Storms with rain and hail have characterized much of the last few weeks. Raging seas have moved great quantities of sand from one beach to the next, battering sea life and making new places for living things to establish themselves, whilst destroying what had been there before. The stormy conditions having subsided by the end of February, with some sunny periods passing through, there is clearly a sense of change in the air. Spring has arrived.
Not only are birds keen to establish breeding territories, but many plant species are showing signs of fresh growth and floral display, like the sweet violet shown here. Sweet violet (Viola odorata) is a sure sign that spring has arrived, wafting its soft scent on the breeze. You may come across drifts of sweet violet at the shady foot of a hedgerow, where the depp purple flowers contrast strikingly with acid green new foliage, and the bright yellow flowers of other species, such as Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria). This delicate flower has more to offer, through its traditional use in herbal medicine. Violets contain flavonoids and an alkaloid, salicylates, tannins, essential oils, mucilage, saponins and minerals, most notably calcium and magnesium. Only the leaves and flowers are used in herbalism, particularly for moistening effects. They can also be added to salads. I prefer to see them growing just as they are!
The damp but milder conditions are favourable for molluscs. Feasting on the new, fresh, dense growth, are banded snails. They occur in any habitat where there is moist decaying matter and dense herbage for consumption. Banded snails come in a range of shell colours: yellows, pinks, browns, and with three different styles of banding: no bands, single band (mid-band), or many bands. Despite the enormous variety of shell morphs, these animals comprise just two species: white lipped (Cepaea hortensis), and brown lipped (Cepaea nemoralis) snails.
The shell variety is an evolutionary adaptation to predation pressure, as they are particularly favoured by keen-sighted bird predators, such as thrushes. By genetically expressing different colour morphs, the snails can rapidly blend into and exploit a variety of suitable habitats, within just a few generations. Banded snails make a pertinent subject for the study of evolution in real time. They have thus been studied extensively for several decades to date, with climate change effects most recently being added as a new factor in shell colour adaptation.
The Open University are trying to find out whether shell colours and bands are influenced by the presence or absence of thrushes, and also by climate change. You can take part in this important citizen science research project by registering your details here.
Things to do this month
- Look out for, and report, stranded storm casualties. The stranded bodies of seabirds are being washed up in their hundreds along a long stretch of the southwest coastline. I found two kittiwakes and a guillemot (shown here) amongst the debris on Porthcurnick beach towards the end of February and there will be many more to come. The RSPB believes most of the deaths were a “sad but natural occurrence” after the recent stormy weather. Exhausted birds are unable to feed in the challenging conditions and many just starve to death. If you find stranded corpses then the Cornwall Strandings Network would like your records. Contact the Strandings Hotline on 0345 201 2626. The RSPB advises that anyone finding beached seabirds alive should not attempt to rescue them, but contact the RSPCA.
- If you haven’t already done so, it’s high time to clean out bird nest boxes and put up new ones. Birds are beginning to establish their breeding territories, and if the weather continues to become milder they will soon be looking fpr places to nest. Here are some great tips from the BTO on putting up new nest boxes.
- You might also begin to think about supplying nest materials for the early breeders. Dry grass and small twigs can be stored in rain-protected nooks. Wool and chicken feathers can be hung up in peanut feeders from which birds can pull the materials to line nest cups.
- Make sure to clean bird feeders with a bird-safe antibacterial and keep them topped up with fresh, clean food that has not been allowed to get wet and rotten.
Bown, D (2002) RHS Encyclopedia of Medicinal Herbs and their Usage UK Dorling Kindersley Ltd.
All Photography by Sarah E Vandome
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