Monday, 25 March 2013

Really, this is snow joke.

I finished my last blog on an optimistic note, prattling on about buds unfurling and so on. In fact a couple of days later I was feeling even more hopeful, with Spurge Laurel (Daphne laureola) displaying its unassuming but sweetly-scented blossoms. O foolish man!

Spurge Laurel Daphne laureola. Byfield, 18 March, 2013

Snowy scenes beside the A361. Byfield, 25 March 2013
Fast-forward just a few days and the picture has changed utterly. Snow, borne on a bitter east wind, has blanketed the landscape and created oddly contorted drifts beside the A361. One bank of snow, some 3-4 feet high, has piled up against a hawthorn hedge and seems likely to be there for several days yet. Gulls and corvids wheel above, seeking bare ground from which they may glean a little food. I suspect rooks will face a particularly difficult time; they are among the earliest of birds to nest and, should any be sitting on eggs, the next few days will put either the adults, or the eggs, in danger. Very small birds such as Long-tailed Tits have a high mortality rate in these conditions and I must keep our bird-feeders well stocked up. Luckily the stream still flows strongly through our garden, so water is not a problem. However, the pond is frozen solid so any frogs or toads will have to put mating plans on hold.

Monday, 18 March 2013

And still we wait...

We had four hours of quite heavy snow yesterday and last night the pond froze over. Winter is refusing to relinquish its grip.
Fields steaming near Byfield. 18 March, 2013

I set off for a walk earlier today to find ploughland steaming in the bright morning sun, but this was deceptive; icy patches remained in shady spots and not an insect was to be seen. The churchyard seemed a more promising bet so, ever optimistic, I set off to examine ecclesiastical possibilities.
Lawson's Cypress showing male cones. Byfield,  18 March, 2013
Female cones on Lawson's Cypress. Byfield, 18 March, 2013

Male cones had formed on the Lawson's Cypress, Chamaecyperus lawsoniana, and the old female cones were also present but, although the trees were bathed in sunshine there was no sign of a Juniper Shieldbug (see blog for 16 November, 2012). I was pleased and surprised to find a clump of  Snowdrops, Galanthus elwesii in the churchyard. It is a widely grown species but I had not previously see it growing hereabouts. Its glossy leaves are far broader than that of the usual Galanthus nivalis, a species currently flowering in the tens of thousands around here (and incidentally, by mid-afternoon, those in my garden were receiving visits from honey bees).

Galanthus elwesii, Byfield churchyard. 18 March, 2013

Did I say there were no flies about?  Just before setting out for home a spotted a solitary blowfly basking on a tree trunk. I would have taken bets on it being Calliphora vicina - and for once I was right.

So, no ground-breaking discoveries; nothing to trouble the editor of the Daily Mail ("Hordes of flies from Eastern Europe invade England") but, despite my grumbles about wintry conditions, things are on the move. Honeysuckle buds have now unfurled to display their leaves, as have the buds of elder. Others will soon follow suit. And before long people will be grumbling about "dratted flies everywhere!" - but not I.

Thursday, 14 March 2013


I have a morbid interest in walls. Perhaps that is an exaggeration as my interest is not, I hope, unhealthy, but I do regard them as a fascinating habitat. What is the name for someone with such an interest: a muraphile perhaps - or just a wally!

Anyway, when I found myself ten minutes early for a bus in Banbury I took a look at an adjacent wall and was not disappointed. The wall was composed of blue brick - not the most promising of habitats - but it was host to a wide variety of organisms. A few vascular plants had taken root, most obvious of which were some Buddleias, Buddleja davidii. The local authority will need to remove these quite quickly or their roots will begin to split the wall. Less of a danger was posed by a tiny, stunted crucifer about a metre away. The plant was not in fruit (and fruit are very useful in determining a species) but the minutely hairy leaves suggest it was Common Whitlow-grass, Erophila verna, a highly variable plant which favours dry walls.

Photo 1.  Buddleia and the lichen Xanthoria parietina
Near to the Buddleia was a bright yellow patch of the abundant lichen, Xanthoria parietina. At least three other species were present but, having no claim to be a lichenologist, I am not prepared to put a name to them.

Mosses were also common. The grey species at the top left of Photo 2 is Grimmia pulvinata, but Bryum argenteum and Tortula muralis were present too. The mosses, like lichens, have no true roots so the lack of soil is of little consequence.

Photo 2. Common Whitlow-grass?
By this time my bus was imminent so there was no time to peruse further, but there is no doubt that, even in an urban, rather polluted area, there is an abundance of interesting organisms to be seen. The mortar of walls is usually lime-rich and the walls themselves are often sun-baked and very dry. These circumstances, together with limited competition from taller plants provide a very special habitat and provide a home for some organisms found nowhere else.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013


Lungwort in garden, Byfield, 13 March, 2013
In plant catalogues lungworts are often damned with faint praise by being described as "useful".  I have mixed feelings about them: they were in flower on a bank in Woodford Halse on 19 January and are still in flower here in Byfield; they are bone-hardy and tolerant of poor soils; they provide colour when few other flowers are about and, being rich in nectar they attract various insects. So why do I view them with such equivocation? The fact is that many of the strains grown in gardens are rather weedy and even rather scruffy looking. My own specimens have been consigned to the compost heap! 

The Common Lungwort, Pulmonaria officinalis, is not native to Britain but has been grown here for many centuries and is well naturalised on rough banks and so on, although George Claridge Druce, writing in 1930, recorded it only from a railway bank "near Roade". Its common name refers to the white spots on the leaves (see blog for 29 January, 2013) and these can be quite attractive. The flowers tend to open pink and then turn blue but this is not always the case and my photograph, taken in Curgenven Close, Byfield, makes this clear. 

If you must grow Lungworts, look for cultivars of Pulmonaria angustifolia. They are more robust with larger flowers and some very attractive varieties are available in nursery catalogues.

Incidentally the name "Lungwort" is also applied to a lichen, Lobaria pulmonaria, a large and impressive species confined largely to the north and west of Britain. I saw it some 7-8 years ago in damp woodland near Porlock but, if it ever did occur in Northamptonshire it is now extinct.
The lichen, Lobaria pulmonaria on a tree trunk.

Monday, 11 March 2013

A Glimpse of the Tropics

A bitterly north-easterly wind is bringing in flurries of snow, effectively putting paid to any ideas of gardening or, indeed, almost any outdoor work. And yet, only 48 hours ago I was in Leamington photographing Bird of Paradise flowers, Strelitzia reginae. The plants, under glass of course, were in Jephson Gardens. I recall seeing them being sold in huge numbers in the market at Funchal, in Madeira, where the mild climate allows them to be grown out of doors. These strange plants are related to bananas and, for a long time, were placed in the same family, the Musaceae. However the differences are significant enough for Bird of Paradise Plants to be now placed in a separate family, the Strelitziaceae. Last time I was in Milton Keynes I noticed that a close relative, Strelitzia nicolai, was being grown in the main shopping mall. It is a much taller plant with blue and grey-white flowers which are, to my mind, a more subtle colouring than its brash little relative. Though tree-like in proportions, these plants are, like bananas, technically herbs. 

The genus, from South Africa, commemorates Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of King George III of Britain.
Bird of Paradise plants, Leamington, 9 March, 2013

Jephson Gardens are full of interesting plants and many, such as Christmas Box, (Sarcococca confusa), a Flowering Currant, (Ribes sanguineum White Icicle) and (under glass) a lovely small tree, Albizia julibrissin, were in flower. Sadly nothing seemed to be labelled, probably leaving many visitors unable to name these lovely plants. All these species are hardy although the Albizia needs a warm, south-facing wall. I brought seed of this tree, sometimes called the Persian Silk Tree,  back from a visit to the Canary Islands and managed to raise three seedlings but failed to provide them with the conditions they required.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

With the sun came flies

Yesterday, 6th March, was the warmest and sunniest day of the year so far. The ivy, normally quite a sombre plant, was transformed as its polished leaves gleamed in the sunlight. Flies basked, both on these leaves and on tree trunks, fences and gateposts. They cannot afford to relax too much; a Zebra Spider, Salticus scenicus, had been roused from its torpid winter state and was in the prowl! This spider was, surprisingly, a new record for the Pocket Park.
Winter-flowering Heather. 6 March, 2013

I looked in at the burial ground adjacent to the Pocket Park. Clumps of snowdrops were attracting Honey Bees, Apis mellifera, and with them were several Drone Flies, Eristalis tenax. These flies are in fact a species of hoverfly and, despite having only two wings (whereas bees have four), are quite good mimics of honey bees - presumably convincing enough to deter birds. They seem confident in the immunity conferred by their appearance and can often be plucked by the wing from a flower and released unharmed. Bees tend to approach a flower on a cautious zig-zagging flight path whereas a hoverfly will use a more direct approach but then pause motionless for a few seconds before alighting. Both have reasons for their heedfulness as inside the flower may lurk a predator such as Misumena vatia, a spider able to change colour to pink or yellow and so match the background. Beside some of the headstones were clumps of Erica carnea. This winter-flowering heather was also attracting lots of bees and a poet could doubtless pen a thoughtful line about this proximity of life and death. A Brimstone butterfly, Gonepteryx rhamni, flitted by.

The flies inevitably turned out to be commonplace species but these early records are nevertheless of phenological interest, all being earlier than my insect handbooks indicate.