Throughout 2010 I am revisiting the little green nature book that accompanied my childhood and trying to tick off the plants and animals featured in its monthly sketchbook pages. I’m enjoying the journey – only one month to go now…
The book is “Wild Life Through the Year” by Richard Morse and it was published in 1942. You can read about earlier months here.
November 2010 in South Wales has felt very much like a bridge between autumn and winter. There have been clear, sunny days starting with a frost, heavy rain, strong winds and at the end of the month we are in the middle of an Arctic snap with below-freezing temperatures – we even had snow on November 27 (see my pictures here).
Nearly all the autumn leaves have fallen by the end of the month, with the field maple being the last to give up the ghost. A neighbour’s Forsythia with its golden leaves also held out until the cold snap, as did a nearby silver birch.
In October I talked about yarrow, not realising I had some on my doorstep. It’s a patch of meadow grass frequently mown by the council and usually the flowers are hacked off before they come to anything. But the feathery leaves look pretty in the frost…
The walls of Canton (my Cardiff suburb) are coming back to life after the comparative drought of summer and the weeds that died back are now returning. This little Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) even managed a few flowers…
But the flowerless plants such as little ferns and mosses are the stars of these walls at this time of year.
On the bird front, as Richard Morse says: “Many of the tits are becoming obviously uneasy about the approach of winter, and are daily drawing nearer and nearer to our houses, in the hope of thus securing more regular and more generous supplies of food.”
Certainly the blue tits, great tits and coal tits are coming back to the bird table again after spurning it a little in the height of fruitful autumn.
You will find a robin, blackbird, blue tit, coal tit and magpie pictured in my first snow blog post.
In November I have also seen more crows on my travels around the city, hanging around singly, or even in a group of four, looking a bit like hooligans on a street corner.
And then there was this scruffy jackdaw (Corvus monedula) I saw one day on my way to work. I would have thought moulting would be over by now, or maybe it’s some patchy loss of pigmentation…
On the insect front, there aren’t so many around now, apart from a late wasp, perhaps. But I did encounter several harlequin ladybirds (an invasive species) when I opened a window that hadn’t been moved since summer. I took a very blurred picture for the record.
The garden spiders are less in evidence but at least now I have bought myself a macro/micro lens for my new DSLR camera. See my first experiments with it here.
These pictures of little indoor spiders were taken with my old Olympus compact, though…
I intend to start a blog page for spider identification soon, to see how many species I can “collect”.
Here is what you would expect to see in November in the 1940s…
1. November moth 2. Woodpigeon 3. Plane twig, with fruits 4. Twig of false acacia 5. Devil’s bit scabious 6. Chestnut moth 7. Hoary lichen 8. Song-thrush 9. Rat 10. Wavy hair-moss 11. Snails hibernating 12. Creeping buttercup
1. November moth – Epirrita dilutata
I can’t keep up with these moths. It looks like every month has one named after it. This one is pretty enough in a silvery sort of way, and I am sure I have seen one in the past, but not recognised it.
2. Woodpigeon – Columba palumbus
According to Richard Morse: “Among the more conspicuous of the November immigrants are the woodpigeons which, in some years, arrive in vast numbers on our eastern seaboard and spread gradually westwards. Very often these hordes of hungry new-comers do immense harm in the fileds, utterly ruining many of the farmers’ winter crops.”
There’s also a saying:
When the pigeons go a-benting
Then the farmers lie lamenting
This means when pigeons have to turn to skinny grass seeds (bent means grass), instead of the fat seeds of corn crops, it must have been a bad year.
Apparently they are still a threat to crops and gardeners’ Brassicas (see this link). We don’t have food crops in my steep and shady garden, but I often shout “pig!” at woodpigeons when they gobble down the whole peanuts I put out for the squirrels.
Actually, I wonder if that’s why I haven’t seen our local wood pigeons since the summer – because I have stopped putting out any whole peanuts like that, now using kibbled ones or whole ones in a container…
LATE NEWS: In the first week of December a wood pigeon DID reappear in the garden and was seen a couple of times in the next few weeks…
3. Plane twig, with fruits – Platanus hispanica
Platanus hispanica, the London plane, as it is sometimes called, is popular as a street tree and we have quite a few in the modern shopping centre of Cardiff. I hadn’t noticed the fruit until the other day when all the leaves had fallen and they were revealed at last.
Next day I took my compact camera out with me at lunchtime to snap some pictures. I was very surprised to find that while the planes in one cold main street were bare and the fruits dark and dry, the plane trees in the cafe quarter were still leafy and in healthy fruit. Must be the warmth of the restaurants in that sheltered street, creating a microclimate. All these pictures were taken on the same day, November 24, 2010.
4. Twig of false acacia – Robinia pseudoacacia
I hadn’t realised that I knew this tree. I have seen its distinctive round leaves on many occasions in the parks of various towns and cities but could not put a name to it. In future I will be able to.
I’m not sure why Morse includes this tree in his book, as it is not native to Britain. It is also known as the black locust and is native to the United States of America from Pennsylvania to northern Georgia and westward as far as Arkansas and Oklahoma.
One claim to fame is that it is grown in France as the source of acacia honey.
5. Devil’s bit scabious – Succisa pratensis
Devil’s-bit scabious is a pretty perennial plant of damp grassland, with round, blue pincushion flowers from July to October but sometimes lingering into November. They are a great source of nectar for late-flying butterflies, moths, bees and hoverflies.
Have I ever seen any? I don’t know. I’ve certainly seen scabious, but it may have been ordinary field scabious. I will now know the difference.
Botanically, Devil’s bit (Succisa pratensis) has four-lobed flowers, whereas field scabious (Knautia arvensis) has five lobes, so they have been put in different genuses within the family Dipsacaceae.
Devil’s bit has long, oval upright leaves in a clump at the base, while field scabious has much-divided leaves. To my mind the devil’s bit flowers are also a bit more ball-like, while the field scabious flowers are flatter.
The common name of scabious comes from its use to treat scabies and other skin problems including sores caused by the Bubonic plague. The word scabies comes from the Latin word scabere (meaning “to scratch”).
The “devil’s bit” part of the name comes from the shape of the root – it looks like it has been bitten off. In folklore there are a couple of explanations. Perhaps the devil got so angry at how helpful this plant was to humans that he took a bite out of its root. Its survival apparently led to its use in magical practices as a spiritually healing plant.
Alternatively, the story goes that the devil himself used the plant for baneful magic until the Virgin Mary took away its bad influence and the devil bit the plant’s root off in anger.
6. Chestnut moth – Conistra vaccinii
Another moth I have never seen, but what a beauty!
This moth is on the wing throughout winter in the UK, especially when it’s mild. The caterpillars apparently feed on leaves of birch (Betula) and oak (Quercus). Which makes me think… there ARE none of these leaves in winter, so maybe the adults overwinter and then breed in spring.
7. Hoary lichen – Evernia prunastri
I can do this one! I love lichens and this is one of my favourites. Although I call both the one pictured above and the one below hoary lichen, so I am not sure which one is definitely Evernia prunastri. Or maybe they both are and it grows in different widths.
I didn’t know this, but according to Wikipedia an extract of the lichen, also known as oakmoss, is used in perfumery as a fixative and forms the base notes of many fragrances – notably Fougère and Chypre perfumes. The lichen has a distinct and complex smell, woody, sharp and slightly sweet. The Evernia prunastri growing on pines has a turpentine odour also valued in certain perfumes.
8. Song-thrush – Turdus philomelos
The song thrush is the commonest of our thrushes, but according to the British Trust for Ornithology it is under threat, mainly through intensive farming which has destroyed its habitat and nesting sites. It is still a regular visitor to city gardens like mine, though.
Common nicknames for the song thrush are throstle and mavis.
9. Rat – Rattus norvegicus
About 10 years ago, when I foolishly left out bird food on the ground, I once encountered a big, wet brown rat in the garden. It was brazen and even when I poked it with a stick it wouldn’t budge.
In 18th century England it was called the “Hanover rat” by those blaming the Hanoverian royalty for all the nation’s ills. Then the English naturalist John Berkenhout, author of the 1769 book Outlines of the Natural History of Great Britain, gave the brown rat the binomial name Rattus norvegicus, believing it had migrated to England from Norwegian ships in 1728, although there were no brown rats in Norway at the time.
It seems now the rats did indeed arrive aboard ships, but ultimately from central Asia or even China.
The brown rat has now replaced the smaller, prettier (big eyes and ears) black rat (Rattus rattus), known in Europe since the 6th century, as the commonest British rat.
Selective breeding of Rattus norvegicus has produced the laboratory rat, used for biological research, as well as pet rats.
10. Wavy hair-moss – Mnium undulatum
Back in April I thought I knew my mosses – but I have lost confidence since. However, intend soon to put together a moss identification blog page to take stock of where I am with this.
There is one moss in the garden that has capsules at the moment. I am hoping it might be Mnium undulatum as I have seen other images of its branching shoots and even of the distinctive capsule-cap (calyptra).
Otherwise it may just be more Tortula muralis, but I don’t think so, as the capsules are fatter and the stems different.
11. Snails hibernating – Helix aspersa
I see very few snails in the garden, as the birds polish off most of them. Certainly very few whoppers like those pictured.
Helix aspersa is an agricultural and garden pest, munching away at all sorts of vegetation. It is also edible, at least to the French, who call it petit gris, and occasionally it’s a household pet.
The snail is hermaphrodite and occasionally fertilises itself, although it prefers to get together with a friend for this. About two weeks later it lays up to 80 pearly round eggs in cracks in the soil – it can do this up to six times a year.
The snail’s shell can be used to measure environmental contamination as metals such as lead build up in it. Snails also dislike copper, so a copper band around a tree will stop snails crawling up to the foliage.
I often think of snails in relation to the Welsh legend of Olwen, whose name literally means “white-track”, as where she walked white trefoil sprang up. Although in the case of snails they leave a silver slime…
12. Creeping buttercup – Ranunculus repens
The creeping buttercup is an annoyance in some parts of the garden. It grows by stolons a bit like the wild strawberries, but the roots of the plantlets grow much stronger and are more difficult to pull up.
The buttercups are still there in November, but not in flower at the moment.
When I was a child, on a sunny day in summer, we would play at holding a golden buttercup flower under your chin and asking if you liked butter. If your skin shone golden, you did. It always shone. But then, does anyone dislike butter?
You can find more pictures from my November garden here.
See other wildlife months in the Wildlife Through the Year archive