Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Winters monochrome: Snowdrops and Goldeneye's

The darkest days of the year are in January, dark not just because of the number of daylight hours but Christmas is over and the days are wet, windy and miserable. Things can seem desolate and the spring and good weather a long way off. Heading out on foggy, wet damp days easily grinds you down, longing for a bit of sun, a bit of warmth, a bit of colour.

The Fog of a Winter Morning

Grimley in Winter

Having said that there is often beauty to be found in the monochrome days of January. Recent sightings at my local birding patch of Goldeneye ducks have brought a bit of excitement to my birding trips. Despite lacking flamboyant colours they are a stunning beauty of black and white with a dark green head. I always think the white stands out as a purer white than you normally see in nature.


Somewhere out there are Ducks

They are in the class of diving ducks which means they dive a lot to feed off crustaceans, aquatic insects and crustaceans on the lake bed. Due to their diving nature you can often miss them if you are not careful! The Goldeneye's that you are likely to encounter in the Uk are wintering birds, with the exception of a very small breeding population in the highlands, most of them will come from further afield to take advantage of our warmer winters. Like a lot of ducks they nest in trees, interestingly they like to nest in cavities in the wood. These cavities are often natural but they can use the cavities made by Black Woodpeckers. This is a beautiful connection between two amazing species of birds. The more black woodpeckers there are in Scandinavia the more Goldeneyes we will have on our UK lakes in winter.

Heron at Sunrise

Grimley at Sunrise

Shortly after admiring these beautiful ducks on a cold and crisp morning, light dusting of snow at my feet, something caught my eye as I walked past a small patch of woodland. Something that instantly gave me a warm feeling of hope. Something that said new life is coming, that spring is just around the corner. It was a small patch of Snowdrops! The date was 22st January. It felt like the earliest record and I kind of wish I keep more detailed notes of these things. But I guess that is life. With a bit of research I have learnt that traditionally it was rare to see snowdrops before February so my records might not break any records but they are part of a continuing trend that points towards the impact of climate change on our natural environment.
Woodlands at Dawn

My First Snowdrops

Snowdrops are popular and I think it is because they do give this sense of hope of the coming warmth. They are also wide spread across our woodlands. Once we get into February there are few woodlands across our land that do not have small patches of these dainty little flowers. However, they are an invasive species. The exact date of their introduction is unknown, some suggest they were brought here in roman times; but the first record is in 1770. So in Britain they are a non-native plant and fairly extensive. Yet in their native home in southern and eastern Europe they are not doing so well and is under the conservations status near threatened!

My Daughter Loved Taking Photos of Snowdrops

Often invasive species can be seen as a problem or a bad thing for the natural environment. I don't think that snowdrops fit into this category. There is little else to compete with and they do not last long enough to have an impact on plants that flower later. In fact, I think that the snowdrops help our native insect species by providing some nectar and pollen for early emerging insects. Not that they rely on this for reproduction, our climate is not quite right for seed development and we don’t have enough pollinators.

Jemima's Snowdrops 

Carpets of Snowdrops Shrawley Woods

Snowdrops are in fact considered to be toxic for human consumption so should not be eaten. Not that the thought has ever crossed my mind but with the ever increasing hobby of foraging for food I guess for some people it might be a question. Eating them will cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. There are a couple of active chemicals in a Snowdrop that cause them to be toxic and this is where things starts to get interesting. These chemicals are of interest to modern medicine. Firstly there is galantamine which is used in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease. It does this by preventing an enzyme (acetylcholinesterase) from breaking down acetylcholine and therefore increasing the action of the nurotransmitter acetylcholine, which play an important role in the brain in terms of memory, attention, arousal and motivation. In addition to this, the chemical snowdrop lectin (named Galanthus nivalis agglutinin) is being used in research as it appears to have the ability to inhibit HIV infection.

River Severn 


What an amazing little plant the Snowdrop is! My first encounter was on a crisp frosty morning and reminds me of this poem by Walter de la Mare “The Snowdrop”

Now — now, as low I stooped, thought I,
I will see what this snowdrop is;
So shall I put much argument by,
And solve a lifetime's mysteries. 

A northern wind had frozen the grass;
Its blades were hoar with crystal rime,
Aglint like light-dissecting glass
At beam of morning prime.

From hidden bulb the flower reared up
Its angled, slender, cold, dark stem,
Whence dangled an inverted cup
For tri-leaved diadem.

Beneath these ice-pure sepals lay
A triplet of green-pencilled snow,
Which in the chill-aired gloom of day
Stirred softly to and fro.

Mind fixed, but else made vacant, I,
Lost to my body, called my soul
To don that frail solemnity,
Its inmost self my goal.

And though in vain — no mortal mind
Across that threshold yet hath fared! —
In this collusion I divined
Some consciousness we shared.

Strange roads — while suns, a myriad, set —
Had led us through infinity;
And where they crossed, there then had met
Not two of us, but three.

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