Nature 2012 February

Elementary my dear…

Mercurial is a word not oft used these days so I decided it needed dusting off and given an outing here. It is one of those words which has enticing meanings derived from a variety of sources: be it the Shakespearian character Mercutio, the Roman God, the planet and of course the element Mercury, both named after the deity. For this reason it has a wide variety of meanings; including eloquence, shrewdness, swiftness, and thievishness.

These words describe a few of our local wildlife active at this time of the year. The Stoat, known for its swiftness in pursuing its prey, might be seen prancing as it hunts for voles or rabbits. The Jackdaw, with its predilection for coveting brightly-coloured objects, can be identified by its distinctive Prussian blue wing flashes in the still bare tree branches. In early spring the tawny owl hangs out during the day in the crook of a tree waiting for dusk when the shrewdness of its hunting prowess comes to the fore. As I write this I can hear our resident cock Pheasant delineate its territory as it struts around showing off the elegance of its courting colours.

Before moving on from mercury to some other elements, I relate to two local woodland plants appearing in the Spring: Good King Henry, an edible herb also known as Good Mercury on account of the similarity of its leaves to Dogs (or bad) Mercury which is highly poisonous. Like many such plants it conveniently provides a health warning in the form of a fetid smell which ensures animals avoid it.

Continuing the theme revolving around the periodic table, my next element is Silver. Top of the list of local trees is the Silver Birch. Not a feature tree in our neck of the woods but rather an opportunist. Whilst it was one of the first species to re- colonise the Chilterns after the last Ice Age, having laid down a carpet of rich soil from leaf litter, it was disrespectfully forced out by the much more successful oak woodland. Although nowhere as productive as beech during the last two centuries it could still be commercial, turned into household products, notably the besom, earning a few pence for the bodgers and Chesham-based workshops.

Amongst invertebrates there are several that have a moniker incorporating ‘silver’. The Silver-Y moth, for example, is named after the shape and colour of its marking. The moth is a common visitor to our gardens and one that is attracted to light, so can be found resting around the house during the day. Despite being ubiquitous and producing two broods during the year, this moth cannot survive our harsh winters and each year there are large numbers of migrants from both Scandinavia and, later in the year, from central Europe.

The Silverfish, I guess, is not amongst the favourite creatures which share your house! When the light goes on in the kitchen and bathroom there is usually just enough time to see these most primitive of insects, more correctly called bristletails. Whilst a creature of the dark regions under the leaf litter, they have been associated with humans for as long as we have been domesticated. There’s no surprise then they are at home with us given the warm conditions and supply of ample food. In the kitchen anything with starch is well-received although they also enjoy processed fat. In the bathroom, their alternative residence, where food morsels are at a premium they are just as happy with soap or shampoo.

Thoughts turn to Copper. Two insects come to mind: first the Small Copper. In the 18th century, when originally catalogued, it was known as ‘the copper butterfly’. However, soon after a much larger copper butterfly was identified: hence the qualifying of the species by size. Sadly, no sooner had the Large Copper butterfly been found it was hunted into extinction, and despite attempts to reintroduce, it has not been native in this country for 150 years. The surviving copper makes up for its size with its most distinctive dark orange upper wings. Never prolific, you are likely to see them in June and July in just ones or twos flitting low down on open grassland and sunny woodland clearings.

The other burnished insect is the Copper Underwing. Relatively large as moths go, it is one of those varieties that are not for the squeamish. It can startle you when the curtains are drawn in the morning as it darts out and presents a flash of orange accompanied by a distinctly unnerving rustle of wings.

Setting out on this endeavour I at first stumbled when it came to the element Gold. Then I managed to see through the fug and thankfully came up with some examples. The first was staring me in the face as I espied a pair of Goldfinches on our birdfeeder. It is one of our more colourful garden birds with yellow, red and black plumage. If I were to assign it an anthropomorphic character I would suggest it is assertive, somewhat aloof which chooses not to associate with the other garden birds, who in turn keep their distance. Its name does not, as one might expect, derive from their colouration but can be traced back to the Greeks who considered the bird a fertility symbol and a sign of good fortune and was duly assigned the most precious of all metals to its name.

The other bird that came to mind was the Goldcrest. Weighing no more than a 5p piece it is Britain’s smallest bird but one we can delight in, as it is common in these parts. Its distinctive feature, if one were required, is its bright orange (gold) stripe on its head. Despite the size, tens of thousands make it across from Scandinavia to winter in this country.

I conclude this little journey across the periodic table with a brief stop of one further element, Lead. Sadly I could not find an indigenous species associated with lead but recall a garden plant: Plumbago Europaea, known in this country as Common Leadwort. The association with lead takes us back again to the time of the Greeks when it was believed by botanists that the lead blue colour of the flowers and the lead coloured staining of the sap on the skin indicated that preparations of the plant were a cure for lead poisoning.

I am sure there are other elements to draw on but my grey matter has admitted defeat and I will sign off.