NATURE NOTES - Written by Dr Martyn Stenning
Nature Notes May 2021
I am writing this on Friday 9th April after a week that has included impressive snow showers and significant frosts. However, nature is resilient and activity among plants and animals is revealing new discoveries every day. The milkmaids cress also known as ladies smock, cuckoo flower, mayflower and Latin Cardamine pratensis is showing in our wet grasslands all over Sussex. I mentioned this in a previous NN and that it grows prolifically in the Little Horsted road roundabout, this year it is as good as ever. Other wildflowers are also appearing including wild daffodils, violets, forget-me-not, wood anemones, primroses, greater stitchwort and the occasional early bluebell. This is the May NN, and by then our ancient woodlands will be carpeted with bluebells.
Resident birds too are nestbuilding obsessively! I have also seen several swallows. Our local blackbirds have fledglings being fed by their parents in our garden. Bumblebees, butterflies and ladybirds are appearing in small numbers. Chiffchaffs and blackcaps arriving from the southern countries are singing in the woods along with our resident species.
May is the month for rapid reproduction with insects collecting pollen and nectar from the flowers to feed to their own young and fertilizing the flowers’ ova as they do so. During May there is a frenzy of nutrient flow through the ecosystems of the northern hemisphere. Insect reproduction is phenomenal, with billions appearing in every habitat, from the mayflies and mosquitoes in the water to the caterpillars on the trees and on people’s prize cabbages. The young and old birds, insectivorous mammals, reptiles, amphibians, larger insects and spiders will eat those insects, and in turn will be eaten by larger animals and so on. A time of plenty and a dynamic food chain. May is the best month for nature watching because there is so much to see and the temperature is nice too.
With the reduction in hunting and the introduction of legal protection, we are seeing many more beautiful predators in Sussex, such as the red kite I saw near Plashett Wood on Wednesday and the abundance of buzzards that we see almost every day even over Uckfield. These predators are an important part of the ecosystem and will often clear away roadkill, the victims of disease and the weaker prey that cannot breed anyway.
Dr Martyn Stenning
Nature Notes April 2021
From about 21st March to September 21st, days will be longer than nights. We are still learning how important this is to us and the natural world. Many of us suffer from Seasonal Affected Disorder (SAD) or low mood due to a lack of day light. A tortoise, dormouse or hedgehog will hibernate and sleep through the dark months. Humans evolved in the tropics where animals don’t need to hibernate. We tend to retire into our houses to keep warm and cosy on dark winter days and nights. Many of us take vitamin D tablets to make up for the lack of sun.
Blue tits are tightly connected to phases of the sun. Male blue tits start singing on 22nd December and from then to March 21st demonstrate potential nest cavities to females. Female blue tits start to take nest material such as honeysuckle bark and moss into the cavity around the 21st March. They aim to have their nestlings fledged and flying by 21st June. Humans have celebrated solstice and equinox for thousands of years and Christian liturgy links its major celebrations approximately to these times (Christmas, Easter, Feast of the Sacred Heart, Harvest Festival). Grasses mature and flower in June and farmers know that June is the time to cut good hay. That is when the grass pollen count is highest. Wind pollinated grasses don’t need the help of insects for that.
In temperate zones, the growing season is from the spring equinox to the summer solstice. Most terrestrial temperate organisms know that, even deciduous trees. I find it fascinating that most trees in the tropics and arctic zones are evergreen, but most trees in temperate zones are deciduous. They decide to shed their leaves in the autumn and grow new ones from the spring equinox to the summer solstice. During this time most folivorous insects such as moth caterpillars flourish and feed on the juicy young arboreal leaves and in turn the birds, such as blue tits, feed the caterpillars to their nestlings. Plant leaves are the solar panels of the planet, generating stored, carbon rich, energy and oxygen for all life. They can also regulate the water cycle as they take water from the soil and release it into the air from their leaves often making it rain in the tropical and temperate rain forests of planet earth.
Dr Martyn Stenning