The Thurlows

Village News & Information

Nature Notes 2018

October 2018

This month’s nature note comes from the Lake District where we have been for a few days, seeing in the autumn, so to speak. The air was much fresher and cooler in the hills there than in our flat southern climes and the trees were noticeably changing into their autumn colours much earlier.  And, of course, the sights and sounds were very different too. I’d climbed up by a rocky mountain stream – a ghyll or gill, as they call them locally – and paused for breath on a lichen-encrusted rock near the top.  The landscape seemed bereft of wildlife of any kind, if you didn’t count the sheep noisily cropping the grass on the hillside and belching methane gas into the atmosphere.  Then, over the rushing sound of the stream, I suddenly heard a bird song you will never hear in East Anglia, or anywhere south and east of Derbyshire come to that. It was a medley of sweet twittering notes mingled with harsher grating ones, which cut through the gurgling noise of the stream and seemed to emerge from the very midst of the current.  As indeed it did.  It was a dipper, a strange bird that lives in these fast-flowing streams, literally ‘dipping’ under the water to feed on caddis larvae, snails and fish eggs on the river-bed, then plopping up to sit briefly on a boulder before flicking off up-stream again.  It looked rather like a squat blackbird with a beer belly and a gleaming white chest.  Indeed, one local folk name for the dipper is ‘water blackbird’.

I’m still sitting quietly on my rock on the hillside and I now become aware of other things I’d never have seen if I’d been striding along the way I usually do.  There are small finch-like birds feeding on the alder trees on the river bank and making a sort of buzzing noise – siskins, which come further south in winter and can sometimes be seen on our bird tables.  A few pale autumn crocuses were peeping out around from the base of the alder trunks and there were mysterious tufts of ferns sprouting from the banks. In a deep pool where the river paused briefly in its headlong descent I could see through the clear water a brown trout winnowing its fins to stay almost motionless in the current. And small tribes of insects were exploring the ground around my feet.   

Put a good naturalist down anywhere in the country and they ought to be able to tell you pretty much where they are quite quickly from just looking at the vegetation and terrain around them and listening to the birds.It was the Lakeland artist and writer, John Ruskin, who reminded us the importance of sometimes just sitting and looking.He said, ‘The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.’

Jeremy Mynott

Lavender Cottage    

 

 

September 2018: Last of the summer nectar

grayling opening wings copyDespite that spell of very hot weather – now a distant memory as autumn closes in on us – it was rather a mixed summer for butterflies. We had the usual range of common species, but the showier ones, like peacock, red admiral and painted lady, seemed to be far fewer in numbers than usual.  But I spent some time on the Suffolk coast, where there was one nice exception – a much more modest and unobtrusive local speciality, the grayling. Graylings are very easy to overlook. For a start they don’t feed on flowers as much as other butterflies do, but are more likely to be found sipping at the sticky resin on fence posts and bark.   They also have the habit of resting on paths to catch the sun and you usually first see them when they fly up in front of and settle again a bit further on.  But they are still hard to spot since they always have their wings closed while at rest and are beautifully camouflaged to blend in with their surroundings, even angling their wings to avoid throwing any shadow. The undersides of the wings, which is all you ever really see, are barred with a subtle combination of grey and tan, in broken lines to break up the outline, and it is only when they take off that you see a flash of the orange markings and the eye-spots, as in my lucky photo.

The Latin specific name is semele and this ties in with the grayling’s rather smoky appearance. Semele in the Greek myth was seduced by Zeus, King of the Gods, who had a fair bit of form in this respect.  Zeus’s wife, Hera, got wind of this – they always do in the end – and tricked Semele into demanding that Zeus prove who he really was.  So, he reluctantly sparked off a little lightning as a demo. But of course, it’s fatal for mere mortals to look upon a god and Semele literally went up in smoke.

The grayling is a late summer butterfly, seen well into September. We also had some end-of-season visits to our coastline from the spectacular humming-bird hawkmoths, which look for all the world like real humming-birds, siphoning the nectar from flowers like valerian, lavender and buddleia with their long, retractable tongues. Like their avian name-sakes, they can whizz forwards, backwards or sideways in an instant, or even helicopter straight up and down.  Amazingly, they are migrants who cross the sea from the continent, and even more amazingly some at least of them migrate back again in the autumn.  They have their own folklore, in this case a modern story that a small party of them was seen flying over the English Channel on 6 June 1944 to bring the glad news of D-Day.  Well, the tale deserves to be true and let’s hope they return to our country next year as well, Brexit or no Brexit.

 

Jeremy Mynott

Lavender Cottage

11 September 2018

 

August 2018: A little local murder mystery

house sparrowA neighbour called me over the other day to help investigate a murder mystery. He showed me the crime scene, right outside his house, and pointed to the three corpses. No incriminating evidence and everyone had a good alibi, so was it suicide, murder or avicide? Avicide? Yes, they were three birds, all house sparrows, only recently expired. None of them showed signs of mutilation, so one could rule out sparrow hawks and cats as the suspects. There were no other signs of a violent death, either. I fancy it was from ‘natural causes’, as we say when we don’t really know the answer – maybe a virus of some kind or an agricultural poison. We shall never know, but it reminded me of a much larger mystery about house sparrows.

Sparrows used to be one of our commonest birds. From the earliest historical times they thrived around human habitations in cities and farms, so much so that they were often regarded as a pest. We exported them to the USA in the mid-nineteenth century (a few were released in Brooklyn in 1853) and in no time at all they had spread from coast to coast. And in the early twentieth century in Britain there were ‘sparrow clubs’ devoted to slaughtering them in their thousands as a public service, but this had little effect on the overall numbers. Only 30 years ago they were still as common as … sparrows. But something very strange has happened. You can search for them in vain in big cities like
London now. A friend of mine used to birdwatch in Hyde Park every day and in ten years he never saw a single sparrow! They had just disappeared. The ‘Cockney sparrow’ became not only an affectionate symbol for a small, cheeky little bird with a touch of endearing vulgarity but, almost unbelievably, an endangered species. So whodunnit?

Scientists have been trying to figure this out and have considered explanations ranging from climate change, improvements in domestic architecture (so fewer nesting holes), growing predator numbers (like magpies and cats), pesticides and poisons. But none of these has seemed a sufficient explanation. The latest theory is that it may be air pollution. The sharp decline in sparrow populations in cities from the 1990s matches exactly the uptake of diesel vehicles in Britain, whose exhaust gases are now known to pose a serious threat to air quality, as any visitor to London can testify. The air in Oxford Street is said to be the most polluted anywhere in the world on some days.

Here in Thurlow we still have several flourishing colonies of house sparrows, I’m glad to say, and the air is certainly better in our Street than in Oxford Street. Long may our cheeky chappies flourish here. Anyway, our three dead sparrows were buried with due solemnity, remembering the words in Hamlet, ‘There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow’.

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage
5 August 2018

July 2018: All change

‘No one steps into the same river twice’, said the Greek philosopher Heracleitus, meaning that the water flowing by in the river today is not the same as yesterday’s, and tomorrow’s will be different again.  Change is the only constant.  He could as well have said ‘No one steps on the same beach twice’.  I’ve been on the Suffolk coast, enjoying this remarkable spell of weather, but I’ve also been doing a bit of work helping to survey the vegetation on the shore at Shingle Street, which is just what it sounds like – all stones, but stones that support a remarkable range of flowering plants.  Every day is a little different and over time the changes have been dramatic.  We have been doing surveys of the vegetation on the shingle banks here for several years now to try and record these changes and see what lessons we can learn about the preservation of these fragile plant communities.  Shingle banks like this are a rarity in Europe and they host a number of very specialised flowering plants that are adapted to this harsh and shifting environment.

This year we again surveyed the whole stretch of shingle in front of this tiny community and we did indeed observe several changes.  The sea kale has been very abundant and was a magnificent spectacle, stretching all the way from Shingle St to East Lane, Bawdsey like a forest of huge cauliflowers sprouting unexpectedly from a desert of stones. Along with Dungeness, Shingle St now has one of the largest colonies of this striking plant anywhere in Britain, but I gather from some older residents that it’s quite a recent colonist here. The sea pea has spread too and there are huge drifts of it in new areas across the shingle.  The clusters of its purple flowers fade to blue later and are then succeeded by succulent seed pods, which are said to have once staved off starvation on the Suffolk coast in the seventeenth century during a famine (but they can cause paralysis if eaten in quantity, just in case you were thinking of trying some).  Scattered amongst these are individual representatives of other shingle specialists like orache, sea beet, sea campion, curly dock, yellow stonecrop and the beautiful yellow-horned poppies (regarded as a weed in North America, curiously, but maybe that’s because they contain dangerous hallucinogens).  

The most striking change, however, is in the expansion of the grasses that now cover much of the central band of shingle between the shoreline and the houses.  That is evidence that the banks have accreted depositions of soil and have to that degree stabilised.  This comes with the further benefit that there are now skylarks singing over the shingle for the first time ever, exploiting the new grassland habitat that has emerged. This comes at a time when skylark populations generally have declined fast – we’ve lost over 60% of them in the last thirty years across the country as a whole.  Shingle St has always been blessed with its larks, however, and it now has a full ‘exaltation’.

 

Jeremy Mynott
3 July 2018 

 

June 2018: Summer falcon

hobbyMost of our birds of prey – kestrel, sparrow hawk, buzzard, peregrine and red kite – are resident in Britain throughout the year, but we have one that is a summer visitor, a small dashing falcon called a hobby.  Why just in summer?  Well, that’s the only season when its favourite prey is available here: swallows, martins and swifts, so it tracks these migrants and follows them here each spring.  And it’s the only raptor with the specialist skills to support such a habit.   It’s the most aerial of all our birds of prey, fast and agile enough to catch these birds on the wing.  Swifts and swallows are pretty nifty fliers themselves, of course, but they are no match for a hunting hobby, which is capable of breath-taking twists and turns at high speed to chase them down.   Hobbies also take dragonflies in large numbers, which they do with almost nonchalant ease, plucking them from the sky as they cruise along and then nearly stalling in mid-air to strip out the parts they want and consume the soft bodies in flight, letting the indigestible casings float down to the ground.  So, a good place to see hobbies is over lakes, marshes or wetlands where dragonflies abound.  They are only occasional visitors over the Thurlows, but you can quite often see them off the triangle of roads between Balsham, Brinkley and Six Mile Bottom, where one or two pairs breed. And very large numbers gather over the marshes in the huge RSPB Lakenheath Reserve in the Brecks, where I have seen up to fifty zooming round the skies early in May before they disperse to breed.  At the end of summer, they again track the swallows and martins back south to their winter quarters, picking off especially the young birds of the year that haven’t yet fully developed their flying skills.

If you see hobbies close up they are readily identifiable by their contrasting white cheeks and black face masks and by their boldly streaked chests; and when perched you can also see their striking rufous-coloured ‘trousered’ thighs.  But they are quite easy to distinguish in flight too, even when distant.  Unlike a kestrel they never really hover, but scythe around, alternately soaring and diving on sharply angled wings, rather like huge swifts.  They are much smaller than, say, buzzards.  Indeed, the Latin name is Falco subbuteo; a buzzard is a buteo, so this literally means ‘a falcon one size down from a buzzard’.  And herein lies an etymological curiosity. Do you remember the table-football game called Subbuteo, which was very popular in the last century?  The inventor of that game, one Peter Adolph, wanted to call it ‘Hobby’, partly because it was a hobby in the other sense and partly because the hobby had always been his favourite bird.  But when he tried to register it as a trade-mark under that name in 1948, the Patents Office refused him for some reason, so he called it by its Latin name instead and they approved that.  Just one more reason for learning Latin.

Jeremy Mynott

28 May 2018

 

 

May 2018: In praise of lions' teeth

dandelion field
If spring has a colour it must be yellow.  The first butterfly on the wing is the brimstone, which may have given the ‘butter-fly’ its name from the lovely butter-yellow colours on those broad floaty wings.  And the first flowers of the year are nearly all yellow, if you think about it, starting with the old gold of the aconite and followed by the fresher, brighter colours of the yellow crocus, the daffodil, and celandine, and then the milky yellow of the primrose and cowslip and the bold brilliance of the dandelion. Dandelion a flower?  Isn’t that a weed?  No, not at all – have you seen the swathes of roadside dandelions in the grass verges at present?  They look like a million little suns.  A million, million if you go to a country like Estonia at this time of year, where they sensibly spend much less on herbicides to sanitise their countryside than we do.  Every road there is bordered with thickly clustered gold medallions, a glorious sight, far outshining the neatly cultivated borders of any municipal park. These wild dandelions are not a bit like the cramped little flat rosettes that press down tightly to the ground in your lawn to avoid the mower.  These are fancy free, nodding their heads like Wordsworth’s daffodils, with fine upstanding jagged green leaves.   

The leaves give them their name of course: dent de lionor ‘lion’s tooth’ and they have long been valued in their own right for both medicinal and culinary purposes.  They were important ingredients in ancient Chinese herbal remedies and were sent over to America in the Mayflower with the first pilgrims. In the nineteenth century dandelions were often grown in greenhouses as a winter substitute for lettuce in salads and ladies used to serve them in sandwiches at their tea parties between thin slices of brown bread. Worth a try, WI?  As health foods, they were especially valued for flushing out toxins in the kidneys and helping to prevent gout in the port-drinking classes. Worth a try, gentlemen?

And a little later in the year, when the golden flower heads give way to those perfect balls of feather-down seeds (about 180 per head on average) they become children’s toy clocks.  The number of puffs you need to blow away all the seeds and send them off down the breeze is supposed to give you the hour of the day – if you believe in it enough, that is, and don’t suffer from hyperventilation.    

But everything in moderation. The long white dandelion roots are said to make very good de-caffeinated coffee if you roast them until brittle and then grind them; but they also have a reputation as diuretics, hence the other French name of pissenlit.  

 

Jeremy Mynott

5 May 2018 

 

April 2018: Where's spring?

 

I used to listen devotedly every week to Alistair Cooke’s weekly ‘Letter from America’. He wrote 2,869 of them over 50 years and often used to complain that some big news item would break just after he’d done his radio recording, making a nonsense of what he had just said.  Pity then the humble nature diarist, who has to submit his magazine copy a whole month before it will appear.  I’m writing this one on 1 April and am tempted to say that we’re victims of a national weather hoax.  Where is the Spring?  The Beast from the East froze us rigid in the first week of March and since then it has remained mostly dull, raw, chilly and wet.  The chiffchaff – usually our first summer migrant – did arrive in late March but it has fallen silent again (who could blame it?), and I have yet to hear my first blackcap of the year or see my first brimstone butterfly.  Meanwhile, the early spring flowers keep raising their heads only to bow them down again like drooping bonnets after yet another overnight frost.

Spring will surely have arrived by the time you read this, but it may be a short and accelerated one with the usual phased sequences tightly compressed. And that could be disturbing in a quite different way.  For centuries people have looked for the first swallow or listened for the first cuckoo as the welcome signs of the new season. There is a Greek vase from the sixth century BC where two men and a boy are pointing excitedly upwards and their speech bubbles say: A ‘Look, what’s that?’; B ‘Good lord, it’s a swallow’; C ‘So it is, it must be spring!’.  These regularities are also a deep reassurance, as the poet Ted Hughes recognised, when he said of the swift’s appearance in early May (one of our last migrants to arrive): 

They’ve made it again,

Which means that the globe’s still working, 

the Creation’s still waking refreshed, 

our summer’s still to come…

But if everything arrives at once all the carefully calibrated interdependencies will be disturbed.  Will the right flowers be in bloom for the pollinating butterflies and bees? Will the teeming caterpillars that birds depend on to feed their young emerge punctually? Will the clouds of flying insects be available in the upper air for those swifts to hoover up? 

Other cultures have different seasonal markers.  In Japan, for example, it’s the flowering of the cherry blossom that is celebrated; in the USA the arrival of the purple martin, the blue bird or the robin – that is, the American robin, which is bigger than ours (of course!) and really a kind of thrush.  Hence the scope for cross-cultural misunderstandings, as when Madame Butterfly in Puccini’s opera complains that her lover, the American Pinkerton, said he would return ‘when the robin comes’ but didn’t show up.  Pinkerton was lying, but they were talking about different ‘robins’ anyway.  Our robins are here all year, but they too are awaiting the spring.

 

Jeremy Mynott
1 April 2018

 

March 2018: All at sea

Well, the whole nation was entranced by Blue Planet 2, wasn’t it?  It was the most popular TV programme in 2017, peaking with 17 million viewers.  It beat all the familiar favourites like Strictly Come Dancing, The X Factor, The Great British Bake-off and I’m a Celebrity: Get Me out of Here.  Of course, Blue Planet had a celebrity of its own presenting it, the wonderful David Attenborough, who is the nearest thing we have to a secular saint in Britain and a gold-plated national treasure.  But the great thing about Attenborough as a presenter is that he doesn’t seek centre stage himslef, as most other presenters do.  In fact, he only appears before the camera once or twice in the whole series.  What he does is draw us in with his boyish enthusiasm and curiosity and then show us things.  Extraordinary things in the case of Blue Planet 2:  like the bottle-nose dolphins surfing the waves, the Humboldt squid eating each other when they had run out of lantern fish to snack on, the giant trevally leaping out of the water to catch terns flying over, orca whales hunting in packs, the tusk fish smashing clams on a rock, the female giant wrasse nimbly changing gender to thwart male advances, and a high IQ octopus collaborating with a coral grouper to flush out prey from rock crevices.  All the sex and violence you could possibly want in an evening’s entertainment, and OK to watch without guilt, since it was just about fish, cetaceans and cephalopods doing what comes naturally.  

Or was it? Was it actually about us? It certainly packed a moral punch at the end, when Attenborough showed us the extent of the damage we are inflicting on marine life, whether through our careless dumping of tons of plastic waste in the oceans, through overfishing, or through our contributions to climate change and the acidification of the seas, which are destroying our precious coral reefs.  The images couldn’t have been more vivid, or harrowing: a turtle choking on a plastic bag, dead fish in their thousands floating in polluted waters, an albatross hooked on a long line, and the Great Barrier Reef bleaching and dying before our very eyes.   It illustrated a larger paradox in our national life.  We love watching wildlife on TV. We join conservation bodies like the RSPB (over a million members) and the National Trust (over five million members).  We tend our gardens and feed our birds like no other country, and we sing of England’s ‘green and pleasant land’. But there are 40 million fewer birds in Britain than there were in 1970, we’ve lost over 50% of our ancient woodlands and a staggering 99% of our flowering meadows.  Yet when did you last hear a politician talking seriously about wildlife conservation?  Did the 17 million viewers of Blue Planet ever look beyond their TV screens?

Jeremy Mynott
1 March 2018

 

February 2018: To-wit To-what?

There is a madrigal by the seventeenth-century composer, Thomas Vautor, called ‘Sweet Suffolk Owl’, which begins:

Sweet Suffolk owl, so trimly dight
With feathers, like a lady bright;
Thou sing'st alone, sitting by night,
'To whit! To whoo!'

The one I heard the other night along the Temple End Road, sounded more like a quavering ooooooo, but never mind.  In truth, we all see and hear what we want to with owls.  With the possible exception of penguins, they are the most easily humanised of all birds.  The combination of the upright stance on two legs, the soft tubby body-shape, large heads, flat faces, big round eyes and the steady gaze make them perfect material for the soft toys department.  Add their magical ability to see in the dark, the extraordinarily acute hearing, their other-worldly cries and silent flight, and you can see how perfectly adapted they are as a receptacle into which we project a whole range of human affections and fears. They have accordingly featured in fables from the time of Aesop onwards and provide such favourite characters in children’s stories as Old Brown in Beatrix Potter, the (dyslexic) Wol in A.A. Milne, Wise Owl in Alison Uttley, and most recently the snowy owl, Hedwig, in J.K. Rowling.  But they also play darker symbolic roles in many of the world’s myths and legends: ‘an abomination’ according to the Bible, Shakespeare’s ‘fatal bellman’, and ‘birds of omen dark and foul’ for Sir Walter Scott.  But how can they be the stuff both of innocent fancies and of nightmares?   How can the proverbial ‘wise owl’ also serve as the dread portent of death and disaster?

It’s all down to some very special biological adaptations that have accidentally given rise to these cultural perceptions. Owls are neither wise nor ominous by constitution, but are superbly equipped predators.  Those ‘flat faces’ are really large facial discs shaped to funnel to their super-sensitive ears the faintest sounds made by invisible scurrying rodents.  A tawny owl also has an exceptional spatial memory to enable it to navigate through familiar woodlands in almost pitch darkness; and in order to help with night vision their eyes are so large that they occupy all the space in the eye-sockets – they can’t therefore swivel their eyes but can compensate by rotating their heads by up to 270 degrees.   Their flight feathers have special baffles at the forward edge to muffle the sound of their wings and give them the advantage of surprise.  And so on, every detail serving a purpose.  The precision and efficacy of these adaptations is astonishing – and quite reason enough to prompt a sense of wonder… or even inspire a madrigal.

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage
9 February 2018

 

January 2018

hawfinch
Staverton Thicks is a relict fragment of ancient forest near Butley on the Suffolk coast.  It’s like a child’s idea of a haunted wood, straight out of one of Grimm’s fairy stories as illustrated by Arthur Rackham, full of mysteries and surprises – with a hint of menace too.  There are huge gnarled oaks there and some of the tallest hollies in Britain, all tangled together in a wonderful profusion of trunks and branches. It’s quite dark in places, but there are also sunny glades where some forest giant has crashed to the ground and torn a rent in the dense canopy.  Trees lie where they fall, decaying undisturbed, and you have to pick your way over and round them. It’s easy to lose one’s sense of direction, but there is also a sense of glorious seclusion and tranquillity, even though you are never more than half a mile from the surrounding tracks.   You can imagine yourself deep in one the great oak-wood forests that once graced this country and are so much a part of our folklore and history –  Sherwood, Arden, Epping.  It’s all totally unmanaged, untidied and unspoiled – so of course a haven for wildlife of all kinds.

Insects abound in the rotting timber, and these in turn attract woodpeckers, tits and tree creepers.  Redstarts and flycatchers breed here, so do tawny owls, and on one memorable spring day I even heard the fugitive, bell-like song of a golden oriole from somewhere in the upper branches.  I never saw or heard it again, alas, so it must have been a passing migrant, but it seemed very much in place in this secret wilderness. I also found some hawfinch in the Thicks recently and it’s worth looking for those in the woods round Thurlow too, since there has been an invasion of these large finches from central Europe into southern England this year.   Hawfinches are built rather like little parrots, bull-headed and with massive bills capable of cracking open the hardest kernels of stone-fruits.  They’ve been described as ‘flying nutcrackers’.  They are quite colourful too – with buffy breasts and blackis-blue wings broken by a bold white wing bar; but they are very shy and wary birds and are most likely to be seen suddenly flying up from the forest floor, emitting a volley of explosive and metallic tick calls.

The history of the Staverton Thicks is something of a mystery, but I like to believe the story that the land was once farmed by the monks of Boyton Priory, who at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538 were told that they could take just one last crop from the land.  So … they planted acorns. Now, that’s real forward thinking for you.  Don’t believe governments who say they will replace the old woods they are clearing to build motorways and high-speed rail links with new trees.  You can’t create old trees any more than you can make old friends.

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage

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