Nature 2003 June

Phew! What a scorcher

In my experience as a weather reporter (all of 6 months that is), it’s rare to be able to say “this had been one of the hottest months since records began” but I’ve said it now! Although not exactly an all-time record, April was unusually warm and sunny with moderate SE winds throughout the month. Although clear skies produced a cluster of frosty nights until 14th, a reading of 26°C was clocked on 16th, close to the UK maximum on that day of 27.3°C in Wolverhampton. This was in fact the third highest April temperature on record for all-time and not surprisingly, this was also one of the driest Aprils on record. The rain gauge recorded 38mm (1.5″) mostly falling all at the end of the month. June usually signals the start of the summer season but if planting out seedlings beware of the odd frost during the first few days.

In the last edition of HTN I mentioned the cuckoo would be announcing its arrival in April. Reliable reports place the earliest call heard in this locality on April 14th which was way ahead of when the ‘first heard’ reports in nearly all other UK locations occurred. A number of plants and animals have cuckoo in their name and are connected with folklore. The pink-flowered cuckoo plant (ladies smock) is so-called by virtue of flowering around the time the first cuckoo is heard. Cuckoo bees and wasps lay their eggs in the nests of their hapless cousins that they mimic. However, the arum lily’s other name the cuckoo pint plant has links back to the loose morals of the 17th century aristocracy, hence its alternate nickname of ‘lords and ladies’, enough said!

The cuckoo-spit insect or froghopper is responsible for the spittle that appears on grasses and herbaceous plants around now and is said to have derived from the arrival of the spittle on plants coinciding with the first call of the cuckoo in spring. There is also oblique reference in folklore to superstitions about spitting to avoid bad luck whenever a cuckoo is heard. Certainly cuckoo-spit was an important ingredient in witches’ brew (as in Macbeth) and in Scandinavian countries the froth is known as ‘witches’ spit’.

The results of the national survey of garden birds have recently been published. In first place was the starling, followed by the house sparrow. Despite being the nation’s most numerous garden birds by far, both have been in decline until recently. In 1979 the average per garden was starling-15 and house sparrow-10. In 2003, both are down to 5, although there is now a slight upward trend in numbers. The starling population is one that may be an early indicator of the impact on migratory birds of global warming. In May the RSPB carried out a further survey of house sparrows. The most at one time in our garden was a flock of 10. I’m interested to hear whether anyone else has seen any increase this year in line with national trends. To find out more go to www.rspb.org.

In next month’s article I plan to talk about some of the butterflies we can see in the area so in the meantime, whilst in the garden or out and about, make a mental note of the different varieties or, if you do not recognise them, just their colours and the particular behaviour that they exhibit.