Thursday, 30 January 2014

Still falls the rain

'Still falls the rain' as Edith Sitwell gloomily recorded. But she was writing in the dark days of World War Two. It has just been announced that this month has been the wettest since records began but I'm not feeling gloomy at all. Rain has its compensations.

Raindrops hang from hazel catkins, putting on hold their reproductive activities, but once these have dried out they will resume their task, spreading pollen grains in their thousands, of which only a tiny percentage will find the female flowers.

Hazel catkins, Byfield Pocket Park.
30 January, 2014

A raindrop clings to the capsule of
a moss. Byfield, 30.January, 201T

Raindrops also glisten on the reproductive organs of moss but here the moisture is welcome. The male cells of mosses and liverworts are motile, and must have moisture in which to swim.

Mosses flourish on the walls of Holy Cross
church, Byfield. 30 January, 2014

The walls around the churchyard always wear a cap of moss but it appears to be spreading steadily in these wet conditions. The moss provides a habitat for a myriad of tiny invertebrates.

A closer view of the moss shows it to be Cypress-leaved Plait Moss - Hypnum cupressiforme. This is abundant in such situations, able to withstand the dry conditions which prevail in summer

Also enjoying these conditions are lichens. These curious organisms - a symbiotic amalgam of a fungus with an alga - also do well in wet conditions. Mosses, liverworts and lichens all flourish in the west of Britain - for obvious reasons.

Oak Moss, Evernia prunastri on a fence.
Byfield Pocket Park. 30. January, 2014

Despite its common name of Oak Moss this is a typical lichen, abundant in all parts of the British Isles. I can always find it on tree trunks, gate posts and so on but it is particularly obvious this year.

Evernia prunastri, a closer look.

A closer view giving a little more 
detail. This lichen is widely used in the perfume industry, being harvested for this purpose in the Balkans. 

I had set out in light drizzle so I now turned for home in deteriorating conditions. A solitary fieldfare flew across my path with a cackling alarm call. These are often present in large flocks but I have seen very few this winter.

Fossils set in the wall of the village club provided a dry refuge for spiders. I needed a refuge too so, a little bedraggled, I set off for home.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Almost February and I'm getting impatient.

Almost February and no real signs of spring. A few years ago Chris and I had a fortnight in Turkey. Arriving in April we had only packed light clothing - but it was very cold. Everyone made a bee-line for the local shops to buy woolly jumpers. The hotel manager said: 'Spring starts tomorrow.' We laughed at his absurd comment but, sure enough, the skies cleared and temperatures rose at an astonishing rate. Tortoises were aroused from their torpor and were soon trundling around the hillsides.

Stravinsky, when interviewed about his 'Rite of Spring' ('Le Sacre du Printemps') , recalled his childhood and spoke of '...the violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking'.

Here in Britain spring creeps in on tiptoe. Am I obsessed with spring? These damp chilly days have their highlights but if I am obsessed I am in company with painters, poets and composers. I took a brief look at my CD's:

Benjamin Britten: Spring Symphony

Spring Symphony: a glorious celebration of spring through setting of English poets.

Frank Bridge: Enter Spring

Enter Spring: A delightful work by Frank Bridge. Britten's main tutor and surely a much under rated composer.

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

The Rite of Spring: One of the great works of the 20th century - or any other century.

Nielsen: Springtime in Funen

I bought this CD for Carl Nielsen's 'Aladdin' suite, so 'Springtime in Funen' was a pleasant surprise.

Copland: Appalachian Spring

This Aaron Copland work is familiar to all for its use of a Shaker song called 'Simple Gifts'. The tune was later used by Sidney Carter for a hymn: 'Lord of the Dance'.

My friend John Pimm won't be surprised to find that I lack a CD of Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons'!

Anyway, I've laboriously made my point. We all love spring and it is therefore no surprise that we yearn for the warmer weather.  On today's walk the only flowers I saw (other than the ubiquitous Viburnum tinus) were a few precocious flowers on  Berberis darwinii and one solitary bloom on Cymbalaria muralis.

Berberis darwinii. Bell Lane, Byfield.
29 January, 2014

With its tiny 'Holly leaves' Berberis darwinii is surely one of the most delightful of all hardy shrubs. It is native to Chile and Argentina but is naturalised here and there in Britain.

Cymbalaria muralis, Bell Lane, Byfield.
29 January, 2014

Ivy-leaved Toadflax, Cymbalaria muralis, is usually found on walls. Not surprising really, given that 'muralis' means 'of walls'.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Bell, Brook and Blindle

The early morning sunshine enticed me out for a stroll around the pocket park but conditions were deceiving and I was glad of warm gloves. 

Were snowdrops yet in bloom? Not quite, but in a couple of days the swelling buds could be open - as I'm sure they already are in England's south-west. 

Snowdrops almost in flower, Byfield churchyard.
27 January, 2014

The Snowy Milkflower would be a crude translation of its scientific name, Galanthus nivalis, with the Greek element 'galaktos' (milk) referring to the whiteness of the flowers. 

Greater Periwinkle, with ivy and goosegrass.
Byfield, 27 January, 2014
Already showing a few blooms was Greater Periwinkle, Vinca major. Despite its attractive flowers I would not entertain it in a garden of mine as it can become far too invasive. Seeds are rarely produced in this country but it readily spreads by vegetative means. It belongs to a largely tropical and subtropical family, the Apocynaceae, most of whose members - such as Oleander - are poisonous.

A couple of days ago I had been examining this small lake, formed by damming a stream a little to the north of Byfield. The stream, the Cornbrook, flows on to pass through the village, running alongside the playing fields, an open area known as the Brightwell. 

The Cornbrook stream, Byfield.
27 January , 2014

The Blindle, passing through our
back garden. 27 January, 2014

This stream, even in a prolonged dry period, generally flows strongly, whereas the stream passing through my back garden can be reduced to a trickle during a drought. Currently (no pun intended) the flow is strong. The oldest name for this latter stream is probably the Blindwell or Blindle. It is also known as the Westhorpe Stream, forming as it does the boundary between Westhorpe and Byfield. More recently it has become known as the Bell Brook, presumably on the grounds that it flows near to the Bell Inn (now a care home). Shortly after leaving our garden this stream passes beneath Byfield's playing fields via a conduit, with the two watercourses meeting at the edge of the pocket park.

The rather unexciting confluence of the Blindle (aka
Blindwell) and the Cornbrook. 27 January, 2014

The combined streams form an important tributary of the River Cherwell, itself becoming a major tributary of the Thames. In this photograph the Blindle is entering from the left.

I carried in for a while, conscious of the fact that the temperature seemed to be dropping and my hands were getting numb.

A hybrid Witch Hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia.
Byfield Allotments, 27, January, 2014

Pausing only to photograph the spidery flowers of a Witch Hazel at the edge of Byfield's allotments I scurried home for a hot coffee - and to unpack a new camera which had just been delivered.


Friday, 24 January 2014

Northward Ho!

A public footpath runs north from Byfield, starting from near Fiveways and meandering over fields towards Hellidon. I have hardly used it and so, being a decent day (at least it was dry), I decided to walk part of it.

Red Dead-nettle.
Byfield, 24 January, 2014

A clump of Red Dead-nettle. Lamium purpureum, was flowering bravely, if rather pointlessly, as I left the village, The genus Lamium gives its name to the large Lamiaceae Family, which includes sage, mint, lavender and many other aromatic herbs and sub-shrubs. Until relatively recently it was called the Labiatae Family.

But were its flowers really pointless?  

Spurge-laurel, Daphne laureola, near Byfield
24 January, 2014
Beneath a hedgerow a little further on Spurge-laurel was also coming into bloom. Its flowers, being greenish and rather small, are inconspicuous but compensate for this by being quite sweetly scented. (My blog for 3 December, 2012 looks more closely at this rather curious plant.)  Presumably the occasional bee, stirred from its rest by a spell of sunshine, may pay the flowers a visit.

Some 40-50 years ago iron ore was being extracted from the Byfield area and I believe that the field through which I was walking is the site of one of these quarries. 

This boulder appears to have little iron oxide showing
and was perhaps overburden, removed to reach richer
seams. Near Byfield,  24 January, 2014

Some pretty hefty boulders lay at the field edge. They would make splendid features in a rock garden but getting them home would be a big problem. This particular specimen looks to have been recently exposed by ploughing; elsewhere these rocks were covered with moss.

I was walking parallel to a stream which at one point had been dammed to form a smallish lake. Willows will survive in wet ground but the rather deep water had proved too much for this specimen as it appeared to be deader than a Norwegian Blue parrot. But yea, there is life after death, and a little further on a similar specimen had sprouted a striking cluster of bracket fungi.
Blushing Bracket (?) on dead willow
near Byfield. 24 January, 2014

As I have stated before, I am no mycologist but it is probably the Blushing Bracket, Daedaleopsis confragosaThe concentric patterning of light and dark brown on the upper surface looks right. Furthermore my books agree that it is found "on deciduous trees, especially willow". 

The gills on the lower surface of the bracket also look right for this species. Apparently it is not edible. Perhaps it is me, but I didn't really fancy trying it anyway.

Same species, lower surface showing pattern of gills.

Of course, bracket fungi generally lead to the death of the host so perhaps it was this, rather than the ultra-wet conditions, that led to this tree's demise.

I pressed on, following the trail of a Muntjac. Judging by the freshness of the slots it had passed through within the previous 24 hours.

There is clearly a very considerable population of these deer hereabouts but their crepuscular habits means that they are not observed as often as might otherwise be the case.

I continue heading north. A ridge to my left looked suspiciously like the retaining wall for some sort of lake. The ridge was topped by tell-tale willows and yet I had walked this track a couple of years previously; surely I couldn't have overlooked such a feature? 

A raised earth wall indicated the presence of a
 lake - or did it? Nr Byfield, 24 January, 2014

Sure enough, as I approached, several lengths of plastic piping hardened my suspicions. It turned out to be a substantial stretch of water with a surface area probably about ten thousand square metres.

Lake adjacent to Manor Farm, north of Byfield
24 January, 2014

The spire of Holy Cross church, Byfield
24 January, 2014

How extraordinary that I'd followed this route without noticing it. Clearly I had been intently examining features of the hedgerow to my right and had not even glanced to the left. Under grey skies the water looked cold and uninviting, but it demands a return visit when things have warmed up a bit. 

Looking south across the lake the spire of Byfield church stood out prominently. I took a photograph then, with a horrible grinding noise my camera lens jammed. It had been giving cause for concern over recent weeks but it was clearly kaput.

So it was home - and on to the internet to look for a replacement camera!

Thursday, 23 January 2014

A perilous Pit Lane peregrination

On a sunny but chilly day I decided to face the perils of Pit Lane for a change of scene. As I have remarked in a previous blog, this track is invariably referred to as Muddy Lane by local people, and with good reason.

Pit Lane aka Muddy Lane, looking north.
23 January, 2014

This is a public right of way but farm traffic has rendered the lane almost unusable; I had to tread very warily. I always carry a camera on these walks but my expectations are realistic and sometimes there is little worthy of photographing. Fortunately I am happy to look at what many would call trivia; I find a fascination in small things. Multum in parvo my son, as Del Boy would have put it.

Brambles lined the track on both sides and the leaves bore closer examination for the mines they exhibited. The Golden Pigmy Moth, Stigmella aurella. was responsible for most (all?) of the mines.

Leaf-mine of the Golden Pigmy Moth
Pit Lane, Byfield.  23 January, 2014

Typically the mine is very sinuous as shown in the first photograph. It is a very common moth but the adult (the imago) is small and tends to be overlooked.

In this second example the mine follows the leaf edge so closely that I suspected it was a different species, but later research suggested that it was the Golden Pigmy again. In many cases the position of the mine can be diagnostic for naming the species, but apparently not here.

I diverted from the main track to the site of the original pit. The area has become a dumping-ground for waste farm materials (and some local gardeners also appear to have used it for a similar purpose) so the area is not pretty. The pit held water. thus forming a small pool. In nine years this is the first time I have noticed a pool form, testament to the very wet weather we've been experiencing.

A pool temporarily fills the pit.
Pit Lane, Byfield. 23 January, 2014

Unfortunately this pool is unlikely to persist for many weeks. How nice it would be if it lasted long enough to attract dragonflies. The water looked very clear but, surrounded by dumped farm materials, some form of pollution is quite likely.

Unsightly though the area may be, it is full of interest - as is the case with many brownfield sites. Patches of bare ground have been colonised by annuals and some interesting biennial plants. 

Verbascum thapsus adjacent to
Pit Lane, Byfield.  23 January, 2014

Verbascum thapsus, known as Great Mullein or Aaron's Rod, towered almost two metres on banks of dumped soil. In a situation such as this a veritable forest of mulleins can rapidly develop but, as the plants are intolerant of shade they can be quickly crowded out. Plant breeders have done much work on Verbascums in recent years and some lovely, more compact forms are now available. The handsome caterpillars of the Mullein Moth are worth looking for on the leaves of Verbascums and I'll certainly return in mid-summer to see if they are present.

Showing similar habits is Wild Teasel, Dipsacus fullonum. In winter the seed heads are frequently visited by Goldfinches, who tweak out the seeds with their slender bills,

Thistle-like teasel heads just off
Pit Lane. 23 January, 2014

Fortunately, despite the attention of Goldfinches, plenty of seed falls to the ground, leading to the development of replacement plants. Generally speaking, biennials need to produce copious amounts of seed to compensate for their short life span. They will need bare soil to germinate and brownfield sites usually offer ideal conditions for teasels. Certainly lots of young plants were present. These will grow rapidly as the soil warms and produce flowers - much loved by bees -  later in the year.

Rosette of Teasel. Pit Lane, Byfield.
23 January, 2014

These rosettes spread quite widely, the lower leaves choking off other seedlings which might provide unwelcome competition. Such a strategy is widespread among plants which cannot cope with shade.

Of several other plants present, one more merits a mention. Hemlock, Conium maculatum, is another biennial, waste ground specialist, particularly where the ground is damp. Is it my imagination or has the plant become more common in recent decades? Even as a young plant its bright green, finely-dissected leaves are distinctive. If in doubt, pinch a leaf and note the unpleasant smell. Then wash your hands! It is this odour which probably makes cases of Hemlock poisoning quite rare.

The Latin name is quite interesting: Conium comes from a word meaning "to whirl about" as the poison causes vertigo, leading to collapse; maculatum, meaning spotted, refers to the purple blotches present on the stem.

Rosette of Hemlock  23 January, 2013

So, not a wildly exciting excursion but to coin a phrase, it kept me out of the pub.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Lengthening days

In a couple of months time Chris and I are off rambling in southern Greece and as I am not at all fit. and as today was reasonably fine (at least it was dry) I set off again for a strenuous walk. But of course it wasn't strenuous - stopping very couple of minutes to examine an enthralling twig doesn't exactly get the heart-rate up. 

I set off via Banbury Lane, pausing only to photograph a Spurge-laurel in full flower. 

Spurge-laurel, Daphne laureola.
Byfield, 18 February, 2014

Easily overlooked, the small. fragrant flowers merit closer examination,

Yesterday I more or less vowed not to photograph any lichens, so here are a couple (yes, I know it should be here is a couple, but) ...

Pannaria rubiginosa on the trunk of an ash tree.
Nr Byfield, 18 February, 2014

On the trunk of an ash tree was an attractive patch of Pannaria rubiginosa. This is a very widespread species, found all over the world except Australasia and Antarctica, so it doesn't count as a sensational find.

Evernia prunastri on an oak branch  nr Byfield.
18 February, 2014

... and Evernia prunastri, already featured in previous blogs and therefore meriting no further comment.

Snowdrops were abundant in places and, given an hour or two of sunshine, may get some visitors in the shape of honey bees.

But rather more interesting, as I approach Byfield, was a considerable patch of Lungwort.

Saturday, 18 January 2014


Grey Shoulder-knot on bark of willow tree in
my garden, Byfield SP515529  9 January, 2014
Stripping Ivy from a willow tree in my garden I exposed a Grey Shoulder-knot (Lithophane ornitopus). I was not surprised as it is a common and widespread moth, but fifty years ago I would have been rather excited as it was than a very scarce species in Northamptonshire. Ivy is a nuisance in many respects but it offered a snug refuge for this moth to overwinter.
Hawthorn Shieldbug, Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale
disrupting my paper-hanging efforts.  14 January, 2014

Household tasks, tedious though they often are, cannot be ignored and the winter months must be utilised for these matters. Accordingly I have set to and started redecorating my study. I fetched the paste table from the car port and there, revealed as I  opened it up, were yet more refugees. The first to creep out was a Hawthorn Shieldbug (see my blog, "The Sore-bottomed Shieldbug", 3 October, 2013). 

I removed it to a place of safety and returned to the task in hand - only for a green lacewing to flutter out and settle on the ceiling. Unsurprisingly it proved to be Chrysoperla carnea, perhaps the commonest of these insects.

A green lacewing fly, Chrysoperla carnea on a
(very uneven) ceiling. 14 January, 2014

This "species" is actually an aggregate of species, tricky to separate. The Chrysoperla carnea complex is apparently found throughout the world - and, I can now reveal to the scientific community, under paste tables. 






Monday, 13 January 2014

Trees, trees....

I am very fond of trees and am not alone in this respect. As the American poet Joyce Kilmer wrote:

                                I think that I shall never see
                                A poem lovely as a tree...

A bit slushy for my liking, but her heart was in the right place. 

Walking with friends near Harlestone a couple of days ago I was stopped in my tracks by some magnificent Sweet Chestnuts on the golf course there. 

Sweet Chestnut, Castanea sativa,
Harlestone Golf Course,10 January, 2014

There are several of these on the course and I hope they are all subject to a preservation order, not least because these veterans are frequently home to rare invertebrates. (Those in Windsor Great Park are famous in this respect.) The Sweet Chestnut, it should be noted, is not at all related to the Horse Chestnut, Aesculus hippocastanum. The former is a member of the Oak Family and the latter belongs to the Hippocastanaceae. The fruits may look vaguely similar but are structurally quite different . Neither of the trees is native to Britain.

In the winter months deciduous trees, bereft of their leaves, often give identification problems but, with practice, most can be named. In many cases the bark is a giveaway but some have a characteristic shape, none more so than the Lombardy Poplar.

Lombardy Poplars on the edge of Byfield
 Playing Fields .13 January, 2014 

The Lombardy Poplar, unmistakable with its tall, columnar habit is not a species in its own right but is a fastigiate form of the Black Poplar, Populus nigra. The native Black Poplar is now quite a scarce tree in the wild but insects such as the Poplar Hawk Moth are quite happy to accept the Lombardy Poplar, as are several other species of moth, bug, beetle and so on. In short, it is a spiffing tree in wildlife terms.

However, as I pointed out in my last blog, it is evergreen trees which come to the fore in winter months. Some are beautiful, some are bizarre. Which brings me to the Monkey-puzzle, Araucaria araucana. The family to which it belongs, the Araucariaceae, is quite a small one and is confined to the southern hemisphere. Most people visiting resorts in southern Europe will be familiar with a close relative of the Monkey-puzzle, the Norfolk Island Pine. This is altogether, imo, a more attractive tree but is not hardy enough to cope with the British climate.

Monkey-puzzle outside The White Horse
Norton, Northants.  12 January 2014

Cone of the Monkey-puzzle

The Monkey-puzzle only occasionally produces seeds in Britain and is thus rarely self-sown. The seeds are edible but I have never seen them for sale. As far as I am aware it does not attract any insects and so gets the thumbs-down from me, but it is undeniably a conversation-piece.

Scots Pines I mentioned in my last blog, but a close relative, The Norway Spruce, Picea abies, also deserves consideration. My neighbours, John and Jill Russell, have a fine specimen in their garden.
Norway Spruce in a Byfield garden

It is not a native of Britain, but perhaps we should regard it as an honorary native as it was certainly present in the last (Ipswichian) interglacial, the pollen frequently being found in deposits from the period. Several interesting insects are associated with the tree but some accidentally introduced species pose a serious threat to this and other conifers. The Great Spruce Bark Beetle, Dendroctonus micans and the Western Conifer Seed Bug Leptoglossus occidentalis are cases in point. With several spruces and pines present in the pocket park I ought to keep an eye open for these invaders. (Another issue for the Daily Mail to investigate: "Immigrant Bugs cause crisis in British forestry") 

Norway Spruce in Byfield Pocket Park
13 January, 2014

Pine (left) and Spruce (right) cones.
Byfield Pocket Park 13 January, 2014

Most conifers can be identified via their cones. The photograph shows Scots Pine on the left and Norway Spruce on the right. Both are very acceptable to Grey Squirrels and in the past I have visited conifer plantations where intact cones were hard to find.

Western Red Cedar in Byfield
Churchyard.  13 January, 2014

Our churchyard contains a handful of Western Red Cedars. These trees are rather sombre but undeniably handsome. Given a large enough garden I would be tempted to plant one - but they need lots of space. (A houseowner in Becketts Close, here in Byfield, has planted a Monkey-puzzle in the rather small front garden. In a few years....)

The attractive, rather glossy foliage of Western
Red Cedar. Byfield Churchyard. 13 January, 2014

The Western Red Cedar, Thuya plicata, has a slightly weeping habit, adding to its appeal as silvan eye-candy. The plicate (folded or plaited) leaves which give the tree its specific name are rather glossy and had a beautiful sheen in today's bright winter sun.