Thursday, 26 February 2015

Daventry to Kentle Wood: an aborted trip

I set out earlier today for a third visit to Kentle Wood ...and never made it. Although I set out in fine weather huge purple clouds soon began to loom up in the west and moved threateningly in my direction. I let prudence be my guide and turned 180 degrees to head back home.

Nevertheless I had covered a mile or so before my retreat and some features of interest had already been noted.

Oyster mushrooms on a dead branch. Yeomanry Way,
Daventry. 26 February, 2015

On a partially dead tree in Yeomanry Way a clump of Oyster Mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus, flourished. It is not as destructive a species as Honey Fungus and is best described as weakly parasitic and is usually found on already-dead wood.

Oyster mushrooms, though fairly easily recognised in terms of structure, are very variable in the colour of the cap. These delicious fungi, commonly seen nowadays in the high street, often have steel-grey caps or even a rather violet coloration.

Parmelia saxatilis bearing thousands of isidia.
Thames Road, Daventry. 25 February, 2015

Also on a tree trunk, this time in Thames Road, was the lichen Parmelia saxatilis. The specific name 'saxatilis' means 'of rocks' but this species is happy on suitable tree trunks.

A close-up shows that, instead of jam-tart shaped ascocarps, the main reproductive structures are isidia - tiny outgrowths on the thallus which may become detached and act as reproductive units.

An Ash tree branch sweeps down to make
photography convenient.  Leamington Way,
Daventry. 25 February, 2015

Beside the busy A45, here known as Leamington Way, Ash trees, Fraxinus excelsior, were close to flowering. A close look is needed to make out the nature of these reproductive organs.

The purple stigmas of an Ash tree.
Daventry. 25 February, 2015

Looking vaguely like succulent purple fruits, these are the large fleshy stigmas. The male flowers will open within a few days and the rather mealy pollen will be scattered by the wind.  It seems a haphazard, inefficient process but the thousands of winged seed capsules (the 'keys') carried by trees bears testament to the success of this strategy. 

Neither male nor female flowers bear petals, thus making less obvious the fact that Ash is related to Lilacs, Forsythias and Jasmines. 

So, as I have said, I scurried off home at this point to beat the rain. And it never came!

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Byfield Pocket Park - no news

It is said that once, many years ago, with no big story to attract the public, London newspaper sellers came up with a cunning wheeze. They displayed boards reading: 


The newspapers sold like hot cakes, only for the gullible readers to find that there really was no mention of the monarch. 

The story may be apocryphal but I have always been amused by it, and it came to mind today as I strolled around the eponymous park today. No news!

I scratched my head. I couldn't disappoint my public, thirsting as they do for the latest scandals regarding woodlice, lichens or mosses. There would be mass suicides as distraught
followers hurled themselves from castle battlements or precipitous cliffs.

But sorry folks, it's the same old stuff and you'll have to put up with it.

Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis. Byfield.
25 February, 2015

Spring flowers abounded but, alas, no native plants. Winter Aconites, Eranthis hyemalis, added a splash of gold to a roadside verge near to the park. This native of southern Europe is well established in many places and may tempt a few insect visitors now that the days are getting warmer.

One of the many cultivars of Crocus chrysanthus.
Byfield, 25 February, 2015

Crocuses (Croci?) were present in many gardens. The species shown, Crocus chrysanthus, was perhaps the commonest. About nine species are found growing beyond gardens in Britain but none is a native. The Sand Crocus, Romulea columnae IS native to the U.K. but is sufficiently distinct to be placed in a different genus.

The catkins of hazel are the male flowers.
Byfield Pocket Park, 25 February, 2015

In fact one native plant was in flower in the pocket park. The male flowers of hazels, Corylus avellana, are the catkins. In this first picture the female flowers can hardly be seen but are at the very tip of the twig.

The tiny female flowers of hazel. Byfield
Pocket |\park. 25 February, 2015

This close-up shows the tiny pink perianth. Not Britain's most spectacular wild flower!

The bursting heads of Reed-mace, Typha
latifolia. Byfield. 25 February, 2015

In a tiny pond adjacent to the pocket park the dense flower-spikes of Reed-mace, aka Bulrush, Typha latifolia were beginning to burst and release their tiny seeds. These, attached to woolly hairs, are capable of dispersal over great distance.

The plant grows from a thick underground stem (a rhizome). This is rich in starch and there is evidence that it was used as a food source as far back as 30,000 years ago. 

I understand that tiger nuts are now available for sale in Britain. When I was a child they were a popular sweet (perhaps because wartime conditions made 'normal' sweets unobtainable). They are the rhizome of a true bulrush, Cyperus esculentus, so the eating of rhizomes continues to this day. Plus ca change...

'Nothing is wasted in nature'. This aphorism is generally applied to the recycling of food but can also refer to the utilisation of space as soon as it becomes available. I was reminded of this as I returned to the village via the churchyard.

A yew seedling exploits the niche made
by a rotting stump. Byfield Churchyard.
25 February, 2015

A tree (larch?) had been cut down and, in the rotting stump, a yew seedling was flourishing. Its roots are exploiting a fertile, humus-rich medium and the tree should continue to do well. Yews are popping up all over the area and it seems that this species, given the chance, would become among the most numerous of trees.

And really that's about it. I called in to the Village Club, put the world to rights with friends over a cup of coffee and made my way back to Daventry.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Winter Heliotrope saves the day

I had reason to visit Byfield earlier today and decided to stroll around the margin of Boddington Reservoir - or, at least, a small part of it. The sun beamed down from a clear blue sky but, as was the case a few days earlier, I was cruelly deceived.

A biting wind raised white horses on the water and waves crashed on the shore. Some waves were close to 6 inches high so I was naturally a little alarmed.

Wind turbine between Byfield and
Boddington. 23 February, 2015

Rafts of waterfowl were riding the waves in the centre of the reservoir, patiently waiting for the wind to abate but there were positives; the wind turbine in an adjacent field was producing a steady whoosh-whoosh as its blades rotated. Clean, though not cheap, energy.

I walked along one side only, the south facing shore, so I felt grounds for optimism; surely this favoured aspect would display some signs of spring. Alas, flowers were as common as hens' teeth. All that remained were the dry brown fruiting heads of last autumn.

Teasel plants on the north shore of Boddington
Reservoir. 23 February, 2015

Teasels (Dipsacus fullonum) had found a congenial habitat among the boulders which formed a retaining wall. The heads are much favoured by goldfinches, the birds tweaking out the seeds with their slender bills.

Close-up of one of the flower-heads.

A closer look shows that the seeds have long gone but the spines on the flower-heads are clearly visible. It is these which, for centuries were - and still are - used for raising the nap on high quality cloth.

The flower heads of Lesser Burdock. Boddington
Reservoir. 23 February, 2015
Also present were burdocks or, to be more precise, plants of Lesser Burdock, Arctium minus. The flower-heads may look vaguely similar to those of teasels but a number of technical differences have led to them being placed in different families - teasels in the Dipsacaceae and burdocks in the Daisy Family, Asteraceae.

The bristles on the flower heads are hooked as an aid to
 seed dispersal. Boddington Reservoir, 23 February, 2015 

It can be seen that the burdock spines are furnished with tiny hooks. These will annoyingly cling to clothing if the passer-by brushes against then, but they are a brilliantly effective aid to seed dispersal.

Grey silk forms the web of an Amaurobius species.
Boddington Reservoir, 23 February, 2015
A crevice in a nearby tree trunk provided a refuge for a spider. It was a species of Amaurobius, probably Amaurobius similis, but the occupant could not be enticed out - and who can blame it. Amaurobius spiders are cribellate; they have a spinning organ (the cribellum) which is a sieve-like structure producing strands of very fine silk. Special bristles on the hind legs comb the silk, giving it a characteristic grey appearance.

I left the reservoir slightly disappointed but a surprise awaited me on my return to Byfield.

Winter Heliotrope, Petasites fragrans.
Bell Lane, Byfield. 23 February, 2015

Protruding through a drystone wall in the village was a plant of Winter Heliotrope. Petasites fragrans, a species I have not seen for several years. As it name indicates, the flowers are fragrant, with a vanilla-like scent but unfortunately on such a chilly and windy day this was not discernible. It is another member of the Daisy Family, Asteraceae. 

So, an eleventh hour reprieve, making my jaunt worthwhile.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Nearly there

 I visited Byfield earlier today. The church stood out against a wonderful azure sky and the sun was piercingly bright. If sun and sky were claiming that winter was over they were being mendacious for it was very cold.

Holy Cross Church, Byfield.  18 February, 2015

Summoning up my bulldog spirit I nevertheless struck out for the pocket park to look for some evidence that spring was, if not on stage, at least waiting in the wings.

A liverwort, Lunularia cruciata, on bare soil in
Byfield, Northants.  18 February, 2015

On a patch of bare soil, from which ice was just easing its grip, a bright green patch of liverwort stood out. It was the very common Lunularia cruciata.
A closer view showing a single gemma in a
crescent-shaped cup.

The word 'lunularia' suggests the moon and, as can be seen in a closer look, a crescent-shaped ridge of tissue is present on the thallus. Within this a single gemma is present. This may look seed-like but is better described as a bud. Often many of these gemmae are present in each of these cup-shaped depressions and a raindrop will dislodge them; should they fall on to a suitable spot they will grow and develop further into a new thallus.

The surface of the thallus has a liver-like appearance and, according to the 'doctrine of signatures', this was a sign that the plant could be used for the treatment of liver disorders.

A foolhardy Harlequin Ladybird, Harmonia axyridis.
Byfield, 18 February, 2015
A ladybird, deceived by the bright sunshine, had ventured out from its winter refuge. When I nudged it with my fingertip it only moved sluggishly, suggesting that it was in a rather torpid state. It is, unsurprisingly, a Harlequin Ladybird, Harmonia axyridis. I suspect that this fairly recent arrival on our shores is now Britain's commonest ladybird. This rapid spread is surely helped by the fact that it has been recorded flying at nearly 1,100 metres high and reaching speeds of up to 65 kph! 

Caloplaca aurantia on a sandstone wall.
Byfield, Northants. 18 February, 2015

Dare I mention a lichen? I excuse myself on the grounds that there wasn't much else about. 

Caloplaca aurantia. The ascocarps in closer view.

Growing on a sandstone wall in Church Street it presented a colourful crust among grey and black species. It is Caloplaca aurantia, and is a widespread and abundant lichen. The orange ascocarps, each about 1mm across. have a slightly paler margin to the disc; 'aurantia' comes from the Latin aurum - gold, and in this instance is highly appropriate.

I stayed long enough in Byfield to have a chat with friends and a bite to eat and, a couple of hours later, the sun was at last beginning to get to work.

Clumps of crocuses were present on a grassy verge, their flowers gaping open to tempt a passing bee.  Despite being the 'wrong' colour, the species is Crocus chrysanthus (Greek chrysos - gold) and the variety is almost certainly 'Blue Bird'. 

Another sign that we're nearly there.

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Thursday, 12 February 2015

The Pied Piper of Lamblin.

A dry, windless day. Disappointingly chilly (about 6 degrees tops) but I decided that I could do with a longish walk. It turned out to be interesting rather than exciting.

We have had no significant rain for over a fortnight so conditions were unusually dry underfoot. My maternal grandmother always called this month 'February Filldyke'; she may not have been aware that this appellation goes back to 1557, when it appears in the notes of the farmer-poet Thomas Tusser regarding good husbandry: 'February fill the dyke, with what thou dost like.'

Anyway, I found the ground nicely firm for walking as I set off across the fields towards Newnham. I passed the old windmill (my blog for 3 February) and a couple of slightly incongruous larch trees. 

Larch near to Newnham Windmill
12 February, 2015

Larch, Larix decidua, is unusual among conifers because of its deciduous habit. As a wild tree it is found right across Europe from the Carpathians to Norway so, although it is not native to Britain, is is hardly surprising that it is commonly self-sown. I gathered a few cones for examination at home.

There were one or two stiff climbs to make me puff and blow a bit but I appreciated the variety provided by the undulating terrain.

I then struck off across sheep-grazed pastures feeling like the Pied Piper; every field through which I passed had its little flock and invariably they gathered behind me. Who was I? Where was I going? Had I got any food for them?

They would stand around as I crossed each stile as though to see me safely over.

I found that I had a couple of squeeze
stiles to deal with

There were a couple of examples of 'squeeze stile' to negotiate. They're not very common in this region but very effective, allowing easy ingress and egress by humans but apparently being too awkward for sheep to negotiate. Certainly all the sheep I saw appeared to be in lamb and their rather rotund bodies wouldn't have got through.

Looking down to Newnham Hall.
12 February, 2015
I was now able to look down to Newnham Hall, a Grade II listed building, with Newnham church beyond. We learn from Wikipedia that Nigel Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer lives 'near Newnham'. Is this his residence? Obviously, for reasons of security, information of this kind is not bandied about freely so we can only speculate.

I pressed on. It was now a steep drop into Newnham but I barely entered the village. No sooner had I reached the first few houses than I was heading back towards Daventry, albeit by a different route.
Butterbur was coming into leaf.
Newnham. 12 February, 2015

A patch of Butterbur, Petasites hybridus, occupied an area of damp roadside. Despite its Latin name this member of the Daisy family is not a hybrid but is a true species. It looks rather ordinary at this time of the year but the leaves will eventually be enormous - almost a metre across - and it will bear purple flowers. This Butterbur will be worth re-examining later in the year for insects as some interesting picture-winged flies are associated with it.

Of course, having descended steep slopes down to Newnham, it was pay-back time and I slogged my way back uphill.
Honey Fungus steadily destroying a tree stump.
Newnham. 12 February, 2015

But not until I had inspected an old tree stump and photographed the fungi at its base. They were, of course, yet more examples of Honey Fungus, Armillaria mellea. Gardeners may curse this species if it attacks an apparently healthy tree but it effectively begins the process of breaking down the tree's tissues as a step towards recycling all the nutrients locked up in the wood.

The return was less than pleasant. To make my walk more circular I did about a mile of road walking. Traffic was busy, the road was narrow and there was no footpath; I had to be alert.

But all was well.

I was almost into Daventry when I saw a scattering of fungi on a grassy verge.

The tan coloured gills were quite distinctive and the cap was about 45 mm across.

What is it? It is probably something ridiculously common but I am still scratching my head!


Monday, 9 February 2015

Physcia aipolia and writer's block

For the blogger concerned with sport, politics or show biz, early February is as good a time to be writing as any other time of the year. For someone whose main focus is wildlife there is a bit of a problem, although the birder has lots of opportunities to post something of real interest. For example, I can thoroughly recommend Neil and Eleanor McMahon's blog at

I do enjoy birding but do very little nowadays; for me plants and invertebrates are my passion - and this is not the most favourable time of the year to be blogging about these topics without being repetitive; there is a limit to what can be said about mosses and lichens if, like me, you are a tyro regarding these organisms. And let's face it, for most people they are a bit dull.

Anyway, on a lovely sunny morning I set out, ever optimistic, to visit Stefen Leys Pocket Park. I hesitated: should I take a sweep net for insects? In the event I decided against it and it was probably a wise decision.

In fact there were one or two flies about, generally basking on a sun-bathed tree trunk but nothing that struck me as out of the ordinary. This female blowfly is probably Calliphora vicina, a very common species. I just managed a photograph before it took off, preventing a closer examination.

The pocket park boasts a small pond, perhaps it will see frog or toad activity in the next few weeks. A slight bluish tinge to the water surface suggested a bit of pollution, although an oily film like this can develop naturally as organic materials decompose. 

Lesions on the trunk of an ash tree.
 Stefen Leys pocket park,
Daventry.  9 February, 2015

The trunk of an ash tree bore some nasty-looking lesions. It could be Ash Dieback, a disease caused by the fungus Chalara fraxinea, but I am by no means convinced. I'll have another look when the leaves begin to develop. If it is Chalara, I'll need to report it to the authorities.

There was a great deal of birdsong as a wound my way slowly along the various tracks in the park. Each male is staking out a territory and warning off potential rivals. This will intensify over coming weeks as day-length increases. I could easily have spent a pleasant half-hour watching them about their activities but...

Physcia aipolia at Stefen Leys pocket park,
Daventry. 9 February, 2015

...the lid of a litter bin caught my attention. These are made out of some sort of fibrous compound and seem to be a congenial home for lots of lichens. Even a brief glance showed five species present including this Physcia aipolia. This is commonly found on trees but seemed quite happy on its lid.

Damn! I wasn't going to mention lichens but with its black ascocarps, neatly white-rimmed, I couldn't resist it. The thallus (the white structures forming the bulk of the lichen body) looks grey-white, but under the microscope there is a hint of blue together with white speckles. A rather smart species.

I always say you can't beat a good litter bin to round off a morning's walk, so I went home well satisfied, and my writer's block cleared.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

A bleak Byfield Pocket Park

Finding myself in Byfield again, with time on my hands, I grabbed the chance to visit the village pocket park. 

Rarely do I stroll around the site without coming away having seen something worth commenting on; something to make me think...

Byfield Pocket Park,  4 February, 2015

But today was bleak. A bright morning sun was only making marginal inroads into the lingering snow beside the main track. Some green was provided by ivy clambering up trees and scrambling over shrubs but nature's palette was dominated by greys and browns.

There was also plenty of Bramble, Rubus fruticosus.  This, like the ivy, is a nuisance in many respects. Both ivy and brambles are important sources of food for many creatures but they crowd out or smother so many other plants that they are a problem for land management. Incidentally although the fruit of brambles are of importance the specific word 'fruticosus' has nothing to do with fruit; 'fruticose' means shrubby in habit, i.e. with upright, woody branches.

Stigmella splendidissimella on Bramble.
Byfield Pocket Park. 4 February, 2015
The leaves of brambles are ternate, i.e each leaf is a compound structure of three leaflets (My word, I'm getting insufferably technical today). The reason I mention this is because today I spotted one of these ternate leaves with all three leaflets mined by the tiny Glossy Bramble Pigmy moth, Stigmella splendidissimella. In fact, there are probably six mines to be seen (plus a bit of white feather). It is a very common insect but this was rather over-doing it.

The sticky buds of Horse Chestnut. Byfield Pocket  Park,
4 February, 2015

And really that's about it. The buds of Horse Chestnut, Aesculus hippocastanum, were glistening with their coating of stickiness. This is a fatal trap for any insect that might attempt to bore into the nutritious heart of the bud. As children we would bring home a handful of the twigs which were placed into water for the buds to slowly unfold and display the lovely emerald green of the new leaves. Does anyone do that now?

So, it was an uneventful visit. As I say, conditions were bleak and, although we tend to regard Christmas-time as midwinter, there is usually some residual warmth in the soil. For wildlife the really tough time will be the next few weeks until spring blossoms appear and the soil begins to warm.

But I heard chaffinches giving voice to spring songs today. Hooray!

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

A walk to Newnham Windmill

I didn't set out with the intention of visiting Newnham Windmill. It was a cold morning but the biting wind of the last forty-eight hours had eased off, to make walking a far more pleasant prospect. My objective was simply that of investigating the minor Daventry-Newnham road as a prospective spring/summer target.

I set off, threading my way through residential streets, delayed only momentarily by the mine of the micro-moth Lyonetia clerkella on a shrub of Bay, Laurus nobilis; not an exciting start.

A few minutes later I found myself on the road to Newnham, crossing the busy A45. Ash trees were spreading their branches across the bridge parapet, allowing me to photograph their distinctive soot-black buds.

The moss Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus beside the
 Newnham Road, Daventry. Note the flecks of snow.
2 February, 2015

A little further on I noted that the grass of the roadside verge was interwoven with the common moss Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus. Though a rather poor photograph it is easy to see the characteristic reddish stems of this species. It is one of those mosses which can become a real nuisance in lawns. 

I stood by the roadside gazing west across fields when a Land Rover pulled up beside me and the cheery occupant - clearly a farmer -  called out, 'Are you looking for something?' I explained that I was new to Daventry and was simply familiarising myself the area. 'Don't be put off my locked gates,' he said, pointing to a small fenced and padlocked field, 'but some people park their cars here and make a nuisance of themselves with litter and so on.' He then invited me to wander where I wished. He explained that he and his neighbouring farmers recognised their stewardship duties regarding the land and were happy for people to enjoy the countryside. One occasionally hears of truculent or even aggressive landowners but I have to say that I have always found farmers to be interested and helpful when my intentions are explained.

He drove off and I took him at his word and set out across sheep-grazed pasture.

I soon found myself being inspected by a group of the local residents. The dye on their backs showed that these ewes were probably in lamb so I'll pay another visit in spring to see how they're getting on. I'm no expert but I suspect they are Texels with a broad head and dark tear ducts.

Bulrush, Typha latifolia, in a small pond
adjacent to the Newnham Road.
2 January, 2015

Perhaps the sheep were curious because I had been crouching down to examine a small but interesting pond. It contained Reed-mace, aka Bulrushes, Typha latifolia. This pond gives me yet another reason to re-visit the area.

Ash trees in a hedgerow near the Newnham Road,
Daventry. 2 February, 2015

The most prominent trees in the landscape were ash, Fraxinus excelsior, with this pair being typical. In fact the one to the rear looks rather oak-like but I can assure you that it was ash.

As I made my way up a steep hillside an odd-looking structure gradually came into view. It took me a moment to realise that it was Newnham Windmill.

Newnham Windmill. 2 February, 2015

As more of the structure came into view it could be seen that the brickwork had been seriously defaced by graffiti; so much for farmers allowing access to their land! (I checked later and a report in the Daventry Express suggests that the vandalism occurred in early September last year.) This is a Grade II listed building so perhaps steps will be taken to remove this ugly mess.

Looking west from near Newnham Windmill, with gorse
in the foreground. 2 February, 2015 Note the 'yellow',
lichen-covered tree.

The windmill sat atop a prominent hill at 203 metres O.D. from which there were superb views across to misty blue hills far beyond Badby. I suspect that the soil is on the acid side and I would expect to find harebells, Campanula rotundifolia, there in the summer. The gorse - in flower of course - does not prove that the conditions are acid but this shrub is at its happiest where the soil is at least neutral. 

John Clare makes a couple of references to gorse (furze) in his poems:

             When the furze has leave to wreathe,
             Its dark prickles o'er the heath.

                                                    Cowper Green, 1821

             And yonder, mingling o'er the heath
             The furze delights to dwell.
             Whose blossoms steal the summer's breath
             And shed a sultry smell.

                                                    Shepherd's Calendar, 1827

Note that in both cases he associates furze with heath.

Gorse may be found right across Northants but is most commonly encountered here in the west. The Scots Pines, though planted, seemed entirely appropriate in this landscape. 

Time to turn back. Conditions were bleak on the hill top and, having strolled around and enjoyed the view, I set off back to Daventry.. 

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