Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Farewell 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year!

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Christmas in Highgate

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

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

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

The entrance to Holly Village, Highgate
25 December, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, back to Byfield and a more quotidian life.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Holly, Mistletoe and Ivy

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Parson's Spinney - SP505527

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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