Monday, 22 January 2018

More Matt Mosering

With twenty-one species recorded from Matt Moser's land I'm not sure whether to be pleased or disappointed. It seems a meagre total and yet I remind myself that it is still January and the list includes only one fly - the Holly Leaf Miner, Phytomyza ilicis. To be honest I didn't find the insect but just its very characteristic leaf-mine; very few insects can make use of holly foliage. (I must remember to check for Holly Parachute Marasmius hudsonii, a tiny mushroom sometimes found growing on dead holly leaves on the ground.) 

 
The distinctive blotch-mine of Phytomyza ilicis on holly.
Between Daventry and Newnham. 22 January, 2017

There is a little holly in Matt's hedges and that is interesting for, as I have probably mentioned before, G. Claridge Druce, writing in 1930 (Ref 1) wrote of this species: I know of no native station in Northants. Significantly John Clare, as far as I am aware, makes no mention of holly - and he didn't miss much.
Matt has considerable numbers of sheep, and unfortunately sheep and wildlife make, at best, an uneasy mix. Horses and cattle will consume coarse herbs and thus create light and space for less robust plants. But sheep will come along and eat these more delicate species.

Matt farms large numbers of sheep. They are now untroubled
by my visits
Today I made a bee-line for the Douglas Firs, a clump of which stands in the corner of one field. It has, I feel, considerable potential for invertebrates so another visit seemed justified. An owl pellet lay on a fallen log and I was tempted to gather it for dissection at home.
An owl pellet on an old log beneath Douglas Fir. Matt Moser's  farm.
22 January, 2018
This regurgitated material will contain skulls and teeth of mice, voles and so on but I lack the expertise to deal with it. I might be able to deal with some beetle remains that the pellet would contain but...
One spider I was hoping to record was Malthonica silvestris, aka Tegenaria silvestris. This is a woodland-dwelling spider related to the big House Spiders we often see dashing across our living room on a September evening. M. silvestris is widespread in the south and west of Britain but begins to thin out towards Northants and Leicestershire, so I was pleased to secure a female.
A bright orange-red, very slim centipede proved to be Strigamia acuminata. I had to blow dust from my copy of Eason's book (Ref 2) as Myriapods aren't really my thing, but the identification proved to be straightforward and positive.
I popped the centipede into a collecting pot and was puzzled to see more bright orange-red markings on the outside of the pot. Did this species of centipede release a bright red haemolymph like the Bloody-nosed Beetle, Timarcha tenebicosa? Stupid idea, and as I looked around there was blood on my kneeling-pad and my sweep-net - my blood! That's the trouble with taking blood-thinning tablets; just a slight nick - and that's all it was - and there's scarlet everywhere! Anyway, I'd done enough and I set off home. Bloody but unbowed! 


Incidentally, the result of all this blood-letting was the addition of five more species (1 woodlouse, I centipede, 1 millipede and two beetles) bringing the total to 26.






References


1. Druce, G.C. (1930) The Flora of Northamptonshire T. Buncle & Co, Arbroath
2. Eason, E.H. (1964) Centipedes of the British Isles. Frederick Warne, London






Friday, 19 January 2018

A Golf Club walk

Northampton Golf Club was originally, as you may have guessed, situated in Northampton. Sometime in the 1980's (I've been unable to establish the exact date) the club moved to a new site near to the village of Harlestone. The original site now forms Bradlaugh Fields, an area rich in wildlife and one of the county's most interesting reserves.
Today Chris and I, together with our old friends Ann and Terry, did a circular walk beginning near Lower Harlestone and taking us across the golf course and back to our starting point via Upper Harlestone. It is a walk we have done many times before and it never fails to reveal features of interest.
The Grade II listed stables of Harlestone House, near Northampton.
19 January, 2018
We parked adjacent to The Stables. It is an interesting socio-economic fact that important land owners seemed, in the past, prepared to spend more on their stables than on housing for their tenants. Thank goodness that those days, when a top echelon of our society wielded so much power and influence, are now behind us, so that even the poorest section of the population may now enjoy affordable, high-quality housing!
The walk starts at the pretty village church of St Andrew, with fine yew trees. Trees were to be a feature of the land through which we passed. On the golf course are several magnificent old Sweet Chestnut, Castanea sativa, trees.
Gnarled old specimens of Sweet Chestnuts are found on the golf course.
Harlestone. 19 January, 2018
Neither Sweet Chestnuts nor the completely unrelated Horse Chestnuts are native to Britain, but this doesn't stop them from being important features of our landscape. Some fine oaks were also prominent.
Oaks can look similar (they are in the same family). Harlestone, Northants.
19 January, 2018

Interesting plants were not confined to the parkland, with a Garrya elliptica gracing a cottage wall. Garryas are dioecious, the plant being either male or female, and invariably the male, with longer catkins, is the gender chosen. The species seems best placed against a wall, where a little shelter from biting winds is available.
Garrya elliptica occupied a favourable spot on a cottage wall.
Harlestone. 19 January, 2018
Some of the fields were flooded but hopefully no measures will be taken to improve the drainage. Sites regularly subject to flooding often support interesting communities of plants and insects and in my youth such wet areas would attract snipe. The photograph shows a small stream to the right displaying significant downward erosion.
Flooded land like this is now unlikely to attract snipe.
Harlestone, Northants. 19 January, 2018
Our usual route was interrupted at one point by a fallen tree. Strong winds on recent days have brought down a number of trees in the area, particularly where they were carrying a heavy growth of ivy. Anyway, the consequence was that we were forced to detour through a patch of woodland. An old tree stump was covered in the fruiting bodies of the Candlesnuff Fungus, Xylaria hypoxylon.
Candlesnuff Fungus on an old stump. Harlestone. 19 January, 2018
It is also known by a number of other names - Carbon Antlers, Stag's Horn Fungus, etc - but whatever its name it is a very common and distinctive feature of decaying hardwood. If I were to return in a few week I would probably find that these fruiting bodies had divided to look much like the antlers of a stag.
We returned to our cars and then went for lunch at a nearby garden centre. It sells books, birthday cards, clothing, jams and other preserves, fish and aquarium paraphernalia together of course with a restaurant. On a good day you may even find that there are plants for sale!




 

 

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Better progress, plus postscript


I must admit that my efforts to find clear signs of spring have hitherto met with failure. But today a mendacious blue sky - it was distinctly chilly - lured me out to Matt Moser's land where I hoped for more success with wildlife recording. A cormorant flew high above me as I approached my destination. Its direction of flight suggested it was heading for the lake/reservoir at Daventry Country Park.
For the first few minutes I sloshed my way through wet sheep pasture finding a dozen or so spiders from grass tussocks on the odd dry area. Where the drainage was better gorse bushes flamed golden in the bright sun and I optimistically tried beating a few. My optimism went unrewarded. Zilch!
Gorse bushes should yield many insects later in the year - but not today!
Below Newnham windmill, 18 January, 2018
The high winds of the last twenty four hours had brought down a long-dead tree. The decaying wood offered possibilities but once again I drew a blank.
Recent high winds had brought a dead tree crashing to the ground
 on Matt Moser's land. 18 January, 2018
Here and there were holes showing where woodpeckers had been at work but if they fared no better than I then they went home hungry. 
Woodpeckers had been at work together with wood-boring insects.
Some distance away a clump of conifers caught my attention and I strode over to take a look. As I approached I could see they were Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii. This is a handsome species of tree from North America and, although it is widely planted for timber, it is often grown in (large) gardens for ornament.
A clump of Douglas Fir occupied an area between two fields.
18 January, 2018
The cones are distinctive, being pendulous with the scales on the cones having three protruding tips. Beneath the trees conditions were dry and sheltered from the wind.
I set to work sifting my way through the 'needles' thick on the ground.
The cones of Douglas Fir are very distinctive but it is not a true fir.
18 January, 2018
Numerous beetles and spiders were recorded and I was delighted to find several specimens of the Pine-cone Bug, Gastrodes gossipes. This is a widespread species but has eluded me in the past and, it must be said, is not really photogenic.
Pine-cone bugs were - where else? - in the cones.
Now for the job of identifying my 'bag' of specimens; I should more than double the total of species so far recorded. Naturalists do not like taking specimens for, although I am occasionally able to return a creature unharmed to its habitat, a large percentage finish up preserved in alcohol or mounted in other ways. Looking at the bigger picture, if a proper understanding of a particular habitat is obtained and it leads, as in this case, to an appropriate management regime, then it is a small price to pay.
I looked over the sheep-studded hills (which I have yet to investigate) and reflected that the sharp little hooves of the several flocks trample hundreds of invertebrates every day. That's life - or death.



Looking west there is much land still to survey. 18 January, 2018
Postscript

In the event I added eight species to the total of which the most interesting was a specimen of the Larch Ladybird, Aphidecta obliterata. My poor photograph, taken in the gloom of Douglas Fir trees as the specimen dropped on to the beating sheet, shows that it has the typical ladybird shape but is pale brown in coloration with virtually no makings on the elytra (wing cases). It is rather scarce and I rarely take specimens, probably because I rarely investigate conifers.






Monday, 15 January 2018

Hellebores

Recently a friend, speaking of Hellebores, said to me, 'You either love them or hate them.' I made a non-committal sort of reply but I admit that, on the whole, they don't appeal to me. But hate them? No. Their flowers do have an attractive simplicity and were they April- or May-flowering I would perhaps grow more. According to various sources the flowers are visited by early bees and other insects but I have rarely witnessed this and, with one exception, I don't grow them.
Only a few days ago I saw Helleborus foetidus in a nearby garden (and mentioned it in a blog). Apparently it is occasionally cultivated and, being a native of Northamptonshire it has a certain interest but it is hardly a show-stopper.

Stinking Hellebore in a Daventry garden. 11 January, 2018

A couple of years ago Chris and I received a nice pot of flowering plants from an old friend and among them was a variegated hellebore. After the various plants had flowered I planted it, and its companions, around the garden; the hellebore has survived and, indeed, flourished. It is currently flowering and looking rather attractive.
A hybrid hellebore blooms in our back garden at Stefen Hill, Daventry.
14 January, 2018

Unfortunately it wasn't labelled but it may be Helleborus x ballardiae, a hybrid whose parents are H.niger and H. lividus, but plant breeders have introduced many new hybrids in recent years so I am by no means sure. It is another of those species, common in the buttercup family (to which it belongs) whose 'petals' are really petaloid sepals. Furthermore, they are very persistent, remaining long after true petals would have fallen.
The flowers have a simple structure.
I mentioned the simplicity of the flowers and this suggests that they are quite primitive among the flowering plants. In this context 'primitive' is not a pejorative term but suggests that the structure of the flower is closer to the original or ancestral form. Some 'modern' flowers are very intricate, with zygomorphic (bilaterally symmetrical) structures with various elaborate features. But the Buttercup family, like the Magnolias for example, has flowers composed of whorls of structures - a whorl of sepals on the outside enclosing a whorl of petals; inside again is a whorl of stamens and, at the heart, simple female organs. Schoolteachers love them because - except where petaloid sepals (tepals)  confuse matters - the organs of the flower are straightforward and understandable to students. What a contrast to the complications of orchids. (In fact, without going into technical detail, buttercups are not as 'primitive' as they appear but do have that primitive 'look' of the Magnolias.) 
On the face of it the word helleborus may seem odd. The genus has poisonous properties that people have probably been aware of since humans were simply hunter-gatherers and yet the second part of the word is derived from the Greek bora, meaning 'food'. However the first part of the word - also Greek - comes from elein, to injure and clearly refers to the plant's highly poisonous nature: it is an injurious food.



Friday, 12 January 2018

Slow progress

Today the weather remained grey and chilly but having some spare time I made a second visit to Matt Moser's land to do a spot more recording. Realistically not a lot would be discovered but by dint of much rummaging through dead leaves and grass tussocks I raised the total this year from six to fourteen. All were common or even ubiquitous species.
I was surprised to see an acorn still sitting in its cupule. However, closer examination showed that it was diseased and sealed in by some sort of gooey matter.
An acorn clings to its cupule at the edge of Matt Moser's land.
Between Daventry and Newnham, 12 January, 2018
Gate posts and tree stumps were bearing interesting lichens and I was again tempted to gather a few specimens but was resolute. Even so, I couldn't resist checking out a Cladonia species. These are known as pixie-cup lichens and the species photographed is probably Cladonia pyxidata - but if only it were that simple. It belongs the awkward Cladonia pyxidata-chlorophaea group and I will suspend judgement on it.
Pixie-cup lichens were present on decaying stumps.
12 January, 2018
A number of ant hills were present, almost certainly the work of the Yellow Meadow Ant, Lasius flavus. I plan to investigate these hummocks later in the year, not so much for the ants, but in the past I have found other interesting invertebrates at the loose soil-grass interface. The temperature in the hill can be several degrees above that of nearby soil so maybe a little of this heat escapes to create something of a micro-climate, encouraging thermophilous species.
Ant-hills, probably created by the Yellow Meadow-ant.
12 January, 2018
Anyway, as I said, the list for Matt's farmland now stands at fourteen species, meaning I only have around two thousand species to go! For the record my list includes 2 woodlice, 1 millipede,1 harvestman, 4 spiders, 1 true bug and 5 beetles. Five hundred by the end of the year would seem a realistic target.


 



Thursday, 11 January 2018

Dog Walking

My daughter, Jacqui, is at a Headteachers' Conference today, so Chris and I are looking after Bing. Being a young dog she needs lots of walking and this suits us very well as we need walking too.
Whilst it would be an exaggeration to suggest that signs of spring abound there are indicators here and there. Hazel catkins have been evident since before Christmas but now some specimens are carrying a full complement of these dangling male organs, shedding pollen in the breeze.
Hazel catkins are now abundant.
Daventry, 11 January, 2018
We did a circuit of Stefen Leys Pocket Park and I was pleased to see that the recently-dredged pond has now filled up. Hopefully within a few weeks frogs and toads will be gathering for their annual orgy. The Yellow Iris clumps seem to have survived and it is likely that Purple Loosestrife will reappear too.
In Stefen Leys Pocket Park the pond is now full. Bing investigates.
11 January, 2018


The pocket park's drift of snowdrops is now almost in bloom, but the insides of the 'petals' are yet to show. Once open the flowers will remain until bees have done their work. I have mixed feelings about snowdrops and I fail to understand the enthusiasm of galanthophiles, but no doubt my interest in creepy-crawlies would seem equally inexplicable to many.
Snowdrops. What more can be said? Stefen Leys Pocket Park, Daventry.
11 January, 2018

I suppose it is largely about the timing of snowdrop flowers:

                                     Dyed in winter's snow and rime,
                                     Constant to their early time...


                                                                         Elizabeth Kent.


(Elizabeth Kent was, to be honest, speaking of Wood Anemones but I feel she ought to have been referring to snowdrops.)
Anyway, these flowers, to my mind rather unexciting, do carry in their blooming a promise of spring. Of new life.
But death was also in evidence in the pocket park. Serried ranks of fungi on an old tree stump provided outward evidence of the decay going on within. The species is, of course, Turkey-tail, Trametes versicolor and no doubt it will reappear for some years until the remains of the tree are no more than an amorphous lump.
Looking curiously coral-like, this Turkey-tail is busy returning the
 nutrients from this tree stump to the soil. Stefen Leys Pocket Park,
11 January, 2018
Bing seemed curiously lacking in interest regarding either snowdrops or fungi; gateposts clearly carried fascinating smells and she would have been happy to carry on sniffing. I suggested that she had walked enough but received a scornful look as she set off in another direction. As far as I was concerned this extra yardage revealed little of interest except a plant of Stinking Hellebore, Helleborus foetidus. Like the snowdrops this is an early-flowering plant but requires a month or so before its curious green and maroon flowers are revealed. It has an odd status around here and is perhaps a garden escape.
Stinking Hellebore at the edge of a garden. Stefen Hill, Daventry.
11 January, 2018

I would have thought it of little horticultural value but the Elizabethan herbalist John Gerard regarded it as 'very ornamental in shady walks and shrubberies'. It is in the Buttercup Family, Ranunculaceae, and like many of its relatives it is poisonous. Gilbert White claimed that in the Selborne area women 'give the leaves powdered to children troubled with worms'. It may have been efficacious but, I feel, rather drastic.
At this point I put my foot down and told Bing we were going home. She muttered something unrepeatable under her breath but caught the steely look in my eye. Home it was!







Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Making a start

For some time I've been waiting to make a start on surveying Matt Moser's land. I arrived home a few days ago to find that he had dropped a map of his farmland through the letterbox and I can begin to make plans. It will be a big job - in truth a never-ending one - so I am keen to make a start.
Over the past couple of years I have walked small areas of his holdings and, by and large, ecological conditions are not ones which encourage wildlife. To be fair, Matt knows this and explains why he plans to introduce a more benign system of management.
The problem is, in one word, sheep. With slopes varying from the gentle to the very steep arable crops could be tricky so, from a farmer's point of view, sheep seem a reasonable option. The hills between Daventry and the Oxfordshire border and, of course, through the Cotswolds, support huge flocks, mainly raised for their meat.
These landscapes are much admired; the rolling contours of the hills are clear to see, a consequence of the constant nibbling of the sheep. There are woodlands and, where sheep are kept out, scrub develops and, given time, yet more woodlands would become established. Matt has fenced off some areas of woodland and a good range of trees is present but any seedlings which attempt to grow outside the fence are soon nibbled off by hungry mouths.
Farmers like Matt are in a tricky position: as I say, sheep farming is probably the best option on this land and yet, without generous C.A.P. subsidies the industry would surely collapse.
Anyway, today, 10 January, the weather and other factors have come together allowing me to make a start. As I crossed the very busy A45 I was struck by the rich growth of lichens on the roadside trees. It is true that only a few species were represented but it appears that pollution from the road is not too severe.
Tree trunks had up to about 80% lichen coverage. Near Daventry.
10 January, 2018
It was clear too from the oak marble galls it had created that the gall wasp, Andricus kollari, had enjoyed a good 2017 - at least in this area.
Oak Marble Galls, the work of Andricus kollari. Between Daventry and
Newnham. 10 January, 3018

How tempting it would have been to take a few samples of lichen for identification later. However I had another group of organisms in mind  - spiders.
The number of lichen species present was rather limited.
A few flies would probably be around despite the chilly conditions - the temperature hovered around the 6 degrees Celsius mark - but I felt a little more confident of securing some spiders. Beneath leaf litter and in the core of grass tussocks they are surprisingly active even in the depths of winter.
I concentrated on grass tussocks and in the event I took a dozen or so spiders but usually only sexually mature specimens are assignable to species. In the event there were six identifiable invertebrates: three spiders, one harvestman, one plant hopper and one woodlouse (plus one beetle yet to be identified). More were present but very cold, wet grass put a limit on the time I was prepared to give to their extraction.
When a group of starlings works its way across a patch of grass it is creatures of this type (with the exception of the unpleasant-tasting woodlouse) that are being sought and each bird must be responsible for consuming vast numbers each day. Even our garden lawns contain these mini-beasts in great numbers and as for mature meadowland, to make an adequate survey is a huge undertaking.
For those birds seeking seeds and berries lots of food was available as hawthorn berries are still plentiful. It is no surprise that redwings, fieldfares and, if we're lucky, waxwings come to Britain to share the bounty.




Plenty of hawthorn fruit was still available for birds. Between Daventry
 and Newnham. 10 January, 2018