4 Feb 2012

Nature Notes - February 2012 by Pete Lambert

Just when I thought the winter was about to pass by in a gust of wet winds and swirling damp fog I awoke to find the garden decorated with a fine filigree of ice.  A week ago we had sat in a bird hide sheltering from the drizzly attentions of the low cloud that had lain duvet like across the Pumlumon mountains. The object of our vigil,  the Red Kite , or we hoped hundreds of kites as optimistically promised in the leaflet!  Nant  yr Arian is a Forestry Commission centre, an innovative building hosts a cheap, clean cafĂ© and is the starting point for trails designed to please walker or off road cyclist. Each day throughout the year one of the Ranger team puts out raw meat scraps to attract the iconic Red kites to feed and enjoyed as they land and soar up and away once full.

The red kite represents the most successful reintroduction programme in the world. The UK population had been reduced to just two pairs by the late 1800’s, hiding out in remote mid Wales valleys and therefore making them extinct in England and Scotland. Last century captive breeding programmes were able to provide kites for planned release in Mid Wales  amongst other locations. The Red kite though well known as a scavenger from Samuel Pepys description of the birds cleaning the filth ridden streets of Restoration London of offal and other detritus, also hunt rabbits and other prey.  The bird soars buoyantly, its head and tail hang down slightly in flight and the characteristic forked tail constantly twists to help it maintain position. After 45 minutes of waiting since the bait had been cast and 5 tantalising glimpses of the kites wheeling away without landing just visible in the thick gloop of cloud, my young companions tummy began to rumble and we left the hide. Stopping occasionally to look back just in case the kites had  noticed we had gone and swooped down in a russet swarm to gulp down the morsels, but no, and satisfied with the ghostly glimpses we both agreed to come back on a brighter day.

With the trees completely shorn of leaves identification is down to the subtleties of bud, bark, form , size and location. One little tree that gives itself away quite easily in the winter is the Crab apple.  Piled at the foot of most Crab apples during the colder months we can find the yellow, hard fruits. Bitter and sour  to the taste but they  can be turned into the most grown up jelly for breakfast toast. The Crabapple’s  scientific name is Malus sylvestris which means ‘apple of the woods’ and this small tree which grows rarely above 10m can be found in oakwoods and along hedge lines.  The Crab is the rootstock from which all our orchard varieties are derived, the leaves of the domestic apple are usually wooly or hairy backed whereas the petioles or leaf stalks are hairy on the crabapple.  My favourite Crab can be found on the flanks of Caer Caradoc, near Church Stretton, and in May a walk there will be rewarded by a profusion of white blossom. Closer to hand there are a few on the A5 and many in amongst the jumbled woodlands of Llanmynech and closer still the homebound hedged lanes play host as well.

The Small tortoishell butterfly upstairs battered against the window, whilst the Small tortoishell downstairs created a subtle lightshow by flying around inside the lightshade. These hibernating adults had risen too soon, the nettles have not begun growing again and sadly I think the gently lengthening days and our central heating had summoned these sleepers prematurely. Snowdrops have been noted and the radio had spoken of the first daffodils being sighted. Hard times are still to come though and the loping fox on Grimpo Lane spied earlier this week will be working hard to find food to keep him going. But for nature watchers this is the time of year to look out for those coming signs of Spring, so happy wildlife watching, fond regards, Pete Lambert.