Thursday, 31 December 2015

New Year's Eve: Stefen Leys Pocket Park

Storm Frank had gone and, looking out of the bedroom window, I saw that the foul weather had been replaced by clear blue skies. Good walking weather, I decided, and indeed it was, but as soon as I poked my nose out out the door I realised that the mild conditions of recent days had been replaced by something far chillier.

Although it was still well short of a frost I balked at the idea of a long walk and limited myself to a stroll to Stefen Leys Pocket Park. There and back is barely a mile.

To visit this park and expect wildlife wonders you need to be a real optimist. It receives little in the way of management and habitats are very limited, nevertheless I had my camera at the ready - you never know.

Stefen Leys Pocket Park, Daventry.
31 December, 2015

In fact the camera can lie and suggest that there are areas of considerable promise, but the resident species are very limited in terms of variety: common woodlice, equally common snails, and the mosses and flowering plants typical of a suburban area. And the only insects likely to flourish are those associated with dog faeces!

Stefen Leys Pocket Park, Daventry. 31 December, 2015

Having had my whinge, I admit that there are some pleasant corners and, come the spring and the development of foliage, some areas will be worth checking out.

Snowdrops were already in flower - just. Stefen Leys
Pocket Park, Daventry. 31 December, 2015

Snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, are present in a patch which spreads a little every year. Their status in Britain is questionable and, on balance, the species is probably an introduction from mediaeval times but it cannot be denied that people enjoy seeing them and bees appreciate them too as a source of early nectar.

Sunny tree trunks attracted flies at Stefen Leys Pocket
Park. 31 December, 2014

Those tree trunks which avoided the wind but were bathed in sunlight were attracting many flies. I made no attempt to catch any and I suspect most were Calliphora species such as C. vicina. These blowflies will have no interest in the snowdrops' nectar but will seek grosser things.

Ash Canker at Stefen Leys Pocket Park.
31 December, 2015

Speaking of tree trunks, some of the Ash trees bore disfiguring 'knots', almost certainly caused by Pseudomonas syringae, subspecies savastanoi, and generally referred to as Ash Canker. The name syringae is of interest as it reminds us of the common Lilac, Syringa vulgaris, to which Ash is closely related.

The wind was proving to be eye-wateringly cold and after a fruitless search for interesting lichens I made my way home. I had not expected surprises, nor had there been any. I had no cause for complaint. With Chris still in bed feeling unwell I was glad to be returning.

Stormy Weather

Storm Frank came roaring in during the night, putting my chances of a much-needed walk on the back-burner. As I start this blog, despite high winds the temperatures are still holding up; precocious flowers should be safe but shallowly-rooted trees may be in danger. The morning has been dry but I expect a bit of a deluge later.

Stinking Hellebore in Daventry town centre.
30 December, 2015

Despite Pelargoniums flowering here and there the plants in my garden are finally bereft of blooms. On the bright side Iris reticulata and some crocuses are pushing through and we may be treated to flowers before long. Elsewhere Stinking Hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, is beginning to bloom and,  
unspectacular though the green, maroon-edged flowers are, they'll be welcome. 

Stinking Hellebore flower in close-up.

As I've mentioned before, this is a plant whose flowers deserve to be examined in close-up. Like the similarly early (but unrelated) Spurge Laurel, the flowers are designed to be insect pollinated. In this weather? Not a chance. At least the Spurge Laurel adds fragrance to its enticements.

It is in these dark days of the year that I very much regret not having a Witch Hazel. My garden is small but could accommodate one without difficulty. These shrubs, species of Hamamelis, have neat foliage which, despite the name, reminds me of alder leaves. Our friend Lynda has just sent us a picture of a lovely specimen currently flowering in her garden.

There are four species of Hamamelis and as native plants they are restricted to Eastern Asia and North America, a distribution suggesting that ice sheets during recent glacial episodes have separated these two areas botanically. The work of plant breeders has brought these genera together to produce some fine hybrids, but I am yet to be convinced that they are more attractive than the species. The odd, spicily scented flowers are available in shades of yellow and rust, with the yellow ones very good with drifts of daffodils. One to purchase in the near future methinks.

As I have completed this blog the storm, with heavy rain, has passed through, leaving everywhere thoroughly soaked. Am I grumbling? When I am tempted to do so I think of the flood-ravaged north of England am silenced.

Monday, 28 December 2015

The Knightley Way: Badby to Badby Woods

The weather just lately has been remarkable for two things: it has been unusually mild and the rainfall has been far higher than one would expect. The first of these factors prompted me to get out and walk; the second made me prudently decide on welly boots rather than walking boots. 

I drove the three miles or so to the pretty village of Badby and parked up beside the church of St Mary the Virgin. It was then only a hundred yards or so to pick up the Knightley Way.

Pelargoniums, as yet untouched by frost.
Badby, Northants. 28 December, 2015

Pots of 'Geraniums' were flowering on doorsteps in the village, testament to this abnormal weather. More typical December conditions would have seen these Pelargoniums reduced to blackened slime.

Welsh Poppies were in bloom. Badby, Northants.
28 December, 2015

And so on to the walk proper. I had barely started the Knightley Way before I came upon yet more evidence of our warm December: Welsh Poppies, Papaver cambrica (formerly Meconopsis cambrica) were in bloom. True, it was in a sheltered spot but even so...
Celandines too were flowering. Badby, 28 December, 2015

The Welsh Poppy is not native to our county but this cannot be said of the Celandine, Ranunculus ficaria. It is without doubt a Northamptonshire native and it really ought to have known better, flaunting its flowers at this time of the year. Really!

Oaks were free of ivy in Badby Woods.
28 December, 2015

I plodded on along the treacherously muddy footpath and in a few hundred yards entered Badby Woods. The dominant tree is oak and I was pleased to see that very few were encumbered by ivy. Is it that ivy has never been present here in quantity or is it just good woodland management? I suspect the former. Hazel and holly are also present in significant quantities, the latter probably bird-sown from gardens and the local churchyard. There is also the occasional yew, having probably arrived in a similar way.

I followed a circular path through the woods, criss-crossing streams and occasionally clinging to branches where the footing was slippery.

Although Honeysuckle appears to strangle
hazel, it probably does little harm. Badby
Woods, 28 December, 2015

Honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum, had distorted hazel branches but does little or no damage. This common species is one of our two native honeysuckles, the other being Fly Honeysuckle, L. xylosteum, rare and only perhaps truly wild in Sussex. Elsewhere it is introduced and I frequently find it wild on the continent.

Honeysuckle is always early to break into leaf.
Badby Woods. 28 December, 2015

The Honeysuckle (the name Woodbine seems to be falling out of use) was already in leaf but this has not been induced by the mild conditions; it always produces its rather downy leaves very early in the year.

The woodland, though peaceful, with only a gentle wind sighing through the treetops, was hardly exciting and even the mosses and lichens failed to catch my attention. Even so I was quite pleased to note a little fungus growing on a bramble twig.

A bramble twig bore the fungus, Chaetocalathus craterellus, a species
not often recorded. Badby Woods. 28 December, 2015

This is Chaetocalathus craterellus, a curious species which appears to grow upside down. It is quite widespread, one suspects, but is not often recorded, with the NBN* Gateway map showing only three locations in Britain. Quite a pleasing find. The species appears to have no common name.

With warm sunshine making fence posts steam I retraced my steps back to the car, only an officious sheep asking for my credentials. I suspect I'll be making this walk several times in the forthcoming year.

*National Biological Network. Its maps are freely available for anyone who cares to look.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Of Mezereon and things

Well, that's Christmas over for another year. Chris and I enjoyed it and I hope all my friends did too. Now back to sanity. 

It has been remarkably mild over past few days and at this rate it shouldn't be long before nature begins to stir itself.  Although soil temperature can be important I consider, as I have previously remarked, that day-length is the most important factor in the vernal development of plants.

Some twenty or so years ago Chris and I went to Andorra on what was billed as a skiing trip, but we deliberately chose a late date in the expectation that the valleys and lower mountain slopes would be free of snow. We were rather thwarted in our plans as late, heavy snow arrived, but not before we had visited low ground and sought out some of the flowers.

Our solitary Mezereon specimen
26 December, 2015

I mention this because Mezereon, Daphne mezereum, was one of the plants we found in flower. I have always loved Mezereon for its early and intensely fragrant blooms, and when I checked our one specimen today the first, tentative flower had appeared. In a couple of weeks it should be wreathed in purple.

... and the solitary flower that has just appeared.
26 December, 2015
We have two species of Daphne native to Britain, the other one being D. laureola, common around Byfield. Mezereon is distinctly scarce but scattered colonies exist as far north as Yorkshire. The last time I referred to this species in a blog I opined that it was an extinct native of Northamtonshire, but I note that Gent and Wilson, in their 2012 flora of the county now cast doubt on that idea, and suspect the plant of being an introduction.

In fact this species was not recorded in the wild in Britain prior to 1752 so perhaps this presumed indigene is not a native at all; such a distinctive plant would surely not have been overlooked.

Be that as it may, I intend to cherish my plant and will probably remove it from its pot and give it a more prominent place in the front garden.

What of the coming year?

Santa, in the shape of my wife, bought me Steven Falk's recent superb book on British bees. Even though he is a excellent artist himself (I have one of his works hanging on the nearby wall as I compose this) 'Falky' has got Richard Lewington to do the illustrations - and very fine they are too. I understand that the first print run rapidly sold out and another is being produced. Not bad for a book of its type! Perhaps concern about the parlous state of some of our bees has kindled extra interest. 

Hitherto my records of bees from such places as Kentle Wood have been scant. There is now no reason why I shouldn't be able to greatly extend the list. 

With that project, and a number of others I have in mind, the months ahead should be quite exciting.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Winter solstice

I took a stroll into town today. It wasn't really cold but a brisk wind introduced a significant chill factor into the situation.

Eucalyptus gunnii in flower. Daventry,
21 December, 2015

My walk took me past one of my favourite local trees, a specimen of Eucalyptus gunnii, which I hoped to find in flower. Sure enough the creamy white, powder-puff blossoms were there among the leaf-like phyllodes.

An interesting specimen, but in a few years time the owner will be regretting that it was ever planted. This species eventually makes a huge tree!

This was anticipated, but what did surprise me was Sophora microphylla in full flower along Badby Road West. It is native to New Zealand and I wrote about it in a blog dated 28 April, 2015, when I found it covered in its beautiful bell-like flowers. (Incidentally there is much conflicting and confusing information on the internet regarding this species and I have since tweaked that blog.)

Sophora microphylla beside Badby Road West, Daventry.
21 December, 2015

So here it is again, once more in full flower, only eight months later. Had I a larger garden, I wouldn't hesitate to plant a specimen, even though it might wait until I was pushing up the daisies before it produced its first blooms. It is related to laburnum, both being members of the huge Fabaceae Family but, other than sharing yellow flowers, the similarities are not obvious.

It belongs to that burgeoning group of trees which were once regarded as a risk in the British climate. Ever-warmer winters are making it a gamble well worth taking.

So a potentially boring walk in rather cheerless weather as brightened up and helped to put a spring into my step.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Kentle Wood: last day of autumn

Tomorrow is the Winter Solstice (or the next day according to some sources) and is officially the first day of winter.

I set out for a walk beneath a steel-blue sky. In other years a frost would have whitened the grass and, in fact, it was a little chillier than the last two or three days, but still some degrees above freezing.

My destination was Kentle Wood and the aim was simply exercise; if I had expected much wildlife activity I was to be disappointed.

20 December, and Hogweed is still in bloom.
Browns Road, Daventry. 

Hogweed is still flowering and, if the sun's rays develop some warmth there could be the odd insect visitor, but on balance I reckon the plant is doomed to have its hopes dashed.

White Dead-nettle was blooming too, but this was no surprise. It is an odd day indeed when this tough little plant is without a flower or two.

So, over the stile and into the wood...

As the notice board reminds us, the wood was only planted in 2001. Maturity is a long way off so the fungi, mosses and lichens of ancient woodland are not to be found. In fact, the wood is quite isolated from older woods so it will be difficult for such organisms to get established here. Human help may be needed, as has happened with the recreation of flower-rich meadows.

Few leaves seem to have fallen from this
oak. Kentle Wood,  Daventry.
20 December, 2015 

Some oaks still carried a large complement of leaves, so the devil will have to wait for payment (see yesterday's blog); I'm safe for now!

Hazels in Kentle Wood, Daventry.
20 December, 2015

Hazels are now bearing lots of fully open catkins and present a lovely sight. The air was still, but a breeze should soon begin to distribute the pollen.

The female flowers were not easy to locate. Kentle Wood.
20 December, 2015

After a good deal of searching I was finally able to locate one of the tiny pink female flowers. Not needing to attract bees they are very inconspicuous but over millennia, despite involving a vast wastage of pollen, the system has clearly worked well.

A few mature sycamores stand in Kentle
Wood, Daventry. 20 December, 2015

When the wood was created a few trees were already present. For example this Sycamore, Acer pseudoplatanus, was, with others, incorporated into the scheme. 

Fungi are probably responsible for the split in this ash.
Kentle Wood, Daventry. 20 December, 2015

A few mature Ash trees, Fraxinus excelsior, are also present. Here an ash tree has split and I'm sure the Woodland Trust will allow the damaged trunk and branch to rot. This process has already started of course and will hopefully encourage more fungi and wood-boring insects to exploit this niche.

The land to the east of the wood has, in recent years, seen the construction of several large warehouses. used by such organisations as Amazon.

Young trees on an unsightly bank.
Kentle Wood, Daventry.  20 December, 2015

Their coloration helps them to blend into the skyline but they can hardly be deemed beautiful. It is therefore pleasing to see that, in the last few weeks, a lot of tree planting has taken place. These should eventually do a good job of screening the buildings. They have been planted liberally in the knowledge that many will fail.

The saplings at the margin of Kentle Wood include
Scots Pine. 20 December, 2015

Several Scots Pine, Pinus sylvestris, have been included and, although it the species is not native to Northamptonshire or, indeed, any part of England, I am nevertheless pleased. These will attract a different suite of insects and so encourage biological diversity. And, of course, all these trees will help to stabilise the bank on which they grow.

I'd completed my daily stint of walking and the sky was steadily clouding over. I headed for home - a decision vindicated when it began to rain a little later.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Salving my conscience

Yesterday I had a check-up following my heart operation. The outcome was good and I have no further need for further appointments. In the course of our conversation I told the nurse that I did plenty of walking. This was a little mendacious as I really don't walk enough.

Today the early morning weather was glorious so, conscience pricked by yesterday's porkies, I resolved to step out and get a little more distance into my walking. 

I set out on the A361 (an easy half-mile walk from our house) towards Badby. A quartet of ravens passed overhead as I crossed the busy A45,  their distinctive croaking contact calls alerting me to their presence. No doubt it was a pair together with a couple of this year's offspring, now more or less fully grown. When I first began taking an interest in birds the Raven, Corvus corax, was distinctly uncommon in Northamptonshire. It is now a familiar sight in the west of the county and is steadily spreading eastwards. These two young ravens will set out this spring to find new territory, perhaps furthering this easterly trend.

Oaks in Badby Park, near Daventry
19 December, 2015

I passed Badby Park with its fine oaks but resisted the temptation to go up to the house. A few leaves clung stubbornly to the branches. On old country saying tells us that we must repay our debts to the devil when the last oak leaf falls; fortunately one or two always hang in there.

I was looking intently at the roadside hedgerows and I realised that, in this unseasonable balmy weather, I was searching instinctively for signs of spring. Silly really, given that we are still short of the Winter Solstice. Of course, I searched in vain. Plants, by and large, are not that easily fooled and most events of nature are controlled by day length, even though some unusually early flowering times are being recorded. 
Roadside fern between Daventry and
Newnham. 19 December, 2015

A few hundred yards further on and I turned left towards Newnham. A solitary roadside fern begged to be photographed so I obliged.

The distribution of the sori helped to confirm that this
is Dryopteris filix-mas.  19 December, 2015

I turned a frond over to examine the distribution of the sori. It was a Male Fern, Dryopteris filix-mas. This appears to be by far the most common fern around here (Each sorus consists of clusters of sporangia, containing spores - but that's enough botany for now!)

There seemed to be little point in going further towards Newnham. The sun had gone and a gusting wind had sprung up. Overhead gulls were being tossed around but pressed on doggedly towards their target - reservoir, ploughed field, refuse tip - who knows?

The fungus Hyphodontia sambuci on dead
 elder.  Near Daventry. 19 December, 2015

A dead elder branch was partially sheathed by a cream-coloured fungus. These resupinate fungi are a minefield but I am happy that it was Hyphodontia sambuci, known as the Elder Whitewash.


The berries of  Stinking Iris near Daventry.
19 December, 2015

With a brisk wind behind me, I set off homewards at a steady pace, pausing only for a plant of Stinking Iris, Iris foetidissima,  at the roadside. Its scarlet berries appeared untouched, testament to the mild weather and the plentiful food sources available to birds. These berries cause severe digestive upsets among humans.
Sow Thistle attacked by the fly, Chromatomyia 'atricornis'.
Christchurch Road, Daventry. 19 December, 2015

The final mile passed quickly, with my progress only briefly interrupted by a Sow Thistle, its leaves neatly edged by the mines of Chromatomyia 'atricornis' - the precise species involved cannot be established from this evidence.

So, I had started on the road to redemption in terms of exercise. No backsliding from now on!

Friday, 18 December 2015

Daventry: the Country Park

I concluded yesterday's blog by suggesting that, for the time being at least, I would do better by sticking to gardens. How weak that resolve turned out to be!

Conditions were good for walking today so I visited our local country park. It has been awarded a green flag and is a local nature reserve so I ought to pay it more attention. I have paid several visits before but, pleasant though it is, I have failed to note anything of great interest.

I was photographing lichens on a tree when a lady approached me and said that, a couple of days before, she had heard a nightingale singing just a few hundred yards away! I gently pointed out that the nightingale, Luscinia megarhynchos, is a migratory species and its diet consisted mostly of insects. 'They are in Africa now,' I stated. But she wouldn't have it, basing her belief firmly on the fact that the bird was singing at night. Ah well. Some yer win... (The general belief among birdwatchers is that, when 'a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square', it was a robin.)
Ivy restricts the areas available for lichen colonisation.
Daventry Country Park. 18 December, 2015

Truth be told, the lichens were of very little interest. There could have been a greater variety but many trees bore a thick growth if ivy, thus losing much potentially valuable tree bark habitat. Local authorities are strapped for cash, otherwise perhaps some of this ivy could be cleared.

Amandinea punctata is common on tree bark.
Daventry Country Park. 18 December, 2015

Where bark was exposed Amandinea punctata (= Lecidea punctata) was probably the most common species. This lichen has an almost worldwide distribution but its stronghold is N.W.Europe. The black apothecia, like tiny buttons, are distinctive.

In itself it is of limited interest but I was intrigued to note how, as the tree's girth increased, the normally oval patches were split apart in a very distinctive manner.

A Trentepohlia species formed orange
patches on bark. Daventry Country Park.
18 December, 2015

Here and there orange patches were to be seen on the bark. Often mistaken for a lichen it is in fact an alga belonging to the genus Trentepohlia. It is, perhaps, T. umbrina, but I do not have access to the literature required for certain identification. T. aurea is almost identical, but whatever it is, it brightens up the scene.

I left the beaten track in the hope of a surprise or two but all I found were a few clumps of Hart's Tongue Fern, Asplenium scolopendrium. For a century or so it has been known as Phyllitis scolopendrium, so I now have yet another name to memorise!

A few imprudent hazels were in flower. Daventry
Country Park. 18 December, 2015

Here, as at Kentle Wood a few days ago, hazels were in flower, i.e. the male catkins had opened up. I flicked one with my forefinger and a cloud of pollen drifted away on a very light breeze. Once again I failed to locate any of the female flowers with their protruding red stigmas. The pollen was wasted.

Alder catkins stayed resolutely closed. Daventry
Country Park. 18 December, 2015

In contrast the catkins on the Alder trees, Alnus glutinosa, wisely showed no signs of opening. This is a widespread native tree but in many of our parks the related but alien Grey Alder, Alnus incana, is being used instead.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Making the best of it.

Northamptonshire has to be rated as scenically a rather dull county. It is true that many pretty villages, often with houses of a warm, apricot-coloured sandstone, nestle in the folds of its gentle hills, but with no mountains, no moors, no marshes and, of course, no coast, it has obvious limitations. Local naturalists console themselves with the thought that we have some fine, though often unappreciated, areas of deciduous woodland, particularly parts of the former Rockingham Forest.

Here around Daventry these limitations are keenly felt, especially in the dull days of winter, when we must be content with little pockets of interest.

Field maples are bare in winter. Christchurch Road,
Daventry. 17 December, 2015

No more than three hundred metres from our house is a belt of trees, planted by the local authority to filter out noise from the nearby A45. Overwhelmingly the trees consist of Field Maple, Acer campestre; quite a good choice except that, being deciduous, they do not perform their job very well in the winter.

A number of trees have annulated bark, but
cherries are the most commonly seen.
17 December, 2015

A handful of other trees are present, with the annulated bark of cherry making the species very obvious...

...and golden leaves still clinging to a small beech tree also catching the attention. Despite the proximity of the A45 (barely ten metres away) many trees bore thick encrustations of bright, though commonplace, lichens.

Where had this come from?  Red Oak leaf among Acer
and cherry leaves. Christchurch Road, Daventry
17 December, 2015

A leaf of a North American species, Red Oak, Quercus rubra, lay amongst the more mundane material forming the litter but I was unable to track down the tree from whence it came. Perhaps recent high winds (storm Desmond) had borne it over a considerable distance.

In this predominantly brown  layer it was easy to overlook the tan coloured toadstools dotted around. Difficult for us but no problem for fungus gnats, mycetophilidae, which will readily seek out this essential larval pabulum.

Candle-snuff Fungus was very common. Christchurch
Road, Daventry. 17 December, 2015

Other fungi were present on chunks of damp, rotting wood. Here a few specimens of Candle-snuff Fungus, Xylaria hypoxylon, are shown. This is an abundant species in such a situation.

Nearby - in fact on the same log - was a very close relative, Xylaria longipes. It is almost as common as the previous species. In Britain it is known as Dead Moll's Fingers and in French, Penis de bois mort. (The French are such wildly imaginative people!)

The ground flora was poor with a clump of Pendulous Sedge, Carex pendula, and a few ferns being the only obvious herbaceous plants.

Pendulous Sedge may be charitably described as a thug. Graceful it may be but once established the clumps are difficult to remove. On top of that the seeds seem to retain viability for a long time so unwanted seedlings pop up in all sorts of unsuitable places. Introduce into your garden at your peril!

Male fern on the woodland floor. Christchurch Road,
Daventry. 17 December, 2015

The ferns were specimens of Dryopteris filix-mas, commonly known as the Male Fern. This is one of our county's commoner ferns, so its presence was no surprise. Smaller plants may often be found in the mortar of dampish walls.

Although the ground flora was poor there were a few epiphytes to be found. This term is used to describe plants growing up in a tree, perhaps exploiting a rot hole or forked branch where humus has accumulated. This habit can allow them to grow well above ground level and thus able to access more sunlight.

Mosses and ferns typically exploit these situations and, as shown, flowering plants such as Cleavers, Galium aparine, are also to be found. (I have even found a gooseberry flowering and fruiting in a similar place.)

But, to be honest, I really had to scratch around for items of interest. The truth is, gardens are as productive a habitat in the winter, at least in this region. Perhaps that should be my next target.