Sunday, 30 June 2013

A Naturist on the Isle of Wight (with postscript)

No, there is not a typo in the title: a couple of weeks ago I was accompanying a group of school children on a walk from Helmdon to Sulgrave and on the way I was chatting to some of them about hedgerow flowers, caterpillars, plant galls and so on. After the walk one of the pupils said to a teacher, "Mr White is a real naturist". 

Well, I've just spent a few days with our very good friends, Ann and John Pimm, on the Isle of Wight and I have to say that at no time did I get my kit off. I didn't go with the intention of studying wildlife but inevitably a few interesting observations were made. (Correction: Some observations were made that I found interesting.) 

Our first full day included a visit to the splendid gardens of Northcourt, in the village of Shorwell. They are not regularly open to the public but we were lucky: a party had already made a booking for the afternoon so we were able to join them. There were many noteworthy plants there but inevitably some particularly caught the eye. The delightful grass, Briza maxima was clearly
Greater Quaking-grass, Briza maxima, at Northcourt,
Isle of Wight. 24 June, 2013 
happy, popping up in crevices over quite a wide area of of stone slabs. It is not native to Britain but has become naturalised in some open areas such as sunny banks. 

The mild conditions (not quite frost-free) allow the cultivation of the extraordinary, three metres tall Echium pininana. It is a native of the Canary Islands - La Palma to be precise - but clearly finds parts of the Isle of Wight to its liking. All Echiums, including our native Viper's Bugloss (and in fact all of the Borage Family, to which it belongs) seem to yield copious nectar; with this and other plants any local beekeepers are well served by the garden. Could it survive in Northamptonshire? Anyone possessing a tall, south-facing wall could take the chance but it would be quite a gamble. 
Echium pininana at Northcourt
24 June, 2013

A Cistus, C. parviflorus, at Northcourt
24 June, 2013
Among other plants putting on a fine show was a Cistus which the owner, John  Harrison,said was Cistus parviflorus. To me it looked like Cistus cobariensis but, whatever it was, it provided an eye-catching sight and was revelling in the mild micro-climate of the garden.
I have always liked the genus Cornus, and I had rarely seen Cornus kousa flowering so beautifully. It had creamy bracts, unlike the white form I had seen a few days before at Charlecote Park (blog for 22.6.2013). When questioned, the owner said that he had sampled the fruits - but wouldn't bother
Cornus kousa at Northcourt. 24 June, 2013
again. Much of the garden has a rather limy soil but the Cornus was flourishing in a deep loam which was probably more or less neutral. I coveted it. Not all plants were thriving: the hardy Japanese banana, Musa basjoo, had been hit hard by the cold spring and looked the worse for wear - but it will survive.

The hardy banana, Musa basjoo at
Northcourt. 24 June, 2013
  I left the garden with many fond memories. The owner and his wife have just a little help but largely manage the huge expanse by themselves; the air of benign neglect fitted in with my ideas of what gardening should be about.

What a contrast with the stiff, formal and unimaginative municipal flower beds I saw in Cowes the following day. I accept that these areas need to be low-maintenance but there was not an insect to be seen. Bright with colour they may have been, but to me they were an opportunity missed. To be fair much use was being made of the 'Torbay Palm', Cordyline australis. Most of the specimens were flowering profusely and they were clearly having a good year. Many were only a few metres from the shore and must be unaffected by salt-laden winds.
Cordyline australis on Cowes sea front.
26 June, 2013 
Female Stag beetle, Cowes, 26 June, 2013
The following day we were walking home when Ann and Chris drew my attention to a large beetle on the roadside. It was a female Stag Beetle, Lucanus cervus. This, Britain's largest beetle, has not been recorded from Northamptonshire so I was glad of the opportunity to see one. Not only was it in a vulnerable situation but it was on double yellow lines and thus liable to a fine. I moved it to a place of safety. 
Less fortunate but in the same road was a Slow Worm, Anguis fragilis. This legless lizard (unlike snakes, it has eyelids) bore no sign of injury but was in a moribund state, and a few hours later it was clearly dead.
Slow Worm. Cowes, 27 June, 2013
 Its coloration suggested it was a female. These are interesting creatures not least because they are live-bearing with the young being born in a thin, membranous sac, from which they free themselves almost immediately. The specific epithet 'fragilis' refers to the tail, which easily breaks off when seized by a predator.

Many other interesting creatures were observed during this break on the island but I will mention only one more - not because it is rare but, whenever I see it,
Wasp Beetle, Clytis arietes, near Niton.
25 June, 2013
I seem to be without a camera. This time I was properly equipped. The Wasp Beetle, Clytus arietes, is a wasp mimic and flaunts its warning colours to birds and any other would-be predators. It is common in Northamptonshire and I often spot one in Byfield's pocket park.


A couple of interesting plants were noted at St Catherine's Point. One was Common Broomrape, Orobanche minor. This is a parasite (hence the lack of green leaves) found usually - as in this case - on clover. It is, as the name suggests, common, but as a small plant with subdued coloration it is easily overlooked.
Common Broomrape, Orobanche minor at
St Catherine's Point, Isle of Wight.
25 June, 2013

Another plant found only a couple of metres away was Rock Sea-spurrey, Spergularia rupicola. This is a dainty plant confined to walls and rocky places near to the sea.The specimen I photographed was clinging to a boulder
Rock Sea-spurrey. St Catherine'sPoint,
Isle of Wight  25 June, 2013

The island break was not a long one but was packed with interest. There is an amazing range of habitats to be sampled and for the wildlife enthusiast it is one of Britain's most rewarding locations.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Charlecote Park

I've been suffering from blogger's block. Actually that isn't strictly true as I've begun a couple but was so dissatisfied with my efforts that I aborted them. Try again. 

On a blustery but mercifully dry day Chris and I visited Charlecote Park. For curiosity I decided to use the sat-nav app on my smartphone; the result was a tour of west Northants and East Warwickshire, with a bit of north Oxfordshire thrown in. I didn't employ the device for the return journey! Anyway, we eventually arrived at our first destination: the market on the old airfield at Wellesbourne. I'd remembered it as being colourful and full of interesting bargains but today all I saw was a load of unmitigated tat. I was glad to leave and move on.

Fallow Deer at Charlecote. 22 June, 2013
Charlecote Park is only a couple of miles away but what a contrast! The house is very handsome and the gardens beautiful. In my curmudgeonly moments I remind myself that houses like this were constructed by direct descendants of the Normans, people who had stolen, murdered, burnt and pillaged their way across England in the fight for power - but the results are undeniably lovely. A fairly large herd of fallow deer grazed in meadows beside the River Avon. They were very approachable but I preferred to leave them at peace and photograph them from a couple of hundred yards.

A fungus, probably Laetiporus sulphureus.
Charlecote Park, 22 June, 2013
The gardens contained some impressive trees and one conifer was supporting a fine example of a  Laetiporus species, probably Laetiporus sulphureus, commonly known as "Chicken of the Woods". As will be deduced from its common name, it is edible, but some people suffer a mild reaction after eating it, so it should be used with caution. It will develop into a brown rot and ultimately lead to the death of the tree, but I hope it will be left for a few years.

An Aquilegia in the herbaceous borders took me back to my childhood. Plants of this type, belonging to the McKana group, were grown by my father but I don't often see them nowadays. There is no reason why I shouldn't grow some myself of course and I must keep my eyes open for plants.

Aquilegias in the borders at Charlecote Park.
22 June, 2013
I was impressed too by specimens of Cornus kousa. In common with Hydrangeas (to which they are unrelated) they have inconspicuous flowers but instead have very showy bracts. 
Known as the Chinese Dogwood it prefers dappled shade in neutral to acid soil. The leaves often take on fine colours in the autumn, and I suspect that these colours are more vivid where the soil is particularly acid. The fruits are edible although, as with Chicken of the Woods, I've never heard of anyone actually trying a sample! 

Cornus kousa at Charlecote Park. 22 June, 2013

All in all an interesting day - but I'll do my own navigation in future!

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Noon-fly et al

Byfield Pocket Park, 12 June, 2013
My first visit to the Pocket Park for several days - oh calamity! All those native wildflower plugs, so carefully planted out a few weeks are submerged beneath a sea of tough perennials. This was not unexpected, and there are consolations: the "sea" consists of St John's Wort, Rose-bay Willow Herb, Cow Parsley, Red Campion and so on - all valuable plants for wildlife. The Common Hawthorn in the middle is flowering beautifully.

Noon Fly Mesembrina meridiana.
Byfield Pocket Park, 12 June, 2013

The weather was not particularly fine - quite dull in fact - but insects were out in some numbers, as though catching up for time lost earlier in the year. A Noon Fly, Mesembrina meridiana, posed obligingly on a gate, the orange wing bases standing out clearly. This is a common and widespread insect but I am always glad to see one.

A smart hoverfly, Syrphus ribesii, was 'loafing' on a leaf nearby. There are about 260 members of this family - the Syrphidae - occurring in Britain and many of them, as in the example shown, are mimics of bees or wasps. The advantages of this seem obvious.
The hoverfly, Syrphus ribesii, in
Byfield Pocket Park. 12 June, 2013

A short distance away a quite different creature was inducing galls on an aspen, Populus tremula. This is the work of a mite, Phyllocoptes populi. It will attack various poplars but I have only ever found it on aspen. These mites seem to do the tree no harm and, indeed, it is not in the interests of any gall-causer to harm its host.

Galls on Aspen, caused by the mite
Phyllocoptes populi, Byfield Pocket Park. 12 June, 2013

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Pendulous Sedge

This beautiful grass-like plant is common around Byfield, growing in some profusion along the stream beside the village playing fields and elsewhere. It is frequent throughout Northamptonshire even though it was not recorded from this western part of the county in Gill Gent's " book, "The Flora of Northamptonshire & the Soke of Peterborough", published in 1995. The latest flora, published earlier this year, shows a far wider distribution and this is almost certainly this is due to garden escapes, the plant being much appreciated by gardeners who value it for its graceful growth; certainly the Latin name Carex pendula is very appropriate.
Carex pendula beside a stream.
Byfield 11 June, 2013

Grass-like it may be, but the stems of sedges have a triangular cross-section, easily detected if a stem is rolled between the thumb and forefinger, whereas the stems of grasses are round or oval. Sedges belong to the Papyrus family, Cyperaceae.

Gardeners who do introduce it to a pond- or stream-side may come to regret their action as the plant can become very invasive, seeding prolifically in any damp ground - as I know to my cost. Fortunately the plants are easily recognisable even when small and can be tweaked out with little effort. Druce ("Flora of Northamptonshire", 1930) curiously describes it as "septal", an obsolescent word meaning "of hedgerows"; I have never found Pendulous Sedge in, or even near, a hedgerow!
Pendulous Sedge again, at the same site,
showing its prolific growth.

Monday, 10 June 2013


Aquilegias, commonly called Columbines, are among our most popular garden perennials. They have garnered a number of popular names over the years and my maternal grandmother called them Curly Headed Boys, clearly a reference to the long, curling, nectar-secreting spurs on the flowers.

Pale pink Aquilegias in my garden. 2 June, 2013
White Aquilegia in the gardens of Canons Ashby House
2 June, 2013
They can be purchased in a range of colours and sizes but they are exceedingly promiscuous plants and seedlings will soon appear showing mixed parentage. I have a number of these chance hybrids in my garden - too many to be honest - and in truth many of them have wishy-washy flowers of a pale pink or purple colour with no great merit. As my picture shows, they have little impact. I do however cherish my specimens of Aquilegia alpina, a fairly low  (6-12 inches high) species which I grow in the rock garden. It has flourished there for several years and I must take save some seeds - hoping that they won't just produce more hybrids. I have lost my Aquilegia canadensis but I must try to replace it, as it is another lovely species. The very long-spurred forms I remember from my childhood don't seem to be often grown nowadays. On a recent visit to the gardens at Canons Ashby I was hoping to see some but all I found was this white form - attractive enough but with no great impact. More attractive was a hoverfly, Helophilus pendulus, basking on a flower nearby.
The hoverfly Helophilus pendulus at Canons Ashby
2 June, 2013

Aquilegia alpina in my garden. 2 June, 2013

The native Columbine, Aquilegia vulgaris, is still to be found in woodlands on limestone at the eastern end of our county, i.e. in parts of the once-extensive Rockingham Forest, but many "wild" plants will, on examination, found to be hybrids - a similar situation to that of our native Bluebell. The original native species now appears to be rare. It must have been relatively common in John Clare's time but he seems to be hinting at increasing scarcity when, in his Shepherd's Calendar he writes:

                      The Columbines....heaths still claim them,
                      Where yet they grow wild.

We should note that the word 'heath' as used by Clare, does not equate with the current usage - Columbine is not, nor ever has been, a heathland plant.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Fawsley Park

Yesterday I spent a very interesting day at Fawsley Park. The occasion was a "bioblitz", an event organised by the Northants Wildlife Trust with the aim of "blitzing" the area by bringing in enthusiasts to record as much of the flora and fauna as possible. A number of friends were there - John Showers, Kevin Rowley and so on - but as we scattered far and wide over the estate I saw little of the others. I set out with the intention of concentrating on spiders, but despite excellent weather conditions and employing a number of techniques, I didn't have a great haul. Insects were a different matter and I obtained a good 'bag' of diptera.

Currant gall Neuroterus quercusbaccarum on
oak catkins. Fawsley Park 2 June, 2013

There are some fine trees on the estate with many oaks, and I was surprised by the number of currant galls on the oak catkins. These are the work of a Cynipid wasp, Neuroterus quercusbaccarum; we may have had a hard winter but these had clearly not been adversely affected.  

As well as spiders and flies I took a number of woodlice, centipedes, millipedes and beetles. These will take a few days to identify but the work is - for me - quite fascinating and if everyone else at the meeting has recorded a similar number of species it will have been a very fruitful exercise.