Walk on the Wild Side- The Pine Processionary Moth Caterpillar.

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A Pine Processionary Moth Caterpillar Group.

A Pine Processionary Moth Caterpillar Group

When walking in the hills here in the South West of France don’t be surprised to see a number of white woven silk-like structures in the branches of pine trees hanging like strange Christmas decorations. These are in fact the nests, termed as ‘tents’, created by the larvae of the pine processionary (Thaumetopoea pityocampa) moth.

A Pine Processionary Moth Tent.

A Pine Processionary Moth Tent.

Although they are intriguing structures the larvae which are contained within are considered quite a forest pest. Natural predators include birds like the common cuckoo (Cumulus canorus) , European nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus), hoopoe (Upupa epops), crested tit (Lophophanes cristatus), coal tit (Periparus after) and great tit (Parus major) (which I’ve regularly observed pecking at the nests here in the Aude). If, however, populations grow to large numbers they can severely defoliate the trees in which they inhabit thus weakening their hosts making them more susceptible to pests, diseases or extreme weather conditions. Their popularity is not helped any further by the fact that each one is covered with thousands of hairs containing a protein called thaumetopoein which can irritate the skin and cause allergic reactions. A great defence mechanism to have evolved but unappreciated by us -especially when found in urban or built up areas.

Much of the sensitivity around the pine processionary moth also seems to be due to their current direction of travel. Although the caterpillars can be described as being nomadic (locally at least) their range was, until fairly recently, isolated to the Mediterranean region, southern Europe, North Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East. This however is now changing. Here in France, possibly due to a cocktail of climate change creating warmer winters and unintentional human assistance, the pine processionary has moved northward and has spread as far as Normandy and Brittany.

 Pine Processionary Moth Caterpillars forming a line.

Pine Processionary Moth Caterpillars forming a line.

Pine Processionary Moth Caterpillars forming a line across a path.

Pine Processionary Moth Caterpillars forming a line across a path.

They are, however, fascinating creatures. We came across two processions of the caterpillars here in the Languedoc quite by accident one day towards the end of February 2016. After overwintering the groups make their way down from their host trees forming their trademark processions on the ground before finding places to pupate in the soil and on this day (one of first decently warm days of the year) we spotted a bundle of the hairy orange-brown and grey banded caterpillars in the middle of a public footpath which hugged the River Aude. Although many of them were still in a tight group it was amazing to watch how they slowly organised themselves to form one long continuous line of around 4 metres to form a kind of spontaneous Andy Goldsworthy natural art installation. How they decide the hierarchy of which caterpillar goes where one can only guess but it was fascinating to watch each individual vying for position to join the line which cut across the path. A video I took of what we saw can be seen here:

If you are lucky enough to come across these amazing processions in Continental Europe take time to watch but remember to keep at a safe distance and observe them with care!  If you do see any signs of the pine processionary moth in the UK then contact the Forestry Commission here.

Further information about the pine processionary moth can be found at :

http://www.forestry.gov.uk/pineprocessionarymoth

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Dunnock – A Scandal in Suburbia.

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Here’s a blast from the past.  First published by Viva Lewes in March 2015 here’s Michael Blencowe’s feature on the dunnock (Prunella modularis) illustrated by yours truly!

Mark Greco Dunnock

“Anyway, I’m not one to gossip, but I flew down to the bird table at number 30 yesterday and I bumped into that house sparrow. You know how sparrows love to chatter, well we got talking over the fence.  You know that dunnock that lives in the hedge at number 26? Well she’s certainly nothing to look at is she? But that’s dunnocks for you, all greys and browns. Not exactly the most striking bird in the garden. Keeps herself to herself.”

“These dunnocks aren’t like the rest of us. All sexual equality they are. So in February it was her who was first out there in the garden establishing a territory. Then she started seeing this fella who had a territory next door. Well it was all innocent enough but that’s when it all kicked off. This other neighbouring dunnock showed up and he started strutting and serenading her like he was bleedin’ Cassanova. Well, her fella was having none of it – there was fighting and feathers everywhere and he soon saw him off. But Cassanova didn’t give up – he sat in the hedge warbling and wooing her. Well, when her fella’s back was turned she was over there like a flash, twirling her tail at him. In no time they were ‘avin’ a bit of ‘ows yer father right under the hedge. Then she flew straight back to her other fella looking like butter wouldn’t melt in her beak and then they went at it. It was then that the third fella showed up and she snuck off with him too for some rumpy-pumpy behind the pampas grass in the front garden.”

“Well it was like this for the next week apparently. She was at it 100 times a day! Gets my feathers ruffled just thinking about it. By April she was proudly sat in her nest incubating four sky blue eggs which hatched into four little chicks. But the thing was all three of her fellas thought that they were the father – so she had them all scrabbling ‘round searching for bugs. Her four babies must have been the most well-fed chicks in the street. I reckon that was her little game all along.”

“But that wasn’t the end of it. It turns out that her first fella was bringing bugs to another dunnock in the next garden who also had his chicks. And the other two were the fathers of another dunnock’s chicks two gardens over. You couldn’t make it up. There isn’t even a word for what these dunnocks get up to. Well, there is. Polygynandry they call it. Scandalous I call it. If the people of Lewes only knew what goes on in their very own backyards”

Words by Michael Blencowe.                                                                                    Illustration by Mark Greco.                                                                                        First published in by Viva Lewes Magazine in February 2015.

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Viva Lewes March Hare

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final_greco_viva_march_hare

Our latest wildlife feature in the Viva Lewes March 2016 edition focuses on the Hare.

Take a look at the online version here:   http://www.vivabrighton.com/#!vivalewes/c58g

 

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Goldcrest

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Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)

Mark Greco Screenprint of Goldcrest.

Screenprint of Goldcrest by Mark Greco.

The day started with glorious sunshine. I had showered and after hanging the towel on the line walked towards The Hide to explore the grounds.

Walking through the main barn’s exit towards the river I habitually managed to startle a couple of grey wagtails and a dipper which pipped and warbled along the bank -the grey wagtails bobbing as they went whilst the dipper hugged the surface of the river with usual determination.

The wind was still pretty strong and intermittently blew through the branches of the Hazels and Conifers along the riverbank. There was no grey heron to be seen and even the usual mallards seemed to be giving things a miss on this stretch of the river.

Things seemed to be quiet on this sunny morning but deciding to head back my eye caught a small bird busily hopping around the branches of a self-seeded conifer which grew on the canal side of the narrow path between the mill and the river. The bird was alone and as I tentatively approached it didn’t appear to be either aware or indeed mind my presence. Looking through the binoculars I spotted that it was a small solitary gold crest (Regulus regulus) – one of the smallest indigenous birds to be found in Europe and certainly one of my favourites.

The light at that time of the morning couldn’t have been better as it illuminated the bank, the tree and indeed the goldcrest in a crisp yellow light. Being only around a couple of metres away I intently watched the bird as it explored the branches for the insects that could be hidden between the needles and crevices. From time to time the wind blew the branches quite violently causing the bird to rock and sway so much that it clutched its perch as a fisherman might do when being rocked in a force 10 gale.

Amazingly I managed to get a few good photographs of the bird and this privileged experience stayed with me for the rest of the day.

A very limited screen printed edition of GOLDCREST has been produced and prints from this edition are still available.  If you’d like to find out more please contact me at info@anaturalhistory.co.uk.

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The Day of the Tramontane.

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Crag Martin Nest.

Crag Martin Nest.

Crag Martins seeking shelter in the entrance to Notre Dame de L'Assomption, Quillan.

Crag Martins seeking shelter in the entrance to Notre Dame de L’Assomption, Quillan.

House Martin (Ltd Screen-print) by Mark Greco

House Martin (Ltd Screen-print) by Mark Greco

I had first spotted the Martins the previous day but had not had such a good sighting to be able to identify what type of Martin I had seen. I had my suspicions but today I was determined to nail it!

The day promised to be a gusty one. La Meteo had given an orange warning for wind in our region and the Tramontane made itself known here in Quillan. Strong gusts of a dry cold northerly wind buffeted us as we headed into town and I was sorry that I had left both my hat and gloves back in the gite. On our way in I tentatively looked around for any signs of a flashing dart in the skies which might signify that the presence of the Martins were still here but, looking at how the wind was driving the clouds, I quietly thought that the conditions may have been too much for them or indeed they may have left overnight to continue their migration.

Approaching Notre Dame de L’Assumption (the church where, I had spotted 20+ of them joyfully hawking by the clock tower the day before) I felt that my fears could have been justified as, on first glance, there was nothing to be seen. The sky was blue but seemed void of any birds. But wait! I caught sight of three Martins hawking and then another. It seemed that they were indeed still in the neighbourhood and not only that when we inspected the nest hidden on a ledge in the the church entrance there they were- five Crag Martins (Ptyonoprogne rupestris) huddled together as if to keep out of the cold wind that still whistled around the church and narrow streets of Quillan.

Unfortunately I had no camera and on a visit back to the church later the same morning there was no sign of any of the Martins- neither swooping around the tower or in the safe confinement of the nest. Had they moved on? I hoped not.

It’s funny how when given a little patience and time to view the natural world around you how often it comes to find you rather than you find it. Not really expecting to see much more of the Crag Martins that day I headed back home and was ready to get on with the day’s work at hand. We had arranged to do some redecorating for the landlord and today was the day we would make a start. When I arrived my partner was still talking on the phone to an old friend so I decided that both myself and the dog should make our escape and head for The Hide.

Not searching for anything in particular I sat back on one of the faded plastic chairs and suddenly my eyes caught a swift flash of one thing, then another and yet another. Small dart like birds were busy hawking- some over the river and others over the Perpignan Road that runs by the side if the Mill. These small brown, swallow like birds with flashes of white on the tail were indeed Crag Martins and there was at least twenty – all searching for food on the wing with a deftifying dexterity and speed that made me feel queasy just watching them.

Anyone who has had the luck to experience either Martins or Swallows hawk at close hand will understand what an amazing and privileged experience this is. To my mind it is one of the rare occasions when you are able to watch birds so unselfconsciously interact with their environment. Sitting on the bank in open sight I felt almost invisible as wave after wave of Crag Martins flew just a few metres past my nose swooping close to the bank towards the water’s surface and the small pebble island that forms in the middle of the river whenever it’s low. Their undulating lines of flight was amazing to watch and I was delighted to spot that a couple of house martins (Delichon urbica) , birds which are very close to my heart, had joined the party.

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Woodpeckers

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mark greco gite horse chestnut

The Horse Chestnut where the drama occurred.

When searching for those memorable moments in our natural world it’s sometimes very easy to overlook at what’s in your own back yard. Today this was very much the case.

Although it was Sunday my day started quite early as dozing in bed I could hear the distinct laugh of a Green Woodpecker and one thing knew- it was close! Being quite a compassionate guy I tried not disturb my partner too much by crawling out of bed. I then slipped out of the bedroom- grabbing my binoculars on the way..

The calls were emanating from a large Horse Chestnut which towers above and to the side of the gite but where exactly was the bird?  So as not to scare anything that may have been there I tentatively crouched down by the window and looked out. It was around 8.00 am and scanning through the slightly clouded windows I spotted that, indeed, there was a Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) clinging to the side of the tree. It was almost static and appeared to be transfixed by a hole in the trunk at which it kept pecking whilst occasionally calling and then glancing around. It was at this point that I noted that the calls were being echoed in the distance and after around 5 minutes another Green Woodpecker arrived and perched around a couple of feet away from the first – both now taking an intense interest in the hole. No animosity between the two was displayed so I wondered if the two were a mating pair looking for potential nesting sites.

Their hope of a claim on this site , however, was short lived as within a few minutes a Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) swooped in, knocking the first Green Woodpecker off its perch and making straight for the safety of the hollow. The two Green Woodpeckers didn’t hang around – disappearing to another tree over the road.

After a few moments the of head Great Spotted Woodpecker emerged from the hole and gazed around its vicinity as if looking for any other birds who intended to stake the claim on its patch. I didn’t spot a second Great Spotted Woodpecker but, fingers crossed, we may have a breeding pair near the site.

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A Grey and Cold Saturday

Image

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mark greco quillan hide 4

At The Hide.

We’ve been so lucky with the weather the past few weekends that it’s a bit of a shock when you wake up on a Saturday morning to driving rain and grey skies. Just to think that this time last week I was watching the Aude flow below blue skies, uninterrupted sunshine and thinking that Spring was just around the corner! Today both the departments of Herault and Gard have been put on orange weather warnings because of the amount of rain that is expected there. One thing that I have come to realise whilst living in Quillan is that the weather in this part of France can change very quickly!

After having breakfast whilst listening to Fip we got ready to do the first job of the day. We have begun to supplement our wood supply by collecting choice pieces of driftwood from the river and last night we had hatched a plan. We would park the car at a local Aire and collect the stash of wood we had put aside on the bank the evening before. I also had decided to bring the hack saw from the gite to cut any oversized pieces down. This worked well and after 3 trips to and from our car to the stash (a trip that seemed much longer than normal!) we filled the boot and drove back home.

That afternoon the rain cleared and after I’d chopped more wood for the wood burner I decided to spend a little time in The HideI’m rarely disappointed on what I see on this site and today was not an exception.  On approaching my small refuge I inadvertently disturbed a grey heron which had been perchng on the small outcrop of rock that juts out to the left of The Hide. Sensing my presence it took to the air in moments, disappearing upstream of the river in a manner that I often think would have been akin to seeing one of its prehistoric ancestors.

I found my chair and settled.  The sky was overcast and the combination of both the slight breeze and dampness from the river cooled the air.  Gazing through the binoculars I could, however, see that things were much busier than one might expect on such a dull day. On the far sand bank two chaffinches foraged among the leaves, sticks and stones.  These were soon joined by what looked to be a yellow hammer which tentatively joined the party.  To my side a robin called, gave me a hard stare then flew off.

As I watched what was happening along the bank I heard a distant but familiar ‘peet peet’ and my eyes caught a flash of vibrant yellow which came as a blessed relief against the sombre tones of the day. And there it was.  No further than around 4 metres away from me a grey wagtail had landed on one of the metal struts that penetrated the river’s surface.  It seemed completely oblivious to my presence in the hide and perched there for a few minutes-its eyes alert with its tail intermittently wagging as if it was tapping out a secret code that was meant to be deciphered.   I watched it  before it decided to move on and flew to the left bank before disappearing.

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The Hide

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mark greco quillan hide 1

Interior of The Hide.

mark greco quillan hide 2

View of the Aude from The Hide.

Binoculars ready in The Hide

Binoculars ready in The Hide

 

Now that Spring seems to be just around the corner and the weather is getting better I’ve started to establish a small but well formed camp in one of the corners of the ground. It’s a small timber frame construction with an old style and well rusted corrugated roof. At the entrance two makeshift wooden steps lead onto a planked platform which straddles over the channel of the two sluice gates that feeds the water mill with the powerful flow of the Aude. The platform is around three foot wide by ten feet long- a quite narrow space- and is used so that the gates can be adjusted. However the thing is this. With just about enough room to be able to comfortably put 2/3 chairs, a great view of the river and enough foliage to act as camouflage, it makes a great hide from which to view the natural comings and goings of river life. It also has the amazing benefit of being south(ish) facing and sheltered from wind so, on days sunny days like these, becomes a bit of a sun trap and a great place to write.

Last week, in a bid to establish camp, I had given the place a bit of a spring clean and had sweeped the deck and buffed the two plastic chairs. *The Hide * was now ready.

To give its position a bit more context imagine this. Looking out over the breadth of the Aude the river bends quite sharply to the left and flows round a shallow sloped bank populated by hazel trees. To the immediate right is a steep bank of rock where a mixture of overhanging trees, bush, grass, moss and lichen grow. At regular intervals small outcrops of moss covered rock jut through the surface of the water. Finally at the furthest point there is a small flat sandbank largely populated, again, by hazel but also has enough grass and low lying vegetation to create shelter for birds and other animals. And then you have the backdrop of the Pyrenees foothills behind.

Today’s weather was ideal and gave me the perfect excuse for spending time here. A clear blue sky, light wind and uninterrupted sun meant that conditions were near ideal. The milder temperature caused a burst insects to take flight and small clouds of aerial plankton glowed yellow and danced above the water and amongst the branches. Looking through the binoculars I noticed that a number of different bird species were taking advantage of the opportunity. Firecrests, together with a Robin, hawked from the overhanging branches to the right and returned to another perching spot. A small group of Long-tailed Tits saw the same opportunity but used a slightly different technique. These largely flew from one side of the river to the other, hawking insects as they made the trip. To the left I heard the distinct calls of Nuthatches and watched them as they foraged amongst the branches and trunks of hazel- perhaps looking for the best nesting sites- and below a sharp trill of a Wren cut through the undulating sound that the river made as it flowed by.

It was early in the afternoon when I caught sight of a small dark shape bounding on the edge of the left bank. Being slightly obscured by the vegetation I first thought that it was one of the black squirrels that I have spotted from time to time. Amazingly it proved to be what looked like a either a Polecat or Mink and I watched it as it’s sleek frame took to the water and began powerfully swimming to the other bank. For a moment I lost sight of it as it disappeared amid the dazzling ripples of dancing water and, by trying to trace the likely route it would take, saw it emerge by a mossy rock on the other side. Oblivious to my presence and after shaking the excess water from its fur, it then carried on towards the far sand bank only to disappear amid the vegetation.

I left The Hide feeling excited about what I had saw and can’t wait to spot more amazing things as Spring fully emerges!

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Nicholas Culpeper- Better living through botany.

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nicholas culpeper

Exactly 400 years ago, in 1616, a legend was born; a rebel who partnered up with Mother Nature to revolutionise British medicine. The herbal hero, the botanical bad boy, the father of alternative medicine, ladies and gentleman I give you, Nicholas Culpeper.

Culpeper did his growing up upstream in Isfield. The lanes around Lewes and the starry Sussex skies were his classroom and the hedges and the heavens taught him botany , astronomy and astrology. And he learnt about love too. In 1634 Culpeper and his Sussex sweetheart planned a secret Lewes wedding and a speedy elopement to the Netherlands. But tragedy struck when his love-struck lady’s carriage was struck by a lightning bolt en route to Lewes. She died instantly.

There’s no cure for a broken heart and Culpeper left Sussex and started a new life in London. He threw himself into his work as a lowly apothecary’s assistant cataloguing medicinal herbs on Threadneedle Street.  At this time medicine was only practiced by elite physicians. They would charge exorbitant prices for their secret remedies and would not even demean themselves to talk to patients; instead requesting a sample of urine to make their diagnosis. Culpeper agreed with them on one thing; they were all taking the piss. He believed medical treatment should be available to all – not just the privileged.

Setting up his own practice in a poorer part of London Culpeper started treating 40 patients a day with herbal cures derived from English plants. Then he dropped his botanical bombshell.  Culpeper published an incredible book which instructed people how to pick their own remedies, free of charge, from the hedges and meadows.  The book was ‘The English Physitian’ (1652, later enlarged as ‘The Complete Herbal’).  His book promoted and preserved  folk remedies at a time when physicians and priests were discrediting  village healers and preventing  them from passing along their traditional knowledge. The medical establishment was enraged and accused Culpeper of practising witchcraft.  But his book endured. It’s been in continuous print longer than any other non-religious English language book, running rings ‘round Tolkien and Rowling and their tales of hocus-pocus.

No doubt Culpeper’s herbal remedies could have come in useful for some of you over the festive period; wild privet (for headaches), blackthorn (for indigestion), rosemary (for flatulence) and the juice of ivy berries ‘snuffed up into the nose’ (for hangovers).  Culpeper also has cures for those with sore breasts, worms, itches in the ‘privy parts’ and bruises.  Hey – I don’t know what you lot have been getting up to over Christmas.

So start 2016 by raising your Nutribullets and ginseng teas to the healing properties of Mother Nature and to four centuries of Nicholas Culpeper.

Words by Michael Blencowe.                                                                                    Illustration by Mark Greco.                                                                                        First published in by Viva Lewes Magazine in January 2016.

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Wildlife Editorials.

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mark greco viva features

Those of you who live in Lewes and manage to get hold of the fabulous monthly listings magazine Viva Lewes will be familiar with the regular wildlife features on which I collaborate with Michael Blencowe of the Sussex Wildlife Trust. Each month Michael writes a terrific article and I try and do my best to illustrate it!

As we must have done over 50 features together I thought it might be a great and opportune time (what with it being New Year and all) to begin showcasing some of our favourites here on A Natural History.

So let’s start with the latest- published in the January 2015 Viva Lewes magazine here is the fascinating if a little tragic story of Nicholas Culpeper..

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