Nature 2007 June

Take care to look out for a green glow and the cyanide. Take time to check the time. Take the opportunity to revel in the wonders of slime.

Once again I have cause to mention yet another new weather record. This time, April according to the understated comment on the Met Office website was ‘an exceptionally warm month’. It had the highest average temperatures for this time of year since 1914 and in central England was the warmest April since records began in the 1600’s. Locally it peaked at 24°C (on 15th). So much for April showers. I recorded just 1 mm of rain during the month (on 26th) when typically one could have expected between 1 to 3 inches! Long-range forecasting is clearly a dying art as I find the PR department at the Met Office have also got their grip on these too. So cagy to be of little value as they see it being a warmer than average summer with the odds of a real scorcher though only 8/1. Underlining how warm / dry the late spring was this year the oak beat the ash into leaf by a country mile, the latter only appearing in the first week of May. The folklore which dictates – if ash before oak = soak, if oak before ash = splash is reinforced by the science which tells us its all about temperature and light with leaf-burst of the oak dependant on average temperatures whilst ash is based on the length of daylight.

After many years when Butterflies rather than Moths have received all the attention, the latter are at last being given some well-deserved increased recognition. Moths are in fact far more important than butterflies for pollinating our garden flowers and shrubs. Although there are over 900 large moths species to only 70 butterflies in the UK, because they are largely night-flying, tend to appear unexpected from out of the curtains and have several less savoury myths attached to them, moths have had a bad press for a long time. Conversely, moths were favoured by the 18th century naturalists and then later as part of the Victorian obsession with collecting anything that moved. (A visit to Tring Zoological Museum will confirm this). This obsession produced some intriguing and unusual names. The Vapourer – chestnut brown with white eyespots is a very conspicuous moth to be seen at twilight flitting at speed between flowers. It was so named as this was the commonly used title for a braggart, or load-mouthed and fast talker. Meanwhile Mother Shipton was associated with a famous Yorkshire witch because it has the profile of an old hag’s face on each forewing. Of the day-flying moths, of similar hue are the cinnabar and the distinctive 5 or 6 spot burnet moths. The latter has spots of crimson set against an almost jet black background. Its sinister look matches the deadly secret this moth hides as the caterpillar, which feeds on ragwort, accumulates a cyanide derivative that is concentrated in the body of the adult. If you would like to learn more about moths you can have an opportunity over the long weekend of Friday 22nd June 2007 to Sunday 24th June 2007, As the website www.butterfly-conservation.org.uk says “everyone can search for moths and caterpillars in their own gardens and take part online in the biggest ever moth survey. Are there hawks, ermines and swifts in your garden?”

I surprised a slug yesterday in the early morning, well not any old slug but a Great Black Slug, it was not black but russet brown, it was not sluggish but was moving at pace and purposely across a grassy due-moistened path. In fact I did not surprise it but it surprised me, stopped me in my tracks just as my size 10’s were about to occupy ‘the same space and time’. Something all the best time-travellers tell you to avoid at all costs. One of 23 British species of slug it can black but also orange, stripped or even white. Unlike their diminutive cousins that can devastate your hostas or your salad crops, these slugs on balance do more good than evil, mainly feed on decaying plants or dead animals. Using their rasping tongue and the digestive juices it regurgitated from its stomach it makes swift work of even the toughest detritus. Slime is synonymous with slugs and is their key asset. It provides some protection from attack by birds or animals. Slugs are a delicacy for badger or fox and when attacked they rapidly secrete copious amounts of distasteful slime, they roll into a ball and uniquely can be seen rocking from side to side. By laying down a slime trail these large slugs can motor over rough ground or up smooth surfaces with ease. Slugs are hermaphrodites and when ready to reproduce they will use their slime to lay down a trail containing a strong attractant. The young hatch, live and can normally expect to live from up to three years.

Two mentions of bird reports this time. The first cuckoo was heard on 14th April. One up to the Apiarists of Shire Lane. The second was an excellent and rare sighting of an albino sparrow, which has been seen several times in a number of gardens in Sandpit Hill. Only around 17 in every 30,000 birds display at least partial albinism. Very occasionally they can be completely white with pink beak and eyes. This is due to a genetic condition, which suppresses or disables the production of melanin. Such birds can sometimes be ostracised by others of the same species but can happily flock with other birds similar in size and habit. Quite often they are short lived as they stand out from the crowd and get picked off by predators. Apart from sparrows, starlings, blackbirds, jackdaws, crows, tits and robins are most frequently reported in albino form. Do let me know if like others you have seen this particular albino around recently.

You may be lucky to spy a Glow-worms on warm evenings from June onwards. They used to be a frequent site along the verges of the Chilterns but these days are a much more difficult to find. A few females (the males do not glow) were reported performing their luminous display around Hawridge and Heath End last year.

It was fashionable in the early 1800’s to assemble wild flowers into a clock shape according to the time of day they opened. More accurate but less fun than dandelion seed heads and still something one can do today if out for a morning or afternoon walk. For, example scarlet pimpernel closes at 3pm. Other flowers used included nipplewort, chickweed, chicory, bindweed and even water lily all apparently accurate to a few minutes. No prizes as to when Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon closed its petals!

The deliberate mistake last time was to suggest that Spring Watch was about to start as it was Spring. Well it seems global warning has hit the schedules as it starts (in summer!) at the end of May!