Baccha elongata in January

I was climbing trees down in Tonbridge, Kent on Monday (25th Jan 2015) when I spotted this little hoverfly approaching a sun-warmed spot at the base of a tree. It was an unseasonably warm and sunny day and we had already seen a red admiral butterfly and a bumbleebee fly by, but this hoverfly was a real surprise.

Baccha elongata is a distinctive little hoverfly, with a long abdomen and a waisted appearance much like an ichneumon wasp. Their flight period is from April onwards so a January observation is certainly out of character. The butterflies and bees are less surprising – they overwinter as adults and so can take to the wing when the temperatures rise – but these hovers overwinter as larvae meaning this is a freshly emerged individual.

B. elongata is quite a common and widespread woodland species, often found in sunny patches. I spotted this one warming itself on such sunny ivy leaves at the base of a false acacia on the edge of a copse of trees.

 

Mistletoe at Barnack Hills and Hollows

I called in for a walk around Barnack Hills and Hollows today – it’s so close to the A1 that it’s always a good bet for an opportunistic stretch of legs near Stamford!

Following the New Year Plant Hunt, I had thought there might be a few flowers to be seen – this is a National Nature Reserve and is highly floristically diverse in the summer – but a perennial sowthistle and a white deadnettle were all I had to show for it. Plenty of deadheads signal exciting species waiting below the surface however!

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The main thing which caught my eye was the mistletoe (Viscum album) plants growing on the hawthorns. The mistletoe is a hemiparasite which grows from the branches of trees. At first sight, you might mistake this bundle of green for a part of the tree itself as the mistletoe attaches directly into the bark of the branches where it presents like an un-seasonal offshoot.

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Mistletoe is in fact a separate organism from the tree, stealing nutrients from its host. This explains the yellow-green hue of the leaves – they do photosynthesise but rather lazily and not enough to sustain themselves without deriving nutrients from their host. They are known to parasitise over 200 different tree species, but hawthorn is the third most common.

The mistletoe at Barnack still had berries on, but the flower buds are looking well developed and they can’t be far behind!

Bloxworth Snout

We spent the period between Christmas and New Year down in Devon and enjoyed walking sections of the Coastal Path – between rainshowers of course!

One walk went from Streat to Blackpool Sands and en route, we stopped off to explore a little cove and watch the waves crash in. The only way to access it was down a little path which followed a stream to reach the sea – otherwise the beach was bounded by cliffs and rock.

There were several caves within the cliffs – not reaching back more than 20-30m – wall pennywort  (Umbelicus rupestris) was straining towards the light half-way down.

In the darker reaches beyond these hints of green, I used the torch on my phone to take a look around. I was hoping for roosting bats, as always with such places, but instead found their usual co-conspiritors namely hibernating herald moths (Scoliopteryx libatrix) and cave spiders (Meta spp.).


There were also some other small moths which appeared to be hibernating, but which flitted away if you held the light on them – something which the Herald’s never do. I managed to grab a photograph and then left them in peace.

Despite the rather poor quality of the photograph, several people on twitter were kind enough to provide an ID for this moth – identifying it as a Bloxworth snout (Hypena obsitalis). This is a relatively recent resident to the UK, previously a rare immigrant from the continent found in Dorset (Bloxworth being its first confirmed UK location) and Devon. The species has two generations, one flying in July and August, and then a second in September and October. This second generations hibernates through the winter to emerge in the spring, and it will be these hibernating individuals which I encountered.

 

New Year Plant Hunt #4 – Leicestershire

The 3rd January arrived and with New Year Plant Hunt‘s completed in two counties in the first two days (Devon and Bristol), I decided to get up early, before the rain, and nip across the border into Leicestershire to record in a third county.

I went to a Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust site first – Stonesby Quarry in the village of Waltham on the Wolds. This is a lovely spot in the summer and a good place to see butterflies such as common blue and dingy skipper. I wasn’t sure what the limestone grassland habitats would show up but I thought the landform might lead to some more sheltered conditions which might encourage winter flowering.

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Sign at the entrance of Stonesby Quarry

The more established grassland swards turned up very little – or perhaps revealed very little – but the sparser more ephemeral areas revealed a few interesting species such as common mouse-ear (Cerastium fontanum), common field speedwell (Veronica persica), thyme-leaved sandwort (Arenaria serpyllifolia) and scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis).

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Many of the more established areas of grassland sward held plenty of evidence of last season’s flowers but very few species in bloom during the January plant hunt.

Other typical long-season species were flowering towards the edges such as white deadnettle (Lamium album) and red campion (Silene dioica) along with wood avens (Geum urbanum) and hogweed (Heracleum sphonylium). My favourite find of the day was perhaps this red campion – usually a species with a few flowers on tall gangly stems, a close-chop for this one seemed to produce a profusion of flowers on a low flowering ‘spike’!

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On the way back towards home, I called in at the village of Branston where I had spotted some interesting arable flora in the summer and was curious to see whether there was any remnants of them. Sadly only rosettes were present within bare ground, but the village itself held a few more species such as lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) and primrose (Primula veris).

Just as the rain settled in for the rest of the day, I spotted my last species of the day, the ever trust ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) which has been a staple of every Hunt so far this year!

Photo montage of the 26 species (highest count so far!) is below:

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The full species list is as follows:

Annual meadow grass (Poa annua)
Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)
Primrose (Primula vulgaris)
Petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus)
Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)
Ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)
Prickly sow-thistle (Sonchus asper)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Water forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.)
Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum)
Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium)
Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)
White dead-nettle (Lamium album)
Common mouse-ear (Cerastium fontanum)
Common field speedwell (Veronica persica)
Thyme-leaved sandwort (Arenaria serpyllifolia)
Scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis)
Scentless mayweed (Tripleurospermum inodorum)
Red campion (Silene dioica)
Wood avens (Geum urbanum)
Autumn Hawkbit (Scorzoneroides autumnalis)
Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
Oil-seed rape (Brassica napus subsp. oleifera) (naturalised)
Lesser Trefoil (Trifolium dubium)
Red/white campion hybrid (Silene spp.)

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The flock of… moderately friendly sheep which graze the site during the winter.

New Year Plant Hunt #3 – Bristol City Centre

Each year, the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) run a New Year’s Plant Hunt where they invite people to record as many species in flower as they can in the New Year – between 1st and 4th January.

This was the third Plant Hunt I found opportunity to do – this time in Bristol City Centre around Castle Park on the 2nd January 2016. I have spent little time exploring wildlife in more urban environments and was surprised just how many times I found people sleeping rough, or evidence of them doing so. In Exeter the day before, I tiptoed past a couple of sleeping bags under the shrubs and in Bristol came across several stashed caches of belongings as well as a pitched tent in a smaller park.

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The species I recorded in the gloaming drizzle were often nestling into the cracks in the city – bright splashes of yellow came from dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.), Oregan grape (Mahonia spp.) ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) and creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens). The purple flowers of periwinkle (Vinca minor) appeared where it had escaped its garden origins and was flowering beside an underpass; whilst the mowed lawns of the Castle Gardens held naturalised stocks and sweet alyssum.

I think one of my favourite finds was annual mercury (Mercurialis annua) flowering in a shrubbery beside a city-centre church – this is a subtle and rather unimpressive relative of the more familiar woodland dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis), but a species I have rarely encountered.

Again, photographs are poor thanks to the conditions and the specimens, but the montage below shows the species recorded.

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The full species list is provided below:

Daisy (Bellis perennis)
Annual meadow grass (Poa annua)
Cock’s foot (Dactylis glomerata)
Petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus)
Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)
Ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)
Nipplewort (Lapsana communis)
Canadian fleabane (Conyza canadensis)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)
Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens)
Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)
Periwinkle (Vinca major)
Annual mercury (Mercurialis annua)
Wall lettuce (Lactuca muralis)
Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.)
Common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea)
Dove’s foot cranesbill (Geranium mollis)
Stock (Matthiola spp.)
Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima)
Common mouseear (Cerastium fontanum)
Perennial sowthistle (Sonchus arvensis)

New Year Plant Hunt #2 – Tyntesfield National Trust

On the afternoon of the 1st January, we walked around Tyntesfield National Trust property near Bristol and took the opportunity to complete a second New Year Plant Hunt of the day (the first was in Exeter – see blog post here).

There was plenty to see here too including spring bulbs such as daffodil (Narcissus spp.) naturalised in the grasslands and periwinkle (Vinca minor) which had escaped the bonds of it’s original planting and was flowering away.

The lawns and grasslands turned up some typical species such as dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.), creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) and daisy (Bellis perennis) whilst woodland edges revealed primrose (Primula vulgaris) and bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.) in the ground layer with hazel (Corylus avelanna) catkins flowering above them.

In total we counted up 22 species in flower on the first day of the year. A photo montage of the findings is below!

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The full species list is provided below:

Daisy (Bellis perennis)
Hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale)
Annual meadow grass (Poa annua)
Winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans)
Primrose (Primula vulgaris)
Petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus)
Ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)
Nipplewort (Lapsana communis)
Prickly sow-thistle (Sonchus asper)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.)
Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum)
Smooth sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus)
Hazel (Corylus avellana)
Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens)
Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium)
Daffodil (Narcissus spp.)
Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)
Red campion (Silene dioica)
Periwinkle (Vinca major)
Bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.)
Hedge parsley (Torilis japonica)
White dead-nettle (Lamium album)

New Year Plant Hunt #1 – Exeter St David’s

Each year, the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) run a New Year’s Plant Hunt where they invite people to record as many species in flower as they can in the New Year – between 1st and 4th January.

We were staying in Exeter over New Year’s and I nipped out for an hour in the morning to see how many I could count around Exeter St David’s. My initial count was 22 but I excluded daffodil as it was clearly part of a planted display and therefore not valid within the rules of the Hunt.

Daisy (Bellis perennis) and ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) seemed the most consistently flowering species – the former in all of the mown lawns and the latter in walls and crevices including the ruins/remains of Exeter castle.

The 21 species included a mix of winter flowering species – such as winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) – spring flowering species – such as primrose (Primula vulgaris), snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) and lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) – and long flowering species – such as daisy, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.) and yarrow (Achillia millifolium).

The early morning light and overcast, breezy weather was not condusive to good photographs but I’ve put together a montage of the species below.

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Four days seemed a good opportunity to do four searches – write-ups of three further searches from Bristol, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire to follow!

The full species list is provided below:

Daisy (Bellis perennis)
Hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale)
Annual meadow grass (Poa annua)
Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)
Cock’s foot (Dactylis glomerata)
Winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans)
Primrose (Primula vulgaris)
Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis)
Petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus)
Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)
Ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)
Nipplewort (Lapsana communis)
Prickly sow-thistle (Sonchus asper)
Canadian fleabane (Conyza canadensis)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)
Water forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.)
Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum)
Oxford ragwort (Senecio squalidus)
Smooth sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus)

White campion on the Darkest Day

I was walking along a stretch of the Grantham Canal this morning and spotted several white campions (Silene latifolia) in flower in the darkest depths of December. Today is the shortest day of the year – I had previously thought it was always the 21st December but my Woodland Trust calendar assured me it was the 22nd this year and, thanks to the intricacies of leap-years, they are right!

It was 7:50am and still half an hour before sunrise on a very blustery morning which meant that the flowers were disinclined to stay still long enough for the camera to capture a crisp image in the dawn twilight. Fortunately sometimes, misfortune turns to your favour and I am rather pleased with the results. The darkest day of the year, when the available daylight is at its lowest ebb, must be one of the most inhospitable times for a flower to flourish and I think something of that is captured in these images.

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Spring is… springing?

So far in November/December I’ve seen wild primroses, lesser celandine and dog violet in flower – via #wildflowerhour I’ve also heard of snowdrops, dog’s mercury and daffodils. These are all spring species but the ongoing mild start to the winter seems to be tricking them into starting early.

These responses to unseasonal conditions highlight one of the major concerns associated with climate change – the effect of phenology, the timing of natural events. Environmental cues are critical to the success of many species – they need to know when to flower, when to lay eggs, when to emerge from a cocoon, when to germinate. When the signals go awry, then there will be more and more of these false triggers tricking species into mis-timing their actions. In the case of spring flowers, an autumn/winter flowering would have difficulty with pollination, persistence, development of seeds and simply survival through the long, dark winter.

Another example I spotted yesterday was this arum lily (also known as lords and ladies or cuckoo pint) unfurling its leaves from the woodland floor. Personally, I always associate the arrival of these first shoots with the start of spring, when the chill starts to leave the air and the days get a little longer. Unfortunately it’s another 9 days of creeping darkness until the shortest day of the year and a long old way until we’re back out of the other side of winter…

Arum lily - Arum maculatum

 

 

Gorse, cherry and fumitory

It’s the first week of December and the weather still allows summer’s stragglers to hang on whilst the continuing warmth seems to be tricking a few springtime species into an early flowering. And then there are those species which are flowering precisely when they should be!

Fumitories are a group of rather similar species with trumpet-like purple flowers. They are often found along arable margins and in grasslands – these ones were at the unmown edge of a grass lawn on one of my survey sites.

Common fumitory - Fumaria officinalis

Ox-eye daisy is a species I have seen flowering sporadically in the last few weeks – never in big numbers but just the odd flower in a site where summer would see hundreds. They have normally been seen from a car window so no chance for a safe snap, but this one was more obligingly situated!

Ox-eye daisy - Leucanthemum vulgaris

Gorse is a winter-flowering species – I looked at the reasons for this in a blog post a couple of years ago which you can see here. The pristine yellow flowers against the glaucous green shrubs are one of the brightest sights to be seen at the moment.

Gorse - Ulex europaeus

Speedwells are a long-flowering genus, as a general rule, and can often be found through the winter. These little field speedwells (Veronica persicaria) were flowering low in the grassland.

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Finally for this week – this cherry tree was flowering in Grantham on my walk into work. There are a number of ornamental cherries which have different flowering phenology so it may be that this one was bred to flower in the winter – however it was the only one in a line of ten which was doing so indicating that it was perhaps more of a miscalculation than a design. I will keep an eye on the other trees over the next few months to see when the rest come into flower!