Saturday, 29 February 2020

Harley Equestrian

Tomorrow, the first of March, is meteorologically speaking, the first day of spring. But in fact today had a number of spring-like features about it, rather marred by a chilly wind and even a short flurry of gritty snow.

Chris and I managed a short walk and finished up at Harley Equestrian. As the name suggests it is a retail outlet for all things horsey. We do possess a clothes horse but basically we have no need for tack, neatsfoot oil, jodhpurs or any of the other curious items available. No, we were there for the rather good café.

En route I couldn't resist photographing a Lawson's Cypress Chamaecyparis lawsoniana. The prefix chamae means 'low' but in fact this genus can produce some impressive trees up to 45 metres high. The specimen I looked at was quite a modest tree, though very graceful and enhanced by the lovely claret male cones. It deserves a place in any reasonably large garden.

Lawson's Cypress, showing the male cones.
Byfield, 29 February, 2020
Our stroll produced little to get over-excited about and a cluster of Jelly Ears on a dead elder branch was about the only highlight. This fungus, Auricularia auricula-judae, was once known as Jew's Ear and of course the Latin name means precisely that, but the name Jelly Ear is now, for obvious reasons, preferred.
Jelly Ear on dead elder

The fungus is, within my experience,confined to elder and its Latin name may refer to the tradition that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from this tree although I know of no evidence to give credence to this story.
More was present lower on the tree. Near Woodford Halse,
 29 February, 2020
Our short walk took us to a bridge overlooking the railway line which once ran from Towcester to Byfield and on to Stratford on Avon. The line at this point ran through a very fine cutting, now a nature reserve. The flora and fauna, particularly the insect life, is rich and Chris and I are resolved to take a closer look in a couple of months.

This cutting, on the line to Byfield, supports a rich array of wildlife.
29 February, 2020

At least it will give us an excuse for coffee and cakes.

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Snow (updated)

It was hardly a surprise when I flung open the curtains to see snow on the rooftops, after all, it is only February. Even so, it was a disappointment. I go on to Facebook and look with envious eyes at photographs of bees, butterflies and diptera being recorded elsewhere in Britain but I am doing badly.

Accordingly I set out to visit Stefen Hill Pocket Park but, although the morning was producing sunny spells, I was not optimistic. Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, was flowering but its heart clearly wasn't in it; was growing in a shady spot and had clearly decided to wait for warmer or sunnier conditions before fully opening. Apparently one old name was coughwort, the leaves having once been used as a herbal tobacco. During the Second World War coltsfoot rock was sold and, because it was regarded as a medicine, was not subject to sweet rationing (quoted by Richard Mabey, Ref. 2)

Coltsfoot had not fully opened but, with no insects about, what would
be the point? Stefen Hill Pocket Park, 27 February, 2020

Many flowering plants eschew clay but coltsfoot seems perfectly happy on this generally intractable material and often forms large colonies on it. The silky pappus on the fruit (and the felty layer on the underside of the leaves) has been put to various uses in the past, including tinder - "rapped in a rag and boiled in a little lee with salt-petre added." (Ref 1). Goldfinches will use the pappus to line their nests.

I carefully made my way over very squelchy ground to the one and only pond and was delighted to see it holding huge quantities of frogspawn.
The water may be chilly but the local frogs had been busy.
Stefen Hill Pocket Park, 27 February, 2020

No frogs were to be seen but having spawned I suppose they saw no reason to hang around.

It is not unusual for the spawn to break the surface.
Still treading warily I moved on to a group of ash trees 100 metres away. I had noticed on earlier visits that the (three) trunks of one specimen bore rather peculiar lesions. Once home I did a spot of research and found that they were caused by Pseudomonas syringae (it has other synonyms).

Pseudomonas syringae has caused the development of these odd-looking
burrs. Stefen Hill Pocket Park, 27 February, 2020

Though unsightly it does not appear to be a fatal disease. Its name is a reminder that lilac and ash are in the same family, the Oleaceae

I pushed on to where large drifts of snowdrops were in flower. Given reasonably warm conditions I would anticipate honey bees to gathering nectar and honey, but there were none to be seen. A Cherry Plum, aka Myrobalan Plum, Prunus cerasifera, was smothered in blossom. but, as with the snowdrops, bees were absent.

A Myrobalan Plum was in full flower. Stefen Hill Pocket Park.
27 February, 2020

The tiny flowers have no obvious scent individually but en masse they were giving off a lovely honeyed fragrance reminiscent of almond blossom - not surprising really as almonds are closely related, the Almond being Prunus dulcis. The flowers will be followed by small tasty fruits which I suspect are frequently taken by thrushes and other birds. With the flowers for bees and the fruits for birds it is an excellent tree for wildlife.

The flowers of the plum bear about a dozen stamens around a single
 carpel which narrows to form a slender stigma 

A gust of wind caught the branches and for a few seconds the petals gave us another shower of snow. I decided to call it a day but may return when the weather is less chilling.


1. Quoted by Harley, M. (2016) Wonderful Weeds  Papadakis Books
2. Mabey, R. (1997) Flora Britannica  Chatto & Windus   

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Westhorpe Lane

Being Wednesday I visited Byfield of course and made my usual bee-line for the pocket park. It was again a cold, windy day with showers of rain mixed with a little gritty snow. Needless to stay I didn't hang about and all I noted was a hardy fly with a bright yellow abdomen, Phaonia tuguriorum, soaking up a brief sunny spell by loafing on a gatepost. I fled and made my way to Westhorpe Lane.

Few would take issue with me if I asserted that Westhorpe Lane is the most attractive road in Byfield. Elsewhere, dotted around the village, there are prettier houses but in Westhorpe Lane there is not a single unattractive building.
A thorpe was a secondary settlement, otherwise known as a daughter settlement, and it appears as an old Scandinavian element in places such as Mablethorpe and Kingsthorpe. (Byfield itself was, in 1086, Bifelde: 'by the forest clearing or open land'.) Westhorpe is - or was - separated from Byfield by a stream, sometimes known as the Bell Brook.

Recently villagers have attempted to enhance Westhorpe Lane by planting snowdrops and daffodils along the verges. So far they make little impact but they will probably spread.

I'm not sure that the daffodils and snowdrops planted along Westhorpe
Lane, make much of an impact. 26 February, 2020
They are pretty enough but prettier by far, in my opinion, are the verges further along the lane where Sweet Violets, Viola odorata, grow. They are of the white variety, with only the sepals showing the colour from which these plants get their name. Most of the Sweet Violets around Byfield, and indeed Daventry, are of this colour form.
Sweet Violets are present in some profusion further along the lane but their
 fragrance probably goes un-noted. 26 February, 2020

The only other wild plants in flower were some specimens of Common Whitlow-grass, Erophila verna, and numerous clumps of Red Dead Nettle, Lamium purpureum. This will provide nectar for early-flying bumblebees but will continue to flower for the next ten months or so. It is an archaeophyte, a plant which was probably introduced to Britain but has been established in the wild since 1500. I have never seen Red Deadnettle in any situation other than on disturbed, cultivated or waste land.
Red Dead Nettle. Should we regard it as a wild plant?  Opinions differ.
Westhorpe Lane, Byfield. 26 February, 2020

What else should I mention?

The village pump still exists but no longer functions as such, being purely an ornamental feature. Ornamental or not, few passers-by would be aware of its existence, concealed as it is behind a brick wall.
The village pump hides behind a brick wall along Westhorpe Lane.
26 February, 2020

And then there is Wistaria Cottage, which I may have mentioned in a previous blog. Should we regard this as a misspelling? This glorious climber was named after Caspar Wistar, professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania, but Thomas Nuttall, who first described and 'christened' the plant, seems to have got the spelling wrong.
Whoops! Whether it is right or wrong is a matter of opinion.

Wrong or not, by the rules of the I.C.B.N (International Code for Botanical Nomenclature) the name Wisteria must stand - to the vexation of gardeners everywhere! A similar situation exists with another plant just coming into flower. The botanically correct spelling of Aubretia is Aubrieta - but does it really matter to anyone other than botanists?

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Polythenus vulgaris

Am I alone in detesting plastic flowers on graves?

Although I have no belief in life after death that is quite different from not respecting the dead, and I am at a loss to understand how putting a bunch of plastic flowers on a grave shows any kind of respect. If anything the opposite is true: the use of these polymer or artificial silk eyesores are indicative of a person who, for one reason or another, won't be returning to properly tend a grave. Worse, the hedgerows around Byfield Burial Ground are littered with the bits and pieces of these artefacts; the structures disintegrate but the components appear to be absolutely non-biodegradable.
Dozens of disintegrating artificial flowers litter the beech hedgerow
 around Byfield's burial ground. This poppy was presumably dropped on or
  11 November but shows no sign of decaying. 22 February, 2020


...screams one on-line advert I found on Google. But why? Carefully chosen bulbs should not only produce flowers year after year but with luck will thrive and spread. Now it is true that daffodils - perhaps the most popular choice - are very limited in their support for wildlife but they are infinitely more likely to attract bees and other insects than kitsch plastic substitutes.

Insect visitors to this 'flower' arrangement are unlikely.
Confucius famously said, 'Everthing has its beauty but not everyone sees it'.  I have tried to see beauty in these dusty, faded bunches of polythene 'flowers' but beyond Jimmy Saville and rap music I have failed to imagine anything uglier.
A wind-blown pot of 'flowers' beside the burial ground entrance.
Byfield, 22 February, 2020

Artificial flowers are now cleverly made and a glance from a distance can deceive the onlooker into thinking that they are the real thing, but they are by no means long-lasting. Unfortunately after a few months green 'leaves' can take on an odd blue-grey appearance, displaying a colour never seen in nature.
Although not obvious from the photograph, some of these 'leaves' are taking
strange glaucous grey-green colours. 22 February, 2020

On a different note, to see a furry teddy bear on a child's grave can be heartbreakingly sad, and the vision is worse when the teddy begins to decay, Yet oddly enough, the decaying flower heads on a real plant are symbolic of death itself. Though temporarily unsightly the withered stems and petals will be recycled, to give life elsewhere. Resurrection!


Footnote  I almost gave this blog the title of Polymerus vulgaris, a polymer being a long-chain, repeating molecule of the kind from which plastics are made, but then recalled that Polymerus is a genus of mirid bugs, including the British native, Polymerus unifasciatus. For all I know there may actually be a bug called Polymerus vulgaris. If so it will probably be of an insipid pink or a lurid purple colour.

Tony White   E-mail:

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Never again

Almost a year ago to the day I had to visit Northampton General Hospital and make my way to the eye clinic. I had been pruning a euphorbia, or, to be more precise, Euphorbia myrsintes, Myrtle Spurge. I carelessly got some of the toxic milky sap into my eye but fortunately there was no lasting damage.

I removed one plant completely, gave away three seedlings and pruned the remaining plant hard back. It is now flourishing beside a Cordyline australis.
Our Myrtle Spurge accompanies a Cordyline Stefen Hill, Daventry.
20 February, 2020

This sap (actually a latex) is a reminder that Euphorbias are in the same family, the Euphorbiaceae, as the Brazilian Rubber Tree, Hevea brasiliensis.

The rather acid-yellow flowers provide early garden colour.

With a few exceptions the euphorbias are instantly recognisable and anyone who has spent much time in the Mediterranean region will have encountered a few specimens. They form one of the largest genera of flowering plants in the world, consisting of over two thousand species, with ten species occurring in Northamptonshire.  I generally encounter a few on a summer's walk. Several are agricultural weeds and, although some are garden escapes, E. myrsinites is not one of them - yet. But with climate warming...

The beauty of the plant lies in the contrast between its blue-green leaves and the bright yellow flowers in the form of a cyathium (plural, cyathia) and their equally yellow bracts (eu in Latin means 'beautiful'). The fact that it is a very early flowerer is a bonus. Chris fell in love with the species in the Essex gardens of Beth Chatto and since then we have never been without at least one plant.

But handle with care!

Tuesday, 18 February 2020


Today involved yet another visit to Byfield Pocket Park. The site still has very few spider records and I was hoping to begin rectifying that situation.

My first target was a deeply mysterious 'henge' consisting of timbers in a more-or-less circular arrangement. Was it an early Neolithic or even Mesolithic meeting place of profound ritualistic significance? There are those who believe that it is a ring of logs set up three years ago by the local Boy Scout troop to provide seating around a bonfire, but my gut instinct is that it is far older.

A mysterious 'henge' occupies one corner of Byfield Pocket Park.
17 February, 2020
I was still thinking over this conundrum as I carefully turned over each log, revealing fresh grass beneath some of them.

The creatures revealed were predictable - or almost so. Woodlice, earthworms, centipedes and millipedes were present in abundance. But there was one surprise and it proved to be present difficulties - an ichneumon fly had crept under one of the logs. It was, with little doubt, a species of the type-genus, Ichneumon, but beyond that I couldn't go. Ichneumons - relatives of bees and wasps - are a really difficult group and keys are almost unobtainable so that even though I could get down to the genus it could have been Ichneumon extensorius, I. confusor or several others. Frustrating!

An ichneumon fly had crept under the edge of a log.
17 February, 2020
With all things taken into account it is most likely to be I. suspiciosus but I certainly don't have enough evidence to record it as such. I allowed it to fly away the following morning.

A beetle proved to be more straightforward. The family to which it belongs, the Carabidae, is large, with about 350 species in Britain, but keys are readily available. As children we always called them rain beetles - but I have discussed that matter before.

Unfortunately, and very disappointingly, it was Loricera spinicornis. I have already recorded it from the site on several occasions.

Loricera spinicornis, a common carabid beetle, was found beneath a log.
Byfield Pocket Park. 17 February, 2020
There were two millipede species. One was a flat-backed millipede, five species of which occur in Britain. They are all very similar and microscopic examination of the gonopods (sex organs) is necessary for accurate identification. The specimen photographed is Polydesmus angustus.

Polydesmus angustus is perhaps the commonest of flat-backed millipedes.
Byfield Pocket Park, 17 February, 2020

The other main group of millipede present in Britain is the Julidae. I found one specimen and close examination showed it to be Cylindroiulus caeruleocinctus. It is mainly confined to the southern counties of Britain and seems to be associated with habitats showing some human disturbance. The two millipede species were new to the pocket park.
The millipede Cylindroiulus caeruleocinctus was also present, this time
under stones. Byfield Pocket Park, 17 February, 2020

As I stated in the opening paragraph, I was hoping to gather spiders to gain a better picture of what and was not present. In this aim I was overwhelmingly unsuccessful, for twenty minutes of grubbing around in grass tussocks and so on I secured only one species, the tiny 'money spider', Erigone dentipalpis - and that was already on the list!

So far I have to admit that 2020 has been disappointing, though not for lack of effort.  Crocuses and daffodils are in bloom but astonishingly wet weather (it is raining again as I write) have effectively suppressed insect activity. Things can only get better.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Plus ça change...

On my last four occasions I have visited our local (Stefen Hill) pocket park  have set out in bright sunshine, only for clouds to roll in and thwart my plans. Today was going to be different because the sunny conditions looked set to hold. But no, with ten minutes the sky darkened, the sun disappeared and a chilly wind sprang up.  Am I being paranoid? Of course not - but it is clear that someone is out to get me!

Anyway, undaunted I pushed on making my first target the pocket park's only pond. In parts of Britain there have been reports of frogs and toads already spawning. Would there be any in 'our' pond? The answer was no. Last year the pond held thousands of tadpoles but it completely dried up and none survived. Perhaps this will have a knock-on effect on breeding this year.

There was no sign of life, vertebrate or invertebrate. However the spear-like leaves of Yellow Iris, Iris pseudacorus, were pushing through in abundance - too abundant if truth be told for, lovely though they are, these 'flags' may ultimately overwhelm the pond. The specific name is derived from the similar appearance of this plant to Sweet Flag, Acorus calamus, but the two plants are quite unrelated.
The spears of Yellow Iris, Iris pseudacorus, were breaking through the
surface of the pond. Stefen Hill Pocket  Park, Daventry 13 February, 2020

A couple of rotting tree stumps bore neat tiers of a fungus. As I have pointed out ad nauseam I am no mycologist but it is almost certainly Turkey Tail, Trametes versicolor.

Turkey Tail? It seems a pretty safe bet. Edge of Stefen Hill Pocket Park, Daventry.
13 February, 2020
Elsewhere the flowers of what I suspect is a plum (probably Cherry Plum, Prunus cerasifera) were open for business should any bees be on the wing, but today it was flowering in vain.

A rather weedy shrub, perhaps some form of Cherry Plum, was flowering
in a brave but probably futile manner. Stefen Hill Pocket Park again
The first spits and spots of rain arrived on the freshening wind and I decided that enough was enough.

The sparse flowers suggest that is a seedling of a more floriferous

Hurrying on in the increasing rain I noticed that the male flowers on ash are about to burst forth - but I wasn't prepared to stay for another photograph.  A disappointing day!

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Still not much doing

nothing obvious, that is. Storm Ciara has not only brought high winds but distinctly chilly weather. Crocuses, narcissi and so on seem to be on hold, awaiting warmer conditions.

The recent high winds have wrought more damage than I had at first thought, with a brick wall, barely 100 metres from our house, brought crashing to the ground.
Whoops! Storm Ciara has brought down a brick wall in Christchurch Drive,
not far from our house. Stefen Hill, 22 February, 2020

I visited Byfield Pocket Park earlier today and found that that a large limb had been torn from a huge poplar tree. It would appear that the tree itself will be left to stand even though an examination by tree surgeons revealed that there was a considerable degree of decay on the main trunk. In a few years this could be yielding an interesting suite of flies and beetles.

The storm has also wrought considerable damage to this poplar tree
in Byfield Pocket Park. 12 February, 2020
Even in the depths of winter a few calliphorids, a genus of blowflies, may be found on a sunny fence or tree trunk, but not today. Calliphorids such as Calliphora vicina are pretty hardy insects and one of its relatives, Boreellus atriceps is confined in Finland to high regions in mountains, often above the tree-line. (Quoted in Blowflies, by the late Zakaria Erzinclioglu - a book which should be read by every right-thinking adult) However, today blowflies were absent. They may be hardy but they are not foolhardy!
I have included a picture so that you know what to order when visiting
your local bookshop!

No, the truth is that today was very disappointing. Some consolation was found when I turned over a stone and discovered a true bug and a beetle. The bug, a decidedly drab insect, was Peritrechus geniculatus, whilst the beetle was Sitona lineatus, an insect known as the Pea Leaf Weevil. Both are common species but were new to Byfield Pocket Park, indicating how limited the coverage has been so far.

Monday, 10 February 2020

Not the best of days

Storm Kiara had paid Daventry a visit and we appear to got off lightly. It is true that a few fences had been blown down but damage seems to have been relatively superficial.

The morning was quite breezy but bright sunshine temped me to make my first visit of the year to Kentle Wood. Needless to say, the sun rapidly disappeared to leave a steel-grey cloudy sky to take its place. Things did not look promising.

I turned over a few logs in the hope of finding a carabid beetle or a 'staph' (staphylinid beetle) but there was nowt.

Rotting logs looked promising but produced nothing other than a slug or two.
Kentle Wood, Daventry, Northants. 10 February, 2020
I proceeded with caution as the rides though the wood were slick with mud and once or twice my feet slid sideways alarmingly. Accordingly I forsook the path and made my way into the trees away from danger. As a result I caught my foot on a snaking bramble and fell flat on my face. Bugger!

I shouldn't grumble because the brambles yielded my only insect of the morning. The sinuous mine of a Golden Pigmy Moth, Stigmella aurella agg, raised the number of arthropods I've now recorded from Kentle Wood up to 541.

This sinuous mine is very common on bramble and is the work of
Stigmella aurella. Kentle Wood, 10 February, 2020
I have cautiously placed the letters agg behind the Latin name as this 'species' is really a complex aggregate of closely related species, but S. aurella is the most commonly encountered species within the group.

This is a good time of the year to look for the Scarlet Elf Cup. It is a delightful little fungus often on dead plant material at ground level. Indeed I found some specimens in Kentle Wood about three years ago but today there was nothing doing.
Scarlet Elf-cup, Sarcoscypha coccinea. Courtesy Woodland Trust

I decided enough was enough, turned on my (very muddy) heel and headed for home, getting there shortly before a heavy - and unpredicted - snow shower.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Vernal signs

The approaching spring was increasingly evident on my visit to Byfield Pocket Park earlier today. Conditions were dry and sunny with the thermometer reading 9 degrees but conditions were deceptive as a strong wind sought any weakness in clothing. So although crocuses and narcissi were flaunting their flowers I saw none receive visitors.

The narcissi have been present for as long as I can remember and appear to have spread a little.
The clumps of narcissi are small but seem to be spreading.
Byfield Pocket Park, 3 February, 2020

The crocuses are a fairly recent arrival, having probably been planted some two or three years ago but seem well-established beneath an oak tree and they too should gradually multiply.

The colony of croci under a central oak provided a splash of colour.
Byfield Pocket Park, 3 February, 2020
I confess to only taking a glance but I suspect they are Crocus chrysanthus, a native of Turkey and the Balkans. It is sometimes referred to as the Snow Crocus, being a particularly early flowerer. Bees will visit the flowers for pollen but, as I have said, not today.

The 'lambs tail' catkins on the hazel bushes have been out for some time and in some cases were turning brown. I kept an eye open for distorted catkins as they are often an indication of attack by mites, but I found none.
Bright sun made hazel catkins appear almost luminous.
 Byfield Pocket Park, 3 February, 2020

The oak trees proved more interesting with two very obvious galls present. One was  predictably the Oak Marble Gall, caused by a cynipid wasp Andricus kollari. The second was more common but proved a little trickier to spot. It is known as the Ramshorn Gall but in this example the gall looks more like a spring onion in shape. Again it is the work of a cynipid wasp, Andricus aries and occurs only on oak.

The Ramshorn Gall often has curved 'horns' but not in this case.
Byfield Pocket Park, 3 February, 2020

I had decided not to take any collecting equipment with me. This decision was logical as I had several other things to carry but it became frustrating as I exposed several interesting beetles when lifting loose bark on sycamore trees.


So, here I am, two days later. Chris is visiting her friend Julie Ferguson and I, properly equipped, am hoping to pick up where I left off. The sycamore trees had not run away and this time I am armed with my trusty pooter  Within five minutes I had successfully secured a beetle specimen from beneath bark.

It proved to be Calodromius spilotus. The name is derived from the Greek kalos, beautiful, dromas, a runner and spilos, a spot. This rather common species, like those of its close relatives, is distinctly flattened and rather wedge-shaped, allowing it to insinuate itself beneath close-fitting bark.

Specimens of Caladromius spilotus were very common beneath loose bark.
Byfield, Northants, 5 February, 2020
Several other insects turned up including a Hawthorn Shieldbug and, on the tree trunk, a Green Shieldbug, Palomena prasina.
Removing loose bark also revealed a Hawthorn Shieldbug.
Byfield, 5 February, 2020

Despite its common name the Green Shieldbug was a dull brown. It will retain this colour until winter is over and will then turn green and so be inconspicuous against foliage.
A Green Shieldbug was still in its brown winter colours.
Byfield, Northants, 5 February, 2020

With a Winter Gnat, a mirid bug and a tiny beetle yet to be properly identified I was well pleased with my morning's efforts - but by heck it was cold!

A group of Iris reticulata which I believe to be the form known as
'Eye Catcher' aroused feelings of envy when I spotted it in a Byfield garden.
5 February, 2020