Nature 2013 February

Just a word or two for yew: snotty-gog

I think it was back in the Autumn Nature Notes article I said something along the lines of “…each season has its own character.” Well, just to disprove the point the first half of winter has been anything but distinctive: damp and dank. However, February and March will no doubt provide the opportunity for the odd icy storm and a snow fall or two to mark the first few months of 2013.

Our winter resident birds have had to cope with two harsh winters in a row and there were signs following the milder winter of 2011-12 that they had begun to recover. However, though not so fierce, the weather conditions over the last twelve months have presented a further test for those birds dependant on a narrow range of food supply, be it fruit or insects. Supplies of both were dealt a severe blow by the cool spring and the prolonged periods of torrential rain. The consequential impact of waterlogged land and of the disrupted growing season has produced a poor wild harvest in 2012. The consequences for our feathered friends will shortly be revealed.

In January each year the RSPB organises its Big Birdwatch survey. Last year, nearly 600,000 people took part in the count. Over 9 million birds were recorded as having visited gardens during just a one hour period. The survey has now been going since 1979 and over this period it has generally marked massive reductions in our resident bird population. The popularity of the survey was greatly enhanced by the then editor of Blue Peter, Biddy Baxter, promoting the survey on television: resulting in many children and schools taking part.

The timing of the survey might be strange but the reason is counter-intuitive. In winter birds are more visible in trees and shrubs and are more frequent visitors to bird feeders. In the first survey it was typical to see, on average, up to 15 starlings simultaneously visiting a garden. In 2012 that figure has fallen to an average of just 3! The causes are put down to changes in the environment and habitat quality. This is a complex picture which includes long-term climate issues and medium term environment changes: for example, a reduction in hedge-cover or the availability of soil dwelling insects.

This picture is not just restricted to starlings. In 1979 the average UK sightings for house sparrows during the one hour period was ten. Last year it averaged four. Robin numbers have fallen by a third. Sometimes, though, a reduction in bird numbers from one year to the next is merely a short-term blip. For example, in 2012 there was a fall in the long-tailed tit garden observations. The RSPB put this down to the improved availability of woodland food supplies in 2011-12 which drew these birds temporarily away from gardens. The number of blackbirds seen has halved. Here it was a case of waterlogged lawns and flowerbeds which affected the supply of worms and soil-dwelling invertebrates, such as centipedes and woodlice.

Meanwhile, over this 34 year period, some birds have bucked the trend and increased their presence in gardens. Most significant have been two relates species, woodpigeon and collared dove. Great tit numbers have doubled, which is an example of a permanent population shift from farmland to gardens: much like the robin did from pastoral woodlands to Victorian gardens. The RSPB stats for the UK are dominated by urban gardens and our rurally-located gardens have a different range of birds.

Locally, two birds which we know are seen more and more frequently are the red kite and green woodpecker. In last year’s survey these were included on my return for the first time. One more unlikely bird I had visit during the survey period was a coot (white face: red face = moorhen). Not a typical visitor but, with the few ponds we have around here, it is a water bird that appears to be thriving locally at least. I would be interested to hear from any other local Big Birdwatch survey observers.

Stumbling through the woods in the valley between Hawridge and Bellingdon, I came across a straggly yew sapling fighting for space and scarce nutrients with the holly and surrounded by rotting beech mast. It suggests there must be some mature trees nearby, though most mature trees are sited adjacent to churches. Swotting up, I find that the oldest yew and, according to Richard Mabey, the oldest wooden artefact in the world, is in a churchyard in Clacton, Essex incredibly estimated at 250,000 years old!

Such ancient yews usually predate the church, indicating a pre-Christian era relationship with people. It has been suggested that some settlements arose because there was already a yew tree there. It is also supposed that where an ancient yew is associated with a congregation of standing stones that there was deliberate intent to locate a ceremonial site close to the tree. A separate theory for those yews away from ‘spiritual sites’ suggests the tree’s prominence in the landscape acted as a signpost for travellers following an important track way, or to mark crossroads, where they also became associated with travellers’ inns.

Those yews which are younger than their associated church were normally planted in the middle-ages. By this time the slow- growing, evergreen nature of the tree had become an important Christian symbol denoting longevity. Often yews planted in churches were in pairs and marked out the route the coffin would take from lych gate to church entrance. A colloquial name for the yew which seems to complement the weedy example I found is ‘snotty-gog’ which relates to the fleshy red cones, which are a prominent feature on mature trees at this time of year, and the jelly-like seed coating is a particular delicacy for finches and waxwings, which are the principal dispersers of the indigestible seed.

This provides a convenient link to what else is to be seen in February and March. Before the spring plants take a grip and envelope the woodland floor, colour for the year is provided by early fruiting fungi. At this time of year there is a ready supply of nutrient in the fallen branches from autumn storms. Chief amongst those on show is the easily identified (and poisonous) sulphur-tuft fungus. It appears in small groups with bright yellow caps fringed with white.

Bumble bees make their first brief forays in February: all are female! Badger cubs will emerge for the first time at dusk. The brimstone is the first of our over-wintering butterflies to emerge, if warmth permits, with peacocks and small tortoiseshells staying back until March. We already know about hares and March. March is also when the insect predators appear and spiders abound.

Meanwhile bats emerge from hibernation. For those of you with a passing knowledge of American TV gangster series I particularly want to mention the most appropriately named soprano pipistrelle which, in common with other bats, has an ongoing ‘contract’ out on any unfortunate flying insect its radar senses detect. Its name was coined only in 1999 once it was determined, by the pitch of its sonar, to be a separate species from its near relative the common pipistrelle.

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