Early-purple orchids

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The 2021 orchid season has begun!

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In my local area, the first orchids to bloom are the Early-purples (Orchis mascula) and this week I was delighted to find them in two local areas, one a nature reserve, the other a woodland I regularly visit.

The Plantlife website notes that there is a legend the ‘Early Purple Orchid grew under Christ’s cross, and the leaves were splattered with the blood of Christ, have resulted in the names Gethesmane and cross flower.’

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The website also lists some of this orchid’s other vernacular names: ‘adder’s meat, bloody butchers, red butchers, goosey ganders, kecklegs, kettle cases and kite’s legs’. Personally, I just call them beautiful!

The Wayfarer

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As part of this spring’s project to watch trees and shrubs come to life, I’ve been keeping a close eye on Wayfaring trees during my local walks. Viburnum lantana is a tree – or shrub, if the potential to grow 5 metres tall means it can still be called a shrub – I’ve mostly ignored in the past but now I have a much better appreciation of its beauty.

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The leaf buds when they first begin to develop are brown and furry and very sculptural.

And the flowers are equally lovely. The first of these photos was taken on 23 March, the most recent just two days ago, on 4 May.

You can read more about the Wayfaring tree on the Woodland Trust website, where the entry includes the fascinating information that arrows made from stems of this tree were found on the frozen body of ‘Ötzi the Iceman’, the man from 4000-3500BC whose body was found in the Austrian Alps in 1991.

Yellow wagtails

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I’ve only seen Yellow wagtails a couple of times and never locally so, when they were reported flitting about Cardiff Bay, I went walking that way. On my first walk past where they’d been reported, I couldn’t find any – I dipped as they say in birder speak, and I’ve been dipping a bit lately so didn’t bother trying again the next day.

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Then, last Friday, I thought I’d pop over to the wetlands reserve to see if I could find any Sedge warblers to photograph. Those birds were being very vocal though visually elusive but then I spotted a couple of birders I know who were obviously looking at something interesting. Turns out, it was a Whinchat, my first of the year – good news! – and then both chaps said they’d seen more Yellow wags that morning, dotting around the grassy areas on the Barrage.

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So, a quick change of plan saw me strolling in that direction and, remarkably, the birds were still there. Four gorgeous little bursts of vibrant yellow, easily disturbed by walkers and dogs, but I managed to get some quality watching time and a few distant photos before they headed off over the water. Magic!

Brimstone eggs

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This was exciting – or should that be eggs-citing?!

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I was watching this female Brimstone, first sitting on a patch of brambles, then flying, seemingly haphazardly, through and around bushes along a woodland ride. I thought those bushes were Blackthorn but it turns out they were probably Buckthorn.

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Then I realised the butterfly was egg-laying. In his Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies, Peter Eeles describes the process:

Females are particularly choosy about the plants on which they lay their eggs – even on sites with many buckthorns present, only a very small proportion are used by females, who typically lay on plants that are isolated, sheltered and growing in sunny areas, such as at the edge of a woodland ride.

The eggs start off pale green, as shown here, but soon turn yellow and then grey, as the little caterpillar develops. This is the first time I’ve seen Brimstone eggs and I’m fairly sure I’ll be able to find them again so I’m hoping to keep an eye on their progress.

Whimbrel passing

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Last Thursday’s walk was very similar to walks I’ve written about previously (a Superb Sully stroll, 23 April 2019, and The Whimbrel and the Barwit, 30 April 2017), and the reason I repeat the walk, sometimes several times, at this time of year is hopefully to catch sight of migrating Whimbrel (and Bar-tailed godwit).

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A local birding friend had reported sightings, and the tide was right – as the Bristol Channel has the second highest tidal range in the world, it’s best to look over high tide so the birds are relatively close to the coastal path.

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And I was lucky to see several Whimbrel. There were perhaps six or seven birds but I’m not sure of the exact number, as they were quite flighty, and would head off along the beach when disturbed by people and their dogs walking along the path and the rocks.

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These birds are part of the annual migration, seen locally during April and May, when Whimbrel that over-winter in West Africa move through to their breeding grounds in more northerly latitudes (according to the Bird Guides website, Iceland, Scandinavia, the Faroes and Shetland are their likely breeding locations.)

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New and noticed

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More luscious wildflowers have begun blooming in recent days. Here are some I’ve noticed:

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As I witnessed when taking these photos, bumblebees adore Bugle (Ajuga reptans). I can’t think of a better reason to plant some in your own wildflower garden.

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You can tell just by looking at its flower shape that Common vetch (Vicia sativa) is a member of the pea family. Apparently, in ancient times, people cultivated this plant and ate its seed pods, just as we do today with peas and beans.

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I’ll bet you all have a bunch of names for this plant, Cleavers (Galium aparine). Sticky Willy is a favourite.

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After I recognised the leaves of this plant, I revisited the spot in my local woodland each week until, finally, the beautiful flowers began to open. This is the sweet-smelling Woodruff (Galium odoratum).

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This plant was growing quite close to where I found the Woodruff and was a first sighting for me. Gardeners will, I’m sure, recognise it as a Euphorbia because Wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides) is the ancestor of today’s popular garden varieties of Spurge.

Unfurling

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’Tis that magical time of year when the woodland floor comes to life, with wildflowers blooming and the sap rising up to green the trees and the fronds of ferns slowly unrolling.

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The curled up top of a young fern frond is called a crosier, sometimes a fiddlehead. When its first cells are touched by the warming sunlight of spring, they begin to grow; as they grow, they expand; as they expand, they lengthen; and as they lengthen, they unfurl.

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There is perhaps no more powerful symbol of the reawakening of the land in springtime than a fern frond unfurling.

Blethering tam, the hedge chicken

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I love the wonderful variety of vernacular names that have been given to the Whitethroat (Sylvia communis), local references to the bird’s love of hedgerows and bramble patches and farm fields, and its rasping singing style, and its plumage.

Flora Britannica lists the following, amongst many others: Beardie (Scotland) and Wheetie whey beard (Angus); Blethering tam (Scotland); Charlie muftie (Northamptonshire) and Muffit (Stirlingshire); Nettle creeper (North Yorkshire); Hay jack (Norfolk) and Haysucker (Devon) and Hedge chicken (Shropshire).

Flora Britannica also notes how fragile British bird populations can be: ‘There was a dramatic fall in numbers of Whitethroats after 1968, which was traced to severe drought in the southern Sahara and the death of large numbers of migrating birds which used up their fat reserves on their journey from further south in Africa’. Judging by the volume of ‘blethering’ I’m hearing in local parks and fields, the Whitethroat population has recovered well from that setback in the ‘60s but, given the global climate emergency, the future of all our beautiful birds is uncertain.

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Making a splash

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I was taking a break from not seeing the birds I was looking for on the edge of Cardiff Bay yesterday, when a loud splash drew my eye down to the water. These fish, a shoal of at least ten, perhaps more, were swirling and weaving around each other, presumably feeding.

Officially known as Thick-lipped mullet (Chelon labrosus), they are also frequently called Thick-lipped grey mullet, Thicklip mullet, Grey mullet and various other combinations of those words.

I wasn’t able to judge their size accurately, but it seems they can grow up to 75cm in length, though they mature when around 30cm at between four and six years of age. They thrive in ‘low salinity environments’ like Cardiff Bay and are often ‘found in closely shoaling schools near the surface’, just like those I saw.

They feed ‘on organic and algal material found on the upper surface sediments and mud, with the indigestible material being filtered out by the gill rakers’. I’m not sure I’d want to put any sediments or mud from Cardiff Bay in my mouth, so their filtration system must be first rate to survive the pollution.

I have to admit that they were very calming to watch, and I gained some appreciation for why people have aquariums, though I do prefer creatures to be wild and free.
Credit: Today’s fishy facts came from the UK Fish info website.