Smooth newts

Springtime sees the movement of amphibians from their overwintering sites back to their breeding ponds to meet, mate and lay their eggs.   


Last week we had our first frogspawn of the year in the garden pond – two clumps which have subsequently been joined by a further twenty-two and the sound of mating calls suggests they are in no hurry to slow down!   


Newts tend to breed a little later, and I found three smooth newts (Lissotriton vulgaris)  sheltering under a log yesterday. Newts, like all UK amphibians, spend a fair bit of their time in ‘terrestrial habitat’, that is in habitat around the ponds such as grasslands, woodlands and areas of scrub, as well as whatever gardens their ponds happen to be surrounded by. 

The mild winter has led to confusion for some species, and Froglife tweeted that their monitoring suggested that newts haven’t hibernated this year. The three individuals I saw certainly looked wide awake and ready to go in 2016 – it will remain to be seen whether the unusual conditions, and impacts on behaviour, will affect the conservation status of these species. 


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.


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.


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.

Bristol Large.jpg

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)

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.



Shades of winter

I took a walk along the River Witham in Grantham at lunchtime on Friday to see what was still in flower and found a few unexpected surprises.

There were the predictable long-season species such as daisy, dandelion, chickweed, white dead-nettle and ragwort which add a familar and most welcome splash of colour to the monotone greens.

There is a patch of winter heliotrope along the Witham, just near to Grantham College, and one of the buds had broken to reveal the first of these truly winter-blooming flowers. They are a delicate white flowers, flecked with purple which typically appear between December and February.

Winter heliotrope - Petasites fragrans

Winter heliotrope – Petasites fragrans

Much more surprising was a truly spring species – wild primroses were flowering just behind a set of heras fencing. These usually flower from March to May but at least 5 flowers had appeared on this patch in November.


Wild primrose – Primula vulgaris

The frost last weekend might have put paid to many of the stragglers and hangers-on from summer, but the new wave of winter/spring species are not too far away!

Great crested newts are heading for hibernation

Great crested newts, like all of our native amphibian species, hibernate during the winter. Their habitats through the year cycle between three broad categories; ponds for the breeding season, terrestrial habitats such as grasslands and shrubs to hunt in during the summer, and nice safe, stable, sheltered locations to hibernate through the winter.

This is the time of year when the great crested newts seek out their hibernation sites. These might be beneath rubble and stones, beneath log piles, in underground burrows or under man-made features such as paving slabs.

These places are very important for the newts, which cannot survive through the sub-zero temperatures of the winter without an appropriate place of safety. Sometimes their selections don’t take account of our plans, so care should be taken whenever you dismantle piles of debris and logs, or move slabs and other materials close to ponds throughout the winter.

Right now, on the last day of October, the newts are still moving in good numbers as they head from their hunting grounds to their favoured places of safety. But when the mild autumnal weather ends and the colder overnight temperatures of winter set in, you can bet that these great crested newts, along with our other cold-blooded amphibians and reptiles, will be carefully tucked away somewhere out of sight, awaiting the spring.

Spring before the snows

It’s the second of December and cowslips are flowering in the garden. November has been warm, and the newspapers are reporting apple blossom, breeding frogs and fresh leaves on the trees. On the driveway, the snowdrops are pushing their spears of glaucous green up through the wilting autumn leaves whilst last weekend’s trip to Wimpole Estate revealed daffodil leaves arrayed around a tree like soldiers awaiting their instruction to advance and flower.

The cowslips are wild, as far as can be told. I spotted them on a site inspection, in the path of a proposed access track, and salvaged those I could with clumps of the clayey soil still clustered around their roosts to ease the transition. Now they bask around the edges of the pond, or dapple the swaying light at the edge of the lawn.

Some of our cowslips are bold and triumphant, showy and brassy, with flowers packed so tight that they tremble like a firework just exploded, the shape held for a split second before the sound catches up with the light and all is shattered. Others are shy and retiring, demure and delicate, with single flowers bowed abashedly downcast until you lift them to look them in the face. The petals are a soft banana yellow with flecks of apricot orange which is also the scent that a closer sniff will reveal. The five petals are deeply notched and conspire into a deep corrola tube which the green calyx envelops. This encourages pollination by long-tongued invertebrates – bumblebees, butterflies, moths and bee-flies – which are in very short supply at this time of year meaning that the late flowers are unlikely to be fruitful.

The cowslip usually accompanies the other yellows of spring – the daffodil, the brimstone butterfly and the sun itself. I hope the unseasonable appearance will not affect the April display which heralds the winter’s end.

Cowslip - Primula veris - flowering in winter