Wildlife Around and About East Lothian
April showers, apparently, may come your way. However, don’t panic, as according to the song, they bring the flowers that bloom in May. So, hooray for that – despite the fact that this year’s April showers have included sleet, snow and hailstones.
One of the flowers that might be blooming this May is the cuckoo flower. It’s a delicate plant found in moist or wet habitats. It was given the name because it flowers at the same time that the cuckoo starts to call. It has the characteristic four-petalled flower of the cabbage family – plant in this family are known as crucifers, as their petals make a cross shape (sort of). In the case of the cuckoo flower the petals are a pale pink, or sometimes white, which can make them stand out in amongst the surrounding greenery. Like many members of the cabbage family, the leaves form an important caterpillar food plant – particularly for orange-tip and green-veined white butterflies. The flowers provide valuable nectar for early-flying bees and butterflies. The plant is also very attractive to froghoppers – small insects that feed on sap. It is the larvae of these that produce the frothy blobs known as “cuckoo spit”.
People used to believe that if the cuckoo flower was picked and brought inside, the house would be struck by lightning. It was also thought that if eaten it would restore lost appetite and aid digestion. In the past it was also used as a substitute for watercress – another member of the crucifer family, with superficially similar leaves.
A few Mays ago I wrote about swifts and I’m going to do the same this year, because swifts are brilliant and should be celebrated with marching bands and parades. Swifts are the ultimate fliers, spending more time on the wing than probably any other bird. They will eat, sleep and mate in the air, and rarely land, other than when nesting. Some fledglings, once they leave the nest, may not land for three years, when they will be ready to have young of their own.
The scientific name for the swift is Apus apus, which is derived from Greek and means “no feet” (I suppose technically it means “no feet, no feet”). This is because the swift has evolved very short legs, which are only really useful for clinging to walls and cliffs. This is a result of their aerial lifestyle – they really don’t need much in the way of legs when they spend so much time airborne.
Over the coming weeks and months you should be able to see gangs of swifts overhead, particularly in urban areas, as they tend to nest under the eaves of buildings. Look for dark shapes with swept back, sickle-shaped wings. Also listen for the screaming and screeching as the birds call to one another. This is one of nature’s marvels and everyone should take the chance just to stand about for a wee while and watch/listen to swifts. Honestly, whatever you’re doing it’s worth stopping – it won’t be as important as spending a few moments with the swifts (members of the Emergency Services may wish to ignore this last bit).
East Lothian Countryside Ranger Service