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BylineMaryGreen

Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Summer holiday

Posted on June 14 2009 at 7:53:53 0 comments

Shoreline birds, Scilly

Mary Green points out the best places to spot wildlife on holiday.

Many people have said to me that this looks like a great year for wildlife. It’s especially true of flowers, trees and fruit - and therefore of many insects and birds. I’ve commented already on it being a good year for blackthorn, then for cowslips, hawthorn, red campion and buttercups. Trees came into leaf and blossom at the right times, and fruit has set well, though many sloes near me have some sort of disease.

I think the reason for this good year is that we have been having traditional English weather. The winter was good and cold, spring was changeable but without late frosts or very heavy rain. May was drier and sunnier than usual, with average temperatures. Summer so far is shaping up to be a good old English one, alternating warm and dry and cool and wet. This climate suits our plants.

I don’t know yet if it will prove to be as good for the animal kingdom - but I have heard a cuckoo, now officially a species in decline. There are families of blue tits, goldfinches and blackbirds in and around my garden, and I have seen goslings and cygnets as well as ducklings and moorhen chicks on the canal. Baby rabbits are everywhere.

The buttercups in the field beyond Withybed Green are outstanding again this year, and people come to walk along the footpath and take photographs. Once again there are patches of the eight-petalled creeping buttercups, a sign of old undisturbed land, which I have also seen in odd places by the canal and even in Alvechurch.

I read that there has been a veritable plague of painted lady butterflies and wonder if any readers have seen them around here - they are predominantly speckled orange with strong black and white markings on the upper wings. I’ve seen a few. I also saw my first and only brimstone butterfly this year.

As June started, I visited the poppy patch at Blackstone near Bewdley. All the poppies and other arable weeds I saw in the last two years had gone from the thriving but sprayed cornfields. However, I found a field at Mustow Green between Bromsgrove and Kidderminster full of poppies, corn camomile and heartsease.

This is yet another example of how changeable wildlife is, depending on how we use the land. Nearer home, the bee orchids have come into flower again on the canalside, thanks to a supportive mowing regime. July and August mean summer holidays for most of us, and holidays can be a wildlife treat too. There are lots of good things that you just don’t see around the Village area. Britain has some of the most varied ecology in a small space.

You can start at the seaside. The BBC’s Springwatch programme reminded us that on many beaches the area between low tide and high tide is the best place to look. If you haven’t been rock-pooling for decades, have a go.

On most beaches you will see crabs, shrimps, beautiful sea-anemones, limpets and periwinkles. There are many kinds of seaweed, including bladderwrack with the little poppable pods, green sea-lettuce, and the edible ones, carragheen and dulse.

Common shore birds inevitably start off with gulls. The most frequent one is the familiar herring gull, which looks very fierce close up and will try to steal your fish-and-chips. In spring you can see them on the cliffs pairing up and mating, when they have a special kind of call. The black-backed gull is bigger and, as its name suggests, has broad black wings and back. Black-headed gulls are the ones that mostly visit our inland waters. They have black heads in summer but in winter this becomes just a spot of black.

Terns are a different kind of bird, nesting on more remote coasts. They behave a bit like swallows - they swoop and dart, and will dive-bomb you if you stray into their territories.

Along the beach you will probably see oyster-catchers, and may get familiar with their loud shrill call as they move. They are strikingly black and white with orange-red legs and beak. There are lots of other wading birds, often in mixed flocks and hard to identify. But you will probably see golden plovers and turnstones, dotterels, knots and sandpipers.

A real treat is the curlew, with its unmistakeable bubbling coo-ee call. It is a brown bird with a long curved beak, calling as it flies, and you’ll see it on moorland and mountains as well as the seashore.

The seaside is full of flowers, too. Cornwall and Devon have naturalised tropical-looking plants like hottentot fig (mesembryanthemum), as well as the prolific native thrift (sea pink), sea campion, rock samphire, sea beet (edible), lady’s fingers (kidney vetch), red valerian and a host of others.

Those of us over a certain age will remember that thrift was the symbol on the old three-penny bit. No one’s quite sure why the plant became synonymous with thriftiness, but a suggestion is the plant’s economical and self-protective habit of growth, leading to abundance, which sounds nice to me. And fringing the seaside you will see bushes of tamarisk, with feathery pink flowers.

Another way to find different wildlife is to find somewhere with different geology, where the soil will host different plants and there will be a different history of human use of the land.

Moors and mountains with acid soil will give you heather, early purple orchids, bog asphodels, bog cotton, starfish-shaped butterworts and the wonderful bilberry. There are three common heathers: ling, bell heather and cross-leaved heath. If you see them together you can easily tell them apart.

The bilberry is our native blueberry, and is picked avidly in August on moors and mountains. It tastes great and is very good for you. In Scotland and Ireland you will find fuchsia growing wild, staining the hedges red in summer.

You may also see the northern variety of wild rose, a much deeper pink and very beautiful. In the mountains you have a chance to see red deer. Last year I was lucky enough to watch an otter play on the coast for several minutes, though it evaded my camera!

Round here we have alkaline clay, mostly, and a move to chalk or limestone will give us yet another set of plants. The beautiful blue gentians are worth a journey, and orchids, harebells, meadow cranesbills and scabious provide the background for blue butterflies. Any hill country will be good for seeing birds of prey, including the once-rare red kites, which I have seen over the South Downs and Yorkshire Dales recently.

Further afield, on foreign holidays, the wildlife may be baffling. However, a closer look often shows that it is similar to something here, or is one of our “garden” plants.

In Malawi, I stared for ages at a beautiful tree with red bracts before realising it was a poinsettia - that Christmas favourite that somehow always dies on the windowsill afterwards. Walking through indigenous woodland in Malawi, I found proteas, an exotic here, growing freely like hawthorn bushes.

Something that surprised me in Malawi was how little I saw animals, except in wildlife parks. Other than the occasional monkey and mouse, there were fewer than here. There were wonderful birds, though - all colours and shapes, including the stunning malachite kingfisher and the big fish eagle. And the butterflies were magnificent, especially some huge polka-dot black and white ones.

One of the most interesting places I’ve been for wildlife is Madeira. The island has passed between different governing countries, and has imported plants from all continents. So, you can see agapanthus and bougainvillea growing alongside English plants like toadflax. You can find another strange mixture on the Isles of Scilly where sub-tropical plants have naturalised among the gorse, and golden orioles fly in for spring.

Wherever you go in the world, the most common group of plants is grass. Summer grass is beautiful, with textured seeds and varied muted colours - not just greens, but pinks and purples. In the wild it will usually host other flowers and provide a home for insects, birds and animals.

I always think it is a shame to see it mown as lawns, when it becomes just a standard green. It’s lovely to see the habit some people are getting into of just mowing pathways and leaving swathes of lovely grass to sway in the breeze, along with wildflowers that establish themselves in it.

The poem this month looks back at my childhood by the sea and forward to where I live in Withybed Green.

Sea

A child in the small twin bed I hear the sea
Every morning and each night, lulling and rocking.
Then the wild days, when it is a grey beast
I hug the land and am glad not to be a sailor
As big ships huddle in the bay until it quietens.
In summer the air is full of children’s cries
And there is always ice cream not far away
A whole day catches enough shrimps to make one sandwich
And I lick my body where the salt has been.
Once a month the huge moon makes it a path to me
And every day the fall and rise and fall
Matches my ebb and flow as I grow taller.

I can still see every inch of the boundary cliff
Here where the early blackthorn makes tunnels
There where the fox cubs came tumbling down like kittens
On the estuary where the otters left their tracks.
The path where adders sunbathed meant you learned to walk with care
And I loved to meet them later, on Mendip and Cheviot,
Danger as necessary as the warmth of gorse.

All my life I can see the horizon
And know what weather approaches before it comes.
Later, living in London, I feel stranded
Without seeing the future and the miles
So that now I have to live where there is a view
Even if trees and hills are now my waves
And I am as far from sea as I could be.

It has left me with a strange love of islands
That sea hedge concentrating knowledge of the ground
Like a sonnet, keeping you cool and sharp.
Moonlight bike rides across the spine of Man
Standing above an impossible Kephalonian beach
Or rainbow watching over the Skye bridge.
Burgh Island started it, the always possibility
Of getting cut off and never going home again.

Most of all it’s the waves, the perpetual fore and aft
The rhythm of boats and moon and blood and love and tears
Eternal lovely saltiness of life.


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