Thursday, 27 February 2014

A dismal day

In Daventry Chris and I experienced a sharp and nasty hailstorm and the afternoon I'd planned seemed out of the question. However, things did clear up and I modified my walk and contented myself with a visit to my "patch" - Byfield Pocket Park.

A pair of mines formed by larvae of the
Glossy Bramble Pigmy.
Byfield Pocket Park. 27 February, 2014

Two larvae of the Glossy Bramble Pigmy, Stigmella splendidissimella, had produced a strikingly symmetrical pair of mines. This is a common micro-moth, the mines of which wouldn't normally merit comment.

Daffodils were just coming into flower. Around Byfield, as in towns and villages the length of Britain, Narcissi have been planted in large quantities. This coming autumn I'm sure armies of volunteers will be out in force planting yet more. What is the motive? If it is to produce a colourful spring display - fine. If it is to help "nature", then it is a rather pointless effort. I don't deny that I sometimes see bumble bees visiting the flowers plus a few smaller flies such as Norellia species but, beyond that, their wildlife value is very limited. The Hoverfly, Merodon equestris, known as the Large Narcissus Fly or the Narcissus Bulb Fly, may burrow into the bulbs. It is a handsome insect but I'm prepared to bet that people don't plant 'daffs' in order for the bulbs to be attacked!

A pair of Bullfinches flitted across the track as I approached the Pocket Park. They are one of my favourite birds (I am not a fruit grower!) so I attempted to photograph the male, but it was too wary to allow me anywhere near. As a consequence my picture is poor.

Male Bullfinch. Byfield Pocket Park
27 February, 2014

Bullfinches are a fairly regular sighting and they always seem to travel around in pairs. My comment about fruit growing refers to the fact that they can do great damage in orchards by feeding on the buds - but I still like them.

Nebria brevicollis, a common Ground Beetle
Byfield Pocket Park, 27 February, 2014  

Carefully lifting a log I was surprised to find that it was a refuge for about twenty ground beetles; two or three is, in my experience, more usual. These belong to a very large family called the Carabidae; they are common and familiar to most people and there are about 350 species in Britain.

The beetles generally appear hairless but closer examination reveals a number of hairs and bristles, often of considerable importance in identification. I took a specimen for closer examination and it proved to be Nebria brevicollis. Martin Luff comments ("The Carabidae of Britain and Ireland" p. 49): "often extremely abundant". Certainly it is common hereabouts and I have previously recorded it from the pocket park (I replaced the log!). These beetles are carnivores and the larger ones can give a sharp nip with their mandibles; in some cases a nasty, noxious fluid can be expelled from the rear end. Handle with care!

As children in Northampton we always called them 'rain beetles' and I was interested to note that elsewhere in Britain the name 'rain clocks' is used (Marren and Mabey, "Bugs Britannica"). The term 'clock' may derive from a Swedish dialect word 'klocka' - a beetle. John Clare's lovely little poem "Clock-a-clay" also refers to a beetle - in this case a ladybird.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Root Spinney

A fine morning so, sweep net at the ready, I set out for the little gem that is Root Spinney, a mile or so south of Byfield at SP516516. Ancient woodland it is not, having been planted less than fifty years ago, but the owners of the land planted a well-chosen selection of native trees and shrubs and have, ever since, managed the site very sympathetically.

English Bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scripta
Root Spinney, 26 February, 2014

It is likely that there was vestigial woodland already there, for not only does the wood contain some mature oak but it is carpeted with native Bluebells to such an extent that I could not avoid trampling on them. I must revisit the wood in late spring when the plants will form a sea of blue.

Not only is Root Spinney well managed but so too are the surrounding fields. All the fields have broad margins, rarely under 2 metres wide and frequently up to about eight metres.

An Ash tree overhangs a broad field margin
 near Root Spinney. 26 February, 2014

These edges contain a good selection of wild flowers - no rarities as far as I am aware but none the less welcome. They are also a refuge for a wealth of insects, many of which (hoverflies, ladybirds. various bees) are beneficial to crops.

The woodland has a canopy of oak, ash, birch, cherry and willows, with an understorey mostly of hazel but with a few holly, blackthorn and elder bushes. The trees are quite widely spaced, allowing sunlight to reach the woodland floor.

A victim of recent high winds.
Root Spinney, 26 February, 2014

A number of trees have been felled by recent high winds and it appears that they are to be allowed to decay in situ, benefiting wood-boring insects, fungi, etc.

Decaying tree stump at Root Spinney
26 February, 2014

The loose bark provides a refuge for a range of invertebrates, ranging from woodlice and centipedes to snails and spiders. Within a few years woodlice and wood-boring larvae of various insects, aided and abetted by fungi, will completely destroy this tree stump and return the mineral salts to the woodland soil.


Honeysuckle climbed, rope-like, into trees.
Root Spinney, 26 February, 2014
Thankfully there was only a little ivy but Honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum, was frequent as a climber. The scarlet berries are enjoyed by birds and the leaves are frequently mined by the larvae of micro-moths and small flies. There is also a close association between Honeysuckle and Dormice. A female Dormouse will construct a nest of stripped Honeysuckle bark in which to raise her young. Humans may also enjoy its benefits as "the flowers, in the form of a syrup, have been used successfully in disorders of the respiratory system and asthma" (Potter's Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs...", 1923 edition.) No thanks, I'll stick to Tixylix.

Honeysuckle (the old name of Woodbine now seems little used) is widespread in our county as the map (from the 1995 "Flora of Northamptonshire..." by Gill Gent and Rob Wilson) makes clear.

The public footpath through Root Spinney.
26 February, 2014

The main path, treacherous at the best of times, had been rendered even more difficult by the local hunt. I met Tim Boddington on the footpath and he informed me that the hunt had passed through twice in one day. Unsurprisingly I was forced to tread warily as I pressed on. Awkward though the conditions were, I knew that it would be a worthwhile exercise as, beyond the wood, the same landowners have created some very attractive lakes.

One of the lakes below Root Spinney
26 February, 2014

Though of recent origin these lakes are now home to an interesting range of aquatic flora and fauna, a range which is likely to increase over future years.

Yellow Brain Fungus (?) with the lichen
Xanthoria parietina on a small branch
Root Spinney, 26 February, 2014

Although I have waxed lyrical about the area I saw nothing of outstanding interest today. A small growth of what I believe was Yellow Brain Fungus, Tremella mesenterica, could not be called an epic discovery. But I shall return.

 So I headed home. I didn't use my sweep-net once.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Buttercup Family. Part 1. Late winter-early spring

The Ranunculaceae - the Buttercup Family family to us non-botanists - is a strange conglomeration of plants and it is difficult to believe that they all belong to the same family. "Very variable in floral morphology" as Clive Stace puts it (Stace, C.  'New Flora of the British Isles' C.U.P. 1991). But it is variable in other ways too: there are annual herbs, perennial herbs, woody climbers and shrubs. I blew the dust off my copy of his classic work, "Families of Flowering Plants", to find that the late John Hutchinson presents an enormously complex description of the family, necessarily so to take in all the variables.

Two non-technical points may be made: 1. All are to some degree acrid, with some highly poisonous members. 2. The family includes some lovely garden plants.

Some of the Ranunculaceae provide our most welcome late winter/early spring flowers. The Stinking Hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, I have spoken of before, e.g "Burning off Breakfast" on 1st April. A close relative is, as I write, in flower near to the main village store; this is Green Hellebore, Helleborus viridis, otherwise known as Bear's Foot.

Green Hellebore in a garden adjacent to
Byfield's Co-op store. 4 February, 2014

The Green Hellebore is native to Northamptonshire but is very rare. The best place to see it is Walton Grounds, near Kings Sutton where, according to Gent and Wilson ("The Flora of Northamptonshire..." 2012) "there are in excess of 100 flowering plants". With its lovely cupped flowers I prefer it to the more popular Lenten Rose, Helleborus orientalis. Both species are highly poisonous.

Helleborus x hybridus.  Byfield
19 February, 2014

Hybridists have had great fun with Hellebores in recent decades and some striking plants are now available under the general name of Helleborus x hybridus. Here in Byfield Angela Tiffin's garden contains some nice examples which she allowed me to photograph. The first example may be H. "White Spot" (There are several similar cultivars). The purple freckling is due to the presence of anthocyanins.

Another Hellebore in Angela's garden. Byfield,
 19 February, 2014  (The scarf is not significant!)

This lovely primrose yellow form may be "Mardi Gras" but, again, several similar cultivars are available. Here the yellow coloration is caused by flavenoids.

If I have a quarrel with Hellebores it is because they receive few insect visitors. Early bees will call in for the nectar but I have only witnessed such visits occasionally.

Also currently in flower (4 February) is Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis. Even a cursory glance at the flowers shows the affinity with Hellebores and Linnaeus called it Helleborus hyemalis.

Winter Aconites, Church Street, Byfield
4 February, 2014

This species is not native to Britain yet it 
frequently escapes to become naturalised. As a consequence it is probably commoner than Green Hellebore. With a whorl of sessile leaves forming a ruff beneath each flower it is a charming and deservedly popular plant. 

Oddly enough, the yellow 'petals' are not true petals at all but are coloured sepals performing the function of petals. A closer look shows the numerous stamens within the cup of sepals. This situation is common throughout the family; when it is not clear whether a structure is a sepal or a petal, the term 'tepal' is often used.

A carpet of Celandines; Byfield Playing Fields

Another early flowerer is the Celandine. Ranunculus ficaria. Although it is placed, with other buttercups, in the genus Ranunculus it is rather an awkward fit. Most other buttercups have five sepals; the Celandine has only three so for this, plus a few other less obvious differences, many botanists in the early part of the 20th century preferred the name Ficaria verna. Celandine, Pilewort, Golden Guineas - the plant has numerous common names. I have written further about this species in my blog for 29 January, 2013, "Pilewort and the doctrine of signatures". Tiny though it is, the brilliant glossy yellow of its petals have attracted people throughout the ages. For how many centuries, I wonder, have children held these flowers under a friend's chin asking, "Do you like butter?" Certainly it caught the attention of William Wordsworth, for he refers to the flower in three of his poems. Here is one:  


                                  Pansies, lilies, kingcups, daisies,
                                  Let them live upon their praises;
                                  Long as there's a sun that sets,
                                  Primroses will have their glory; 
                                  Long as there are violets,
                                  They will have a place in story:
                                  There's a flower that shall be mine,
                                  'Tis the little Celandine.

As if you haven't suffered enough I intend to write a second blog on the Buttercup Family: Mid spring to high summer.   

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Wet, wet, wet.

I set out today in bright, warm sunshine, only to get caught in a shower and arrive home very bedraggled.

I could say that I had witnessed amazing sights on the walk; I could say that I took some stunning photographs - but in both cases I would be telling porkies.

The alga, Trentepohlia abietina on bark.
Byfield Pocket Park, 20 February, 2014

Trudging through Byfield's Pocket Park I was struck by the number of tree trunks with orange staining. Despite looking very-lichen like, the organism responsible is an alga, Trentepohlia abietina.
Although very widespread few records appear on biological databases as no-one seems to submit their findings.


Coral-spot on an Elder branch.
Byfield Pocket Park, 20 February, 2014

Only a few metres away was another distinctive, orange, lichen-like organism. Again it wasn't a lichen but in this case was a fungus, Nectria cinnabarina. Commonly called the Coral-spot Fungus, it is typically found on dead bark, but will penetrate living wood to cause dieback and, in the worst cases, the death of the tree.

Oilseed rape at the edge of Byfield
Pocket Park. 20 February, 2014

A splash of bright yellow in the distance looked encouraging but, as I approached, it became obvious that it was an oilseed rape plant that had escaped the attentions of the harvester.

If you all turn to page 2 in your copy of William Kirk's book, "Insects on Cabbages and Oilseed Rape" you will see that the plant is basically a turnip; more precisely it is Brassica napus var. oleifera. As a crop a rigorous regime of spraying is generally followed lest the plants are attacked by a wide range of organisms. Odd plants like the one I found generally escape spraying and are therefore of considerable interest.

The sky was darkening in a threatening manner and the first raindrops began to fall so I turned homewards. I paused to examine a Belemnite fossil in a sandstone wall.

Belemnite in a wall, Church Street,  Byfield.
20 February, 2014

The fossil was unremarkable; dozens, if not hundreds, of these ancient squid relatives were to be seen along the wall. What was rather more surprising was a spider I saw nearby.

It was a female Zygiella x-notata, guarding her clutch of eggs. To find this creature on an exposed wall in February was, to my mind, quite extraordinary; wet though I was, my walk had been worthwhile after all.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Rambling on...

In a couple of months time Chris and I are off rambling in southern Greece (the Peloponnese to be more precise) 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 every couple of minutes to examine an enthralling twig doesn't exactly get the heart-rate up.

I left Byfield via Banbury Lane, pausing only to photograph a Spurge-laurel, Daphne laureola.

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

Its small, fragrant flowers are easily overlooked, but merit closer examination. Given a couple of hours of warm sunshine it may receive visits from Honey Bees. No one seems to plant it hereabouts; it just pops up, probably being bird sown.

Yesterday I more or less vowed not to photograph any lichens, so here are two ...

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

On the trunk of an ash tree was an attractive patch of Matted Lichen, 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.

An oak branch, bearing Evernia prunastri.
Near Byfield, 18 February, 2014

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

I plodded on through sticky fields, my circular route eventually bringing me back towards the village. In some hedgerows snowdrops were present, sometimes in patches numbering many hundreds but, far more more interesting, was a fair-sized patch of a Lungwort.

With its small, neat, unspotted leaves it clearly wasn't the usual Pulmonaria officinalis and a closer examination showed that it was Pulmonaria rubra. This plant is a native of south-east Europe but has escaped from gardens and is now quite widely scattered through Britain. (Incidentally our only native Lungwort is the Narrow-leaved Lungwort, Pulmonaria longifolia, found wild on the Isle of Wight, Dorset and parts of Hampshire.)

Pulmonaria rubra, Boddington Road, Byfield.
18 February, 2014

This clump along the Boddington Road is clearly well-established and holding its own with the native flora. All Lungworts are excellent bee-plants, with copious amounts of nectar. Alien it may be, but in my eyes it is very welcome.

I pushed on into Byfield via the pretty Westhorp Lane and was stopped in my tracks by this lovely rose on a south-facing wall. Even in such a position it had no right to be flowering so beautifully in mid-February. (Excuse the camera angle; I wanted to show the quality of the petals.)

Also in flower were some clumps of Elephant-ears, Bergenia crassifolia. I cannot deny the attractiveness of the neat, bright pink flowers, but I have never grown it.

Elephant-ears, Westhorp Lane, Byfield.
18 February, 2014

The thick, cabbage-like leaves are so coarse that it hard to accept that it a member of the generally neat Saxifrage Family. These leaves are long-lasting and therefore get battered and chewed, detracting from a plant which might otherwise be a gem. Books will tell you that it is attractive to bees. All I can say is that I have been unlucky because I have never seen bees - or butterflies - visiting Bergenia.


Monday, 17 February 2014

Spring on hold

Phenological data suggest that spring is getting a little earlier each year but nevertheless, as I set out for a walk earlier today, I wasn't expecting to see any dramatic changes - and my non-expectations proved to be correct.

Yesterday I was tied up with a number of commitments. So the sun shone and the wind dropped to give a glorious day. Today I was free to get out - and the sky was unremittingly grey with a rather chilly wind. But was I bovvered? 
The lichen Amandinea punctata.
Byfield Pocket Park, 17 February, 2014

I set out through the Pocket Park, noting that discarded Coke cans were about the only colourful feature of the area but I paused to photograph a lichen on a sycamore tree trunk. It was Amandinea punctata, a common species found throughout Britain.

I could have spend a good deal of time photographing lichens but resisted the urge, partly because they are of little interest to most people but also because their correct identification can be very time consuming, necessitating the use of various chemicals such as potassium hydroxide, sodium hypochlorite, paraphenylenediamine, iodine, nitric acid and lactophenol - only some of which I have to hand. 
Lichens near Byfield sewage treatment plant.
17 February, 2014

Fortunately some lichens are distinctive and one soon becomes familiar with the commoner ones. A thin fallen branch bore a nice patch of Parmotrema reticulatum with, inevitably, Xanthoria parietina. The Parmotrema is the bluish lichen to the left with the yellow Xanthoria to its right. 

Parmotrema reticulatum in more detail.
17 February, 2014

Beyond Byfield's sewage treatment plant I left the public right-of-way and followed a stream, a tributary of the Cherwell, heading towards Woodford Halse. The ground was treacherous with sticky mud and at one point I slipped and almost fell.  A Green Woodpecker crossed an adjacent field with characteristic undulating flight, its slightly insane laugh almost mocking me. 

Tumbling stream between Byfield and Woodford Halse.
17 February, 2014

The stream is often little more than a trickle but, although indications suggested that the water had subsided a lot in the last 36 hours, it was still flowing strongly.

Hawthorn still laden with fruit.
Nr Byfield, 17 February, 2014

The bird-feeder in my garden has received few visits recently and it is clear that there is plenty of natural food available in the open countryside. I found this hawthorn still heavily laden with fruit.

Buds were swelling on some of the hawthorn bushes whilst on elders some leaves were already showing. For most plants however it was a question of waiting. 

Rosette of Spear Thistle nr Byfield.
17 February, 2014

Among those waiting is Spear Thistle, Cirsium vulgareThe rosettes of this biennial herb are now well developed; with rising temperatures and increasing day-length they will sent their flowering stems soaring up to as much as 150 centimetres. Copious droppings showed a good population of rabbits in the area but this thistle is safe!

Common Field Speedwell, Veronica persica.
Arable fields nr Byfiels, 17 February, 2014
The chilly, muddy conditions did not deter Common Field Speedwell, Veronica persica from flowering with some freedom. The plant has a bitter taste and may be mildly toxic (some American species have been under suspicion of poisoning dogs). So, for a different reason, it too seems safe from rabbits. It is an introduced plant, first recorded in 1825, but is now abundant everywhere.

My rather circular walk was taking me back towards Byfield. As I approached the village violets were in bloom.

Sweet Violet in flower at the edge of Byfield.
17 February, 2014

Despite the chilly conditions a pleasant fragrance could be detected. This, and the almost blunt sepals, showed that it was Sweet Violet, Viola odorata. The proximity to the village suggested that it was a garden escape although the species does grow wild hereabouts.

Erophila verna on a wall. Church Street
Byfield.  17 February, 2014
My walk was almost over but a sandstone wall in Church Street bore a few plants of Common Whitlow-grass, Erophila verna. Rather obviously it is not a grass at all but a tiny member of the Cabbage Family. Some of the plants were small enough to be completely covered by a ten-pence coin but were nevertheless in full flower and with ripening capsules of seeds. Each flower has only four petals, but each is deeply split to create the impression of eight.

So, hardly a wildly exciting morning but it was better than house re-decorating so, after days of slapping emulsion on walls, it was good to get some clean air into my lungs (notwithstanding the sewage works!). 

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Thrum-eyed and pin-eyed

I treated myself to a tray of Primulas today from Banbury market and was pleased to note that both thrum-eyed and pin-eyed forms were present. The thrum-eyed form has long anthers (the male pollen-bearing organs) and they form a fringe around the top of the corolla tube.

Thrum-eyed Primula. 6 February, 2014

In the thrum-eyed form the female organs cannot be seen as they are situated half way down the corolla tube.

Pin-eyed Primula. 6 February, 2014

In the pin-eyed form the situation is reversed: the female stigma, looking like a drumstick, clearly protrudes from the mouth of the corolla tube; the male organs cannot be seen.

Ideally a visiting insect will go to a thrum-eyed flower first and receive a dusting of pollen from the male organs. It will go on to a female flower and deposit pollen on the sticky stigma and pollination is achieved.

The object of the exercise is, of course, to try and ensure cross-pollination. Although our wild Primrose, Primula vulgaris, is far less common than a century ago it is still abundant in places, testimony to the success of this arrangement. All our other native primulas - Bird's Eye Primrose (Primula farinosa), Oxlip (Primula elatior)  and Cowslip, (Primula veris) have similar arrangements.

Monday, 3 February 2014

West Farndon and beyond

I really haven't been doing much walking lately - no more than strolling really, so today I set off for a longer, brisker walk. It was only about three and a half miles but with some steepish climbs on muddy tracks, and into the teeth of a blustery wind, it felt further.

West Farndon, looking from the west
3 February, 2013

I left Byfield via Church Street and set out, with a strong east wind making my eyes water, along the uninspiring road towards West Farndon. It is quite a pretty little hamlet with a population, I suspect, of under fifty people. (The village of East Farndon, near Market Harborough, is considerably larger.)

My walk by-passed West Farndon and in a short distance I left the road and struck off west, heading for Farndonhill Farm. A couple of dozen fieldfares rose as I approached, chak-chakking testily. These migrant thrushes have largely escaped me this winter and this was the largest flock I've seen this year. In a few weeks they'll be getting restless and set off for Scandinavia, pining for the fjords (see footnote). Skylarks rose from fields of cereals and oilseed rape, but after a short flight quickly settled again; their famous towering flights seem to be restricted to the breeding season.

I was now climbing steadily, with superb views in all directions, to reach a height of 184 metres. The wind was from the south-east - not the coldest quarter but nevertheless finding every chink in my clothing. Although I could see for many miles, particularly to the east, a camera would not do justice to this lovely but, compared with somewhere like the Clee Hills, a relatively featureless landscape.

White Campion Silene alba.
Farndon Hill, nr Byfield. 3 January, 2014

In these exposed conditions I was surprised to see White Campion, Silene alba, flowering. The soil is, I suspect neutral to slightly acid and in the summer Harebells flower in the same location.

The local farmer is clearly friendly towards the environment. Owl boxes were positioned in trees and there is some good amenity planting.

Amenity planting on Solden Hill.
3 February, 2014

This little grove of trees included cherry, oak, birch and beech. The latter two are probably not native to this part of the county but are nevertheless good choices.

Witches Brooms on birch trees.
Solden Hill, 3 February, 2014

Already the young birches were displaying 'witches brooms', about which I wrote in my blog for 9 February, 2013 called "Midwinter Miscellany". Research continues into these curious malformations which, though often quite large, seem to do no harm to the tree.

Our slowly growing gnome colony, Solden Hill.
3 February, 2014

I briefly paused to check on the well-being of our local colony of gnomes - Gnomebase? - before continuing my journey. I suspect there has been some inbreeding in this isolated group with its limited gene pool as some of the specimens were quite grotesque.

By now Byfield was in sight across the fields and I had under a mile to go. Unfortunately the last leg was along the busy A381 but it had been a good jaunt. 

Footnote  Apologies to Monty Python's 'Dead Parrot' sketch.These birds, amongst our larger thrushes, do not actually reside in the fjord regions but breed inland, through Fennoscandia into Russia.