Sunday, 22 August 2010

Signs of the times: Summer #14

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms...
So doth the woodbine, the sweet honeysuckle,
Gently entwist; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.”

William Shakespeare (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”)

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Summer Picture 14

Down by the lake (or loch!) again. A mute swan family with parents and cygnets are in the background, cruising on the water, past a couple of anglers (in flatcaps and smoking pipes – it could be your granddad back in 1960!). A spotted flycatcher is catching flies (well, it would be!) around a hawthorn tree that is entwined with honeysuckle and bindweed, while several newly-emerged young wasps are shaving wood from the large post on which they have settled, beside a clump of the sweet-smelling, white flowering plant, meadowsweet. This is high summer now!

The spotted flycatcher (Muscicapa striata) is another bird that comes to Britain to breed in summer after over-wintering in Africa. I’m writing this on holiday, staying with family in Pembrokeshire, so I’m not only offline from web sources but also without my usual books to refer to. So, using a different source of information to the usual, the AA and RSPB’s “Complete Book of British Birds” (from 1993) reveals information I might otherwise not have found – like the fact that the spotted flycatcher is among the last of the summer migrant birds to arrive in Britain, so great is its dependence on insects that it needs to be quite sure of the supply of its food. From its name, you would perhaps expect the spotted flycatcher to be more spotty than it appears to be, but it is, in fact, the young birds that are truly spotted. I saw these birds often in Summer when I was growing up in East Lothian but where I live now, in Stirlingshire, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one (although that may be partly a function of the limited amount of time I now spend looking, compared to my youth!). They are interesting to watch, making repeated short, looping flights from a relatively high perch, to snatch a fly, before returning, usually to the same perch.

But all is not well with the fortunes of this lovely bird. The British Trust for Ornithology explains that spotted flycatchers: “have declined rapidly and consistently since the 1960s according to census data... Demographic modelling shows that decreases in the annual survival rates of birds in their first year of life are most likely to have driven the decline.” This BTO graph shows how steeply they have declined; that’s an 87% fall in population size between 1967 and 2007 (maybe that explains why I haven’t seen then around here):

And the possible cause of the decline? “Decreasing survival rates may have been caused by deteriorations in woodland quality, particularly leading to declines in the large flying insects that are food to the flycatcher, or by conditions either on the wintering grounds or along migration routes ... Since trends have been similar across UK regions and habitats, however, it is more likely that the decline has been driven by factors operating outside the UK. Spotted Flycatchers have declined widely across Europe since 1980 ... A predator 'control' experiment has indicated that the abundance of nest predators may be determining the breeding success of Spotted Flycatchers, especially in woodland, where nest success was lower overall than in gardens ..." Another study using nest cameras has identified predatory birds, especially jays, as responsible for most nest losses. I talked previously about jays here.

I discussed the story of the mute swan back in Spring post #12, here, when a pair were shown nesting on a lake, so I won’t say much more about mute swans here. Presuming some continuity in the choice of subjects by Charles Tunnicliffe, this may be intended to be the same lake, so perhaps we see the outcome of the incubation of their eggs in the four or five grey cygnets swimming alongside them here.

Turning to the plants shown here, the meadowsweet (Filipendula almeria) is the white-flowering plant in the bottom-right. It is a perennial plant (of the Rose family) found in damp or wet habitats, and, according to the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora is: “characteristic of sites where water levels fluctuate and is absent from permanently waterlogged ground. Typical habitats include wet woodland, damp meadows, swamps and tall-herb fens, damp roadsides, ditches and railway banks, and montane tall-herb communities”. Stable in its distribution since the 1962 original Atlas, it is found fairly ubiquitously across Britain and Ireland, in suitable habitats. According to Richard Mabey in his wonderful Flora Britannica, meadowsweet may first have been called this as it was used to flavour mead, although he also identifies it as another early source of salicylic acid, the original natural ingredient of aspirin (also from willow). When Aspirin was first manufactured (as acetylsalicylic acid) by the chemical company Bayer, it was named (i.e. aspirin) after the old botanical name for meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria. So there you go!

We have meadowsweet growing happily around the margins of our garden pond. My Dad, who grew up in Ayrshire in western Scotland, told me that he would never have been allowed by his mother to bring meadowsweet into the house, as there was a strong superstition in Ayrshire when he was younger that white flowers in the house would be a sign of an impending death in the household. This belief applied to any white flowers and it probably arose from the association of white flowers with funerals, or maybe with the white of funeral shrouds.

On the left of the picture, a hawthorn tree is shown covered with honeysuckle (at the top) and field bindweed. As I discussed the hawthorn in a Spring post #19 here, I won’t go into any more detail about that now.

The honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) is a native perennial deciduous climbing shrub, that grows, as here, by entwining itself up through trees, shrubs and other bushy plants like brambles, in woodland, scrub and hedgerow habitats, and on shaded rocks. According to the New Atlas, its distribution remains similar to that in the 1962 Atlas. It produces wonderfully fragrant flowers through from mid-Summer to Autumn, most fragrant at night and I still remember the honeysuckle around the front door of the house we moved to in East Lothian when I was nearly five, as it was the first time I had seen and smelled this plant – again, like bird’s-foot trefoil, this is one of the earliest memories I have of a wild plant (although in this case, it was in our garden!). Wild honeysuckle featured in our wild food harvest for the first time this year, when we collected the flowers from our local park to use in a recipe for “Peach and Honeysuckle Cheese”, although this is more like a sweet preserve similar to the quince jelly “cheese” sometimes served with the cheese course in restaurants (and at your posh friends’ houses!). The New Atlas records another five species of Lonicera honeysuckle growing in the wild in Britain, all introduced non-native species likely to have “escaped” from gardens.

As a wee Scottish addendum to honeysuckle’s story, Flora Britannica points out that, where it winds around hazel or ash, the host tree grows twisted, and such branches have been cut for use as “barley-sugar” walking sticks, once popular with Scots music-hall performers, as seen in this picture of the (from a modern Scotsman’s perspective, somewhat embarrassing) Sir Harry Lauder’s walking stick collection (see here for more details) (you see that Web? All human life is (reflected) there...):

The stick third from the right at the back looks like one of the barley-sugar-style sticks refered to above. As a final note to this subject, my grandfather once kicked Sir Harry Lauder’s backside, but that is another story altogether...

The hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium) is another native climbing (or trailing) perennial woody shrub, found (according to the New Atlas): “in hedges, scrub, woodland edges, tall-herb fens, in open Salix [willow] and Alnus [alder] carr, and on railway banks and waste ground. It also occurs in artificial habitats in built-up areas and near habitation”. The New Atlas reports that there is no change in the range of this species since the 1962 Atlas and also that the species has been introduced (as a non-native species) to Orkney and Shetland. Many people will know this species as a problematic, invasive, fast-growing and unwanted weed in their garden, a status it also has in our own garden where, if not removed while a newly emerged seedling, it will quickly entwine and bind up the shrubs and larger plants around it. But, seen in the wild, as we found it this week (in the week of writing this section, at least) on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, it can be an object of real and rare beauty, with its occasional papery white trumpet-like flowers appearing among the taller vegetation through which it has entwined itself. Seen in the evening sunlight in the photo below, it was a real tonic of a find at the end of a long, hot day of walking on the coastal path:

Incidentally, there is another native bindweed species, the Sea Bindweed (Calystegia soldanella), growing on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, which I found just after I took the above photo. It is a delightful plant, with little trumpet flowers of alternating pink and white stripes. I never took a photo of the sea bindweed that we found, as it was buried in among a load of grasses, so here is a link to someone else’s lovely photos of the flowers. The distribution of this species is extremely specific, found exclusively at coastal and island sites in Britain and Ireland, and has been relatively stable over time.

Wasps – what can I say? Everybody hates them, don’t they? Welllll, not necessarily everyone. Wasps are related to bees and ants, collectively the Order of Hymenoptera. The wasps shown in this picture belong to the family Vespidae or social wasps – there are many other kinds of wasps in Britain, beyond the stinging black and yellow species we all typically think of as wasps – there are, for example, “digger wasps”, “wood wasps” and many species of parasitic wasps. The Vespidae are represented by seven species native to Britain, including the hornet (an insect we never saw as children in East Lothian but about which we were obsessed each Summer with the thoughts of their reputation – we understood them to be vicious stingers and ENORMOUS!). Several other Vespidae species have also become established here.

From the markings on the bodies of the wasps in the picture, they look like they might be intended to be Common Wasps (Vespula vulgaris), scraping wood shavings off the post they are sitting on, to contribute to the growth and repair of their wasp’s nest (called a “byke” in Scotland). Wasps are an invaluable species to the gardener (and presumably to horticulture too). In Spring and early Summer, they catch countless numbers of aphids and other crop pest insects to feed as a protein-rich diet to their developing larvae. It is really only in Autumn that they start to become more of a nuisance, as they start to feed on rotting fruits and seem to become more aggressive as a result of the alcohol these contain (and no, before you ask, it isn’t just the Scottish wasps that behave this way...). Try as I might, I can’t track down any information anywhere about the population trends in wasps, which is a pity. So, if I do manage to find something, I will add it as an addendum here in future.

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