First bumblebee of the year!

I stopped off at home today, to grab some lunch between a meeting and an afternoon in the office, and walking down the garden it felt like The Day. And sure enough, a quick check of a local bee-magnet revealed my first bumblebee of the year!

The spot in question is a footpath near my house which is lined with comfrey and a south-facing wooden fence which heats up beautifully in the sun – always a good pollen/nectar/heat source for cold   spring bumblebees.

This is a buff-tailed bumblebee worker who was gathering pollen as well as nectar as it worked its way from flower to flower – this means that somewhere nearby there must already be a nest!

Watching this little bee realy did make my day – it felt like it marked the return of something joyous to the world!

 

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Common whitlow grass

I was walking along the road outside my house last week and spotted this tiny miniature forest at the edge of the pavement. At a distance, you’d never even spot them and my first thought was of moss fruiting capsules. On much closer inspection, it was a colony of tiny whitlowgrass (Erophila verna) flowering away.

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Whitlow grass, looking moss-like amongst the mosses, flowering at the base of a wall along the pavement near my house

These are members of the crucifer family – more commonly known as the cabbage family – named for their four-petalled, cross-shaped flowers. Each of the little flowering stalks was just a few centimetres high, and the basal rosettes were around 1cm across – these really are tiny little wildflowers.

I love these tiny ephemeral species which grab their chances un-noticed at the peripheries, whether this is the ‘weeds’ which grow at the edges of pavements or the ‘arable weeds‘ which brighten up the dull monocultures which seem to dominate the local landscape. The perils of appreciating such invisible botany is the concomitant confusion you create in those who pass you, exemplified in this case by the local police officer who happened to be driving past as I took the photo and wound down the window to ask what I was doing.

I brought one back for a closer look under the hand lens at home, and took a few photos. Rose helpfully gives you certainty in the identity in this case – ‘Whitlowgrass is the only white-flowered crucifer with notched petals and a hairless flowering stem‘.

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Photograph of the plant showing the hairless flowering stems above the tiny basal rosette

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Close-up of the flowers – you can see the white notched petals wrapped around the seedpod in the flower on the right, whilst the two on the left are less well advanced.

Early Dog Violet

Every year, I struggle to get to grips with the different violets and then, just as I start to, they’re done for another year and by the time spring comes round again, I’ve forgotten! There is some specific terminology for these flower which adds to the complexity and they are certainly in need of a hand-lens to tell apart.

I saw my first violets of the year on the walk into work this morning so I took one into captivity and keyed it out in the office. This one is early dog violet – Viola reichenbachiana. It typically flowers in March, but in this unseasonably warm spring, it is unsurprising to find it out in February.

The photos below will hopefully illustrate some of the ID tips for this species and hopefully help me to fix them better in my head if nothing else!

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This shows the violet in situ – it was growing on a sunny bank alongside Grantham College in the town. The structure of the plant is leafy flowering shoots around a slight basal rosette of leaves. This gives the plant a slightly sprawling appearance, rather than being a single, neat, compact entity. Importantly, the leaf stems are hairless.

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This shows the flower a little more clearly. The ‘spur’ of the flower is the nobble which extends out of the back of the flower – in early dog violet it is straight and pointed. You can see that it is darker than the rest of the petals – this is one of the characteristics of early dog violet compared with standard dog violet where the spur is lighter. You can also see the way that the top two petals are held back, ‘like rabbit’s ears’ as Rose states.

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The petals are blue-violet, although this can be variable. The purple veins in the lower petal – those which run through the white section – are un-branched or very little branched. The top two petals are also narrower than the equivalent two top petals in standard dog violet.

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This shows a direct view of the back of the ‘spur’ which was visible previously. In standard dog violet, this spur is notched but in the early dog violet, the spur is un-notched. The ‘notch’ is a linear indentation a little like the slot of an arrow where it fits into the string of the bow – imagine the end of the spur as the end of an arrow (not the sharp end!) and you will have the right kind of image!

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.