WA­TER­SIDE WILDLIFE

You might think a swathe of blue­bells is a won­der­ful sight, but as Pip Web­ster re­veals all is not as it seems

Canal Boat - - This Month -

Watch out for stun­ning flora and fauna... it could ac­tu­ally be poi­sonous

In late spring de­cid­u­ous wood­lands seem to erupt in a haze of blue as if “the heav­ens up­break­ing through the earth” (Al­fred Ten­nyson). Like many spring flow­ers, the English Blue­bell pro­duces its leaves and flow­ers early be­fore the leaves on the trees block the sun­light. One of the na­tion’s favourite flow­ers, the blue car­pets are quintessen­tially Bri­tish, the UK be­ing home to about half the world pop­u­la­tion.

With its nod­ding, one-sided in­flo­res­cence of tubu­lar vi­o­let-blue flow­ers, “there is a silent elo­quence in ev­ery wild blue­bell” (Anne Bronte). The three in­ner and three outer petals un­fold near the end and curve tightly back­wards upon them­selves. Not sat­is­fied with our na­tive, sweetly scented beauty, gar­den­ers in­tro­duced the paler, hardier Span­ish Blue­bell in the sev­en­teenth cen­tury and it now hy­bridises in the wild with our own blue­bell, threat­en­ing its sur­vival. The racemes of flow­ers are more up­right in the Span­ish blue­bell, with wide, bell-shaped flow­ers, only slightly flared at the edges, on both sides of the stem. The pollen is white, con­trast­ing the blue of our na­tive.

The Blue­bell is ex­tremely poi­sonous and found many uses in me­dieval alchemy and folk medicine. The wa­ter­sol­u­ble al­ka­loids may pro­vide clues for mod­ern drug man­u­fac­ture. The sap is very sticky and was used to glue feath­ers onto ar­rows in the Mid­dle Ages, and, ar­chae­o­log­i­cal stud­ies sug­gest, pos­si­bly as early as the Bronze Age. Also used to stick the pages into books, the glue had the added ad­van­tage of be­ing in­sec­ti­ci­dal. Starch from the bulbs of ‘Jacinth’ was used to stiffen ruffs in El­iz­a­bethan times. Blue­bells are an im­por­tant early source of food for bees, hov­er­flies and but­ter­flies that feed on the nec­tar. The ma­jor­ity of the pol­li­na­tion is car­ried out by bum­ble­bees, but they some­times cheat and ac­cess the nec­tar by bit­ing a hole in the base of the bell. As the flow­ers wither and seeds set, the stems be­come more up­right and pro­duce 3 black seeds in each 3-lobed seed pod.

A swift ar­row of iri­des­cent blue speed­ing low over the wa­ter is all most of us see of a King­fisher. Barely big­ger than a house spar­row, their stumpy body, large head, short tail and long, dag­ger­shaped beak all dis­tin­guish what must be the most bril­liantly coloured Bri­tish bird, though they are of­ten over­looked when sit­ting mo­tion­less, perched on a post or branch over the wa­ter. The in­stant a fish is spot­ted the King­fisher dives head­long into the wa­ter and grabs its prey with its open beak – a skill re­quir­ing lots of prac­tice and ex­cel­lent eye­sight. Min­nows

may be im­me­di­ately swal­lowed head first, but spiny fish like stick­le­backs are beaten against the perch un­til they are dead. Adults usu­ally catch a fish ev­ery two or three dives.

After a soli­tary win­ter, King­fish­ers have usu­ally paired up by mid-Fe­bru­ary and es­tab­lished their nest ter­ri­tory. You can spot the fe­male by the red base to her lower mandible. The se­lected nest site is usu­ally quite high in an ex­posed bank of a stream or lake where the pair ex­ca­vate a gently up­slop­ing tun­nel with a cham­ber at the end of it. About 7 eggs are laid in each brood, and there may be 2 or even 3 broods in the sea­son be­tween the end of March and early July. If you can find a nest it is an ex­cel­lent place to watch the par­ent King­fish­ers busy fly­ing in and out with fish for the young. The ac­cu­mu­la­tion of fish bones and re­gur­gi­tated pel­lets, not to men­tion the young­sters’ ex­cre­ment, make such a mess of the tun­nel and cham­ber that the adults have to take a quick div­ing bath ev­ery time they leave the nest!

The Greeks knew the King­fisher as “Hal­cyon” and the generic name “Al­cedo” de­rives from that. Hal­cyon days orig­i­nally de­scribed calm win­ter days at sea – but we would all en­joy some hal­cyon days this spring with lots of blue skies.

The char­ac­ter­is­tic ‘one-sided’ na­tive English blue­bell stem

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