By Mavis Gulliver
This song, dating from the mid-13th century, always comes to mind when I hear the year’s first cuckoo. Sadly, the first cuckoo of 2017 was also my last. This charismatic bird, familiar throughout much of my life, has declined dramatically. In previous years one has frequented our garden, enabling me to see its handsome blue-grey plumage, but this year all I heard was a distant call.
On a more positive note, a bird that is holding its own is the tiny wren with its cocked-up tail and surprisingly loud song. As the most common British bird it makes its home in a variety of habitats including moorland, farmland and woodlands. On Islay it is also evident along the shoreline, feeding on the abundant insect life and nesting on cliffs and in crevices. I watched the male bird constructing his ‘cock’s nest’ from dried bracken, leaves and moss. Apparently he makes several nests and leaves the female to choose her favourite. She then lines it with feathers before laying a clutch of 5-8 eggs and taking on the duty of incubation.
Disappointingly, like the cock’s nest described in Norman Nicholson’s poem, she didn’t choose the nest I had been observing. The site on the cliff was probably too exposed for her. With marauding hooded crows in the vicinity she was wise to choose a spot that was so well hidden that I was unable to find it. So, like Nicholson’s nest, this one remains ‘the cock’s nest with never an egg in’.
Orchids continue to increase in our garden. Common Twayblade, Neottia ovata, has spread, sending up shoots from its rhizomatous roots until three plants, first noticed ten years ago, have multiplied to seventy-seven extending over an area of 4 x 2 metres. It isn’t a spectacular orchid, its flowers being small and green, but for me, its fascination lies in its two distinctive basal leaves and the fact that it is often overlooked even though it is one of the commonest British orchids.
Spectacular is a word I reserve for the stunning hybrid Dactylorhiza maculata x Dactylorhiza purpurella, Heath Spotted-orchid x Northern Marsh-orchid. Both its parents occur throughout our garden, over 200 of them responding to our careful mowing regime in which plants are left to seed, and mowing, apart from paths enabling access, only takes place throughout the winter months. Heath Spotted-orchid brightens the garden in a variety of shades of pink and is easily distinguished from Northern Marsh-orchid with its consistent deep purple colouring. This 40cm hybrid, with a colour somewhere between the two, has, to my delight, repeated its 2016 flowering.
The woodland flowers of spring bloomed before the trees came into full leaf. They are setting seed and many of their leaves are dying back, but in other habitats plants are flowering all across the island. Cat’s-ear, Hypochaeris radicata and Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Lotus corniculatus, are replacing the yellow of gorse while cliffs and shingle are dotted with Sea Campion, Silene maritima. Folk legends tell us that an alternative name for this white-flowered plant is dead man’s bells and that picking the flowers is likely to result in death. A dubious belief but possibly a cunning way of deterring children from venturing into dangerous places.
Alongside Sea Campion one can often find Thrift, Armeria maritima which occurs in various shades of pink. Although the plant may not have been familiar to many people, it was recognisable on threepenny bits, the 3d coins of the reign of King George VI.
Along the sandy beaches of Islay, particularly on Kilnaughton Bay, the scented blooms of Sea Rocket, Cakile maritima, are flowering in abundance. Its appearance is sporadic because it is an annual and dependent on seed being washed up in suitable locations. This year it is at its best. The four-petalled white, pink or lilac flowers are insect pollinated and on sunny days it is busy with bees and butterflies.
By the end of July many plants are already turning to seed. This brings me to a quote from another Nicholson poem - ‘That’s the trouble with summer - It’s late so soon.’
Mavis Gulliver’s passion for islands and wildlife dominate her writing. Her work is based on close observation and a sense of place. Her poems appear in magazines, anthologies and in her two collections, Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn and Waymarks. Her children’s fiction allows her imagination to run wild through landscapes that she knows well. Cry at Midnight, Clickfinger and The Snake Wand are set on islands and each has a Facebook page. Her website gives further information and includes a monthly blog detailing her activities. She is working on a poetry collection entitled From One Island to Another.