Sunday, 29 May 2016

Norton Churchyard

The clock on the church tower said 2.30 so there was time for  quick look around before kick-off in the England v Wales rugby, being shown at the village pub, The White Horse.

Kick-off in half an hour! All Saints Church,
Norton, Northants. 29 May, 2016
The Church of All Saints is very old, with the porch dating from the 13th century, but a legend claims that St Patrick hails from the village, so Christianity hereabouts goes back much further. (It seems that religious fervour is still intense here: twice I heard someone shout 'God help us' when watching the rugby.)

Solid and unfussy. All Saints Church, Norton.
29 May, 2016
The church is an unfussy building and is fairly typical of the area using, as is often the case, the local Jurassic marlstone for the masonry. Most of the churchyard is carefully manicured and of limited wildlife value but around 250 square metres at the back of the church has been left to revert to nature and would have repaid further attention.
Woody Nightshade, its relationship to the potato all
too obvious. Norton, Northants. 29 May, 2016

Brambles and nettles were dominant but Woody Nightshade aka Bittersweet, Solanum dulcamara (dulcis sweet; amara - bitter), was present, as was hawthorn:

                                  And scrambling up the hawthorn's prickly bower,
                                  For ramping woodbines and blue Bitter Sweet.
                                                                                             John Clare's Village Minstrel, 1821

Nearly kick off time. Just time to photograph the headstone of the unfortunate Emily who, once married, became Emily Emery - try saying that after a couple of pints!

England triumphed but I'll gloss over the details in case any Cambrians read this blog.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Borough Hill - again

On 15th May I went with friends to Borough Hill (see blog) but came away vaguely dissatisfied. I recorded 6 spider species, 11 diptera (two-winged flies) and 12 other invertebrates but I knew that this represented a paltry haul given the nature of the habitat.

Today I returned, resolving to do a little better. The weather was fine and I felt very optimistic as I set out. The hawthorn bushes in the hedgerow were heavy with blossom and the hillsides were studded with sky-blue patches of Common Field Speedwell, Veronica persica. (As children we always called it simply Birdseye.) G.Claridge Druce, in his 1930 flora of the county describes it as 'ericetal', i.e. growing on acid soil where Erica (Heather) might occur. Certainly the soil on Borough Hill is a bit on the acid side.

The Birdseye Speedwell, Veronica persica, on Borough Hill, Daventry
27 May, 2016

They seemed to like the sandy soil of ant mounds and many of these hillocks seemed to be wearing a blue cap. There are over twenty species of Veronica found in Britain, including some introductions, but with care they are not difficult to separate. Incidentally, these ant mounds were significant for I took a specimen of the hoverfly Xanthogramma citrofasciatum, whose grubs feed upon root aphids 'farmed' by the ants.

It wasn't long before I was encountering interesting species.

Agapanthia villosoviridescens is one of the Longhorn Beetles and its grubs feed in the stems of thistles. With a body length of up to 22 millimetres (my specimen was a mere 17 mm) the long specific name seems apposite but for once the 'common' name is even longer - The Golden-bloomed Grey Longhorn Beetle. On the photograph the golden hair on the elytra (wing cases) can just about be made out. This species seems to be confined to central and eastern England. 
Agapanthia villosoviridescens is an impressive beetle.
Borough Hill, Daventry. 27 May, 2016
Spiders were not particularly conspicuous. As usual, Nursery Web Spiders, Pisaura mirabilis, were prominent on leaves but seemed to be having little success in seizing prey. However this crab spider, Xysticus cristatus had got her lunch in the form of a sawfly of some sort.
Xysticus cristatus with prey. Borough Hill, Daventry.
27 May, 2016
They have powerful jaws and the male must exercise caution when mating. He will walk around the selected female trailing web and thus pinning her legs to the ground. She is helpless while he has his wicked way with her but she will eventually extricate herself - by which time the male has scarpered.
Most people will be familiar with black millipedes and they may also know the Striped Millipede, Ommatoiulus sabulosus. In his monograph on British millipedes J. Gordon Blower writes: ' is associated with sandy soils...and heathland' (sabulose means 'of sandy places') so it is to be expected at Borough Hill. I found several specimens.

The Striped Millipede, Ommatoiulus sabulosus at
Borough Hill.27 May, 2016

I finally called it a day and returned home with a pot of money spiders. Their average length is about 2 millimetres so I have a lot of microscope work facing me.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Canons Ashby

I went to Canons Ashby on Wednesday evening. The occasion was a visit by The Boddington and District Garden Association and, although we have recently had several days of lovely warm and sunny weather, this was an evening for wrapping up well. I had collected Ann and John Pimm on the way and in all about twenty of us turned up to brave the elements.
Spindle was in flower near the car park. Its flowers are hardly colourful but its berries, in a sealing-wax pink, are a delight. It is native to the county, where it is more often found on limy soils.

Spindle was growing beside the car park at Canons Ashby.
25 May, 2016
I was pessimistic with regard to the chance of finding interesting insects and, sure enough, there was little of note but an exception was caterpillars of the Mullein Moth, Cuculia verbasci, on - you've guessed it - Mullein.
Mullein Moth caterpillar at Canons Ashby.
25 May, 2016
These larvae were still quite small and my photograph exaggerates their size, for they were only about ten millimetres long. I am always pleased to find them; gardeners are generally not so keen!

Some aspects of the gardens are rather formal and, although they offer fine views, I was more interested in the herbaceous borders, where some unusual plants were to be seen.

Looking out across an attractive  landscape.
Canons Ashby, Northants. 25 May, 2016

The pale green-pink flowers of Nectaroscordum siculum were backed by the purple leaves of Cotinus coggygria to provide an interesting contrast, but by and large I'm not a person to bother about 'colour clashes'.  The Nectaroscordum has an onion-like smell and indeed was once included in the onion genus as Allium siculum.

Honey Garlic, Nectaroscordum siculum backed by a
purple Cotinus coggygria. Canons Ashby. 25 May, 2016

A little further on grew an attractive member of the Cistus family.  It may have been Cistus clusii or C. monspeliensis. There are several similar species but Chris, who was showing us around, was not at hand to ask.  Whatever it was, I rather coveted it! 
This Cistus shrub was an attractive border feature.
Canons Ashby, 25 May, 2016
Next to capture my interest was the striking spurge, Euphorbia griffithii. The form usually grown goes under the name of 'Fireglow' and I am assuming that this is what it was. It hails from Tibet and Bhutan and the name commemorates the largely forgotten William Griffith, who travelled and collected widely in the region.
Euphorbia griffithii is a lovely feature in a border.
Canons Ashby. 25 May, 2016


In a shady border numerous ferns were growing and Claytonia sibirica was also growing profusely. This plant has flowers of a strong pink coloration but in the gathering gloom my camera failed to pick this up. In my youth it was placed in the Portulacaceae Family along with the purslanes, but I find that some botanists have recently placed in a 'new' family, the Montiaceae.
Claytonia sibirica, aka Montia sibirica 
Canons Ashby, Northants. 25 May, 2016
It is an annual but may sometimes behaves as a short-lived perennial. Here is has attained the status of a weed, tolerated because it is very pretty, but I suspect that the staff need to be quite ruthless with it.

Trillium discolor in a shady border at Canons Ashby.
25 May, 2016
I could ramble on but will content myself with one final plant. In the same border as the Claytonia were some specimens of Trillium. Here the genus was represented by Trillium discolor; even more stunning - in my opinion - is Trillium foetidissimum. As the name would suggest it has an unpleasant smell. But the finest species must surely be T. sessile; it too has a foul smell but no worse than, for example, Crown Imperial, Fritillaria imperialis. If I could give them the conditions they demand, a loamy soil with dappled shade,  I would surely give any of them a home.

The cold was now really making itself felt so, after coffee and cake, it was time to leave. I have promised the staff that I will return and do a survey of the invertebrates at Canons Ashby, so I'll be back.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

A good day for beetles

Chris was going out for lunch with our daughter Jacqui so I resolved to visit Kentle Wood.

Prior to departing I had a quick look at out giant Cardoon, Cynara cardunculus, plant. Its magnificent thistle-like flowers attract hordes of insects in the summer but occasionally insects are to be found on the leaves.

Today it was a Tortoise Beetle, i.e. a species of Cassida. In the U.K. here are twelve species found and a little care must be taken with identification. This specimen turned out to be Cassida vibex, widespread in southern Britain but less common further north.

The beetle, Cassida vibex. Stefen Hill, Daventry.
22 May,2016

So, not a rarity at all, but a pleasing start to the day.

The sun was now gaining strength so I packed my gear and set off for Kentle Wood.

I immediately spotted a beetle basking on a dog rose leaf and recognised it as Cantharis nigricans.  As with the Tortoise Beetle we have a dozen or so species of Cantharis in the U.K but keys to identify the species are readily available.

One of the Soldier Beetles, Cantharis nigricans, on dog rose foliage.
Kentle Wood, Daventry. 22 May, 2016
Pyrochroa serraticornis is a common Cardinal Beetle.
Kentle Wood, Daventry. 22 May, 2016
If disturbed these 'Soldier Beetles' are quick to drop to the ground, where they can be difficult to find. This is true also of the Cardinal Beetles - my next find. The species in this case was Pyrochroa serraticornis. and it can be recognised by the scarlet - not black - head and the distinctive serrated antennae. The bright red coloration warns would-be predators that it is toxic to eat, but as a precaution it not only drops to the ground when disturbed but, in my experience, falls with the underside uppermost.  This ventral side is black, making the beetle well-nigh impossible to locate. There it lies for, perhaps, several minutes before moving. The feigning of death - 'playing 'possum' - is a widespread strategy within many animal groups. Known technically as thanatosis it is clearly successful and must have led to the survival of countless millions of creatures.

The edges of the rides have now developed a foaming mass of Cow Parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris, in many cases with a background of creamy - and very fragrant - hawthorn blossom.
Neither of these plants was attracting noteworthy insects but the understorey of White Dead-nettle, Lamium album, was receiving plenty of attention from various species of bee.
Buttercups too were getting visitors, largely from the fly, Cheilosia albitarsis. Fortunately the specimen I photographed was a male; the females are indistinguishable from those of Cheilosia ranunculi. Both species are found commonly on Creeping Buttercup and the former certainly lays its eggs at the base of the buttercup stem.

At this point I put my camera away as I planned to spend an hour or so investigating the spiders found in grass tussocks and vole runs.

Not situations likely to throw up photogenic material!

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Of this and that...

When out surveying an area for invertebrates my camera is always at the ready. It is not that I am a particularly competent or enthusiastic photographer but it is a way of recalling odd or memorable ...whatever.

For example: a casual glance at a Cherry Laurel shrub yesterday brought a couple of ladybirds to my attention.

Harlequin Ladybirds in copula. Daventry

It might appear that two species of ladybird are mating, but of course it is nothing of the sort. The Harlequin Ladybird, is extremely variable and, although in this instance the male is fundamentally black with spots and the female has a ground colour of brick-red with apparently a dozen or more black markings, they are both Harmonia axyrida. It is an unwelcome but well-established alien - but that is another story.

A little further on and I casually passed my net through a birch tree and out came another pair of mating insects - spring had definitely arrived! Ladybirds are of course beetles and some shieldbugs can have vaguely beetle-like appearance (although there are numerous significant differences).
This was a pair of Parent Bugs, Elasmucha grisea.  Their common name derives from the fact that when danger threatens the tiny offspring will creep under their mother's body until the threat has passed. The mouthparts of bugs are modified to form a sort of drinking straw and Parent Shieldbugs imbibe the sugar-rich phloem from birch or alder trees. (Aphids are also bugs.)

Parent Bugs in cop. Daventry 19.v.2016

It seems  hadn't done with shieldbugs for fifty yards further on I passed a line of tall Lawson's Cypress. I had beaten these before in the hope of finding a Juniper Shieldbug, Cyphostethus tristiatus, but with no success. On this second occasion I was in luck.

Juniper Shieldbug netted from Lawson's Cypress.
Daventry. 19.v.2016

The nymphs of this species feed on the cypress cones.  The notorious 'Leylandii' cypress, being a hybrid, rarely bears cones and is therefore of no interest in this context but the widespread planting of Lawson's Cypress has allowed this shieldbug to spread rapidly in recent years.

Shieldbugs - and indeed most bugs - are good, and in some cases strong, fliers. The same obviously cannot be said of mites. These creatures, being arachnids and thus related to spiders, are wingless.
Eriophyes galls on Common Lime.
Byfield, Northants. 20.v.2016
It is therefore a bit of a puzzle how rapidly they disperse and colonise newly created habitats. These pustules on the hybrid Common Lime, Tilia x europaea, are the work of mites, in this case a species of Eriophyes. The identity of the mite in question cannot  be established on this hybrid other than by an experienced acarologist, which I am not. But whatever the species, how does it disperse from tree to tree?  I have not investigated this problem but suspect that phoresy may be the answer. Phoresy is the act of  'hitching a lift' by clinging on to another organism. In some cases it can be insects, but perhaps in here birds are the unwitting carriers.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The Garden in May

By and large our garden is managed with insects in mind. Chris likes a neat and tidy garden and I'm happy with that although I look for the unusual and occasionally bizarre. The consequence is that plants can sometimes be awkward to place.

Lamium orvala. My garden, Stefen Hill, Daventry.
17 May, 2016

Take Lamium orvala. This sombre-flowered dead nettle is not everyone's cup of tea but it is not often seen and is a very good bee plant. Sometimes called the Balm-leaved Archangel, it forms a trouble-free clump in the border and flowers for several weeks. It is native to eastern Europe where it is found in open woodland. The Yellow Archangel, Lamiastrum galeobdolon, is a popular but invasive garden plant, usually grown in its variegated form.

The variegated form of Yellow Archangel.
Byfield, Northants. 17 May, 2016

Clematis is a genus within the buttercup/anemone family. The relationship is not always obvious but we have a pretty, white-flowered species, Clematis cirrhosa, which clambers through a section of trellising.


With flowers barely two inches across and much simpler than some of the brightly coloured hybrids
available, it is steadily spreading each year but is never likely to become a problem.

The simple flowers of Clematis cirrhosa have a distinct
grace. 17 May, 2016

Oxalis 'Ione Hecker' is flowering well for its second year. It is a hybrid and apparently never produces seed.

Oxalis Ilone Hecker in our front garden, Stefen Hill,
Daventry. 17 May, 2016

I was therefore astonished to find a tiny Oxalis seedling about six feet away. I can only assume that it from my plant of Oxalis adenophylla, but chance seedlings like this are most unusual.

Not at all surprising were seedlings from a plant of Fairy Foxglove, Erinus alpinus, planted last year. The species, from the mountains of south-west Europe, is very commonly grown and has widely naturalised itself in Britain where it may be found on walls and in stony places.

Fairy Foxglove, Erinus alpinus,  Stefen Hill, Daventry.
17 May, 2016

Although looking quite unlike a foxglove it is in fact quite closely related, despite being under two inches high. I was taken aback when I counted some forty plants scattered around the parent. I'll need to be ruthless and take a lot out!


Sunday, 15 May 2016

Borough Hill in May

The weather forecast had not been promising but a visit to Borough Hill by the Northants Dipterists' Group proved to be very successful. Warm, sunbathed leaves were occupied by insects such as ladybirds and beetles whilst spiders were represented particularly by specimens of the Nursery Web Spider, Pisaura mirabilis.

Pisaura mirabilis, a very common spider on Borough Hill.
15 May, 2016

These rather large creatures needed to be approached with care; should a shadow fall across them they scuttled away at lightning speed. This species is the only representative of its genus in Britain and is quite unmistakeable.

St Mark's Day is 25 April but, though a little late, St Mark's Flies, Bibio marci, were present in large numbers. The larvae are under some suspicion of damaging agricultural crops but there is evidence that the adults may assist in pollinating flowers. So that's ok then!

St Mark's Fly. They were running about three weeks late!
Borough Hill, Daventry, Northants. 15 May, 2016

With their slow, bumbling flight they are probably - for a short period at least - an important food item for swallows and other insectivorous birds. The photograph shows a male - note that the large compound eyes more or less meet in the middle. These eyes are very hairy, giving them a slightly fuzzy appearance.

As mentioned in an earlier blog, the soil on Borough Hill tends to be neutral or slightly acid.  There were snails there but in relatively few numbers as they require lime to build their shells. By investigating soil tussocks I was able confirm that slugs - not dependant on lime - were relatively common. Woodlice also have 'shells' impregnated with lime and were not numerous, but I was pleased to find a Pill Millipede, Glomeris marginata.

Glomeris marginata, a millipede often mistaken for a
woodlouse. Borough Hill, Daventry. 15 May, 2016

This creature can easily be mistaken for one of the 'roly-poly' woodlice (Armadillidium species) but the structure is really quite distinct. They are glossy and dark brown to black, unlike the matt greyish tones of most woodlice. 

Familiar shieldbugs were present too. Woundwort Bugs, Eysarcoris venustissima, were plentiful and in virtually all cases had paired up. I detected no Woundwort but White Dead-nettle, an alternative food source, was plentiful.

Woundwort Bugs in copula. Borough Hill, Daventry,
Northants. 15 May, 2016

Common, but not quite as abundant, were examples of the Dock Bug, Coreus marginatus. Although invariably included in books about shieldbugs it is not a true member of the group as it only has four segments to each antenna. It is highly distinctive and, being common, most wildlife enthusiasts are familiar with it, particularly as its food plant, various dock species, is abundant nearly everywhere.

Dock Bug - but not on dock. Borough Hill, Daventry,
Northants. 15 May, 2016

So an unexpectedly useful day and I arrived home with  enough specimens to keep me out of mischief for days.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Abington Park

With a couple of hours to spare in Northampton I decided to stroll around an old 'patch' of mine, Abington Park. It had been quite a long time since I had last been there (14 years?) and I was curious to see what changes - if any - had taken place.

 Dock Beetle. Abington Park, Northampton.
13 May, 2016

A formerly dry area had become quite wet and in the muddy patches quite a few dock plants, Rumex species, had become established. It was no surprise when I found several Dock Beetles, Gastrophysa viridula, some in copula, i.e. mating. This is a very widespread insect and, at this time of the year, any substantial patches of dock are likely to harbour this eye-catching species.

This Willow Leaf Beetle was where one would expect it
to be - on a willow leaf. Abington Park, Northampton.
13 May, 2016

Also present was the Brown Willow Beetle, Galerucella lineola. This is also widespread and is usually found on willows - as it was here, but may occur on alders and hazel. Unfortunately it was at the tip of a wind-tossed branch, making photography tricky but later on I was able to collect the specimen for a closer look.

Large Red Damselfly on elm. Abington Park,
Northampton. 13 May, 2016

The warm sunshine together with the proximity of water (Abington Park boasts four lakes) had resulted in myriads of insects being present, including a Large Red Damselfly, Pyrrhosoma nymphula. This handsome insect is found throughout Northamptonshire but I was still pleased to see it.

My visit to the park had always been envisaged as a short one but I began to wish for a little further time. My overall impression was that, in recent years, the park has improved and I expect to spend a little more time there in forthcoming weeks.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Oliver's Garden - May

Oliver's garden is always full of interest with some very attractive plants to be seen. His 'meadow' is currently bright with primroses, cowslips, fritillaries and narcissi in full bloom; orchids are pushing through and will add to the display later in the month.

I had little time to spend enjoying the procession of insect visitors to this area as I had promised to lend a hand with the re-potting of some viciously-spiked agaves but my eye was drawn to a Spotted Laurel, Aucuba japonica, in flower. It is an odd plant and, in its time, this ubiquitous shrub has been placed in various plant families including, surprisingly, the Garryaceae, Normally however it is regarded as a member of the Cornel Family, Cornaceae.

Its flowers are inconspicuous, being a purple-brown or even chocolate, certainly nothing to set the pulse racing. I photographed it and then examined my results.

 I was rather taken aback to realise that I had completely overlooked an insect at the top left of the flower cluster. It is clearly one of the solitary wasps. These are not my thing and are a job for the specialist but it appears to be one of the Potter Wasps such as an Odynerus species - but that is as far as I am prepared to go. Bugs, flies and spiders are quite enough to keep me occupied!

I'll look at Spotted Laurel more closely in future.