17 Jan 2011

Nature Notes - January 2011, from Pete Lambert

Limestone hulks drifted in and out of view, the heavy foggy shroud made spooky shapes out of the familiar quarried terrain, one of my favourite walking spots changed beyond recognition. To make the most of the slowly lengthening days I carry a torch so I can walk into the dusk. This evening the diffused grey light drew out the nights fall over a long hour. A pair of Bullfinches swung between the spiny tangle of the scrub, a white flash on the rump and the males hunting pink chest give the name away. The female sporting a finer pink breast, yet equally delightful, as they pecked at morsels on the dew dripped twigs.

A late frost gripped the ground, crossing the golf course I stubbed my foot on a rock hard molehill, I drew little comfort from knowing that he was warm enough below the turf. The frost causes soils to heave; poorly planted new hedging whips can lift completely and perish. Columnar ice separates the soil particles and breaks the surface. Rocks can split under the pressure of forming ice, cracking, spalling and falling to surprise the passing rambler. A late frost can rob the fruit bearing blossoms from our top fruit trees, much like the less popular habit of those Bullfinches, a hungry orchard visitor.

Amongst the hawthorns and whitebeams humped over with moss are the decaying stumps of cleared trees. Sulphur Tuft fungi display their fruiting bodies, the toadstools, whilst beneath the bark thread like mycelium feeds on the decomposing constituents of the once living tree. The fog left behind moisture wherever it trailed in particular I noticed sparkling drops on the lichens attached to the stems and twigs of the dominant scrub species, the blackthorn. Lichens are unique, a symbiosis of a fungi and an algae; a strange mutual interdependence. Over 85% of British lichen fungi only associate with just three algal species. They have lovely adjectives to describe their primary forms, crustose, foliose and fruticose, in other words crusty, leafy and shrubby. Lichens can grow on most surfaces, just have a look at your old shed, we had a camper that carried its own colony of lichens for company. Though difficult to identify accurately it is possible to separate the major different groups either by form or by growing surface. Lichens sustain themselves by absorbing nutrients, water and oxygen they need from rainwater or atmospheric moisture. This makes them very sensitive to atmospheric pollution. For our best lichens head high and west.

It has been such a tough winter and our garden feeding stations have been crucial to the local bird life. In fact a number of firsts have been scored as when food is unavailable in the wider countryside the bird-table has drawn in unfamiliar garden visitors. Bramblings, a large Chaffinch like bird has been seen in a number of gardens, Siskins too feeding on sunflower hearts. Reed buntings popped up in another garden along with Yellowhammers and Redwings. The Redwings stayed long enough to finish the berries then whirled off to find another rare feast. The top sighting has to be the 14 strong flock of Waxwing that burst noisily into one lucky householders view. The Brambling is a regular winter visitor, the Waxwing on the other hand is just plain irruptive, arriving from Scandinavia and northern Russia in large flocks and just as quickly dispersing. Starling like but pinkish brown, with a serious face and swept crest, the Waxwing is a striking bird close up. A Shropshire sighting is a valued treat as this unpredictable bird is likely to be encountered on the east coast, but then again who expected the minus figure temperatures of another ice bound winter.

Thank you for your wildlife sightings, if you would like to share your nature notes please contact me on petewoodman@thewoods12.fsnet.co.uk thanks, Pete.