Thursday, 28 February 2019

Back to normal

The recent 'false spring' has come to a juddering halt. After several days of very sunny weather today has been dull, cloudy and showery - and I'm glad. The old country saying:
'February fill the dyke, be it black or be it white' clearly refers to the need for the land to absorb plenty of water in readiness for the potential droughts of summer. To be watering the garden tubs in February is ridiculous and a bit more rain wouldn't come amiss.

So, although two days ago I photographed a Comma butterfly and yesterday I saw a Small Tortoiseshell, these insects will now need to find some shelter until sunny days return.

Small Tortoiseshell on Red Dead Nettle. Byfield, Northants.
27 February, 2019

At least our amphibians will breathe a sigh of relief - but so too will slugs and snails!

Mention of the Small Tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae, reminds me that we have a Large Tortoiseshell too, although it is now a rarity occasionally turning up in our southern counties and was last seen in numbers in 1947. The Large looks very like the Small but is nevertheless placed in a different genus as Nymphalis polychloros. In fact the Large Tortoiseshell is more closely related to another vagrant, the spectacular Camberwell Beauty, Nymphalis antiopa. Fingers crossed but with climate warming these two rarities may become regular visitors, perhaps even becoming established.

Anyway as I say, the return to normality is rather welcome. The soil is reasonably warm and now quite damp so I must get over to our allotment and put in a couple of rows of broad beans.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Nothing doing

Another look at my beetle traps. Another disappointment. A couple of midges were present, probably having accidentally wandered in, but otherwise - zilch. Perhaps it is still too early in the year.

Nevertheless, the weather was glorious, although my friend Lynda apparently rose this morning to find a light frost. Yesterday Chris and I celebrated our wedding anniversary and we received a fine Camellia from Jacqui and Dean. I have potted it up and there should be some lovely flowers soon, so a frost would not be welcome. Luckily our back garden is fairly sheltered.

Our Camellia is close to flowering and a frost would not be welcome.
25 February, 2019
Anyway, where was I?

Yes, the weather was lovely at Foxhill Farm and a Comma, Polygonia c-album, was flitting back and forth along the track where I was busy recording. The main food plant of this butterfly is Stinging Nettle, so no problem there. I find that it is often one of the first butterflies to be seen in the spring.

A comma was on the wing at Foxhill Farm. 25 February, 2019
I was pleased to record the jumping spider Euophrys frontalis, not because it is rare (it is one of our commonest spiders in grassland and light woodland) but because there is something about jumping spiders which brings a smile to the face. Silly though it sounds they are, to me and many others, oddly endearing, difficult to explain but probably related to their large forward-facing eyes. It gives them a strangely intelligent appearance. The species best-known to the public is probably the zebra spider,  Salticus scenicus, common on warm walls and wooden fencing. Obviously they are able to jump, creeping up to and leaping upon their prey. Some jumping spiders are able to leap twenty times their own body length.

Euophrys frontalis, despite being so common, was a first record for the farm. Also a first record was the caterpillar of a Brown-line Bright-eye, Mythimna conigera, a very common moth. How I'd failed to record it last year is anyone's guess. Lepidopterists don't make it easy for the recorder because there is also a moth called the Bright-line Brown-eye, Lacanobia oleracea, the caterpillar of which can occasionally be a pest of tomatoes.
A not-very-well-focused photograph - sorry. Brown-line Bright-eye larva
at Foxhill Farm, 25 February, 2019

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Another bash

After yesterday's debacle I went forth again this afternoon with my pair of beetle traps. I had reassembled them, put in a fresh load of bait and I placed them into a different position, hanging on rather slender branches. I was hoping that in this way they would be inaccessible to larger animals.

The afternoon was remarkably warm, the car thermometer registering 17 degrees, and I soon regretted putting on a heavy coat.

My target area was a patch of light woodland with shrubs. All had been planted by Matt and his employees. The trees were largely native  - birch, hawthorn cherry - and so too were many of the shrubs. I was surprised by one anomaly: a specimen of 'Harry Lauder's Walking Stick', Corylus avellana 'Contorta' was present, covered in golden catkins. (Harry Lauder was a comedian in the old Music Hall days who always sported a very knobbly stick.)

Harry Lauder's Walking Stick. Foxhill Farm, 21 February, 2019
It is a small, highly attractive form of the common hazel. All parts are gnarled and twisted, right down to the smallest twigs. Even some of the catkins are rather bent.

Even the slenderest twigs are contorted and the catkins help to make it
a most attractive shrub.

Having strategically placed my beetle traps and with time on my hands I took the opportunity to examine the dead heads of some Great Willowherb, Epilobium hirsutum, aka Codlins and Cream. It is a rather rank plant but attracts a good deal of wildlife - not today however. More insect life, together with a few spiders, was found in the litter around the plants.

For the record I found the Ground Beetles Trichocellus placidus and Bembidion biguttatum. Both were new to the farm but are common species and it was probably only a matter of time before they turned up.

Now, with a few days of fine weather forecast, things could get interesting.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Of beetles and spurges

A few weeks ago, in anticipation of the warmer weather, I bought a couple of beetle traps. In fact these are easy to make and I will certainly be constructing some in the near future. I visited Foxhill Farm a couple of days ago and set the traps in likely positions, using over-ripe pears and grapes as bait.

This morning I set out, full of hope and Weetabix, to check the results. The weather had been less warm than predicted in recent forecasts so I was not optimistic. My pessimism was indeed justified. One trap had been pulled apart by something far larger than an insect. The other contained just a single spider, Tenuiphantes tenuis. I must wait for warmer conditions and choose the trap locations with more care. In the meantime I have re-erected them in our back garden.

On a different matter, last Sunday I decided that a spurge in our front garden had grown too big. It had to go. Spurges - Euphorbia species - are known to have nasty, toxic sap, and the species I was dealing with, Euphorbia myrsinites, has copious sap, but I was wearing glasses so my eyes were, I felt, receiving protection. I set to work and after a few minutes the unwanted plant was safe in the recycling bin.

We still have one specimen of Euphorbia myrsinites in our front garden.
Stefen Hill, Daventry. 19 February. 2019
About three hours later the area around my left eye began to feel a little sore but a check in the mirror showed nothing but a little redness. By bedtime some swelling had occurred and I thought back. What had I been doing? Then I remembered the spurge but there little damage beyond the slight swelling and I was untroubled. By the following morning (Monday) the area around my eye was horrific: I appeared to have gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson.

My surgery didn't want to know: they had no appointments available that day and couldn't even promise to see me the day after. And there was no A & E at Danetre (Daventry) Hospital. As it happened, on Monday I was accompanying Chris for her check-up at Northampton General Hospital (she turned out to be doing well). I took the opportunity to visit the Eye Casualty department and they fixed me up with an ointment for the swelling and confirmed that the actual eye was undamaged.

Moral: be ultra-careful when dealing with any spurges! Euphorbia myrsinites is a handsome plant with succulent glaucous green foliage, but think twice before growing it.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Beggar's Bank again

I don't care what the calendar says, spring began at 7.35 am today, when I threw open our bedroom curtains to see the sun climbing in a Cambridge blue sky. Of course we've had blue skies on several days recently but today the sunshine was accompanied by frost-free and noticeably warmer conditions.

The morning was spent in the garden, tearing out clumps of Sea Heath and other plants which were threatening to overwhelm parts of the rock garden. I didn't want the crocuses and dwarf irises, Iris reticulata, to disappear beneath a sea of green.

Iris reticulata was in danger of being overwhelmed by Sea Heath.
Our front garden on Stefen Hill. 11 February, 2019
During the morning Chris was out walking with friends but on her return we had a quick lunch and I then set out for Foxhill Farm, this time looking at the area around the windmill. I was met, as usual, by inquisitive sheep and today they were cuddly beasts with a soft grey fleece. I'm no expert but I believe they were Herdwicks.
Herdwick sheep? Foxhill Farm, near Badby, Northants.
11 February, 2019

The bricks forming the windmill tower were distinctly warm to the touch and I expected to find many flies basking in the sun but was surprised to find only one. Rather predictably it was Calliphora vicina, Britain's commonest blowfly. Frequently the brickwork attracts dozens of these insects.

A male blowfly, Calliphora vicina, basking on the brickwork of Newnham
Windmill. 11 February, 2019
The only other insect enjoying this warm microclimate was a Harlequin Ladybird, Harmonia axyridis. I saw a dozen or so ladybirds during the afternoon but pleasingly all the others were Seven-spot Ladybirds. (Actually that's wrong: later on I found a couple of the tiny yellow 16-spot Ladybirds, Tytthaspis 16-punctata.)
Only one Harlequin Ladybird was seen but I'm afraid there will be
lots more as the season moves on. 11 February, 2019

The area below the windmill, known as Beggar's Bank, is interesting and over the years this could eventually develop a rich fauna and flora, although not in my lifetime.

The vegetation below the windmill shows lots of promise.
Foxhill Farm, 11 February, 2019
A nearby patch of woodland (all planted) bore a ground flora of snowdrops and winter aconites. At least two taxa* were present: one was fully in bloom and the other was barely in bud.

Many snowdrops were in flower in woodland on Beggar's Bank.
Foxhill Farm, 11 February, 2019
The Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, is a particularly early species, as its name suggests. Eranthis comes from the Greek er, spring and anthos, a flower. However, hyemalis means 'pertaining to winter'. Fair enough because, despite my opening sentence, it is still technically winter. Thanks to an early flowering period its seeds should have fully formed and ripened before the trees cast a deep shade.

Winter Aconites created a splash of golden yellow on the woodland floor.
11 February, 20119
Bright sunshine or not, there were very few insects around, but clumps of gorse yielded a few spiders and true bugs. Now it over to the microscope to find out what I've found.

* Taxa. The singular is taxon and is a convenient term for any taxonomic group such as a genus or species or even variety.



Thursday, 7 February 2019

Was it worth it?

Today has been reasonably mild. One half of me said that I ought to get off my ar bum and visit Matt Moser's land. My other half told me that there wouldn't be much about and I would be wasting my time. I am proud to say that I did make the effort but would my stupidity courage and fortitude be rewarded?

In one field Matt had sown a mixture of annual plants bearing seeds, designed to attract winter birds, and I made that my initial target.

How successful the project had been in terms of birds I have no idea. By now the crops lay flattened and the low-lying land - a heavy clay - was now very wet. I picked my way across the field with caution. My haul included a few spiders and half a dozen spiders, together with a couple of flat-backed millipedes. I also recorded a tiny (4 mm) beetle, which later proved to be Bembidion lunulatum, new to Foxhill Farm.

The annuals grown here were now all flattened and dead. Foxhill Farm,
Badby, Northants. 6 February, 2019
After half an hour I changed tack and made my way to a strip of woodland, planted just a few years ago. In the creation of this woodland a few elders had been uprooted and, very sensibly, the stumps had been left to slowly decay.
A few uprooted stumps had been left to decay. Foxhill Farm, Badby.
6 February, 2019
Leaving undisturbed as much material as possible I lifted some pieces of bark and loose wood and extracted a few spiders, one of which, a female Trochosa ruricola, was also new to the farm. I was surprised to find a small spider on a hazel catkin nearby.  This turned out to be Tetragnatha montana, and was yet a third new record for the site.

What could this spider have been hoping to find? Foxhill Farm,
6 \February, 2019
Eight species were recorded which, given the wet and tricky conditions, was quite a reasonable total and augurs well for the year ahead. But I won't go again until things have dried out and warmed up a bit. Even I'm not that daft! 

Monday, 4 February 2019

The Watford Gap

Today I paid a visit to Long Buckby Wharf. Thousands of people pass through this tiny hamlet every day but it is likely that few give a lot of thought to its significance.
Long Buckby Wharf is no more than a small cluster of buildings.
4 February, 2019

Beginning a little north of the village of Watford and covering a huge expanse to the north east and west of this settlement was once a vast lake. It was created during the Wolstonian glacial period, existed for some ten thousand years, and is today known as Lake Harrison. It had been formed when melt-waters from glaciers in the north midlands and from Wales were held back by a line of hills, including the Cotswolds. Eventually the waters broke through this natural barrier and formed great rivers such as the Cherwell and the Avon. This section of the Cherwell no longer exists but the Avon seems to have become permanent, largely flowing this original course. The sources of the Nene and the Leam are also nearby. One point where the pent-up waters of the lake broke through the hills is now the Watford Gap and has been strategically important since ancient times.

The Romans recognised the value of the gap and the Watling Street made use of it, linking London with the once-important Wroxeter (Viriconium). Centuries later it seems to have formed the south-west boundary of the Danelaw.

The Watling Street at this point is probably following the original
Roman route. 4 February, 2019
The gap also offered a route between London and the midlands for the Grand Union Canal (the Leicester section), although a flight of seven locks was required at Watford. The once-busy wharf at Long Buckby no longer functions as such and the canal at this point is very tranquil (if one ignores the thunder of the nearby M1).
February sees little canal leisure traffic and this stretch of the canal is
currently very peaceful. 4 February, 2019

Almost 100% of the traffic now using the canals consists of leisure craft although I was pleased to find one narrow boat laden with bags of coal and other types of fuel, although I'm bound to say that it all appeared to be destined for use by the leisure boats.

A narrow boat laden with bags of fuel. Long Buckby Wharf,
 4 February, 2019

Boats help recreate a bygone age with historical details such as 'City 4755'
Long Buckby Wharf, 4 February, 2019

The lock gates were hardly being used today and heavy rain overnight, combined with melting snow, had allowed a build-up of water, which was cascading over the lock gates.

Water was cascading over the lock gates at Long Buckby Wharf.
4 February, 2019

Then of course came the railways, spelling the eventual death of cargo-carrying canal traffic. The West Coast Main Line passes through Long Buckby Wharf, with the great majority of the traffic consisting of Pendolino stock operated by Virgin Trains.

A south-bound Virgin train passes through Long Buckby Wharf.
4 February, 2019
Post-war road traffic increased and the Watling Street could no longer cope so finally came the M1, using of course, the Watford Gap. It is hardly surprising that major haulage contractors such as Eddie Stobart decided to base a huge depot near to the point through which these major routes flowed.

Traffic on the M1 thunders through 24 hours a day. Long Buckby Wharf.
4 February, 2019

So, these four great routes - the Watling Street, the Grand Union Canal, The West Coast Main Line and the M1 all come together at Long Buckby Wharf and head for the Watford Gap. And all this as a consequence of an overflowing Pleistocene lake!


Sunday, 3 February 2019

To Welton

Although the village of Welton lies no more than a mile from the eastern edge of Daventry it has never been graced with my presence. Today I resolved to put that right. Pausing only to photograph a few Crocus chrysanthus flowers in our front garden I set off.
Crocus chrysanthus pushing through a patch of Sea Heath, Frankenia
laevis. Our garden on Stefen Hill, Daventry. 3 February, 2019
The croci were pushing through a carpet of Sea Heath. This species, Frankenia laevis, is a rather rare British native and will not display its pale pink flowers for three or four months yet. It flourishes in our garden to such an extent that I have to be ruthless and tear out chunks from time to time.

Welton proved to be a pretty village with just a couple of minor eyesores and I enjoyed a short walk around its streets, which form a figure-of-eight pattern. I investigated the local churchyard of course for, although I am deeply irreligious, 'God's Acre' usually proves to be of interest. The church is dedicated to St Martin and is believed to date back to the late 13th Century. 

The Church of St Martin, Welton. 3 February, 2019
It is of simple rubblestone construction and although the stone is variable, perhaps from several quarries, it is clearly all Jurassic, in some cases of indifferent quality and eroding quite badly in places. Diana Sutherland (see reference) hints that the rock may be largely marlstone

Some of the masonry had weathered rather badly, leading
 to obvious erosion. Welton church, 3 February, 2019
I ought to have spent time examining the stonework for fossils but, despite the bright sunshine it was very cold, with a biting wind. For the same reason I made little effort to track down lichens.
The lichen, Caloplaca flavescens  can be very distinctive.
 St Martin's Church, Welton. 3 February, 2019
A specimen of Caloplaca flavescens caught the eye but the only other species noted was the very common Psilolechia lucida, forming a dust-like sulphur yellow stain here and there.
The powder-like green-yellow lichen, Psilolechia lucida.
Welton church, 3 February, 2019

I completed a circuit of the church, noting some good examples of yew and holm oak without making any sensational discoveries. But the margins of the village hinted at interesting walks and I'll probably be returning in the late spring or early summer.
A less familiar view of St Martin's church, Welton.
3 February, 2019


Sutherland, D.L. (2003) Northamptonshire Stone  Dovecote Press