From Monday 18th January 2021, we have once again arranged for hearing aid batteries to be available for our customers from Lo's Pharmacy on Pond Road.
Many thanks to the staff at Lo's Pharmacy for enabling this valued service to continue in the village.
Status Update 13 January 2021
Because of the current Covid-19 situation, the trustees of Stannington Library have, with great regret, decided that the volunteer library must close from Monday 18th January.
You can place orders for books up to 3.45pm on Friday 15th January. Saturday 16th January will be our last day of opening for books previously ordered to be collected, or you can take a Pot Luck bag of free books, or a free jigsaw puzzle, if you prefer.
Although the current rules allow us to stay open, we have taken the decision to close in the light of the Chief Medical Officer’s clear advice to everyone to stay at home and avoid all unnecessary contacts. Our first concern is the safety of the public, and also our volunteers, most of whom are in vulnerable groups.
We will keep the situation under review and hope to re-open for Order & Collect Services soon. Please look out for further announcements on this website, on our Facebook page @StanningtonLibrary or on our Twitter page @booksSTAND.
Here are Jan Flamank's Nature Notes for January 2021. Click on each photo to see a larger photo on a new page. For downloadable pdf versions of each topic, see the links below.
Jan has decided NOT TO PUT THE ANSWERS to the December Nature Quiz on the website this month but will include them with the Nature Notes for February. This will give time for Tuesday Club members to receive their Autumn to Winter Nature Booklets, which will also give lots of the answers within the text. The new booklets will be ready soon!
Many of us have been lucky enough to enjoy watching birds in our gardens and local green spaces, especially in these tough, but necessary, times of lockdown.
The RSPB does a fantastic job each year of encouraging us all to be ‘social scientists’, reporting which birds we have nearby. January is the time for the annual Big Garden Birdwatch, and it only needs an hour of our time. It is a really useful way of recording and understanding patterns in bird behaviour, and changes in the number of those small local birds we can easily take for granted in our gardens. It is the largest wildlife survey in the world and very easy to be part of. Simply join by going to rspb.org.uk, where you will find all the information you need. They will also post out a paper copy of the bird I.D. and information sheets if that is better for you. The number is 01767 693690.
So, between January 29th and 31st 2021, settle down with a cuppa or a coffee, specs on, or with binoculars if you have any, and record which birds you can see in your garden, over one hour. What a simple, delightful thing to do.
We know to keep feeding our garden birds through winter with high energy food such as sunflower seeds - which are actually tiny nuts - fat balls and mealworms, and ensure they have supplies of fresh water too. Fill the feeders little and often, keep them clean, and I also leave a few apples on the lawn and put out grated cheese and dried fruit on the table feeder.
Alongside this reminder, some really useful smallish trees to attract birds to our gardens in winter are: Native Rowan, best with red or pink berries, Holly, Ivy, Crab Apple, Hawthorn, Hazel, all providing food, shelter and beauty.
Enjoy all the birds who visit, whether natives or visitors like waxwings, and nearby European neighbours who swell our numbers of blackbirds, robins, etc.
Vulpes Vulpes, a member of the dog family, Canidae
A remarkable native mammal, whose depiction in children’s books, folklore and media have fostered their fearsome reputation, the fox still divides opinion. They have also become much more common in urban areas, due to their incredible versatility and ability to adapt to widely variable habitats.
Our native Red Fox is the largest of the fox species with males weighing up to 18lbs. Like dogs, they have a long muzzle, slim legs and four-toed pads with 5 claws on their front feet and 4 on their hind feet. Their resplendent, bushy tail makes up to 40 % of their length, and varies in thickness depending on the season and their overall health. Males have a broader muzzle and are slightly larger than females, but it can be hard to distinguish them at distance.
Although related to dogs, foxes also display behaviour similar to cats. They hunt with feline stealth, stalking and pouncing on prey; even catching fish from a pond with a front paw. They are also excellent climbers, and sit and sleep with their magnificent tail curled round them for warmth.
Their lustrous coat is in peak condition during our winter months, and the variations in coat colour are called morphs. They have a fine, grey underfur that provides insulation, and longer top coat guard hairs which contain the melanin pigmentation that gives the pelt its glorious rufous colours.
Vixens come into oestrous – with ovulation triggered by shortening daylight - in winter, for up to 3 weeks, but are only receptive to mating for about 3 days a year. Peak mating season is January, which is when we hear the distinctive scream of the vixen, advertising her presence to the male. He is super attentive during this time, known as mate-guarding, and he follows her day and night, awaiting her receptiveness. During these 3 brief days, she scent marks all over her territory, and mating is a noisy ritual of wailing, shrieks and chittering sounds. Foxes remain as a resident pair within their permanent territory, breeding every season together, and have strong lifelong bonds.
Part of the common dislike of foxes is our inappropriate tendency to impose human feelings onto a wild animal. It is understandably upsetting if all our garden chickens are killed by a fox, but the instinct of a wild animal is to take prey at every opportunity, then store it for later. So, keeping chickens in an artificially small, confined area means they need to be properly protected.
Foxes have a hugely varied diet, including rabbits, rodents, earthworms, eggs, fruits and carrion in what is known as optimal foraging – changing their diet to ensure they get the best energy reward for the effort used in finding the food. Urban foxes have been with us since the 1930’s, mainly due to our housing encroachment on their natural habitats. They may explore bins, but prey mainly on rats, mice and pigeons, doing a great job of urban pest control.
Members of the Lepidoptera order of insects
We tend to think of moths as pesky little things that munch through our favourite jumpers, but they are far more fascinating than that, and it is the larvae that eat the wool, not the adult moth. Despite the shocking decline in both the number and variety of insects, moths remain far more numerous than butterflies and are often very beautiful. There are many more species of moth than butterfly, with over 2,500 moth species in the UK, who often rely on specific plants and trees for their lifecycle. We tend to ignore moths as they are mainly nocturnal - active at night - so we see them less often, especially so in the winter months.
Moths are fantastically adapted to their nocturnal lifestyle:
The Winter Moth, one of the many geometrid moths, flies only at night, and it is the male which does so. The female has tiny, useless wings and her only, brief role is to mate and lay eggs. She will sit on tree trunks after dark, and is one of the moth species whose caterpillars can infest and devastate orchards, so gardeners often have moth traps on their fruit trees.
I have a lovely old book I bought in a charity shop, by Richard South, called The Moths of the British Isles, first published in 1908. It has marvellous drawings and paintings of moths as you would expect, but what I most enjoy are all the names of the moths.
Here are a few I really like:
Sharp-angled Carpet, Dark Spinach, The Scarce Tissue, Chimney Sweeper, Cloaked Pug, Slender-striped Rufous, Drab Looper, Bloomers Rivulet, Dingy Footman and the Scorched Carpet. Fabulous names.
We are still uncertain about why moths are attracted to bright lights, but the best ideas so far are concerned with how moths navigate at night. As with other unsung species, we will learn more when we value them more.
© Jan Flamank 1st January 2021. All rights reserved. Images used in the document have been sourced free for use in this social, educational, non-commercial setting
Here is Jan Flamank's Nature Quiz for December 2020 - answers will be published in January 2021. Click on the photo collage to see a larger version on a new page. Click on the link for a downloadable pdf version of Nature Quiz.
A small nature quiz for the festive season – answers in January!
© Jan Flamank 1st December 2020. All rights reserved. Images used in the document have been sourced free for use in this social, educational, non-commercial setting
Here are Jan Flamank's Nature Notes for November 2020. Click on each photo to see a larger photo on a new page. For downloadable pdf versions of each topic see the links below.
Halichoerus Grypus, from Greek, meaning ‘hook- nosed sea pig’
Whilst the majority of mammals already have their offspring by now, grey seals give birth to their pups between September and December, and November is the favoured month for female grey seals to return to land to give birth. The UK is home to over half of the world population of these lovely creatures, and the Norfolk, Northumberland and west Scottish coasts are really important beaches during the breeding season.
Much larger than the Common Seal, female Grey Seals are up to 2.5 metres in length, with males often 3 metres, weighing up to 440 kg. That is an impressive size, and especially when weaning their pups, we need to respect them and keep a good distance away. Mothers are very protective of their pups until they are weaned, and will attack human intruders if provoked. Rightly so, I reckon.
The pups are born above the high tide mark, and weigh about 14kg at birth. They grow rapidly on the rich milk from their mother, which is 60% fat, enabling them to put on 2kg a day, laying down thick layers of blubber to insulate them from cold seas. They have delightful white fur for the first two to three weeks of life, but are abandoned by their mother at 3 weeks old to fend for themselves.
Weaned pups spend the next few days and weeks resting, without eating or drinking, and are vulnerable to being trampled by the male bulls, washed off rocks in stormy weather, or disturbed by tourist invasions. Rookeries, where all the pups are born and weaned, are very noisy places. Pups cry like babies, mothers howl at each other, and the bulls grunt and whiffle, sounding like steam trains!
Moulting their white fur, pups reveal the mottled grey coat of the adult. Driven by hunger, they take to the offshore sea, rapidly developing their hunting skills and taste for fish, crustaceans, eels and squid. They are protected to some extent by the Grey Seal Protection Act of 1941, after they were hunted almost to extinction; but still they are allowed to be shot in the ‘open season’ by fishermen and fishery owners who compete for the fish they eat.
Once weaning is over, the huge males mate with the females, after often bloody battles with other males for dominance. The female then does this amazing thing of delaying implantation of the fertilized egg, keeping it safe inside her body for months, so that she will give birth at the same time each year, after a pregnancy of about 7 months. Females live for up to 45 years, the males less at 25, as they are battered by their yearly territorial and mating disputes.
If you are lucky enough to see seal colonies and pups at this time of year, make sure you stay at least 20 metres away, keep dogs on a lead, keep quiet and don’t ever play with frisbees ( as if! ) as they cause awful damage to seals when caught round their neck.
We have talked before about this well known and magnificent tree, but this year has been particularly marvellous for the sheer number of acorns that have been produced. When I go for walks in my local Cat Lane Woods, the acorns have formed a thick rubble on the ground, which looks fantastic, but are also a bit slithery to walk on.
Huge production of seeds is called a ‘mast’ year, and it occurs every 2 to 5 years. There are various theories, but good weather in spring, when pollination of the blossom occurs, is the major factor. The very sunny weather we had in spring positively effects all the oak trees in any location, resulting in them all producing excellent acorns now. More seeds means more oak saplings, and the continuation of our most marvellous, common broadleaf tree. The oak supports the widest variety of invertebrates, insect species, lichen and fungi of any tree in the UK, providing a rich habitat for more than 500 species, so it is incredibly important in maintaining biodiversity.
There is a fascinating, symbiotic relationship between fungi and the oak ecosystem. The Oakbug Milkcap has ultrafine filaments, known as mycrorrhiza, which act as extensions to the oaks root system. The fungi collect extra nutrients and moisture from the soil through these fine filaments, which can then be absorbed by the tree, in exchange for constant sugars from the tree, through photosynthesis.
Pedunculate refers to how the acorns grow from the branch, suspended by long, thin stalks - peduncles - often in pairs. The acorns, snug in their tight fitting cups are clearly visible amongst the almost stalkless leaves, and this is a native tree that most people can recognise. Our only other native oak is the Sessile Oak, where the acorns grow tightly against the branch, and these two can hybridise.
Acorns are an important food source for both birds and mammals, and ‘pannage’ is the term still used for the right to turn pigs loose in woods to feast on the acorns.
Jays are also fond of acorns, and do a great job of increasing the chance of new oaks springing up, away from the shading canopy of the parent tree. Like squirrels, Jays bury lots of acorn seeds as a larder to come back to in cooler months, and like squirrels, they sometimes forget where they put them. They fly with them, secure in their beak for some distance, until they find a spot where they want to store them, and dig a hole with their beak and push the acorn in. It seems a shame that they can then forget where they are, and their larder can also be raided by clever corvids and squirrels watching their efforts. But being forgotten is a positive for the acorn, as it can grow into a new tree. The posh name for seed dispersal by animals is zoochory - which would be a great Scrabble word too!
The botanical name of Quercus Robur means sturdy, and the dense, durable timber of oak, together with its lovely colour, made it widely used for construction over many centuries. Laws were passed in Elizabethan times to protect the oak, as too many trees had been felled for house and ship building, and there was a subsequent, extensive planting of new oaks in royal forests; many of which still survive and can be enjoyed today.
Oak has dense timber because it grows so slowly, therefore it is used mainly for furniture rather than in the paper industry. Standard oaks will live easily up to 300 or 400 years, and can reach 140 feet tall, but the much shorter, ancient pollard or coppiced oaks can be up to 1000 years old, and are mostly found in medieval parkland.
If you ever get the chance to visit Wistmans Wood on Dartmoor, do go, or look up some images of it if you can. I used an image of these woods in the October Nature Notes. It looks rather scrubby from a distance, with some oaks clinging to a valley by the West Dart river, and has no signposts to help you find it. But once inside, you are transported to a totally unique and amazing place. The oaks are all ancient, many over 1000 years old, contorted and barely 15 feet tall, because they were all coppiced; and now lie neglected amidst huge granite boulders, all covered in masses of moss, lichen and ferns.
The unique ecosystem of these woods has evolved untouched for so long because the boulders protect them from grazing sheep and deer, and the very difficult, lumpy ground and short trunks means they are of no use to destructive logging, and defeat most walkers.
Hurrah for some truly neglected wild places I say. Long may that wood be left alone, but enjoy some local woods nearby if you can.
Garrulus Glandarius from the Latin for ‘noisy acorn eater’
A medium sized member of the corvid family of birds, all of whom are incredibly intelligent, the jay is the brightest coloured of them all. It is about the same size as a pigeon, 13 inches long, and with a wingspan of 22 inches. But it remains elusive, even with its striking plumage and harsh, loud alarm call.
This is because they are woodland birds, favouring oak woods as well as living in coniferous, mixed forests, so are less likely to be seen in gardens or parkland. This is changing due to the loss of their traditional habitats, so they are adapting to living closer to us in more urban environments, which are called ‘analogue habitats’ and include our gardens and parks. You’ll be very lucky if they come to your garden, but you will need to have mature trees for them to visit.
Widespread, the jay we see is one of more than 30 species, all with colourful distinct plumage. Both sexes are very similar, with the lovely blue flash on the outer wing feathers. This glorious patch of colour led to it being heavily persecuted and shot in Victorian times, as the blue feathers were used to decorate hats and other desired accessories. Thankfully, this vile practice has mostly ceased, and their numbers are now stable.
Rarely straying very far beyond their birthplace, each autumn our resident UK population is swollen by jays moving west from Europe, when food is scarce. Sometimes we have huge numbers joining us, which is called an irruption, due to extreme continental weather.
Autumn is the time for stocking our larders, and unusually for birds, jays are well known for hoarding nuts. They are especially fond of acorns and beech nuts, and when they have eaten their fill, they carry the nuts in their beaks to a favoured spot and either bury it, cover it with leaf litter, or jam them into crevices in tree bark. A single jay has been known to hide as many as 5,000 acorns in one season, which is an impressive pantry! Although they have excellent memories, not all the acorns are re-found, so jays are also fantastic at helping new oak saplings establish, away from the parent tree.
Jay also eat insects, invertebrates, berries, fruits and also small mammals and eggs and chicks of small birds. Their omnivorous diet and ability to adapt to changing habitats helps them to survive better than many other birds. They have an average lifespan of 4 years, although one ringed jay survived for over 16 years.
They are predated by gamekeepers, tawny owls, sparrowhawks, peregrines and goshawks, and will work together, ‘mobbing’ roosting owls in the daytime. Another fascinating behaviour that jays exhibit is ‘anting’. This is when the jay seeks out an ant nest, then picks up ants in its beak and rubs them all over their wings, or simply lets the ants crawl over it. Feeling threatened, the ants release formic acid, which kills any parasites, bacterial and fungal infections that the jay may have. This may also be a way for the jay to ensure the ant has released its formic acid before eating it, so it tastes more palatable.
Corvids are some of my most favourite birds, all highly intelligent - tool users, able to plan ahead, often very sociable and collaborative in how they live - and the jay is the most gorgeously coloured and easily recognisable of this clever family of birds.
© Jan Flamank 1st November 2020. All rights reserved. Images used in the document have been sourced free for use in this social, educational, non-commercial setting
Here are Jan Flamank's Nature Notes for October 2020. Click on each photo to see a larger photo in a new page. For downloadable pdf versions of each topic see the links below.
The Goldcrest is our smallest native bird, found mainly in coniferous woodland and often heard more than seen, as it is only up to 3.5 inches long and weighs less than a quarter of an ounce, or 5-7 g. It is always on the move in the dense foliage, well camouflaged as it flickers round the branches, hovering and picking insects and spiders from the tree. They can also hang upside down when searching for food beneath leaves, and have very sharp, thin beaks that act like tweezers. Usually well hidden in conifers, they sometimes visit the ground to peck seeds and insects from snow covered surfaces.
Well named, it has a bright yellow or orange crown on the top of its head, bordered in black, and this bright crown is raised into a small crest when alarmed. They have a high pitched song and alarm call.
What amazes me for such a tiny bird, is that in our autumn, our resident population can increase fivefold by large numbers of Goldcrests migrating across the North Sea to spend winter here. They fly here from the Baltic, Finland and even Russia, covering over 600 miles in one week.
They are effective breeding birds, with 2 broods a year of up to 20 nestlings in one season. They have also benefitted from widespread conifer plantations across the UK, with the fast growing trees used in lumber and paper production. Both parents make the small spherical nest, with 3 layers for insulation, made with cobwebs, lichen, moss and lined with feathers and hair. It is so small and well concealed in the dense foliage, it is rarely predated.
They feed all day in autumn, building up energy for the cooler nights, huddling together in thick cover to keep warm. I would love to see that! I have seen Goldcrests in conifer woodland, but it was mostly an impression of fluttering movements as they restlessly foraged for insects.
The Firecrest is another tiny bird, closely related to the Goldcrest, similarly secretive, but they do sometimes interbreed. Firecrests are less numerous here, but are found mainly in the South East. They migrate from central Europe, but prefer more open mixed woodland, and may also inhabit gardens with exotic conifers. When they feed together with Goldcrests they tend to feed lower down in the trees than the Goldcrest, so leaving space for each other to hopefully find enough food. Sensible and kind, this is a lovely lesson for us all from these very small birds.
We tend to think of hail as winter phenomenon, as it is ice, but in fact we always have hailstorms in the warmer summer months, so why is this?
It is all because the big convective clouds reach their highest elevation in summer, when the surface is strongly heated by the sun, and also when they have the most moisture in them, so evaporation is at a high rate too. Both of these occur in the summer months. The higher the clouds go, away from the warm surface of the earth, the colder they become.
Cumulonimbus clouds, which produce hail, are convective clouds, formed by warmer, summer air pulling away from the surface of the earth, contrasting with the relatively much cooler air above the cloud. The clouds form and transport heat up into the atmosphere by the process of convection, and the strong updraughts of ascending air, and downdraughts, enable hail to form inside the cloud.
These clouds contain large water droplets and hail forms within the cloud from tiny ice crystals called graupel. The hailstones become bigger inside the cloud, due to the accumulation of supercooled water droplets as they are borne upwards on rapidly rising air. The hailstones have to build up sufficient layers of ice to be heavy enough to fall out of the cloud onto earth. They do this by moving up and down in the cloud on the water- rich updraught, adding icy layers to themselves. It is possible to count the ice layers in a large hailstone and have an idea of how many times it moved up and down in the cloud.
So, the next time we have a summer hailstorm, think of the tiny ice crystals becoming larger as they move up and down in the cloud, encountering very cold water droplets and making extra layers of ice, prior to making headlines in the local news. It is a summer weather event to marvel at - buy try to avoid being out in it, as they can hurt if they land on your head!
This is our most tiny shrew, widespread throughout the UK and surprisingly resilient given its minute size. It is only 2.5 inches long, but its long hairy tail of 1.5 inches adds to the overall length.
As such a small warm bloodied mammal, it has a proportionately larger surface area than bigger mammals and so loses body heat quickly. Many mammals grow longer fur to combat the cold, but this tactic would hinder the movement of such a small creature, so after the moult in autumn, its fur stays at about 3mm long all over. We don’t know why it happens or how it is controlled, but the autumn moult starts on the rump, working up towards the long nose, but the spring moult does the reverse, starting at the nose then working towards the rump. Wild indeed.
Being so small has some advantages, and the pygmy shrew can hide effectively in a wide range of habitats, including fissures in rocky outcrops, but prefers long grass and shrubby vegetation in woodland where they can also easily feast on their prey. They mainly eat spiders, beetles, woodlice and snails and feed almost constantly, as they have to consume 25% more than their own weight every day, just to keep alive. That is a huge amount of tucker!
Luckily, it has a very efficient digestive system, and excellent hearing that picks up the minute sounds of moving invertebrates. Their wonderfully long nose is covered with hairs that detect movements of prey in the undergrowth. Once they pounce on a spider or woodlice they bite it with teeth that are red at the tip, due to iron oxide in their enamel. Juicy snails also provide water for them. Pygmy shrews have a very high metabolic rate, with a heart rate of 250 beats per minute, and a breathing rate of 200 breaths a minute and live a short, fast life of only up to a year in the wild, with many dying within 4 months of birth.
Solitary creatures apart from mating, they usually have 2 litters of 4 to 7 young, born mainly April to September. They grow rapidly on the rich milk of their mother, increasing their size 10 fold in just 2 weeks. They are independent at about 3 weeks old, and then leave the nest to establish their own territory. Wet and cold weather is the biggest cause of mortality, as they impede the shrew’s ability to keep warm and find enough food.
We are unlikely to see live pygmy shrews, who are themselves a tasty snack for owls, but the next time you walk near woodland or long grass, imagine them rushing about, foraging and feasting on small invertebrates, resting only in very short naps of a few minutes in their hidden undergrowth homes. And the proud possessors of red tipped teeth.....
Most of us are much more aware now of the unavoidable fact that humans are by far the most destructive species on this planet. Thankfully, we are also more aware of what we can do to change our behaviours, rebalance our relationship with the natural world and repair some of the damage we have done.
An important concern with regard to increasing global warming is the vital issue of carbon capture and the role of trees. As with all these complex environmental challenges, our responses need to be equally multifaceted and thought through to ensure long term benefits. We can do this.
High quality research is ongoing in the UK and beyond, and the Woodland Trust and Wildlife Trusts are doing fantastic work on our responses, along with many environmentalists, Defra and other organisations. This all helps, a lot.
We know that trees are excellent at capturing and storing carbon, but which are the best and how can we intelligently plan ahead to reduce climate change and restore some of the vast losses of natural habitats for wildlife? It is not enough to just pledge to plant vast numbers of trees in the UK. We need to know what to plant, where to plant and to avoid the mistakes we made with huge conifer plantations. We must also stop stripping the soil of all its nutrients with chemicals and overgrazing. As I have said before, many times, if we have poor soil, we cannot have healthy plants and without plants, we will ultimately, have nothing....
So, a huge challenge faces us, but we have reflection, intelligence (with notable well known exceptions!) and environmental sciences to help us plan well and make a real, positive difference. Phew.
Here are some useful facts about carbon capture from the Woodland Trust:
Broadleaf trees are better at storing carbon than conifers, with beech trees in the top 5 for locking up destructive CO 2. This is due to their high timber density. Fast growing conifers are good for easy financial gain, but not for long term sustainability, eco -diversity and reducing climate change. Soils store a huge 72% of the total carbon capture for a wood, with tree trunks, limbs and leaves locking up 17%, tree roots 6% and deadwood 5%.UK woodland captures 20million tonnes of CO 2 annually, and we can improve on this by planting trees most effectively across our small island.
We may not all have the resources or space to contribute to mass tree planting, but we are all aware of the small, incrementally useful things we can do to help now:
If you have a garden, or community space, plant a new tree if you can. Autumn is the best time to do this, when the earth is still warm and the trees have time to establish before new growth in the springtime. Think small and native, and make a square planting hole as the roots establish more firmly than in a round one. Ensure it is well watered in the first few years of growth.
All the usual daily eco-helpers of reduce, reuse, recycle to avoid waste.
Don’t fly! Leave that to our perfectly adapted feathered friends, but do put out some sustaining seeds and water for them throughout the cooler months.
Enjoy the glorious colours of autumn as our broadleaf trees lose their leaves and prepare for a period of dormancy over winter.
If you get the chance, read The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, an inspiring book for the longer evenings.
© Jan Flamank October 1st 2020. All rights reserved. Images used in the documents have been sourced free for use in this social, educational, non-commercial setting.
Here are Jan Flamank's Nature Notes for August 2020. Click on each photo to see a larger photo in a new page. For downloadable pdf versions of each topic see the links below.
The Eurasian Otter
A member of the Mustelidae family, our native otters are surprisingly large, lithe and energetic carnivorous mammals. Semi-aquatic and mostly nocturnal, they can be difficult to see, despite being so large at over 1metre/ 3.25 feet long.
They are excellent swimmers and are the only Mustelid to have webbed feet, with five clawed toes. They swim low in the water, with only their eyes, nose and top of their broad head and back visible above the surface. Their strong ability in the water is helped by their long, muscular tail, which is slightly longer than their body, at up to 16 inches long. This tail acts as a rudder when they are swimming, and also helps them to balance on land when they stand up straight on their hind legs, to have a good look around.
Eurasian Otters are at home in both fresh and sea water, although river otters tend to be more nocturnally active than sea otters, who are diurnal, because they have to feed at low tide. River otters breed all year round, but coastal otters mainly breed in summer, with cubs emerging from their holt in autumn to take advantage of seasonal fish stocks. Coastal otters also need to have access to fresh water, to wash their dense coat clean after a swim in the sticky salt of the sea.
When otters dive for food, they close their nostrils and ears shut and can reach speeds of 7 miles an hour with their streamlined, muscular body. They have large lungs, enabling them to hold their breath for up to 4 minutes underwater. They have incredibly dense, sleek fur to insulate them from the cold water, with a double layered coat that has over 70,000 hairs per square metre!
Otters are carnivorous and have a wide diet, depending on their habitat, but with fish making up about 80% of their catch. They especially love eels, which are rich in fats. They are opportunistic feeders and their diet can also include octopus, frogs, toads, eggs, ducks and rabbits!
Otter poo, known as spraint, is small for such a large mammal, and is a complex messaging service to other otters. It is used to defend their territory, indicate readiness to mate and pronounce which otter has been there. The spraint contains over 100 different scent components, and otters spend a lot of time both marking their patch and ‘reading’ messages left by other otters.
Solitary and secretive creatures, most of us may only see the chain of silvery bubbles at the water surface that gives away their presence underwater. So, think yourself highly fortunate if you manage to see one in its full glory - feasting on its catch, basking in sunshine or preening that magnificent pelt to keep it waterproof and warm.
I saw a family of young otters on holiday in Scotland when I was little, and they were so enchanting, my twin brother and I decided we would like to keep one in the bath at home...... which of course, never happened.
Our smallest native rodent, the tiny harvest mouse weighs the same as a 2 pence piece, about 5 grams, with a body just 8 centimetres long. Although so small, they are expert climbers, using their hairless, prehensile tail, the same length as their body, to help them cling to the stalks of long grasses. They live in reed beds, grass, wet meadows, hedgerows and farm crops of wheat and oats. They are well camouflaged, and hide themselves in dense vegetation to avoid detection by predators, detecting them with their excellent hearing. They have rather poor eyesight, although their large eyes are positioned on the side of their head to give them almost 360 vision.
Helping them to cling onto and climb tall vegetation are their adapted feet, which are relatively broad, and they have an opposable inner toe that gives them extra grip.
Like many small mammals with short lifespans - they live about 18 months at most - they reach sexual maturity quickly and are able to have up to three litters each breeding season. Vulnerable to predation from stoats, weasels, foxes, cats and some birds, they are also at risk in cold, wet weather. They do not hibernate and their very fine, pale ginger fur offers little protection from the elements.
Most known for building a remarkable nest, they weave this small, spherical ball out of grass stems, perched high up in tall vegetation, about 10cms in diameter. The female makes these nests at night, shredding and weaving living, fresh grass leaves, which remain attached to the grass stalk. She lines the nest with more leaves, pulled through the outer wall. There is no entrance as such, they simply push through the wall and then close it up again. This snuggly nest can hold up to 8 teeny young mice, where they are weaned at 10 days, staying for only 16 days altogether, before they are abandoned by the mother and start to fend for themselves. The majority of them are born during August and early September, hence their name.
Harvest mice eat seeds as their main diet, but also include insects in summer and fruits and berries in the autumn months. In the colder months they leave their high, vertical habitat and often hide away by burrowing beneath the soil to try to keep warm. They make a smaller nest in winter, much nearer to the ground for warmth, where they store food to help them survive until the next spring.
Because they prefer the warmth, they are mainly found in southern Britain, but their numbers have drastically reduced due to intensive farming and loss of habitat, like many farmland creatures. We can help them by leaving areas of rough grass, and allowing vegetation to grow up around ponds, ditches and rivers. They are the only native mice to build nests above the ground, intricately woven little balls of grass and a delightful sight if you are lucky enough to find one. They are seen best in winter as vegetation dies away, but will no longer have any mice occupants inside them.
The Summer Moult
We are enduring some very hot and humid conditions at the moment, and I for one, find it rather saps my energy.... so what must it be like for all the furred and feathered, warm bloodied wildlife we share our small island with? Phew.
Nature and evolution is packed full of amazing adaptations, to enable a myriad of species to survive across diverse habitats. But climate change is affecting our whole planet, and we are having much more extreme weather to deal with. Adaptations and evolution take a hugely long time, so I feel we really need to adjust our often destructive human behaviour, so we can all continue to share this small planet, and without exploiting nature any further.
All of us pet owners will know that our cats, dogs, rabbits and chickens lose lots of their thick fur or feathers, and are adept at finding cool places and shade to rest in during the hotter weather. They will also drink more water. Garden birds rely on clean water too, both to bathe in and to keep hydrated, so please keep any birdbaths you have clean and full.
One of the annual changes that ducks, and other waterfowl employ at this time of year, is their summer moult. This summer moult is not due to heat though, but all about ridding themselves of their rather tatty plumage after the rigours of the breeding season. This ensures they have feathers in really good condition to protect them for the colder months ahead. Their new feathers also help to keep them waterproof, when coated with the oil they preen themselves with regularly.
Male mallards - drakes- are much more brightly coloured than the drab females, but at this time of year, they are all looking rather brown and ragged, as they go through their moult, which for males is called eclipse plumage. The moult means that they are less able to escape predators as their flight feathers are poor, but they can hide amongst the lush vegetation, with abundant food readily available, until the new feathers gradually replace the old ones. This can take time, up to 3 months for some species of mallard, but their striking new plumage of iridescent green is gorgeous.
Juvenile garden birds, born earlier in the year, also moult now, developing their fully adult feathers, and migrant birds acquire strong new flight feathers to help them on their extraordinary journeys of 1000’s of miles.
Raptors can’t afford to moult in the same way, as they need to hunt for food every day, so cannot lose power in their flight. They replace just one or two feathers at a time, so only minimal gaps are evident in their wings.
Gulls have a much longer process, where they develop different sets of wing feathers over the 4 years it takes them to be fully mature.
Some male songbirds also have a second moult, in early spring or summer, but this time it is all about sexual display, and having the best plumage possible to attract a mate.
So, when we sit in the shade, keep the curtains closed, take off some layers and have a bit of a siesta during this hot spell, we can think about how our native wildlife is coping with the heat, and hopefully put out some cool, clean water for them to enjoy too.
Late Summer Snippets
I thought it might be fun to set out a few snippets of info about some of our native wildlife, as we go into the late summer season.
The close up image here was taken by David Maitland, in his hen house. It shows a native Queen Tree Wasp, brooding her eggs in the first few cells she makes in the ‘starter’ nest, made of fine layers of chewed wood. Later, the newly hatched female wasps will continue to build the nest into a much bigger structure, capable of housing up to 5,000 wasps. That’s a huge amount of chewed wood..... all laid down to make a strong, and very beautiful nest, just for that year.
Honey bees collect tree resins, which they make into propolis. This is a sticky substance used to repair and seal any gaps in the nest walls, which protects the colony from drafts and any wasps who may want to enter the hive to raid their stores of honey.
The Purple Emperor is our largest native butterfly, and whilst it was a rare sighting above oak tree canopies, in the last 50 years it has become more widespread, probably due to warmer weather from climate change. One of the very few benefits of the temperature rise.
Rising sea temperatures are also encouraging more jellyfish to appear on our shores. An abundant, rather lovely and totally harmless species is the moon jelly, so called due to its transparent bell. It feeds on plankton, and it can develop into huge, dense swarms on our shoreline in summer.
Seahorses have a narrow, elongated snout, with big cheeks on each side, which make the shape of their head hydrodynamic – perfect for slipping through water with almost no ripples to alert their prey. Once near their prey, they use a technique called pivot feeding. This means they can rapidly flick their snout upwards, like a catapult, sucking in the small crustacean in under a millisecond, by puffing out their big cheeks.
Some female moths have evolved to be flightless, like the female Vapour Moth. She is evident in tree tops from July to September, and has only vestigial, tiny wings. She stays on the trees, emitting chemical pheromones to attract the flying males who will then mate with her. This adaptive behaviour saves all the energy used in flight, and instead she uses it on the vital business of reproduction.
Pigeons are very noisy in flight. This is because they have very stiff flight feathers that produce a mechanical, purposeful sound on every downstroke. It is also used as a way of signalling danger to the rest of the flock, as pigeons don’t use alarm calls like many birds do. Male nightjars and short eared owls also use mechanical sound - they both clap their wings during aerial displays, showing their strength.
© Jan Flamank August 1st 2020. All rights reserved. Images used in the documents have been sourced free for use in this social, educational, non-commercial setting.
At the beginning of each month, Jan Flamank will create Nature Notes that can be shared online. You can read Jan's notes below, or you can click on each picture to find a page of notes about that topic that you can download.
Be aware though that these pages are in a format that will not work well on small-screen devices such as smartphones or small tablets.
More people have said that they have heard again, for the first time in years, the unmistakable call of the cuckoo. They are one of the migratory birds that fly over here from sub-Saharan Africa, which is an exhausting and dangerous migration.
I think one reason for more cuckoos this year may be the imposed lack of global human activity due to COVID-19, including the appalling traditional spring hunting/shooting season in Malta, where the cuckoo flies over. So, less shooting by horrible humans means more cuckoos make their long migration safely! Yippee. Less pesticide use may also be a positive factor in this recent resurgence, as they particularly enjoy feasting on hairy caterpillars.
The reed warbler, dunnock and meadow pipit may be less enthusiastic than me about this though, as they are the main target of the unusual ‘brood parasitism’ the cuckoo is famous for. Which basically means the female lays her eggs in other birds' nests and then simply leaves them to bring up her offspring.
Cuckoos always lay their eggs in the nest of the same species that raised them, and have evolved the ability to lay eggs that closely resemble the host bird's egg in pattern and colour, although their egg size will always be larger. She can lay up to 20 eggs each season, far more than if she was also feeding and raising them.
The cuckoo egg hatches at about 11 days, but before the host egg, and soon after hatching, the baby cuckoo manoeuvres the host eggs on to its back, and throws them out of the nest. It now has the sole attention of the small host bird, who feeds it every hour during daylight.
It grows at a rapid rate, overfilling the nest, and as soon as it fledges, usually in June or July, it makes its first migration to Africa. This is a complex journey of several thousand miles. And all this without ever meeting its parents, or being shown where and when to fly that vast distance!
We often underestimate the intelligence and ingenuity of birds, including the elusive cuckoo. I hope you heard one this year.
Damselflies and dragonflies both belong to the order of insects called Odonata, from the Greek for ‘toothed jaw’. They both have a hinged, extendable lower lip, which shoots out to impale their prey with the pincers at the tip, making them highly efficient predators.
Damsels and dragons are different suborders, not male and female of the same insect, as commonly thought. Damsels are smaller than dragons, and most appear earlier than the dragons, from April.
Damsels hold their wings held close to their body as they perch, whilst dragons hold them out to the side. Damsels have two distinct, large eyes, positioned at each end of their oblong head. Each eye has up to 30,000 individual light sensitive cells, which gives them good vision. This image is a close up of the eye of the widespread Azure Damsel - not to mention the fantastically hairy face!
We have 52 species of Odonata in the UK, and fossils of dragonflies have been found in carboniferous rocks that are 350 million years old! This is the time of year to see the adults flying near freshwater, and my twin brother and I used to go off for the day, aged 6 or 7, to a big local park and lake, with empty match boxes and little nets to try to bring some home….. we only ever caught one, and it flew off as soon as we opened the box.
Damsels lay individual, cigar-shaped eggs into the stems of aquatic plants, which helps to protect them from predators. They spend most of their life as carnivorous, developing nymphs in water, only living up to a month as a flying adult, with the sole intention of mating.
But if you sit quietly by fresh water in July, you may be rewarded with the marvellous sight of a damsel or dragon, briefly on the wing as an adult, looking for a mate. A true sign of summer.
We have two native seahorses in the UK, the Short Snouted Seahorse (Hippocampus Hippocampus) and the Spiny or Long Snouted Seahorse (Hippocampus Guttalatus). The image here is of a Spiny Seahorse, with clearly visible, extra-long spines on the head.
They are a rare sighting, but are fairly widespread in shallow, inshore waters all around our coast, right up to the Shetland Isles. Although they resemble horses and swim in an upright, vertical position, they are tiny fish. But they are surprisingly poor swimmers, relying only on their small dorsal fin to propel them forward. It beats at up to 70 times a second, which seems a lot, but they only move slowly through their favoured calm, warm waters, mainly on the southern coasts.
Their most extraordinary, unique fact is one we all know- it is the male who carries the developing young - the only male creature on earth to have a true pregnancy. And we still don’t know why this is!
The males vie with each other for a female, and they mate for life. They maintain strong bonds with each other by a daily dance, where they spiral around each other for up to an hour every morning. When mating, the female transfers her eggs to him by her ovipositor, and he then self fertilizes them within his body with his sperm. He can carry hundreds of fertilized eggs in his pouch for up to a month, and then gives birth to tiny, live young seahorses. They need the cover of good amounts of seagrass to help them survive when very young.
Once they are born, the seahorses, known as fry, have to fend for themselves, and are very vulnerable to predation, so their numbers are quickly reduced. Luckily, seahorses are able to change colour, so they can camouflage themselves, and disappear as much as possible within their surroundings, often almost invisible in the seagrass and eelgrass beds they are hiding within.
Seahorses also have a prehensile tail, which they can wrap around underwater foliage, to stop them being swept away in stronger currents and rough seas. They also have unusual vision, as their eyes act independently of each other. This means they can’t judge distance, but they can see to the front and back at the same time, keeping both eyes on the lookout for predators.
So, although tiny, they have some excellent adaptations to help them survive to adulthood, to mate for life and to continue that unique and intriguing fact of male pregnancy and birth!
Beetles are fantastically successful insects across the whole world, and belong to the order Coleoptera, which means ‘sheath wings’. Most have two pairs of wings, with the tough front pair folded over the much more delicate hind wings, forming a protective armour. Their hard outer layer is called an exoskeleton, which is waterproof and airtight, but with tiny holes called spiracles which allows it to breathe.
Beetles are the largest order of all insects, with more than 400,000 different types identified so far, and have biting jaws on the underside of their head, distinguishing them from bugs like aphids, which have sucking mouthparts. They are cold blooded, and control their body temperature by moving and basking in the sunshine to warm up.
We will all be familiar with the lovely, brightly coloured ladybird, a real gardeners friend, as it eats lots of aphids, but our largest beetle, at up to 9cms long, is the Stag Beetle. It well named, as the male has really impressive, large claws which resemble deer antlers. Like deer, they use these to fight with other males for the chance to mate with the females. They lock claws as each male tries to lift and overturn their rival, and then dash them to the ground. Beetle wrestling!
After mating, the female lays her eggs in rotting dead wood, and then dies. The creamy coloured grubs hatch out quickly and remain inside the dead wood, feeding on it for up to 6 years as it grows. It then burrows into the soil, turning into a pupa where it develops over winter and spring into the fully formed adult beetle, emerging in the summer.
Stage beetles are only on the wing for a few weeks, from early June to August, easily visible on warm summer evenings as they fly around, because of their large size. Gardens with untidy bits of dead wood are important habitats for this amazing beetle, but they also bask on warm pavements to heat up their bodies, which is a risky business as people often tread on them. Not much reward for such a short adult life!
So, help wildlife by allowing parts of your garden to be less tidy, and keeping some old logs that can gently rot down, providing a safe place for all sorts of useful insects to live, including our largest beetle.
At the beginning of each month, Jan Flamank will create Nature Notes that can be shared online. You can read Jan's notes below, or you can click on each picture to find a page of notes about that topic that you can download.
Be aware though that these pages are in a format that will not work well on small-screen devices such as smartphones or small tablets.
Here are the Nature Notes for June:
Water voles are shy and elusive rodents, and are one of our most endangered native mammals. They live in slow moving, fresh water, but as their numbers had sadly declined by more than 80 per cent in the 1990s, they are now a fully protected species in law.
With a range of focused conservation measures, and huge amounts of work by ecologists, wildlife organisations and volunteers, their numbers have recovered in some areas. But they remain scarce and difficult to see, even in previous strongholds such as the River Wye. I was lucky enough to see and photograph this lovely vole, quietly munching on new waterside vegetation one late April, as I walked by the river into Bakewell.
They are very tidy when they eat, ensuring the stalks are free from mud before munching on it, and they hold the vegetation with dexterous, four fingered front paws. They need to eat about 80 per cent of their body weight every day, and adapt their mainly herbivorous diet to take advantage of the seasonal food available. They will eat berries that grow near water, and may also eat worms and small fish to supplement their green diet when pregnant.
Though competent swimmers, they do not have webbed feet, and because they have no waterproofing on their fur, they only stay in or under water for short periods to avoid getting a waterlogged coat.
Question: Can you identify four reasons why water voles became so endangered, and what can we all do to help their recovery?
This gorgeous, native butterfly is one of my favourites out of all our butterflies. It is small, with a wingspan of only one inch, but it shimmers with such beauty, and I remember trying to count the orange spots on the edge of the wings as an excited, small child.
This lovely butterfly has declined so much it cannot now live up the name of being a common sight. Previously widespread from North Africa to the Arctic, the usual fatal combination of loss of habitat, overuse of pesticides, herbicides and intensive farming have all taken their toll on the Common Blue. More roads and housing also impact negatively on butterflies, along with many other native species.
One of seven species of blue butterflies in Britain, they emerge as adult butterflies from June, and all have very specific plants on which they lay their eggs. Most of these are wild flowers, which are in decline themselves. As ever, if we don’t have a richly diverse plant population, with healthy soil, then the whole food chain suffers.
The caterpillars of the Common Blue feeds mainly on clover, birdsfoot- trefoil and rest harrow. They are bright green with a distinctive black head, a dark line down their back and paler stripe at each side of their body. In our fabulous North, they will only have one brood usually, but with global warming they may catch up with their Southern relatives, who can have up to three broods each year. Autumn caterpillars are able to overwinter, and emerge the following spring.
Question: How can gardeners and farmers best support our native butterflies, and those migrating to us across the water?
As a semi -aquatic, amphibian species, they spend most of their adult life on the ground, but mating always occurs in water. The males are easy to distinguish from females during the mating season, as they develop a fantastic, rather outlandish crest along their back to demonstrate how healthy and desirable they are.
This crest, a newt version of a wild haircut, is accompanied by large, dark spots all over their back, flanks and tummy, which has already brightened to a deep orange colour. They also have a white flash on their tail, which they wave seductively when wooing a female, and use to waft their scent across the water to her. The opening to their male reproductive organs, the cloaca, also enlarges to give a much bigger, newt posing pouch. Males also have frilly toes when mature.
All these changes in the males are to display their health and strength, and increase their chance of being chosen by the female. She simply wants their offspring to have the best chance of survival.
The female lays fertilized eggs one at a time, and carefully wraps each one in a leaf to stop them being carried away by water currents. The eggs hatch in about 3 weeks, and these small larvae already have frilly gills, similar to tadpoles. As with tadpoles, these gills degrade as their internal lungs develop to allow them to breathe air on land. Unlike frogs and toads, newts develop their front legs first, and then their back legs. Immature newts are called efts, and take up to three years to be fully mature, growing up to 6½ inches in length.
Question: What do newts feed on as efts, and what do they feed on when fully grown?
One of our most successful native, solitary bees, the Red Mason Bee is common across England, Wales and southern Scotland. Often overlooked, solitary bees represent up to 95% of the world bee population, and we have over 275 species of all bees across the UK.
They are important pollinators, but can be rather fussy feeders, often preferring only a few wildflowers. Red Mason bees are very efficient at pollinating orchard trees, as the females carry their pollen on the underside of their tummy. This makes them a bit messy, which helps to transfer pollen between flowers, rather than kept safe in pollen sacs on the legs of social bees.
They have a fascinating life cycle, which is easy to observe if you have a bee ‘hotel’ or nest box in your garden. They readily use these, made of bamboo or holes drilled in wood, as well as using holes in bricks and masonry, which is where their name comes from. They do not have a sting, so I have no worries about them being next to my back door, and I can watch them as they make themselves at home.
Adult bees emerge from their cocoons in late April and May, and they mate soon after. The male dies, his job done, and the female lays her eggs, often in the same place she started life as an egg. She backs into the brood cell to lay her egg deep in the narrow space, and then places a marvellous hamper of food for the egg - a parcel of pollen and nectar that it will feed on as it develops into a grub. After leaving this hamper of goodies, the female seals up the cell entrance with mud, which she collects and ferries to the nest.
Watching them by my kitchen door, it is clear how industrious she is, making sure the entrance is fully sealed with mud, protecting the egg she has laid.
The grub, or larva, full of the pollen and nectar left by its mum, then pupates and overwinters in a cocoon it spins for itself. The adult bee is fully formed by the autumn, but spends the colder winter safe and snuggly in the protective cocoon. It comes out of the cell in late spring, almost exactly a year after it was first laid as a tiny egg.
Question: How can gardens be made into better habitats for solitary bees?
© Jan Flamank June 1st 2020.
All rights reserved.
Images used in the document have been sourced free for use in this social, educational, non-commercial setting
Steve Edwards is executive director at South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive. Click this link to read his message to all people who use public transport across the county on how they can help they play a part in our recovery from the setbacks caused by Coronavirus/COVID-19
STAND (Stannington & District Library Group) was formed in 2013 after two public meetings that explored the issues raised by Sheffield City Council’s announced withdrawal of formal support for Stannington Library. Since then, the group has been formalised, a committee was formed and teams of volunteers were recruited