Tag Archives: cow parsley

The birds were twittering, and so am I

When the summer eventually arrived this year it arrived with a bang and three months of glorious sunshine ensued which finally came to an end last weekend (but I’m still hoping we have an Indian summer). In early to mid June I spent a lot of time catching up with the local migrants, and all the other wild creatures around the village. I saw more swifts, swallows and house martins over Histon than I’ve ever seen and migrant numbers seemed healthy. This maybe because I was out and about and able to see them, or, hopefully, because more of them arrived and bred successfully this year.

The pictures here were taken one weekend in early June when I ventured across the farmland to the north of my village. Because of the wet spring followed by proper sunshine the verges, hedgerows and meadows were verdant and laden with fruit and flowers.

Cow parsley in the meadow against a summer sky

Many of my walks in these fields included lots of sightings of brown hare. I see occasional hares here so it’s no surprise, but what was surprising this year was the sheer numbers.

Brown hares (Lepus europaeus) – males chasing off rivals for the attentions of the ladies

There are four hares in shot here but there were more in the field to the left and more in the same field to the right. It wasn’t unusual to see ten or more on one of these excursions; they also seemed to be enjoying the hot summer. Fingers crossed they had a successful breeding season too.

One of the migrants I’ve been hoping to see for the last three years, and which hadn’t put in an appearance was the yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava, Dansk: gul vipstjert). These little birds are spectacular and completely unmistakeable, and despite being a species of least concern in mainland Europe it is red listed here with only 15000 territories recorded in the UK in 2009.

Yellow wagtail perched on an old farm machine

This handsome chap was my only sighting of a yellow wagtail this year. They are one of those amazing small creatures, like the swallow, which spend the summer here in the UK but overwinter in South Africa. When they’re here they tend to frequent fields with livestock where they feed on the accompanying insects. Whilst there are no adjacent cattle or sheep here there is an enormous pile of manure which also attracts clouds of insects. I’ve seen wagtails here before but not for a several years, so it was good to see one again.

Cock linnet (Carduelis cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk)

And another red listed bird, which I’ve also posted about recently, is the linnet. Unlike the yellow wagtail, despite their red listing, I see linnet in the fields every year, and the occasional flock of several hundred in the winter. They get their specific name from their like of cannabis. Not for it’s pharmaceutical properties (at least as far as I’m aware) but because in the old days when hemp was grown to make rope they fed on the seeds.

The wildlife on this weekend was abundant with a few rarities, so very high quality, but from a photographic point of view it was rather less auspicious. But I hope this skylark (Alauda arvensis, Dansk: sanglærke) makes up for that:

Skylark singing in the sky above my head

Skylark are not easy to capture because they’re ususally too high in the sky, or  moving too fast, or in a sky which is just too bright for good photography. But on this occasion the lark was very accomodating and there is just enough light to give the plumage a diaphanous quality which I really like, without overexposing it. The skylark is also red listed due to collapse in its numbers as a result of intensive arable agriculture, but there is a healthy population of them round here and there are often too many to count on a warm sunny morning!

By the way, I’ve just linked my blog to a Twitter account which you can have a look at here: @Thenaturephile. There’s not much in it yet as I only set it up at the weekend, but if you fancy taking a look please let me know what you think.

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Poison Parsley

Poison parsley is another name for hemlock. Hemlock originally attained notoriety around 2500 years ago when it was used to poison the Ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates. He was executed because his teachings were highly critical of the Athenian state and he was a thorn in the side of various high ranking Athenians. And in those days that tended to limit ones life expectancy.

Hemlock – Conium maculatum

I hadn’t knowingly encountered hemlock until a couple of weekends ago when I was strolling around the RSPB reserve at Fen Drayton, where it was lining the hedgrows in some profusion. It is an imposing plant that was growing taller than me, up to around 2m, it has dark green feathery leaves and white flowers that resemble the hogweeds.


This plant was growing amongst hogweed and cow parsley, and it can appear fairly similar to both, to the uneducated eye.

A variable damselfy (Coenagrium pulchellum) warming itself in the early morning sunshine perched on a hemlock frond

The hogweeds used to provide fodder for pigs, hence the name, but giant hogweed is toxic to humans due to its sap which contains a type of chemical called a ‘furanocoumarin‘ that causes the skin to become sensitive to ultraviolet light. That can result in extremely unpleasant blistering of the skin and blindness if it gets in the eyes. Derivatives of furanocoumarins have been developed as drugs for the treatment of psoriasis.

But the hemlock toxin works in a different way. It is called ‘coniine‘ and the chemical name is 2-propylpiperidine:

I think this compound is remarkable because it is very small for a molecule which has such a specific and catastrophic effect. It exerts its effect by blocking a receptor for a neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which resides on the membrane on the far side of nerve synapses. This results in a condition called ‘flaccid paralysis‘. Basically, the nerves which facilitate muscle contraction get blocked and stop firing. It starts in the feet and travels upwards, the muscles go floppy and that’s ultimately fatal when the effect reaches the heart and lungs. Socrates’ death was described by Plato and his last words were to his friend, Crito:

“Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.”

The smooth stem of the hemlock plant

The purple spots on the stem of the hemlock are diagnostic, other similar plants don’t have this, so if you see it, admire it, but don’t touch it! All parts of the plant are toxic and it doesn’t take much to have an effect.

The flower head just before the white flowers emerge

Hemlock has a number of names according the the Royal Horticultural Society: California fern, cashes, herb bennet, Nebraska fern, poison hemlock, St Benedict’s herb, snakeweed, spotted hemlock, spotted parsley and winter fern. Also according to the RHS, its range is Europe only, but it has been introduced to the United States, hence the two names which include U.S. states.

Hemlock grows in damp poorly drained soils and is fed on by various insects including caterpillars and occurs in field borders and roadside verges aswell as along the lakes and ditches where I found it at Fen Drayton.

The wild flowers are blooming

A combination of the recent rains and the rising temperatures we’re getting now is creating ideal conditions for wild flowers. Any piece of uncultivated land is starting to bursting forth with flora which in turn is providing food and cover for flies, bees, beetles, butteflies and a plethora of other insect life. Which is also good for the birds, small mammals and other predators, and so on up the food chain. And on top of that it’s lovely to look at. So here’s a selection of flora currently blossoming in my patch of East Anglia:


Ground ivy – Glechoma hederacea

I like ground ivy because it occurs early in the year, first appearing in March, but like many other phenological phenomena it may now be happening earlier. It creeps across the ground, like ivy, forming carpets of blue flowers and with the green and red leaves it adds lots of colour to the undergrowth. It has numerous names and here are a few from the Royal Horticultural Society website: Devils candlestick, creeping charlie, crows guts, wild snakeroot, hens and chickens, gill-go-by-the- street, and my favourite: ale gill.

Another creeper which grows across the ground and in hedgerows and which has lovely blue flowers is the periwinkle. There are two types of periwinkle, the lesser (Vinca minor) which may have been introduced to the UK and the greater (Vinca major), which was introduced (both according to my wild flower guide).


The greater periwinkle

I’m a tad confused by this flower because they are meant to have 5 petals but this one only has 4. It is also known as creeping myrtle, cut-finger, flower of death (!), grave myrtle, and sorcerer’s violet, among others.

Sprouting next to this periwinkle flower was a nascent white deadnettle, Lamium album. It normally has white flowers which haven’t yet arrived, but the closed buds are visible below the crown. Everything is very green at the moment because of all the rain and looks beautiful against the red wing cases of the ladybird .


White deadnettle about to burst into bloom


Greater celandine, Chelidonium majus

It is thought the greater celandine is named after the swallow (‘khelidon’ is Greek for swallow) and it’s a member of the poppy family. When the stems are broken they ooze a latex sap which is as yellow as the flowers, and the colour can be as deep as orange. It contains a host of alkaloids which confer therapeutic properties but it can also be toxic. It is also known as cocks foot, sight wort and wart wort as the sap has been applied as a treatment for warts. I’m not sure where ‘sight wort‘ comes from, but if it burns off warts I wouldn’t want it anywhere near my eyes!


Cow parsley – Anthriscus sylvestris

As far as I know cow parsley doesn’t have medicinal properties and according to Wiki it’s not pleasant to eat. But I think the flowers are lovely and they bring back childhood memories of running through the woods in springtime when the cow parsley or ‘keck‘, as it was referred to by my Dad, was as tall as me. There’s nothing quite like a forest floor which is full of cow parsley, in it’s own way it’s as iconic as blue bells. It’s also known as wild chervil and Queen Anne’s Lace.


Beefly – Bombylius major

At the end of my flower finding mission I was looking for a ground ivy flower head and I found this little beauty, and just as I was just about to open the shutter a beefly zoomed in to sip the nectar. Flower pictures can benefit from some insect action and I like beeflies, so this was a highly serendipitous encounter!

Erratum: Maggie from http://www.intouchwithnature.co.uk‘ has pointed out that the last flower with the beefly on is in fact red deadnettle  – not ground ivy. So a big thankyou to Maggie for keeping me honest with my plant identification 🙂

April birdwatch

The activities of the birds in my garden have changed significantly in the last 2-3 weeks. Until then I was seeing multiple blackbird, robin, starling, goldfinch, chaffinch, dunnock, blue tit, great tit, collared dove and house sparrow with less frequent visits by long tailed tit. Since then a pair of wood pigeon have virtually taken up residence in my back garden and hoover up all the bird food before the smaller species get a look in. There is still the occasional dunnock and blackbird on the ground and much less frequent visits by blue tit, robin, starling and chaffinch but the goldfinch have all but vacated. This is interesting because when I’m outside I regularly see and hear groups of goldfinch in the trees around the garden but something seems to be keeping them away from my feeder.

My friend Chris told me he had a songthrush rearing chicks in a nest in a tree in his garden and she fledged four youngsters last week, which is very early in the year, so hopefully she’ll fit in another brood this year. But his garden has been subject to the attentions of a sparrowhawk in recent months so he was worried it would catch the fledglings, but clever use of carefully placed hanging bamboo canes has successfully deterred the hawk and all four fledglings seem to have successfully flown the coop. Songthrush 4, sparrowhawk nil.

Continuing with garden birds, last week it occurred to me that the fat balls hanging in my front garden were requiring replenishment rather more frequently than usual so I guessed the nesting birds were feeding more often. The reason turned out to be rather more amusing:


One of the local rooks has worked out that these are edible…

…and that it can reach them. And it takes alot of fat ball to fill a hungry rook!

Slightly further afield in the hedgrows and scrub bordering the farmland around Histon it’s a very good time to survey the local wildlife. As I mentioned in a previous post many species of wild flower now including forget-me-not, yellow archangel…


Forget-me-not

Yellow archangel – Lamiastrum galeobdolon, this variegated version is an invading subspecies ‘argentatum’

…herb robert, cow parsley and periwinkle are all in bloom and lining the paths through the countryside filling them with a palette of colour.

And in the fields, trees and bushes there is an abundance of birdlife:


Corn bunting perched in the midst of a field of oil seed rape

The countryside is ablaze with the yellow of rape flowers right now and just occasionally a photographic opportunity such as this one arises. I’m not particularly keen on the vast swathes of rape but it created a lovely backdrop for this corn bunting which are becoming increasingly uncommon.

It’s not unusual to see and hear bullfinch in one patch of scrub near the church in Histon, which is a regular destination for my birdwatching outings. That makes me very happy because I used to see them all the time when I was a kid in the 1970’s but since the 80’s they seem to have been persecuted to near extinction in alot of the UK because of their fondness for the green shoots of commercial fruit trees. They are still fairly elusive but I managed to get this photograph of a male (just!):


Male bullfinch – the female has similar markings but they are not pink she is more pale grey/brown

And in the same field as the bullfinch linnet are in residence, as are willow warbler, chiffchaff and blackcap which have now returned from over wintering in Africa:


Blackcap male

Chiffchaff

…as are whitethroat:


A female whitehroat, one of a pair patrolling a patch of brambles in the middle of the field

This field is an amazing place, I reckon it’s approximately 10-12 acres and it comprises several habitats including open-ish grass, it’s sorrounded by some old established trees: oak, ash and horse chestnut with hedgerow joining up the old trees consisting mainly of hawthorn and in the field itself there are alot of ash and other saplings and some large patches of bramble. Consequently it provides good supplies of food and cover for nesting for a number of different species. Green woodpeckers can be constantly heard yaffling to each other:

…and birds of prey including kestrel, sparrowhawk and buzzard are regularly in the skies above. The green woodpecker are there all year round and are usually hidden in the grass so I’ll flush one off the ground only for it to disappear into a tree too distant to allow a photograph. So this is about the best image I have of one. Most of the common or garden birds are regulars here too, house sparrow, dunnock, blue tit, great tit, long tailed tit:

…and chaffinch

…blackbird, songthrush, rook, crow and magpie are all present every day. So a small area of mixed scrub an the edge of the village supports a wonderful number of our birds.

There’s lots to see by simply look up in the village too. On the way back from the playground in Impington with my kids today we cycled along a road under a tree as a jay emerged from a silver birch on the other side of the road and landed in the tree a few metres over our heads. We all stopped to look at it and marvel at it’s amazing colours, and it looked at us for a minute or two before flapping off higher up the tree.