It’s Weed Appreciation Day!

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Yes, it’s another of those international days of celebration. No, this is not a post about marijuana. The Oxford Dictionary defines a weed as a ‘wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants’ but I prefer Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition, ‘a weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered’.

So, for the obsessive gardeners out there, remember these:
Weeds provide food and shelter for insects, so they help to provide biodiversity and attract insects that are beneficial to the pollination of non-weeds.
Some weeds are also edible by humans, providing good sources of vitamins and minerals.
Weeds often thrive in impoverished soils and help to restore nutrients to those soils, as well as helping to stabilise the soil surface and prevent erosion.
Some weeds also have the ability to absorb heavy metals so can reduce contamination in industrial wastelands. They’re Nature’s clean-up crew!
Many weeds contain chemicals that are useful in medicines and herbal remedies, and research has shown that some weeds can be used as a source of biofuel.

Two life ticks!

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I had a different blog planned for today but then, this morning, I saw a post on Facebook that a rather special visitor had been spotted at my local country park, Cosmeston Lakes, so I headed along to check it out. And I was exceedingly lucky as there was also another unusual visitor on show. These are they.

170327 Ring-necked duck (2)

Ring-necked duck (Aythya collaris)
Though it’s not easy to see, this lovely little duck gets its name from its purple neck band. The Ring-necked duck looks a lot like the local Tufted duck, but without the tuft, with slightly greyer sides and a different-shaped head, and, most distinctive, those pale bands of colour on its beak. It’s native to North America but one or two birds turn up in Britain most years. I was just very lucky that this one chose my local lake for its holiday spot this year.

170327 Ring-necked duck (1)

Iceland gull (Larus glaucoides)
I’m hopeless at picking out different gulls from a large flock but the pale, almost buff plumage of this bird was quite distinctive once it was pointed out to me. Though it breeds in the Arctic, the Iceland gull spends its winters slightly further south, anywhere from the northern areas of Canada and the United States, to Britain and Ireland, as well as in Scandinavia and the northern parts of Germany. It is sometimes referred to as the white-winged gull and those white wings are one of the easiest ways to tell it apart from other gulls in flight.

At a snail’s pace

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I had no intention of sliding down the slippery slope of snail identification but I’ve found a few in recent weeks and couldn’t not try to ID them. And then a friend, who has given up on that ‘too hard’ process, gifted me his guide book. Luckily, there is also a good ‘Slugs and Snails of the British Isles’ group of very helpful folks on Facebook, though you do have to know which bits of the snail to photograph for them to be able to help. So, these little snails are hopefully correctly identified as follows:

170326 snail Aegopinella nitidula

Smooth glass snail (Aegopinella nitidula)
Also known as the Clear glass snail or Waxy glass snail, this little land mollusc can be found munching away on plant matter all year round in gardens and hedgerows, rough grassland, waste ground and woodlands throughout much of Britain. It only grows to around 10mm so is quite little.

170326 snail Discus rotundatus

Rounded snail (Discus rotundatus)
At between 5 and 7mm across, the Rounded or Discus snail (I think that second name suits it very well) is also rather small. Its shell is quite flat but tightly coiled, with up to 6 whorls, and its upper surface is densely ribbed. It’s another very common snail (I obviously haven’t been looking very hard as this was my first sighting) and is especially partial to sheltered damp spots under logs, amongst leaf litter, beneath stones and rubble. Apparently it feeds on detritus (I’m never quite sure what that means!) and fungi.

Kentish snail (Monacha cantiana)
It may be named the Kentish snail but this is actually an introduced species. According to the German website Animal Base, it was ‘introduced to Great Britain with farmers in late Roman times and spread mainly in the mediaeval period, occupying a compact area covering S and E England, and still continues spreading (isolated sites in Wales, W central England and Scotland)’. The slight hairiness of my little friend (see photo above right) is because it’s a juvenile – those hairs will rub off as it grows to its full size of around 16mm.

170326 snail Monacha cantiana (3)

Understanding clouds

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Who hasn’t looked at a cloud and imagined they saw a giant, a face, a … ?

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Today is World Meteorological Day, the brainchild of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and this year’s theme is ‘Understanding Clouds’. The WMO has a great website that not only explains the importance of clouds in weather forecasting and in driving the entire climate system but also has free downloadable resources to aid in cloud identification. Or, if you’d rather have a book with ‘hundreds of images of clouds, including a few newly classified cloud types’, plus ‘other meteorological phenomena such as rainbows, halos, snow devils and hailstones’ then 23 March also marks the launch of the latest edition of the International Cloud Atlas, which ‘has now been produced in a digital format and is accessible via both computers and mobile devices’.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn I’m a big fan of clouds and, though I’m utterly hopeless at naming them – yet another subject I need to study, I do have rather a lot of cloud photos. The sequence below covers a period of about 18 months, from my time living in an apartment in Auckland, New Zealand, where I had the most wonderful views.

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Another pinch of salt

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170322 Salineras de Maras (9)

Last week I showed you the largest salt flats in the world in Bolivia. This week we’re still in South America but have moved north to Peru, to Salineras de Maras in the Andean Mountains about 40 kilometres from Cusco, where salt has been mined for hundreds of years.

170322 Salineras de Maras (1)

The earliest salt pans are thought to have been constructed by the Wari civilisation, but it was their successors, the Incas, who recognised the commercial opportunities of salt-mining and increased the extent of the pans, which now cover much of a steep gorge that runs down in to the Sacred Valley. The salty water bubbles to the surface in a small spring from ancient salt lakes now buried deep below the earth’s surface, and is ingeniously conveyed down the mountainside via a meandering maze of irrigation channels. People from the local community work constantly to maintain these channels and to ensure just the right amount of water is allowed into each pan before the pan is closed off and allowed to dry out. The sun’s heat evaporates the water, leaving behind a thick coating of salt, which is harvested for sale – and then the whole process starts all over again.

Salineras de Maras is very near the intriguing Inca site of Moray and the wonderful market town of Chincero, so combining a visit to all three makes for a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting day’s excursion from Cusco. Or, if you want to spend a little more time getting a feel for your surroundings, try the hike from Moray through Maras and the salt pans down to the Sacred Valley. It’s well worth the effort.

Forests

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170321 Delamere Forest (2)

How will the legend of the age of trees
Feel, when the last tree falls in England?
When the concrete spreads and the town conquers
The country’s heart; when contraceptive
Tarmac’s laid where farm has faded,
Tramline flows where slept a hamlet,
And shop-fronts, blazing without a stop from
Dover to Wrath, have glazed us over?
Simplest tales will then bewilder
The questioning children, “What was a chestnut?
Say what it means to climb a Beanstalk,
Tell me, grandfather, what an elm is.
What was Autumn? They never taught us.”

~  an extract from C. S. Lewis’s ‘The Future of Forestry’, for this the International Day of Forests and World Poetry Day. My photos are of Delamere Forest, Cheshire, in the autumn.

170321 Delamere Forest (1)

First beetle of the year!

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170320 Oedemera (Oncomera) femoralis (1)

From the kingdom of Animalia, the phylum of Arthropoda, the class Insecta, the order Coleoptera, the family Oedemeridae and the genus Oedemera, may I present my first beetle sighting of 2017 – and a new beetle for me to boot – a stunning example of the species Oedemera (Oncomera) femoralis. There are only 4 species of Oedemera in Britain (here’s another) and only 1 – this one – in the subgenera Oncomera. In layman’s words, she is one of the thick-legged (some people say swollen-thighed) flower beetles and I know it’s a female precisely because she does not have those swollen thighs.

I was lucky to find her as her species is nocturnal, feeding at night on the pollen and nectar of ivy and willow. During the day, they lurk under twigs and branches, which is how I found her, by picking up twigs and branches looking at lichen and searching for slime moulds. These insects grow to between 13 and 20mm long, and can be found in the more southerly counties of England and Wales, though they are not often recorded – there are just 278 recorded sightings in the NBN database (see map above), of which 65 are in Wales. I count myself amongst those fortunate to have seen such a beautiful little creature!

170320 Oedemera (Oncomera) femoralis (3)

If you’re an insect geek (and I do not use that word disparagingly), you can see the full details of this species on the website of the Watford Coleoptera Group.

Sticking with the chicken

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170319 poultry peru (1)

When I read today was World Poultry Day and I was wondering how to honour the humble chicken (yes, poultry includes many other birds but I’m sticking with the chicken), it occurred to me how thoroughly the chicken has become interwoven in our daily lives. The chicken, which was domesticated from the Red junglefowl of South East Asia thousands of years ago, features heavily in famous quotes and proverbs, and in the idioms we use in our everyday language. And then there is the age-old joke opening line, ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’, and the age-old philosophical question, ‘Which came first the chicken or the egg?’ Here are just a few examples from a very long list:

Famous quotes:
‘A hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.’ ~ Samuel Butler
‘Business is never so healthy as when, like a chicken, it must do a certain amount of scratching for what it gets.’ ~ Henry Ford
‘Regard it as just as desirable to build a chicken house as to build a cathedral.’ ~ Frank Lloyd Wright

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Proverbs:
It is better to be the head of a chicken than the rear end of an ox. – Japanese
Curses, like chickens, always come home to roost. – Spanish
Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched. – known in many countries

Idioms:
To chicken out – to decide not to do something, usually out of fear and at the last minute
chicken feed – a small amount of money
To be like a mother hen – to be very protective
To be as scarce as hen’s teeth – to be extremely hard to find
Hen-pecked – nagged
To fly the coop – to leave
To be chicken – to be afraid
To be no spring chicken – to be old

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Dyed chicks in a market in Morocco, a bizarre sight and definitely not recommended or endorsed by me, I assure you!