The Humble Willow
The name ‘Pussy Willow’ should immediately conjure up an image of soft, silvery, downy buds on a common wayside tree and then catkins as winter releases its grip and spring sunshine warms the air. It is another name for Goat Willow Salix caprea, one of the many species of willow in the British Isles. Across Frodsham Marsh these fabulous trees are usually dismissed as ‘trash’ trees and their importance and value to wildlife underestimated. Walk down any of the tracks and most birders will stop briefly to peer through the tangle of branches and buds on a willow in the hope of seeing and identifying a bird glimpsed briefly. They’ll probably give it a few seconds or a minute or so before moving on, without ever having looked at the tree itself.
I was sat in my car drinking hot coffee and taking a break after walking around the .IC.I tank last weekend. The SE wind was fresh to say the least and felt cold. Apart from Gorse, Sloes and a few Daffodils, there no other flowering plants in bloom, or so I thought. It suddenly struck me that there were a lot of bees visiting a nearby willow which was in early flower, so I went to have a look. It looked greenish with splashes of pale yellow from a distance, so I wondered what was attracting the insects. It was covered in Buff-tailed Bumblebees, the odd Red-tailed and Tree Bumblebee and a Small Tortoishell butterfly.
I took a couple of quick pictures and began to look closer at the flowers. They were amazing. The downy buds were bursting into colour and the yellow stamens were covered in pollen which was attracting the insects.
Three species of bumblebees were present but Buff-tailed Bumblebee was by far the most numerous. Tree and Red-tailed were present in small numbers.
I noticed other insects which I took to be hoverflies. One actually was and I think I’ve correctly identified it as Eristalis pertinax, a common early species which should be readily identified by its yellow front and middle tarsi, which this one appeared to have.
The other insect turned out to be (but correct me if you think my identification is incorrect) Gwynne’s Mining Bee, Andrena bicolor, a relatively common spring species. The females are 6-8 mm long and have bright reddish-brown ‘fur’ on the thorax and a orangy coloured hind tibiae. The males are 6-7.5mm and are overall blackish. It was very windy and not easy to take photos as the branches were moving all the time, so the pictures aren’t completely sharp.
The catkins are amazing things when you look at them enlarged, like miniature alien worlds with forests of anthers in which bumblebees plough furrows and smaller insects struggle to walk. Even after the spring flush of catkins, the leaves provide food for many species of insects including a long list of moths. The insects in turn attract predators including a wide variety of birds. Along with another favourite species of mine, the Sycamore, willows are always the trees I head for in the hope of finding something unusual whether it’s a bird or otherwise. Have a look more closely next time you stop by a willow in flower and instead of seeing nothing you will be guaranteed to find something of interest.
And of course, every autumn scene is enhanced by the glow of yellow, orange and red willow leaves as the trees take a break from providing the natural world with food throughout the summer.
The humble Willow is actually anything but humble.
Written by Tony Broome (images 2-9). Image 1 by WSM.
“Oh where are you now
Pussy willow that smiled on this leaf?
When I was alone you promised the stone from your heart
My head kissed the ground”