Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Of beetles and spurges

A few weeks ago, in anticipation of the warmer weather, I bought a couple of beetle traps. In fact these are easy to make and I will certainly be constructing some in the near future. I visited Foxhill Farm a couple of days ago and set the traps in likely positions, using over-ripe pears and grapes as bait.

This morning I set out, full of hope and Weetabix, to check the results. The weather had been less warm than predicted in recent forecasts so I was not optimistic. My pessimism was indeed justified. One trap had been pulled apart by something far larger than an insect. The other contained just a single spider, Tenuiphantes tenuis. I must wait for warmer conditions and choose the trap locations with more care. In the meantime I have re-erected them in our back garden.

On a different matter, last Sunday I decided that a spurge in our front garden had grown too big. It had to go. Spurges - Euphorbia species - are known to have nasty, toxic sap, and the species I was dealing with, Euphorbia myrsinites, has copious sap, but I was wearing glasses so my eyes were, I felt, receiving protection. I set to work and after a few minutes the unwanted plant was safe in the recycling bin.

We still have one specimen of Euphorbia myrsinites in our front garden.
Stefen Hill, Daventry. 19 February. 2019
About three hours later the area around my left eye began to feel a little sore but a check in the mirror showed nothing but a little redness. By bedtime some swelling had occurred and I thought back. What had I been doing? Then I remembered the spurge but there little damage beyond the slight swelling and I was untroubled. By the following morning (Monday) the area around my eye was horrific: I appeared to have gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson.

My surgery didn't want to know: they had no appointments available that day and couldn't even promise to see me the day after. And there was no A & E at Danetre (Daventry) Hospital. As it happened, on Monday I was accompanying Chris for her check-up at Northampton General Hospital (she turned out to be doing well). I took the opportunity to visit the Eye Casualty department and they fixed me up with an ointment for the swelling and confirmed that the actual eye was undamaged.

Moral: be ultra-careful when dealing with any spurges! Euphorbia myrsinites is a handsome plant with succulent glaucous green foliage, but think twice before growing it.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Beggar's Bank again

I don't care what the calendar says, spring began at 7.35 am today, when I threw open our bedroom curtains to see the sun climbing in a Cambridge blue sky. Of course we've had blue skies on several days recently but today the sunshine was accompanied by frost-free and noticeably warmer conditions.

The morning was spent in the garden, tearing out clumps of Sea Heath and other plants which were threatening to overwhelm parts of the rock garden. I didn't want the crocuses and dwarf irises, Iris reticulata, to disappear beneath a sea of green.

Iris reticulata was in danger of being overwhelmed by Sea Heath.
Our front garden on Stefen Hill. 11 February, 2019
During the morning Chris was out walking with friends but on her return we had a quick lunch and I then set out for Foxhill Farm, this time looking at the area around the windmill. I was met, as usual, by inquisitive sheep and today they were cuddly beasts with a soft grey fleece. I'm no expert but I believe they were Herdwicks.
Herdwick sheep? Foxhill Farm, near Badby, Northants.
11 February, 2019

The bricks forming the windmill tower were distinctly warm to the touch and I expected to find many flies basking in the sun but was surprised to find only one. Rather predictably it was Calliphora vicina, Britain's commonest blowfly. Frequently the brickwork attracts dozens of these insects.

A male blowfly, Calliphora vicina, basking on the brickwork of Newnham
Windmill. 11 February, 2019
The only other insect enjoying this warm microclimate was a Harlequin Ladybird, Harmonia axyridis. I saw a dozen or so ladybirds during the afternoon but pleasingly all the others were Seven-spot Ladybirds. (Actually that's wrong: later on I found a couple of the tiny yellow 16-spot Ladybirds, Tytthaspis 16-punctata.)
Only one Harlequin Ladybird was seen but I'm afraid there will be
lots more as the season moves on. 11 February, 2019

The area below the windmill, known as Beggar's Bank, is interesting and over the years this could eventually develop a rich fauna and flora, although not in my lifetime.

The vegetation below the windmill shows lots of promise.
Foxhill Farm, 11 February, 2019
A nearby patch of woodland (all planted) bore a ground flora of snowdrops and winter aconites. At least two taxa* were present: one was fully in bloom and the other was barely in bud.

Many snowdrops were in flower in woodland on Beggar's Bank.
Foxhill Farm, 11 February, 2019
The Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, is a particularly early species, as its name suggests. Eranthis comes from the Greek er, spring and anthos, a flower. However, hyemalis means 'pertaining to winter'. Fair enough because, despite my opening sentence, it is still technically winter. Thanks to an early flowering period its seeds should have fully formed and ripened before the trees cast a deep shade.

Winter Aconites created a splash of golden yellow on the woodland floor.
11 February, 20119
Bright sunshine or not, there were very few insects around, but clumps of gorse yielded a few spiders and true bugs. Now it over to the microscope to find out what I've found.

* Taxa. The singular is taxon and is a convenient term for any taxonomic group such as a genus or species or even variety.



Thursday, 7 February 2019

Was it worth it?

Today has been reasonably mild. One half of me said that I ought to get off my ar bum and visit Matt Moser's land. My other half told me that there wouldn't be much about and I would be wasting my time. I am proud to say that I did make the effort but would my stupidity courage and fortitude be rewarded?

In one field Matt had sown a mixture of annual plants bearing seeds, designed to attract winter birds, and I made that my initial target.

How successful the project had been in terms of birds I have no idea. By now the crops lay flattened and the low-lying land - a heavy clay - was now very wet. I picked my way across the field with caution. My haul included a few spiders and half a dozen spiders, together with a couple of flat-backed millipedes. I also recorded a tiny (4 mm) beetle, which later proved to be Bembidion lunulatum, new to Foxhill Farm.

The annuals grown here were now all flattened and dead. Foxhill Farm,
Badby, Northants. 6 February, 2019
After half an hour I changed tack and made my way to a strip of woodland, planted just a few years ago. In the creation of this woodland a few elders had been uprooted and, very sensibly, the stumps had been left to slowly decay.
A few uprooted stumps had been left to decay. Foxhill Farm, Badby.
6 February, 2019
Leaving undisturbed as much material as possible I lifted some pieces of bark and loose wood and extracted a few spiders, one of which, a female Trochosa ruricola, was also new to the farm. I was surprised to find a small spider on a hazel catkin nearby.  This turned out to be Tetragnatha montana, and was yet a third new record for the site.

What could this spider have been hoping to find? Foxhill Farm,
6 \February, 2019
Eight species were recorded which, given the wet and tricky conditions, was quite a reasonable total and augurs well for the year ahead. But I won't go again until things have dried out and warmed up a bit. Even I'm not that daft! 

Monday, 4 February 2019

The Watford Gap

Today I paid a visit to Long Buckby Wharf. Thousands of people pass through this tiny hamlet every day but it is likely that few give a lot of thought to its significance.
Long Buckby Wharf is no more than a small cluster of buildings.
4 February, 2019

Beginning a little north of the village of Watford and covering a huge expanse to the north east and west of this settlement was once a vast lake. It was created during the Wolstonian glacial period, existed for some ten thousand years, and is today known as Lake Harrison. It had been formed when melt-waters from glaciers in the north midlands and from Wales were held back by a line of hills, including the Cotswolds. Eventually the waters broke through this natural barrier and formed great rivers such as the Cherwell and the Avon. This section of the Cherwell no longer exists but the Avon seems to have become permanent, largely flowing this original course. The sources of the Nene and the Leam are also nearby. One point where the pent-up waters of the lake broke through the hills is now the Watford Gap and has been strategically important since ancient times.

The Romans recognised the value of the gap and the Watling Street made use of it, linking London with the once-important Wroxeter (Viriconium). Centuries later it seems to have formed the south-west boundary of the Danelaw.

The Watling Street at this point is probably following the original
Roman route. 4 February, 2019
The gap also offered a route between London and the midlands for the Grand Union Canal (the Leicester section), although a flight of seven locks was required at Watford. The once-busy wharf at Long Buckby no longer functions as such and the canal at this point is very tranquil (if one ignores the thunder of the nearby M1).
February sees little canal leisure traffic and this stretch of the canal is
currently very peaceful. 4 February, 2019

Almost 100% of the traffic now using the canals consists of leisure craft although I was pleased to find one narrow boat laden with bags of coal and other types of fuel, although I'm bound to say that it all appeared to be destined for use by the leisure boats.

A narrow boat laden with bags of fuel. Long Buckby Wharf,
 4 February, 2019

Boats help recreate a bygone age with historical details such as 'City 4755'
Long Buckby Wharf, 4 February, 2019

The lock gates were hardly being used today and heavy rain overnight, combined with melting snow, had allowed a build-up of water, which was cascading over the lock gates.

Water was cascading over the lock gates at Long Buckby Wharf.
4 February, 2019

Then of course came the railways, spelling the eventual death of cargo-carrying canal traffic. The West Coast Main Line passes through Long Buckby Wharf, with the great majority of the traffic consisting of Pendolino stock operated by Virgin Trains.

A south-bound Virgin train passes through Long Buckby Wharf.
4 February, 2019
Post-war road traffic increased and the Watling Street could no longer cope so finally came the M1, using of course, the Watford Gap. It is hardly surprising that major haulage contractors such as Eddie Stobart decided to base a huge depot near to the point through which these major routes flowed.

Traffic on the M1 thunders through 24 hours a day. Long Buckby Wharf.
4 February, 2019

So, these four great routes - the Watling Street, the Grand Union Canal, The West Coast Main Line and the M1 all come together at Long Buckby Wharf and head for the Watford Gap. And all this as a consequence of an overflowing Pleistocene lake!


Sunday, 3 February 2019

To Welton

Although the village of Welton lies no more than a mile from the eastern edge of Daventry it has never been graced with my presence. Today I resolved to put that right. Pausing only to photograph a few Crocus chrysanthus flowers in our front garden I set off.
Crocus chrysanthus pushing through a patch of Sea Heath, Frankenia
laevis. Our garden on Stefen Hill, Daventry. 3 February, 2019
The croci were pushing through a carpet of Sea Heath. This species, Frankenia laevis, is a rather rare British native and will not display its pale pink flowers for three or four months yet. It flourishes in our garden to such an extent that I have to be ruthless and tear out chunks from time to time.

Welton proved to be a pretty village with just a couple of minor eyesores and I enjoyed a short walk around its streets, which form a figure-of-eight pattern. I investigated the local churchyard of course for, although I am deeply irreligious, 'God's Acre' usually proves to be of interest. The church is dedicated to St Martin and is believed to date back to the late 13th Century. 

The Church of St Martin, Welton. 3 February, 2019
It is of simple rubblestone construction and although the stone is variable, perhaps from several quarries, it is clearly all Jurassic, in some cases of indifferent quality and eroding quite badly in places. Diana Sutherland (see reference) hints that the rock may be largely marlstone

Some of the masonry had weathered rather badly, leading
 to obvious erosion. Welton church, 3 February, 2019
I ought to have spent time examining the stonework for fossils but, despite the bright sunshine it was very cold, with a biting wind. For the same reason I made little effort to track down lichens.
The lichen, Caloplaca flavescens  can be very distinctive.
 St Martin's Church, Welton. 3 February, 2019
A specimen of Caloplaca flavescens caught the eye but the only other species noted was the very common Psilolechia lucida, forming a dust-like sulphur yellow stain here and there.
The powder-like green-yellow lichen, Psilolechia lucida.
Welton church, 3 February, 2019

I completed a circuit of the church, noting some good examples of yew and holm oak without making any sensational discoveries. But the margins of the village hinted at interesting walks and I'll probably be returning in the late spring or early summer.
A less familiar view of St Martin's church, Welton.
3 February, 2019


Sutherland, D.L. (2003) Northamptonshire Stone  Dovecote Press

Monday, 28 January 2019

Ash and bulrush

Today I made my first visit of the year to Foxhill Farm. My target was a clump of Bulrush, Typha latifolia, beside a pond in the north-east corner of the farm.

Bulrush, aka Common Reedmace, at Foxhill Farm, near Badby, Northants.
28 January, 2019
To be specific, my intention was to gather a few of the seedheads and check for the presence of the Bulrush Bug, Chilacis typhae.  It is a widespread species throughout southern EngIand but less frequent in the north. I was surprised to find that the pond contained a reasonable amount of water, as for most of last year it had been dry.

About 25 cm of water had gather over recent weeks.
Fortunately I was able to reach some suitable specimens without the need to risk wet feet and I soon had a few of the sausage-shaped seedheads in my bag for examination at home later.

My attention was drawn to some ash trees in a nearby hedgerow. This species, Fraxinus excelsior, tends to be dioecious but not wholly so, for specimens are commonly found bearing both male and female flowers. However, around Matt's farm the trees are generally one or the other. In the picture the tree on the right was male, and had a rather light and airy look. On the left the tree, a female, looks more 'clumpy', being laden with many bunches of 'keys'.

Ash trees, a male specimen on the right and a female to the left. The trees are
not always dioecious. Foxhill Farm. 28 January, 2019
A closer view of the female tree shows these keys more clearly. These keys, technically samaras, are in fact capsule-like, with the end elongated into a wing. This allows the fruits to be distributed very effectively by the wind so that gardens at a considerable distance from the nearest tree may find saplings popping up here and there. 

The female specimen carried many bunches of the 'keys'.
Ash trees belong to the Olive Family, Oleaceae, and the fruit can be eaten, usually in the form of pickled ash keys. My copy of The Hedgerow Handbook, by Adele Nozedar, includes a recipe for this - er - delicacy, but I'll refrain from indulging for now.

Anyway, back to the bulrushes. Once home I carefully split open the club-like inflorescences, being careful not to allow them to burst open and  the fluffy contents to escape, and searched. Nothing!

Ah well, I'll just write it off as an invigorating walk.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

A flame on a grey day

We've had some brilliant sunshine recently, but there has been little warmth in it. Today it is dismally grey but the temperature, at about eight degrees is, I suppose, quite reasonable for January.

I had a stroll around Byfield Pocket Park looking for signs of spring. Hazel catkins hung limp in the still, damp air and alongside them the bright pink female flowers waited for a breeze to waft grains of pollen their way. Today I suspect they'll wait in vain. A Seven-spot Ladybird was also waiting for sunshine but I doubt it will stir itself today.

A seven-spot ladybird is apparently finding a hazel catkin a congenial
resting place. Byfield Pocket Park, 26 January, 2019
No, everywhere was looking rather forlorn with only a clump of Lords and Ladies to provide a splash of green. This plant produces its leaves in the depths of winter and by the time the curious flowers appear the leaves are beginning to die back. Its Latin name, Arum maculatum, is not always fitting for the specific epithet refers to spotting on the leaves, and these are not always present. The specimen I saw today had completely plain leaves.

Arum maculatum - but in this case immaculate. Byfield, Northants.
26 January, 2019
Many plants have fungi or galls associated with them but Cuckoo Pint, to use another of its many names, seems remarkably free of them. My copy of 'British Plant Galls' (Ref. 1) lists only one, the smut gall Melanustilospora ari, and that is distinctly rare. Perhaps the lack of associates is related to the poisonous qualities of the plant, for all parts are toxic. Pheasants are reported to feed sometimes on the berries but I suspect they often go uneaten.

I left the pocket park a little disappointed but one other object of interest did cause me to reach for my camera. I had made a New Year resolution to keep away from the distraction of fungi, but near to the village green a very attractive toadstool was present.

Velvet Shank on a barely visible tree trunk. Byfield, Northants.
26 January, 2019

It was Velvet Shank, Flammulina velutipes, and was growing on an old tree stump. It is very much a midwinter-early spring species and the cap can cope with being frozen. Some fungi can be very tricky to identify but this is a distinctive species - and is apparently edible. Its Latin name can be translated as 'little flame with a velvet foot' (Ref. 2).


1. Redfern, M and Shirley, P (2nd ed. 2011) British Plant Galls  Field Studies Council

2. Wright, John (2016) A Natural History of the Hedgerow  Profile Books.