Well, at last I come to the end of my nature journey through 2010. I have been revisiting the little green wildlife book that accompanied my childhood and trying to tick off the plants and animals featured in its monthly sketchbook pages.
The book is “Wild Life Through the Year” by Richard Morse and it was published in 1942. You can read about earlier months here.
Well, it has given me a focus and made me open my eyes to the nature around me again after all these years…
December 2010 in South Wales has been very cold, with snow that is not usually expected this early in the winter. This has made it disappointing on the nature front, as so much has been covered over. I did manage a couple of photo essays, though, on Snow birds and snow trees and on Frosted leaves after freezing fog.
Although I didn’t always get a picture of them, the birds in my garden during the cold weather have been: carrion crow, magpie, wood pigeon, collared dove, blackbird (sometimes as many as six of them), song thrush, redwing, robin, dunnock, wren, male blackcap (and even, once, a female or juvenile), nuthatch, great tit, blue tit (sometimes as many as seven), coal tit and long-tailed tit.
The grey squirrels have also been active in the snow, although I haven’t seen the fox lately.
Here is what you would expect to see in December in the 1940s…
1. December moth 2. Robin 3. Mistletoe 4. Holly 5. Wren 6. Burrows of bark beetle 7. Common chickweed 8. Shepherd’s purse 9. Trail of rat, walking 10.Tamarisk feather-moss 11. Candle-snuff fungus 12. Trail of rat, jumping
1. December moth – Poecilocampa populi
Oh dear, another moth I haven’t seen, even though it’s supposed to be common. The December moth feeds on oak, birch, lime and hawthorn, all of which we have nearby.
It is on the wing after the first ground frosts, but its eggs aren’t hatched until spring.
2. Robin – Erithacus rubecula
The robin is a permanent fixture in our garden and thinks it owns the place – or at least the bird table. It is also a permanent fixture on Christmas cards, despite its aggressive tendencies.
The robin is now considered to belong to the family of Old World fly catchers, which also included the nightingale. certainly its song is very beautiful. Hear it here…
3. Mistletoe – Viscum album
Mistletoe is what’s called a hemi-parasitic shrub. It cannot grow without a host – usually an apple tree but sometimes lime and poplar and occasionally oak. Although it contains green chlorophyll so can make its own food by photosynthesis. It needs the host for its high-up branches and as a source of water and mineral nutrients.
I am annoyed that I have been unable to snatch a picture of mistletoe this month, as it was all around on market stalls in the city centre.
I didn’t see any on trees until a few days after Christmas when the snow had cleared and we drove out into the countryside. Then I noticed loads of huge balls of the stuff obvious in the winter outlines of so many bare trees. But sadly we were driving along and I couldn’t get my camera out. I will tick it off my list of things I have seen in December, anyway.
In Britain we use European mistletoe (Viscum album) as a decoration at Christmas, while in America Phoradendron leucarpum is used.
But its magical qualities go way back beyond the dawn of Christianity. It is believed to have been the “golden bough” of Aeneas, which gave its name to a wide-ranging book first published by Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer in 1890. I have to admit I bought an illustrated version when I was an anthropology student and still haven’t managed to read it. Maybe this year…
In Norse mythology the beautiful god Baldur was killed by his blind brother Hodur, tricked into using a mistletoe spear or arrow provided by Loki the mischief-maker. Baldur was immune to all else.
Mistletoe is considered a male fertility symbol – possibly because of its white, sticky fruits, similar to semen. Which is no doubt why we have the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.
The word “mistletoe” (Old English mistiltan) may come from the German Mist, meaning “dung” and Tang meaning “branch”, since it can be spread in bird droppings. To confuse matters, in Old English mistel also meant “basil”.
Then there’s the mistle thrush, taller, thinner and paler than the commoner song thrush. It does feed on mistletoe, among other berries.
4. Holly – Ilex aquifolium
Ah, here’s another symbol of Christmas –
“The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown, of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown…”
Read all the lyrics here…
I have a European holly tree in the garden – or rather half a holly tree, as it grows right beside some steps and has to be cut back on one side.
I wish I could remember for sure if it has ever had any berries. As I have only the one holly tree, it could be a male or a female that hasn’t been fertilised by a male. Apparently you can tell by the flowers but I will have to wait until spring.
The red autumn berries are hard and inedible to birds until the frost has softened them. They are poisonous or at least indigestible, to humans.
Interestingly, holly wood is often used to make the white chessmen in a set, along with ebony for the black.
5. Wren -Troglodytes troglodytes
I have already blogged about the British wren (most members of this family live in the New World). Read my post here.
A wren family were living here in July but for most of the year they don’t come very near, preferring to dart in and out of holes in the rockery, catching insects. One did visit the bird table in recent snow, but I didn’t manage to capture a picture this time.
6. Burrows of bark beetle
Richard Morse points out that although many insects are invisible in deep winter, their activities can still be seen, such as the burrowings of bark beetles.
Writing in the 1940s, he would not have seen the later destruction of Britain’s wonderful elm trees by such beetles.
7. Common chickweed – Stellaria media
8. Shepherd’s purse – Capsella bursa-pastoris
According to Richard Morse, typical annual plants perish at the onset of winter and survive only as seeds waiting for the next spring. But he adds that a few so-called annuals do survive winter as individuals, such as the tiny chickweed and shepherd’s purse.
I used to feed chickweed to the sticklebacks I caught in the local brook when I was a child (read more in An apology to nature from my childhood self).
We usually have chickweed somewhere in the garden but I haven’t been able to find it in recent snow. However, I did find some shepherd’s purse…
9. Trail of rat, walking
12. Trail of rat, jumping
Well, we have had some tracks in the snow, but they have mainly been of blackbirds and the neighbours’ cats…
10.Tamarisk feather-moss – Thuidium tamariscinum
According to Morse, “Flowerless plants continue to flourish everywhere… the tamarisk feather-moss, now in fruit, is one of the loveliest of our woodland mosses”.
And according to this site, “The ‘fronds’ of Thuidium tamariscinum, comprising regularly, usually thrice-pinnately branched secondary stems, render this common species one of the most easily identified British mosses”. So I must keep an eye out for this one, should be easy…
Earlier in the year I thought I had moss identification sussed, but later I realised it was not so easy after all. However, I intend to carry on searching for mosses in 2011 and I have set up this new moss identification project gallery. Any help in identifying the mystery mosses would be much appreciated…
11. Candle-snuff fungus – Xylaria hypoxylon
This is found on dead wood, especially in beech woods and especially in November and December. Its common name comes from its appearance, black at the base, grey in the middle and white at the tips.
You can find more pictures from my December garden here.
See other wildlife months in the Wildlife Through the Year archive