Roe deer are in the middle of their rutting season at the beginning of this month but, as we’ve talked about before, there will be delayed implantation of the foetus which will happen in December or January. Roe are the only deer that do this and the fawns will be born in May or June. The adults will be in their red-brown summer coats now; this will change to a greyish colour, which will be thicker and warmer, in the winter.
Summer is also the breeding season for Cormorants. These birds, along with their close cousins Shags, are coastal birds but Cormorants are increasingly found inland at gravel pits, fish farms and lakes. Because they feed almost entirely on fish, naturally they are not popular with anglers or fish farmers. Lakes that are reserved for angling often erect electric wires to deter that other fish eater, the Otter. Otters can’t fly over them but Herons can and so can Cormorants and both will take advantage of well stocked waters. Cormorants dive to catch their prey, usually to about 10 metres (nearly 33 feet) but up to 45 metres (over 147 feet) has been recorded in the sea, deep lakes and rivers. They will swallow the fish whole and any large bones which can’t be digested are regurgitated in the form of pellets; these birds are often seen sitting with wings outstretched, drying off after diving. In some Asian countries fishermen train tethered Cormorants to catch fish for them and tie a cord around the throat leaving enough room for small fish to be swallowed but not large ones; these are then removed from the bird’s mouth. This is an ancient practice and really only done as a tourist attraction now; more modern fishing techniques are used these days.
Cormorants are quite adaptable in their nesting habits. Those on the coast will nest on ledges on cliffs but if there are no cliffs they will use trees or even the ground. Three to five eggs are laid which take a month to hatch and the chicks are fed regurgitated fish by both parents. These are strange, reptilian looking birds and fossils have revealed that their ancestors were present when dinosaurs were around.
Rodney, from North Walsham, took a photo of an unknown lady in his bathroom, which he sent to me in the hope I would know who she was. Not an uninvited guest using up all the shampoo but a large moth called Old lady. The name came about because the wing pattern reminded people of the shawls that old ladies used to wear around their shoulders; houses weren’t as draught-free in the past as they are now.
Old lady moths are night-flying and usually rest in sheds or buildings during the day. They prefer damp habitats but are often found in gardens where the larvae feed on various shrubs and herbs.
Painted lady butterflies are also flying in August and some will have arrived in Britain two or three months ago. These beautiful insects are travellers and migrate from North Africa. Some come directly here but most will stop off in European countries where in their short lives of just two weeks they mate and produce the next generation. Those new butterflies carry on to the next stop where they repeat the process; they arrive on our shores to produce a further generation. The numbers of migrants that we see will vary each year but in 2009 they came in their millions and there are many descriptions of this event. Because we don’t see them in the late autumn, it used to thought that they died with the arrival of the cold weather but it is now known that most make the reverse journey back to North Africa and we weren’t aware of this because they fly at incredible heights. A lovely visitor and I have seen a few this year.
The caterpillars of the Painted lady do a useful job – they eat thistles! As each flower head can produce up to one hundred seeds it is a very successful plant. Every seed has its own little parachute and they are scattered by the wind. The flowers are loved by pollinating insects so are an important source of nectar but this can be an invasive plant so is not always welcome in pasture land.
Another plant which is in flower this month is Hedge bindweed, a convolvulus with white, trumpet-like flowers. (When we were children we pretended that they were ice creams. Poor deprived kids!) This plant winds its way up the stems of other plants, or fence posts, sometimes reaching a height of 3 metres (nearly 10 feet). So how does it do this? We tend to think of plants as stationary but in fact they react to external stimuli enabling them to move; this is known as tropism and there are different types. Geotropism is what happens when the root heads towards gravity and a shoot heads upwards away from the same force; the reason is hormonal. The make up of the cells in the stem is different from those in the root, reversing the growth direction. Phototropism occurs when a plant leans towards a source of light. Put a house plant on a window sill and it will quickly do this. A hormone, called auxin, becomes more concentrated on the shady side of the plant causing the cells to elongate and resulting in the plant bending towards the light. Then there is thigmotropism and this is what influences plants like the Hedge bindweed – they respond to touch. As soon as a tendril or stem comes in contact with another object it curls round it enabling the plant to climb upwards and there is a type of tropical, creeping mimosa, also known as ‘the sensitive plant’, which will fold up its leaves when they are touched. This is thought to either scare off predators or a device to preserve moisture. Whatever the reason we had a lot of amusement in the Caribbean with these plants. (I suppose we were teasing them, really.) Heliotropism describes what plants, such as sunflowers, do; the flower head will change position throughout the day so that it is always facing the sun. The Jerusalem artichoke, which is a type of sunflower, does the same thing and the name has nothing to do with Jerusalem, it is a corruption of the Italian word ‘girasole’ which means ‘turn to the sun’. But surely, the most amazing plants are the most common – grasses. Look at what they put up with. We constantly chop their heads off but within days they have grown replacements, animals graze them to the ground and back they come. As we’ve seen this summer, in times of drought, grass dies back to be brown and lifeless looking but one shower of rain and there it is again, all green and healthy. There are thousands of species of grasses and they grow in practically every habitat on earth.
Plants are incredible and I’m sure there is still much for us to learn about them.
Activities for August include:
Moth evening & butterfly walk – both at Hickling Broad.
Magical moths & shingle vegetation – both at Cley Marshes.
Sand drawing – at the beach near Cromer pier.
Searching for sharks – Holme Dunes.
Guided walk – Pigneys Wood.
Details at www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.