Nature Diary

Nature Diary – May 2020

Our monthly update on the birds, bees, plants and trees at Skanda Vale Ashram.
A statue of Guru Sri Subramanium at his Samadhi site

By Brother Andy

May arrived and with it hawthorn (or May) blossom. In Celtic mythology, hawthorn is one of the most sacred trees, symbolising love and protection. It is also known as the ‘fairy tree’, as fairies live under the hawthorn as its guardians.

Legend has it that if you sit under a hawthorn on May 1st you are liable to be whisked away for good to the fairy underworld.

Two other trees were seen to be in flower in early May. One was a holly tree, which drew my attention as I walked down from Mother’s puja one evening. I have never seen berries on this particular holly tree, which is perhaps not surprising as holly is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers occur on different trees; only those with female flowers will bear the red berries.

The other flowering tree is rowan, sometimes called mountain ash. Rowan trees, like hawthorns, have many myths associated with them and they were sometimes grown near to houses and churches for protection.

Maybugs are on the wing this month; I found one outside my chalet in the woods. Adults reach 25–30 mm and are quite startling to come across – often heard before they are seen, their flight itself makes a strong whirring noise. They also sometimes make a clatter when they accidentally fly into the windows of lighted rooms.

This month also gives its name to mayflies. Sister Gemma and I did some kick sampling in the river that runs through the valley. We found caddis fly larvae, freshwater shrimps and numerous mayfly larvae. They make up part of the diet for two fish species – perch and bullheads which were also seen in the river this month.

All of these organisms are good indicators of clean, unpolluted water.

Aquila and Elliot spotted a bird called the dipper – a short-tailed, plump bird with a low, whirring flight. When perched on a rock it habitually bobs up and down and frequently cocks its tail. Its white throat and breast contrast with its dark body plumage. It is remarkable in its method of walking into and under water in search of food.

Apart from the dipper, Aquila has also seen creepers and fairies in the woods. The creeper was a small bird called the treecreeper, which shares the same niche as woodpeckers and nuthatches as they all search tree bark for insects.

The fairies come in the form of fairy longhorn moths; swarms of which were spotted by our chief nature scout outside her chalet in the woods. The males of these insects have very long thread-shaped antennae which face forward and reach about four times the length of their body.

The warm weather has brought out some other beautiful insects. An exquisitely coloured ruby tailed wasp was spotted on some rocks next to Guru’s Samadhi, probably looking for the nests of other solitary wasps to lay eggs in, giving them their alternative name of cuckoo wasp.

Less attractively named is the carrion beetle, drawing attention to itself with its bright orange and black body. In May, two beautiful small butterflies emerged; a common blue and a small copper. Large red and azure damselflies (like small dragonflies) attracted the eye with their bright colours, as did the metallic green dock beetles.

On the Vishnu Lake, whirligig beetles do their crazy dance on the surface which they share with the pond skaters. On flowers near the coach park, swollen thighed beetles were spotted (apparently only the male has swollen thighs!)

More plants have come into flower, including wood avens, black medick, ragged robin, bugle, and yellow rattle. Brother Chris has made pesto from wild garlic leaves and Sister Kathleen once made some wild strawberry jam for Guru. Given the small size of these fruits compared to the normal garden varieties this was a real labour of love.

There are lots of these plants in flower around the wall of the Sri Ranganatha Temple. As the month comes to a close, foxgloves are coming into flower.

Spring cannot be said to have arrived without hearing cuckoos. Brother Colin heard one at the Lodge in early May and now they are part of the dawn chorus in the valley.

We celebrated Wesak (the day of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death) on May 7th. Sister Carol collected some flowers for the shrine, from around the ashram, and brought with them an unexpected visitor who made a surprise appearance at the 9:00 pm puja that evening.

This was a large white crab spider who had left the vase of flowers and decided to settle right on top of the flame that rises from Lord Buddha’s head (to represent His enlightenment). The next day the crab spider had migrated from the Lord and settled on the frame of Shivali’s picture where he stayed until the shrine was dismantled on the 8th and he was put out into the gardens again.

Wesak always falls on a full moon, which this year was a supermoon; this is when the moon is at the closest point to Earth along its orbit around our planet and appears to be 30% brighter and 14% bigger.

The next full supermoon won’t come around until late April in 2021. Hopefully, by then we can all stand, closely, together and look up into the sky at our nearest astronomical neighbour.

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