Thursday, 28 February 2013

Life under Stones

A bright sun lured me to Byfield Pocket Park (Oh no, not again!) in the hope that insects had been similarly enticed. In the chilly conditions they proved to be more sensible than  me and, apart from a few Sepsid flies, stayed concealed.

I idly turned over a few large stones (replacing them carefully) and revealed large numbers of woodlice. When investigating timber a few weeks ago I found Porcellio scaber to be by far the most abundant (blog for 23rd January) but today the different microhabitat overwhelmingly yielded Oniscus asellus, shown on this rather poor photograph (I had the wrong camera with me) with the  slug Tandonia (Milax) budapestensis - a common slug in this situation, easily recognised by the yellowish "keel" along the back. 

Beneath the stones were several spiders: Lepthyphantes tenuis, Diplostyla concolor and Bathyphantes gracilis - all very common species previously recorded from the park. The equally common harvestman, Nemastoma bimaculatum, was also present. This was a new record and brings the total of arthropods (woodlice, centipedes, spiders, insects, etc) to 435.

Given the sunshine this was a disappointing foray but promising signs are everywhere. Daffodils are in bud - none yet having the temerity to flower - and the buds are also swelling on oak, beech and lime. Catkins bedeck several species of tree: hazel, birch and alder and I refuse to be downcast.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Snail to the Rescue

Yesterday, despite the dull, chilly conditions, I decided to visit Byfield Pocket Park with a cunning plan. I should have known better.

There is a small stand of Norway Spruce in one corner of the area and I suspected that the leaf litter beneath them could be rather acid. My plan was to gather a handful to bring home for investigation because, in the past, I had taken some interesting spiders in a similar habitat. There were none! True there were a few specimens of the Fast Woodlouse, Philoscia muscorum, but that was it...almost.

I had been looking for small arthropods scurrying around and almost overlooked a tiny snail shell. It looked like a Two-toothed Door Snail, Clausilia bidentata, and examination with a good lens confirmed my suspicion. It wasn't a brilliant deduction because in fact this is the commonest of these door snails, often being abundant - but it was a new record for the Pocket Park.
Clausilia bidentata, Byfield pocket Park
25 February, 2013

So, not a completely wasted day but oh, for some warmth and sunshine!

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Village Walls

Most Northamptonshire settlements make use of local stone for many walls and other structures; Byfield is no exception and on a raw day, with a biting easterly wind, I avoided the open countryside and stuck to the village.

Limonite-streaked sandstone in a
Byfield wall. 21 February, 2013

Invariably the material used hereabouts is sandstone of Jurassic age, often streaked with iron oxide in the form of limonite. For most walls the stone is roughly dressed with a hammer and in this form is known as rubblestone. It may be more carefully dressed and even, as in the case of Byfield Manor House, given a smooth surface and, when closely jointed with little mortar, it is known as ashlar. (A better photograph of this fine building is featured in Diana Sutherland;'s excellent book, "Northamptonshire Stone".)

A neatly-dressed wall in Church
 Street, Byfield
Ashlar work,
The Manor House at Byfield

Fossils are common although few are undamaged. Belemnites are among the most frequent but their cephalopod relatives, ammonites, are only occasionally found: the only example I could find was on the wall of Kings Farthing, in Banbury Lane. 

Belemnite in wall.
Byfield, 21 February, 2013
Ammonite in the wall of Kings Farthing, Byfield
Aubretia in flower, Byfield. 18 February, 2013
The very sticky web of Amaurobius similis
Byfield.  21 February 2013
Walls are home to many organisms. Plants enjoy the limy mortar, particularly in rubblestone walls and Aubretia (Aubrieta deltoides) is already in flower. (My blog for 17 December, "Wall Plants", featured more of these.) Also occupying these crevices are spiders, with the grey web of Amaurobius similis being a familiar sight.
Some building stone in Byfield consists of
little but fossils

I am refraining from mentioning mosses and lichens, these deserving many blogs to themselves - from an expert.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Around the Village

Today I criss-crossed the village looking for signs of spring but, despite glorious sunshine, not a lot caught my attention. In the Pocket Park a surprising number of Sepsid flies (in this case Sepsis fulgens) were on the wing and a Blowfly basking on a leaf turned out to be Calliphora vicina. There was little to get excited about.

My walk took me down Westhorpe Lane, arguably the prettiest street in the village. On a grassy verge Crocuses were in flower and Iris reticulata provided a vivid splash of purple.
I was pleased to see our own native Privet, Ligustrum vulgare, in  a garden hedge. It had been left unclipped and was consequently bearing masses of its black fruit. They seem to have been eschewed by the local birds but in really harsh conditions I'm sure they'll prove acceptable. The flowers are very fragrant to the point of being almost sickly but I am fond of them. Not so beekeepers. I  am told that Privet honey is quite nauseous but it probably gets blended in with that of other flowers, so it is surely not a problem. The plant is a fairly good indicator of limy soils and is therefore not uncommon throughout Northants, particularly in the east. 

Inevitably John Clare had something to say on the subject:

White Dog-rose, woodbine and the
On the young gales their rural sweetness
Wild Privet, Ligustrum vulgare, in fruit.
Byfield.  19 February, 2013

Clare's Village Minstrel II, publ.1821

Monday, 18 February 2013

Over Solden Hill

The sunny conditions prevail, so yesterday I strode out to do a circular walk taking in Solden Hill (otherwise known as Farndon Hill) and West Farndon.

Byfield from the flanks of Solden Hill. 18 February, 2013
Garden Gnomes on Solden Hill. 18 February, 2013

Solden Hill is not particularly impressive and as I crossed the highest point I was only at 184 metres. Nevertheless, despite a hint of mist I was afforded a fine view of Byfield, its tall church spire framed by trees. A small clump of trees is home to a flourishing colony of Gnomus vulgaris subsp. hortensis (sometimes given specific status as Gnomus hortensis). The colony has grown over the years but breeding habits remain a mystery as no babies or juveniles have been found.

On this higher ground there was a chill wind. It was never troublesome but I was glad that the next stage of my walk was in the lee of a south-facing hedgerow. I continued heading east and gradually dropped down to the pretty hamlet of West Farndon (where is - or was - East Farndon?). In gardens the bird feeders were attracting large numbers of Goldfinches, with their tinkling calls; chaffinches were pinking and occasionally were moved into a rendering of their full song ending with a flourish. (I once taught a pupil whose surname was Pink. He was puzzled by this as, being Afro-Caribbean, it could hardly refer to his skin. I explained that 'pink' was simply an old name for a Chaffinch and therefore belonged with a group of surnames related to birds, such as Bunting, Wren, Crane, Finch and Raven. He seemed vaguely relieved.)

Until I reached West Farndon there had been a dearth of insects but Common Dung Flies Scathophaga stercoraria were present on sheep droppings and I secured a very common bluebottle, Eudasyphora cyanella, which was basking on Ivy foliage. Snowdrops were in flower but little else; the chilly start to the month has held things back.

The final stage of my walk was a longish slog along a fairly busy road, not the most attractive of conditions but I was heartened by soaring skylarks doing their best to mimic Ralph Vaughan Williams. Fieldfares chak-chakked in annoyance at my approach.

In six weeks time Chis and I are off to France on a walking holiday and I'm some way short of being fit enough, but today was helpful - and very pleasant too.


On 15th February I was walking along the base of the huge earthen retaining wall at Boddington Reservoir when I saw a Dandelion in flower. Nothing remarkable in that; Dandelions are known to everyone in Britain from early childhood not only for their golden flowers but their globular fruiting heads which we, as children, called clocks. The leaves and roots are edible but are diuretic - my grandmother called them "Wet-the-bed".(Its French name is 'pissenlit'.)     

The fact that the plant was growing at the foot of this bank is probably not significant but Dandelions do seem to favour such a spot. John Clare wrote:

And Dandelions like suns will bloom
Aside some bank or hillock low.

              From "Village Minstrel"

As with many early Dandelions the plant 
I found had a sessile inflorescence, i.e. 
Dandelion at Boddington Reservoir.
15 February, 2013
it was stemless. I have called it a Dandelion as
though this is a straightforward species, but this is far from true. Despite being visited by many "pollinating" insects, the actual seed is produced without fertilization and is therefore wholly female in origin. This arrangement, known as apomixis, has resulted in a huge number of "microspecies" existing, with about 230 being currently recognised in Britain.

The word dandelion is said to derive from the French dente de lion - 'lion's tooth' and refers to the plant's jagged leaves.

Incidentally, the earthen bank referred to earlier is home to a very fine colony of Cowslips. But that can wait for another blog.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Byfield Pool and Boddington Reservoir.

Jews Ear Fungus on Elder near Byfield
15 February, 2013
The sun shone enticingly through the bedroom windows from an early hour and I resolved to go for a longish walk. I passed through the village and set off down Pit Lane, invariably - and appropriately - known locally as Muddy Lane. A Sparrowhawk was ahead of me along the bridle path, flying for twenty paces or so then, as I grew near, flying on for a for another twenty until it tired of my presence and veered away.  i had no real plans to catch flies but I had my net with me and was rather pleased to secure a Heleomyzid fly, Tephrochlamys rufiventris, from ivy foliage. It is not rare but I haven't found it in this area before. I pushed on along the disused Stratford-upon-Avon and Midlands Junction Railway, passing along the southern edge of Parson's Spinney. Beside the railway track one trunk of Elder bore a large array of Jew's Ear fungi (see blog for 22nd December). I'd walked this section before but was still dismayed at the great expanse of arable where, two years before, a wonderful array of wild flowers grew. Farming is a business and the land was ploughed in response to the rising price of wheat - but I was still saddened.

"Once there were flowers"  Looking west with
Parson's Spinney on the right.

Woodpecker hole in an old poplar stump
Parson's Spinney, 15 February, 2013
I continued heading west, skirting the edge of Parson's Spinney with its fine cherry trees. A Green Woodpecker called with its slightly insane laugh (one old name for this bird is the Yaffle) but I failed to spot it. There are also some large poplars and, where one had died, a woodpecker had been at work. For no obvious reason many of the trees in this spinney have died; it receives no management but the mixture of healthy, moribund and dead trees is perhaps not a bad situation. 

Dead trees are allowed to decay on the
woodland floor. Byfield Pool, 15 February, 2013

I pushed on, and the ground began to fall away down to Byfield Pool, a very interesting reserve with carr-like conditions, managed by Northants Wildlife Trust. Again dead trees are frequent, home to wood boring insects, fungi and much else. One particularly large specimen bore a white velvety coating of what I believe is Schizopora paradoxus, a common fungus in this situation. 

A fungus, perhaps Schizopora paradoxa, at Byfield Pool.
15 February, 2013
The pool itself is a relatively small body of water when compared to the adjacent Boddington Reservoir but for wildlife it is far more interesting and birds such as the elusive Water Rail may be seen by the patient and lucky observer. I didn't linger as I wanted to push on and do a circuit of the  main reservoir, whose function is not that of supplying mains water but of keeping the nearby Oxford canal topped up.

Byfield Pool 14.February, 2013

"Dead in the water" but this
tree will be of great value to

Boddington Reservoir looking west
The water level in the reservoir was very high and a number of trees have been submerged at the base. This will not trouble Alders and Willows but I was surprised to see an Oak tree flourishing in an area where it is very wet all year, although others has succumbed to the conditions. 

Oak, apparently flourishing
Boddington Reservoir
15 February, 2013

I had intended to quickly look at another nature reserve nearby, but the entry point to Boddington Meadow Reserve was impassable with a ten-foot wide water-filled ditch barring any visitors.

Dandelions were in flower but these mundane yet interesting plants deserve a blog to themselves.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Winter Aconites

I am rather envious of my friends Mike and Annie Bosley. They usually have a fine show of Winter Aconites yet, although we live less than a hundred metres from them, I've had no luck in growing them. In theory they are not difficult and in many parts of Britain these delightful plants have become well naturalised, but the dried corms for sale in garden centres are not always easy to break from their dormancy. Hereabouts the flowers have been in bud for a couple of weeks but it was not until today, when the temperatures quickly rose (bringing floods, but that's another story), that they fully opened - a splash of colour for St Valentine's Day. The ones I photographed were not those of Mike and Annie but I noticed them along Potter's End, also in Byfield. 
Winter Aconites, Eranthis hyemalis, Potter's End, Byfield
14 February, 2013

There are about eight species in the genus, all found in south east Europe or Asia, but the one almost invariably grown is Eranthis hyemalis. A close relative from Sicily, E.cilicica, has larger flowers and is sometimes grown, but is not as reliably hardy. Even a non-botanist can see at a glance that Eranthis is a member of the Buttercup Family, Ranunculaceae, and like nearly all other members of the family, the plants are poisonous (though far less dangerous than another family member, Monkshood). The whorl of bracts, forming a frill beneath the flowers, makes them distinctive and there are other structural differences too but they are of interest only to the enthusiast. 

Conker Trees

The Horse Chestnut, Aesculus hippocastanum, seems to have arrived in Britain around 1610. It is native to the Balkans and Greece but is generally pretty hardy in I can never recall having seen a tree frost damaged. True chestnuts belong to the very large Oak family, Fagaceae, but Horse Chestnuts are not at all related and are placed in a far smaller family, the Hippocastanaceae. A Sweet Chestnut is a fruit whereas a conker is just a seed.

I suppose that, like many children, the Horse Chestnut was one of the first trees I learnt to recognise, obviously because its large round seeds were used for playing conkers but also through its panicles of cream and pink flowers, which we called "candles". I had always assumed that the word "conker" derived from "conqueror", since the object of the game is to conquer your opponent's specimen. However, I find that on old version of the game was played with snail shells and the alternative possibility is that "conker" is from the French word "conque" - a shell. We may never know the truth. 

I have spoken of the seeds but not their protective spiny casing. Nor have I mentioned the distinctive leaves with their palmately compound arrangement of leaflets. In recent years the leaves have become disfigured by larvae of the Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner as shown in the picture. This moth, Cameraria ohridella, seems to have arrived in Britain in 2002 but has spread at an astonishing rate, affecting all the trees I've seen in the last two or three years.

Damage by the Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner,
Byfield Pocket Park, Summer, 2012
Despite being so unsightly there seems to be no long-term damage to the trees. What is surprising, for a moth which arrived so recently, is that a number of parasitoid wasps have already begun to take advantage of this newcomer. These wasps attack the almost full-grown larvae by laying eggs on them. When an egg hatches the wasp grub enter the body of the larva and feeds on it though, surprisingly, less than 10% of the victims die as a result. (British Wildlife, Vol 22, No 4, pages 305-313).

The conkers are poisonous although cases but on the other hand I was told as a child that they could be used to make soap. This is true. The conkers contain saponins and these are the active ingredient in many soaps now available commercially although I have no plans to purchase them - or make the soap myself.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Jurassic Way

Having been confined to the house by snow yesterday I felt the need for a good walk so, setting off from Charwelton, I walked a short section of the Jurassic Way. This long-distance footpath takes its name from the Jurassic rocks which form the backbone to the landscape in west Northamptonshire. In places the rocks are rich in fossils and many stone walls show remains of belemnites, brachiopods and so on.  Between Charwelton and Byfield these rocks were also worked for their iron ore until being replaced by richer ores from Sweden, Australia, etc.

On the Jurassic Way

I set off over gently undulating ground to cross the infant River Cherwell (usually pronounced "Charwell") as it begins its long journey to join the River Thames and head for London. The walking was less easy than I'd anticipated. Beneath about ten centimetres of snow the ground, far from being frozen, was wet and very sticky. A very slow thaw was underway and the snow itself was getting wet. 

Rooks were excitedly gathering around their nests, grouped in a clump of oaks; a Raven, twig in its mouth, steered clear of its smaller brethren, appearing rather aloof. A couple of Snipe, feeding in a wet field, took to the air with a zig-zagging flight and a whirr of wings as I approached.
Charwelton Church,
12 February, 2013

Charwelton church is rather isolated from the village (which is actually little more than a hamlet) but people still make the journey of a mile or so to attend services. There were once two villages here, Little (or Church) Charwelton and Great (or Town) Charwelton. For reasons which are unclear Little Charwelton began to lose inhabitants at an alarming rate leaving what is now simply Charwelton, on the A361. A few bullocks seemed disinclined to move but these "stirks" are inquisitive rather than aggressive and soon lost their nerve as I approached.


The church is an unfussy, four-square sort of building, now far too big for the usual handful of worshippers although the funeral of a local worthy can still fill the pews. A couple of fine sycamores flank the building and in a few weeks the churchyard will be ablaze with daffodils. I surveyed them last year for insects but, sadly, these highly-bred plants do not get many visitors. For the first half of my journey I was never much more than a stone's throw from the track of the old Great Central Railway. Remarkably Charwelton did have a station and a few traces of it remain. The bridges still appear to be in a good state of repair and, had the proposed HS2 used any of this old route, little work would have been needed on these structures.
One of the many bridges still spanning the
old track-bed of the Great Central

I plodded on, often having to tread warily as I approached farm gates, the ground being just a sea of mud; it would have been easy to lose one's footing. The last mile or so was relatively uninteresting and I was glad to see the buildings of Woodford Halse come into view. By now I had left the railway behind but sixty years ago I would probably have seen clouds of smoke and steam as I looked towards this small town. A huge railway shed was sited there (technically called a Motive Power Depot but always known to "gricers" as a shed). It was closed in June, 1965 bringing an end to an era. What modern planners would give for the Great Central to be still open today!

I approached the Woodford Halse to Byfield road and was glad to have firm tarmac beneath my feet for the last few hundred yards. A Treecreeper worked its way along a hawthorn hedge beside the road, looking somehow odd as it scaled "trunks" little more than a metre high. Above, at the other end of the size scale, a buzzard soared, mewing plaintively. No doubt it was hungry - and so was I. And shortly afterwards i was tucking into very welcome hot food and coffee!

Monday, 11 February 2013

Of Foxes and Spiders

Today's newspapers have been headlining the case of a fox in south London which entered a house and attacked a baby. The fox escaped.

Less fortunate than the fox was a tiny spider found scurrying across our kitchen floor earlier today. Unsurprisingly it turned out to be Lepthyphantes tenuis; I say unsurprisingly as this is surely Britain's commonest spider, though being so small it is generally overlooked by the non-specialist. Unlike better known species such as the Garden Cross Spider (the one whose beautifully constructed orb webs festoon every garden shrub in the late summer) L. tenuis is active in every month of the year. 

Lepthyphantes is only one of many spider genera whose name ends in "phantes" - Bolyphantes, Magniphantes, Stemonyphantes, Pityohyphantes and so on. The suffix is derived from the Greek word for 'spinner'. 

As it happens all those just mentioned are "money spiders", so-called since they were once believed to bring good luck. Hold a spider on the end of a strand of web and pass it three times around the head for fame and fortune - so the old belief went. I've tried it prior to filling in a Lottery Ticket; it doesn't work! 

For obvious reasons, the association of spiders with good fortune was particularly strong in the spinning and weaving trade. 

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Laurels, Laurels and Laurels

I noticed yesterday that Spotted Laurels were in fruit, and I reflected on the confusion caused by the word "laurel". The true Laurel, Laurus nobilis, otherwise known as Bay, is a well known shrub grown for ornament and culinary use and belongs to the Lauraceae Family. It is the plant once used to create laurel wreaths in Ancient Greece.

Then there is the completely unrelated Spotted Laurel, Aucuba japonica, a member of the Cornaceae Family. Its flowers are rarely noticed, being small, dull and often hidden by the foliage. The leaves are naturally dark green but the variety with yellow spots is the most commonly grown and it was this which caught my attention yesterday. It hails from Japan but, despite being tough, it rarely becomes naturalised in Britain.

Spotted Laurel in fruit, Northampton, 9 February, 2013

Cherry Laurel, Northampton, 9 February, 2013
Often confused with Spotted Laurel is Cherry Laurel. This is a member of the Rose Family (Rosaceae) and is grouped with the true cherries (Prunus species) as Prunus laurocerasus. It is this plant, with leaves laced with cyanide, which I generally used for "knocking out" insects; providing they are released within a short time the insects generally recover and resume their lives. It bears racemes of creamy-white flowers but they are hardly exciting. As the photographs show, the leaves of Cherry Laurel have perfectly smooth edges whereas those of Spotted Laurel are partially serrated.

Then there is the Spurge Laurel, about which I wrote on 18 December. This belongs to the  Thymeleaceae Family and is therefore unrelated to any of the other "laurels" mentioned in this blog! Around the world dozens of plants are known as laurels, generally because they bear similarly-shaped leaves. Small wonder that confusion can arise and, for anyone irritated by Latin names, laurels make their value clear.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Lords and Ladies (2)

Despite being free of wind the conditions today were distinctly raw but I wrapped up well and set off on a constitutional. In a garden beside the village church the leaves of a cultivated Primula had been mined by the larva of an Agromyzid fly, Chromatomyia primulae. This is very common on primroses, cowslips and their kin, but the mine is usually quite narrow, whereas the one I saw was rather wide - but I think I'm correct in my identification.
The pale mines of Chromatomyia primulae, a little
to the left of the violet flowers on this cultivar.
 Byfield, 7 February, 2013

I pushed on, entering a railway cutting leading to the sad remains of Byfield station. There on the bank Lords and Ladies, Arum maculatum, were growing strongly. This plant always puts in an early appearance, but we'll have to wait for a few weeks for the remarkable  flowers. I first mentioned the species way back on 14 November but it deserves further consideration, being such an extraordinary plant. 

                            Come rain. frost, snow or drought 
                            it rarely fails,
                            the first green leaves of spring
                            and every year like a seasoned magician,
                            it shows off its amazing conjuring trick.
                            In April it points,
                            Half-sheathed in a green glove
                            A rude brown finger. In August
                            glove and finger have disappeared
                            and it offers, equally impertinently,
                            a fist of orange berries.

                                             Trevor Hold. "Cuckoo-pint" from Chasing the Moon

The early leaves of Lords and Ladies. Byfield, 7 February, 2013

These early leaves are not yet showing the purple spots which give the plant its specific epithet of "maculatum". The spots seem to appear as its remarkable flower develops. 


Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Lime Trees

A flurry of snow yesterday evening reminded us that Winter has not yet relinquished its grip. In medieval times these February days must have been desperate: food stocks running low; soil too wet for sowing or planting; thin bodies finding the cold increasingly numbing. A couple of lines in a poem (14th century?) leave me puzzled:

                        The boneless fish close quaking lies
                        And eats for cold his aching feet.

I've no idea what the "boneless fish" could be and yet the reader can feel the biting chill.

So, in these dark days, what can the wildlife enthusiast enthuse about?  

Some fairly large hybrid limes (Tilia x cordata) stand adjacent to our house and yesterday morning, in the bright sunshine, the twigs took on a pinkish glow. The buds are enclosed in cherry-red scales and, as the sap begins to rise, these buds are swelling; the twigs are also red and I suspect these were the cause of the glow. We have two native species of Lime, The Large-leaved and the Small-leaved; Tilia x cordata is the hybrid formed by these two. Our native limes are unusual as, along with the (unrelated) Maples, they are insect pollinated. 
Pink twigs and buds of Hybrid Lime, Byfield, 6 February, 2013

Oak, willow, birch, poplar and so on are wind pollinated. As this is such an inefficient system they need to produce vast quantities of pollen and in suitable conditions such as wet, acid soil, these pollen grains - which are very resistant to decay - will remain for thousands of years. The pollen of Limes is rarely found in these ancient deposits and for a long time palaeobotanists, analyzing these grains, believed it was a scarce tree in Britain's prehistoric woodlands. In fact the reason why Lime pollen is infrequently found is simply that these insect-pollinated trees only need to produce pollen in small quantities. We now know that the Small-leaved Lime (Tilia cordata) was extremely common some four thousand years ago, dominating quite large areas of woodland.

In terms of wildlife, Lime trees are of considerable importance, not least because their leaves are highly nutritious. Aphids abound on them, especially Eucallipterus tiliae, and it is the main pabulum of the Lime Hawk-moth. Common too are many galls, the one illustrated being that caused by the mite Eriophyes tiliae, but there are at least another dozen of these gall-forming organisms to be found on Lime

Galls of the mite Eriophyes tiliae, 
Byfield Pocket Park, Summer, 2012

One day someone will explain to be why Limes are so often planted as street trees, because I regard them as a really unfortunate choice: the leaves get covered in aphids, which drip sticky honeydew on to any cars parked beneath; the trunks constantly produce suckers and, in Northamptonshire alone, hundreds (thousands?) of hours must be spent annually removing them; the falling leaves decay at the roadside producing a particularly wet and slippery mush. As I say, a strange choice. Rant over!


A thicket of suckers on Hybrid Lime, Tilia x europaea
Byfield, 6 February, 2013

Monday, 4 February 2013

As the light lengthens...

Another deceptively sunny morning. The air temperature was probably well above freezing but a brisk north-westerly wind introduced an unwelcome chill factor.

                    As the light lengthens, so the cold strengthens.

This old saying recognises the cruel nature of these February days but, wrapping up well, I had an enjoyable walk.                   
The spire of the village church stood out against a       clear blue sky and Jackdaws circled the structure, calling excitedly. In the churchyard a much more stealthy Wood Pigeon quietly gorged itself on the now-ripe Ivy berries. Snowdrops, by this time fully open, studded the grass but were failing to attract any bees.
Snowdrops, Byfield churchyard, 4 February, 2013


My walk took me on to the Pocket Park (surprise, surprise!) where a few flies took to the wing as I approached. I caught one and, as suspected, it turned out to be a male Common Dung Fly. These furry yellow males are frequently seen but the duller, greenish females are more likely to be observed on fresh cow pats, upon which they lay their eggs*. The Blow-fly, Calliphora vicina, was also out in some numbers, favouring sun-bathed tree trunks. Without hope of reward I  swept my net through some dead grass stems and was pleased to find that I had secured a male Lonchoptera lutea. I have to admit that, to the non-dipterist, it is an excessively dull-looking fly, furthermore it is the most commonly taken species of Lonchoptera. But I was pleased because specimens are rarely taken so early in the year.

Naturalists take pleasure in odd things. In his book "The Lichen Hunters" by the late Oliver Gilbert, I came across this passage (page 29): "Who will forget the excitement as news spread of the discovery of Psilolechia leprosa..."  Well, I suspect it failed to make the front page of the Daily Mail but, for the interested few, it genuinely was exciting. And by monitoring the abundance and mapping the distribution of these insignificant organisms we may pick up clues to events and trends of real significance such as pollution levels, climate change and so on. I rest my case m'lud. 

*For more information on these fascinating flies I recommend Peter Skidmore's book, "Insects of the British Cow-Dung Community" - a copy of which should surely be in everyone's book case.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Alder Trees

Although there are about 30 species of Alder only one, Alnus glutinosa, is native to Britain. The other species are all confined to temperate regions of the northern hemisphere except for one, Alnus acuminata, found in the Andes of South America. 

Our native Alder is a familiar tree, naturally occurring in wettish habitats such as carr (wet woodland), river sides and damp meadows, although it is quite often planted. More widely planted is the Grey Alder, Alnus incana, of which there are several specimens around Byfield's playing fields, and as I passed them earlier today I saw that they are flowering. The Grey Alder, a Central European species, has a rather smooth greyish trunk whereas that of the Common Alder is dark brown and quite fissured. The two species frequently hybridise.
Male catkins of Grey Alder, Byfield, 2 February, 2013

The previous season's female "cones" on Grey Alder. 
The male flowers are in the form of catkins, not unlike those of Birch or Hazel and, being wind pollinated, can afford to appear early in the year. However, the female flowers are quite a lot different. Technically they are catkins but are in the shape of a cone and, being quite woody, they persist long after the fall of their fruit, so those pictured are from last year. It is as well that pollinating insects are not required since today, despite a bright sun and blue sky, it is bitingly cold. 

Caterpillar of the Alder Moth, Acronicta alni
Alders are important for wildlife. A dozen or so bugs - by which I mean true bugs - occur on the trees and in the Pocket park I have found the rather colourful Pantilus tunicatus on the foliage. Occasionally I also been lucky enough find the unmistakable caterpillar of the Alder Moth, though I have yet to find it in the Byfield area. I will keep looking...

Alder bark was once used in the leather industry as a tanning agent, so in our county it was a tree if some significance.