Hornets, Wagtails and Wrens; Silver Linings and Seasonal Snowdrops

Our resilience planning had a pre-Christmas test, when at the height of our flu, we suffered quite a long power outage.

Having basked in the warm glow from our wood pellet stove, and the novelty of automated central heating which we’ve enjoyed since June, such a power outage highlighted the fundamental flaw with any sophisticated system – if the electrons don’t flow, neither does any heat. sdim0845-2We’d always planned to retain a wood burner, in part because we’ve accumulated big stores of cut logs from around the property, and although never truly “free” fuel, once logged up, at least most of the effort has been completed. But a wood burner is the classic low tech, high resilience heat source. And now encased within stacked heat stones from our old night storage heaters, we’re finding it functions even more efficiently, as well as allowing us to give a final air dry, and preheat, to the logs before burning. Even so, after 3 hours, temperatures in the rest of the house were starting to fall away, as night arrived.sdim0902-2

Earlier in the day, and before the power went off, the valley had been filled with jarring, and varying frequency, machinery noise, which we eventually pinned down to a small helicopter, once it emerged from behind our neighbour’s humped ‘cae castell’ hill.sdim0777-2 This Welsh winter hornet then buzzed up and down the valley, and once close enough to us to discern the colour, and logo, it was plain that it was monitoring the electricity cables. sdim0775-2We’ve seen this over the years, as a means of assessing the risk of constantly growing trees affecting above ground cables, but this seemed altogether more frenetic activity, and indeed it was apparently an attempt to locate a “problem” in the local overhead high voltage network, heralded the previous day by a transient power failure.sdim0774-2

I’d not witnessed such low-level helicopter pilot skills before, and it was with some relief that the chopper eventually left the valley safely, and to the more appropriate and benign sounds of mewing buzzards. sdim0782-2Later in the evening, lights back on, we even had two courtesy calls from Western Power distribution, who manage our supply network, to apologise for the delay in service restoration. Frankly, I was hugely impressed that they got the work prioritised and carried out before the second of the Met Office named winter storms ” Barbara”, blasted in on December 23rd. sdim0816-2Contrast this with our communications company issues last winter. At least in power provision, we are first class.sdim0823-2

Pied wagtails, Motacilla alba yarrellii, have been in evidence again recently, always early harbingers of spring and the new breeding season. For the first half of the year, they are constant companions around the buildings and yard, both dapper and dippy, in their monochrome suits. Then once past midsummer, they seem to take their leave and disappear into the leafy landscape, chicks fledged and self-sufficient.sdim0820-2

It was a real delight to have one back, and ridge lining, with its jaunty, bobbing above the slates, activity, before nipping onto the chimneys for a better view of the terrain. I’d always thought that this was all it was, but perhaps it’s a more complex state of affairs. After having one dive off the roof and fly almost directly over my head, in one of its characteristic dipping, looping flights, and suddenly coming up short, mid-air in a vertical pirouette, I reflexly swung the camera up and shutter pressed in a single motion. sdim0822-2Back inside, it seems clear that this oddly un-aerodynamic bird, was homing in, eagle eyed on a small insect, presumably spied from its roof top vantage point. So maybe perching on a slightly warmer and higher object, in the form of our slated roofs, is a real boon for spotting the few insects active and on the wing at this chilly time of the year?

No such luck though with photographing wrens, though they are a constant presence in the garden, heard if not seen, and courtesy of disrupted sleep we caught a repeat of an excellent BBC Radio 4 Living World programme, early on Christmas Day morning, on aspects of wren behaviour and ecology. Click here to listen. The piece began with the information that for millenia, the wren has been known across many civilisations and cultures, as the king of the birds. In part because legend has it that in a competition to find which bird could fly the highest, the eagle looked like triumphing, until beneath its feathers a tiny wren emerged at the last moment, and flew just that little bit higher.

But of its natural history and ecology, little is known, and no book has yet been written about this ancient bird’s life history and behaviour, with the cave dwelling scientific name of Troglodytes troglodytes, hinting at its preference for dark places.s1040049-2 However, if you listen to this programme, you’ll discover many interesting wren facts – they’re birds of the lowest 10 feet of vegetation in our woods and gardens. They are very territorial, and surprisingly long lived for such tiny birds (up to 7 or 8 years). And the males are supremely skilled, nest builders, constructing perhaps a dozen dome shaped mossy refuges around their territory. How does it do all this with just a tiny beak and claws?sdim9549-2It is with such cock nests, that the male wren seeks to attract a mate, or even several mates, and indeed female wrens seem to select mates on precisely this nest building prowess, rather than any other physical attribute. So some successful wrens will father multiple broods, whereas if a male’s nest building doesn’t come up to the required female wren’s des. res. standard, the male will be left, partner-less. And this year, for the first time, as the leaves fell from the Rosa moyesii, one of these cock nests became obvious in the garden. Though not apparently used for rearing any young, since there were no feathers in it, so whilst it looks pretty impressive to me, perhaps the female wren felt it just a little exposed.

As they say about property – location, location, location. Oh, and window views.s1040044-2

I’ve written before about my previous wren close encounters, in September 2011 (click here). In particular, the memorable occasion when a wren flew towards me and very briefly landed on my hand, at dusk on Epiphany, Twelfth Night. Amazingly this was the very day that wren hunts took place centuries ago in the Welsh hills. Indeed this remembered scene created the opening shot of my film “Epiphany In Translation”, in 2010/2011. And the photo below, is of a wren which had found its way inside Gelli Uchaf, in September 2011.sdim4379-2 But in a further trawl for information, I discovered that a complete book has been written on the history of wrens, in many cultures, down the ages.  Click here for more on “Hunting the Wren – Transformation of Bird to Symbol”, by Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence. Not a book to buy, perhaps, but maybe one to try to obtain from a library.sdim0956-2

The other silver lining from our enforced inactivity, was a new musical discovery, courtesy of the excellent ‘Something Remembered’ programme from BBC Radio 4, also early on Christmas morning. How did we get to our not so tender years, without previously hearing the beautiful opening piece from Handel’s cantata, “Ode to the Birthday of Queen Anne”- ‘Eternal Source of Light Divine’? Click below for this fabulous duet between contralto voice and solo trumpet, beautiful in its simplicity, and perfectly matching this Christmas season.

sdim0958-2As I write this on December 28th, 21 of our different snowdrops are ‘out’. Quite what constitutes being ‘out’ is debatable, where snowdrops are concerned. Galanthus ‘Mrs. Macnamara’ below, is certainly there in early frost tolerant numbers.sdim0966-2sdim0964-2I choose the ‘open’ point as that at which the flower bud is clear of the spathe, and pointing downwards, as with G. ‘Long Drop’, below.sdim0873-2It may take several more days and, in particular, warmer conditions for the flower to ‘open’ fully, but it’s the excitement of seeing these first snowdrops, at this time of the year, which is always special. G. ‘Florence Baker’, a slightly laxer, but again very early form, below.

sdim0960-2This year, prompted by a very timely post by my American fellow galanthophile and blogger, Carolyn Walker, on the need to properly record, label and curate a collection of plants, I’m undertaking this serious and time-consuming task. The lovely yellow tinged G. ‘Sutton Courtenay’.sdim0876-2 Well worth reading Carolyn’s piece. Click here. Nothing will appear on line yet concerning our snowdrops – simply photographing nearly 250 forms is job enough in itself, given the vagaries of the weather. The very upright early form of G. ‘Reverend Hailstone’.sdim0867-2But we’ve sourced labels we like, and I’m revamping my computer and physical record base. This may well mean other blog posts take a bit of a back seat until the middle of March, when the numbers flowering tails off. Maybe next autumn, I’ll have the time to upload it all. Simple name, simple flowers, G. ‘Bess’.sdim0869-2

For anyone still to be convinced about the wisdom of acquiring named snowdrops, have a look in your gardens now, and see whether you have any bulbs in bloom yet. No? Well do think of getting one or two – if you choose a vigorous early form like ‘Mrs Macnamara’, a single bulb can miraculously become 60 plus in 6 or 7 years – a great return on what seems like quite a bit of money for that initial single bulb. G. ‘melvillei’ below.sdim0884-2The sooner you start, the quicker they’ll multiply! A bit like the equally gorgeous Cyclamen coum, though these are seed propagated jewels, carpeting the slope beneath our big oak in a Christmas display.sdim0828-2Which along with Hamamelis ‘Vesna’ and ‘Robert’, glow in any of the wonderful early morning sunlight we’ve enjoyed recently.sdim0938-2sdim0940-2sdim0942-2

I’m sure I shan’t write again in 2016, so Happy New Year, to all who read this before January 1st.sdim0924-2sdim0910-2

22 thoughts on “Hornets, Wagtails and Wrens; Silver Linings and Seasonal Snowdrops

  1. Happy New Year both, I do agree with your snowdrop comments i have one clump which are showing colour but not dropped their heads yet. Re your previous blog the Jak. shearer are wonderful have used them on the sheep for 4/5 years. There are now some available made in Sheffield. Hellebore weekend not far away probably see you then. Liz

    • Hello Liz, and thanks for the comment. Can’t believe another Hellebore weekend nearly here! Doesn’t time fly. I shall have to ask if you just dag the sheep, or do the whole thing manually! But they are a brilliant piece of kit, aren’t they, best wishes for 2017

    • Thanks Philip, I guess it all depends on the clone and the microclimate where they’re growing – some that I moved 8 yards closer to a wall have flowered 3 weeks earlier than last year, but the latest ” wild” snowdrops we saw last year in flower, were within 10 yards of the sea, so the whole phenology of snowdrop flowering is quite complex, I think,
      best wishes

  2. Lovely post Julian. Look forward to seeing more photos of your snowdrops soon! I called in at Abermarlais yesterday but their snowdrops aren’t out yet! Happy New Year to both of you.

  3. Happy New Year to you both. Thanks so much for your kind words about my post on keeping track of plant collections/snowdrops. You have twice as many at least as I do so I am not sure how you have managed in the past. I also count a snowdrop as out when the buds drops out of the spathe and points down. Using that measure, ‘Standing Tall’ and ‘Faringdon Double’ are the only two winter season snowdrops in bloom with ‘Fly Fishing’, ‘Xmas’, ‘Three Ships’, and ‘Colossus’ coming along. I just added ‘Mrs. Macnamara’ this fall, but I think she is later. Of course, my fall-blooming snowdrops are all still going strong especially ‘Potter’s Prelude’. Michael and I will be in the Cotswolds and London in February for snowdrop season. Are you ever in that area?

    • Thanks Carolyn. The answer to your query about managing in the past is not very well…with moving some over the years, I reckon about 10% are still to be sorted out definitely. One of my frustrations, and what I’m trying to achieve for our own bulbs, is to photograph them all at different stages of development, and record relative flowering times. Also to include pictures of foliage, and eventually photos inside the flower tube/inner segments and finally try to work out how many flowers are produced from a clump/location over a 3 or 4 year period, to allow a stab at just how vigorous/floriferous different clones are – at least in our wetter conditions. Inevitably, none of the nurseries seem to provide much of this, so it’s a bit of a lottery poring over catalogues only to discover that a particular snowdrop isn’t a good doer. Mrs Macnamara for example has gone from 35 flowers last year to 61 this year, which seems as good or better than you might expect from straight Fibonacci progressions. Three Ships is sulking at 4 flowers after 5 years. And its really tricky to identify misplaced bulbs because no one site seems to have adequate photos of particular clones – which is strange given that they’re moderately expensive bulbs.
      How exciting visiting the UK in February … the Cotswolds are only about 2.5 hours east of us… If you fancy a trip into Wales we’d be delighted to show you round, and apart from fabulous scenery ( much better than England!) there’s also both Aberglasney and the Welsh National Botanic Gardens nearby, which are both world class, if not particularly snowdrop gardens. And then there are some of my historic Welsh snowdrop hunt locations…. Seriously, if you could extend your trip over here for 24 /36 hours, I’m sure you’d enjoy it – let me know!
      Best wishes to you both

  4. Beautiful photos! I have been thinking of getting some earlier flowering snowdrops as they would cheer up the garden at this otherwise fairly barren time…. Mrs Macnamara is certainly a beauty. In a book I reviewed on my blog recently, Christopher Lloyd describes a (fairly nailbiting) method of quickly increasing stock of bulbs if, say, you have just spent a fortune on a single, costly Galanthus, by slicing a single bulb into eight pieces. It’s in his book of letters to Beth Chatto and is worth a read!

    • Hello EGD, Thanks for the comment and Happy New Year. I’ve tried chipping daffodils in the past, but have always avoided it with snowdrops, since a single bulb is often quite expensive, and I quite like the patient compounding of bulbs by natural multiplication. But I’ve realised that you need a discipline not to give any away before you pass a certain number…currently I’m thinking over 100, since if you do so before this, it knocks progress towards a massed effect which is when any snowdrop cultivar really comes into its own. Mrs M is certainly great in our conditions, but other early favourites are Lapwing, Bess and Sutton Courtenay… I really like those with different inner segment markings. Happy hunting!
      Best wishes

  5. Julian, Thanks so much for your blog throughout the year! I love seeing what is happening there, since Jenny and I visited you and Fiona and enjoyed your wonderful garden in 2010. I am going to research snowdrops, and see if I can get some started here in Bend. We are at about 4000′ elevation, and having QUITE the winter this year, with over two feet of snow so far, and a lot of bitterly cold weather. Still, I think perhaps I could have snowdrops, unless our deer visitors find them tasty! Suzette in central Oregon

    • Hello Suzette. Happy New Year to you! I can’t believe it was that long ago that you visited. Sounds like a proper winter where you are, we’re a bunch of softies in maritime West of Wales, but great for early season flowers. Do check out Carolyn Walker’s site, since from what I can gather she has both a wide range of snowdrops in the US, but also will now have a good knowledge base of who can grow what across the states – just follow the link in this post to find her site…
      best wishes

  6. Happy New Year and I do hope that you’ve both recovered. There is nothing like some old technology to keep things going when the power fails – our woodburner and some candles have keep us going during numerous storms when the power has failed.
    We have a few G. elwesii appearing, but I’m not sure they will have survived the rampages of Conor. I have a serious problem with garden plant labels, they get pulled out by the starlings or get blown away – have you found a good strong one? It’s not so much for the plant names but to remind me where the plants are, I’ve receently discovered that I’ve planted an arum in a snowdrop clump. Alas there was a time when I could remember where I’d put things!

    • Hello C and thanks for the comment, and Happy New Year. We’ve finally got over the lurgy and managed some social contact again over New Year. Sympathies with the gales, but at least I guess it’s been more benign than last year’s pastings?
      We’re taking Carolyn’s advice and using 2 sorts of labels – white plastic with stuck on Brother printed labels ( which as you say are vulnerable to bird removal) but we’ve also found some really nice slate ones, which Fiona ( who has the tidy writing!) then writes on with a silver Uchida pen of the type mentioned by Carolyn Walker. The slate labels are from Nicola Spring, Slate flower pegs in boxes of 6 from a firm called Rinkit.com – cheaper if you google this, rather than getting them from Amazon. I’ll maybe get some pics – the writing isn’t brilliantly clear – the pen is a bit thick, but they do look better in our setting than metal or plastic, I think. In the past I would have angle ground up slates myself…but frankly the dust created is lousy and I’d never get such a good even result. My guess is that they’re also too weighty for birds to easily move, but time will tell!
      Best wishes

      • Thank you Julian, sage advice as usual. I’ve used late in the past, but Himself thought it made the garden look like a graveyard for plants! However, I think I’ll take your sdvice and give the slate another go.

      • I do know what he means. I hate gardens with labels generally – nothing seems to work really well, but with something like snowdrops, where distinguishing features are subtle, verging on insignificant, and particularly if visitors are coming to see them, I feel we have to do something. Also the validity or otherwise of my hunt for Welsh ones, does require me to use something I think. Actually of course snowdrops are often found around graveyards, so maybe your husband’s comment is very apt,
        best wishes

  7. As always, I thoroughly enjoy hearing about and seeing your garden and the surrounding environs. In particular, it is uplifting to see flowers in what can be a bleak time of year. As I only started with snowdrops a few years ago, I can but envy stands like yours, but have a few beginning to bloom now (here in Northern Virginia). Would love to hear more about your efforts to find Welsh snowdrops, as time allows in the future. All the best for a Happy New Year.

    • Hello Tim, and thanks for the kind comment. I’m totally with you on any flowers being uplifting prompts at this gloomy time of the year. I’ll certainly be writing some more about snowdrops this season, and hopefully another 2 weeks or so, and we might get out to look at some other Welsh ones.
      best wishes for 2017,

  8. I am enjoying catching up with your old posts Julian and listening to the piece on radio 4, was very enjoyable too. Thank you.

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