Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Farewell 2013

It's the middle of winter and you expect a blog about wildlife? You must be joking!

Speaking of jokes, here's a few culled from the pages of The Guardian:

A blowfly goes into a bar and asks, "Is this stool taken?"

What do the letters DNA stand for?    The National Dyslexia Association.

An electron and a positron go into a bar. 
         Positron: Your round.
         Electron: Are you sure?
         Positron: I'm positive.

They have just found the gene for shyness. They would have found it earlier but it was     hiding behind two other genes.

Why did the chicken cross the Mobius strip. To get to the other...er - hang on.

A statistician is someone who tells you that if you've got your head in the fridge and         your feet in the oven, you are - on average -very comfortable.

There are 10 kinds of people in this world - those who understand binary and those who     don't.

A statistician gave birth to twins, but only had one of them baptised. She kept the           other as a control.

A weed scientist goes into a shop. He asks, "Have you got any of that inhibitor of 
3-phosphoshikimate-carboxyvinyl transferase?"  
Shopkeeper: "You mean Roundup?" 
Scientist: "That's it. I can never remember that darned name."

A psychoanalyst shows a patient an inkblot, and asks him what he sees. The patient says: "I see a couple having sex." The psychoanalyst shows him a second inkblot, and the patient says: It's another couple having sex." The psychoanalyst says: You are obsessed with sex." What do you mean, I'm obsessed," says the patient. "You're the one showing all the dirty pictures".

I could go on, but you have suffered enough - almost. But with "selfie" being the word of 2013, here goes:

Happy New Year!

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Christmas in Highgate

Chris and I decamped from Byfield and spent Christmas in London. We like to see some of the less well-known areas of our capital and in recent years have been to Aldgate, Poplar and Maze Hill. This year it was the turn of Highgate. Neither of us knew much about the area other than the fact that it is bordered on the west by Hampstead Heath.

We arrived on Christmas Eve and set out to stretch our legs and do a quick recce of the area and, vitally, get some food in (we were self-catering). We then visited the market at Camden Locks. Christmas Eve or not, it was very busy. As with most markets of this type there was a lot of tacky stuff, but here and there were items of real interest such as underpants with surprisingly life-life portraits of Homer Simpson. Chris made me put them down.

Christmas Day itself was lovely: very sunny and quite warm for late December. Striding out to the the top of Dartmouth Park Hill we unexpectedly found ourselves outside Holly Village, an extraordinary example of Victorian Gothic at its most flamboyant.

The entrance to Holly Village, Highgate
25 December, 2013

On then to Highgate cemetery, resting place of many persons of interest. We were disappointed to find all the gates securely locked; surprised too, since the residents were unlikely to escape. However, it turned out to be serendipitous as, following the perimeter of the cemetery, we found ourselves in Waterlow Park.

I doubt that few but true Londoners know of this gem but, even in the depths of winter, it was full of interest. It stands on high ground (it is situated in Highgate after all) with fine views. We were able to enjoy a packed lunch in bright sunshine.
Chris in rapt contemplation.
Waterlow Park on Christmas Day

The park has many fine trees and, flitting about in the branches were Ring-necked Parakeets, a species well naturalised in south-east England where they can sometimes be a problem for fruit growers. I tried to get a photograph but these excitable birds are always on the move and, with a shrill screech, they would be away before my camera was ready.

Bay Tree, Laurus nobilis, in Waterlow Park.
Highgate, London. 25 December, 2013

The trees included some very large specimens of Sweet Bay and Strawberry Tree. Bay trees (Laurus nobilis) are fairly hardy but one specimen, with a multitude of trunks, was probably the largest I've seen in Britain. Only a few metres away was an equally impressive Strawberry Tree, almost certainly Arbutus unedo, which is native to south-west Europe, but possibly Arbutus andrachne, from south-east Europe. The latter has a distinctive red-orange bark but the specimen in question had duller bark with only a hint of red. The name Strawberry Tree is a reference to the fruits, which have a vaguely strawberry-like appearance although the plants are unrelated, with Arbutus being a member of the Heather Family, Ericaceae and true strawberries being in the Rose Family. 

Strawberry Tree, Arbutus unedo in Waterlow Park.
Highgate, London. 25 December, 2013
When Chris and I lived in Gibraltar there was still considerable poverty in southern Spain and young children would offer bags of the fruits to unsuspecting tourists. The word "unedo" means "eat once" - not because they are poisonous (an alcoholic drink is occasionally made from them) but because they are so insipid. But to their credit they are true fruits whilst strawberries are not.

The Tufnell Park - Highgate area was largely developed in Victorian times and the parks inevitably contain many statues, both of heraldic beasts and of humans. None struck me as being of artistic merit but some were encrusted with mosses and lichens of far greater interest!

Boxing Day involved a trip to the sales in Oxford Street/Regent Street. Ugh! But even a misery-guts like myself was impressed by the array of materials and clothing in Liberty's. Chris bought a ball of wool. (She can be very extravagant!)

On the following day we took ourselves to an incredibly crowded British Museum. There was an interesting display of Japanese erotica to be seen - but not by me. Chris firmly steered me to an exhibition of Columbian jewellery. It was actually pre-Columbian Columbian jewellery - most confusing. In truth, it was splendid, but time was running short. Time to set off for Marylebone and go home.

So, back to Byfield and a more quotidian life.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Holly, Mistletoe and Ivy

A browse through any flora of the British Isles will show that the Daisy family, Asteraceae, has over 100 species native to this country. The figure for the Grass family, Poaceae, is broadly similar whilst the Carrot family, Apiaceae, contains several dozen native species, as does the Pea family, Fabaceae and the Rose family, Rosaceae. Precise figures are hard to pin down since there are many "microspecies" in the Daisy and Rose families. The figure is further muddled by the number of well-established aliens now regularly noted on a country walk. However one looks at it, these are BIG families.

Ivy in flower with a calliphorid fly
Byfield Pocket Park
But here's an odd thing: Mistletoe is the only British member of the Loranthaceae; Holly is the only member of the Aquifoliaceae native to Britain whilst Ivy is our only member of the Araliaceae. Worldwide the Loranthaceae has over 600 members, whilst the figures for the Aquifoliaceae and Araliaceae are 300+ and 700+ respectively. In other words the Holly, Mistletoe and Ivy are all outliers; sole representatives of families otherwise with a tropical or subtropical range.
Fruiting Ivy in Byfield Pocket Park
Yellow-berried Hollies are frequently planted but
rarely feature on Christmas cards.

Holly, as a native plant, is rare in Northamptonshire and all trees noted are likely to have been planted or derived (as bird-sown plants) from gardens, churchyards and so on. 

George Druce's Northamptonshire flora, published in 1930 makes no mention of Mistletoe, from which we may conclude that it is not native to our county, where it remains a scarce plant. The only specimen of which I know in the Byfield area is on an apple tree in my garden, where I "sowed" it some 7-8 years ago. Ivy is a different matter of course, being so abundant that some would accord it weed status.
Mistletoe on an apple tree in my
with Ivy on the right.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Parson's Spinney - SP505527

The stream forms the spine of
Parson's Spinney. 2 December, 2013
Byfield Pool has been created by blocking a little stream which otherwise would run straight into Boddington Reservoir. This stream appears to have no name, yet I regard it as quite important, not just for supplying Byfield Pool with water but for having carved out a small yet interesting valley. The sides of the valley are clothed with trees, whilst the wet valley bottom has a limited but luxuriant carpet of plants and a rich moss flora, flourishing in the humid conditions. These trees, and their associated flora, form Parson's Spinney.

The trunk of Wild Cherry or Gean,
showing the distinctive bark. Parson's
Spinney, 2 December, 2013

Beech trunk at Parson's Spinney,
2 December, 2013
The majority of the trees are Ash, and there are several strong-growing oaks plus a handful of Beech trees. But the most interesting by far are several Wild Cherry trees (Prunus avium), creating a lovely sight in late spring - one which would have gladdened the heart of A.E.Housman. Even in the winter, though most of their leaves have fallen, they are easily picked out by their distinctive trunks, the bark of which peels off in annular strips. The beeches are easily recognised too, with their grey, rather smooth bark. In some cases the beech trunks are strongly tinted green due to the presence of microscopic algae such as Pleurococcus. As my photograph shows, the lovely golden-brown leaves of Beech often cling on long after those of other deciduous trees have fallen. The cherries are undoubtedly native to our county; the status of beeches is far less certain but, even if they are a long-standing introduction going back many centuries, they are now well established and grow readily from seed.

Elder Whitewash, Hyphodontia sambuci.
Parson's Spinney. 2 December, 2013

The beeches and cherries cling to the higher parts of the valley, where the well-drained conditions suit them. The wetter valley floor hosts willow trees in abundance and, whereas the trunks of the cherries and beeches support few mosses, the willows and elder are often covered to such an extent that only small patches of bark show through. Fungi too are common, such as this appropriately named Elder Whitewash, Hyphodontia sambuci, here clothing a dead branch.

Unsurprisingly,  ferns flourish too. with several fine specimens of Broad Buckler-fern (Dryopteris dilatata) to be seen. An interesting anthomyid fly, Chirosia betuleti, occurs on this fern but I searched for its presence (it forms a gall, giving a mop-headed ending to the fronds) in vain. My examination of the fern flora was rather perfunctory and I must go back for another look. 

Broad Buckler Fern.
Parson's Spinney, 2 December, 2013

As I have already mentioned, mosses were abundant, in quantity if not in variety of species. I did not anticipate finding anything out of the ordinary and my pessimism proved to be justified. Forming extensive patches on the woodland floor was the Hart's-tongue Thyme-moss, Plagiomnium undulatum. One older name for this moss is the Palm-tree Moss. 

Plagiomnium undulatum at Parson's Spinney.
2 December, 2013

Plagiomnium undulatum, here
justifying its old name of Palm-Tree Moss.
 2 December, 2013

This name may not seem appropriate but if a plant is teased out from the tangled mass the reason becomes obvious. 

I will not bore my readers with further details of what are generally regarded as bits of "green fuzzy stuff" as Peter Creed and Tom Haynes put it*, but I hope to continue investigating Parson's Spinney in order to produce as extensive a moss flora of the site as possible.

* Creed and Haynes (2013) A Guide to finding Mosses in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. 

Thursday, 21 November 2013


Red and yellow bushes of Firethorn
beside the Bell Brook, Byfield.
21 November, 2013
Firethorn is a particularly well-named shrub. I have a vigorous specimen in my back garden and I always don gloves when pruning time comes around. The plant usually grown is Pyracantha coccinea, a native of southern Europe where I have found it from time to time on stony hillsides. Though not native to Britain it is well naturalised in many places, probably through bird-sown seed. 

Around Byfield it is a feature of many gardens, with both yellow and, more commonly,  red-fruited specimens planted. The plants are usually clipped but, when allowed to assume their natural form, they are rather pendulous. Both yellow and red tumble down beside the Bell Brook in this graceful manner.

The fruits are still rather firm as I write but as they soften they will be eagerly sought after by birds and the lucky gardener may receive visits by Waxwings in midwinter. The "berries" may look rather like those of Holly but the plants are unrelated. Firethorn is a member of the Rose family and thus related to Rowans and Cotoneasters, whose fruit not only look similar but are structurally near-identical. In a close-up photograph the fruit look almost like apples, to which, again, they are related.
Fruit of Pyracantha coccinea.
Byfield, 21 November, 2013

The plants are of interest too to the entomologist. Not only are the flowers attractive to bees but a micro-moth, the Firethorn Leaf Miner, makes use of the leaves. It seems to have been unknown in Britain before 1989 but is now very widespread; here in Byfield it affect many specimens. 

It forms an elongated blister-like mine down the midrib of the leaf, more clearly seen in this close-up, where the frass (droppings) show up as amber specks. The leaves may be a little disfigured but the plants seems to be otherwise unaffected.

Leaf mine caused by the Firethorn Leaf Miner Moth
Phyllonorycter leucographella.
Byfield, 21 November, 2013

Monday, 18 November 2013

In search of Black Puddings

Northamptonshire has a limited fern flora but here and there, where the soil is reasonably well drained and not too heavy, substantial beds of bracken are to be found. One such site is near the summit of Solden Hill, to the south west of Byfield. I set out earlier today in the hope of finding some bracken plants galled by the tiny fly Dasineura pteridis. The larva of this insect forms tiny sausage-shaped galls on the edge of bracken fronds which, from their shape and colour, are called 'Little Black Puddings'.

A fine mist caused droplets of moisture to form on my eyebrows as I strode out and the visibility was down to half a mile or so as I looked out towards the west.

Looking west from Byfield on a misty
morning, 18 November, 2013

As I left the village my attention was caught by a large-ish Crab Apple (I use the term loosely - see my blog for 10 December, 2012) well laden with fruit. As they ripen further they will soften and fall, to provide valuable food for birds, especially species of thrush.
Crab Apple heavy with fruit.
Byfield, 18 November, 2013
The tree will almost certainly have sprung from the seeds in an apple core thrown to the side of the road, and therefore will not be a true Crab Apple. 

Crab Apple showing the typical leaf fold caused
by the Rowan Slender Moth
Byfield, 18 November, 2013

Dozens, if not hundreds, of the leaves showed mines formed by a tiny moth, the Rowan Slender (Parornix scoticella). As its name suggests it is frequent on the leaves of rowan but apple trees (which are closely related to rowan) are equally acceptable. Despite being a common and widespread insect it is the first time I've recorded it from the Byfield area, so I was quite pleased. Leaf mines and galls are hardly exciting but, by revealing what insects are around, it enables a better understanding of the ecology of a particular habitat. 

Coltsfoot plants were common along the roadside, with some of the leaves bearing a mine which opened up into a large blotch. This shape is diagnostic for Phytomyza tussilaginis, an agromyzid fly for which no common name exists. The actual fly is not often observed and the mine created by the larva is the best clue to its presence.

Coltsfoot leaf mined by Phytomyza tussilaginis.
Solden Hill, nr Byfield. 18 November, 2013

The murky conditions persisted as I pressed on but, murky or not, several plants were in bloom. None was receiving an insect visitor of course but, given a sunny day in the next week or so, a late hoverfly could make a call.  White Campion (Silene alba) was bearing a few flowers and nearby was a hybrid White Campion x Pink Campion (Silene alba x Silene dioica) although only the one parent could be found.
White Campion

Hybrid White x Pink Campion

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) was present in some profusion, as was White Dead-nettle (Lamium album) but only a couple of bedraggled Common Ragwort plants were in bloom. One plant of Hedge Woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) was also doing its best, with the drizzle-covered leaves making it look like its garden relative, Lamb's Ear (Stachys  byzantina).
Hedge Woundwort, Stachys sylvaticaSolden Hill. 18 November, 2013

Common Ragwort
Solden Hill, 18 November, 2013

Yarrow. Solden Hill, 18 November, 2013

White Dead-nettle. Solden Hill
18 November, 2013

By this time I too was bedraggled, but I had reached my destination - several large clumps of Bracken. I spent several minutes carefully examining the fronds and found - not a sausage. Certainly not a Little Black Pudding. I'll try again in a few months, this time choosing a bright and warm sunny day.

Friday, 15 November 2013

In praise of ivy.

Let's face it, ivy can be a nuisance. When we moved into our current house one wall was clad with it and had got completely out of hand. To remove it was beyond me, given the height it had reached, and I had it professionally removed - not a cheap job. From time to time in recent years, trees top-heavy with ivy have crashed down across the A361, blocking it for several hours. Lichenologists and bryologists hate it for the way in which it smothers tree trunks, destroying the surface as a habitat for lichens and mosses respectively. And yet...

Ivy belongs to a plant family called the Araliaceae. My copy of "The Families of Flowering Plants" by John Hutchinson, published in 1959, suggests the family has 250-260 members; more recent floras put the number at around 1500 species. This is partly because studies in tropical rain forests (it is largely a tropical and subtropical family) have led to the discovery of many new species. But it also reflects the fact that the parameters for defining the family are far from clear and it is likely that, as the genetics of the family are unravelled, the figure could change drastically again.

Ivy, our sole member of the family, is Hedera helix. I assume that this suggests that the plant stems form a helix as they grow upwards in the manner of runner beans, but I have rarely seen them adopt a helical habit. The species is found throughout Britain and from Norway across to Iran but is absent from Russia.
Ivy scrambling across the woodland floor.
Byfield Pocket Park, 15 November, 2013

So, what can be said in its favour? It is reasonably hardy though not bone-hardy; it will flourish in dry and gloomy conditions where little else can survive and it has some attractive forms with bright yellow variations of the leaves. So much for its gardening merits. What of relationship with other wildlife? A song dating from 1943 called Mairzy Dotes tells us that:

                        Mares eat oats and does eat oats 
                        And little lambs eat ivy.

In fact the plant is occasionally browsed by deer and cattle and has been used as emergency fodder over many centuries. Only one insect (Dasineura keifferi) forms galls on the developing flower buds and although caterpillars of the Holly Blue butterfly will feed on the foliage, as far as I am aware not one insect mines the leaves. For such a widespread plant this is a remarkably low usage. However, that is not the whole story. 
A calliphorid fly feeding on ivy nectar.
Byfield Pocket Park. 15 November, 2013

Ivy begins to flower in mid August and at the time of writing is still in flower in our village pocket park. The flowers are dioecious, that is, there are separate male and female flowers. In the third photograph the male flowers can be clearly seen beside the now-fruiting females. These flowers provide a copious supply of nectar and are besieged by many insects including hover flies, bees and even today (15 November) wasps were gorging on this energy-rich liquid. 

When Shelley, in his poem "Poet's Dream", wrote of "The yellow bees in the ivy bloom" * he was writing of something which must have been going on for, probably, millions of years. The flowers eventually lead to fruit which slowly ripen to be available to birds as the year draws to a close. Even now, with some branches bearing flowers, others bear almost-ripe berries. It is a clever strategy because, in late winter, hungry birds will gorge on these fruit, ensuring widespread dispersal of the seeds via their droppings.

Ivy with ripening fruit. Byfield Pocket Park
15 November, 2013
In my first photograph, showing ivy sprawling across a woodland floor, the leaves are of the classic shape as shown on millions of Christmas cards. However, it will be seen that the flowering/fruiting branches bear leaves of quite a different shape, being of a simple, more or less elliptic shape and far glossier than the palmate ones.

So, a pest or an asset to the countryside? As with so many questions of this type, it is a matter of opinion but during recent decades ivy seems, over many areas, to be getting out of control. Perhaps we should return to using it as fodder.

* In this year of Benjamin Britten's birth centenary I should mention that he set this poem beautifully for tenor voice in his "Nocturne", opus 60) 

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Mostly mosses

A chill must have gripped my readers' hearts when, in my last blog, I mentioned that I was considering checking out the mosses and liverworts of the Byfield area. But putting such thoughts aside I sallied forth a couple of days ago to renew my contact with these much-neglected plants.
Blue Roundhead, Stropharia caerulea?
Flower bed in Byfield. 8 November, 2013

In fact, the first organism to catch my attention as I passed the village hall was not a moss or a liverwort. Not a plant at all but a fungus. With a cap only 20 mm across it would have been easy to overlook it but its pale blue colour, glistening with slime made it stand out among some dark wood chippings. I am not a mycologist and therefore cannot be confident in my identification but, if it is not Blue Roundhead (Stropharia caerulea), it is certainly one of its close relatives.

I pressed on and after an hour or so had recorded half a dozen mosses and liverworts, all very common. On a fence post in the Pocket Park was Common Pincushion Moss (Dicranoweisia cirrata). 

Common Pincushion, Dicranoweisia cirrata. Byfield Pocket Park
8 November, 2013

Each moss species tends to favour a particular substrate - acid rock, alkaline rock, tree bark, bare soil and so on. A weathering fence post such as the one shown is a typical habitat for Common Pincushion.

Adjacent to the Pocket Park is a burial ground. Large areas of the "turf" were composed more of moss than grass, the culprit being Springy Turf-moss, Rhytiadelphus squarrosus. It is indeed very springy and pleasant to walk on - but try telling that to a gardener whose lawns are infested with it. It is a beautiful moss too under a microscope, a feature to which my photograph fails to do justice.

Springy Turf-moss, Rhytiadelphus squarrosus
Byfield burial ground, 8 November, 2013

My final call was the churchyard. (Come to think of it, its the final call for many of us.) Again, very commonplace mosses were present until, on a damp shady section of wall I saw something rather different. "Ah," I said to myself. "That looks like a Pouncewort." (Don't tell porkies. Admit you didn't have a clue!) O.K. other than recognising it as a liverwort, I really didn't know.  Once home, a bit of investigation with Watson (that's E.V.Watson*, not Sherlock Holmes' sidekick) I keyed it out as Lejeunea cavifolia. Latin names are often a bit of a mouthful but the common name is Micheli's Least Pouncewort. For once the Latin name seems simpler. 

Micheli's Least Pouncewort, Lejeunea cavifolia.
On wall, Byfield churchyard. 8, November, 2013

This liverwort is largely confined in Britain to Wales and the west country. It is only known from a handful of sites in Northamptonshire so I was smugly satisfied with my find. 

Once home, I paid attention to the porch over our own front door. It is constructed using a fissile limestone akin to Collyweston Slate and is a congenial home for many mosses. The most abundant of these proved to be Grey-cushioned Grimmia, Grimmia pulvinata, instantly recognisable from the way its setae (fruiting capsules) are curved over to bury their heads among the leaves. Long, whiskery leaf tips give it a greyish appearance.

I finally strolled around my back garden
Overhanging porch with a rich growth of mosses.
Byfield, 8 November, 2013
in search of Common Pocket-moss. It is unusual in appearance, looking like a minute fern. Very common, I have found it in many gardens growing on damp, bare soil and again I was not to be disappointed. The area in which I found it is constantly disturbed by weeding, hoeing and so on. It looks delicate but it is a tough little plant and survives against the odds.

Common Pocket-moss Fissidens taxifolius in my own garden
8 November, 2013



I was uneasy about the 'Pouncewort' so I sent a sample to Rachel Carter, the county bryophyte recorder. She identified it as a considerably commoner but close relative, Porella platyphylla, known as Wall Scalewort. 

* E.V.Watson, "British Mosses and Liverworts". First published in 1955 it is, with numerous revised editions, still perhaps the best introductory book on the subject.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Five hundred - and counting

On 3 November the total number of arthropods (insects, woodlice, centipedes, etc) recorded from Byfield Pocket Park passed the 500 mark and has now reached 506. The five hundredth species was a common beetle which I should have found long ago. Aphodius contaminatus is a rather small (about 5 mm) Dung Beetle, related to - but far less charismatic than - the scarab beetles of Egyptian fame, being a dull brown with darker markings. Nevertheless it is, like its Egyptian cousins, often found investigating dung, with rabbit droppings arousing interest.

Aphodius contaminatus found in Byfield Pocket Park
4 November, 2013
This beetle presented few difficulties but I also took a leaf beetle for which dissection of the genitalia will be required for identification. As the specimen is barely 3 millimetres long I fear it will remain unidentified.

At this time of the year it can be a challenge finding insects, although leaf litter can be productive. Insects may not be abundant but small linyphiid spiders - "money spiders" as they are popularly known - can be surprisingly common, so the total for the pocket park should continue to creep upwards. Failing that I'll blow the dust off my copy of E.V.Watson's "British Mosses and Liverworts" and see what this area has to offer.

It is obvious even to the naked eye that mosses can be very attractive; under a microscope they are often beautiful and their study is, I find, very rewarding. From time to time small creatures known as tardigrades will be found in the moss. These extraordinary animals can be frozen to near absolute zero temperatures and survive. Similarly they can be freeze-dried, boiled, subjected to theoretically lethal doses of radiation, - and still survive. It is not surprising that they are the subject of intense interest in university laboratories around the globe.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Boddington Meadow and Listerine

Corizus hyoscyami, found at Boddington Meadow
29 October, 2013
A blustery day but, with plenty of sunshine to enjoy, I took myself to Boddington Meadow. The first hour produced little of great interest but then my attention was caught by a brightly coloured bug on a dock leaf. I suspected it was Corizus hyoscyami, and consulting my books once home, this was confirmed.

For many years this insect was more or less confined to sandy coasts in the south-west of England and Wales.Then, a decade or so ago, it begin to steadily spread north and east across Britain. The cause of this is unclear; the usual suggestion is climate warming, and this may be true, but it seems likely that more subtle factors have played a part. I recorded it about 3-4 years ago from Byfield Pocket Park, but today's finding was still of interest. Rather surprisingly it does not yet appear to have acquired a common name. Hyoscyamus is the Latin name for Henbane, an extremely poisonous plant akin to Deadly Nightshade. In the time of Martin Lister, who first recorded this bug in Britain, it was generally found in association with Henbane, but nowadays a considerable number of plants also act as host. Martin Lister (1639-1712) was a Fellow of the Royal Society, physician to Queen Anne and the M.P for Brackley. He is still remembered via Listerine mouthwash. (What is the connection between Brackley and Listerine? - now there's a good pub-quiz question!)

Flies basking in autumn sunshine
Boddington Meadow. 29 October, 2013
As the afternoon wore on the temperature began to drop. However, tree trunks on the northern edge of the reserve were still bathed in sunshine, with dozens of flies taking advantage. Among these were several Noon Flies, Mesembrina meridiana, and my photograph shows three of these. All were females, recognisable as such because their eyes are separated (the eyes of males are almost touching). Other species present included Polietes lardarius, Calliphora vicina and Calliphora vomitoria.
Noon Flies basking in sunshine.
Boddington Meadow, 29 October, 2013

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Star Jelly and Ramshorns

In a friend's garden earlier today, I saw something glistening in a very damp lawn and was pleased to see that it was a slime mould; to be more precise it was Nostoc commune. This is not a rare species (and can be a problem for anyone wanting a bowling-green for a lawn) but, with its green-brown coloration, it is easily overlooked.
Nostoc commune in a lawn at Aston le Walls,
Northamptonshire. 23 October, 2013

In Northamptonshire it was once known as "Star Jelly" from the belief that it grew where a shooting star had hit the earth. A great deal of folk lore is attached to this strange organism. It is technically a cyanobacterium and I have no intention of going into details of its peculiar life; anyone thirsting for details can easily find these from a plethora of web-sites.

The first British reference to it apparently dates the 15th century, when it was recorded from Cornwall. It was referred to as "sterre-slyme" (star-slime) so, even then, a belief prevailed that it was associated with shooting stars. In dry conditions it takes on the appearance if a small piece of dry seaweed, but with the coming of rain it can swell quite rapidly.

Earlier in the day I was pleased to spot a Ramshorn Gall on an oak tree in Byfield Pocket Park. Whereas the Star Jelly has been known since 1440, this gall it has only been known in Britain since 1997. It too is easily overlooked, especially when it has become dry - as was the case with my specimen. Like many galls on oak trees, it was caused by a cynipid wasp, in this case Andricus aries. Since being first found near Maidenhead it has spread at remarkable speed through Britain and by 2010 had been found as far north as Perthshire, Scotland.

Ramshorn Gall caused by the wasp
Andricus aries. Byfield Pocket Park 23 October, 2013
A number of gall wasps are spreading north and west across Europe and many are finding their way into Britain so we may expect more 'invasions' like this in the future.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Angle Shades Moth

Angle Shades Moth at Harlestone Heath
Garden Centre, nerar Northampton
Strolling through a garden centre earlier today I was pleased to see a fine specimen of the Angle Shades Moth, Phlogophora meticulosa, on some bedding plants. The staff would be advised to get rid of the moth (although I wasn't going to tell them) because, although the adults are not a pest, the caterpillars certainly can be, nibbling away at unopened flower buds and so on. They feed on a wide range of plant leaves including dock, bramble, chickweed, birch and oak but seem to have a particular liking for potted Pelargoniums. These caterpillars are usually bright green with vague yellow markings and a darker green head. 

This handsome moth is quite variable in colour although the basic pattern does not vary. Thus there are specimens with a considerable amount of green in their wing colours whilst others have lovely lilac or pink shades. The example I saw was very obvious against the green foliage but with a background of dead or withered leaves it would be very well camouflaged indeed. 

Research suggests that there may be two species involved, more or less identical to each other in general appearance. One is resident in Britain with the second species being a summer migrant, coming to this country in considerable numbers. (Don't tell the Daily Mail!)

Robin's Pincushion

Most country dwellers will be familiar with this structure, found on various species of wild rose. In many books it is referred to as the rose bedeguar gall. Whatever one chooses to call it, it is a most remarkable structure and has been the subject of much research. 

Robin's Pin Cushion. Byfield Pocket Park
16 October, 2013
The gall is induced by a tiny (3-4 mm long) cynipid wasp, Diplolepis rosae, and it begins to develop when the wasp lays its eggs in the tissues of a rose leaf bud. Up to 100 eggs may be deposited and, as the eggs develop, the rose is somehow stimulated to produce the extra tissues to form the gall. Just how the rose is induced to produce these tissues remains something of a mystery. Inside the gall the wasp larvae begin to develop, taking their nourishment from the surrounding plant cells. Sometime in the autumn, usually around late October, the larvae are full-grown. They have stored up considerable reserves of fat, and these will sustain the banana-shaped grubs through the winter. They spend the winter in a form of hibernation known as a diapause. Round about the beginning of May the grub goes through a final moult and a few days later the wasp - now an adult - chews its way to the outside world. 
A closer view of the same gall.

Extraordinary though all this is, the story of the gall now becomes far more complex. As it develops more insects, mostly other species of wasp, begin to move in. Some will feed on the plant tissues but others, known as parasitoids, will begin to feed on the original wasp grubs. Eventually an exceedingly complex community develops and so far 14 different species have been identified from these galls, with even more from the galls on the continental mainland. The precise way in which all these "inquiline" species interact is still far from clear and to explain even a little of what is going on would make this a mega-blog. I would commend a fascinating article by Simon Randolph in British Wildlife Vol 24, No 1.  Members of the British Plant Gall Society are helping to take research further