Meadow yellow

Meadow yellow
Bulbous Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus) in a Devon meadow

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Cuckoo heralds great (Tit) success

Last year we were disappointed that our homemade nestbox was ignored by the many woodland tits that frequent the Pinfold garden. The box was certainly given the once over by a number of birds and a small amount of material taken in – but no, they were just teasing us! Had we put it too close to the busy birdtable? Was it too large inside? This year we observed the same nervous dilly-dallying of Great Tits (Parus major) around the entrance. I was tempted to rush out and push them in, yelling “you won’t get much better than this”, being proud of my DIY construction. However this year our patience seemed rewarded with a pair looking like they had settled down to nest in the box.

I dared not risk checking the box until I suspected the eggs had hatched with the adults taking live food in for the young. At this point the adults will rarely abandon the nest, and so when this started I felt it reasonable to have a quick peek. Triggered by my inspection the hungriest nestlings craned their scrawny necks up in the hope of food. However a week or so later I noticed a few flies around the nestbox and became anxious that the young had died. I had been concerned that the recent dry weather might have reduced the amount of caterpillars and other food, so that one or more would starve to death. On inspection I found one dead young, which I removed uncovering a bed of tiny fresh fly maggots. Interestingly the adults and other nestlings must have ignored their deceased relative and smelly decomposition. Apparently most garden birds, including tits, do not have well-developed sense of smell (Garden Birds, 2011) – just as well! Anecdotally from the internet it would appear that birds vary in how diligent they are at keeping their nest clean, but adults have been observed removing dead nestlings. Did it starve, or die of another ailment? I was worried that others might die from the same cause. I put more mealworms out on the table.

Fortunately, and with some relief a week later the nestbox was found empty and I assume all the remaining young fledged successfully. Later that same day towards dusk a Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) called from high in a nearby Ash tree. A recent arrival from Africa it was at the start of its reproductive campaign just as our Great Tits completed theirs. If our young tits survive the summer they will face the challenge of an increasingly unpredictable British winter, whilst any new cuckoos the long lonely journey to a distant warm land that they only know about through some marvel of genetic coding. By this winter my family will also have faced a great challenge, migrating to the warmth of Devon and a new life.

Garden Birds [Website accessed 26/5/11].

Thursday, 19 May 2011

There’s a bug in my bed!

There were a lot of stories last year about bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) infesting New York. These parasitic insects are however rarely seen, attacking their victims at night whilst asleep. However my wife was recently tidying one of our daughter’s beds, when she was rather shocked to find a rather larger dead bug under her pillow – a Cockchafer or Maybug (Melolontha melolontha). How it got there is quite a mystery and we are just grateful that our daughter did not find it, or she may never sleep there again (she still does not know). Her room is not called the ‘Den’ for nothing, and it certainly attracts a mixture of wildlife. I have been called to save her several times, including an invasion of gigantic slugs and spiders (so you would led to believe).

The ‘chafers’, characterised physically by the exposed tips of their abdomen are actually fairly harmful insects, both as adult and even more so as larvae, causing damage to trees and crops (Chinery, 1977). They also are known to have mass outbreaks every 30-40 years, creating even greater economic losses to a wide range of crops - This has prompted research into control methods, including trying to exploit the Cockchafers alcoholic tendencies – It would appear that the males are attracted to naturally occurring green alcohols from the leaves of tree leaves such as Beech and Oak (Reinecke, et al., 2002). However despite their voracious appetite and size (up to 35mm) they are quite harmless to us – it is just quite a shock when they crash into our human lives, drawn in by the lure of incandescent light.

Chinery, M (1977) A Field Guide to the Insects of Northern Britain. 2nd ed. Collins: London
Reinecke, A., Ruther, J., Tolasch, T., Francke, W. and Hilker, M. (2002) Alcoholism in cockchafers: orientation of male Melolontha melolontha towards green leaf alcohols. Naturwissenschaften, 89 (6):265-269

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Miss Barberry

I recently received an email alert from a local friend, Mary, informing that she had been out looking for some Barberry (Berberis vulgaris) – “it is amazing! A huge bush about 8 ft high. ... full of bright yellow hanging flowers. Don't miss it!”

Well if that isn’t a call to botanical action...! I noted from Mary’s description of the location that it should be on my running route. So putting on my trainers I headed out in some anticipation, and despite not wearing my glasses I was confident that it would be easy one to spot. Two circuits of the lane yielded nothing, as did another run past the next day having double checked the location. On the third attempt I found it – how did I miss it? I consider myself fairly observant and have an eye for new plants & flowers, which raises the question how many botanical wonders go unseen. The flowers are arranged in dropping spikes each characterised by five yellow perianth whorls (sepals & petals). Also of note are the three-pronged spines, sharply toothed leaves and elongated bright red fruits.

It turns out that Barberry is amazing in other ways. It has been an important source of material for herbal healing for over 2,500 years (Arayne, et al., 2007). Modern science has found over twenty alkaloids with medical importance from different parts of the plant, whilst homeopaths use it for kidney pain and removal of stones (Arayne, et al., 2007). The plant is mainly used nowadays for gallbladder ailments, but it has also been noted for its use as an antiseptic (bark & root), for jaundice, rheumatism (flowers & stem bark) and much more (PFAF) ....but sadly not the improvement of eyesight. Well at least I should have no trouble spotting the bright red berries.

Arayne, M.S, Sultana, N. and Bahadur, S.S (2007) The berberis story: Berberis vulgaris in therapeutics. Pak J Pharm Sci, 20(1):83-92.
Plants for a Future (PFAF) (