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.

Subscribe to my blog.

Enter your email address and click Subscribe to follow this blog.
You’ll get an email each time I add another post.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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.

Subscribe to my blog.

Enter your email address and click Subscribe to follow this blog.
You’ll get an email each time I add another post.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

White trumpets offer Mediterranean feel

Large bindweed’s white trumpets cover a hedge at Scotred Close

Bindweed or convolvulus is dreaded by gardeners. Its coiling grasping stems throttle and smother less aggressive plants. Plants of this genus have long roots. A tiny section of root left in the soil regrows vigorously. Alongside bindweed the RHS gardening website offers such gardeners’ nightmares as ‘couch grass, ground elder and Japanese knotgrass’ as ‘others you might like to read about’. Yet walking round the village I have been admiring the huge white trumpets of the larger species. If I had been walking along a Mediterranean lane I know I would be enjoying, rather than shuddering at their presence.

Field bindweed has small, white, pink or candy floss pink and white striped flowers.

In this area we have 3 species of bindweed: field, hedge and large. (By the coast you also have sea bindweed.) Field bindweed has small white, pinkish or candy floss pink and white trumpet shaped flowers. Field bindweed often creeps along the ground and so is one of the few flowers which survive when our pavements’ verges are cut.

Large bindweed covers a hedge, Green Lane, Burwell

Hedge and large bindweed are very similar, with large white trumpet shaped flowers. These two species can be told apart by the difference in their flower bases. Large bindweed has huge overlapping brown-purplish bracteoles – leaf-like structures – at the base of the flowers, which almost hide the much smaller pale green sepals. The bracteoles of hedge bindweed don’t overlap, so the flowers’ sepals can be seen.

I mentioned that large bindweed, with its huge white trumpets made me feel like I was in the Mediterranean, I now discover I am not mistaken: large bindweed is in fact a Mediterranean plant that was brought to this country. This often happened as people started travelling: they brought back seeds or cuttings of plants they liked; as with large bindweed, the more vigorous escaped from their gardens or estates into the countryside.

Last time I wrote of how plants have evolved, with buttercups being early in the evolutionary stage with separate petals, and multiple female and male parts. Bindweed is an evolutionary stage further on. Looking closely, it is possible to see where what would have been 5 separate petals have fused, creating the funnel shape. (You could think there were 10 petals, 5 of the lines are creases remaining from where the flower folded in bud.)

A hoverfly is funnelled, literally, towards the nectar, having to pass the fused female stigma (white) and five purple male anthers en route.

Instead of the open flower of a buttercup, now insects have to enter a funnel to reach the nectar at the base of the plant. So the plant need not have so many female and male parts, as the chance of any one insect pollinating each is increased. Instead of the multiple male anthers of buttercups, convolvulus have just five. By looking at such a common – and unwanted(!) – flower, we can see the brilliance of evolution in front of our eyes.

Small tortoiseshell having a drink of nectar.

To return to butterflies, from the post the one before last. The Big Butterfly count is on from now until Sunday 9 August. To take part, we are asked to choose a spot to watch and count and record the butterflies we see in a 15 minute period and enter this information on Butterfly Conservation’s website. A downloadable poster is provided to help with ID. I hope the description of the Big Five butterflies in my recent post helps too. Our results give Butterfly Conservation important information about how our butterflies are doing. As well as assisting conservation of butterflies, watching a local patch, whether in your garden or elsewhere, gives a good insight into how many insects are dependent on the nectar flowers provide. I will be unpopular for saying this – especially in my own family – but bindweed helps with this too!

Subscribe to my blog.

Enter your email address and click Subscribe to follow this blog.
You’ll get an email each time I add another post.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Buttercups, elegant and creeping

Back in April I wrote about bulbous buttercups, that at the time were flowering along the paths and grassy areas of Burwell. At the time I said there are three common species of buttercup found around the village and I frustrated some of you by not describing the other two species. So I will make up for my error now, with my apologies. Bulbous buttercups are finished flowering now, the other two species – creeping buttercups and meadow buttercups – are flowering well – creeping buttercups too well for allotment holders, where they are constantly creeping off the paths into the vegetable growing patches!

Bulbous buttercups’ sepals fold downwards

First a quick reminder about Bulbous buttercups. You may remember these are easily told from the other two species of buttercup as their sepals – petal-like structures under the petals – fold downwards towards their stems. Sepals are usually not as showy as a flowers’ petals – which are often brightly coloured to attract pollinating insects – but they play an important protecting role, often sheltering the petals when the flower is in bud or during rain.

Creeping buttercups form a carpet at Burwell allotments.

Creeping buttercups Ranunculus repens are well named for those who regard them as a menace. Their leaves form thick mats, crowding out other vegetation and as their name implies, they creep – by sending out runners that then root. In this way they quickly and literally, gain ground. They tend to flower low to the ground and their leaves are less intricately edged than the other two buttercups and often have pale blotches.

Meadow buttercups dancing at Pauline’s Swamp

Meadow buttercups are the ballerinas of the three. They stand tall, have elaborately cut leaves and grow where habitat is at its finest for wildlife. I’ve seen a few in Priory Wood and at Burwell Castle; they are rampant at Pauline’s Swamp.

In evolutionary terms, buttercups are one of the oldest flowers. You can tell this by their simple form: they have petals that are separate to each other and multiple male stamens, which circle the inner female stigmas. To be fertilised pollen from a stamen needs to transfer to a stigma, where it travels down a thin tube to the ovary below. The stamens and stigmas on any one flower are fertile at different times to avoid self-fertilisation. Buttercups have a simple strategy for reproduction. The wide open flower aims to attract insects to land. The presence of multiple sexual organs increases the chances of an insect picking up pollen from the anthers, or transferring pollen to the stigmas.

Viper’s-bugloss flowers are evolved to maximise the chances of fertilisation of their seed by visiting insects.

As flowers evolve, their strategy becomes more developed. Petals fuse, creating funnels to draw pollinating insects in. As the strategy for drawing in the insects right into the flower improves, the numbers of stamens and stigmas can reduce, – so reducing the energy costs for the plant. The beautiful bluey-purple tall viper’s-bugloss is in flower now. Look at how clever this species’ flower is. As a bee lands on a lower petal attracted by the prospect of a drink of nectar, the other petals bend and the male stamens brush round the bee, to ensure the bee picks up pollen to carry to and fertilise the next viper’s bugloss flower it visits. To reach the nectar, the bee has to put its head right into the flower. Any pollen it is carrying from another flower has ample chance of being brushed off onto this flower’s female stigmas. The ova in the heart of the flower is fertilised and a seed is formed.

I found learning I could have an idea of a flower species’ place in the evolutionary process just by looking at its structure a revelation. Have a look at all the plants in flower now and see how much they have adapted to attract insects in, to save themselves costly energy and be as effective as possible at reproducing. We are looking at the result of millions of years of development – and also know, when we look at buttercups, we are going back to the very earliest times. In french they are called bouton d’or, buttons of gold. Indeed they are.

Subscribe to my blog.

Enter your email address and click Subscribe to follow this blog.
You’ll get an email each time I add another post.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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.

Subscribe to my blog.

Enter your email address and click Subscribe to follow this blog.
You’ll get an email each time I add another post.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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.

Subscribe to my blog.

Enter your email address and click Subscribe to follow this blog.
You’ll get an email each time I add another post.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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!!

Subscribe to my blog.

Enter your email address and click Subscribe to follow this blog.
You’ll get an email each time I add another post.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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…

Subscribe to my blog.

Enter your email address and click Subscribe to follow this blog.
You’ll get an email each time I add another post.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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.

Subscribe to my blog.

Enter your email address and click Subscribe to follow this blog.
You’ll get an email each time I add another post.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.