Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Signs of the times: Summer #11

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

The Starling
Of ol' Bard's fame,
Gathers together
In flocks they came.
Iridescent feathers
Flash in the sun:
A sea of subtle color
On black, each one.
Where'er they go
The people say
"Oh, nasty bird,
Please go away!"
A creeping mold,
Prolific creature;
Yet in it's way
Is nature's teacher.

Angela S. Young, "Starlings"

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Summer Picture 11
This picture is a busy scene on and around a roof made of very substantial stone slabs (they don’t make them like they used to!). The roof has been colonised by a number of plant species, most visibly by the brightly flowering yellow stonecrop, a Sedum species, on the bottom left of the picture. In the bottom right, another plant, the house-leek, Sempervivum, much-loved by rock gardeners has pushed out its upright flower-bearing stalks. The stone surfaces have also been colonised by a variety of orange, green and yellow lichens. The scene is busy with birds – a young pied wagtail in the bottom centre has just caught a large fly, while two adult and several young starlings have gathered at the base of the chimney, and a family of jackdaws is flying overhead.

The young pied wagtail (Motacilla alba) down at the bottom of the picture is a common, widespread insect-eating species that is doing OK, according to the British Trust for Ornithology's website. The graph below shows that the population has generally increased since 1966, with a few up-and-down movements, and since 1974, there is a possible issue about the populations living on waterways habitats, where there has been a moderate decline.

But eh population of pied wagtails has fared better over the period since the ladybird books were first published than its cousin, the grey wagtail, which I looked at in an early Spring post here. Pied wagtails gather together in large flocks in winter, perhaps including birds which have come in for the Winter from the Continent, and here in Stirling, I regularly see a flock of hundreds feeding on the local golf course early in the morning, while I am walking the dog in the Winter morning dawn gloom

As Jackdaws have already been discussed in Spring, here, I won't say more about them now.

Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), traditionally one of Britain's most numerous birds, is listed now as Red List species, such is the concern in conservation circles over the rapid fall in breeding population abundance, as shown in the BTO figure for England, below:

This has taken place particularly since the 1980's and particularly in woodland. The BTO further clarifies: "The declines have been greatest in the south and west of Britain; recent BBS data suggest that populations are also decreasing in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the trends were initially upward. The species' UK conservation listing has been upgraded from amber to red as the decline has become more severe... Loss of permanent pasture, which is the species' preferred feeding habitat, and general intensification of livestock rearing are likely to be having adverse effects on rural populations, but other causes should be sought in urban areas" [In other words - we don't know what is happening to cause a decline in urban populations]. Also, between 1966 and 2007, the average egg laying date in Britain is now 5 days earlier, perhaps due to a warming climate?

The winter roosting flights of starlings is surely one of British nature's most extraordinary spectacles - while strictly not a Summer phenomenon, I don't think Starlings feature in the Winter Ladybird book, so this is my chance to share this - the loss of sights like the following would truly be a tragedy:

(likely source of some UFO reports, anyone?)

Seeing the images of Sedum and stonecrop on the roof in this picture reminds of the growing trend for installing living roofs (also called "green roofs") on new properties, as a way increasing insulating properties, slowing the passage of rainwater into the urban drainage system and giving urban biodiversity a much needed boost. If you want to know more about living roofs, I can highly recommend the Living website here.

Of the two flowering plants shown here, only one, the yellow-flowering Biting Stonecrop (Sedum acre) (or Wall-Pepper) is truly native to Britain. The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora says of this plant: "a perennial herb of dry, undisturbed and open habitats on skeletal, or virtually non-existent, acidic or basic soils. Typical natural habitats include shingle, sand dunes, cliffs and steeply sloping, S.-facing rocks. It is also frequent on walls, roofs, gravel tracks, pavements and road verges." Its distribution has not changed since 1962, except in Cornwall and Ireland where it is now less common. Richard Mabey, in his Flora Britannica reveals what he describes as the most cryptic vernacular name of any British plant, for this one, of: "Welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk"!

The other, the house-leek (Sempervivum tectorum), strangely, also shares this vernacular name. The New Atlas says that this is a: "long-lived, evergreen perennial, planted and more or less naturalised on tiled and thatched roofs, old walls, gate pillars and porches, and in churchyards. It is also occasionally found on stabilised sand dunes".  This native of the mountains of central and southern Europe has: "been grown in gardens since at least 1200..., and was often planted on porches and roofs as a supposed protection against fire, lightning and thunderbolts. It was known in the wild by 1629." The New Atlas identifies some reports of localised marked declines since the 19th century, "especially where old cottages and walls have been pulled down and thatch has been replaced by slate."I won't say anything about the lichens here - they are a bit difficult to identify int is drawing and there will be other opportunities to tell their story!


  1. My mother told me to grow houseleek on the porch roof...

  2. You had a porch?

    But seriously, was your house ever struck by lightning thereafter?


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