Derwent May.

The Times A Year in Nature Notes

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A year in
Nature Notes
Derwent May



Title Page
















About the Publisher


I BEGAN WRITING Nature Notes for The Times in 1981. They first appeared in a back-page section called The Times Information Service, which had been set up by the new editor at that time, Harold Evans. They appeared every Monday morning, and consisted of a thumbnail sketch of the events of the week in nature: "First blackbirds are singing...Blue tits are pairing...Oak buds are bursting". I often used to dictate them over the phone on Sunday afternoons. They were moved to other parts of the paper several times, and were sometimes held over until Tuesday, but never missed a week.

In February 2002, they became a daily feature in the new Register section of the paper, appearing every morning from Monday to Friday. Inevitably, that meant a slight change of character for them. Even in the heady weeks of spring and early summer, to have included eight to twelve species of bird, butterfly or flower in Monday’s notes would have left a certain paucity of material for the rest of the week – not to mention the problem that would have arisen in the almost unchanging days of late December.

So in these daily notes, I give a rather fuller account of what is happening to some of the various creatures and plants mentioned. The principle behind the notes nevertheless remains the same. I try to give a brisk, vivid rundown of what readers may hope to see and hear if they go out into the garden or the countryside each morning. The present book is based on these daily Nature Notes. They are still called by that name, and still signed by the initials DJM.

Of course every year is different, with early springs and cold springs, stormy Octobers and placid Octobers. So this book portrays a hypothetical year, yet one based very closely on real, observed events. Among the seasonal variations I provide some frosty and windy spells early in the year, and some late autumn sunshine.

The timing of events also varies in different parts of the country, between east and west, and north and south.

However, it would have been absurd to try to write about an average year for the whole country, so, as in the paper itself, I write about southern England, where I live. Readers in the North of England or Scotland, or in the West of England or Wales or Ireland, know this, and smile smugly or nod ruefully as they note the differences between where I live and where they live. I do also send the notes out on regular excursions from time to time, describing birds or flowers that are only found in Scotland, for example.

One other point about differences is that in the course of the last 20 years, some spring events have started taking place slightly earlier. I was not noticing silver catkins on the sallows in January 20 years ago, for instance, and the first chiffchaff was more often reported in the last week of March than in mid-March. Nevertheless, the change has not been so marked as some newspaper reports every spring suggest. There were always early bumblebees buzzing about in February, always some early swallows dying of starvation, always a few hawthorn – or may – hedges with flowers at the beginning of April.

Yet another difference is the change in numbers of some species, especially of birds. Although it is still not hard to find them, skylarks, yellowhammers and grey partridges have all become distinctly less common out in the cornfields. At the same time, the beautiful and once-rare little egret has become a familiar bird on marshes and estuaries.

At any rate, I hope this book will prove useful to readers in suggesting what they may hope to find going on in the countryside if they venture out, or in giving them a picture of what they are missing if they stay in.

My thanks to the successive editors of The Times over these years for publishing me, and in particular to the present editor, Robert Thomson, for permitting me to reprint the Nature Notes in this book. Thanks too to Peter Brown for his illustrations, and to the editor of the Register, Ian Brunskill, for his unfailing support.

Derwent May

1st January

MANY TREES ARE quite easy to identify even in winter when they are without their leaves. Oak trees have a very distinctive shape, with broad, spreading branches that switchback up and down. Their bark, too, is easily recognisable: it is as if the trunk were covered in small, slender tiles, each about twice as long as it is broad. Lime trees have branches that bend gracefully downwards, and very often have swellings on their trunks with reddish shoots growing out of them.

Beeches are best recognised by their smooth grey bark and very sharp buds. They can grow tall and magnificent. Hornbeams also have sharp buds, but their bark is quite different: it generally has twisting silvery-grey patterns on it, as if smoke had settled on the trunk and frozen there.

Hedge sparrows are singing occasionally in low bushes: it is a thin song but has its sweet notes. They were once called hedge accentors and are now more often called dunnocks. They are not related to house sparrows: they have a thin, insect-eating bill, not a broad, seed-eating bill. At a glance they seem dull birds, but when the sun brings out their soft, bluish-grey head and striped chestnut back they look quite handsome.

2nd January

WHERE THE FARMLAND hedges have not been cut, tall ash saplings are growing out of them and standing up like little flagpoles. They have very smooth bark, and already have the black, claw-shaped leaf buds on them. Blackthorn bushes are putting out long, drooping shoots at the side of the hedges: they end in a sharp spike. Here and there a solitary blue sloe can still be seen. A few green convolvulus leaves are also still trailing over the hedgetops.

On spindle trees, the pink casing of the fruits has dried up to look like brown paper, while the orange berries that were hidden inside are now exposed but are still clinging on. Weeping willows are changing colour and falling at last. The grass or the water beneath is covered with long narrow leaves, yellow on one side, silvery-grey on the other.

Sometimes in the fields one sees a little flock of small, streaky-brown birds that fly up in an odd way, as though they were mounting a flight of stairs. They make a thin, piping call as they go. These are meadow pipits, which are in fact only found on farmland – and on ploughed land, rather than in meadows – in the winter. They nest mainly on moors and marshes.

3rd January

SMALL FLOCKS OF chaffinches are feeding under the trees, especially where there is beechmast lying. Sometimes the flocks consist solely of the drab, yellowish-brown females. This is because among Scandinavian chaffinches the female birds may leave for the winter and come to Britain, while the pink-chested males stay behind, or follow later. The Latin name for the chaffinch, coelebs, meaning ‘bachelor’, is derived from this practice.

When the chaffinches fly up from the ground they are easily recognised by thier double white wing-bars, but they usually disperse very quickly among the treetops and it is not easy to follow them up.

Nuthatches are busy high in the trees, and often make a series of rapid, clipped whistling notes – very like the sound a stone makes when bounced across the ice on a lake. These blue-backed birds bustle about on the branches, and will sometimes walk down a trunk head first. They hold on with their very strong claws. They wedge nuts in cracks in the bark, and break the shells by hammering them with their beak. They also eat insects, and at present can be seen peering into clusters of ash seeds in case there are any small creatures to be found there.

4th January

THE CATKINS ARE already swinging on some hazel bushes. They are next spring’s male flowers. They appear in the autumn as tight green clusters, like a bird’s foot, but loosen as the pollen swells in them and dangle merrily from the twigs, and are then called ‘lambs’ tails’. At present, many of them are a bright lime green, but they will soon be more of a lemon yellow. The female flowers, which are like tiny crimson stars, will appear on the twigs in February.

In woods, coppiced hazels are still sometimes found in spaces between the tall trees. These are bushes that have been cut down so that they grow up again in a circle of long shoots around the base. These flexible shoots are then used in thatching and to make fences. Coppices are good places for woodland flowers to grow in the spring, but the bushes need to be protected from roe deer that nibble the bark.

Pheasants stalk about in the coppices, grubbing up roots to eat under the fallen leaves, but they often fly up onto a high oak bough to roost at night, out of reach of foxes.

5th January

BARK HAS BEEN falling from the trunks of London plane trees (as they are called all the way from Central America to China). The bark flakes off from the middle and upper part of the trunk, leaving creamy patches showing beneath. These patchwork trunks are most noticeable in the autumn and early winter. London planes are very tolerant trees, thriving in most kinds of soil, resisting drought, smog and fog, and accepting both shady and sunny situations. This is why they have been planted so widely, especially in cities and towns. They are actually hybrid trees, a cross between the oriental plane, which grows beside streams in Greece and Turkey, and a much more robust species of plane tree that is native to eastern parts of North America. At present the plane twigs are crowded with bobble-shaped seed balls which will crumble in the spring.

A few wild flowers have survived into the new year. Here and there a large dandelion, often half-closed, can be found in the grass. Many lawns are still sprinkled with a few daisies, their petals closed up when the skies are grey. On bramble bushes, a solitary white flower may linger among the dark green leaves and the withered blackberries.

6th January

SNOW ON THE grass in parks and gardens sends blackbirds, song thrushes and robins under the hedges to look for food. The blackbirds are particularly noisy as they hop about on the dry leaves, and turn them over to look for insects lurking beneath them.

Larger birds such as carrion crows and magpies venture out onto pasture and playing fields if the snow is not too deep, and poke about in it. Birds that feed mainly in trees, such as blue tits and great tits, are affected only if the frost is severe enough to coat the twigs and branches with ice. This makes it much harder for them to get at the small insects and the moth eggs that they normally consume in large quantities. Bird tables and hanging peanut feeders become popular, and in the past year or two long-tailed tits have learnt the trick and started to visit them in hard weather.

All birds puff out their feathers in freezing weather, to insulate themselves with a layer of air and so keep warm. The poet Robert Graves observed that ‘puffed up feather and fearless approach’ indicated hunger in birds, but that in man these signs revealed ‘belly filled full’.

7th January

RABBIT TRACKS IN the snow can easily be identified. There are two oblong footprints side by side in the front, and two similar prints one behind the other in the rear. Oddly enough the two footprints in the front are made by the hind legs, and the two footprints at the back are made by the forelegs. This is because the running rabbit puts its two front feet down one after the other, then vigorously propels its two hind feet together in front of them. And so it goes on, launching forward with its front feet again, and usually travelling a good distance, then bringing its hind legs up and past them as before.

Hares leave a similar pattern in the snow, but their feet – and the hollows they leave in the snow – are distinctly larger. Hare tracks also sometimes show that they have made a huge jump to one side and gone off in another direction – probably to shake off foxes following their scent.

Fox prints in the snow are very like dog prints (but the pads under the dogs’ feet are closer together). The prints appear in pairs, since in snow the animals put their hind foot exactly in the print made by the forefoot.

8th January

THE SNOW HAS made the Lawson (or Lawson’s) cypresses stand out, particularly in parks and churchyards. They are tall, smooth, dark green spires, but there are usually enough ragged leafy edges for snow to settle on them. The leaves are scaly and slightly sticky, and have a resinous smell like parsley. The original trees come from the hillsides of Oregon and California, but they are now the commonest cypresses to be seen in Britain. They lend a gloomy dignity to gravesides. There are also many cultivated varieties, some of them a much brighter green, some golden-yellow. They can be used for hedges.

In the cold weather, blackcaps and chiffchaffs have been coming into gardens. Both of these small species are mainly summer visitors to Britain, but a few blackcaps that nested in Germany have come here for the winter, and a few chiffchaffs that nested here have stayed behind while all the rest have gone to Africa. The chiffchaffs generally stay in the bushes but the blackcaps come to bird tables. The blackcaps are silent, but the chiffchaffs have a sharp ‘hweet’ call that draws attention to them. Neither of them will sing until the spring.

9th January

SKYLARKS FEED ALMOST exclusively on the ground – they take everything from seeds to slugs – so when there is a covering of snow they roam the countryside looking for sustenance. The winter visitors may wander far afield, but the British residents soon return to their own fields and moors. Before long they will be singing again, high in the sky.

Another lark that can be seen here in winter, mainly on the east coast, is the shore lark. These birds are easily overlooked because they crouch on the shore and then shuffle along with their heads down, quite unlike the brisk skylarks. They can be recognised by their yellowish faces, and, in the case of the male, by the two black stripes on the top of his head that end at the back in tiny horns (they are sometimes called horned larks). These features will become sharper as spring nears, and they prepare to return to their homes in the Arctic tundra.

In the woods, the first shoots of dog’s mercury are coming through. The jagged-edged leaves will soon be unfolding and in a fortnight the first green flowers will be out. In some places they will carpet the whole woodland floor for a while.

10th January

TAWNY OWLS ARE hooting in the night – a long, sonorous set of notes, often wavering slightly. They also have a sharp ‘kwick’ note, probably more often used by the female, and the two sounds together constitute the legendary ‘tu-whit, tu-whoo’. They fly around noiselessly in the dark on their soft, rounded wings, alert to any sight or sound of movement, and swoop down on careless mice or small birds roosting in the bushes. Sometimes a tawny owl is caught in a car’s headlights, standing on the ground eating its prey. It looks up with its large gleaming eyes before it flies off rapidly into the shadows. In the daytime, they sleep in hollow trees, or pressed up against a tree trunk hidden in deep ivy. If they venture out in the daytime, they may be mobbed by small birds and forced to flee.

11th January

IN SPITE OF the recent cold weather, the first leaves of many of the spring flowers are coming up at woodland edges and on muddy roadsides. The bright green, fern-like leaves of cow parsley, or Queen Anne’s lace, are already quite thick. There are beds of goosegrass, which at this early stage of its life looks like a trim little green pagoda. Later it will sprawl and cling to clothes – hence its other name of ‘cleavers’. The fan-shaped leaves of mallow are also up here and there, though the flowers will not follow until June. The leaves of garlic mustard, or jack-by-the-hedge, are pushing up through the leaf mould: they are like crinkly hearts, and already smell faintly of garlic when crushed. There are also small, frail-looking dock leaves, and neat rosettes of thorny thistle leaves close to the ground.

Jackdaws plod about on the ground looking for food. They have prospered in recent years, partly perhaps because of the wide range of food that they will take. They are mainly black birds, but have a grey hood and pale grey eyes. The pairs often sit side by side in the trees, in winter as well as in the spring.

12th January

WHITE-FRONTED GEESE ARE wandering in small flocks around southern England, especially near the Severn Estuary and in farmland near the Kent and Sussex coast. They settle on flooded fields where the water is not frozen, and graze around the edge of the pools. The whole flock moves forward on the ground together, walking slowly and tugging energetically at the grass as they go. When they are startled, they leap up into the air with remarkable speed, climbing almost vertically on their powerful wings. They fill the air with cackling cries like a kind of wild laughter.

They are streaky brown geese, and their ‘white front’ is a white band above the beak. The birds in the south of England come here from northern Russia, while other white-fronted geese from Greenland visit the Irish bogs and some Hebridean islands, particularly Islay. Hard weather on the Continent brings more Russian birds here.

The first shoots of winter wheat and barley are coming up steadily. There are also tufts of scentless mayweed still flowering in the rain-sodden soil, although many of the flowers have lost their white petals and only the spongy-looking yellow centre remains.

13th January

SONG THRUSHES ARE singing vigorously in treetops in the dawn, with repeated, ringing whistles and triple notes. They put what sounds like enormous urgency into their songs. In well-lit gardens and parks, some of them are singing for half the night. They also have a more subdued, rambling song, called ‘sub-song’ by ornithologists, which can be heard from lower down in the vegetation. This probably comes from young males who are practising their song – and still learning it from the treetop birds.

Blue tits are more often seen now in pairs than in flocks, and are looking round for suitable holes or boxes to nest in, but they will not start building until April. The lengthening hours of daylight are beginning to bring all the birds a little closer to breeding condition, and the warmth in the air is contributing to the process.

14th January

PIGEONS AND DOVES breed nearly all the year round, and in the sunshine are already showing signs of spring. Wood pigeons can be seen making their aerial displays. They fly sharply up into the air from a roof or treetop, clap their wings, then glide down. They may do this several times before they settle again. They are laying claim to a territory on the land beneath them, and showing off to potential mates.

Collared doves are singing on television aerials: their loud triple coo is sometimes mistaken for a cuckoo’s call, but the cuckoos at present are all in central or southern Africa. Collared doves like to look around when they are perched, stretching their long, flexible necks and peering about with an anxious expression. Town, or feral, pigeons, which are mainly descended from wild rock doves, make their grunting, groaning song from holes in walls.

In the woods, the little heart-shaped leaves of sweet violet are beginning to push aside the leaf mould.

15th January

MANY SMALL CREATURES may be revealed if a piece of bark is broken off a fallen tree trunk. Woodlice lurk in the darkness of the rotting wood in order to keep moist, with several of them often clustered close together to make the process more efficient. One species of woodlouse rolls up, when exposed, into a shiny ball that looks as if it is armour-plated, and drops to the ground to escape. At one time, these little rolled-up crustaceans used to be prescribed as medicine by quack doctors, because of their resemblance to a pill.

Centipedes may also be found lying under the bark in winter, keeping very still, but they too come to life when exposed to light and air, and fall to the ground writhing violently as they go. This startles and confuses a bird that might want to eat them.

The bark may also conceal millipedes – which do not have a full thousand legs, but have two pairs of legs on each segment of their body, as opposed to the centipedes, which only have one pair on each segment. On warm nights, centipedes go hunting for other tiny animals, while millipedes and woodlice eat dead plant matter, such as soft, rotting leaves.

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