Nature Notes: Village Voices 2021
A selection of ‘Nature Notes’ from the local monthly magazine, Village Voices, describing the seasonal changes and wildlife in and around Shingle Street on the Suffolk coast.
Village Voices Nature Note: Let there be Dark
I’m writing this on 1 November, when we have just changed the clocks and plunged deep into darkness until 27 March next year. I wish we could just stay with Summer Time myself, as the EU plans to do and as (little-known fact) we actually did in Britain experimentally from 1968-71; but then the Scottish farmers weighed in and said it was unfair to cows to change their milking times. Why even tell the cows if they have a problem with it, I wondered at the time, but maybe I was missing a point about circadian rhythms.
These are the automatic systems that constitute our 24-hour body-clocks and they manage all kinds of bodily functions like sleep patterns, mental alertness, cell regeneration and brain-wave activity. They are triggered by changes from light to dark and are called circadian from the Latin circa diem about a day. All animals and plants have them – they control the precise timing of things like hibernation, reproduction and migration. You can watch some flowers literally closing down for the night as dusk falls.
We used to do that too, but in the last hundred years or so we have found two ways of scrambling these control mechanisms. First, we can travel rapidly through time zones, delaying the onset of night by five hours, for example, if we fly to New York – hence jet-lag. Secondly, we are the only species that now lives a good proportion of its life in artificial light, which we had never evolved to do in the millennia before electricity arrived in every home – hence insomnia.
We’re also increasingly inflicting this insomnia on the natural world, through light pollution in our big cities. It wasn’t a nightingale that sang in Berkeley Square, it was almost certainly a robin, confused by the street lights into think- ing that dawn had arrived. We read of baby turtles in Florida heading back up the beach to certain death instead of following the light of the horizon down to the sea. One study in the US estimated that some five million birds might die each year from becoming disoriented in migration and colliding with tall build- ings. And probably billions of insects perish in the glare of lights to which they are irresistibly attracted, so in turn depriving insectivorous songbirds of their usual food supply and further depleting their numbers too. As for glow-worms and fireflies, forget it: the ingenious courtship signals developed over millions of years of evolution are completely lost against the backdrop of skyglow.
Just look at this satellite picture of London by night. Soon everywhere will be over-lit … except Shingle Street, I hope.
Village Voices Nature Note: Back to School?
How much do young people know about nature? Do they ever look up from their phones for long enough to actually see anything? We may be about to find out since there are plans to introduce a new GCSE in Natural History and the Cambridge University Exams Board is right now working out a curriculum. As a taster, they sent round these sample questions below.
1. Grampy pig, hardback and curly bug are all common names for a:
(a) earwig; (b) woodlouse; (c) centipede?
2. Muntjac deer are the size of a:
(a) domestic cat; (b) large dog; (c) cow?
3.Is a slow worm a:
(a) worm; (b) snake; (c) lizard?
4. Horseshoe, pipistrelle and bechstein are all UK species of:
(a) bat; (b) deer; (c) orchid?
5. Which of the following is a visitor to the UK (ie, not resident):
(a) little tern; (b) song thrush; (c) wren?
6. Dead man’s finger (Xylaria polymorpha) is common in woodlands. Is it a:
(a) fruit; (b) fungus; (c) flowering plant?
7. A glow-worm is:
(a) a beetle that can chemically produce light; (b) a worm with a glowing tail; (c) a beetle that rubs its wings together to produce sparks?
8. You are walking in the countryside and find a deep 15cm conical hole with foul-smelling liquid poo in the bottom. Is it:
(a) a rabbit toilet; (b) a badger latrine; (c) fox poo?
9. How many eggs do long-tailed tits lay:
(a) 5-8; (b) 8-15; (c) 16-20?
10. Which of the following species is native to the UK?
(a) sycamore tree; (b) brown hare; (c) wildcat
11. How do mussels attach to rocks:
(a) with strong, sticky threads; (b) clamp on with their muscles; (c) small tube feet?
12. The turtle dove has declined by over 90% since the 1970s. The main reason is:
(a) hunting by humans; (b) predation from other animals; (c) loss of habitat?
13. Is a brown argus:
(a) a butterfly; (b) a moth; (c) a dragonfly?
14. How fast does a gannet hit the surface of the sea when diving for
(a) 20mph; (b) 60mph; (c) 100mph?
15. How many different species of beetle are there in the UK:
(a) 150; (b) 1,300; (c) 4,200?
I reckon some of these are quite difficult, so top of the class if you got twelve or more right. But if it was under five, now’s your chance to add another qualification to your cv. Never too late. Answers below: Don’t cheat!
Answers: 1b, 2b, 3c, 4a, 5a, 6b, 7a, 8b, 9b, 10c, 11a, 12c, 13a, 14b, 15c
Village Voices Nature Note: the Humbler Creation
There’s plenty of public support for protecting charismatic species of wildlife like golden eagles, beavers, red squirrels, swallowtail butterflies and oak trees – even domestic alpacas, just recently. But what about the humbler creation, as the hymnist put it, of insects, beetles, and worms that actually make the world go around? Especially worms. Worms have traditionally been regarded as the lowest form of life. The word itself comes from the Latin vermes from which we get vermin, and to call someone a worm suggests they are beneath contempt. But as any farmer will tell you worms are critical to the health of the land. They devour and recycle dead vegetation, and act as tiny ploughmen to aerate, drain and fertilise the earth. The richer the soil the more earthworms there will be in it, so those worm- casts on your neatly cut lawn are more like compliments than disfigurements. It’s been estimated that in an acre of good pasture there may be a greater weight of worms under the soil than there is of live stock above it.
All the great naturalists in history have praised worms. Aristotle called them the intestines of the soil, while Charles Darwin studied them for over 40 years and observed, It may be doubted whether there are any other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world. My favourite worm quote, however, comes from the peerless Gilbert White, curate of a small village in Hampshire, whose Natural History of Selborne (1789) is said to be the fourth most published book in the English language (after the Bible, Shakespeare and John Bunyan). White is the spiritual father of all today’s nature diarists (including me) and Selborne is the record of his daily observations in his tiny parish, which he rarely ever left. Here he is extolling the worm and making a very modern point about the interconnectedness of all life:
The most insignificant insects and reptiles are of much more consequence, and have more influence in the economy of Nature, than the incurious are aware of; and are mighty in their effect… Earthworms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm. For, to say nothing of half the birds, and some quadrupeds, which are almost entirely supported by them, worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them.
In some cultures we become part of this chain too by eating worms – the Maori traditionally regarded them as a great delicacy; and in most others we willingly submit to the reverse process on death …
Village Voices Nature Note: Benign Neglect
Sometimes the best form of conservation action is inaction. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins visited Loch Lomond in 1918 and afterwards wrote these lines, entranced by the wonders of its wild and untouched nature:
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness?
Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
Further south, it sometimes feels as though we are waging a war on wildness. We transfer the house-proud virtues of keeping our homes clean and tidy on to the countryside itself, as if it was a kind of extension of our living rooms. Take the case of roadside verges. There’s no need to keep these shorn like carpets, as many landowners and local councils do. We have over 300,000 miles of rural roadside verges in this country, so that’s a major natural resource, equivalent in size to about half of the whole area of flowering meadows and grasslands we still have left (and we’ve lost a terrifying 97% of those to agricultural or urban development in the last 75 years).
Our verges support over 700 species of flowers overall and that’s nearly half our total flora. Never mind that you might think some of them weeds if they were in your front garden. What’s a weed but a flower in the wrong place? I walked a length of our local verges in July and they were ablaze with vetches, trefoils, scabious, knapweed, thistles, ox-eye daisies, meadowsweet, clovers and cranesbill. And all these flowers in turn support legions of butterflies, moths, bees and other insects. The bird’s foot trefoil, for example, feeds some 130 species of invertebrates, and it’s estimated that just a mile of flower- rich verge can produce 20kg of nectar-sugar, enough to sustain several million pollinators like these.
Verges do need to be cut periodically, or else the weight of dying vegetation would eventually overwhelm them and stifle next year’s growth, but the time to do this is late in the summer, or even autumn, when seeds will have been shed. That way you maximise biodiversity, whereas a suburban neatness amounts to mass ecocide. The old Best-kept Village awards used to be judged partly on tidiness, but we know better now. The name verge comes from the Latin virga, the staff of official responsibility, indicating the extent of the holder’s power, and our civic responsibilities now extend to saving our declining wildlife. In parts of Suffolk selected verges have therefore been declared Nature Reserves – great idea! Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
Village Voices Nature Note: A Local Exotic
A neighbour reported an unusual bird on their lawn the other day. They wondered if it could be some exotic visitor from overseas. It was quite large, they said – the size of jackdaw but slimmer and very brilliantly coloured, flashing a bright yellow rump in a V-shape up the soft green back. And it sported a most striking head pattern with a black mask enclosing a white eye, topped off with a scarlet crown. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in a tropical jungle, but here it was hopping about on the grass in front of their house. When disturbed, it flew off in a bounding flight and appeared to clamp itself, as if magnetised, on to the trunk of a nearby willow.
Well, that was a very good description of what is certainly a charismatic bird, but not in this case an exotic one – it’s a common British resident, the green woodpecker. We naturally associate all our native woodpeckers with trees, as their name suggests, and they do indeed use their powerful dagger bills to excavate nest holes in tree-trunks, probe the bark for grubs and drum on hollow branches to advertise their presence both to rivals and potential mates. But the green woodpecker has also developed this further habit of using its formidable drilling equipment to dig into ant colonies in our lawns and lick up the inhabitants with their specially adapted tongues.
The artist Leonardo da Vinci, who observed everything with insatiable curiosity, was fascinated by woodpecker tongues – why were they so long, he asked, and how were they housed in the woodpecker’s head when they were retracted? The answer was later revealed by dissection and is illustrated in this little diagram of a skeleton: the tongue is literally wrapped around the brain and its elastic movements are controlled by specially adapted bony cartilages.
In spring, the male green woodpecker has a very distinctive territorial call, a descending peal of (usually seven) loud ‘laughing’ notes that gave the bird its old country name ‘yaffle’. Another folk name was ‘rain bird’. It was widely believed that the yaffle’s call presaged rain, which would bring out the insects on which the bird feeds. An easy prediction to make in Britain, perhaps, when it is always about to rain anyway, but quite false. Possibly it derived from an even older, more primitive belief in the woodpecker as the ‘thunder bird’, who summons up the rain with his resounding drum-roll and wears the red badge of lightning on his crest.
Anyway, no need to invoke foreign exotica with such wonders close to home.
Village Voices Nature Note: Go Wild
I’ve been keeping a log-book. Literally. I’ve been very restricted in my walking recently by a hip-problem (now fixed, I hope), but I found a mossy old log by the river I could just get to and rest on, completely out of sight. I’ve been sitting quietly on that, making notes on what comes by. It’s a quite different kind of nature-watching from the one I’m used to – striding out freely and actively exploring the world. But it turns out to have its own compensations when you adjust to it, which you have to do mentally as well as physically. Your world has shrunk to a radius of a few yards, but it’s still teeming with life. And instead of pursuing nature you just have to be still and let it come to you. Which it does, surprisingly quickly.
After a few minutes, I hear a rustling very close by. A beetle? A mouse? No, it’s a wren, working its way busily through the undergrowth, picking up tiny insects invisible to my eye with deft little pecks and pounces. I don’t move a muscle, trying to look like an extension of the log. The wren’s nearly at my feet when it senses an unusual presence and flicks a little way off to continue its rummaging, but not before I get my best-ever view of its subtly variegated dead-leaf colours and the stiff little cocked tail.
Now a moorhen paddles slowly by in the river and a male blackcap sings from a branch – so close that its pure fluting song is almost too piercing. After an hour of immobility, I’m almost a woodland feature. A seven-spot ladybird lands on my hand, some wood ants investigate my boots, and the wren makes another pass, more boldly this time. And now a butterfly settles right next to me in a patch of sunlight – a male orange-tip. What a beauty! This is the first I’ve seen this year and it really does capture the spirit of spring with those sunshine orange flashes on its wings. Soon there will be lots of them on the wing searching out their favourite plants, garlic mustard and lady’s smock, both them just coming into flower with perfect timing. The orange-tip’s Latin name is Anthocharis, flower grace, and the French call it L’aurore, the dawn, a nice suggestion of a new beginning.
Some people walk by just the other side of the river, another interesting species that doesn’t notice me, or much else. There’s a move to re-wild our landscapes, but I emerge from my immersion in nature feeling that we could all do with some rewilding ourselves. We’re part of nature too.
Village Voices Nature Note: Sounds of Spring
All the talk is of a ‘return to normality’. Yes, but as Aesop reminded us in one of his moral fables, we should be careful what we wish for. One of the compensations of lockdown has been that people have been exploring their immediate surroundings much more closely than ever before and seeing all sorts of things that were always there but unnoticed. Hearing them, too – for one of the revelations of the first lockdown was how transformative it was to be spared the noise pollution of air and road traffic and hear natural sounds again with such clarity. The buzzing of bees, the gentle soughing of leaves, a babbling stream, and above all the chorus of spring birdsong – all balm to the ear. It felt like a new experience, but it’s also an ancient one. Here is the Greek poet Theocritus, celebrating the sounds of summer in the third century BC:
Over our heads many an aspen and elm stirred
And rustled, while nearby a sacred spring
Gurgled gently, welling up from a cave.
In the shady foliage of the trees the dusky
Cicadas were busy chirping, and some distant songster
Murmured from deep in the thorny thickets.
Lark and finch were singing, the turtle dove crooned,
And bees hummed and hovered, flitting hither and yon.
Well, that sounds pretty familiar, if you change cicadas to crickets and think back to the time when we did still have turtle doves and elms. But I worry about that ‘distant songster’. As the traffic builds up again, I’ve noticed that the softer and higher-pitched ‘murmurings’ of birds like goldcrests, coal tits and tree creepers are getting harder to pick out against the background din. And that isn’t just my ageing ears suffering what audiologists call the ‘cocktail party problem’ of picking out individual voices in a crowd. I seem to spend more time in the woods than at cocktail parties anyway, but the real problem is that now even the birds are finding it increasingly difficult to hear each other. Research shows that they are having to sing louder to be heard in the modern world and that many of them are having to abandon otherwise suitable habitats near busy roads for just that reason. I find that rather sad. Think of a visual world that consisted only of loud colours. Think of an orchestra that only had trombones, cymbals and drums. So much of the beauty of both the landscape and the soundscape depends on variety, subtlety and harmony.
The Aesop fable has a bleak ending by the way. I won’t close on a low note but you can check it out at: https://fablesofaesop.com/the-old-man-and-death.html.
Village Voices Nature Note: far away and long ago
There’s a lot of excitement about this Perseverance mission to Mars. The technology is amazing and the information we are getting back is remarkably detailed. For example, the night-time temperature there yesterday was a bracing -980F. They’ve equipped that extraordinary Rover vehicle to search for signs of past life. If they find any, it’s likely to be in the form of fossilised microbes about 3.5 billion years old. The mission is costing $2.7 billion and is thought well worth the price of satisfying the deep human urge to reach out and find life elsewhere in the universe.
I couldn’t help comparing that sum, though, with the current UK budget of £258 million for nature conservation and the protection of biodiversity. There is life on earth, right here and now, and it needs some help. Some of our own ancient inhabitants are in real trouble. Bees evolved sometime in the Cretaceous period, some 120 million years ago, at about the same time as flowers, with which they have ever since formed a mutual support system. The bees pollinated the flowers, which competed for their attention with the huge variety of different colours, shapes and fragrances they evolved to lure them in. In turn, the flowers offered the bees pollen and nectar and the bees themselves diversified to take advantage of this bounty. We come into this biological equation too, since we depend on crops the bees have fertilised – in fact it has been estimated that the value of pollination for human food is more than £110 billion a year.
But bees are declining fast. They have lost important habitats of flower-rich meadows and suffered terrible collateral damage from pesticides, herbicides and parasites. We’ve all read the headlines about this, but how much do we really know about them? Most people can recognise a bumble bee and a honey bee, but did you realise we have 24 different kinds of bumble bee in Britain and 270 other kinds of bee, 250 of which are called ‘solitary bees’ that don’t live in hives or big colonies. These have a huge range of life-styles, indicated by such intriguing names as miner, mason, leaf-cutter, wool-carder and sweat bees. Worldwide, there are 20,000 kinds of bees, more than all birds and mammals put together.
Well, you can see where my Easter parable is heading. Are we at risk of learning more about 3 billion-year old microbes on a dead and uninhabitable planet 140 million miles away than about the buzzing and blooming life that sustains our own live one and that lifts our hearts again every spring?
Village Voices Nature Note: The Rooks Return
‘The Rooks have returned’ is a famous painting by the 19th century Russian landscape artist, Aleksey Savrasov, who was much influenced by Suffolk’s own John Constable. The picture celebrates the return of rooks to their traditional nesting site in his village. Russian winters are so hard that rooks are summer migrants there, so for him this was a joyful sign of spring. Rooks are resident with us all year round, of course, but they are early breeders and are already busy rebuilding their rookeries, like the one near Dumboy Cottage. You can see them flying in with new twigs to repair nests shredded by winter storms, and also sometimes cheekily pinching some choice sticks from their neighbours’ constructions – hence our term ‘to rook’, meaning to fleece someone. But they are essentially sociable birds, foraging and roosting together, and nesting in these densely packed colonies. The clamour from a rookery in the breeding season can be loud and raucous, to be sure, but the combined choral effect of all these indi- vidual conversations and altercations is powerfully evocative, even soothing.
As soon as a BBC drama features an English churchyard scene you know they’ll soon be dubbing in a sound-track of rooks cawing in the tree-tops, a subliminal reassurance of an enduring rural scene. Enduring except for the trees, that is. Rooks used to prefer mature elms, but they’ve gone; second choice was ash, becoming endangered; so now most often here, sycamore, beech and oak.
Rooks and crows are often mistaken for each other, but the old country saying largely holds good, ‘A crow in a crowd is a rook and a rook on its own is a crow’. Shakespeare didn’t help this confusion with his line in Macbeth, ‘The crow makes wing to the rooky wood’. Scarecrows are misnomers, too, since it’s rooks they are meant to drive off the crops. In fact, this is doubly inappropriate since rooks feed mainly on grubs and insects, so serve to protect the crops, and that despite their scientific name of frugilegus ‘crop-picker’. Rooks and crows look quite different, anyway. Rooks have that whitish patch of bare skin round the base of the bill – visible from quite a distance; and their plumage seems one size too large for them, especially on the thighs, which look as if they are covered by baggy, feathered shorts. They walk differently, too. Crows stalk about rather menacingly, while rooks waddle.
The collective term for rooks is a ‘parliament’. I used to think that too staid a word for their noisy, obstreperous gatherings. But the way things have gone recently in the world’s parliaments, I now think it may be unfair to rooks.
Village Voices Nature Note: Speedy Whistlers
Our arable fields can look very bare in winter, almost devoid of life. But look more closely, and listen. We have visitors from the north, flocks of them, sometimes noisy. Golden plovers, who arrived here in the autumn from the northern uplands where they breed. In summer plumage these are gorgeous birds, sporting gold-spangled upperparts and peat-black bellies, divided by a sinuous white stripe running down their sides. Nonetheless, they are surprisingly well camouflaged against the variegated colours of the moorland heather and you may only become aware of them from hearing a plaintive, fugitive whistle, almost lost in the wild and windy spaces. The two parts of the golden plover’s scientific name are in fact somewhat oxymoronic in combination: Pluvialis apricaria ‘rain-bird, basking in the sun’, but given the changeable upland climate it was an easy solution to connect the birds with both sun and showers, I suppose.
In winter they migrate south to our fields and marshes, where they congregate in large flocks, though they can still be hard to locate on the ground since they have now exchanged their contrasting summer colours for drab browns and greys that again give them perfect camouflage, only this time against the dun shades of the earth and mud on which they are feeding. If you carefully scan the fields from Shingle Street to East Lane, however, you will eventually make out the hunched profiles of some golden plovers on the ground. And when you have picked up a few, look again and you may find there are not just five, but fifty, or even a hundred or more, which gradually emerge from the background. They have a distinctive way of feeding – walking briskly head down for a few yards; a quick stab for worms or grubs; pausing, more upright and alert; then marching off again at different angle.
Every now and again, for no reason apparent to us, the flock may take off in a sudden dread, and now you hear those individual whistles combined into one very distinctive but still muted chorus. These flocks swirl around in dense formations before the birds settle again back again on the ground in their invisibility cloaks. They are powerful flyers and, bizarrely, played a part in the creation of a publishing phenomenon. A spirited argument had broken out in an Irish shooting party in 1951 about which British game bird was the fastest flyer – red grouse or golden plover? So Sir Hugh Beaver, who was one of the shooters but also happened to be head of the Guinness brewery, commissioned a volume to settle this and other such inconsequential facts – The Guinness Book of Records, which is now an annual best-seller.
Village Voices Nature Note: Pub Games
Remember pubs? There were about 47,000 of them in the UK before Covid. They may be becoming an endangered species now, however, so Christmas seems a good time to be celebrating how their wonderful names connect the human and natural worlds. You don’t have to leave Suffolk to do an eco-pub crawl. You’d quickly build up your bird list with a nearby Cock, Swan, Duck (sometimes with Dogs), Eagle (Spread or otherwise), Falcon and Pheasant; there’s also a Magpie at Stowmarket, a Peacock at Chelsworth, and even a Turnstone at Hopton-on-Sea.
Among mammals, we have plenty of Lions, Bulls, Horses (usually Black, but also Sorrel at Shottisham), Harts (White), Boars (Blue), Dogs (sometimes with Partridges), Foxes, Greyhounds, Hares (with Hounds), and one or two Beagles and Bears. Plenty of trees too, with Oaks, Chestnuts, Cherry Trees, Walnuts and a Willow (Stowmarket).
Bees feature in the Beehive at Horringer, then there’s an Eel’s Foot at Eastbridge, and marine life in the Dolphin (Thorpeness) and the Butt and Oyster (Pin Mill). The only flower I can think of in Suffolk is the Rose, but there may well be others – I don’t spend my whole time in pubs!
If you want to go twitching for bird names more widely in Britain you can find a Bittern, Bustard, Chough, Crane, Dotterel, Flamingo, Goshawk, Nightjar, a couple of Kittiwakes, a Quail (improbably in Wandsworth, London), and even a Stormy Petrel pub (in Shropshire) and a Sociable Plover (a real rarity, despite the name, in Hampshire).
Maybe pubs should be more adventurous in their choice of wildlife names to attract new customers in these hard times. How about moths, for example, which are fellow imbibers in the evening hours and a treasure-house of magical monikers? I know of only one pub called after a moth, the aptly named Drinker in Harlow, but there are so many opportunities here for the entrepreneurial imagination.
In terms of place names, why isn’t there, in the appropriate locations, an Essex Emerald, Jersey Tiger, Isle of Wight Wave, Tunbridge Wells Gem, Kentish Glory or a Rannock Sprawler? And surely a capacious Manchester Treble Bar would pull them in? Then there are all the local characters you see propping up the bar, who would be only too pleased to be memorialised this way: the Forester, Gypsy, Traveller, Old Lady, Nonconformist, Dingy Footman and the Flounced Rustic, not to mention the Hebrew Character, Alchymist, Powdered Quaker and that Suspicious chap in the corner. The Scarce Vapourer bar would be available for smokers, and the Oak Lutestring for the more musical. And who could resist the enticing appeal of the Feathered Ranunculus or Softly’s Shoulder Knot?
Happy New Year