Wednesday, 30 January 2013

January Flies

A cautionary note: if you are not particularly interested in flies, don't bother reading any further!

A sunny but breezy day at last brought out some flies, by which I mean diptera - House Flies, Blowflies and their kin.
Calliphora vicina, Byfield Pocket Park. 30 January, 2013

Sun-bathed tree trunks and fence posts in the Pocket park were occupied by Blowflies, all the specimens I took being examples of Calliphora vicina, probably the commonest fly in its genus. It is a robust insect with the jowls (the area beneath the eyes) distinctly yellow-orange. It will lay eggs on the tissues of living animals, upon which the maggots will then feed - a habit known as myiasis, but this species seems to confine its attacks to small mammals such as hedgehogs, especially when the body temperature is low and the creature is in a torpid state, as in hibernation. Some blowflies are now used in "maggot therapy", the maggots being applied to wounds, feeding on dead tissue and so cleaning up the area. A relative of Calliphora species, Lucilia sericata, is the most commonly used. In the same situation Dasyphora cyanicolor, a member of the House-fly family, was present in smaller numbers.

Also in the Pocket Park I swept an Escallonia shrub and was rewarded by a couple of Sepsis fulgens. Rather ant-like in appearance, Sepsid flies are sometimes called Scavenger Flies. S. fulgens, a species with black-tipped wings, is abundant around the dung of farmyard animals and, although it will feed on nectar, it also visits dung for protein, water and minerals. Identification is ticklish (the whole insect is little over 2mm long) but the fore-legs of the males are armed with various spines and protuberances to help separate the species; fortunately I took a male! Sepsid flies can often be seen in the warmer months walking around and waving their wings in the air and, unsurprisingly, it has been shown that this is part of a mating display. 

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Pilewort and the Doctrine of Signatures

The  Pilewort, better known as the Lesser Celandine, is a member of the Buttercup Family and is placed in the genus Ranunculus. It is not typically buttercup-like in appearance and Hudson placed in a separate genus, calling it Ficaria verna. Whatever botanists call it, its bright yellow, glossy  petals make it one of the best-known of spring flowers. (One old name for the plant was Golden Guineas.) 

Putting a gloss on it
The flowers are clearly designed for insect pollination and the yellow petals play a part - but not necessarily in the obvious way. Arctic buttercups have bowl-shaped flowers with glossy petals and it has been shown that the gloss deflects sunlight into the centre of the flower, helping to raise the temperature significantly and so encourage insect visits. Celandines flower early in the year when days are often chilly and it is tempting to suggest that they also offer a little warmth to would-be pollinators.

Tuberous roots on Celandine. 29 January, 2013

The roots bear a number of small, finger-like tubers, fancifully resembling haemorrhoids, earning the plant its old name of Pilewort. According to my 1923 edition of "Potter's "Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations", the tubers were indeed used as a treatment for piles, with an infusion of 1 ounce in 1 pint of boiling water, taken in "wineglassful doses", being recommended. Efficacious? Possibly, but all buttercups are acrid, poisonous and dangerous to cattle; I'd rather learn to live with a sore bum!  

I generally find it growing in rather wet ground, often by the side of streams, and John Clare clearly found it in similar situations:

                        How bright Pilewort blazes
                        Where ruddled sheep rubs
                        The old willow trunk by the side of the brook
                        Where soon for wild violets the children will look!

                                                 Clare's "Asylum poems".

The pile-like tubers were regarded in medieval times as a sign from God that the plant was to be used medicinally - although the doctrine dates back to pre-Christian times. According to this "Doctrine of Signatures" a plant will bear a clue, indicative of its use to man. Thus Pulmonaria officinalis has leaves blotched like diseased lungs, hence the common name of Lungwort; Viola tricolor has heart-shaped leaves suggesting it is helpful in the case of heart problems and the plant is known as Heart's Ease; the word "orchid" comes from the Greek orchis meaning "testicle" (from the shape of the root-tubers) and these tubers were used as an aphrodisiac in ancient times. There are many such cases.

The celandines in my garden will be open ere long, thus beating the arrival of the swallows; "celandine" is derived from the Greek chelidon - a swallow, as they were supposed to flower with the appearance of swallows. The Greater Celandine, Chelidonium majus is only distantly related, being put into a separate family. It is common around Byfield and, being of considerable interest, merits a separate blog

Monday, 28 January 2013

An Interesting Fungus

The fungus Skeletocutis nivea, Byfield,  28 January, 2013
A bright early morning sun coaxed me out for a brisk walk, but the sun was being mendacious. A sharp overnight frost had put a crust of ice on puddles and temporarily halted the thaw, leaving lingering patches of snow. Being a fool plucky Brit I pushed on, skirting the cricket pitch, knowing that my fortitude would be rewarded. At fine leg (or deep mid off) stands an oak tree and I was pleased to see that it bore several fruiting bodies of the fungus Skeletocutis nivea, known as Hazel Bracket. It is not rare but is easily overlooked. These specimens were about three metres above the ground and I would probably have missed them but for a Grey Squirrel prompting me to look up.

Young Yew, Taxus baccata, Byfield Pocket Park
I was pleased to note that a number of sapling Yew trees are flourishing in the Pocket Park. Like Holly, this species is doubtfully native to Northamptonshire but - also like Holly - has probably been bird-sown from the churchyard. 

Ten minutes later I was in the churchyard, where Snowdrop flower buds are swollen to the point where a few hours of sunshine will cause them to open. It won't be today! The Yews have been stripped of fruit long since by birds eager to feed on the red flesh (aril) surrounding the seed. The aril is not toxic and the highly poisonous seed will pass harmlessly through a bird's gut to be voided elsewhere.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

A Stroll down The Twistle

The Twistle is a twisting road forming the western boundary of Byfield and, with the sunshine clearing away the last, stubborn patches of snow (what a rapid thaw it has been!) Chris and I decided to walk its length. Here and there bunches of keys (technically samaras) clung stubbornly to Ash twigs. The Ash is an atypical (to my mind) member of the Olive Family, and looks little like its relatives lilac, privet and Forsythia. Some of the roadside hedging, including quite a lot of Elm, had been savagely cut back with a heavy-duty flail but in two or three years the scars will be just a memory.
Ash keys, Byfield, 27 January, 2013

 A little further on our walk we crossed a cutting of the old S.M.J.Railway (The Stratford upon Avon and Midlands Junction Railway), the old track bed noisome with rubbish but now full of flood water. 
Litter-strewn track bed of the S.M.J.Railway
Aubretia in a limestone wall, Byfield, 27 January, 2013

And so back to the village where, having braved all the recent weather, Aubretia Aubrieta deltoides, was in flower, hoping to attract the attentions of an early bumble bee. With the thoughts of insects in mind I gathered a few leaves of Cherry Laurel, Prunus laurocerasus, before we made our way home. These leaves are laced with cyanide in the form of hydrogen cyanide. This will knock out insects (and kill them if left too long) so I use it to subdue specimens whilst being examined. Sometimes an insect examined and left for dead will have recovered a few hours later and I have to re-catch it from the windows of my study.

Not the most exciting of walks perhaps but it blew away the cobwebs and built up an appetite for our evening meal.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Ivy: a feast in two acts

In my last blog, "Migrant Thrushes", I wrote of bushes being stripped of their fruits, and indeed this is true - but help is at hand. Ivy is one of the last native plants to flower, its nectar providing a final feast for many insects. As they gorged themselves on this sugary bounty they fulfilled their function of pollinating the plants and now, in the dark days of January, we are seeing the results; the berries are steadily swelling and beginning to take on purple tints. It won't be long before many creatures are again gorging themselves - not just birds such as thrushes and pigeons but mice, badgers, squirrels and even foxes will be tucking in. This is not surprising since the pith of ivy fruit is, according to the RSPB, as calorific as a Mars Bar!

There is a downside to all this: as ivy smothers the trunk of a tree virtually all mosses and lichens, starved of light, begin to disappear. This climber is not a parasite and does no direct damage to the tree on which it grows but about four years ago a number trees hereabouts, their crowns top-heavy with ivy, came crashing down in autumn gales, several of them blocking roads. It is not surprising that the growth should be so heavy for there are reports of ivy plants 400 years old.

Although we take ivy for granted, it is an intriguing plant, the only native representative of a largely tropical family, the Araliaceae. Many members of the family form lianas, those vines by which Tarzan made his way through film sets  African forests, to the delight of credulous kids like me who, intent on watching the exploits of Johnny Weissmuller, chose to ignore the strategically placed - and all too obvious - ropes.

The non-fruiting foliage differs from the leaves on fruiting branches, with pale veins making some forms popular with gardeners. John Clare inevitably observed these and wrote:

                         Save grey-veined Ivy's hardy pride
                         Round old trees by the Common side,
                         The hedgers toil oft scare the doves that browse
                         The chocolate berries on the Ivy boughs.

                                       Clare's "Shepherds Calendar", 1827
Ivy: palmate leaves on non-flowering branches
Smooth leaves on flowering branches
26 January: some fruit is almost ripe


Friday, 25 January 2013

Migrant Thrushes

Usually, by this time of the year, migrant thrushes, mainly, but not exclusively, from Scandinavia, will have visited our area in large - and sometimes huge - numbers. True, there have been a few Fieldfares about, but in rather small groups; as for Redwings, I have only seen singletons. I suspect that the flocks have moved on, our snow-covered landscape having little to offer. (As for resident thrushes, the local park has a couple of pairs of Mistle Thrushes but, worryingly, Song Thrushes seem to be absent.)

Although both Fieldfares and Redwings will take earthworms and other invertebrates, berries form a major part of their diet, yet hawthorn and other berry-bearing bushes have now been stripped of their fruit. This last autumn was particularly poor for sloes (and garden plums too) so another food source is absent. Birds leave sloes - the fruit of the Blackthorn - untouched until the fruit has become soft and semi-decayed; in this "bletted" state they become acceptable.

So this "Viking Invasion", as Trevor Hold called it, has temporarily stalled - but, like the original Vikings, they'll be back. Trevor penned a short, rather attractive poem on the subject:

                  The riming frost brings Viking
                  invaders from across the sea.
                  The village is besieged 
                  by cohorts of redwings.
                  Battalions of fieldfares.

                  They lurk till dawn in bushes
                  for berries to unfreeze,
                  then strip October's redness down
                  To bare brown boughs,
                  leaving behind mementoes of their pillage
                  like stains of purple blood.

                      "Viking Invasion" from "Chasing the Moon"

As I write it seems that, if our birds can hang on for another twenty four hours, the snow will be on the retreat and the good times will return - and perhaps the thrushes too.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

More Bits and Bobs

Tomorrow - or so we are told - a thaw should commence so, as I traipsed* through the Pocket Park I reflected on the possibility that it could be many months before I have snow under my boots again. Beneath the snow the soil is not frozen but is soft and waterlogged. Once the thaw begins we could be in trouble with flooding - again.

Raptors were frequent today, doubtless having to work extra hard to find prey. A Sparrowhawk worked its way, without success, along a hedgerow and a flock of Wood Pigeons scattered as a Buzzard passed overhead, even though they surely have little to fear from this scavenger - or do they? Propane gas guns boomed out at intervals in an endeavour to drive the pigeons off the oilseed rape, but as all the crops are under snow it all seemed rather pointless.

Once again I reflected how, in these conditions, we take note of organisms usually overlooked. Among these neglected groups are the lichens. They make a fascinating study and if I had more time... But then there are mosses, and fungi and snails and ...    
Anyway, Ash trees support many lichens with the species photographed, probably Arthonia radiata, being particularly common. It is found on a wide range of trees but stands out particularly clearly where the bark is smooth.

Arthonia radiata (?) on Ash
Catkins on Hazel Corylus avellana
There are maybe twenty to thirty hazels in the pocket park, coppiced in rotation. Here and there some were already displaying catkins. These are the male flowers and, as the pollen is dispersed by wind, it is not necessary for the plant to wait for insects to be on the wing. Even so, the majority are keeping their powder dry - literally.

* Traipsed. An odd word of uncertain origins but possibly connected with "trespass" and so ultimately from Old French.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Roly-polies and Scabby Little Pigs

A short flight of steps at the end of our garden leads down to the stream. These steps have fallen into disrepair and, prior to interruption by "the white stuff", I was busily reconstructing them. The old structures consisted in part of timber - now much rotten - and, as I removed the damp and crumbling pieces of wood, dozens of woodlice scurried away, seeking shelter. Virtually all were specimens of Porcellio scaber, whose name may be uncharitably translated as "scabby piglet". (Our word "pork" comes from the same root.) This species is generally grey but a few amber coloured specimens are usually present. The back is covered in tiny rough "scabs".

The woodlice weren't seeking shelter from birds. They are not often eaten by birds as each segment of the body hides a pair of glands which secrete a foul fluid, effectively repelling most would-be predators. The woodlice were in fact seeking darkness and damp conditions; being crustaceans woodlice can quickly get dessicated and so die. Another familiar species, Armadillidium vulgare, is able to partly prevent the danger of drying out by rolling into a ball. Some species within this genus can survive in near-desert conditions. Armadillidium has been given an enormous number of common names: pillbug (they were sometimes covered in honey and given to the sick), roly-poly, slater, parson's pigs, tinnyhogs, wood clocks, grammar sows, and so on.

Our pocket park also contains Platyarthrus hoffmannseggi. This is a blind, albino woodlouse which is found in the nests of ants, usually - as in the pocket park - the Yellow Meadow Ant. The ants do not seek to drive these interlopers away so it is assumed that they perform a service, possibly eating, and so removing, faeces. I initially thought that this species was rather rare but, when a few years ago I mapped the woodlice of Northamptonshire (well, somebody had to do it!) I found it to be common and widespread. 

The plates which form the back of a woodlouse are impregnated with lime, so they are often absent from acid environments such as heathland and moorland.

(My son. on reading this blog, asked, "What about Oniscus asellus?" Well, it is certainly present, both in my garden and in the Pocket park. It is a little larger than Porcellio scaber and has a rather glossy appearance. OK Jeremy?)

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Garden Birds and Great Apes

Like many thousands of people throughout Britain I have been keeping an eye on our garden birds. The usual visitors have been present: Great Tit, Blue Tit, Coal Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Wood Pigeon, Collared Dove, Blackbird, Fieldfare, Redwing (1), Jackdaw, Dunnock, Goldfinch, Chaffinch and Blackcap (1). Of equal interest - and greater concern - are the missing species. There have been no Starlings, no Song Thrushes, no Greenfinches, no House Sparrows - and the Wren, Troglodytes troglodytes, normally resident in our garden, has failed to put in an appearance.  All rather worrying. I eye our local cats with increasing suspicion.

I have included the Latin name for the Wren because, as I began today's blog I recalled a curious fact. The first person to give a Latin name to the Common Chimpanzee was the great French naturalist Etienne Geoffroy St Hilaire - generally (and unsurprisingly) referred to simply as Geoffroy - who, in 1812, called it Troglodytes niger. It was then pointed out to him that the generic name of Troglodytes could not be used as it had already been applied to the Wren. The Common Chimpanzee is now Pan troglodytes.

All this caused consternation for an up-and-coming dance troupe called Troglodytes' People and they were forced to hurriedly relaunch themselves as Pan's People. (Tony, you have been warned before about silliness...)

On a more serious note, cold may not be a serious problem for Wrens as they are known to indulge in "communal roosting" when individuals, often from a considerable distance, will converge on a suitable site such as an old squirrel drey and pack themselves in for mutual warmth. A nestbox (11x14x15cm) has been known to contain 61 Wrens, tightly packed with their heads pointed inwards. (quoted by Robert Burton, British Wildlife Vol 21. Number 3, p. 159). A bird knowing of a suitable site will call in other birds from the neighbourhood to share the roost and help in the fight for survival.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Cedar of Lebanon?

Cedar tree in Byfield Pocket Park
My friend Oliver Tynan and I often have long conversations about this and that, and if I mention that I have been to the Pocket Park he is wont to ask, "And how is my Cedar of Lebanon doing?" Oliver and his wife Carol did lots of planting soon after the park had been created and the tree to which he refers, here looking lovely in the snow, is a prominent feature.

It is certainly a cedar but whether it is really Cedar of Lebanon, Cedrus libani... The truth is that, until it produces cones, I can't be sure but at the moment it is looking far more like a Deodar, Cedrus deodara. It is a handsome tree and, as Shakespeare didn't say, "A cedar by any other name would smell as sweet". Sadly I have never found any insects associated with it - but I'm being picky.

The oak in my second picture is a different matter altogether. Oaks support an enormous number of insects, many of them causing galls. In my much-thumbed copy of Redfern and Shirley's "British Plant Galls", the keys to those found on oak cover 29 pages - far more than for any other plant.
Pedunculate Oak, Byfield Pocket Park
21 January, 2013

In Britain there are two native species of oak. Those found in Byfield's Pocket Park are all Pedunculate Oak, Quercus robur. (Our other British species is the Sessile Oak, Quercus petraea, largely - but not exclusively - found in northern and western Britain, growing on neutral to acid soils.)
Knopper Galls in Byfield Pocket Park

I have recorded many galls from oaks in this park including the Knopper Gall, caused by a tiny wasp-like insect Andricus quercuscalicis. The odd thing is that the wasp goes through a two-stage life-cycle, one stage involving the Pedunculate Oak and the other stage requiring Turkey Oak Quercus cerris, yet I am not aware of any Turkey Oaks in the vicinity. But I am on the lookout!

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Snowdrops (1)

These early weeks of 2013 can hardly be allowed to pass without mention of snowdrops. The genus consists of about twenty species, all more or less confined to the east Mediterranean region, especially Turkey. Our own Galanthus nivalis is the most widespread of the snowdrops. My old 1962 copy of Clapham, Tutin and Warburg's "Flora of the British Isles" states that it is "probably native" to Britain but since then opinion has shifted; it is now generally considered to be an introduction to these islands, perhaps arriving during the 16th century. As for our county, Druce, in his "Flora of Northamptonshire", published in 1930, is quite forthright on the matter stating: "Alien...with no pretensions to being indigenous in this county". Having said that, snowdrops are certainly very well established here, especially in orchards, old churchyards and so on. 

I have an equivocal view of them as they are abundant in my garden to the point of being a weed. Clive Stace's "New Flora of the British Isles" states of the species: "Rarely seeding" but my plants seed prolifically and I have to dead-head them in order to remove the seed capsules. I tolerate my snowdrops as the flowers are visited with enthusiasm by early bees, probably largely for the nectar but perhaps taking pollen too. Whether other insects visit the flowers is a moot point ; I have never noted any other species. At the moment they are snug beneath the snow but should begin blooming as soon as the thaw has set in.

The name Galanthus is derived from the Greek, meaning "milk flower"; as for nivalis, it simply means "of snow". Greater Snowdrop Galanthus elwesii, Caucasian Snowdrop G. caucasicus  and Pleated Snowdrop G. plicatus are all naturalised here and there, mostly in the southern counties of England.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Snow comes to Byfield

Wall in Church Street, Byfield
Golden Privet in Westhorpe Lane
I am no photographer but, 10 to 15 cm of snow having fallen on Byfield, I couldn't resist going for a stroll and capturing a few images. A long wall is a feature of Church Street and the individual stones had been picked out by the snow. This wall is important historically and, I believe, is a listed building, but I like it for the array of plants which find a home in the mortar-filled crevices.

The Victorians can be admired for many of their innovations but it is difficult to forgive them for privet hedges. Dull, labour-intensive and pointless they still blight many a garden frontage. I will, however, make an exception of the Golden Privet Ligustrum ovalifolium 'Aureum'. It makes most attractive shrub when grown as an individual and even as a hedge, as here in Westhorpe Lane, where it is looking cheerful in the snow.
Westhorpe Pump
This hedge on the Boddington
Road consists entire
ly of Ash
The much renovated Westhorpe pump stood out as quite a striking feature and interestingly, despite the bitter weather, water was still flowing freely at the base. 

Turning into Boddington Road I was struck by the fact that virtually all the large trees along the roadside are Ash, as are the hedgerows. It is a reminder of how devastating the effects will be if Ash dieback is not halted. Several of the Ash trees bore large bracket fungi, showing that Ash Heart Rot, Inonotus hispidus has begun its deadly attack. This affliction will almost certainly lead to the death of the trees.
A bracket fungus Inonotus hispidus on Ash
The Silk Tassel Bush Garrya elliptica

On the last leg of my walk a lovely specimen of Garrya elliptica caught my attention. The catkins on this shrub can reach well over 10cm in length and, given the right setting, this makes a splendid plant.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Black Winter Freezes to his Seat

Norway Spruce viewed from my
bedroom window. 17 January, 2013
There is understandable concern about the current spell of harsh weather and its effects upon our wildlife. I am old enough to recall, albeit patchily, the dreadful winter of 1947 and can remember train after train - steam engines of course, belching out vast quantities of smoke and steam - slogging through blizzard conditions to get desperately needed coal supplies to London. Milk bottles stood on the doorstep with their tops pushed off as the contents turned to ice and expanded. Many birds such as Kingfisher and Grey Heron, with virtually all lakes and rivers frozen solid, surely must have perished in great numbers - and yet they recovered.

These thoughts passed through my mind as I replenished the grain and nuts at my bird-feeding station. A dozen species have paid a visit during the past 24 hours and a flock of Long-tailed Tits numbering 10 or 12 or so has hung around all day, making visit after visit to this food source; if the bitter conditions continue this food could be the difference between survival and death.

In the case of insects, they'll have to fend for themselves. Insect bodies contain antifreeze proteins (AFP's). These are polypeptides which afford a considerable measure of protection but will those insects which have moved northward to colonise Britain in recent years, such as the Violet Carpenter Bee, have the required level of AFP's to survive? If this very cold spell persists then recording insects over the coming few months will be very interesting. 

Incidentally hundreds of viewers have contacted me about the title for this particular blog (Tony, don't tell lies!). It is from a sixteenth century poem called "Shine Out" by that prolific writer Anon, and forms the wonderful introduction to Benjamin Britten's Spring Symphony.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Midwinter Miscellany

Silver Birch in Byfield Pocket park
    I visited Byfield Pocket Park this morning, crunching my way through the snow and not feeling optimistic about seeing any notable wildlife on such a bleak day. The trees stood out against a brilliant blue sky, giving a false impression of the conditions. A Marsh Tit, Parus palustris caught my attention with its pitchu-pitchu call; a close relative, the Coal Tit Parus ater was also present but otherwise things were rather quiet. A Cotoneaster, which only a few days ago had borne many berries, has now been stripped clean, probably by various species of thrush.

Several of the tree trunks in the area are stained with what at first looks like an orange-coloured lichen, but in fact is an alga, Trentepohlia aurea. It seems to be getting commoner, as I cannot recall seeing it beyond about ten years back. Around here it is usually on the bark of Ash trees but it is often found elsewhere.

In these conditions hungry birds seem to get a little less cautious, taking risks they would normally avoid, and I nearly trod on a pheasant as it rummaged single-mindedly through the undergrowth. It blasted into the air and whirred away cackling frantically. I'm not sure which of us was the more startled!
The alga, Trentepohlia aurea, in Byfield Pocket Park

The North Wind Doth Blow

Cottages in Byfield 14 January, 2013
Well actually it is a west wind coming up against cold continental air over Britain, and it has brought snow - quite a lot of it!

Pretty though it is, the snow creates problems for many birds. Lots of gardens in the village have bird feeding stations of some sort and my garden is no exception. I was relieved to see a Great Tit, Parus major, pecking away at peanuts today because I haven't seen one for weeks. Great Tits seems to be particularly susceptible to Avian Pox, a virus which is currently a problem in Britain, but not only was one at my feeding station but another one was present in the Pocket Park, its see-saw call ringing clear.

I have given the Latin name for the Great Tit - as I am doing for many organisms - partly because quite a number of viewings of this site have been from the United States, where English vernacular names may mean little, but also to avoid more general confusion. For instance the name "Bluebell" may be perfectly clear to someone living in England but in Scotland the name is applied to the Harebell Campanula rotundifolia, a quite unrelated plant. In California the name refers to Phacelia campanularia - so bear with me if at times I seem pedantic.  I'll be considering English Bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scriptus, in a later blog.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Bufo bufo

My friend and fellow Byfield inhabitant Harry Ferminger (a curious surname, apparently meaning "cheese-maker", cf French 'fromage') has a lovely cottage - and a very large garden. When he approached Chris for a helping hand she and I were happy to oblige. One challenge was a gigantic compost heap which had accumulated over many years and he wanted it "dismantling". At first I had visions of barrow loads of compost for my allotment - but then I remembered that I'd given it up! Nevertheless we were happy to visit him earlier today and get to work with shovel and fork.

Common Toad Bufo bufo from Harry's garden 
In the process of dismantling the heap I disturbed a Common Toad Bufo bufo. It was unharmed and I moved it from the compost heap and placed it among dead leaves beneath a nearby bush of Laurustinus Viburnum tinus which was in full flower.

As a child I was once playing in our front garden when my ball rolled under the caravan at the side of the house. Crawling under the van to retrieve it I spotted a large toad squatting there and was horrified to see that the poor creature was covered in maggots. I now know that it was a victim of a fly called Lucilia bufonivora (the specific name means "toad-eater"). It is not a particularly rare fly but I have never taken a specimen of the adult; perhaps I should be glad that isn't very common.

Viburnum tinus in Harry Ferminger's garden.

Anyway, the toad in Harry's garden seemed in good health and, all being well, it will live to eat flies rather than being eaten by them. Incidentally this species is called Common
Toad to distinguish it from the much rarer Natterjack Toad, itself a specialist of dune slacks.

Lucilia is a genus of blowflies and includes many so-called bluebottles, the commonest of which is Lucilia caesar. Not only is this species abundant in our gardens but is only too common in our houses, where its unpleasant habits make it far from welcome.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Trevor Hold

As a boy I lived in Northampton - Kingsthorpe to be more precise. Among the friends I had at the time was a boy who lived in the next street, Bembridge Drive, called Trevor Hold. I liked Trevor but he wasn't a member of the street urchin group to which I belonged. It wasn't that he was stand-offish, but when he was younger Trevor had been afflicted with polio and this limited his activities in terms of games and so on. Am I mistaken here? I don't believe so and yet, in a poem composed in 1983, he writes:

                 Playing with friends on a building-site
                 among the bricks and rubble,
                 the hot sun beating down on the dust
                 and the sweet smell of the pineapple weed,
                 playing with friends on a building-site
                 a nausea fills my eyes and throat:
                 I crave for meadows and blue skies.

                                          "Illness" from Mermaids and Nightingales.

The polio had affected his left arm and, as therapy, his parents had encouraged him to play the piano. To say that this was effective is an understatement. I was present when Trevor's playing led him to win a local talent competition and, to cut a long story short, he went on to eventually become a lecturer in music at Liverpool University (picking up a DMus on the way) and begin composing. His output includes a piano concerto, a symphony and a host of song cycles and other compositions with many, such as his overture 'My Uncle Silas', having a distinct Northamptonshire element (H.E.Bates, author of the "Uncle Silas" stories, came from Rushden).

As a poet he took many of his ideas from the landscape and wildlife of Northamptonshire - much as did one of his heroes, John Clare. As I wander through the fields and woodlands around Byfield I feel an ever-increasing affinity with Trevor who, like me, loved our gentle, unassuming landscape where  

              Skylarks fly up like brown clods from the ploughland,
              Twigs break into chaffinches,
              Hedges chant with blackbird and wren
              And from a pinetop sprouts a goldcrest song.

                                              "A Song in April" from Caught in Amber 

Trevor died tragically young in 2004, aged 64.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Keck, Kicksies and Cow Parsley

Only a couple of days ago I was having a whinge about the greyness of the weather. Today the sun is shining brightly, rapidly clearing away the traces of early-morning mist. Two cock blackbirds were squaring up to each in a territorial dispute in my back garden and our neighbour's Shrubby Honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) is becoming wreathed in blossom. It bore a handful of flowers as early as 2nd January and it will be interesting to see which insects are the first to pay them a visit.

In Banbury Lane the leaves of Keck are pushing through. In most floras it is called Cow Parsley but around Northampton as kids we always called the plant keck (The word is dismissed by Chambers' Dictionary as a "false singular").  In his Asylum Poems John Clare refers to "Kicksies white" and the plant has a host of other regional names. At Byfield Coffee Club earlier today friends came up with 'Queen Anne's Lace' and 'Lady's Needlework'. The plant caught my eye this morning because one of the leaves bore a leaf mine (a brown patch at the top of the photograph). It is the work of a small fly, Phytomyza chaerophylli, a common and widespread insect. The plant suffers little or no harm and in a few weeks it will be carrying a froth of white flowers.

The stems of this plant were once used - and perhaps still are - as a sweet pickle and many of its close relatives such as chervil, parsley and angelica are still used in the kitchen.

Witches' Brooms

Silver Birch (Betula pendula)
with Witches Brooms, Byfield
Strolling along Whitecroft Lane towards the Boddington Road I came across a number of Silver Birch trees and was struck by the number of Witches Brooms' present on one specimen. Half a dozen trees had been planted but only this one was so blighted.

When first I began to study botany the true nature of these strange growths was little understood. These were vaguely attributed to "a physiological disorder", which was probably another way of saying "we don't know". In fact scientists have yet to fully unravel the causes of these growths but there is no doubt that fungi play a part. In the case of Silver Birches the fungus involved is Taphrina betulina (sometimes referred to as Taphrina turgida). On occasion these brooms have been known to measure several metres across and take over virtually all of the crown of the tree, yet there seems to be little effect on overall vigour.

Other trees will carry witches' brooms and in nearly all cases a species of Taphrina is involved, although in the case of False Acacia, Robinia pseudacacia, a phytoplasma (a bacteria-like organism) is responsible.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Spider House Rules

Another mild, dull day but, ever the optimist, I sallied forth to the pocket park. Over recent weeks I have generally been greeted by the chak-chak of Fieldfares but all was very quiet.

Again I noted leaves of bramble mined by the Glossy Bramble Pigmy Moth Stigmella splendidissimella, first recorded here about three weeks ago. This is a widespread and common 'micro-moth' although I cannot recall ever having found the adult insect.

Now, about those spiders...

Passing my net through some shrubs in the hope of catching insects I took instead a small (2 mm long) female Linyphiid spider. Commonly known as Money Spiders, there are about 270 species of Linyphiids in Britain and identification needs care. As it happens, although I made a dog's breakfast of dissecting the abdomen I manage to isolate the key structure, the epigyne, and was able to identify the spider as Erigone atra. This is an abundant species in many habitats and even occurs commonly on garden lawns.

Few spiders can by identified by the naked eye but an exception is Amaurobius similis; just before commencing my homeward journey I turned over a stone and revealed a specimen of this very common species. It is frequently found in stacks of house bricks and so on and is also abundant around houses where it spins a very sticky, lacy grey web around window frames. I was surprised to find that I hadn't recorded it previously in the Pocket Park and this brings the total number of arthropods (insects, spiders, woodlice, etc) for the site up to 434.  

Monday, 7 January 2013

If Winter comes can Spring be far behind?

Tracks of Muntjac Deer Muntiacus muntjak
Well actually it can. It certainly seemed seemed quite a long way off this morning when I ventured out in grey, drizzly conditions. But I know what Shelley meant because here and there were hints of things to come.

I was heading east but once again, as on my recent visit to Parson's Spinney - in the opposite direction - I found I was following deer tracks. This time it was a Muntjac Deer - or indeed several. I have included a ten pence coin for scale (last time I used a 50 pence coin, but times are getting hard). A buzzard passed over, mewing peevishly, hoping perhaps to find a road-kill on the A361. It was not until I re-entered the village that there were any signs of spring. Winter Aconite was in bud and, given a spot of bright sunshine, the flowers should open up fully.

With few insects about at this time of the year many trees and shrubs rely on wind pollination. Catkins are therefore frequent and those on a Corkscrew Hazel, Corylus avellana 'Contorta' in Church Way were developing nicely although they'll need a few more weeks yet. Far more spectacular were the catkins on a Silk Tassel Bush, Garrya elliptica, in the garden of my friend Harry Ferminger. A male plant produces by far the best catkins and, although some garden writers dislike the plant it can, against a pale background, look stunning.

Silk Tassel Bush, Byfield
The shrub was first collected in North America by David Douglas (of Douglas Fir fame) and named after Nicholas Garry, of the Hudson Bay Company, who had been of great assistance to Douglas. Harry grows it as a free-standing shrub but when I grew it at my previous house, I trained it against a fence. It is given its own family, the Garryaceae, containing this single genus. (Some botanists place Aucuba in this family too, but there is little obvious resemblance between the two genera and Aucuba is more normally included in the Cornel Family, Cornaceae.)                                                                  
A dull day was reprieved by an attractive
sunset over Harry Ferminger's pond.


Sunday, 6 January 2013

Stinking Hellebore

The Stinking Hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, is common in gardens around Byfield and raises a similar problem to that of the Roast Beef Plant Iris foetidissima (blog for 29 November 2012). It was known to Druce (George Claridge Druce: "The Flora of Northamptonshire) who, writing in 1930, described it as "rare"; he knew of no locations for this plant in the west of Northamptonshire even though, being quite a large and robust species, it is not likely to have been overlooked. It is a rather undistinguished plant and seems unlikely to have been deliberately introduced to gardens (although I suppose the evergreen palmate leaves are quite attractive) begging the question: why is it so frequent around Byfield?

Helleborus foetidus in my back garden
 All the Hellebores, including the Christmas Rose, Helleborus niger, have petal-like sepals (sepals which function as petals are sometimes referred to at tepals); those of H. foetidus are yellowish-green usually with a purple edge. They appear early in the the year, often in January, and are visited by bees and other insects; for this reason it is given a guarded welcome in my garden. Unfortunately the plant not only has an unpleasant smell when bruised but is highly poisonous due to the presence of various glycosides. At one time it was prescribed as a violent emetic but its use has long been discontinued; it was also used to treat children with intestinal worms and there is evidence that this was frequently fatal. Legend suggests the Alexander the Great died from hellebore poisoning.


Saturday, 5 January 2013


As I sat down to write this blog I realised that I didn't have the foggiest idea of how Witch-hazels got their name. I suspected that it had nothing to do with witches, and in this I was right: it appears that "witch" as used here comes from the Old English wican - to go away. This still left me puzzled but perhaps it refers to a preparation made from the bark: it makes bruises go away. There is an alternative possibility: the word "wice" in Old English means pliant or bendable and, like our own native hazel, Witch-hazels could be used to weave "wicker" baskets. So, as I sat down to write this blog I realised that I didn't know how Witch-hazels got their name...and I still don't know!

Hamamelis mollis

I grow the Chinese Hamamelis mollis and it seems happy, having grown steadily since being planted four years ago. I have also added the rusty-flowered hybrid Hamamelis x intermedia "Aphrodite", the parents of which are H. mollis and a Japanese species, Hamamelis japonica. Witch-hazels are not found in Europe and are not at all related to our own native hazel (photographed in Byfield Pocket Park last spring) but their foliage and habit are broadly similar.

Hamamelis x intermedia

Both my Witch-hazels are in flower now and have a spicy fragrance, presumably to attract insects but I have yet to note any visitors. In fact it seems that, even in the wild, insect pollination is not commonly observed. The rarely-grown North American species, Hamamelis virginiana, flowers in late autumn and it has been reasonably postulated that all Witch-hazels flower in these chillier months to avoid competition for pollinating insects. I have to admit that if Hamamelis species grew in mid-summer I wouldn't bother with them but as I look out of my window now their appearance pleases me. My specimens also have glorious autumn foliage of crimson-orange - although they were a disappointment this last season. 

Hazel, Corylus avellana in Byfield Pocket Park

Friday, 4 January 2013

To Parson's Spinney

Another fine day persuaded me to stretch my legs along the disused railway track bed which runs west from Byfield. This was the Stratford-upon-Avon and Midland Junction Railway - the SMJ - otherwise known as the Slow, Miserable and Jolty Railway.

The Track Bed

As my photograph shows, the track bed is still easily walkable over some stretches and provides easy access to Parson's Spinney.

I found that I was following some deer tracks, the size and shape of the "slots" (50 pence coin for scale) showing that they were Fallow Deer. Like me, they were also making for Parson's Spinney. This is a rather attractive patch of wet woodland in which I have taken many Dolichopodid flies - known as "dollies" for short. The drier patches support several fine cherry trees, recognisable by the horizontal stripes on the bark. This species is Prunus avium, sometimes known as the Gean, and is a wonderful sight in late spring when, as A.E Housman wrote:

                                                            Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
                                                                                    Is hung with bloom along the bough.

I will doubtless be visiting this site several times over the coming months in search of insects. However, today only one fly was taken, Sylvicola fenestralis, known as the Window fly from the place where it is often seen - but here quite a long way from the nearest window.
Wild Cherry  Prunus avium