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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Carrie's Nature and History Natter - August.

Carrie's Nature and History Natter - August.

August – the month when high summer turns to late summer – if we have had hot weather (perhaps not quite yet this year) the countryside looks a bit tired and parched.  In the hedgerows blackberries have begun to ripen turning from green to red then black and tasting delicious.  Hungry starlings and blackbirds are taking advantage of ripe elderberries, and the hawthorn berries will provide sustenance for many species through the winter months.

Hot days also bring the restful sound of grasshoppers calling ('stridulating') from the long grass, advertising their territories.  They are difficult to spot due to their green or brown colour, but soon hop to reveal themselves if disturbed, only to disappear again.  In Britain the species most likely to be spotted are the common green, common field and the meadow grasshopper.  Other insects on the wing include the meadow brown, small skipper butterflies and large whites.  Gatekeepers are particularly attractive orange and brown butterflies that are currently on the wing, and can be found near hedgerows.

Where grasslands, be they pastures or meadows, are overgrazed the ground is often exposed (poached) and plants such as ragwort and creeping thistle colonise and thrive, and this often happens in hard grazed fields supporting horses.  Ragwort is poisonous to livestock and they avoid grazing it, so large areas can be dominated by its bright yellow ragwort flowers at this time of the year, and earlier.  The cinnabar moth (the adult is black and red) feeds on this species at its caterpillar stage.  The caterpillars are black and orange to ward off predators who may view them as a tasty snack. The caterpillar stores alkaloids from the plant which means that birds do indeed find them nasty to eat.

House martins are finally emerging from their mud cup nests, encouraged by the adults who chatter and swoop around them.  Large flocks of martins and swallows can be seen over fields and swallows in particular can be seen lined up together on telegraph wires preening themselves.  Many birds are in the middle of their moult and can look rather dowdy, but feathers are replaced gradually so as not to ground the bird.  Woodpigeons may still be sitting on another brood of eggs, and will swoop down through air with several wing claps, displaying and defending their territory.  Starlings, jackdaws and house sparrows may also be seen tending to their young in the nest, with the starlings chattering and whistling at each other from the eaves and other high places.  They are excellent mimics and can be mistaken for other birds, even sometimes emulating man-made sounds, such as telephones!

In history the month of August was called Sextilis in the Roman calendar, because it was the sixth month of the year.  However, after January and February were added, it became the eighth month and had 29 days.  When Julius Caesar created the Julian calendar in 45BC, two days were added giving the month 31 days.  It was later renamed Augustus in honour of the first emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus.  The symbols of August are the agate or onyx as the birthstone, the Zodiac signs Leo and Virgo and its flowers are poppy or gladiolus.  In the Saxon language it is known as Weodmontha (weed month) and in Germanic Ernte-mond (harvest month).

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