Friday, 31 October 2014

Late-flowering Hogweed

What a remarkable autumn! Penultimate day of October and Hogweed is still flowering in profusion.
Hogweed in flower at the edge of Daventry.
30 October, 2014

Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium, is doing particularly well on roadside verges. It will have been cut back hard during routine maintenance, so it received what gardeners know as the "Chelsea chop". When plantsmen plan to show, at Chelsea, a plant which is likely to bloom too early, they will cut it hard back. It will then flower again and, if the timing is right, it will be at its best for the Show. 

Inevitably the flowers were attracting flies and, equally inevitably, the Common Dung-fly, Scathophaga stercoraria, was there. This insect breeds in dung but it is among the most ubiquitous of our flies and, outside the breeding season, is likely to turn up almost anywhere.

Hedge Woundwort beside the A361 near
Daventry, Northants. 30 October, 2014

Hogweed was by no means the only plant in flower. Hedge Woundwort, Stachys sylvatica, was also in bloom. This striking member of the Mint Family is quite rich in nectar and receives many visits from bees, but I saw none today. Like most members of the family (thyme, lavender, sage, etc) the leaves are strongly scented but in this case the odour is an unpleasant one. I was happy to look and not touch.

In the same family is White Dead-nettle. It is so common that I was inclined to ignore it, but then I noticed that some of the leaves were damaged.

Amauromyza labiatarum mining White
Dead-nettle. Roadside verge near
Daventry.  30 October, 2014
The culprit was an Agromyzid fly, Amauromyza labiatarum. It is a fly whose work I often encounter and certainly I noted it back in Byfield. Referring to Kenneth Spencer's book on the Agromyzidae family I read: "All Agromyzidae are exclusively phytophagous ...(the larvae)...frequently forming a characteristic feeding track or mine." The flies themselves are tricky to identify, it often being necessary to remove the genitalia of the adult for microscopic examination. Fortunately the mines are distinctive and  usually confined to one or a few closely related plants.

Other plants - brambles, Mouse-ear Chickweed - were in flower but my eye was  next attracted to fruit.

Spindle, Euonymus europaeus, in a roadside hedge.
Daventry. 30 October, 2014

The sealing-wax pink fruit of Spindle, Euonymus europaeus, were adorning the roadside hedgerow, splitting open to reveal their orange contents. The seeds are enclosed in an orange sheath, making them very striking. Although Spindle is a native species, these shrubs had clearly been planted by a thoughtful landowner. Excellent!
Coprinus comatus on a grassy verge.
Daventry, Northants. 30 October, 2014

On an area of disturbed earth a quite different organism was in fruit. This was Lawyer's Wig, aka Shaggy Ink Cap, Coprinus comatus. The word 'coprinus' means living on dung, but it is more often found on organic-rich soil and dung is by no means a requirement. Not only is it very common in Britain, it is found world-wide, even as far as New Zealand. The fruiting heads are deliquescent, dissolving to an inky fluid after a day or so, but when young and firm they are edible and delicious.

Mesembrina meridiana aka Noon Fly on railings.
Daventry, Northants. 30 October, 2014

On a white-painted rail a Noon Fly, Mesembrina meridiana, was loafing. With its glossy black body and orange wing-bases this is a striking and easily-identifiable insect. It is quite closely related to the House Fly; its larvae live in cattle droppings.

Throughout the walk ladybirds kept blundering into my head. There were hundreds of them about, and all but one was a Harlequin Ladybird, Harmonia axyridis. The one exception was a 7-spot Ladybird. On the previous day I had recorded a Kidney-spot Ladybird, Chilocorus renipistulatus, but overwhelmingly it has been Harlequins. Very worrying. For those not aware of the situation, the Harlequin Ladybird only arrived in Britain a couple of decades ago. It eats the larvae of other ladybirds and is surely now the commonest of these beetles in Britain.

Larva of Harlequin Ladybird on Cherry Laurel.
Edge of Daventry, Northants.  30 October, 2014

A few Harlequin larvae were around but this late in the year most had pupated. This larva appears to be fully grown and is probably about to settle down and begin the pupation process.

Finally, for those who hoped to escape without another photograph of a leaf miner...hard luck!

Emmetia marginea mining a bramble leaf near
Daventry, Northants.  30 October, 2014

This, mining a bramble leaf, is Emmetia marginea, a moth with the odd name of Bordered Carl. Sometimes called Coptotriche marginea, this is a member of the the small family - in Britain at least - the Tischeriidae. It is widespread but I don't often come across it.

So, another mixed bag, together with numerous flies which I still have to get under the microscope. For me, a good day.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Pan-species listing

A very interesting article appears in the latest (October 2014) issue of "British Wildlife". In it the author, Graeme Lyons, writes at length on the value - and sheer fun - of pan-species listing. 

The idea is to record, not just mosses, beetles, birds or whatever, but all organisms noted by an individual. In Graeme's life he claims to have recorded 5,436 species, and I have no reason to doubt this figure. Graeme's total is the result of recording species across a range of habitats over many years but arguably pan-species recording can involve recording all species within a limited area. For some people, the problems of age, disability or tight finances may place a limit on the number of sites accessible but even on a smaller scale some fascinating work is possible. I have in mind the remarkable figures resulting from surveys made in Jennifer Owen's Leicester garden. In her lovely book, "Wildlife of a Garden" she shows how she managed to record in excess of 2,673 species in her not-very-large garden between 1972 and 2001. Inevitably she called upon expert help to identify tricky or obscure groups, and that is a sensible precaution, preventing errors from creeping in.

I have identified 55 species from my garden.

In fairness to myself I should state that I moved to my present address barely two very busy months ago and I have not recorded anything other than insects and a few spiders. 

It seems to me that any reasonably intelligent person, if he or she so wishes, should be able to record several hundreds of species from an average garden. The basic requisites are:  
          1. Access to the literature. The internet has helped enormously in this respect                       although some organisms, eg. tardigrades, still pose problems. (I note that                         Jennifer Owen's book contains no reference to these remarkable creatures.)

          2. A decent microscope. When I think of the equipment purchased by anglers or                   golfers the cost of a good instrument is relatively little.

          3. Patience. An infinite capacity for careful examination of a specimen.

          4. Common sense. Working through the couplets of which most keys are based is                   not rocket science and if they are incomprehensible then it may be that the                     author needs to re-think those criteria causing problems.

Camera, a hand lens and binoculars are useful add-ons but not always essential, whilst some would claim that in this day and age a computer is indispensable. What is essential is a field notebook and a good record-keeping system.

Having said all this, records are of no use unless the information is passed on. This may be a species recording group or, in my case, the local Wildlife Trust. The records can then be stored on a database for other naturalists or future generations.

Love-in-a-mist seedlings in my Daventry
garden. 26 October, 2014

Regarding the garden, what does one include? Clearly there is a problem with cultivated plants. To list, for example, Dahlias would be absurd. But what of those garden plants which have a tendency to spread and so escape into other gardens or on to waste ground? My inclination is to include them. This photograph shows a small thicket of Love-in-a-mist, Nigella damascena, seedlings in our garden. It is not native to Britain but comes from south Europe and is a frequent escape on to rubbish tips, waste ground and so on. I intend to list it, but in brackets.

Red Valerian plants are well established on waste
ground around Daventry. 26 October, 2014
Alongside the Nigella is Red Valerian, Centranthus ruber, also from south Europe. This is so well-established on railway banks, walls and cliffs that it behaves just like a native, competing well with other indigenous plants. It will be listed in the same way. Young plants of the Centranthus are occupying cracks in nearby paving slabs and seem likely to persist.

So, in a pan-species spirit I've recently had a go at identifying organisms as diverse as fungi, slugs, harvestmen, lichens, centipedes, moths and wasps. I even, a few months ago, invested in a book on springtails (collembola) - but I haven't got around to using it yet. Maybe I'm stupid to try and deal with all these things, but it means my life is never boring!

Of course,  trying to cover such a diverse range of organisms a person could end up as a 'jack of all trades'. In answer to that criticism I would simply point to people such as Brian Eversham. Those of us who know Brian, or are aware of his work, will be aware of his extraordinary breadth of knowledge. As examples I have beside me, as I write, Brian's papers on the identification of lichens, willows and soldier beetles; you can't get much more diverse than that. We can't all emulate Brian - but we can give it our best shot. 

Monday, 27 October 2014

A spare half-hour

Finding myself with a bit of spare time in decent weather I took a three-minute walk to a belt of woodland near to my house, just off Christchurch Drive. Just to have a look.

Yellow Dung-fly with a crane fly.  Christchurch Drive,
Daventry. 27 October, 2014

The area is overgrown with brambles, easily causing the unwary to stumble; but brambles can provide interest, for on a leaf was a Yellow Dung-fly, Scathophaga stercoraria. It had seized a crane fly and was tucking in to its meal.

I was considering capturing the pair when the dung-fly made off with its prize so the victim remains unidentified. Often these dung-flies will pounce on other insects on a cow-pat but a meal is a meal wherever it is taken.

Beneath the trees (mostly Field Maple, Acer campestre) shafts of sunlight caused insects to congregate on favoured leaves.

Here a Harlequin Ladybird, Harmonia axyridis, is sharing a leaf with a male muscid fly, in this case Neomyia cornicina. This fly is virtually cosmopolitan, occurring everywhere except Australia, certain areas of tropical Africa and parts of the Oriental Region.

These green flies demand careful examination to be sure of a correct identification so I used my net and swept the leaf. All entomologists will have had the experience of netting a target insect, only to find that they have caught other, overlooked, species. In this case I had secured, besides the muscid fly and the Harlequin Ladybird,  a Common Froghopper, Philaenus spumarius and a sepsid fly, Sepsis fulgens. The Common Froghopper is the insect responsible for the frothy 'cuckoo-spit' with which we are all familiar.

I was turning over a few logs and stones (and replacing them!) in the hope of finding some Carabid beetles - the glossy black, fast-moving beetles common in these situations - but found none. I had to be content with woodlice, slugs and a centipede.

Yellow Slug, Limax flavus. Christchurch Drive,
Daventry. 27 October, 2014

The slugs were all specimens of the Yellow Slug, Limax flavus. This is a strongly synanthropic species, i.e. associated with human activity so not surprisingly it is often found under litter - in this case a piece of plastic sheeting.

In this second picture a pair of Yellow Slugs are beneath a log and it is just possible to make out some small white fungi at the foot of the photograph.

The fungal fruit-body looks vaguely like the wick of a snuffed candle, hence its common name of Candle-snuff Fungus. Scientifically known as Xylaria hypoxolon it is common on damp, dead wood.

My half-hour was almost up. There was just time to overturn a chunk of concrete and reveal the aforementioned centipede.

Geophilus flavus beneath concrete. Christchurch Drive,
Daventry. 27 October, 2014
Blowing the dust off my copy of E.H.Eason's "Centipedes of the British Isles" I checked out the creature's identity. I was pleased to confirm that it keyed out as Necrophloeophagus longicornis; I was even more pleased to find that the preferred name for this species is now Geophilus flavus. The older name was so long that I needed a break for coffee between typing the generic and specific names!

Most of us are familiar with the glossy chestnut centipedes frequently found under stones, but Geophilus flavus may well be just as common. However, its largely subterranean lifestyle means that it is less frequently encountered, although most gardeners will have come across it when wielding a spade. The word 'flavus' means, of course, yellow, and it can be seen that the slugs and the centipede share a lemon-yellow hue.

So, an interesting jaunt to find mini-beats almost on the doorstep.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Garden Cross Spider

It is about this time of the year that people begin to come up with alarming - and much exaggerated - reports of large spiders.

Some are 'huge' house spiders. These are almost invariably specimens of Eratigena atrica (= T. gigantea) See my blog "House Spiders", 31 December, 2012.

I was reminded of this when I disturbed a large spider as I was clearing a clump of Pampas Grass.
Araneus diadematus. Stefan Hill, Daventry
23 October, 2014

It was a handsome female Araneus diadematus, generally known as the Garden Cross Spider. She was fully mature and her large abdomen showed that she was gravid, i.e. full of eggs, having successfully mated. The much smaller male runs a terrible risk when mating and signals his intent by going through a ritual plucking of her web before advancing too near. With luck he may mate with several females until he becomes weak and...

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There is variability in the coloration of this species and the typical form is a duller, mid-brown. However, brighter chestnut specimens are not uncommon and are very attractive. They could probably deliver quite a painful bite but generally they are quite docile. Certainly I have never been bitten by one. Here she is on my wrist (and I can almost hear my sister Celia squealing with horror) intent only on making her escape to a secure site where she will build a new web. This species may build a new web every day although occasionally they are re-used if the latest one is undamaged. 

When, in 1757, the Swedish naturalist Carl Alexander Clerck named this species Araneus diadematus he was referring to the diadem or cross formed by white spots on the abdomen (these spots are actually cells swollen by guanine). The species was revered in ancient times as a bringer of good luck, the cross being seen as a holy sort of talisman.

I have a soft spot for this species and today, as always, I made a point of removing it to a place of safety before resuming my attack on the pampas grass. Hopefully she will live long enough to lay her eggs because with - or soon after - the first frost, she will die.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Alder: a spot of autecology

No. I'm being very pretentious. Autecology is the study of a particular species, and I spent about half an hour wandering around a group of alders. Now if I'd spent a couple of years looking at this species my title could perhaps have been justifiably used.

Any road, I set out on a dry and bright morning, but it was distinctly chilly. My plan had been to visit Stefan Leys Pocket Park (see my blog for 16th October) and gather a few spiders. I am the county spider recorder for the local wildlife trust but now spend so little time studying any arachnids that I am getting embarrassed. My intention was to put things right - or at least make an effort. Unfortunately the grass was wet and, combined with the cold, it made collecting difficult. In the event I only recorded a handful of spiders.

So, on coming across a clump of alders, I decided to look them over carefully. Alders are related to birches and placed with them in the Betulaceae Family. We have only one species, Alnus glutinosa, native to Northamptonshire, where it tends to be confined to riversides and wet woodlands. However, it is frequently planted as an amenity tree and will cope with drier conditions. (Wet woodlands dominated by alder and willow are known as carr.)
Alder, Alnus glutinosa, at Stefan Leys Pocket Park.
Daventry. 22 October, 2014

The tree has rather smooth, grey bark and at one time this bark was used in our county in the tanning industry (although oak bark was used in far greater quantities). Apparently the timber was also put to use for artefacts such as toys and small items of turnery. It rarely makes a very large tree, with 20 metres generally being the upper limit. 

Male catkins of Alder. Stefan Leys Pocket Park.
22 October, 2014

The male catkins are already present and will swell and open up next spring for the pollen to be distributed by wind.

Alder, the female catkins. Stefan Leys Pocket Park,
Daventry. 22 October, 2014

The egg-shaped female catkins are more or less fully ripe and over the next few weeks they will open up and release their seeds. The seeds have air-tight cavities and if they fall into water they will float undamaged through the winter to germinate in the spring. A fungus, Taphrina alni, causes a curious tongue-like growth to protrude from these catkins. Once rare, this fungus now appears to be spreading but I have yet to see it.

These female catkins are rather woody and are sometimes called 'pseudocones'. They will remain on the tree for many months, and the picture opposite shows the pseudocones clinging on from last year.

Of course, this late in the year many of the insects particularly associated with alder such as the Alder Kitten, Furcula bicuspis, and the Alder Moth, Acronicta alni, are not to be seen. This doesn't mean that the trees are devoid of interest.

Phyllonorycter stettinensis. Stefan Leys Pocket Park,
Daventry. 22 October, 2014

This curious  but neat leaf mine is the work of a moth, Phyllonorycter stettinensis. Known as the Small Alder Midget it is widespread across England and Wales, thinning out towards the north and not yet reported from Scotland.

Not at all neat are these very disfiguring galls. In this case a mite, Aceria nalepai, is responsible. It starts tidily enough as small galls in the vein angles but steadily grows to create the mess shown.

Parent Bug, Elasmucha grisea.  Stefan Leys Pocket Park,
Daventry. 22 October, 2014
These leaf miners and galling mites are wholly dependent on alders or their close relatives. The same is largely true of the Parent Bug, Elasmucha grisea. It is to found on birches and alders but more often on the latter (see also blog for 18 October). As with my earlier blog, this bug (for it is a true bug) is assuming its rather drab winter colours.

The famous herbalist Parkinson, writing in 1640, said: "The fresh leaves (of alder) laid on tumours will dissolve them." If only! However, research has shown that the bark contains lupeol and betulin, compounds which some believe may have a role in tumour control.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Daventry Country Park 2

On 9 September I visited Daventry Country Park, but only looked at a small area. Today I made my second visit. The intention was to cover a greater swathe of ground but, in the event, I again only had a stroll of a few hundred yards.

The problem was the miserable conditions. I had set out in bright sunshine but a belt of cloud stubbornly hung over the country park and the  grass and shrubs remained wet following recent rain.
Guelder-rose in fruit. Daventry Country Park.
17 October, 2014

Autumn fruits were to be seen everywhere, with large shrubs of Guelder-rose bearing heavy crops. The word 'guelder' appears to be German in origin but its precise meaning is unclear. George Claridge Druce, in his 1930 "Flora of Northamptonshire..." gives its status as "Local. Not common" and, but for abundant amenity planting, this would perhaps still be the case.

Viburnum opulus showing fruit and leaves. Daventry
Country Park. 17 October, 2014
Guelder-rose is a species of Viburnum, Viburnum opulus to be precise. It has a close native relative, Viburnum lantana, but whereas the latter has simple leaves, Guelder-rose has palmate leaves, as shown in the photographs. For over a century Viburnums have been included in the Honeysuckle Family but molecular studies suggest that it should be placed in the Adoxaceae Family.

In some place the foliage of Guelder-rose shrubs had taken on an attractive wine red coloration

Although Guelder-rose was putting on a fine show of fruit it was outdone by specimens of what I at first thought was Crataegus persimilis, known as the Broad-leaved Cockspur-thorn. This is a very widely planted species whose fruits linger on till spring, but I split open the fruit to examine the nutlets and found it was the genuine Cockspur-thorn, Crataegus crus-galli, a less commonly grown species. Both are natives of North America and both are armed with long thorns.

Crataegus persimilis, fruit and foliage.
Daventry Country Park, 17 October, 2014

These were planted of course but, although a British native, the Guelder-rose was almost certainly planted too. The Cockspur-thorn fruits will fall in the autumn, as will those of the Guelder-rose - if birds haven't already taken them.
Entomophthora muscae is likely to have caused the
 death of this fly. Daventry Country Park.
17 October, 2014

A dead fly clung to a twig with its body in a sort of mummified state. It had been attacked by a pathogenic fungus, almost certainly Entomophthora muscae. It is very widespread and most naturalists will have noted these corpses from time to time. The pose. with widespread wings, is typical and allows the fungal spores to be dispersed from the body with maximum efficiency.

Pollenia rudis (female) basking on a leaf at Daventry
Country Park. 17 October, 2014
Occasionally the sun would break through and, in these all-too-brief intervals, flies would gather on leaves and fence posts in order to bask. Being poikilothermic creatures, i.e. unable to control their own body temperature, insects will often use the sun's rays to warm up their tissues and overcome torpidity. Here a female Pollenia rudis is soaking up the warmth. Eight species of Pollenia are found in Britain and generally speaking this is the commonest but in the Byfield area it was frequently outnumbered by Pollenia angustigena.

Elasmucha grisea with a dark winter coloration.
Daventry Country Park. 17 October, 2014

A Parent Bug, Elasmucha grisea, was also taking advantage of the sun. The name refers to the female's habit of sitting over and guarding her eggs and, after the nymphs have emerged, remaining with them. They will seek cover beneath her body if alarmed and this behaviour will continue until their first moult. This specimen is taking on a dark colour in preparation for hibernation.

This strange creature, found on a Viburnum leaf, is the larva of a lacewing. It is facing left and its formidable jaws can just about be made out. Luckily it is only four millimetres long. It feeds almost exclusively on aphids and it piles the remains - hair and bits of skin - on its back to form a disguising (and disgusting?) sort of shield. It is probably Chrysoperla carnea.

So, a mixed bag of flora and fauna but no rarities. Of course, strolling in an almost wholly artificial environment one expects mundane species, but autumn can still throw up surprises. Watch this space.

Tony White. E-mail:

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Stefen Leys Pocket Park

It was Chris who saw it first. 

"There's a Pocket Park here," she pointed out. "We just passed the sign."

"No," I said. "There isn't one in Daventry."  But of course she was right, as usual.

I checked on the Internet for Northamptonshire Pocket Parks, and there was no mention of one in Daventry so, intrigued, I set out to investigate.

Sure enough, it was clearly signed where Chris had seen it, along Christchurch Road, so I pressed on.

The early impressions were not promising. A nicely constructed but forlorn-looking notice board stood beside the track, lacking any information at all. 

A letter from Daventry District Council was pinned to the side, seeking to contact the group apparently responsible for the management of the park. I gained the impression that the Pocket Park had been created autonomously by this local group rather than under the auspices of Northamptonshire County Council.

This, I thought, does not look promising. I pushed on, expecting to find a neglected area, overgrown with weeds and defaced by litter. I was quite wrong.

Stefen Leys Pocket Park.
15 October, 2014
Instead I found some fine trees and well-maintained areas of grass. The trees included oak, ash, cherry, field maple, sycamore, aspen, willow, horse chestnut and, beside a pond, alder. Of course many, if not most, had been planted but for wildlife an oak is an oak and an ash is an ash.

Stefen Leys Pocket Park.
15 October, 2014

I was astonished and, despite it being yet another chilly, damp and sunless day, my spirits were lifted. Of course, there were very few insects around but that didn't mean that the area was devoid of interest and my camera was soon in action.

A highly ornamental crab apple stood out, its fruits almost glowing in the dull conditions.

Malus 'Golden Hornet' in Stefen Leys Pocket Park.
15 October, 2014

I have little doubt that it was a specimen of Malus "Golden Hornet", and it bore hundreds of fruit. These will gradually soften - a process known as 'bletting' - and will then be eagerly eaten by birds such as blackbirds, redwings and fieldfares.

Nearby a plant of Red Campion, Silene dioica, was bearing a head of flowers...

Ganoderma adspersum in Stefen Leys Pocket Park.
15 October, 2014

...and at the base of a tree was a bracket fungus, Ganoderma adspersum. This species, known as the Southern Bracket Fungus, is common but, being drab and frequently at the very base of a tree, is easily overlooked.

Other bracket fungi were present and, in some cases, very obvious. These organisms are not something in which I claim expertise, although these specimens are, I'm fairly certain, Turkey Tail, Trametes versicolor


Trametes versicolor on the trunk of a dead aspen.
Stefen Leys Pocket Park, Daventry. 15 October, 2014

A closer view shows more clearly the bands of colour which give them their popular name. The fan-shaped fruit bodies were clearly old and had been bored by various insects. (I'll ignore the obvious opportunity for a joke!)

Pogonocherus hispidulus at Stefen Leys Pocket Park,
Daventry. 15 October, 2014

In fact insects were proving hard to find but fortunately this little longhorn beetle was obligingly sitting on top of a litter bin, clearly waiting for me to photograph it. Pogonocherus hispidulus, despite its diminutive size (6 mm long), is known as the Greater Thorn-tipped Longhorn Beetle (P. hispidus is slighly smaller). It is common and widespread but I was pleased to record it. It is an odd-looking creature and is normally rather inconspicuous; on a twig it can resemble a piece of lichen.

Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale, the Hawthorn Shieldbug.
Stefen Leys Pocket Park. Daventry. 15 October, 2014

This Hawthorn Shieldbug was - in theory at least - also very well camouflaged, its green and brown coloration perfectly matching the leaf colours of the ornamental dogwood on which it sat. Hawthorn, one of the insect's commonest food plants, has similarly coloured leaves.

As the morning wore on a few flies began to make their presence known but this delicate pink bramble flower received about as many visits as an Aberdeen guest house in January - none.

I spent about an hour in the park and saw four people. It was a miserable day and perhaps there are normally more visitors. Hmm...