Monday, 25 July 2016

Byfield Pocket Park in July (with postscript)

The pocket park at Byfield occupies land upon which once stood the village railway station. The station was on a rambling line, the Stratford-upon-Avon and Midland Junction Railway, which ran from near Olney, in Buckinghamshire to Bidford-on-Avon via Towcester and Stratford. Throughout most of its history it struggled to remain solvent even though, at a large livestock sale in Byfield in 1916 'more than a thousand sheep and three hundred cattle were sold. All of these were shipped by rail in 50 cattle wagons split into three special trains'. (R. Riley and Bill Simpson, A History of the Stratford-upon-Avon and Midland Junction Railway. Lamplight Publications, 1999)

The station lay between Moreton Pinkney and Fenny Compton and for a few years was sustained in part by the handling of iron ore from the Byfield area. Nevertheless, closure was inevitable and operations finally came to a halt in 1965. Nature soon began to reclaim the now-vacant land and, to cut a long story short, the site of the station and some land adjacent to it now forms the pocket park.

Chris visited Byfield earlier today to see an old friend Julie so I took the opportunity to visit the pocket park, leaving the two to have a natter. The weather was warm and dry; in fact the weather has been so dry that many plants were beginning to wilt. Not apparently suffering was a newcomer, the Nettle-leaved Bellflower, Campanula trachelium. And what was it doing there?

Nettle-leaved Bellflower in Byfield Pocket Park.
25 July, 2016
The species is reasonably well distributed in Northamptonshire but I have not found any in the immediate area so its finding here in the pocket park is a mystery. (map from Gent and Wilson: "The Flora of Northamptonshire and the Soke of Peterborough" 2012)

Northamptonshire (1970 county boundary) showing the
distribution of Campanula trachelium

The plants may have been struggling a little, but the bugs seemed to be doing well. 

Birch Shieldbug. Byfield Pocket Park. 25 July, 2016

From a birch tree a specimen of Elasmostethus interstinctus, the Birch Shieldbug (what else?) dropped into my net, and on the same tree a crèche of Parent Bug, Elasmucha grisea, nymphs was clustered. This species is found almost exclusively on birch although alder is sometimes used.

Nymphs of the Parent Bug on a birch leaf. Byfield
Pocket Park, 25 July, 2016

Of the mother there was no sign; perhaps she now felt that the distinctive nymphs were capable of fending for themselves and so her parental duties, for which the species is noted, were no longer required. As explained elsewhere, if danger threatens the nymphs will huddle under the mother's body until the threat has passed.

A nearby Aspen tree also yielded a shieldbug. The Forest Bug Pentatoma rufipes, can reach about 14 mm, making it is one of our largest shieldbugs, and also one of our most handsome.
Forest Bug at Byfield Pocket Park. 25 July, 2016

One thing Byfield Pocket Park is not short of is stinging nettles so, at this time of the year, I was very likely to find the caterpillars of the Small Tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae. Sure enough, several little clusters were found. This will be the second generation, the first larvae having been present in May.  The ones photographed will enter their final instar shortly and then begin to disperse. As a rule there are five of these instars (growth stages) with each giving rise to a slightly more advanced larva.

Caterpillars of the Small Tortoiseshell butterfly on nettles.
Byfield Pocket Park, 25 July, 2016
At this point I heard the crunch of gravel in the car park. Chris had come to collect me and I was content to go, having had an interesting hour or so.


Going through my specimens later a found I had collected a fly which had me puzzled. It turned out to be a Tachinid fly. Tachinids are parasites (Imagine a sort of Sir Philip Green with six legs and a pair of wings) and the species I had secured turned out to be Subclytia rotundiventris, and it is known to be a parasite of the Birch Shieldbug.
Subclytia rotundiventris from Byfield Pocket Park.
25 July, 2016
A tachinid fly is normally recognised by a structure known as a subscutellum, but with this species the subscutellum was so little developed that I failed to recognise it. As a result I spent two hours following false trails. Anyway, I was well pleased because this fly is far from common.



Boddington Reservoir

My friend Lynda recently drew my attention to the reddish material encircling willow trees on the shores of Boddington Reservoir. I resolved to have a look. Having parked up I strode south along the perimeter track enjoying the views. A stiff breeze was assisting the dinghies in their journey to - wherever.
Dinghies at Boddington Reservoir. 24 July, 2016

As for me, I soon found what I think Lynda had been referring to. The water level must have dropped a couple of feet and, in doing so, a mass of adventitious roots had been exposed (adventitious roots are those which appear in an abnormal position, as when, for example, a branch comes into contact with the ground). This mass of fibrous roots had created what, I suspect, is an interesting micro-habitat.
Adventitious roots encircle a willow at Boddington Reservoir.
24 July, 2016.
Having cleared that up I set off to look for plant galls. The area in which I found myself is adjacent to the nature reserve at Byfield Pool and, as I have already spent some time recording in that area, I suspected that little new in the way of insects would be forthcoming, hence the concentration on galls. The study of plant galls is known as cecidology (Greek: kekis, a gall) and willow trees often carry a wide range of these intriguing structures. But there is a snag. There are twenty-three different species of willow found in Britain and in many cases it is necessary to identify the species involved - and this can be tricky.
Gall on willow caused by the sawfly, Eupontania pedunculi. Boddington
Reservoir, 24 July, 2016
What of this specimen? Later, back home, after slicing up the gall, poring over books and (most importantly) scratching my head, I concluded that it had been induced by the sawfly, Eupontania pedunculi. The second gall species required less cogitation.

Mites are responsible for enormous numbers of galls. This
is Aculis laevis  Boddington Reservoir. 24 July, 2016
It was the work of a mite, Aculus laevis. Having said that, research is ongoing in this field and there may be surprises forthcoming. I beg permission to tweak this blog later should new information come to hand.

A familiar-looking mine was also present on a few leaves. It turned out to be Lyonetia clerkella, a very common moth whose larvae are responsible for mining a wide range of plants including apple and cherry. (Unsurprisingly the moth is called the Apple Leaf Miner.) A bit of a let-down really but it may prove to be a new record for the 10 x 10 km square.

The Apple Leaf Miner is clearly partial to willow leaves too.
Boddington Resevoir. 24 July, 2016
By this time I had now reached the far southern end of the reservoir  and, as I had no intention of doing a full circuit, it was time to retrace my steps. But couple of plants caught my attention at this point. The first was the very familiar Silverweed, Potentilla anserina. Though looking very like a buttercup is in in fact a member of the Rose Family, Rosaceae.

Silverweed is common in damp pastures and on roadsides.
Boddington Reservoir, 24 July, 2016

What makes this remarkable is the fact that the Meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, growing nearby, is also in the Rosaceae, and yet superficially they form an enormous contrast. The clue to the relaationship, as most botanists know, is the presence of stipules, of which I'll write in another blog.

Meadowsweet is abundant around Boddington Reservoir.
24 July, 2016

Growing a few paces away was Skullcap, Scutellaria galericulata. A common waterside plant, this member of the Mint Family is easily overlooked if growing among more robust plants. The flowers are attractive but too small to make an impact. The calyx is, with the use of a bit of imagination, a bit like the old-fashioned headgear known as a skullcap.

Close-up of Skullcap flowers. Boddington Reservoir.
24 July, 2016

Also just a few strides away was a clump of Greater Fleabane, Pulicaria dysenterica.  It favours damp areas, seems at home on clay, and is widespread in Northants. The plant receives many insect visitors and in the photograph it has attracted a Marmalade Fly, Episyrphus balteatus, one of the few hoverflies to bear a common name (although lots have been made up in recent years).

Greater Fleabane with Episyrphus balteatus. Boddington Reservoir,
24 July, 2016

As usual I left with a number of samples to be pored over at home. Damp meadows with swathes of fragrant Meadowsweet stretched out to my left as I strode towards home. Hmm... an area to be visited later perhaps?

Tony White:

Thursday, 21 July 2016


Not far from our house at Stefen Hill is a very busy junction where the A45 meets the A361. The junction has been so constructed that an area of perhaps seven or eight thousand square yards has been left as a virtual island, shown in green on the map.
A refuge beside the A45.
This little patch is difficult to reach and I therefore suspect that no one has set foot there since the structure was completed some twenty or so years ago. The consequence is that nature has run riot, not with rarities of course, but with a colourful range of plants to be expected on roadside verges.
Nothing rare, but bliss for insects. The A45/A361 junction.
21 July, 2016
The brambles, wild roses, and sprawling hawthorn shrubs make the area difficult to penetrate but as a child I was fed on Virol, so these obstacles are nothing to me! The brilliant yellow flowers of the much maligned Common Ragwort, Senecio jacobaea, were proving a magnet for insects, while caterpillars of the Cinnabar moth, Tyria jacboaeae, were present in their hundreds, munching away at the toxic leaves.
Cinnabar caterpillars. Roadside, Daventry,
21 July, 2016
Another, less obvious caterpillar was present, snug in an umbel of Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium. This was the larva of the Parsnip Moth, Depressaria radiella, enmeshed in a silken purse (in the U.S.A. it is known as the Parsnip Webworm).
Parsnip Moth caterpillar. Roadside, Daventry.
21 July, 2016
I coaxed it on to my net for a better picture but, cruel though my judgement may be, I would not class it as stunningly beautiful.
Butterflies and moths abounded: Marbled Whites (Melangaria galathea),  a camera-shy Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus) that hid behind a thicket of bramble, and dozens of flitting skippers. The Gatekeeper is a species that has declined over the last couple of decades due - probably - to habitat loss and I was therefore pleased  to see it.
Gatekeeper beside the A361, Daventry.
21 July, 2016
As for the skippers, once a specimen stayed still for more than a second I was able to note the black underside of the antenna tips, showing it to be an Essex Skipper, Thymelicus lineola.

The Essex Skipper, by no means confined to Essex. Roadside near
Daventry. 21 July, 2016
Grasshoppers were abundant too - always, I feel, an indication of a healthy habitat. So, despite heavy lorries thundering past, this patch is a real haven and, as it is likely to remain untouched, should remain so for the foreseeable future. Yes, I did take a few specimens home for identification, but far fewer than a bird such as a House Martin would consume daily. I didn't feel guilty.

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Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Hospital poisons

I took Chris in to Northampton General Hospital today for what, hopefully, will be her last scan. It was a lengthy process and I wasn't allowed in with her, so I had a stroll around the hospital grounds.

At first there was little of interest to be seen. Recent scorching weather (the temperature reached 33 degrees Celsius yesterday) has left the ground parched and not surprisingly many of the plants looked a bit tatty. One of Britain's most poisonous plants, Hemlock (Conium maculatum), was present in considerable quantity.
Hemlock looking past its best. Northampton General Hospital.
20 July, 2016

This is, of course, a common plant, and finding it was no surprise or significance. But a little further on I spied something of far greater interest. A somewhat suffruticose plant, i.e. a plant that is woody at the base but with perennial top growth produced anew each year, was on the other side of a car park. It looked familiar. 

A clump of Deadly Nightshade. Northampton General Hospital.
20 July, 2016
A closer look confirmed my suspicions. It was Deadly Nightshade, Atropa belladonna. The word 'deadly' is often bandied about, sometimes in connection with plants that are only moderately poisonous, but in this case the adjective is merited. I have found in the past that people confuse the Deadly Nightshade with the moderately toxic Woody Nightshade, Solanum dulcamara.
The flowers of Woody Nightshade, aka Bittersweet.
Christchurch Road, Daventry. 21 July, 2016
It is true that they are both in the same family, the Solanaceae, but their flowers are quite different. The latter has flowers like the Potato, Solanum tuberosum, but those of Deadly Nightshade, or Dwale to give an older name, are bell-shaped.
Deadly Nightshade: the flower. Northampton General
 Hospital. 20 July, 2016
The colour is a distinctive maroon-purple and quite unmistakeable. The fruits are similarly distinctive and, although they were still green when I photographed them today, they ripen to a glossy, unfortunately tempting, black.
Deadly Nightshade: the ripening fruits. Northampton
General Hospital. 20 July, 2016
All the Northamptonshire records of this rather scarce plant are from the limestone regions in the east of the county, but a few isolated plants have been recorded elsewhere, and here's the interesting bit: these isolated cases have nearly always been in or near hospital grounds.

Apothecaries have made use of this plant for centuries of course, and its properties have been known for millennia. The poisonous nature of the plant is down, basically, to two powerful alkaloids, atropine and hyoscamine.

The plant has long been famous - or infamous - as a mydriatic, that is, causing enlargement of the pupil of the eye. It is common knowledge that an Italian woman would take a small amount when planning to look at her best, thus giving herself dark, flashing pupils; to make herself a veritable bella donna.

Here I must confess that the finding of this plant was not a surprise. I first found it here some forty years ago and I set out today in the hope that it would still be present. So in fact it was a Eureka moment.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Once more: Kentle Wood

Kentle Wood, being a new creation. isn't the most impressive stretch of woodland in Northamptonshire. Indeed, often the most exciting things to be observed occur at the entrance, formed by a rather awkward and, I feel, an unnecessarily complex stile. In a previous blog I have mentioned stout and flatulent ladies but, three or four weeks back, entertainment was provided by a man and his dog.
The stile guarding the entrance to Kentle Wood, Daventry.

The man, ripe in years, was built on a small scale but his elderly dog was rotund and not athletic. The owner removed the lead, pushed his rather reluctant dog under the stile and clambered over the structure to join it. By the time he got over, his dog was out again. The man was perplexed. He attempted to put his lead on the dog, presumably with a view to coaxing or dragging it through. The dog wasn't having it. The owner, by now breathing heavily, climbed back over the stile and attempted to push the dog under it. Fido wasn't having it; clearly the wood could be full of fierce rabbits or blackbirds. I looked on while pretending to be completely fascinated by a clump of thistles. The man laboriously re-crossed the stile, showed his dog a stick and, having gained its interest, hurled the stick for all of five yards. The dog appeared to give a sigh, scrabbled under the stile, and retrieved the stick. Dog and man then repaired to a nearby bench to recover from their exertions. It was quite the most exciting event of the day. Thistles lost their interest and I, showing off, bounded over the stile with, I felt, considerable elan. (I don't think the dog-owner, by now half-asleep, saw me wince.)

More recently I looked on while a youth climbed over the stile, followed by his lady-love. As a reward for their efforts he carefully unwrapped a chocolate bar, then flung the wrapper on to the ground, the litter-bin being several inconvenient feet away. I bounded over, stamped on his foot and then, as he bent forward in pain, brought my knee up smartly under his chin, dislodging a couple of his teeth.

Of course, I did none of these things but, as they say, it's the thought that counts.

Stiles have great comedy potential and I suspect that many a harmless hour could be spent concealed near a busy stile as people negotiated the obstacle, either feigning insouciance as they stumble or (if male) muttering a curse as an unmentionable part of the anatomy receives a bruising. Jerome K. Jerome would have made much of it.
However, such an hour was not available and I had to press on...

It had been several weeks since my last visit, during which time the cherry trees had blossomed and near-ripe fruit crowded the branches.

The orchids were still in flower but in some cases the flowers were beginning to lose their petals. I was pleased to see a lovely spike of the white-flowered form. This is quite common but is an attractive variation.

The white form of Common Spotted Orchid at Kentle
Wood, Daventry. 16 July, 2016

The usual butterflies were to be seen, including this pair of Small Whites, Artogeia rapae, in copula, as biologists tend to put it.

Small Whites pairing. Kentle Wood, Daventry.
16 July, 2016

I almost overlooked this Common Footman moth, Eilema lurideola, as it rested low down on a hogweed leaf. These are smart, neat little moths and I suppose the common name reflects this. There are several species of footman moths but this is the one most likely to be seen.

Common Footman Moth at Kentle Wood, Daventry.
16 July, 2106

The black and orange caterpillars feed on lichens and algae but will accept withered dandelion leaves in captivity (should anyone be seized with an urge to rear some).

As I say, there are several species of Footman moths, and in Britain there are four species of Helophilus. These hoverflies are rather obvious wasp-mimics and this bright specimen on a nettle leaf is Helophilus pendulus, the commonest species.

Helophilus pendulus at Kentle Wood, Daventry.
16 July, 2016
It was now very hot, I suspect the hottest day of the year so far. I had a good haul of flies and spiders to be identified at home. Time to go.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Woodford Halse Nature Reserve

In previous blogs I have referred to this area as Woodford Halse Pocket Park and, as I have explained, it started out as exactly that. I also explained that, as it occupies areas once occupied by the Great Central Railway, it is linear in form. In fact it is L shaped at the western end, and it was to this area I ventured today.

Although the eastern part of the reserve occupies an old cutting and is therefore constricted as regards width, the western area opens up to form a meadow-like area of great interest botanically and entomologically (and probably several other 'cally' interests too).

The day was set fair as I set out and fortunately it stayed that way. The weather clearly suited butterflies too. There were no rarities or even vaguely uncommon ones but several Marbled Whites, Melanargia galathea, were visiting scabious and other plants. As on other occasions I found that they were not easily 'spooked' so I could approach easily for a photograph.
Marbled White on Scabious, Knautia arvensis. Woodford
Halse Nature Reserve. 14 July, 2016
Lots of rather small moths were flitting around too but I lack the expertise to identify them. However, this distinctive moth in my net is surely Common Drill,  Dichrorampha petiverella. Its food plant is Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, and this was plentiful in the reserve.
The micro-moth Dichrorampha petiverella poses in my net.
Woodford Halse Nature Reserve. 14 July,2016
More plants species revealed themselves than were obvious on my last visit and I was pleased to see that Rest Harrow, Ononis repens, was plentiful. This member of the Pea Family, Fabaceae, almost merits a place in the larger rock garden, especially if the hope is to attract insects. Having said that, the flowers have no nectar but bees visit them to collect pollen.
Rest Harrow, aka Fin-Weed, Ononis repens. Woodford
Halse Nature Reserve. 14 July, 2016

Its curious name refers to the tough roots which will 'arrest' a harrow when tilling the soil. One old Northamptonshire name is Fin Weed and John Clare was familiar with it:

                                         Where the blushing Fin-weeds flower,
                                         Closes up at even's hour.

                                                                          John Clare's Solitude

In the same family, but quite different in appearance, is Ribbed Melilot, Melilotus officinalis. A few clumps of this were present among the clover plants (also in the Pea Family) looking very natural. It often surprises naturalists when they learn that this plant was unknown in Britain before 1899 but has since become very widespread, perhaps because its seeds are often a component of bird seed mixes.
Ribbed Melilot at Woodford Halse Nature Reserve.
14 July, 2016

Most of us are familiar with the scent of new-mown hay, especially when Sweet Vernal Grass,
Anthoxanthum odoratum is present. The fragrant odour is due to the presence of coumarin and it is noticeable that when Ribbed Melilot is handled, the same chemical is released, resulting in the plant having the alternative common name of Yellow Sweet Clover.

A patch of Perfoliate St Joh's Wort caught my attention, although this is, by some margin, the commonest member of this genus in Northamptonshire. It has probably always been common in the county as it was recorded on Northampton town walls by John Ray on 8 May, 1622!

Perforate St John's Wort at Woodford hales Nature Reserve.
14 July, 2016
'It is highly esteemed in affections of the urinary passages' Potter's Cyclopaedia, 1923

And that, dear reader, is about it, although I did pause to photograph a plant of Germander Speedwell, Veronica chamaedrys.

Its flower bud (pouch) was swollen, broad and hairy as a result of galling by the fly Jaapiella veronicae. I would like to report that this was an unusual and exciting find but in fact this galling is very widespread and I rarely find a patch of this plant that is free from this attack but, as far as I can see, it does little harm to the victim.
Flower bud of Germander Speedwell galled by the fly,
Jaapiella veronicae. Woodford Halse Nature Reserve.
14 July, 2016

Monday, 4 July 2016

Black Horehound

The Mint Family - the Lamiaceae - is composed of some familiar members, most of which have a distinctive smell. The smell may be, to the human nose at least, pleasant, as in the case of lavender (although I have found members of this genus on Madeira which are a bit doubtful). Some have little obvious smell, as with White Dead-nettle,  and some are really quite foul. It is to this category that I must consign Black Horehound, Ballota nigra. (The White Horehound, Marrubium vulgare is a plant I cannot recall ever having seen; it tends to be most frequent near coasts.)
The flowers of Black Horehound. Pit Lane,
Byfield, Northants. 4 July, 2016
In his 1930 flora* George Druce describes Black Horehound as 'viatical'. by which he meant 'growing by the roadside or path'. The word is more or less obsolete now but his use of the word seems perfectly justified, for I have always found it growing beside a track of some kind, particularly near gateways.
I came across it earlier today growing beside Pit Lane - invariably called 'Muddy Lane' - in Byfield, Northants. The photograph shows the flower to have the typical zygomorphic shape of the Lamiaceae, although, where the flower has fallen, the 5-toothed calyx is almost actinomorphic, i.e. with radial symmetry. This is clearly shown in the rather poor photograph below.

Each calyx has five more or less symmetrical teeth.
Byfield. 4 July, 2016
The leaves are somewhat heart-shaped (cordate) and frequently have a creamy white edging. As far as I can establish this is not caused by any other organism and plants otherwise seem healthy.

The leaves of Black Horehound frequently have a pale edging.
Pit Lane, Byfield, Northants. 4 July, 2016
So far, nothing remarkable - but now we come to the smell! The leaves, even when just brushed against, emanate a thoroughly nasty odour, described by some as 'harsh' and by others 'evil'. It is vaguely reminiscent of a related plant, the Hedge Woundwort, Stachys sylvatica.

Hedge Woundwort has a similar unpleasant smell.
Pit Lane, Byfield. 4 July, 2016
Nevertheless, this has not prevented herbalists from claiming that Black Horehound has some useful attributes, being described in my old books as stimulant, antispasmodic and vermifuge.

The name 'horehound' was originally 'hoarhound'; the related White Horehound is covered with a white, woolly coating, like hoar frost. The 'hound' bit seems to be just that - a hound. Why, I don't know.

*The Flora of Northamptonshire by George Claridge Druce

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Sunday, 3 July 2016

More from Woodford Halse

My recent visit (26 June) to Woodford Halse Pocket Park persuaded me to return for another look, this time concentrating on the eastern half of the reserve. Like other reserves, such as the one at Farthinghoe, this is a linear area occupying land which was once railway track, in this case part of the former Great Central Line. Most of the track on this eastern part occupies a fairly wide cutting and this forms part of the reserve.
The former Great Central looking east. Woodford
Halse, Northants. 3 July, 2016
The flora is exuberant and, although relatively few plant species were noted by me today, over 160 species of flowering plant have been recorded here. Half a dozen spikes of Common Spotted Orchid were seen but this is the one orchid that should be expected.

Self-heal is common but none the less welcome.. Woodford Halse
Pocket park. 3 July, 2016
Of a similar shade of purple is Self-heal, Prunella vulgaris. It is common in garden lawns and, as a member of the Mint family, Lamiaceae, is a valuable bee plant.

The weather was good and insects were plentiful. Unfortunately, included among these was the Horse Fly Haematopota pluvialis. Known to dipterists as the Notch-horned Cleg it is a real nuisance and, although I was constantly swatting them away from my bare arms, they did draw blood..
A mating pair of beetles, Rhagonycha fulva. Woodford Halse Pocket
Park. 3 July, 2016
Beetles were less common than I had hoped, with the commonest - or at least the most obvious - being Rhagonycha fulva, a very familiar and widespread Soldier Beetle. Black tips to the wing-cases (elytra) are one of this species' distinguishing features, although they do not show on this photograph of a mating pair. More impressive although rather common is the Spotted Longhorn Beetle, Rutpela maculata. Maculate it may be but the pattern formed by these spots is quite variable.

Rutpela maculata, formerly Strangalia maculata. Woodford Halse
Pocket \Park. 3 July, 2016
I have, throughout, referred to his reserve as a pocket park, and my understanding is that it started life as such, but it is now a reserve managed by the Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust. And very good it is too! As is always the case, I now face several hours - days - of microscope work to establish the identity of some of the smaller flies.