As we approach the shortest day in mid December in the UK, on a clear night we see the Geminids meteor shower. This is one of the most active and reliable meteor showers in the astronomical calendar. Although this peaks on the early morning around 14th, it starts on the 4th and extends to the 16th of December. The best time to see this phenomenon is around 02:00 to 03:00 in the morning. The name Geminids comes from the “apparent” source of the shower the Gemini constellation which is currently to the east. That said, meteors from this shower can appear from just about anywhere in the sky, although they will appear predominantly from the direction of the Gemini constellation. Meteors are small stony or metallic natural objects from space usually the remains of a comet or collision between asteroids. When a meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it is traveling faster than a speeding bullet, estimated to be greater than 11 km per second (25,000 miles per hour). Friction produced by the collision with the atmosphere, causes them to vaporise, and heat the air around it giving the characteristic trail, any colour is given by the material that is burning usually white for iron-nickel but can be blue, green or red . If the meteor reaches the ground it’s known as a meteorite. The Geminids are intensifying every year and recent showers have seen 120–160 meteors per hour!
After five and a half years planning we are here in Flores, the most westerly point of Europe, surrounded by the Atlantic ocean, next stop the USA. The scenery is truly amazing and we find ourselves repeatedly exclaiming WOW. With Waterfalls over half a kilometre high and volcano calderas two a penny here it’s hard to describe the beauty. Geocaches however are a contrast often a small fragile plastic bottle from a popular local non alcoholic drink being abandoned in strategic locations, without the respect of private property or stone walls. Our lack of Portuguese is a handicap even with google translate often the text and hint are often incomprehensible.
As the name suggests Himalayan Balsam comes originally from the Kashmir and Uttarakhand areas of the Himalayas. It was first introduced into Kew Gardens in 1839 as an annual greenhouse plant. Being easy to grow and having attractive pink/white trumpet shaped flowers it became a very popular plant with gardeners. Within 10 years it had escaped from the confines of gardens and begun to spread along the river systems of England.
Himalayan Balsam grows very quickly and once established in an area, forms dense thickets of up to 2 meters high. Each plant can produce up to 800 seeds, the seed pods once ripe, explode shooting the seeds up to 7m away from the parent plant. If the seeds land in a waterway they float down stream before settling in soft mud banks and germinating. The seeds can remain viable for up to 2 years.
Himalayan Balsam image Wikipedia
Why do we need to control Himalayan Balsam?
It smothers native vegetation by crowding and shading out light, in the winter it dies back leaving bare earth which is then subject to erosion. This can cause major problems along river banks. The dead plant debris can block waterways causing flooding and more damage to local habitats. Being very rich in nectar its flowers attract a wide array of pollinating insects. Studies are taking place on how this effects the pollination of our native plants. Initial finding suggest that it does have a detrimental effect as reduced numbers of insects are visiting other flowering plants.
Controlling Himalayan Balsam
Being a non-native plant it has no natural enemies to keep it under control. There are two traditional ways of removing Himalayan Balsam from a site hand pulling or spraying of chemicals. The best time of year for tackling the plant is May-July, before the seeds have set. Not all sites are suitable for either of these methods and trials of introducing a rust fungus from India are currently taking place in England and Wales.
Why am I writing about Himalayan Balsam? We have an escalating local problem, nearly all our local waterways have some Himalayan Balsam contamination. We are looking for volunteers to form a ‘Balsam Bashing” party to tackle an area at Aberglaslyn. This site can only be controlled by hand pulling due to the closeness of the Afon Glaslyn. We will be working along side Snowdonia National Park and other volunteers at the end May/June.
Are you interested in helping? Please let us know in the comments.
Sunday 18th April 2021 This week saw our first sighting of an Orange Tip butterfly fluttering along the side of the river. They are one of my favourite butterflies as it indicates the warmer, longer days are here and summer is not far off. Our damp boggy fields are an ideal habitat and support a large colony.
They fly from late March to June depending on weather conditions. This butterfly lives in damp meadows, ditches, woodlands and hedgerows as this is where the caterpillars food plants grow, cuckoo-flower, garlic mustard and many other plants in the mustard family.
Orange Tips are a very common butterfly, the male has the distinctive orange tipped wings which the females lack so they are not so easily recognised and can be mistaken for Small Whites.
The under wings of both sexes have dappled dark green patterns with black scaling this gives excellent camouflage when the butterfly is at rest.
The females lay single barrel-shaped, grooved eggs on the underside of leaves and flowers of the food plant.
The eggs take around 14 days to hatch and change from yellow/white when first laid to orange and then grey just before they hatch. The caterpillars are blue-green with small black dots and broad white stripe. It takes about 5 weeks for them to become fully grown when they change into a narrow, curved, green or brownish chrysalis attached by a girdle to a plant stem. Here it hibernates over winter emerging as an adult the following spring.
Every year there is much media attention when the Glaslyn Ospreys return to the same nest site, it heralds the start of spring, although this year they have bought some snow with them. You can monitor them in close up on the next via the live stream which is hosted on the Glaslyn Osprey website or here if that link isn’t working
Three Ospreys have returned to the Glaslyn Valley so far this year.
25th March saw Mrs G return for her 18th season.
29th March Aran join Mrs G for his 7th season.
31st March Aeron arrives a chick hatched in 2017 recognised by his Blue Z2 ring.
Mrs G was first discovered breeding at the Glaslyn nest in 2004. As she is not rung her age and previous history are not known. From her plumage and the time of year she first appeared it is thought that she was about 3 years old making her around 21 years old. To date, she has successfully raised 41 chicks, and has at least 100 grand-chicks and four great grand-chicks. Her first mate was Ochre 11 (1998) and together they raised 26 chicks. He failed to return in 2015, which was when she attracted her current mate, Aran. They have raised 15 chicks together so far.
Aran arrived at Glaslyn end of April 2015 again without a ring his previous history is unknown. From his plumage and his behaviour, it is thought he was 2 or 3 years old. His name comes from the mountain Yr Aran as this was the direction he was first spotted.
Ospreys return from North Africa around the end of March and usually in the second half of April the female lays two or three eggs at 1-3day intervals. The eggs are incubated for 37 days per egg with each egg hatching a few days apart, surprisingly there is little aggression and dominance shown by the older chick. Like most birds of prey, ospreys divide the nesting duties clearly between the pair. The female does most of the incubating, brooding and direct feeding of the young. She guards them throughout the nestling period, but will share the hunting at later stages when the chicks are larger. The male, on the other hand, is the major provider of fish for the female and young. After fledging at c. 53 days, both parents provide food for the young, which stay close to the nest for a further two months. The beginning of September sees them leave North Wales on their long migration journey to North Africa. Many juvenile birds die before they reach maturity at three years old. Those that reach breeding age can expect to live on average about eight years. The oldest known wild osprey was 32 years old.
The site is managed by Bywyd Gwyllt Glaslyn Wildlife a local community interest company who took over the stewardship from the RSPB in 2013. The success of the Glaslyn Ospreys and other wildlife projects are entirely reliant upon the kind donations of their visitors and supporters.