Nature Diary

Nature Diary: April

Our monthly update on the birds, bees, plants and trees at Skanda Vale Ashram.

By Brother Andy

So much has happened since our last update in March.

The valley has become greener. In the woods, hawthorn, hazel and willows were the first to put out leaves; at their feet, bramble and honeysuckle were quick to join them.

All these plants were out to capture as much sunlight as possible before the tree canopy above them cast shade. This has now begun to happen – oaks have come into leaf, ash followed later.

Oak before ash, we’re in for a splash. Ash before oak, we’re in for a soak.

We could do with a good soak at the moment, (this is not often the case in Wales), but the ground is very dry and ponds are shrinking.

Amongst the flowers, the following appeared in roughly this order; ribwort plantain, stitchwort, wood anemones, marsh marigolds, lousewort, ground ivy, jack by the hedge, bluebells and red campion.

Cow parsley is making an appearance around where the old blue caravan used to be (the one nearest the toilets) and in the woods, around the chalets, the little flowers of yellow pimpernel are showing.

One of the last flowers to appear this April were buttercups on the Vishnu field. As I bent down to determine the species (bulbous buttercup) my attention was drawn to a beautiful day-flying moth amongst the grass; this was the rather wonderfully named ruby tiger moth.

Ruby Tiger Moth

As you go out of the back gate, up by the coach park, on the side of the road there are a number of field horsetails growing. The horsetails are a group of plants that have little changed since their appearance in the fossil record over 100 million years ago.

When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of fashion.

This old saying means that gorse is always in flower somewhere, but is perhaps at its best in Spring – its golden flowers can be seen brightening up the sides of the valley.

Broom has also come into flower. From a distance, gorse and broom look quite similar but the gorse is covered with spines, and broom (which only flowers in the Spring) has smooth stems.

In the fields, another grass has come into flower to join the meadow foxtails – this is sweet vernal grass. It is particularly abundant on the Vishnu field. This grass is very good for grazing animals (hence sweet; vernal because it appears in Spring).

At one time the Vishnu field was the best grazing field in the ashram. Lord Vishnu gave Guru plans for His temple, to be built in this field, to which Guru replied, “But Lord, where will the cows graze?”

Two weeks later the farm at the end of the track, (now the Lodge), was donated and the cows could be moved down there.

If you look at the pictures of the Sisters at the front of the Murugan Temple you will see Sister Annabel, on this field turning the cut grass by hand to dry it out so as to make hay. You will see from the photograph that the Vishnu Temple was yet to be built.

There is a third grass in flower at the moment, called annual meadow grass. This is very common and seems to grow everywhere; it’s likely to be the grass you see growing through paving stones as you go out for your walks.

Our fields are full of dandelions; the name comes from the French ‘dent de lion’ which refers to the toothed leaves. Some of the dandelions in our fields have already gone to seed. So we can now tell the time – just pick a dandelion and keep puffing until all the seeds are gone; each puff represents an hour.

In the days when coffee was scarce, actually non-existent at Skanda Vale, Swami Ishwarananda made a coffee substitute by roasting dandelion roots.

I used to notice as I drove up to Skanda Vale, from London, that Spring comes gradually later the further west you drive. This was particularly noticeable in the appearance of leaves on the hawthorns in the hedgerows, by the side of the motorway.

There is also a clear difference between the appearance of some flowers up at Craig Fryn (near the coach Park) before the same plants flower down in the valley. Lady’s Smock was in flower long before the plants on the Vishnu Field and single swallows first appeared around Craig Fryn.

Aquila was the first to spot a swallow at the beginning of April. Brother Colin and I have scanned the skies in the hope of seeing one down here in the valley. It was not until the 26th April that the first one appeared in the sky above the new children’s playground; again it was the eagle-eyed Aquila who saw this bird.

Willow warblers were heard in great abundance around the coach park long before these birds could be heard in the valley. Willow warblers, together with black caps and chiffchaffs, fly all the way to Skanda Vale from Africa every Spring.

Even the most experienced ornithologist find it difficult to tell willow warblers apart from chiffchaffs; the only way to do it is by listening to their song.

Joining these songbirds are wrens, blue tits, great tits, and chaffinches. The stunningly beautiful goldfinches draw attention to themselves as they fly twittering around.

A goshawk was seen flying up out of the birdie field – good news for the nature diary but not so good for the chickens and ducks. My attention was distracted, as we sang to Mother on the lake, by the sight of a sparrowhawk flying overhead; (hopefully, Mother will forgive my distraction).

The Durga lake is now swarming with tadpoles and the moorhens have raised four chicks. The young birds are ready to leave the nest almost from the moment of hatching, although they are brought back to the nest occasionally so that the parents can warm them.

They are absolutely delightful to watch and another potential source of distraction. Our resident heron is also attracted to them but in a less pleasant way. The moorhen parents bravely chase him away whenever he approaches, on the lookout for an easy meal.

We are unlikely to see the young produced by a pair of blackbirds which have built a nest at the end of the balcony, outside the cafe. Blackbird chicks, unlike moorhens, are confined to their nest until they fledge; this can take up to two weeks.

The warm weather at the beginning of April brought out pipistrelle bats – flying above the Vishnu field, and a lizard was spotted sunning itself amongst the grass on the prairie (the piece of land next to the coach park).

Butterflies also appreciated the sun’s warmth and so far peacocks, red admirals, speckled woods, small whites and orange tips have been seen. The last of these butterflies is probably the most abundant at the moment, looking out for Lady’s Smock on which to lays their eggs.

Saint Marks fly was on the wing on time to celebrate the Saint’s day (April 25th) that it is named after. This is quite a common fly and is easy to spot because it flies sluggishly over vegetation in large numbers with its legs dangling down.

A weasel was spotted in the new playground; a fairly common, although elusive, mammal. Swami Karuna and Brother Simon spotted some unusual droppings on the elephant field which probably were produced by a polecat.

Polecats and weasels belong to the same family (Mustelidae). Weasels are between 17-22 cm long, whereas polecats can grow up to 45 cm. Weasels tend to take small prey but polecats will take larger prey and have occasionally taken birds and rabbits from our enclosures.

Twinkle twinkle little star. Stars twinkle, planets do not. Planets remain constant in their brightness as they appear in the sky. On a clear night look up into the western sky and you will see a very bright planet – Venus.


On April 3rd, Venus was in conjunction (in exactly the same part of the sky) with the star cluster called the Pleiades. In Hinduism, these stars are called the Krittikas and are associated with Lord Kartikeya (Murugan).

There are many different stories about this association. Son of Shiva and Parvati – the divine child was carried to the banks of the Ganges by Agni, where He was placed in a bed of reeds (Saravanabhava – meaning born in a bed of reeds).

Six of the Krittikas saw the baby and came down to nurse Him. Kartikeya grew five more heads (Shanmukha six faces) so that He can look at all the mothers and be nursed by them.

Venus is in the sky. Love is in the air. See you next month.

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