Tag Archives: pussy willow

Essex adder challenge

Danbury Common near Chelmsford in Essex is a National Trust site that is a mixture of woodland and heathland and is renowned for reptiles, in particular teh European adder (Vipera berus). The weather for the last 2-3 weeks has been ideal for resurrecting hibernating reptiles so myself and my friend, Dave, who is a very accomplished nature photographer, went along to try to get some pictures of adders. They are the only venomous reptile native to the UK and their preferred habitat is heathland. Dave originates from Essex and is familiar with Danbury Common and assured me that we would definitely see adders, so I was rather excited as I’ve never seen a wild one before.


The heathland terrain was perfect reptile territory, there are substantial areas of gorse and heather intermingled with bracken

Unfortunately two events conspired against us: the weather on Saturday morning was the coldest it has been for weeks and with 100% cloud cover there was little warmth to entice the adders out of their burrows, and secondly there had been an accidental fire right over the main hibernaculum, all of which resulted in the total absence of adders and any other reptiles!

Despite that, the Common is a great place for wildlife so we wandered around to see what else was in residence and were rewarded by the first blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk) and chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger) sightings of the year for me.


A male blackcap, one of a pair

Until recently blackcap were considered to be summer migrants to the UK, spending there winters in sub Saharan Africa and as far down as South Africa.  More recently they have been winter residents too and it is thought this is the result of westward migration of birds from eastern Europe and also from the Low Countries, not our summer residents staying put. They disappear from my regular haunts around Histon in the winter, but my friend who lives on the other side of the village, just half a mile away, has been hearing them sporadically through the winter.

I heard several chiffchaff and saw a couple too, but they didn’t come close enough to photograph, but the woods were full of great tit (Parus major, Dansk: sortemejse) which were more amenable to pose for a portrait:


Male great tit feeding on pussy willow. The tree was busy with at least four great tit, a pair of blue tit and a long tailed tit

Backwarden nature reserve and Danbury Common are bisected by a road and Backwarden is an area of woodland containing sycamore, oak, birch and willow similar to that on the Common. Many of the trees were hosting various fungi including moulds and these brackets growing out of the stumps of felled trees:


…and this amazing mass of gelatinous psychedelic slime mould which I thought resembled candle wax:


I’ve never seen anything quite like this before but it appeared the sap had welled up out of the felled tree and the sugar rich solution was providing a glut of nourishment to opportunistic fungi.

The highlight of the trip, in the absence of snakes, was a weasel (Mustela nivalis) which bounded across the path and stopped to scrutinise us for long enough to take a couple of photographs. It’s years since I’ve seen weasel and we had to zoom in on the pictures to decide whether it was a weasel or a stoat (Mustela erminea). The stoat is around 30cm long so is bigger than the weasel which is around 20cm, and the stoat has a black tip to its tail which our little creature didn’t. Stoats go completely white in the winter except for the black tip of their tails and it is the pelts of the winter stoat which are used to make the ermine gowns of members of the UK House of lords.


Momentarily distracted by our presence

Then probably a potential prey item. Ready…

Set…

Go!

And he was off, like a brown furry exocet, at quite phenomenal speed. The pictures aren’t very good quality, but you can clearly see what he is and it may be a good few years before I get to photograph another! I’ll try to get to Danbury again over the summer and if I manage to take some pictures of an adder I’ll post them here.

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Buds and blooms

Many fellow bloggers out there have been posting some lovely images of spring events and as this time of year is an exciting one from a nature perspective I felt inspired to get out and get some pictures of vernal regeneration in my part of the world.

I didn’t have to wander too far, the apple and hazel trees and the beech hedge in my garden are showing signs of waking up from the winter slumber:


Nascent apple blossom about to burst into life

A catkin – the flower of the hazel tree, above. And below, the diminutive inflorescence that will eventually become a hazelnut.

Hazel trees (Corylus avellana) produce catkins early in the year which are monoecious, which means they are either male or female, the one above is a male one, the females being tiny and hidden in the buds and the pollen is wind dispersed.  They provide not only nuts but if left to their own devices hazel ‘poles’ sprout from the ground which grow tall and straight and are coppiced to make fencing, and in the days when wattle and daub was used for building  walls the poles were used to make the wattle on which mud was plastered to provide the daub.

Beech leaves sprouting from the apical buds at the top of a hedge


A couple of hundred metres along the road on the grass verge was this cluster of lesser celandines (Ranunculus ficaria)

According to the font af all wisdom that is Wiki, lesser celandine used to be known as ‘pilewort’ because it was thought of as a remedy for haemorrhoids. I like this cluster because all the flowers are in different stages of opening, from a tightly closed green bud to a fully open flower.

Once into the fields the hedgerows were lined with the thorny stems and freshly shooting leaves of the bramble:

Lining the drainage ditches which delineate the field margins in this part of the world are willow trees (Salix cinerea) which need the water that drains from the fields and in the spring are covered in the furry catkins which give the tree its common name of ‘pussy willow’:

Willow catkin – unlike the hazel the catkins of the willow are dioecious, containing both male and female reproductive machinery in the same catkin

The wood of another species of willow tree (white willow, Salix alba) is very light and very strong and is used to make cricket bats and the bark of the willow contains a compound called salicylic acid which is the chemical precursor of aspirin. The analgesic properties of willow bark have been known of for centuries and have been maximised by acetylating salicylic acid to make aspirin. As well as analgesia, aspirin is now used as an anticoagulant to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke and recent studies suggest it may have anti-carcinogenic activity too.

The plants in this post are a random selection from the garden, roadside verge and the countryside within 200 of my house and all of them provide us with something useful. The beech is structural and is ideal for hedging. Apple, bramble and hazel all have edible fruits. Lesser celandine may shrink your chalfonts* and the willow provides drugs to treat pain, heart disease and cancer (not forgetting cricket bats).

* Chalfonts = ‘Chalfont St Giles’ (I’m sure you can work it out)

More signs of Spring

The weekend before last, the 3rd/4th of March, was generally pretty murky and grey and generally not very pleasant, but a stroll around the fields and meadows of Histon showed up some encouraging signs of Springtime. To start with, several birds including blackbirds and house sparrows were plucking nesting material out of the shrubbery in my garden.

And in the meadow the buds of the willow, ‘pussy willow‘, were bursting out

…and amongst the buds was this little dunnock singing his head off. Dunnock (Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernspurv) make a big sound for such a small bird. You can here the song here.

And other birds which are all adding to the avian orchestra around here at the moment are the green woodpecker (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) whose striking call I posted a link to a short while ago:


Not just one green woodpecker, but a pair. There are lots of these in the meadow but it’s seldom I see two together, and even more seldom they let me photograph them!

And this delightful wren who sat high and sung loud

I was very pleased with my wren picture because I rarely see them in a suitable place and they’re usually flitting in and out the undergrowth and don’t stay still for long enough to photograph. And even though it was very murky that morning and I had to use ISO 400, I like this shot. Like dunnock, wrens also make an amazing sound for such a small bird. And wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdesmutte) really are tiny, they are 4-5cm long and weigh approximately 10g but they make a huge sound which is easily recognisable as it’s punctuated by short stretches of ‘whirring’ which differentiates it from other small bird song.

And the last thing to catch my eye on this trip was this tree bark. I couldn’t tell what type of tree it is so I’m waiting for the leaves to open so I can give it it’s proper name, but it has some wonderfully textured bark which is covered in a white mould:


I had to get down and crawl through the leaf litter to get to the base of the tree

Lots of early Springtime phenomena were going on, from pairs of green woodpeckers to singing wrens and blackbirds collecting nesting material. More Springtime firsts next post.