Friday, 24 January 2020


A few days ago - 8 January to be precise - I mentioned in my blog that I found some woodlice under a stone in Byfield Pocket Park.

Any road, a couple of days ago I visited the aforementioned pocket park with a clump of Scots Pine as my target. My plan was a simple one: I intended to gather a few pine cones from beneath the trees and split them open in search of true bugs (Hemiptera) and, with a bit of luck, a false-scorpion.

A clump of Scots Pine stands at one entrance to Byfield Pocket Park.
22 January, 2020
In the event I found neither. All that emerged from the de-scaled cones were a couple of springtails and some very young woodlice. I was disappointed. Making a mental note of the fact that the woodlice were all specimens of the very common Philoscia muscorum I gathered up the debris and scattered it beneath the Garrya at the end of our back garden.

When, I wondered, had I first recorded this woodlouse - known as the Fast Woodlouse - from the pocket park? I checked my records and was surprised to find that I had never recorded any woodlice from Byfield Pocket Park!

With this in mind I re-examined a photograph I had taken on 8 January. Sure enough. It clearly showed Porcellio scaber and Oniscus asellus. So, along with the Philoscia muscorum I was able to add these three crustaceans (woodlice are related to crabs and prawns) to the list for the site. To have failed to record these creatures was very careless. But the site total, even with these additions, is still only a paltry 190. A phrase vividly  remembered from my school reports comes to mind: Tony must try harder!
Oniscus asellus, with pale edges to their rather shiny carapace, surround
 a few darker grey Porcellio scaber.  Byfield Pocket Park,  8 January, 2020
Incidentally, mention of the Garrya - Garrya elliptica to be precise - reminded me that the catkins on this shrub have now reached their maximum length. Out of interest I took a specimen catkin and measured it with my Mickey Mouse ruler: 250 millimetres. Size matters!
The catkins on our Garrya elliptica have now attained a length of
250 millimetres. 24 January, 2020

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Spurge-laurel again

Virtually every Wednesday finds me in Byfield, but recently I seem to have exhausted the few opportunities it has to offer regarding January wildlife. I decided to visit the extreme north-east of the village, by journeying to The Causeway. Its name may be a corruption of 'Cow's Way' but I cannot confirm this.

I was surprised to find a number of plants in flower or with well-developed flower buds.
The most obvious of these was Winter Jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum. Being a winter flowering shrub it probably attracts few, if any, insects; certainly I have never seen it receive visitors.

At a time of the year when there is not much colour about Winter Jasmine
is very welcome.  Byfield, 22 January, 2020
Unsurprisingly it appears to produce no fruit and I know of no records of it escaping into the wild. I suppose we take it for granted but it is a lovely thing and it received the coveted A.G.M. (Award of Gardening Merit) in 1923.

Nearby grew Stinking Hellebore, Helleborus foetidus. It was close to flowering and its green, claret-edged tepals* will soon become apparent.
Stinking Hellebore. Not foul-smelling but merely a bit...odd.
Byfield, 22 January, 2020

An alternative name for the plant is Setterwort but I have never heard the name used and it appears to have a north country origin.

The plant I had really come to see was Spurge-laurel, Daphne laureola. I had found it in the area some seven or eight years ago. Would it still be present? In fact I quickly found two robust plants threading their way through hedges in adjacent gardens.

Spurge laurel has evergreen, laurel-like leaves. Byfield, Northants.
22 January, 2010
The flowers of this shrub are hardly colourful, being of a yellow-green shade, and it relies upon its fragrance to attract early-flying moths and bees. I stuck my nose close to the blooms and detected a faint but pleasing scent, one which would be far more obvious to the insects it was courting.

The flowers are not striking but are neat and fragrant. They are followed by
poisonous black berries.

Its status around Byfield is problematic. It is native to those parts of Northamptonshire where lime is present in the soil, but that is not what we have around Byfield. Nor is it a plant which would be carefully propagated and passed from gardener to gardener. I suspect it is a rather uncommon wild plant in western Northants but with bird-sown plants (the juicy black berries seem attractive to birds) sustaining a robust local population. It is also present here and there in Daventry. Overseas it ranges across Europe to the Azores and has been introduced to North America where, in Washington state, it has become a noxious weed.

All-in-all I was pleased with the morning's findings and I may return to examine the spurge-laurel for Dasineura daphnes, a rare fly which causes distortion of the shoot-tips.

* Tepal. A term used when it is unclear whether the organ in question is a petal or a sepal.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Small Tortoiseshell

Today we woke to a sharp frost, a frost which lingered in sheltered, shady places all day. Yet oddly enough it produced my first butterfly of the year.

It was a Small Tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae. Chris was the first to spot it, flitting up and down on the inside of the bedroom window. (The butterfly was flitting, not Chris). She was all for letting it go free but I didn't give much for its chances outside.

Small Tortoiseshell on the inside of our bedroom window. Stefen Hill,
Daventry. 18 January, 2020
Presumably the insect had been overwintering behind a cupboard or some such structure and I hoped it might spend a few more weeks inside.

Thomas Muffet (1553-1604), whose daughter Patience appears to have been the original Little Miss Muffet, was aware of this habit of spending the winter indoors, observing 'how commonly they (are) found in houses sleeping all the Winter like Serpents and Bears, in windows, in chinks and corners. Where, if the Spider do not chance to light on them, they live till the Spring.' (Reference 1) It is tempting to assume that they once tended to overwinter in hollow trees and so on but I can find little evidence for this.

Numbers of the Small Tortoiseshell seem to dropped off significantly in the 21st Century and one reason may be down to the increasingly common Sturmia bella. This fly belongs to the Tachinidae family. Whenever I net a tachinid fly I am always pleased as they form a fascinating group but unfortunately Sturmia bella lays its eggs on stinging nettles, the main foodplant of the Small Tortoiseshell. In feeding, the caterpillar swallows the egg of the fly which hatches inside the unwitting host and eats it alive.

Tachinids are invariably (?) parasites on creatures as diverse as stick insects, scorpions and centipedes (Reference 2).  They are potentially valuable for the biological control of various pests - but I wish that butterflies were free of them!

A north country name once applied to the Small Tortoiseshell was The King's Drummer. Those drums must now be a little muffled.


1. Quoted by Peter Marren in Bugs Britannica, Chatto & Windus, 2010.

1. Belshaw, Robert (1993) Tachinid Flies Royal Entomological Society.

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Stupid boy!

I looked across neighbouring rooftops, shielding my eyes against the brilliant sunshine. True it was a bit breezy but I did my usual loin-girding bit and set out towards the local pocket park, barely a quarter of a mile away. Needless to say, the sun had gone by the time I reached my destination; the wind had not. I recalled the Spoonerism regarding the highly religious person sitting in a bath. I too had started with a soul full of hope and although I hadn't exactly got a hole full of soap I did feel thwarted. Stupid boy!

I decided to make the best of it and investigate a few grass tussocks. Generally these reveal a few creepy-crawlies, taking advantage of the fact that even when there is a sharp frost there exists deep within the tussock a micro-climate at the plant-soil interface. But not today. True I did find a click beetle, Agriotes obscurus, and it was a new species for the site but it was a long way short of the entomological treasures I had visualised. Incidentally, despite the specific name of 'obscurus' it is a very common species.

Perhaps a large flat piece of concrete would be more productive?

Not a visually beautiful sight but this sort of stone will often reveal a
treasure. Not today! Stefen Hill Pocket Park. 16 January, 2020
Ever the optimist I turned it over revealing only masses of slug eggs and an out-of-focus millipede. Had I left these eggs unconcealed a bird would have made short work of them so I replaced the stone a.s.a.p.
Eggs of a slug, but which species?

To identify of the slug was beyond me but the millipede was a different matter. I recognised it as a White-legged Snake Millipede, Tachypodiulus niger. This is a very common species but can be confused with Cylindroiulus londinensis. Back home I examined its 'tail' (telson) and confirmed it was the former and was therefore not new to the park.
White-legged Snake Millipedes are very common everywhere it seems.
Stefen Hill Pocket Park. 16 January, 2020

The ubiquitous spider Neriene peltata completed the days findings. A pretty miserable 'bag'.

Teasing aside strings of wet and muddy grass roots in a strong, cold wind had turned my hands a rather fetching shade of forget-me-not blue. I decided to call it a day and set off home.

Wayside gardens showed that tiny flower buds had formed on Box, Buxus sempervirens, bushes. (The leaves are sometimes blistered and discoloured by the fly Monarthropalpus flavus. I much check from time to time.)

The flower buds on box bushes are easily overlooked.
Christchurch Drive, Daventry. 16 January, 2020
The flowers won't open until May (and even then they'll be inconspicuous) but I convinced myself that they were heralds of spring and so completed my journey much cheered.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

The fragrant and the foul

Today involved a routine visit to Byfield but a visit to the village pocket park was not included. However I did get the opportunity to stretch my legs with a general walkabout.

Dropping Chris off at her friend Julie Ferguson's house I set out to do a spot of shopping and was pleased to see en route a fine growth of Winter Heliotrope, Petasites fragrans, growing through a stone wall. 

This Winter Heliotrope has insinuated itself via rhizomes, through a garden
 wall. Bell Lane, Byfield. 15 January, 2020
This North African plant cannot be described as breathtakingly beautiful and it was undoubtedly introduced for its very fragrant, vanilla-scented, flowers. It is apparently sterile but spreads rapidly via rhizomes and has in places become a real nuisance. Should this householder wish to eradicate the plant it will probably prove to be a difficult task. It is closely related to our native Colt's Foot, Tussilago farfara, also an early flowerer.
Seen from a distance the flowers are rather dull, but in close-up  they
do have a certain attraction.

So much for the fragrant. A little further on I passed a clump of Iris foetidissima. I have often mentioned this plant as it is very common in the Byfield area. Its specific name refers to the pungent odour released if a stem is crushed, a smell which has caused it to be known as the Stinking Iris or the Roast Beef Plant. Foul indeed!

Yet untouched, the berries on this Roast Beef Plant may go if we
encounter a spell of nasty weather. Byfield, 15 January, 2020
Its berries, though tempting in appearance, have been left untouched. Is this because it has been a mild winter or are the berries rather distasteful? I suspect it is neither of these things. So tempting and abundant are the offerings of local bird feeders that thrushes and others perhaps simply can't be bothered.
The local brook had failed to cope with recent heavy rain. I turned on my
heel and left. Byfield, 15 January, 2020

As I have said, I gave the local pocket park a miss, not least because as I approached I could see that the adjacent stream had breached its banks, flooding local fields. It looked as though conditions underfoot would be pretty wet so I turned back.

The only other feature to catch my attention was an old stump bearing a nice growth of the fungus Auricularia auricula-judae. Once known as Jew's Ear it is now more often referred to as Jelly Fungus. The specimens I found were more than usually robust and, being edible, would have filled a pan nicely. I didn't bother.

A robust growth of Jelly Fungus on an old tree stump. Byfield,
15 January, 2020
The 50 pence piece I used for scale may have been gleaming in the bright sunlight but the weather was distinctly chilly. I did my shopping and scurried back to the warmth and comfort of my car. Wimp!

Monday, 13 January 2020

Times they are a-changin'

Now and then I slip in a snatch of poetry - usually no more than a quatrain - into my blog if it seems appropriate. But what do we now do with regard to winter? In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries poets would rail against ice and snow and bitter gales; they would celebrate skating on the village pond. But those days are over, perhaps never to return. The fossil fuel companies will garner 'evidence' that climate warming is a myth, but anyone who takes the trouble to look at the true picture will know that winters will never be the same again.

So where does this leave the blogger, looking for winter scenes that are now just memories? One answer is to look for aberrant behaviour. Certainly botanists and entomologists are noting oddities. Ornithologists too:  Blackcaps were simply described in older books as 'summer visitors' but these warblers are now regularly seen throughout winter at bird feeders. Of course they haven't read the mendacious nonsense being pushed by oil companies. Strange that they have more understanding of reality than the American president!

Like the blackcap, our Strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, hasn't been fooled. It has responded to mild conditions by producing a truss of flowers although it ought to have finished flowering some weeks ago.

Our Strawberry Tree has surprised us with panicles of its ivory
flowers. Stefen Hill, Daventry. 13 January, 2020
So far this year, although I have noted a few flies around, I have yet to see a bee, so the flowers are likely to go unpollinated. They are not the most conspicuously coloured flowers nor have I detected any scent (although bees can pick up scents well beyond the range of the human schnozz).
The flowers are much like those of Pieris, to which they are related.

I featured our Garrya elliptica around three weeks ago. Since then its catkins have lengthened greatly. To call this Californian shrub spectacular is over-egging it a little but right now it is now quite striking.

The catkins on our Garrya elliptica are now 80-90 centimetres long.

Unlike the Strawberry Tree it is wind pollinated but as I only possess a male plant any pollen borne away on the breeze will be wasted. I'll keep an open for bees at the catkins but I'm not optimistic.

Bees often visit hazel catkins are for their pollen but I doubt they'll
be visiting the Garrya.
My mother often spoke of  '...patience on a monument' but until recently I hadn't realised (nor, I'm  sure had she) that she was quoting Shakespeare, the words being spoken by Viola in Twelfth Night. Anyway, that's what I need - lots of it.

Friday, 10 January 2020


My visit two days ago to Byfield Pocket Park produced little of interest so today I tried my luck at our local equivalent, Stefen Hill Pocket Park. I would like to say that the visit was packed with incident but alas...

Conditions were chilly but bright and the sunshine encouraged a few flies to bask on fence posts. This female was off before I could capture it but not before I had grabbed a photograph. It looks very much like Calliphora vicina, perhaps the commonest of our blowflies, and the wide space between the compound eyes shows that it is a female.

Some flies seem surprisingly resistant to cold. A calliphorid basks
on a fence. Stefen Hill Pocket Park, 10 January, 2020
One fly was a little less alert. This was Phaonia tuguriorum, my first fly of the year and one which is often among the earliest of the year. I also made an optimistic sweep of pine foliage and was rewarded with a Pine Ladybird, Exochomus quadripustulatus, a new record for the pocket park. It is a rather small, predominantly black ladybird with red spots, easily confused with some forms of the Harlequin Ladybird. I didn't expect to be coming up with new records this early in the year.

Ivy fruits were ripening steadily. Many were still green but others had ripened almost to a point where birds will be tempted.

Many ivy fruits have yet to ripen...
Is this succession of fruit a deliberate strategy that has evolved to ensure that only a percentage is available at any one time so that most are consumed?

...but others are darkening nicely. Stefen Hill Pocket Park.
10 January, 2020
As with Byfield, this pocket park has its patch of snowdrops. The scapes (see note) are a little taller and the flowers perhaps a little more advanced. As galanthophiles will point out (at some length), snowdrops are very variable.

Snowdrop flowers are on the point of opening.
Stefen Hll Pocket Park 10 January, 2020
To be brutally honest there was little to get worked up about but I was pleased to find, just about at the point where I had given up hope, a colony of the fungus Nectria peziza. It was growing in a typical situation - a rotting tree stump. 
Orange Spot growing on a rotting tree stump. Stefen Hill Pocket Park.
10 January, 2020

It looks almost as though an insect has laid a batch of bright orange eggs. Predictably it is known as the Orange Spot Fungus. It is moderately common but less so than its relative, the Coral Spot Fungus, often found on wooden sheds and fences where the timber is damp.

So all was not lost and I went home to strawberries with lashings of cream happy.

Note   A scape is a leafless flowering stem with all leaves around the base. Daffodils provide a good example.