NATURE NOTES - Written by Dr Martyn Stenning

Nature Notes June 2021

Most oak trees have broken bud in Sussex now (early May), with oak flowers (catkins) bunched beneath the developing leaves.  Oaks are monoecious, which means that they are both male and female.  However, I have just learned that female oak flowers are fussy about where the male pollen they use comes from.  Oaks are wind pollinated and the female flowers get inundated with local male pollen, some from their own catkins.  But they also receive pollen from afar.  Apparently, female oak flowers can reject pollen that comes from local catkins in favour of land-distant and genetically distant pollen from trees far away.  That way they can avoid breeding with their close relatives, just like we humans avoid pairing up with our relatives.  The result is much healthier offspring.


A dry, cold April has meant that the grass is growing slowly and  meadow flowers are persisting for longer.  It has been a fantastic year for violets, cowslips and primroses.  However, I am worried about the lack of insects to feed the insectivorous birds.  I have not heard a single cuckoo yet; these brood parasites specialise in feeding on hairy caterpillars.  However, I saw my first swifts of the year about 6th May, swifts eat copious amounts of flying insects, but most insects only fly in temperatures above 100 Celsius.  So swifts may be having a hard time.


I visited Splash Point near Seaford early on Friday Morning 7th May and the kittiwake colony on the cliffs was in full swing.  Dozens of these cute small black-footed gulls with black tips to their wings were busily building their nests on cliff ledges.  There was a pair of fulmar petrels there also.  These relatives of the albatrosses and petrels spend most of their long 30 year plus lives at sea, but look for a cliff to breed on in the early summer.  They are mate-faithful and usually lay just 1 egg per year.


I monitor the 46 blue tit nest-boxes at Lake Wood when I can, and this year 35 of them had nests with eggs in at the end of April.  One nest had 14 eggs!  The wood looked superb with carpets of wood anemones and bluebells this year.  The blue tits will be aiming to time the hatching of nestlings to coincide with the development of the green caterpillars that feed on the young oak leaves, such that the insect larvae will be about 2 centimetres long and full of protein, water and other beneficial nutrients.


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

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