Seen in Otley today
BROUGHT TO YOU BY NEIL GRIFFIN
GARDEN SNAIL - 3 July 2020
During the short spell of dry weather today, my walk was interrupted with a crunch underfoot. Looking down the path ahead of me, I discovered a crowd of more than twenty Garden snails. Snails love dampness, so after all of this rain, they suddenly seem to be everywhere along with their slug cousins. Amongst our wildlife in Otley, they are hard to love, especially if you happen to be a gardener as well as a wildlife lover. They are an important part however of our natural ecosystem, they provide food for all sorts of other wildlife, Thrushes in particular love them! Another Garden snail muncher is the adorable Hedgehog, who don’t like eating the slime, so will use their paws to scrape off the slime before gobbling them up! Sadly British Gardeners use unto 650 billion slug pellets a year, this poison enters the food chain and is deadly to our Thrushes and Hedgehogs, so please find an alternative.
MARMALADE FLY - 2 July 2020
Sadly the marmalade fly didn’t get its name for being the equivalent of Paddington Bear! It is because of its lovely marmalade colour. It is one of the few hoverflies in the UK with an English name (rather than only being referred to as its latin name). This is because it is a very common hoverfly, that can easily be seen in gardens, parks and sunny woodlands. As adults, they feed on nectar from wild plants such as tansy, ragwort and cow parsley. They are really useful friends un the garden though because their larvae are ferocious predators of those pesky aphids.
By River Six
ZEBRA SPIDER - 30 June 2020
This cute little jumping spider was on our patio, but we have seen them inside the house on the bathroom windowsill. We don’t need to worry about cobwebs, though, because cat-like they stalk their prey, with two big front-facing eyes, before pouncing. They have eight eyes altogether. Their diet consists of even smaller spiders and insects, though they sometimes take creatures up to three times their size. The male’s courtship dance involves it waving its pedipalps (front appendages exclusive to males) and moving its abdomen up and down.
Photo by Ann Riley
COMMON BUZZARD - 28 June 2020
Whilst not as ubiquitous as the Kite, these birds of prey are much more common in the skies above Otley than they used to be. They are often to be seen being mobbed by Crows, especially during the breeding season. Although we are most likely to see them effortlessly riding the thermals, they often hunt for small mammals from a perch – there’s one that sits on the fence by the A59 east of Harrogate, oblivious to the traffic. Their calls often seem to be used by film and TV producers to signify a wilderness-type scene.
FOX - 27 June 2020
Whilst out walking along Birdcage Walk at dusk, I spotted a fox eating some supplementary food left out for horses (the second picture below). Foxes are most active at dusk and during the night, searching alone for food. They tend to live in family groups of one dog, one vixen and her cubs, with a few additional female helpers from previous litters. When dusk arrives however it’s every fox for themselves, whilst out alone foraging, the adults will try and eat almost anything they can find. Including insects, earthworms, fruit, berries, birds, small mammals, carrion and scraps left by humans.
By River Six
SPECKLED WOOD BUTTERFLY - 26 June 2020
One of these settled on our gate in the sun. They feed mostly on honeydew in the tree tops, and rarely on flowers. Honeydew is a sugar-rich, sticky liquid secreted by aphids as they feed on plant sap. Northern butterflies are larger because they need bigger wings for thermoregulation. There has been an extraordinary increase in the UK numbers of Speckled Woods due to climate change.
JAY - 25 June 2020
A beautiful bird with an ugly screech of a call, I seem to see more of them around these days, particularly in the woods on the Chevin. They are very intelligent, like the other members of the Corvid family, and viewers of Springwatch will have seen they have a remarkable capacity for mimicry, even imitating birds they cannot have heard for several months. They bury thousands of acorns in the autumn, for retrieval over the winter, and have a special gullet capable of carrying up to 5 acorns at a time. Now the midsummer equinox has passed, birds’ sex organs start to shrink, and males start to lose their bright feathers (most birds moult to replace worn-out feathers with strong ones ready for winter or migration). In July and August many birds are quiet and hidden as they are vulnerable due to this moult. Some birds’ brains are bigger in Spring, too – they need to be in top form.
COMMON BLUE DAMSELFLY - 24 June 2020
There are loads of these on the riverbank path between Gallows Hill and Knotford Nook, but they can turn up in your Otley garden, even if you don’t have a pond. The females are often paler, but sometimes don’t look like the male at all, so that they aren’t too vulnerable when they fly near the water for reproduction. The male is a pinky brown when he first emerges – it takes him a few days to acquire his brilliant blue hue. The bulk of their lives, though, is spent at the larval stage in the water, and they are sensitive to pesticides there that have drained off the fields.
DIPPER - 23 June 2020
Another of my favourite birds (how many are you allowed?!). When they’re not bobbing up and down in the manner that gave them their name, watch them walk down a rock and under the water of the Wharfe in search of invertebrates. They’re chunky, and not the most graceful in flight, as their wings are designed for swimming, but they’ve got bags of character. They have strong focus muscles in their eyes, so that they can change the curvature of the lens to improve underwater vision, and strong legs and feet so that they don’t get washed away. They have more haemoglobin in their blood than other birds so that they can better store oxygen and stay underwater longer. Their nostrils have flaps to stop water entering, and they have a large preen gland to help waterproof their feathers. I tend to think that their bright white chest gives them away, but it may be to aid communication or to help them blend in with the white water of the fast, shallow rivers they frequent.
MEADOW BROWN BUTTERFLY - 22 June 2020
We saw dozens of these this morning on our walk east of Otley along the old railway track. In the fields beyond, they flew up from the grass in front of us, their colouring subtle browns with defensive eye spots and sometimes a splash of washed-out orange. Meadow Browns will fly in dull weather, when other butterflies are inactive. They are known to have many subspecies, with very subtle differences.
HIMALAYAN BALSAM - 21 June 2020
A different tone for today’s post: this invasive species is a significant problem around Otley. On the face of it, there’s a lot to like about it: pollinators like the flowers, lots of people like the smell, and the pink colour is not unattractive. Alternative names include Policeman’s Helmet, Bobby Tops, and Gnome’s Hatstand. But it has a tendency to take over and reduce biodiversity, swamping other species. This is partly due to its extremely effective seed dispersal method – an explosive pod that admittedly is quite fun to trigger. Fortunately, it’s really easy and very satisfying to pull up, having short roots – children can do it. On one of our Chevin routes we stop each time to spend 5 or 10 minutes at the same spot, pulling up the Balsam. We’re never going to eradicate it, even if we wanted to, but if lots of us chip away at it we can make a difference. If you are tempted, work away at the edges rather than creating a hole which will quickly be repopulated. Heap the pulled plants up, as they can re-root, and the heap will form a habitat for invertebrates etc. Also, a neat pile doesn’t wind up those people who like their countryside “tidy”. Now is the time to do the picking, before the seeds form later in the summer. The second photo shows what they look like now.
RED KITE - 19 June 2020
Regular exposure to these magnificent birds hasn’t dimmed the awe they inspire in me. I once dragged my family over a hundred miles to see some in the Welsh mountains, they were so rare, now I see them from my bed. Long ago they were common, even in urban settings, and regarded positively because they kept the streets clean of carrion and rotting food. But then the Tudors classified them as vermin, seeing them as competition for the produce of the countryside, and with rewards offered for their carcasses their numbers started to fall, until eventually they were extinct in England. A welcome conservation success story since being re-introduced from Harewood in 1999, their territorial expansion continues. When the sun catches their plumage at this time of year as they effortlessly ride a thermal, they’re quite spectacular. They nest in at least two woods around Otley. Although they eat a lot of carrion – mostly small mammals and birds – they also catch live animals, including earthworms. The name Kite was used for the bird long before it was used for the toy. Shakespeare made reference to the birds stealing washing from clothes lines for their nests.
BLOODY-NOSED BEETLE - 18 June 2020
This remarkable name derives from their defensive mechanism: they squirt foul-tasting red drops from their mouths when threatened. This liquid is hemolymph, which circulates blood-like in the bodies of invertebrates. The beetles release it by breaking membranes in their mouth. They are flightless and largely nocturnal. Another name is Blood Spewer.
WESTERN HEMLOCK - 17 June 2020
A native of North America’s west coast, the one I saw was in the Holbeck Wood on the Chevin. What drew me to this tall conifer was the new, pale-green growth at the end of the branches, which made it look a bit like they had been decorated. It is a very shade-tolerant tree, with young ones growing under the canopy of other trees and able to wait years for the chance to exploit a gap. The wood is used for the production of paper, doors and furniture; and the Native Americans of Alaska would eat the cambium (a layer of the bark), either as fresh shavings or dried and pressed into bread. They would also use a bough to collect herring eggs, which gave them a distinctive taste.
LIME HAWK MOTH - 16 June 2020
This moth only flies on warm nights between May and July, but can be found resting on walls, tree trunks and lime tree foliage. The adult lives for about 5 weeks. Where there’s a lime (linden) tree in Otley, I suspect there will be Lime Hawkmoths. The lime tree is the favourite food of their caterpillars.
By River Six
GREENFINCH - 15 June 2020
Not as frequent a visitor to the gardens of Otley as it used to be, due to the effect of a deadly parasite that jumped from pigeons in 2005. The BTO estimate half a million Greenfinches died as a result in 2006 alone, though the population is now recovering. We can help here by maintaining good bird table hygiene. The male is a handsome, brightly coloured bird, especially at this time of year. The females build the nests, incubate the eggs and brood the young. Wordsworth wrote a poem about the bird, though he called it the Green Linnet. English settlers introduced Greenfinches to Australia and New Zealand to remind them of home. In Malta they are considered a prestigious songbird and as a result trapped and domesticated.
ELDER - 13 June 2020
We’re making “elderflower champagne” soon, and later in the year people will use the elderberries to make wine. Historically there have been many medicinal claims made for parts of this plant, but you need to be careful as they can be poisonous uncooked. Juice from the berries is a deep blue-purple, and it is used to colour both food and fabrics. The twigs are easy to hollow out – we used to make jewellery with the kids this way – but apparently in North America they are also used as spiles to tap maple trees for syrup. JK Rowling has said that the final book in the Harry Potter series was nearly called “Harry Potter and the Elder Wand”. The bushes are common around Otley, and because it grows quickly, and can easily be bent into shape, it is known as something of an “instant hedge.”
DRONEFLY - 12 June 2020
The Drone Fly is very common around Otley, this time of year. It is an accomplished honeybee mimic, with brown and orange markings, but is completely harmless. This mimicry helps to protect it from predators while it searches for nectar in our parks and gardens. Interestingly the drone fly not only looks like the honey bee but also mimics the way it flies.
By River Six
WREN - 11 June 2020
This very small bird makes a very big noise – a scolding torrent of up to 740 notes a minute. An ancient fable crowned it the king of birds, an idea which persists in Germany, where its name translates as King of the Hedge, and the Netherlands, where it is known as the Winter King. It has a memorable latin name, too - Troglodytes Troglodytes – though the Otley Wrens typically live in woods, gardens and hedgerows rather than caves. Male wrens will build several nests themselves, with the female then choosing the one to be used. In parts of Ireland, Boxing Day is celebrated as Wren Day, with processions behind a decorative pole with a wren on top. This is believed to originate from the day being St Stephen’s Day, and the story has it that St Stephen was betrayed by a noisy Wren when hiding in a hedge. Fortunately, model Wrens are now used rather than the real ones of yore.
DAME'S ROCKET - 10 June 2020
These tall plants are numerous on the north bank of the river to the east of town. Alternative names such as Night Scented Gilliflower and Mother-of-the-evening indicate that their scent becomes stronger as the day goes on. You can see a range of flower colours in a small area: purple, pink, and white. The caterpillars of several butterflies like to eat them, and we can eat the young leaves too – they are high in vitamin C. The seeds are often included in wildflower seed mixes. However, the plant’s highly effective distribution of its numerous seeds can lead to it swamping other species, and in some areas of the US for example it is classified as an invasive pest.
RED CARDINAL BEETLE - 9 June 2020
This medium-sized beetle is found all over Otley, in woodland, along hedgerows, and in parks and gardens.
The adults are sun worshippers and can be spotted sitting still on leaves sunbathing. The larvae are harder to find, they are born flattened so they can squeeze underneath the bark of trees and hide, whilst also eating the larvae of smaller insects.
By River Six
MUTE SWAN - 8 June 2020
These popular birds have successfully raised cygnets on the Wharfe, but if you get too close, you’ll see behaviour that contrasts with their usual grace and calm. They are called “Mute” because they are less vocal than other swans, but as well as the aggressive hissing at threats, they make a loud noise with their wings in flight. This is a bit like a foot pump blowing up an airbed, and performs the function of keeping the birds in contact with each other. Combined with their size (one of the heaviest flying birds), and with their long necks straight out in front of them, it makes for an impressive sight. For centuries, Mute Swans were domesticated for food, with ownership being marked by nicks in their webbed feet or beaks, a fact which explains the confusing name of the “Swan With Two Necks” pub where I used to drink as a student in Woodhouse, Leeds. Non-marked swans belonged to the Queen. Ironically, this domestication may well have prevented the extinction of the bird in Britain through over-hunting.
ROE DEER - 6 June 2020
This indigenous breed are becoming more numerous and seemingly more confident around Otley. They are almost a rusty red colour at this time of year, with a prominent white rump patch, heart-shaped on the female (doe), kidney shaped on the male (roebuck). This patch is “flashed” as an alarm signal to other deer (a bit like the bobbing white tails of rabbits), along with a noise from the male like a dog’s bark. They are regarded as pests because rather than grazing they feed on the new growth of plants such as trees, causing a lot of damage. This is compounded by their ability to jump surprisingly high fences. They don’t need large areas of woodland to survive, and as a result there are now urban populations living in and around, for example, the cemeteries of Bristol and Glasgow. In the original Austrian version, Bambi was a Roe deer.
BIRDS-FOOT TREFOIL - 5 June 2020
You can see this tough member of the pea family along the old railway track to the east of town, but it’s generally quite common. It’s called Bird’s-Foot because of the shape of the seed pods; the Trefoil part refers to the three central leaflets that are prominent above the others. Another name is “Eggs & Bacon”, based on the red and yellow colouring seen as the flowers are opening, and another “Granny’s Toenails”. A fantastic source of nectar for insects, the plant is also used by farmers as quality pasture, hay and silage. Amongst several herbal uses, the flowers are used as a sedative. It can prevent soil erosion, and is planted along roadsides to achieve this effect.
MANDARIN DUCK - 4 June 2020
For some reason I was a bit sniffy about these non-native escapees when I was younger, but now I’m really pleased to see them on the Wharfe. The male’s plumage is nothing short of spectacular – he looks like he originates from some exotic, distant land (actually the Far East) – and it seems incongruous for such a shy bird. The female, as is so often the case, has the practical colours of the partner who has to sit on the nest. Having said that, Mandarins are also unusual ducks in that they nest in holes up in trees. Not long after they have hatched, the mother flies down to the water and encourages the young to jump down and join her and the protective father. A female was spotted the other day in Otley, on the river, with ELEVEN ducklings! In China and Japan Mandarins are seen as a symbol of lifelong fidelity, and in Korea carved wooden Mandarins are often given as a wedding present.
COCKCHAFER - 3 June 2020
This beetle is in a league of its own when it comes to unusual names. It’s also known as a Doodlebug, Humbuz, Chovy, Dumbledarey, Kittywitch, Snartlegog and Bummler – names Roald Dahl himself would have been proud to create. It was nearly eradicated in the 20th century, but pesticide regulation in the 1980’s led to a revival, and the one in the first picture was spotted in an Otley garden. They have had a complex relationship with mankind down the centuries: serious agricultural and forestry pest, but also food source (eg sugar-coated in 1920’s Germany), children’s toy (eg Victorian England), and put on trial in 14th century France. If you get close enough, you can see distinctive leaf shapes on the antennae.
BUFF TIP MOTH - 2 June 2020
A master of disguise, at rest this distinctive moth resembles a broken birch twig in colour, size and shape. Conversely, the caterpillar is a bit easier to spot, being big, hairy, with black and yellow stripes. The first photo below shows one that recently pupated in amongst a wildflower patch in an Otley garden.
BULLFINCH - 1 June 2020
If you hear a sad, simple whistle – “pewww” - from the trees down at Gallows Hill, it’s worth taking some time to look for a pair of these beautiful birds. The male has a gorgeous deep pink chest, but the female’s subtle brown is attractive. Both have a sooty black cap, and in flight a noticeably white rump. The “bull” name is presumably a reference to their head shape. For centuries, their taste for the buds of fruit trees led to a bounty being offered for every one killed.
HEDGEHOG - 31 May 2020
One of the most popular visitors to Otley’s gardens, and not just with gardeners battling with slugs and snails. For a wild animal they’re relatively bold. Last night one was spotted drinking gratefully from a shallow bowl of water left out for thirsty wildlife in this dry spell. It’s believed that when threatened by cars significant numbers are now runners rather than rollers, and if they survive other threats (habitat and food loss), evolution will reduce the numbers squashed on our roads. It is a big “if,” of course.
BANDED DEMOISELLE - 30 May 2020
These literally brilliant damselflies are generally found near slow-moving streams and rivers, but could rock up in your Otley garden, like one of those below. The male is metallic blue and the female metallic green. Damselflies differ from dragonflies in that they have identical wings that they hold up together at rest, whilst dragonflies have two differing sets which they hold open and down. Female Demoiselles lay their eggs by injecting them into plant stems below the surface of the water. The larvae take two years to develop, overwintering in the mud at the bottom of the water.
CINNEBAR MOTH - 29 May 2020
These guys are described as common moths but catching sight of this striking red and black moth is something special.
They fly by day and night. Feeding and resting in messy patches of grass and wastelands but are easily disturbed fluttering up into the sunshine. Their caterpillars depend on the leaves and flowers of the gardeners enemy of Common Ragwort.
By River Six
WELSH POPPY - 28 May 2020
With orange or yellow flowers, these plants have self-seeded all around our garden and throughout Otley. They are native of the damp, rocky uplands of Wales and south-west England, and their success elsewhere has been a bit of a puzzle. They are slow to spread in their ancestral habitats, but with no apparent changes to their botanical constitution have readily established themselves in a variety of habitats throughout the UK. The Welsh Poppy is popular with pollinators.
GOLDFINCH - 27 May 2020
So many species are suffering serious existential threats that it’s nice to hear success stories. Goldfinch numbers are rising, and these colourful, busy birds can be seen all over Otley, usually in a gang. The collective noun is appropriately a “charm”. Nests are built entirely by the females, often at the end of a swaying branch, to which the twigs are attached with spider silk. Nest design is relatively deep to prevent eggs being lost in windy weather. Poet Patrick Kavanagh describes the goldfinch as a rare glimpse of beauty in the life of an elderly Irish farmer:
The goldfinches on the railway paling were worth looking at
A man might imagine then
Himself in Brazil and these birds the birds of paradise
Incidentally, one of the RSPB’s first campaigns was against the caged Goldfinch trade.
COMMON BLUE - 26 May 2020
Perhaps not the perfect name: it’s not that frequently seen in Otley – it’s more that it’s the most widespread of the British blues – and the female can be quite brown. The caterpillar has the classic green with yellow stripes colouring. They secrete a sugar-rich liquid called honeydew, which ants like to eat, in return for which they offer protection, sometimes even dragging a chrysalis into their nest.
HERB ROBERT - 25 May 2020
There are many medicinal claims made for this common member of the Cranesbill family, including as a cure for diarrhoea. It is believed to be named after Robert of Molesme, a herbalist and one of the founders of the Cistercian Order of monks. Crush its leaves and you get an unpleasant smell that gives rise to an alternative name: Stinking Bob. Other names include Storksbill and Death Come Quickly.
LAPWING - 24 May 2020
At the moment I’m seeing these fantastic birds between Otley and Leathley, and on the south side of the Chevin, but I used to see so many more. There used to be a flock near the airport on land now built over, and nationally their numbers have fallen dramatically since changes in agricultural practices in the 1970’s. The Lapwing name refers to their unusual wing shape, or maybe their method of protecting their vulnerable nests on the ground. The adult feigns a wing injury to lure, for example, a fox away from the eggs or young, suddenly flying up when at a safe distance. The collective noun is a deceit. Another name for Lapwing is Peewit, which derives from their unusual call, heard during their tumbling display flight.
ELEPHANT HAWKMOTH - 23 May 2020
This has to be my favourite moth, they are fairly common in the parks and gardens of Otley but quite hard to spot, which is hard to believe given how colourful they are! Their visible fur is golden-olive with bright pink bars on the wings and body. Like a lot of moths they are nocturnal, waking up at dusk to start feeding from honeysuckle and other tubular flowers on the wing.
by River Six
HORSE CHESTNUT - 22 May 2020
The nation’s Horse Chestnut trees are under serious attack from a disease called Bleeding Canker, so it’s been good to see the candle-like blossoms flourishing on the trees in the “Conker Park” next to Grosvenor Terrace. The bees will have been pleased, too, in their search for nectar and pollen. Once pollinated, the blossom gets its pink tinge, which alerts insects to not waste their time and energy on them. These chestnuts are so called because of the horseshoe-shaped marks on their twigs where the leaves fall off. During both world wars the government asked people to collect conkers to assist in the production of the explosive cordite, which requires starch. The trees also had a role in the development of the beer garden: in Germany they were planted over beer cellars because their canopies provided good shade, and their shallow roots didn’t threaten the cellars. In time beer came to be served in these gardens.
BLUE TIT - 21 May 2020
In my first bird book – a well-thumbed Observer’s Book of British Birds – it was charmingly named the Blue Titmouse or Tom Tit, and accurately described as “a very popular little acrobat”. In 2011 the RSPB estimated there were 3.5 million breeding pairs in the UK, and when not nesting in holes in trees they are keen on the nestboxes we provide. Apparently, if your foolish enough to poke a finger through the nestbox hole, an incubating female will hiss and bite at it, giving rise to the nickname “Little Billy Biter” in the south-west of England. The photo shows a brood in an Otley nestbox (consider getting a nest-cam – they’re not as expensive as they used to be). Parent birds have to work extremely hard, and it has been calculated that it’s not unusual for each one to bring food at a peak rate of once every 90 seconds. Much of that food will be caterpillars, and unfortunately this means the species is vulnerable to the bad weather that reduces caterpillar numbers. Adults eat a lot of aphids, and also learned to drink the cream from our doorstep bottles, though I haven’t seen that happen to ours in a long time.
YELLOW ARCHANGEL - 20 May 2020
As the Wildlife Trusts’ website says, “as the Bluebells fade, Yellow Archangel takes its turn to impress”. You’ll find them in the woods and hedgerows around Otley, looking like a nettle but with hooded, yellow flowers. The Archangel tag may well come from the fact that they are in the nettle family but do not sting. I like the colloquial name “Yellow Weasel Snout”.
COMMON MAYFLY - 19 May 2020
I spotted a Mayfly over the riverbank, near the confluence of the Wharfe and the Washburn. Their up-and-down flight pattern is quite distinctive, as is their body shape. Their life structure is famously unusual, with the nymph living sometimes for years in the water, then the adult only surviving for hours. There are many references to this brevity in literature. Mayflies are in the same ancient family as dragonflies and damselflies, and it’s believed they have the characteristics of the first flying insects: long tails and wings that don’t fold flat over their abdomen. They are definitely unique in the insect world in having a pre-adult stage with wings, that then undergoes a further moult. Many fish love to eat them, but their relatively high protein content means they are eaten by people too in several cultures.
GREEN WOODPECKER - 18 May 2020
We saw this large, colourful bird near the old railway line to the west of town. As well as a vibrant green you see a strong yellow and a flash of red. They don’t actually do as much wood-pecking as our other woodpeckers, preferring to eat ants and other bugs on the ground, using their very long tongues (10cm!). As with other woodpeckers, these are coiled up inside their skull when not in use. Their call is a remarkable laughing-like noise, which gives rise to their colloquial name of “Yaffle”. It is also incongruously loud for a shy bird. It used to be thought they had the ability to summon rain, resulting in their being called Rain Bird and Wet Bird, but I’m not sure what led to the alias Nicker Pecker. They can be monogamous for life, but live alone outside the breeding season.
BUFF TAILED BEE - 17 May 2020
One of our most common bees, their ability to forage at very long distances has made them a little more resilient to the negative environmental factors that are damaging our bee populations. I saw this one on some Green Alkanet at Knotford. It's not easy distinguishing the Buff Tail from a White Tailed Bumblebee, but the yellow bands tend to be a bit darker. Like honeybees, bumblebees are eusocial, which means they live in complex societies with several generations in the nest at the same time, a strict division of labour, and co-operative care of the young. Buff Tailed Bumblebees are unusual in that the workers vary enormously in size: from 68 to 754mg. They are all female; on reaching adulthood males (drones) leave the colony to find a mate from another nest - mating is their sole role. Another thing bumblebees have in common with honey bees is their innate preference for blue or yellow flowers. In the photo you can see the pollen sacs on the back legs.
PIPISTRELLE BAT - 17 May 2020
It flew so near me I could hear its wingbeats. As dusk drew in it was hunting insects, flitting expertly in and out of the kitchen/bathroom extensions along our terrace. The Pipistrelle is the smallest UK bat, with the weight of a 2p coin, and our most common, but one can eat three thousand flies in a night. Females give birth to a single pup up to 30% their bodyweight – if my maths is right, the human equivalent would be a 50lb baby! They take very young pups with them when they go out hunting. There is a colony of Daubenton's bats below the central arch of Otley Bridge, and a huge maternity colony of between 300 and 400 bats at the back of an Otley school. The photos below were taken by West Yorkshire Bat Hospital and show two rescued Pipistrelles that were later released in Otley. It must be remembered that bats are a protected species and should only be handled if they are grounded and in need of help, and then only in accordance with the advice of Bat Conservation Trust:
WILD GARLIC - 11 May 2020
I don't remember a better year for Wild Garlic - it seems to be really flourishing around Otley, competing with the Bluebells for aromatic supremacy in our woodlands. Also known as Ramsons or Bear Leek, in other countries bears and boars will dig up the bulbs to eat, and the leaves are used as cattle fodder, resulting in milk with a garlic tang. The bulbs, flowers and leaves are all edible to us - see below for a recipe using the latter instead of basil in pesto.
WHIRLIGIG BEETLES - 10 May 2020
We saw these small, shiny, carnivorous insects swimming in their crazy circles on the surface of one of the Gallows Hill ponds. Apparently this movement is defensive, and they can dive down below their usual habitat if further disturbed, trapping a bubble of air to take with them. When on the surface, their divided eyes enable them to see above and below the water level simultaneously, which is pretty cool. Their waxy, water-repellent skin makes them difficult to catch, and the males have suckers on their front legs to help them hold on to the slippery female during mating. Studies of their fascinating, complex group movement dynamics are hoped to give insights into how groups of robots might operate together.
HAWTHORN - 9 May 2020
Flowering now, in a hedge near you, living up to its other name: Maythorn. Monty Don makes some interesting points about this timing in the link below. There are some spectacular ones to be seen around Otley. My photos were taken on the opposite sides of the Wharfe to the east of town. The blossom gives off a strong scent, which is not to everyone's taste - it used to be thought unlucky due to its resemblance to Plague. On the other hand, many trees and hedges survived because farmers considered them unlucky to fell. The young leaves are edible. My mum tells me that in 1930's County Durham they were referred to as "bread and cheese", though this doesn't relate to the taste. The dark red haws are an important winter food source for birds.
SWIFTS - 8 May 2020
When it comes to flight, the Swift makes a lot of birds look like chickens. Not only does it fly thousands of miles to spend a few months in Otley, and over 3 million miles in its lifetime, but it sleeps on the wing too. They only land for breeding, so having fledged, a young Swift may well spend the next 2 to 3 years in the air. As I write, a group of Swifts hunts noisily for insects high in the blue sky - a "screaming party" this is called. In a normal year, Otley Swift Watch would be meticulously touring the town's older buildings, checking nesting sites up in the eaves and hoping to see a reversal in the national downward trend in Swift numbers. Further afield, a suburban street in north Leeds is a veritable Swift stronghold thanks to the work of one man - check out the link below. The second link takes you to the work of Leeds artist Janis Goodman, who expertly captures the flight of this amazing bird in works such as "Happy Returns".
BEECH - 7 May 2020
The limbs of these mature trees on Birdcage Walk or in Great Dib Wood throw some dramatic shapes - they're simply magnificent. Their foliage is just one part of the varied palette of gorgeous greens on the spring Chevin as you look up from town. I like the beech even more now I know how it will defend itself and alert other trees when under attack. Apparently the saliva of deer stimulates the production of foul-tasting tannin in the leaves; furthermore, it will prompt similar responses in other trees by sending messages via its roots and fungal chords below ground - a "wood wide web" of communication. For more on plant "neurobiology" check out the link to the work of Stefano Mancuso below. Then there's the Copper Beech with its distinctive leaves: my favourite is at the north end of the White Bridge, but there's one in the cemetery whose twisted trunk is like a Freud nude with its curves, twists and bulges.
KINGFISHER - 6 May 2020
Its spectacular plumage can seem a bit out of place against the dark waters of the Wharfe, but even so, a Kingfisher can be tricky to spot on its fishing perch. Listen out for its high-pitched whistling for a clue as to its whereabouts. It's not just the iridescent blue of its wings and head that is gobsmacking - "an azure jewel burning" - the chestnut of its chest is beautiful, too. Incredibly, this colouring is not due to pigment in the feathers, but to their structure, which scatters blue light.
DANDELIONS - 5 May 2020
Lots of gardeners curse them, and goodness knows I've had some battles with those growing between our paving stones. But as it flowers from early spring until the Autumn, the Dandelion really is the pollinator's best friend, and perhaps we should try to leave some in our gardens for the bees, butterflies, moths and beetles. Goldfinches and House Sparrows love the seeds, too. The name derives from the French "dent de lion" or lion's tooth, a reference to the leaf shape, though I expect you know a name or two that refers to those leaves' diuretic effect. If you don't eat too many of them, though, they are a good source of vitamins and anti-oxidants.
MINT MOTH - 4 May 2020
One of these small, delicate moths was on our kitchen window, handily-placed for our herb garden below, where its caterpillars will also eat Marjoram and Thyme. I identified it mainly by the golden spots on its brown/maroon wings, though these yellow markings vary and can sometimes be completely absent, just to confuse part-time lepidopterists like myself. It flies both at night and during the day. Better distinctions between butterflies and moths are that the former rest with their wings closed, and that they have long, thin antennae, as opposed to the short, feathery ones of moths.
SONGTHRUSH - 3 May 2020
Usually a star of the RSPB's #dawnchorusday, this bird can often be heard at Gallows Hill. Its beautiful song consists of repeated phrases, interspersed with grating sounds and mimicry. One bird can have a repertoire of as many as 100 phrases, many copied from its parents and neighbouring birds, and the mimicry may include man-made objects like phones. Their melodious voices led to them being kept as pets until at least the nineteenth century, and people still eat them in Spain. More positively, they have inspired poets such as Wordsworth, Browning and Hughes. One colloquial name is a Mavis, another a Throstle, and I am told Song Thrushes can still be seen and heard around Otley's Throstle Nest Close.
BLUEBELLS - 2 May 2020
May always used to be the Bluebell month, but with climate change we have seen them around Otley for several weeks. As well as creating an attractive carpet of blue in the woods, they also have a strong, sweet fragrance. For the full assault on your senses try Middleton Woods around Curly Hill (maybe after Lockdown). Half the world's Bluebells are here in the UK, and they are a common indicator species for ancient woodlands. However some that you see around Wharfedale will be garden escapees: Spanish Bluebells - the native ones are more delicate, a deeper blue, a little droopy and have the sweet scent. To complicate matters, there are lots of hybrids around now, too. The tough Spanish versions tend to out-compete the native ones, which also go by the names Wild Hyacinth, Cuckoo's Boots, Lady's Nightcap and Witches' Thimbles. Bluebell is one of the words highlighted in the brilliant book "Lost Words" by MacFarlane & Morris.
MARTINS - 1 May 2020
Yes, we're finishing "Bird Week" with two for the price of one. House Martins are attending nests in Albion Street, and Sand Martins can be seen hunting insects above the Wharfe upstream from Wharfebank Mills.
House Martins are distinguishable from Swallows by their white rump and preference for urban settings, where they often nest under eaves. They also typically feed at higher altitudes than Swallows and so don't compete. Young from a first brood will sometimes help feed the second, an unusual occurrence in the bird world.
Sand Martins are a similar shape, but brown instead of black, and lacking the white rump. Similarly sociable, they nest in colonies in sandy riverbanks and cliffs, digging burrows up to a metre in length. There used to be such a colony on the Wharfe just downstream from Gallows Hill.
WILLOW WARBLER - 30 April 2020
Another summer visitor with a somewhat nondescript appearance but a distinctive call - I've seen it accurately described as a "wistfully descending cadence". In late summer these birds, (including juveniles only a few months old), travel 5,000 miles to spend the winter in Sub-Saharan Africa. Swallows fly even further, to South Africa. Prior to name standardisation in 1843, the Willow Warbler was sometimes called the "Willow Wren". They are unusual in that they moult all their feathers twice a year: once at their breeding ground, then again at their wintering grounds. We don't know why.
SWALLOW - 29 April 2020
Half a dozen were skimming the meadow below Haslinghall farm, hunting for insects, and at times it seemed like they were skimming our heads as they swooped effortlessly around us. I'd actually seen the Kipchoge of the Swallow world on April 6th, but they are here in numbers now, helping to make the summer (despite the weather). I love the way they drink from pools whilst in flight, their bill leaving trails of delicate circles in the water.
GOOSANDER - 28 April 2020
Pairs of these shy, graceful ducks can be spotted on the Wharfe in Otley and east towards Knotford Nook. With the water shallow and clear, I was able to see the male's streamlined body underwater as it dived for fish, but my favourite sight is of the young birds on the mother's back as she swims along. Hopefully we'll get chance to see this in the coming months, when the chicks leave their nests in holes in trees on the riverbank.
My daughter works for the charity WaterAid who are developing an app called FlowTV, highlighting the importance, power and beauty of water. It will feature beautiful soundscapes from rivers around the world where WaterAid work. It is hoped these sounds will prove relaxing, and maybe aid sleep, improve mindfulness or accompany activities such as yoga. A taster can be found here:
BLACKCAP - 27 April 2020
One of the easier warblers to identify by sight, the top of the male Blackcap's head is a sooty black, though as with yesterday's bird (Blackbird), the top of the female's is a chestnut brown. They have a distinctive song, too, and this was how I first spotted the one I saw this morning near Wharfebank Mill. It is attractive enough to have earned it the nickname "the northern Nightingale". As with the Chiffchaff, increasing numbers of what was once only a summer visitor now over-winter here.
BLACKBIRD SUNBATHING - 26 April 2020
A male was soaking up the sunshine with its wings spread downward, an action that maintains the health of its feathers. Over-exposure to what was once Britain's commonest bird has perhaps made us impervious to the beauty of the Blackbird and its melodic song. Whereas most English Blackbirds seldom move any distance from where they hatched, they are joined in the winter by others from northern Europe.
BILBERRY BUMBLE BEE - 25 April 2020
I love the alliterative name, and they're quite striking to look at - with their bright orange abdomens, Mark Cocker describes them as looking like "animate furry fruit bonbons". I saw mine, predictably enough, in amongst the bilberry bushes on the Chevin, where I also saw a Green Hairstreak butterfly. The bees also feed on heather.
CUCKOO FLOWER - 24 April 2020
Cuckoo flower, also known as Lady's Smock has pretty lilac flowers and grows in wet meadows and on riverbanks and roadside verges.
The flowers emerge at the same time as the cuckoo begins to sing, hence its name.
A frothy/foamy substance known as 'cuckoo spit' sometimes appears on cuckooflower. This 'spit' is actually the larvae of the Froghopper, which protects it from predators.
There's a lot of it around Otley at the moment: these photos were taken by the stream at Otley Golf Course and in a local garden.
CURLEWS - 23 April 2020
The haunting call of the Curlew is evocative of the moors and estuaries it inhabits. It is a sound immortalised in the poem "Seafarer", which is at least one thousand years old: "I take my gladness in the …. sound of the Curlew instead of the laughter of men." One of the many ways in which we're lucky here in Otley, is that even when confined to the house we can sometimes see the birds that use the valley as an aerial highway, Curlews amongst them. As well as the distinctive call that gives it its name, the Curlew also has a prominent, long, downward-curved bill.
MARSH MARIGOLD - 22 April 2020
These Buttercup-like plants, with their large flowers and large, rounded leaves, favour damp or wet conditions: they would be ideal in that wildlife-friendly pond you're going to create during lockdown! They are mentioned frequently in literature, for example Shakespeare, Hardy and Charlotte Bronte all make reference. The name derives from "Mary Gold" - they were a tribute to the Virgin Mary in mediaeval churches at Easter. But there are numerous alternative names: Kingcup, Horseblob, Crazy Beth, Water Goggles, Gools, Soldiers' Buttons and Publicans-and-sinners. Use your favourite.
SKYLARK - 21 April 2020
Soaring into the skies above the Chevin and the fields below Farnley Hall, the male skylark shows impressive levels of stamina. It belts out a seemingly non-stop song in its almost vertical ascent to heights of up to 300 metres, alerting potential mates and rivals alike, and inspiring one of Britain's most-loved pieces of music. This crested bird can be hard to spot up there, and unfortunately a change in farming practices in the 1970's has resulted in numbers plummeting.
JACK BY THE HEDGE - 20 April 2020
This name gives a good indication where many of them are found around Otley, but it's also known as Poor Man's Mustard. Its edible leaves can even be found and eaten in the winter, as they contain a natural antifreeze. It is biennial, and its first year leaves are a completely different shape (rosette-like) to the second year's (serrated edges, as in the photo taken today).
COMMON GREEN SHIELD BUG - 19 April 2020
A native, sap-sucking insect that derives its name from its distinctive shape. They are no threat to plants. There are more than 30 species of shield bug in Britain, most of them brown. In the US they are known as "Stink Bugs" due to the unpleasant odour they use as a defence.
CHIFFCHAFF - 18 April 2020
Pretty nondescript warbler to look at, but one of the loudest birds around Otley at the moment, with the call that gave it its name. Also capable of incredible endurance: weighing less than a £1 coin, they can fly all the way from Sub-Saharan Africa to spend spring and summer with us. With climate change some now over-winter in Europe.