Natural history adventures sailing the culinary seas...

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Marching towards spring

While March continues to fling the occasional snow shower over the hills of Edinburgh, determined daffodils in green corners are quietly insisting that spring is on its way. Watching the seasons has become something of more than idle interest, as my PhD research is all about phenology, or seasonal timing.

Waiting and watching for budburst and blossom, spring will find me wandering woods, tracking trees and gazing into the canopy with my binoculars. Before the first leaves are unfurled, there is much time to anticipate the seasons to follow, remembering the busyness of June skies, when the butterflies come out to play.

One glorious weekend last year, a pilgrimage to Collard Hill and a trip to the Cotswolds with a certain Large Blue butterfly botherer, brought lepidopteran adventures.

There were clouds of Small Blue (Cupido minimus)...

... Electric Adonis Blue (Lysandra bellargus)...

... and a Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus malvae) or two.
As well as seeing a bashful Cotswoldian Large Blue, which was part of the generation that had been reintroduced using individuals from Collard Hill and other sites in 2011, orchid spikes were scattered across the slopes. Sweet pink Fragrant orchids were interspersed with my first Fly orchids, and back at Collard, some the 'Wasps' had appeared again.

Super Fly (Ophrys insectifera)
Six-spot Burnet moth caterpillar creating its cocoon
Back in the wind-blown present, an essential part of braving the woods and occasional hail is having cake wrapped up in paper, ready to be eaten with cold fingers in five minutes of crisp sunshine. Today this was 'wrinkly apple cake', a vegan version of my childhood favourite. Made with the ageing apples left at the end of a long winter...

3/4 cup non-dairy milk
1tsp apple cider (or other) vinegar
2 1/4 cups plain flour of your choice (I used  1 1/4 cup rye, 1 cup plain white, wholewheat would be nice too)
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sunflower oil
1 tbsp golden syrup or treacle/molasses for a darker cake
2 tsp ground nutmeg (freshly grated is perfect)
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 cup slightly stewed wrinkly apples (sweeten to your own preference)
a handful of sultanas/walnuts if you like them

Preheat the oven to 160C
- Mix the milk and vinegar in a bowl and leave to one side while preparing the rest of the ingredients.
- Mix the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda in a large bowl and set aside.
- Whisk the sugar, oil, syrup, spices and vanilla thoroughly in a bowl.
- Pour the milk and sugar mixtures into the flour, and beat everything for at least a minute.
- Add the apples and dried fruit or nuts if you are using them and mix everything well.
- Pour into a lined loaf or cake tin, sprinkle with brown sugar and bake for ~50 minutes.
This cake is best cooled and eaten the next day on a chilly walk, or with lots of tea at home.

The Woodland Trust and their Nature's Calendar project are partners in my phenology adventures, and I'll be posting updates like this on the Woodland Matters blog as the research progresses, or stalls. I may even report on what baked goods are being taken on jaunts to the woods...

Friday, 1 February 2013

What May have been...

aybe the imminent signs of Spring are reminding me of last year, or perhaps it is the shamefaced realisation of how long it's been since the Battenberg had its hatches battened... Whatever it is, here are some memories of long ago avian adventures. May 2012 was a month spent slipping over saltmarshes in search of waders. I attempted lesson two in cultivating a love of birds; studying them. As a field-assistant for Elwyn's PhD research, looking at the influence of saltmarsh management upon breeding birds.

Marshes in Wales and the North West were sites of nest-finding, navigating creeks and avoiding cattle. Being based on Anglesey meant travelling between sites in the time-honoured tradition of fieldwork. Muddy clothes, muddy wellies, and muddy vehicles filled with equipment, folders and food. In between there were days off wandering along the beautiful Aberffraw sands and coastal paths, taking in wild flowers I'd not encountered during my inland life.

Lilac bells of Spring Squill (Scilla verna)
Some peachy pink blooms of Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria)
Sheep's-bit (Jasione montana) near the shoreline
We recorded breeding Redshank and other birds using the saltmarshes. Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Meadow Pipit and Skylark were the most frequent users, with a few Mallards also choosing these sites. Days were spent scouring the marshes with our binoculars and investigating likely looking vegetation, which was usually across several large and very muddy creeks.

Spotting nesting passerines was largely through chance; seeing a small brown flash fly from beneath the grass as we wandered the marshes, occasionally glimpsing a bundle of small mouths clamouring to be fed. As well as our study species, being on the marshes provided many opportunities for watching flocks of Dunlin and Ringed Plover, encountering Shelducks and Shelducklings and the occasional Little Egret (reminding me of those plentiful Indian egrets). Wheatear and Reed Bunting were also frequent visitors.

Elwyn's research should increase the understanding of saltmarsh management for birds and biodiversity in the long term. It was a fantastic opportunity to get involved a research project observing breeding birds from a privileged perspective one would never normally see.

At the end of May I retreated home with a sprained ankle, and spent several days cooking (to make up for the fieldwork diet of soup and pita bread) and eating in our sunny and green garden. Clearing out the herb patch involved a great deal of excess Lemon Balm, which became a pesto to eat with some homemade wholewheat gnocchi.

Enough pesto for several meals...
To make the pesto you will need approximately:
1 cup lemon balm leaves (rinsed)
2-3 garlic cloves
2/3 cup walnuts
1/2 - 2/3 cup olive oil (depending on how liquid you'd like your pesto to be)
salt and pepper

Whiz the dry ingredients together in a food processor and then add oil to reach your desired consistency. Season to taste. It is quite delicate, so is particularly nice served simply, over your pasta of choice.

Wholewheat gnocchi with lemon balm pesto
Lastly, I recently came across a great blog called Ecological Spaceship, which is concerned with many issues facing the Earth and its inhabitants. My favourite post so far is a reminder of what it is to be an 'environmentalist' i.e. someone who is dependent upon the environment, which is in fact, everyone.