Oxhill News

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South Warwickshire, England.

The Oxhill News

August 2011

This months News



Nature Notes

August 1st is Lammas (loaf-mass) – the festival of harvest’s beginning.  Some of the hottest days are record in this month.  “Dry August and warm doth harvest no harm”; “If the first week of August be warm, the winter will be white and long”; “August rain gives honey and wine”.

As reported in “Rescuing a Young Swift’ (pg 3), Jane Smith found a young swift in our churchyard;


by Ted Hughes

And here they are, here they are again
Erupting across yard stones
Shrapnel-scatter terror.  Frog-gapers,
Speedway goggles, international mobsters –

A bolas of three or four wire screams
Jockeying across each other
On their switchback wheel of death.
They swat past, hard fletched,

Veer on the hard air, toss up over the roof
And are gone again.  Their mole-dark labouring
Their lunatic limber scramming frenzy
And their whirling blades
Sparkle out into blue –
            Not ours any more.

The swift’s (Apus apus) black scimitar shape and shrill screaming call gave rise to many regional names, such as Jack Squealer, Screecher, and Skeer Devil.  Swifts, as with swallows and martins, are declining in numbers over most of Europe, with the exception of parts of Scandinavia.  Swifts nest inside eaves or on the rafters of buildings, usually finding access beneath the eaves or through a crack in the structure.  They are particularly found in churches and old barns.  Unfortunately new buildings and renovations almost entirely lack facilities for swifts and this loss of nesting sites is the major cause for their decline.  Interestingly, in Amsterdam, where there has been a great deal of roof renovation, it has been made illegal to re-roof unless access for swifts is retained.  What a great shame architects and planners haven’t taken this idea on board here.  What would summer be without the shrieks of swifts and the “jibberish” of swallows.  However, the tower on the Museum of Science in central Oxford has half-cone-shaped ventilation holes giving access to purpose-built accommodation for up to 80 pairs of swifts.

I think most people are now aware of the swift’s amazing flight pattern, only ever landing to nest, it feeds, sleeps, drinks and even mates on the wing.  The mating occurs at great heights, up to two miles, for the coupling means they cannot fly so need a long way to fall.  This is one of nature’s only mating procedures that, should it last too long, could end in death!  All this is more amazing when you consider that a swift can live for up to 20 years.  Jane’s swift almost certainly fell out of its nest somewhere in the eaves of the church.  This is not uncommon, as when fledged the young swifts will leave the next in early morning when the parents are absent.  It will not be fed again and it becomes totally independent from that moment.

Jane mentions a louse-fly; this is Crataerina pallid, a very nasty-looking flat crab-like creature, it can reach up to a quarter of an inch in length, huge in proportion to its host.  I came across this quote “a small bird with one or two of these insects creeping about in its feathers can be compared to a man with a couple of large shore crabs scuttling about in his underclothes”.  As you read this, many of our swifts will be preparing to leave Britain.  They only stay for 16 weeks, having arrived during May.  Their capacity for long-distance flight is nothing short of staggering.  It has been estimated that they cover 500 miles (800 km) per day; imagine, a 20-year-old bird would have covered 3.65 million miles.  Even more amazing is that while on this flight, they will roost on the wing, circling for hours in the cold night air at high altitude until morning.  Apparently most of their brain shuts down into ‘sleep mode’ and a small part remains active to adjust flight pattern when needed.

The other day whilst driving to the other side of Fenny Compton, we were startled to see flying quite low over the road, a Little Egret (Egretta garzetta).  This is a medium-sized all white heron with distinctive black legs with yellow feet and a long shining black bill.  This is one of the most successful colonists of Britain in recent times and a possible beneficiary of global warming.  It is mainly concentrated on the south coast, in fact for many years now I have seen them on the Kingsbridge estuary in Devon where there is a breeding colony.  They are also present on the Exe and Tamar.  Last summer I photographed one on a small brook on an estate at Stow-on the-Wold and apparently it had been present for about six weeks.  The first breeding record in Britain was in 1996 at Brownsea Nature Reserve, but seeing them in central Britain is still very rare.  As early as the seventeenth century egret plumes had been used in human costume, especially hats, mostly coming from the region of Turkey.  The demand was such that centuries later in 1914 egret farms were set up in the UK.  Fortunately by 1920 the legal suppression of imports led to the demise of this trade.

August 17th – time to gather garden seeds.  “Seeds must be gathered in fair weather, and the wane of the Moon, and kept in Boxes of Wood, some in bags of Leather, and some in Vessels of Earthenware, and well cleansed and dried in shadow.  Othersome, as Onions and Leeks, must be kept in their husks.  It is best to plant in the last quarter of the Moon”. (Gervaise Markham, The English Housewife, 1683).

Grenville Moore

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Last modified: August 16, 2011