Monday, 08 August 2022

Whiling away the hours listening to the drum beat of woodpeckers

Whiling away the hours listening to the drum beat of woodpeckers

LETTING the cats out at about 7am, I walk into my office, sit down in my “executive” chair, press a few buttons (computer and hi-fi on) and relax before writing this column.

After inserting a CD, I listen to a Shostakovich symphony. His compositions have always gripped me. For some reason, Russian composers, writers and artists have to this day held me in thrall. As I feel it, there has always been a nod to nature in Russian music, literature and fine art, which is why I despair about what is going on at the moment. None of it makes sense.

In my late teens I lived in Moscow and never met an inhospitable Russian. I made many friends. The winters may turn very cold and dry but the summers are hot, commonly known as a continental climate.

The countryside is beautiful (I always think of Vladimir Nabokov wielding his butterfly net), the parks and other open spaces a delight, the rivers clean and great for all kinds of fishing. In all probability, I would not recognise the city now, with its Manhattan-style skyscrapers, strip clubs, flash cars and cocktail bars. A great shame. The Russia that I knew had a heart but one I think now is somewhat tainted and lost.

Rosemary appears, fresh-faced and pleasantly vibrant after clunking down our exposed, wooden stairs. A good sign as she has been a little weary of late. She is gradually improving but it will take a few more days for her to be back to normal, at least she has a good appetite. As a consequence, we’ve not been out exploring for a good fortnight which feels surreal.

We take our usual, early stroll around the winding paths of our garden, hindered by our cats that keep on stopping, slowing us up and performing abrupt feline zen sessions. They must be having a laugh at our expense and I suppose, who can blame them?

Morning birdsong is exquisite at the moment, our resident male blackbird, Caruso, is most loud but so tuneful, I can’t help but think that if they were rare, they’d be more appreciated.

One of the strangest things and especially at this time of year is how we find unexpected woodland plants from flowers to tiny saplings as we carefully study the ground between our trees and shrubs.

A small but lovely clump of wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) has appeared with its trifoliate leaves on long stalks. They, curiously, fold down at night. The bell-shaped flowers are less than an eighth of an inch across, delicate, pale pink with lilac veins. We can only surmise that the seeds of the small plants have been transported here from the soles and heels of our boots after our woodland walks. They sit well with their fellow hitchhikers, yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon), common dog violets (viola riviniana) and wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa), all flowers with charming colours from white through to purple.

Elsewhere, the pale, yellow flowers of cowslip (Primula veris) are abundant as are the bluish violet flowers of hairy-stemmed bugle. The tiny four-petalled flowers of wavy
bitter-cress (Cardamine flexuosa) are widespread. All are popular with pollinators.

Although we have rescued some small trees that stood no chance of survival on rural roadside verges, we are most surprised today as I indicate a little sapling towards the far end of the garden that I did not plant and neither did Rosemary. It is without doubt a large-leaved lime (Tilia platyphyllos). How did this arrive? Rosemary twigs and it all begins to makes sense.

On a visit to Nippers Grove a few years back I showed her the rare trees as I hunted for orchids. When we arrived home she found some of the lime’s fruits between the windscreen and bonnet of our car, gathered them and simply walked up the garden and threw them as nature would have it on to the ground, so, there you are.

Three species of butterflies are enjoying the welcome sunshine. A female orange tip (Anthocharis cardamines) basks, a female speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) settles briefly before flitting off, a male holly blue (Celastrina argiolus) seems to be enjoying life. Springtime is in full flow.

One of our new avian summer visitors, a melodic-singing male blackcap has now gone quiet which is an indication that he’s found a mate so we hope that they raise a new generation within the garden. The blackcap’s nest is normally built no more than six feet above the ground, often in the twist of a well-camouflaged bush or small tree. In a typical year two broods will be raised. Both the male and female will take turns incubating the variably-coloured eggs. They are normally brownish-white and speckled in an artistic fashion that many a small warbler can do to rival any master.

I spend many hours listening and focusing on the variety of birds that inhabit and nest in our gardens, back and front. At this moment a pair of woodpigeons are constructing a nest high up in a Bhutan pine out back. I watch as they fly in with sticks.

Mid-morning, in the background a green woodpecker (Picus viridis) sounds off. The size of a jay with a sharp-looking bill they are a lovely green colour with a yellow rump, a red cap and a nearly black moustache (the male has a red centre). They hardly ever drum and love to eat ants. The green nests in holes on deciduous trees. They prefer to use one gifted by previous occupants although if pushed they’ll make one themselves even though it may take months to do so. Woodpeckers have always fascinated me.

Another familiar woodpecker is the great spotted (Dendrocopus major ssp anglicus), a beautiful and frequent visitor to the garden. Coloured black and white with red under the tail. The male has a red nape, the female not so. They are particularly fond of the peanuts that we hang out for all and sundry. Rosemary tells me that years back if the dispenser was empty a young one would complain and make a right old din. Typical youngster.

I love to hear them drumming loudly in the woods in spring as the flowers rise. The birds will drill several holes in a suitable tree, one for nesting, one for sleeping and others never used. They raise one brood a year. The female can lay up to seven eggs.

The lesser spotted woodpecker (Dryobates minor ssp comminutus) I have seen only twice. Barely the size of a finch it is a rare resident with only about 2,000 breeding pairs in the UK. The bird has a blurred black and white pattern on the back and wings and the male has a little red cap. The nest hole is usually excavated some 30ft or more up.

We will have to go out for a fair-sized shopping expedition soon as we are running low on items that I can’t find locally. This weekend we hope to admire the spring carpets of bluebells and more. We can’t wait to get out. It is a shame that we have not been able to take advantage of the fine Easter weather.

All will be better soon, I’m sure.

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