Tag Archives: trees

Winter fresh

This morning was a perfect early winter morning: ground frost persisting in the shadows where the sun’s rays, piercing through the blue, failed to reach. The Patch looked pristine.

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Fred Wigg and John Walsh Towers rising above Cat & Dog Pond

The patch birds seemed extra sharp and fresh today too. Last year a female Stonechat  overwintered in the scrub around Cat & Dog Pond. This winter she has returned or been replaced by a new winter-fresh female who traced inscrutable dot-to-dot patterns around me by flitting from one perch to another and occasionally dodging an aggressive Robin.

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Female Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

This female even strayed to the western extreme of her assumed territory and perched up on the residential walls bordering the Patch and overlooked by Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers.

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This Stonechat was not the only fresh-faced winter bird I spent time watching this morning.

I find something particularly appealing about first winter Black-headed Gull and Common Gull:

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Common Gull (Larus canus)

I took the picture above whilst fulfilling my water-gauge monitoring duty. The immature feathers on the wing coverts are what first grab our attention, but I find the solid black primaries (lacking the ‘mirrors’ it will gain next year) and the neat black tip on the bill attractive as well as distinctive.

Jubilee pond has been duck-poor so far, although this week the number of diving ducks had increased slightly with at least 12 Tufted Duck and three Pochard diving and then glistening brilliantly with iridescence in the sun.

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Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

I went to see a photographic exhibition on trees today and saw some wonderful photos including some taken by my patch colleagues. Trees on the Patch have just passed that Autumn/Winter transition where there are now more bare branches than leaf-adorned ones. But, where trees are still cloaked by carotenoid and flavonoid-rich leaves, the results are quite spectacular.

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Sliver Birch (Betula pendula) on Perch Pond, Wanstead Park

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Hope Springs Eternal

Wanstead Flats at dawn

Dawn over Wanstead Flats

Patch birding can be an exercise in faith.

As an atheist (albeit a Buddhist one, but that’s another story), I have always struggled with the concept of ‘faith’, or, rather, accepted the fact that I am lacking in ‘it’.

But, without delving into semantics, there is an expression of hope in rising before the sun, following well-beaten paths, and searching for something new. To extend my metaphor, rather like many spiritual journeys, sometimes we set off with an expectation of what we want, or hope, to find… but then find something entirely different. Today certainly felt like that.

This morning began with mist.

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Initially a fine, low-lying blanket, but one which grew and clouded nearly everything from view.

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Things started positively with my first footstep onto the SSSI – trying to blank out the noise of early morning traffic on the road I had just crossed – in that I immediately heard the song of a Willow Warbler (I even briefly video-recorded it singing, here).

It moved through the trees just south of the copse we know as Motorcycle Wood, an area that in the last couple of years alone has been one of the most consistent providers of both Willow Warbler and Garden Warbler, but also local scarcities such as Wood Warbler and Yellow-browed Warbler. I watched the early morning sun stream through the trees and the light transported me back to all those wonderful moments, and more: these trees shaded the young birches where I saw my London-first Pied Flycatcher; I have watched Ring Ouzel burst out of the upper branches, Spotted Flycatcher perch and feed from middle branches, whilst Common Redstart has flicked around from branch to ground; I have stood by these trees watching Shelduck, Hobby, and Peregrine fly over, and was close-by when several of us watched a skein of White-fronted Goose turn in the sky.

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Motorcycle Wood, SSSI, Wanstead Flats – where the magic happens

The golden morning light seemed to hold these memories in trust for me. It felt like the Copse was reminding me why I come out; these moments are the rewards we get for placing our hope and trust in the patch. But the Copse – in that equilibrium between the bare brown branch of winter, and the leaf-rich green of Spring – also helped to remind me that there is reward in just ‘being’ here in this place. This was lucky, because the song of the Willow Warbler was the peak of a long morning of birding (there were several of us out and searching and there was a general air of disappointment).

The beauty of Spring, over Winter in particular, is that when birds fail to show up, there are, at least, other creatures of the wing to marvel at. In Wanstead Park and surrounds, I counted eight species of butterfly including Green-veined White, Orange Tip, Comma, and Holly Blue as new year ticks for me.

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Comma (Polygonia c-album)


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Orange Tip (Anthocharis cardamines)


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Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)


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Peacock (Aglais io)


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Speckled Wood (Parage aegaria)

On my way back home from the Park, I was shocked to see that the water levels on Heronry Pond seemed to have fallen even further. Action is apparently planned, but we are heading for a completely dried-out lake quite quickly. The days of herons breeding here are long gone, but the days of them fishing here could also be numbered).

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Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)


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The lake bed of Heronry

An ancient tree of poison and tales of bloody murder

2068 years ago Julius Caesar had some difficulty from some tribes in Gaul. It wasn’t Asterix and Cacofonix, but very close. There were two kings, Ambiorix and Catuvolcus, of a Belgian tribe called the Eburones who rebelled against their Roman overlords. They fought very bravely and took out a sizeable chunk of the Roman legion based in the area, leading to Caesar camping there for months to oversee the campaign against them. He praised them for their bravery, but made them pay in the most vicious manner; Caesar effectively wiped out the entire tribe. Ambiorix has gone down in history as a Belgian legend and – King Arthur style – seemed to disappear. Catuvolcus was a lot older and, despairing at the bloodshed, took his own life by drinking the poison of a Yew Tree.

If you don’t like my version of the story, why not read it from the first-hand account of Julius Caesar himself:

Catuvolcus, rex dimidiae partis Eburonum, qui una cum Ambiorige consilium inierat, aetate iam confectus cum laborem belli aut fugae ferre non posset, omnibus precibus detestatus Ambiorigem, qui eius consilii auctor fuisset, taxo, cuius magna in Gallia Germaniaque copia est, se exanimavit. – Julius Caesar, Gallic War vol VI

Around five hundred years after this genocidal event had taken place, a Yew sapling was growing on a burial ground near, what is now, the Welsh border with England. Some eight hundred years on, that sapling was still alive and now a mighty specimen of a normally smallish tree. A Church was built on the holy land right next to this ancient tree. Turn the clock on more than seven hundred years again and you reach the present day. The church is still standing and so, remarkably, is that ancient tree.

European Yew (Taxus baccata)

European Yew (Taxus baccata)

For a tree species that is described as small-medium, this 1500 year-old specimen has a trunk that measures almost 9.5 metres in circumference and it blocks out the church built in its shadow.

As Catuvolcus knew well, Yew is deadly poisonous. Interestingly, the only parts of Yew that are not filled with poison are the juicy bright red berries. But the harmless flesh contains a hard seed that could kill a man if swallowed. The needle leaves are even more deadly and will likely stop your heart within hours of ingestion of even a small amount. For hay fever sufferers – like me – the Yew tree is rated 10 out of 10 for the potency of the allergenic pollen. Watching the wind blow a pollen-heavy male Yew is a natural wonder, but beware that you are not caught down-wind from that cloud of dust, as respiration problems, light-headedness and other nasty symptoms will surely follow.

The tree in the photograph has become hollow over time. Its enormous girth has allowed the local people of Much Marcle to put a bench in it.

Much Marcle Yew

Over hundreds of years, just think of the lovers who will have sat there and the children who will have played among the deadly branches. One boy who may well have sat on that bench, as he grew up in the village, was Fred West. As anyone English will know, the farm boy was terribly head-injured in his teens and grew up to become one of the most notorious, sadistic, serial killers in our country’s history. It is sad to think that this beautiful village is now far better known as the place of birth of a man who committed the most terrible of crimes than for an incredible tree. I ran my hands over the dense and complicated swirls of wood reflecting on the history that will have occurred around this ancient, deadly, but peaceful giant…

Inside the Yew at Much Marcle

Inside the Yew at Much Marcle

Post Scriptum: It is hard to be believe, but across the border in Wales is an even more ancient Yew. In fact, at around 5000 years old, it is believed to be one of the most ancient trees in the world. When the Much Marcle tree was sprouting from a seed, the Llangernyw Yew is believed to have already been a staggering 3500 years old – 3 millennia had passed it by before poor old Catuvolcus topped himself with a draught of poison from the dried needles of one of its European cousins.

A map of trees

I thought we should take a break from birding, but I wanted to take you back to Bush Wood on my ‘patch’ for a different journey.

The science of studying and making maps, Cartography, is both ancient and noble. It can be a science and/or an art. What I lack in both scientific knowledge and artistic technique, I make up for in enthusiasm. As I paced up and down the confusing set of woodland paths, I started to sketch a map in my notebook. I have since ironed out the more intricate kinks and bends and plumped for a simplistic depiction of where the paths lie projected on to a Google satellite image of Bush Wood. Duh daaa…

Rough approximation of where the paths are in Bush Wood

Rough approximation of where the paths are in Bush Wood

OK. It is a pretty slap-dash job, but I would welcome anyone who can show me a better map of the paths of Bush Wood – the lines shown on an Ordinance Survey map seem to bear no relation whatsoever to the actual footpaths (and no, I wasn’t just reading it upside down!).

Bush Wood is not the most diverse woodland you will have encountered and is mainly dominated by Oak, Hornbeam, Hawthorn, and Holly (the last two of which, along with an enormous quantity of bramble, makes much of Bush Wood – off the beaten tracks – virtually impenetrable). These plants have been expertly documented by Paul Ferris in his survey of the area.

Walking, or – more accurately at the moment given the amount of water – squelching around the paths is a little confusing, but the markers that help provide bearings – for me at least – are some of the more notable trees.

Please note all the following photos were taken on my iPhone as I was too paranoid I might happen upon an interesting bird, I refused to take my zoom lens off my camera.

Some of the trees are so distinctive looking in shapes that they are readily remembered such as this hornbeam:

Common Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

Common Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

Or this oak with the preposterously long lower branch:

At least I think it is oak - I forgot to check when I was there. English Oak (Quercus robur)

At least I think it is oak – I forgot to check when I was there. English Oak (Quercus robur)

Here is another shot of the same tree(s) but – just to show what a health and safety rebel / idiot (delete as appropriate) I am – with me standing underneath that preposterously long branch:

Oak

Or how about this for an interestingly shaped tree?

Tree

The biggest trees in Bush Wood are not oak or hornbeam, but a small number of Sweet Chestnut. And the biggest of all – a tree that is at least 300 years old – is a well hidden ancient giant known as the witch’s tree:

Sweet Chestnut (Castanea saliva)

Sweet Chestnut (Castanea saliva)

Unfortunately, my iPhone does not give a sense of scale, but it really is a bruiser of a tree. Even its fallen leaves are big:

Sweet Chestnut

You also can’t see the extent to which the roots are exposed at the bottom. If you are wondering why it is called the witch’s tree, choose whichever of the following explanations you prefer:

1) Around 400 years ago a woman was accused of witchcraft and burnt at the stake. In the writhing agony of death she was seen to scream out an incomprehensible curse. A great tree grew from a seed on the spot where she died. It had a complex set of exposed roots that were twisted and contorted like burnt limbs. The gaps are easily wide enough for a child, or even a reasonable-sized adult to crawl through. But, those carefree fools who crawl between the roots/limbs of the witch’s tree invariably fall sick, and some die. A coincidence perhaps, poisonous soil perchance, or maybe it is the manifestation of a doomed woman’s curse?

2) As the summer solstice sun sets, they say that young witches dance naked around this hidden tree. Some say that at the right time of year, the tree imparts vitality and extended youth into those who properly worship its wild antiquity.

3) I don’t know why it is called that. Sorry!

Before I get carried away with tales of magic, I wanted to re-post my map, but this time with four of the interesting trees plotted and marked, maybe to help you one day find the witch’s tree and its fellows:

Bush Wood tree map

A wild land? A photo-story from the South of France

Deep in the languedoc region of Southern France, in the mediterranean foothills of the Pyrenees, there lies a hidden valley…

Blanes valley

Whilst in the region of the vines of the Corbieres, the valley, and its surrounds, is wild and largely uncultivated…

Serre du Blanes

This is the land of wild boar. They leave their tracks…

wild boar tracks

…and markings everywhere…

boar markings

But wisely, these creatures are elusive, for this is also the land of hunters. Though many hours have been spent stepping carefully through the valley, I have only glimpsed flashes of the beasts. Only once, too, have I captured a distant shot of a roe deer…

Roe deer

In winter and summer, the fauna of the valley is shy and wild. Common birds that we know as garden friends, such as the Blackbird, are plentiful but almost as elusive as the boar. The merest tread of a foot sends theses birds diving deeper into thickets for cover squawking their alarm as they go. In half a decade of visits to the valley, this twig-obscured shot of a feasting female (taken this winter) is the best I have done…

Female Blackbird

In the winter, the Blackbird is joined by its migratory cousins from the frozen North, the Redwing…

Redwing

… and Fieldfare…

Fieldfare

The stony and often dry land is populated by a range of pines…

Pine cones

… and the evergreen Holm (or Holly) Oak, Quercus ilex, which has been used to build the classical ships and wagons of Homer and Hesiod for thousands of years and has fed wild boar from its acorns and root-protected truffles for millions of years…

Quercus ilex

What is wild?

At first glance, the valley seems wild, but it has not always been so. Amidst the natural outcrops of rock (pushed up by the Pyrenees) stand well camouflaged rocks laid out as walls by the hands of long-dead men…

walls

…and even in relatively recent decades, this land was used productively…

olive tree and contraption

The urge for man to reclaim the land is strong and I helped an inhabitant of the valley clear a small plot of brambles to make way for an olive grove. However, the valley is now largely in the ‘hands’ of the wild things.

Comparing the seasons

This winter, I walked past Old man’s beard…

Clematis vitalba

… and erupting Puff-ball fungi…

puff balls

… but in the Spring, flowers, not fungi, dominate including thousands of stalks of Asphodel…

Asphodel

… caterpillars emerge and turn to butterflies…

butterfly

… and weird creatures appear in the grasses, like this mantis…

mantis

I scoured the dwindling pools (it has been a dry winter so far) and found only Water boatman…

Water boatman

… whilst in warmer months past, I have watched newts, such as this Palmate…

Palmate newt

The birds that hide in thickets during the cold and scorching months, and those that migrate away from the chill, return during the spring to sing, such as this Serin…

Serin

… this resident warbler, the Blackcap…

Blackcap

…And at the right time of year, the valley chimes through day and much of the night with the song of the Nightingale…

Nightingale

Beyond the valley

If you climb the steep slopes of the valley, you reach the summit rocks where ravens and birds of prey feed. Looking down south from the pass, you see yet another similar valley…

the view

Lifting your eyes up out of this valley and staring south, the blue of the distance only partially hides the mighty peaks of the Pyrenees, such as Mount Canigou…

Canigou