Friday, 23 January 2015

From daffodils in Devon to snowy owls in Bermuda

We woke up to a very hard frost today. The field outside our bedroom was white as white – as was the scut on a rabbit that was running along the hedge line. I’m not sure how cold it was during the night but the temperature certainly started with a minus sign.

Since my last blog we have received copies of two more editions of Postcards From the Past - the UK Large Print and, below, the German hard back.
Only a week ago we were basking (well, everything is relative) in daytime temperatures in double figures with the nights rarely dropping below 5°. It is the effect this contrast is having on the plants and wildlife around us that has been in my mind the last few days. For example, last Wednesday as we drove from Totnes towards Avonwick we passed a bank on which there were daffodils in full bloom: in January.

In Cornwall they grow daffodils in their hundreds of thousands and when the fields down there are in full bloom – usually in February – they are a wonderful sight even though the flowers are picked whilst the buds are quite tight. The sale of these blooms, most of which go to London, are an important part of the local economy as are the sale of bulbs.

When I trawled through the various photographs of daffodils that I have taken, I find that the one below was taken on 3 March in 2011 which was a ‘late year’ compared to 2012 (when, for some reason I didn’t take any). It is not that this year is proving to be an ‘early’ one but that it is totally muddled. Following a wonderfully mild autumn and early winter we are now in the grip of extreme cold (extreme for this part of the world that is) and I fear for the plants – and probably animals, too – that have been fooled into thinking spring had arrived.

My main worry is to do with timing – although I fully appreciate that the weather this winter is in no way unique and nature is extremely good at solving these problems. Nevertheless, they do cause difficulties for some species. 

One of my favourite birds is the blue tit: they are pugnacious little people who always wear an expression of intense irritation. Baby blue tits are fed almost exclusively on “green caterpillars” and most bird books state quite simply that the parents “time their breeding to coincide with the hatching of various species of insects which start life as green caterpillars”.

2009 was a good year for the blue tits. Here are a brood of six youngsters, still in their juvenile yellow feathers, braving the rain and feeding on peanuts.

This is just not really true: I am sure that the birds are aware of changes in the weather and do everything they can to get the timing right but it doesn’t always work. If they get it wrong, the young blue tits often fail to fledge and the associated insect species then have a very good year with many more reaching adulthood. It’s a bit like the lemmings and the snowy owls in the northern parts of Scandinavia although there is becomes a very regular cycle.

A lemming
(Photo: Flickr user leo_seta under a Creative Commons license.)
Year one: there is an abundance of lemmings with the result that the snowy owls are able to able to read larger than usual broods. That means that in year two the lemming population is depleted because there are so many more owls. Nevertheless, the owls still rear a goodly number of youngsters. Their problems start in year three because there are so few lemmings and large number of owlets fail to fledge. In year four both species start from a low ebb but that gives an advantage to the lemmings and by the end of the year their numbers are well up. Then, of course, we start the cycle again. I should add that although snowy owls are the main lemming predators they also face attack from skuas and Arctic foxes – and that this explanation of the lemming cycle is not universally accepted.

Snowy Owl. Photo: Pat Haines under a Creative Commons license
No matter how it came about 2013 was a bumper year for lemmings and, as a result, there was a population explosion among the snowy owls. But a rather odd thing then happened – odd in the sense that this is a first. Some snowy owls left their usual territories and decided to explore pastures new by moving south in North America. They have become common place in south east Canada and a few seem to have taken up residence in Washington, D.C. There is even a report that one was seen as far south as Charleston in South Carolina and another in Bermuda. Bermuda? A snowy owl? Well, the report seems the be genuine. As I remarked, nature has a wonderful way of sorting things out.

Have any of you seen anything unusual? If so, please leave a comment below.

Meanwhile, you may remember that I mentioned that Marcia had been ‘interviewed’ using emails by a girl in Poland. Click here if you want to see read that interview – in English as she publishes her work in both languages.