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Subject: ‘Nature’

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Victorian milliners almost killed off the Great Crested Grebe

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about birds first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 599 published on 7 July 1973.

Great Crested Grebe,  picture, image, illustration
Great Crested Grebe by R B Davis

With so many of our native birds declining in numbers and some even disappearing altogether, it is good to know that at least one species is on the increase. One hundred years ago the Great Crested Grebe was in danger of extinction, chiefly because it was the fashion in Victorian times for ladies to wear hats that had been trimmed with grebe “fur.” Towards the end of the last century the number of breeding pairs of these birds was estimated at less than 50. Today, nearly every large sheet of fresh water supports at least one pair of these attractive birds.

Grebes are expert divers and can stay underwater for a considerable time while they feed on small fish, weed and water insects. The courtship display of these birds is unusual. Sometimes a pair face each other, with “ears” held erect and ruffs spread out, and then solemnly shake their heads from side to side or rise up in the water breast to breast and present each other with bits of water weed. This kind of courtship takes place at most times of the year but, in spring, leads to the building of a nest, a floating mound of dead reeds and water plants among the reeds in shallow water.

The three to five eggs laid from April onwards, are white, but on leaving the nest the parents cover them with weeds and this makes them a dirty colour. The chicks have attractive black and white stripes and are often carried on the backs of their parents, sometimes concealed among the feathers with only their heads poking out.

The Common heron goes fishing in garden ponds

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about the heron first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 598 published on 30 June 1973.

Common heron,  picture, image, illustration
Common Heron

It is estimated that there are about 10,000 herons in England and Wales and you will have been rather unlucky if you have not seen one flying overhead at one time or another. In flight the heron has a heavy, slow-flapping appearance with legs stretched straight out behind and with the long neck drawn in. You might see one on some stretch of river, wading in shallow water on the look-out for eels, frogs and small fish. It will also take small mammals, young birds and even goldfish from garden ponds!

The heron, it seems, is a cunning bird, for one has been seen to carry a piece of bread to the water, drop it in and then wait for small fish to come and nibble the bait so it can gulp them up one by one.

The nest of the heron is a large, untidy affair made of small branches and sticks in which smaller birds like sparrows, sometimes become squatters by moving into the “basement flat” and making their own nests. Two to six eggs are laid in early spring but the rather comical-looking crew-cut chicks are unable to fly until they are two months old.

Some wild orchids are becoming rare among Britain’s wildflowers

Posted in Nature, Plants, Wildlife on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about wildflowers first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

English meadow,  picture, image, illustration
The Flowering Fields, including grey wagtail, red cardinal beetle, field vole and various varieties of grass and plants including the Southern Marsh Orchid (top row, far right); picture by Bob Hersey

June is a wonderful month for all Nature lovers, and for the botanist it is the most interesting time of the year because it is now that some of Britain’s most fascinating flowers appear. Among these are the wild orchids with their delightful colours and strange, beautiful shapes; and of the forty different kinds of wild orchids growing in Britain, the Bee and Fly orchids are particularly intriguing.

The large lip of the Bee orchid is deep brown with yellow markings and resembles a large furry bee. The three sepals are bright pink or lilac and as many as a dozen flowers may be found on a single stem.

The Fly orchid although equally common is more difficult to find because it grows in shady areas and its flowers are smaller and less conspicuous. The lip of this flower is chestnut brown with a white or blue crescent in the centre. The two upper true petals are reduced to thin stalks which look very like the antennae of a fly.

It is a sad fact that many of Britain’s native orchids are becoming rare because people pick them not realising that unless they are given a chance to set their seed they will die out altogether. So next time you come across one of these beautiful flowers in the countryside, try to resist the temptation to pick one. It may look lovely in your home, but it will bring joy to a great many more people if you leave it where it is.

The Eyed Hawk Moth has frightening wing markings

Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about moths first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 596 published on 16 June 1973.

Eyed Hawk Moth,  picture, image, illustration
Eyed Hawk Moth

On a beautiful, spring day, you can often see gaily coloured butterflies lounging on flowers.

Often it is difficult to distinguish them from their close relative the moth, but one of the best ways is to observe them resting. Butterflies close their wings together so that they stick straight up from the back, and moths generally spread their wings out flat on the surface they’re resting on.

More than 2,000 different species of moth live in the British Isles. If your garden has an apple tree in it, the Eyed Hawk moth is probably a frequent visitor, for this is its favourite feeding place.

But you would not see it very often, for like most moths it usually flies only at night. It spends its days resting quietly on a tree trunk, and since its brown tints merge with the background, it is often overlooked.

But if the Eyed Hawk moth thinks that it’s being threatened, it will alternatively raise and lower its forewings to expose two glaring “eye” marks on the underwings. The sight of this is enough to scare off any insect-eating bird looking for a meal.

The Swift is nature’s peerless master of the skies

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about birds first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 596 published on 16 June 1973.

Swift,  picture, image, illustration
The Swift by R B Davis

Great Britain can always expect a large influx of bird visitors in the summer, and the swift is always one of the last to arrive. It usually reaches us from Central and Southern Africa in May.

The swift has an unrivalled mastery of the air, for its small, streamlined body with long tapering wings enables it to fly at speeds of up to 100 m.p.h. For swifts the air is as natural a living space as the ground is to us – they feed, mate and even sleep up there.

As you watch the swifts scream and manoeuvre high in the air on a summer evening, you might notice that just before dusk they soar higher and higher until they are out of sight. Radar observations have shown that they spend the night at altitudes of around 9,000 feet.

The nest of the swift is made of feathers, leaves, and any other light material like paper, which gets carried up into the air where the swift collects it. The swift cements these pieces together with saliva and makes its nest under rafters or in a gap in the brickwork of buildings.

Although similar in general appearance, swallows and martins are not related to swifts. The swift is all black except for a light patch under the chin, while the swallow is dark blue on the upper parts with a blue band on the chest, a red throat and forehead, and white underparts. The house-martin is steel blue above with a white rump and white underparts. Its cousin the sand martin is brown above and white underneath, with a narrow brown band across its chest.

Britain’s adders are rarely responsible for human fatalities

Posted in Animals, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about snakes first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 595 published on 9 June 1973.

Hedgehog and adder,  picture, image, illustration
Hedgehogs hunt and eat adders

The sight of an adder sliding its way slowly and silently through the long grass makes most of us shiver with fright.

But although the adder is Britain’s only poisonous snake it is not as dangerous as some people believe.

Sometimes known as the northern viper, this reptile is not naturally aggressive and its first reaction when disturbed is to get out of the way. But it will strike out at an attacker to defend itself, and if really angered is liable to bite; especially if it is accidentally stepped on.

The adder’s bite can kill a mouse in minutes but it is very rarely fatal to human beings. Only seven deaths from snake bites were recorded in Britain for the first half of this century.

Most adders are easy to recognise because they usually have a dark zig-zag stripe running down the length of their backs, and there is a V-shaped marking at the top o

Like all snakes that live in mild climates, the adder likes to sleep during winter. The warmth of the springtime sun makes it rear its sleepy head and wake up. At this time of the year it is not unusual to find an adder happily sunning itself and, like us, the adder does not take kindly to people who disturb its rest. So should you ever meet one be cautious or, better still, walk away.

Delicate lacewings are hungry consumers of greenflies

Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about insects first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 595 published on 9 June 1973.

Lacewing and othet flies, picture. image, illustration
Lacewing fly (bottom right corner)

The lacewing is a delicate insect, and for most people it is a familiar sight. Lacewings are irresistibly attracted to artificial light, and they often fly in at open windows at night.

The female lacewing has a most extraordinary way of laying eggs. She first exhudes a drop of sticky liquid on the underside of a leaf, and then she raises her abdomen to draw it out into a hair-like stalk. This hardens immediately, and then she lays an egg at the end of this.

The larvae which hatch from the eggs laid by a lacewing have two long scimitar-shaped jaws. Since they are voracious feeders on greenflies, they are the good friends of gardeners.

The brief and fragile life of the Mayfly

Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about insects first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 594 published on 2 June 1973.

Girl and May flies,  picture, image, illustration
Girl being pulled through the water by accurately painted May flies

Enormous numbers of Mayflies can be seen swarming over the rivers and streams at this time of the year. The eggs are laid in the water and the young “nymphs” which hatch from them spend as long as four years under the water feeding on vegetable matter.

When fully grown, the nymph crawls out of the water on to a reed stem or stone. Then, its skin splits open and a winged insect, called a sub-imago, crawls out. After some time, it moults again and the perfect Mayfly emerges.

Its first instinct is to find a mate. Once this has been accomplished, after about a day or sometimes only a few hours, it falls into the water and drowns or is eaten by a fish. Meanwhile, its mate lays her eggs and the strange life cycle begins again.

The Greater Spotted Woodpecker is plagued by starlings

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about birds first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 594 published on 2 June 1973.

Greater Spotted Woodpecker,  picture, image, illustration
Greater Spotted Woodpecker

If you take a walk in the woods and keep very quiet, you may be able to eavesdrop on a strange and secret conversation. As you pause among the trees, you may hear a tapping sound made so rapidly that it seems like a roll of drums.

This will be the Pied Woodpecker, or Greater Spotted Woodpecker as it is also known, communicating with another woodpecker, who may be a considerable distance away. This bush telegraph is worked by the bird’s striking the trunk of a tree with its beak with great rapidity.

This shy bird also uses its beak to chisel out a nest hole. But then comes trouble. As often as not, once the hole is completed it will be taken over by starlings. And the poor woodpecker has to go away and make another hole somewhere else. Because of this, it is often late in June before the hen can begin bringing up her family.

Grubs and wood-boring insects make up the food of these birds, who dig out the wood with their beaks or extract the insects with their extremely long tongues.

In winter, they rely on nuts, acorns, berries and pine cone seeds to augment their diet when insects are harder to find. At this time, you may attract them to a bird table with pieces of cheese or a large bone. They will hammer vigorously at the bone with their powerful beaks to get at the marrow inside.

Pied woodpeckers are black and white birds about the size of a blackbird, with a patch of scarlet on their undersides. The males and young birds also have a red patch on the nape of the neck.

Britain also has two other members of this bird family. These are the Green Woodpecker and the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

The Zebra Spider bides its time in the sunshine

Posted in Animals, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about insects first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 593 published on 26 May 1973.

Zebra spider,  picture, image, illustration
Zebra Spider

It is in Maythat you are likely to see the Zebra Spider resting motionless on a sunny wall and waiting for a small fly to land nearby. It then stealthily advances until it is about three inches away from its victim. Suddenly, it makes a leap, enveloping the fly with silk threads before making a meal of it. The Zebra Spider is able to make this leap from a vertical surface without falling off because each of its claws has a pad of adhesive hairs. But it is not so foolish as to rely entirely on these. Before it makes its leap it attaches a “life-line” of silk to the wall, just in case it should miss its victim and not make a happy landing. About this time of year the males also perform their fascinating courtship dance. The male “displays” before the female with a slow elaborate zig-zag approach its poison jaws outstretched. Trembling with excitement, he closes in on the female and then touches her lightly with his front legs before mating.