) by the creamy-yellow or green horseshoe shape mark on each shoulder. One of ten species of bush-cricket in the UK, Roesel’s bush crickets used to be confined to the south-east coast, but have spread across the south of England in the last few years. It likes damp meadows and rough grassland and may have used uncut road verges to spread further north.

Crickets’ and grasshoppers’ sing to attract and court mates. Roesel bush-crickets’ song is described as like the noise from overhead electric pylons. Not so attractive to our ears but obviously works for them! These insects’ song is caused by stridulation – the rubbing of body parts against each other to create sound. To ‘sing’ crickets rub grooves, or pegs on one wing vein against similar grooves on the veins of the other wing – something like having one’s own inbuilt violin. They amplify this scratchy sound by lifting their wings to form a loud hailer, and with a oval device a bit like a drum’s skin in their wing surface, called a mirror. To hear, they have ‘ears’ on their front pair of legs, just below their knees.

Grasshoppers have a set of pegs running down the inside thick part of their legs. They ‘chirp’ by rubbing these pegs against a vein on their forewing. In this recording of a field grasshopper you can almost hear how this sound is created. Instead of being on their front knees, grasshoppers’ ears are at the base and sides of their abdomen. The sound of leather on willow is one of the sounds of an English summer that we have just got back. The sound of these creatures in a grassy field – by day and night – is without doubt another.

The left behind skin or exoskeleton of a young grasshopper or cricket, against a penny for scale. You can see where it has burst out of its skin, so it can grow bigger.

When it is sunny, go to any area of longish grass and look out for grasshoppers – they will start leaping in all directions. Even the small patch of long grass by the pavement at the bottom of Newmarket Road is full of them. Spot their ‘ghosts’: in order to grow, crickets and grasshoppers have to shed their skins – or exoskeletons (external skeletons) – several times. To get the idea, think of a human bursting out of their trousers. Look across the tops of the grasses and you may well see a pale white skin that has been left behind. They look like ghosts, but are actually signs of new life and growth.

Tip: if you want to collect a skin, take a pot as they are very light and easily blown away with a breath of wind.

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